As I had indicated in my Prologue, I’ve been a lifelong Apple user when it comes to smartphones. My experience with Android is limited only to reading about new phones and watching video reviews, but never having any actual hands-on time with them myself. I’m officially a week in to using the Pixel 3a XL as my primary driver and I’ve definitely had my ups and downs. So without any further delay, let's get into it!
Unboxing and Making the Switch
For any other iPhone converts out there, the unboxing process is extremely familiar, which is a nice safe place to start. In hand, the 3a XL is obviously larger than what I am used to, but not completely unfamiliar due to my time with an iPhone 7 Plus. The build of the phone feels light but solid and the fresh new glass on the screen feels very smooth and rewarding to slide your fingers over. The back plastic and glass on the Jet Black model get quite smudgey after regular use, which leads to needing a wipe down every so often if you aren’t using a case. Having the volume and power buttons are on the same side of the phone with a fingerprint scanner on the back of the device is definitely new and feels a bit awkward at first but you get used to it in time. There’s also a headphone jack on the top of the phone for anyone who still cares about that.
In the box is your standard fare of stickers, quick setup guides, and warranty cards. Under that is the good stuff where I found a data transfer cable adapter for transferring your existing devices data over, USB-C to USB-C cable, and a USB-C power brick.
This is where I ran into my first major gripe before I even powered up the device. Outside of the included USB-C cord and the power brick, I had nothing for this phone to plug into. I don't own any USB-C capable devices so right out of the gate I’d have to buy longer/backup cables, car adapters, additional power bricks or adapters, etc in order for this to be my full time device. There is also no wireless charging on the 3a models so that limits me a bit further. Ultimately if I want more charging options outside of what comes in the box, it’s going to cost me a bit of cash since USB-C is still relatively new and not as cheap as older tech like Micro USB or Lightning. Bummer. Luckily the fast charging on the Pixel works well and can get my phone juiced up pretty quick if I only have a few minutes to toss it on the charger at a time.
The process of using the included Quick Switch Adapter to copy over apps, files, and photos was very straightforward and easy to get through, albeit a bit time consuming. However, there was a complete sense of existential dread that washed over me as I had to disable encrypted backups, iMessages, Facetime, and Find My iPhone on my iPhone X as I prepared it for some time on the bench. The final step of swapping out my old/new device on my Sprint account couldn’t have been easier since the 3a XL uses eSIM to quickly and easily activate your device onto the network.
“I’m not sure what to do with my hands” - Ricky Bobby
By and large, what you are doing with your hands and fingers on the Pixel is very similar to an iPhone. The most notable change is that there are on-screen home and back buttons at the bottom of the screen that you will use for navigation. So instead of using gesture swiping on the edges of your screen or pressing/tapping your physical home button, you have these icons permanently fixed onto the bottom center of your screen. However, with the Android 10 update that just rolled out, you can enable navigation gestures to mirror those that came into play starting with the iPhone X. This was a huge win for me when it came to getting a hang on my new Android device.
You can still access your notification shade and quick settings tiles (think toggling WiFi, Bluetooth, or Airplane mode, etc) by swiping down from the top of the screen which is nice and you can quickly multitask between recently used apps in a similar fashion to iOS.
Getting used to the fingerprint scanner on the back of the phone is a little awkward when coming from using iPhones due to the difference in finger placement but, again, you get used to it in time. I have had quite a few issues with picking up and scanning my finger in one quick and easy motion due to the larger size of the 3a XL and the lack of my hands being catchers mitts. I also find the fingerprint scanner to be a bit finicky and sometimes take 2-3 placements to get the unlock completed. On the other side of the coin, one thing I did particularly enjoy was the Smart Lock feature which will let you set a trusted location (like your home) where you don’t have to go through the motions of scanning your finger or entering your PIN to unlock the device. This can be really nice if you are comfortable in letting down your guard on your security while at a set location.
There is not a physical quick-volume toggle on the phone so you have to get used to holding the volume up/down button to reveal a quick toggle for mute/vibrate/etc when you have to quickly change your volume settings. The default keyboard has a slightly different layout and some of the more common punctuation marks are not where you are used to on the iPhone keyboard which can really screw with those built in typing reflexes. These are all small things that are a bit odd to adapt to after a decade of living in another ecosystem, but it’s not the end of the world.
Going back to the size of the phone, after about 2-3 days of use, I started to find myself having flashbacks of my days with my iPhone 7 Plus and getting hand fatigue from bracing the phone on my pinky with one hand while browsing the web or dinking around in apps. Without having the gesture features that were added in Android 10, navigating to the home and back buttons with a single hand was quite a pain. Still, the larger phone size means its heavier in the hand and can cause more stress if you are a pinkie balancer like myself.
Diving into the Android OS
After getting used to the navigation quirks of my Pixel, I took a deep dive into the settings menu and played with different themes, fonts, etc. Ultimately I found that there is a lot of room for customization in the Android world and for the most part… it didn’t do anything for me. I took some suggestions and checked out third party apps like Nova Launcher but the options presented to me for altering/reskinning the OS really didn’t matter to me. Obviously there are a large group of people out there that appreciate that functionality and I'm glad that they get these options to tinker with.
The more conversations I had with die-hard Android users about how to improve my experience, the more I found it frustrating and overwhelming that Android feels like the land of 3rd party fixes and tweaks for getting your phone to the perfect spot. I’ve always preferred to have something that works well by default and doesn’t require me to have to go hunting for better solutions to core features.
For example, Chrome is the default browser on the Pixel and the way way it navigates can feel very funky and ugly at times, especially when you have sites with pop ups, redirects, or built in ads. Android doesn't make the browsing experience feel as clean as iOS does with Safari or even using Chrome on iOS. Embedded videos aren't as easy to view and pages will randomly display out of whack and be awkwardly formatted in Chrome on Android when they aren't on Safari or Chrome on iOS. And sure, with Android you can ditch Chrome and get different browsers like FireFox and download and enable add-ons to control pop ups, add extra security, or plenty else but honestly… the default OS browser should not NEED any of that. Not at this point in the smartphone game. It needs to be secure and strip out all the garbage that comes from browsing the web on a mobile device. This is something that I think Apple has a huge advantage over on Android.
Another area I had a huge issue with in the days leading up to the Android 10 update was notifications. To start with, it took me entirely too long to figure out that I had to double tap a notification then unlock my phone in order to be taken into the appropriate app where the notification lived. Normally with iPhone you tap once and unlock and you’re there. Then once I started getting down into the notification settings to reduce the influx of alerts I was receiving… I about had a brain aneurysm.
There are straight up too many options buried in the notifications menus that are not clearly explained or defined. It’s insanely maddening that every app contains a subset of different notification types and you cannot easily update them all at once with one uniform setting. Having to drill down into each of these menus and make multiple updates for every notification type is enough to make you want to pull your hair out while hugging your knees and rocking back and forth like a lunatic.
For example: I only like having sounds on notifications for a very small handful of apps. Twitter is not one that I want ringing off the hook all day as notifications come in. When you view the notification settings for Twitter you get 7 different types of notifications that all have their own options you can tweak. To make it so that a DM still pops notifications on the screen but doesn’t play a noise or vibrate my phone to death, I have to touch 9-10 times in various menus and screens to get that one type of notification taken care of. If I want to do that for the other 6 types of notifications that Twitter offers that puts me around 60-70 touches just to get Twitter squared away. Facebook has 17 different types of notifications to control. That is straight up insane.
To make it worse, most of these notifications are vaguely named and make it hard to know what you are toggling on or off. Instagram has 3 types of “direct” notifications and 2 types of “instagram” notifications. What does this even mean?
I totally respect having that level of control of notifications, but there needs to be a serious revamp for clarity and ease of use. I’d love to see an option to “apply to multiple” along with providing an explanation of what each notification covers. Prior to the Android 10 OS update the notification options were somehow even less intuitive and more vague, making me want to chuck this phone into orbit on more than one occasion.
The only other issue I ran into was trying to use my Google Home Mini while in earshot of my Pixel. They both desperately fought to compete with each other and almost every time the Home Mini won, even if I wanted my phone to take the command. When I tried to cast a podcast from my Pixel to the Home Mini, it caused the Mini to spaz out on multiple occasions and the Pixel would not accurately show where I was in the podcast. Definitely odd and a bit annoying, especially when you can’t cast from the Apple Podcast app to a Google Home device and I was looking forward to being able to do that efficiently with the Pixel seeing as how both devices live in the same ecosystem.
The Good Times
After airing my grievances, I’d like to talk about some things that this phone does VERY well that the iPhone simply can’t compete with in its current state.
First off, the call screener function is a literal gift from the heavens. Being able to send unknown calls to an automated response system that does all the talking for you and builds a running chat that you can quickly route through premade responses through is absolutely genius and a phenomenal feature in my eyes. The peace of mind that the call screener provides is a real blessing and left me feeling very impressed.
While I didn’t find the Google Assistant to be all that much better than other AI assistant offerings in my daily use, I was pleasantly surprised when I asked to play a particular music artist and the Assistant let me know when they would be touring a nearby city. Score one for the Google Assistant!
The most standout feature on the Pixel 3a XL has to be the camera. It is remarkable. The pictures are easily some of the best I’ve ever taken with a phone. Photos are crisp, clear, and well color balanced. And don’t even get me started on Night Sight aka the best low light camera feature I’ve ever seen. With the power of AI, Google has made an absolutely brilliant piece of tech for taking low light pictures. Night Sight easily blows away any other competing low-light sensors I’ve seen. Apple needs to step their game up because they are being clowned on by Google right now. Check out the bottom of this post for some shots that were taken with the Pixel 3a XL over the last week.
So the big question: is the Pixel 3a XL enough of a treat to convince me to ditch my Apple roots and jump ship for Android? No. Could it be eventually? Sure. As a new user I simply don’t have the patience to go through 100+ apps worth of notification settings. That is a huge turn off right out of the gate. There are things I miss like iMessage, having a nice clean browsing experience when surfing the web, and not having to tinker with a bunch of 3rd party apps to make core functions work like they should. I know that Android is the ‘land of the free’ but personally, it’s not a clean enough stretch away from iOS to get me fully on board to use an Android device as my daily driver.
In a weeks worth of usage I had a 3-4 random hangups and slowdowns in both stock and 3rd party apps on the Pixel in addition to a hard lock that required a restart of the phone. I can’t remember the last time I had issues like that with one of my iPhones. I don’t know if this is an Android OS issue or a hardware issue, but it was a bit of a turn off.
That being said, I can’t imagine a better Android phone that comes in this price range. The build quality of the phone is great, the camera is absolutely fantastic, and having stock Android without a bunch of bloatware is a real treat. If you are an Android user, I don’t see any reason to stay away from the Pixel line. If you are an iPhone user who wants to dip their toes into Android, I'd DEFINITELY suggest using a Pixel. Things are looking real solid for Google right now and I’m excited to see what the Pixel 4 flagship has to offer.