From the moment Google's Pixel 3 and 3 XL went on sale, us reviewers were largely in agreement: The phones' software was far more impressive than the hardware. Fair enough; Google is still pretty new at this "making its own devices" thing. But somewhere along the way, things took a turn. Shortly after launch, we started hearing about a litany of issues plaguing those Pixels, from increasingly sluggish performance to worrying battery life to camera-stability problems. It's not clear whether any of these failings specifically led to the disappointing sales Alphabet spelled out in the company's most recent earnings call, but they surely didn't help.
So, what does a company like Google do when its flashy, premium smartphones aren't doing so well? In this case, the answer wasn't "launch some new flagships so everyone forgets about the last ones." Instead, Google decided to take the fundamentals of the Pixel experience and squeeze them into two new, affordable spinoffs: the $400 Pixel 3a and $480 3a XL.
I know what some of you are thinking: Taking a phone with a shaky track record like the Pixel 3 has and stripping it down to its bare bones could be problematic. And on paper at least, it doesn't seem like the Pixel 3as should be all that interesting; they're cheaper versions of devices we've already seen, designed to appeal to people who don't want to drop $750 on a smartphone. After testing the Pixel 3a XL for a week, though, I'm starting to think Google might be onto something here. Yes, it's more limited in some ways, but those limitations never, ever felt like dealbreakers. If nothing else, the 3a XL is a surprisingly capable take on the Pixel formula that, in some ways, proves to be more valuable than either of the models that came before it.