I swapped out my $1,450 iPhone for Google’s new $480 Pixel phone, and it shows that phones don’t have to be so expensive

The Pixel 3a XL.

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The Pixel 3a XL.
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Hollis Johnson/Business Insider

When Apple debuted theiPhone X in 2017, it set a few precedents. Yes, it introduced technologies like facial recognition to the masses, but it also raised the bar when it came to how much the average smartphone costs.

The iPhone X was Apple’s first iPhone to start at $1,000, a price that the company has since carried over to its 2018 lineup. The iPhone XS starts at $1,000 while the larger iPhone XS Max starts at $1,100. Apple also offers a cheaper model called the iPhone XR, which starts at $750.

It didn’t take long for other smartphone makers to follow. While the base models for Samsung’s Galaxy S8 and Galaxy S9 both started at about $700 when they launched, the Galaxy S10 starts at $900. Google’s smartphones have increased in price. The Pixel 2 started at $650 when it was released in 2017, while the Pixel 3 started at $800.

That trend, however, has made it more difficult for tech firms to persuade consumers to upgrade to the latest smartphone models each year. Worldwide smartphone sales declined by 6.6% year over year in the first quarter of 2019, according to the International Data Corp.

Now, Google hopes to combat this downturn with less expensive versions of its Pixel smartphones: the $400 Pixel 3a and the $480 Pixel 3a XL. Both phones are designed to recreate the Pixel 3 experience but in a less expensive package.

I switched from Apple’s top-of-the-line iPhone, the $1,450 iPhone XS Max that comes with 512 GB of storage, to Google’s $480 Pixel 3A XL. Here’s a closer look at Google’s new phone, and what my experience with it was like.

How the Pixel 3a and Pixel 3a XL compare to Google’s more expensive smartphones

The Pixel 3a XL, left, next to the Pixel 3.

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The Pixel 3a XL, left, next to the Pixel 3.
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Hollis Johnson/Business Insider

Like their more expensive siblings, the Pixel 3a and 3a XL come with a 12.2-megapixel dual-pixel camera with an aperture of f/1.8. They also support features like the Pixel 3’s Night Sight camera mode, high-resolution zooming, and portrait mode.

Where you’ll really notice the difference between Google’s new phones and the Pixel 3 and 3 XL is in design. The Pixel 3a and 3a XL are made of a polycarbonate material while the more expensive models are constructed from aluminum and glass.

The new phones lack features like wireless charging, an edge-to-edge screen, and facial recognition. They run on a less powerful Qualcomm Snapdragon 670 processor, unlike the Pixel 3 which is powered by the same Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 chipset as phones like the Galaxy Note 9 and LG G7 ThinQ. Like Google’s pricier Pixel phones, the new models offer Pixel-exclusive features like Call Screen and Google’s Titan M security module.

While they both feature OLED screens, a rare find on budget devices, their screens pack fewer pixels per inch than those found on the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL. They slightly differ in size, with the Pixel 3a featuring a 5.6-inch display compared to the Pixel 3’s 5.5-inch screen. The Pixel 3a XL, meanwhile, features a 6-inch screen versus the Pixel 3 XL’s 6.3-inch display.

What it’s like to switch from the iPhone XS Max

iPhone XS Max

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Hollis Johnson/Business Insider

The iPhone XS Max comes with the top-of-the-line features you’d expect from a flagship smartphone, such as Apple’s Face ID facial recognition technology and the company’s latest A12 Bionic processor and neural engine.

Unlike the Pixel 3a, the iPhone XS Max comes with two rear 12-megapixel cameras, a larger 6.5-inch borderless screen with a 2,688 x 1242 resolution that’s sharper than the Pixel 3a XL’s 2160 x 1080 display, and a glass and metal body. The priciest iPhone variant also comes with 512 GB of storage, while my Pixel 3a XL only offers 64 GB.

Battery life and camera

But these discrepancies didn’t bother me much, given the difference in price. That’s because the Pixel 3a XL delivered in two critical areas: camera performance and battery life. The Pixel 3a XL’s 3,700 mAh battery was able to get me through a full day of usage and until 5 p.m. the next day, on a single charge.

That’s on par with the battery performance I typically get from smartphones that are much more expensive than $480. Plus, the Pixel 3a XL comes with an 18-watt charger that supports fast charging, while Apple charges extra for this accessory.

The Pixel 3a XL’s 12.2- megapixel camera is capable of taking rich, colorful photos, and functions particularly well in low-light circumstances thanks to Google’s “Night Sight” feature. In a side-by-side comparison with the iPhone Xs Max, the Pixel 3a XL using Night Sight blew the iPhone XS Max away when capturing photos in a dim environment. See the sample shots below.

iPhone XS Max

Low Light iPhone Xs Max

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Lisa Eadicicco/Business Insider

Google Pixel 3a XL

 Night Sight Google Pixel 3a XL

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Lisa Eadicicco/Business Insider

When shooting in regular daylight, the Pixel 3A XL proved to be a worthy rival to the iPhone XS Max. The iPhone’s photo seemed a bit brighter than the Pixel’s, but the image taken on Google’s phone was slightly more detailed.

iPhone XS Max

Flower Taken With iPhone XS Max

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Lisa Eadicicco/Business Insider

Google Pixel 3a XL

Flower Taken With Pixel 3a XL

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Lisa Eadicicco/Business Insider

While the Pixel 3a XL offers impressive zooming capabilities for a budget phone with a single-lens camera, the iPhone XS Max’s dual-lens setup offers a closer and slightly crisper zoom. I did, however, prefer the Pixel 3a XL’s portrait mode photo over the iPhone XS Max’s, even though it looks a bit more processed.

iPhone XS Max

iPhone Xs Max Portrait Mode

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Lisa Eadicicco/Business Insider

Google Pixel 3a XL

Google Pixel 3a Portrait Mode

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Lisa Eadicicco/Business Insider

Display and Performance

The Pixel 3a XL’s screen rendered crisp details and bold colors whether I was browsing photos or streaming video. There were some instances in which I thought the Pixel 3 XL’s screen looked more colorful than the iPhone XS Max’s, but in other circumstances, I thought the Google’s screen looked dull next to Apple’s. I was viewing content on the Pixel 3a XL in its default state, but Google includes settings to optimize how the display looks through its natural and boosted color modes. Regardless, the screen is more than satisfactory given the Pixel 3a XL’s price, and the fact that it’s even comparable at all to the iPhone XS Max’s screen is noteworthy.

Google’s new smartphones don’t support facial recognition, but its rear-mounted fingerprint sensor was just as convenient and responsive. I never found myself resorting to typing in my passcode to unlock my phone, although it did occasionally require me to press my finger on the scanner more than once before it would successfully read my print. That being said, I have the same experience with Apple’s Face ID on occasion.

One area in which I did notice a difference between Google’s phone and Apple’s was in performance. While this wasn’t evident in most everyday tasks, I did notice a bit of lag when I was playing “Shadowgun Legends.” Apple’s iPhone XS Max, by comparison, was able to run the game seamlessly with no hiccups. The game was definitely playable on the Google Pixel 3a XL, but it just didn’t feel as buttery smooth as it did on the iPhone. I also noticed that the Pixel 3a XL’s camera doesn’t launch as quickly as the iPhone’s.

Google Maps in augmented reality

Google is equipping its Pixel phones with another special feature not found on other devices including the iPhone: Google Maps in augmented reality. I got to try an early version of this feature on the Pixel 3a XL, which uses the device’s camera to overlay directions over the real-world environment as you’re walking.

That means I was able to see exactly where to turn and and which direction to walk in without having to watch the little blue dot on the map move along with my steps. It certainly seems like one of the more practical use cases for augmented reality, even though the app isn’t finalized yet.

Google Maps AR

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Lisa Eadicicco/Business Insider

Google warns you not to hold the phone in your field of view while walking when using Google Maps in augmented reality, as doing so can be dangerous. As such, I would typically hold up the phone to see which direction to walk in, then place it in my pocket until I need to view the next step. Google Maps automatically switches back to augmented reality mode when you hold the phone up, and I found that this worked without a hitch in my experience.

Conclusions

Google Pixel 3a XL

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Hollis Johnson/Business Insider

The Google Pixel 3a is a new addition to the company’s smartphone lineup, but it feels like a return to Google’s roots in the smartphone space. Everything from the look and feel of it to its low price and clean Google software reminded me of Google’s Nexus devices. Nexus is the smartphone brand Google used to develop in partnership with Android device makers like HTC and LG. The company phased out its Nexus line once it started launching Pixel phones in 2016, but Nexus phones were known for typically being less expensive than flagship offerings from companies like Samsung.

There are always going to be fundamental differences when it comes to switching between the iOS and Android platforms. But in terms of the core functionality each device offers, like photography, battery life, performance, and display quality, the Pixel 3a is proof that you don’t need to pay $1,000 to purchase a capable smartphone.

The Pixel 3a may not be perfect – it’s performance isn’t as fast as what you’d get with a pricey flagship and it lacks features like wireless charging, and facial recognition. But even with these compromises, the Pixel 3a delivers where it counts.