For the past few years, Google seems to have tried to chase the sun a little with the Pixel line. That isn’t a bad thing by any stretch as, despite a few stumbles here and there, the Pixel line has become an exceptional Android alternative to the iPhone. Which brings us to the release of the Pixel 3a and 3a XL, a phone targeted at a slightly different subset of the market.
These two mid-range devices are not specifically targeted at you or I — the true ‘tech enthusiast‘ who claims to know better than everyone else. No, they’re the Android phone for just about ‘everyone else’.
They are aimed at the kind of person that wants a phone that just gets the job done and done well. The kind of person that wants a decent camera but isn’t willing to shell out nearly $1,000 to get that top-tier experience. The kind of person that is swayed by the Google logo rather than a generally lesser known brand handset.
If you know your stuff and do your research, on paper you can get devices that have better raw specifications. The problem is that in the real world, specifications don’t count for a lot if the overall experience is poor.
The Pixel 3a and 3a XL prove to be the ‘everyman Android’, providing solid software and associated updates, a camera that is only really bettered by devices that cost double or triple, and a pricing structure that makes so much more sense to the average person than previous Pixel handsets.
Design & Hardware
Same great taste, no added extras
We’ve known for some time that the Pixel 3a and 3a XL were not going to come wrapped in what we would call ‘premium’ materials — although what does ‘premium’ really mean in reality? The body of the Pixel 3a is made of plastic — polycarbonate to be precise. Although it does result in a lighter device, the overall feel is no less impressive in the hand. The faux-frosted plastic back looks almost identical to the Pixel 3 and 3 XL, which helps drive home that this is still inherently a part of the Pixel line.
I will say that the sides are a lot rounder and softer than the original Pixel 3 which allows the lightweight device to nestle into your palms comfortably. The polished sides do pick up fingerprints and grime quite a bit more than on my Pixel 3 but the feel on both the Pixel 3a and 3a XL is in no way a negative.
External designs can range from the so-called premium handset to the more mid-range option — Huawei’s Mate 20 line being prime examples. The design parity is one core area in which the Pixel 3a and Pixel 3 that is only broken by the distinct lack of a notch on the larger XL variant. Even despite a $400 price difference between the top-tier Pixel 3 XL and the 3a, there is a sense that nothing ‘major’ is missing from the cheaper counterpart. The same can’t really be said about many other smartphone lines that offer ‘Lite’ versions of their flagship devices.
You even get the Titan M security chip packed inside, which offers you enterprise-grade security. The chip prevents malicious attacks from moving your device to an outdated version of Android attempting to unlock your Pixel 3a bootloader. Not only does it do that, it also secures your lockscreen too. Only after a successful unlock and user verification will the Titan chip allow device decryption. There are very few devices at this price-point that offer that level of on-device security — save used models.
A small bezel on the top and bottom of the display makes both 3a and 3a XL feel a tiny bit closer to the Pixel 3 than the larger Pixel 3 XL. Although the design might seem slightly dated when compared to the almost bezel-less options found elsewhere, in no way does it detract from the look and feel of the 3a and 3a XL.
Of course, much like the Pixel 3, we knew just about everything there is to know about these handsets ahead of the launch at I/O 2019. Like our own Stephen before me with the Pixel 3 and 3 XL, I have still been surprised at good both devices look and feel. Switching from the Pixel 3 XL directly to the Pixel 3a XL — color aside — I have not felt wanting in the hardware stakes at least.
Each handset looks like a Pixel, feels like a Pixel and behaves like a Pixel, because it is a Pixel — just without the associated price-tag that name usually brings.
I find myself gravitating towards the larger 6-inch Google Pixel 3a XL as opposed to the 5.6-inch Pixel 3a. As with large hands, I personally find the Pixel 3a a little more cramped than it’s larger brother. But with that said I feel it will appeal to those wanting a smaller handset at that value price point.
Most of the hardware changes are merely the ‘filler’ that tend to round off your everyday flagship. Even an area that I thought would be noticeably worse in the form of the display, is somewhere I have found myself genuinely impressed. The display on the Pixel 3a doesn’t quite get as bright as the Pixel 3, but it is crystal clear and looks great with all types of content.
I have noticed some slight color shifting when held on a very acute axis, but for the most part, you’ll generally not see any difference between this and the display on the Pixel 3. Being 1080p rather than 1440p but the lower pixel count shouldn’t be discounted. You can’t exactly go in expecting a full wrap-around display that reaches the edges of the device when the entry-price barely breaks $400. It’s also worth noting that very few sub-$400 devices have a display that matches or exceeds that found on the Google Pixel 3a or 3a XL.
The display is not made with Gorilla glass, which I am unable to tell the difference between. Instead, the display is made from the cheaper Dragon Trail glass. It’s said to be as scratch resistant as Gorilla Glass 2 but doesn’t quite match up to Gorilla Glass 3. You likely won’t notice any difference in day-to-day usage, but a screen protector may be a prominent pick-up to ensure no major scuffs, dings and scratches.
The fact that the pricing is not majorly different between the two mid-range handsets also means that it’s simply a toss up between size for most people looking for a new device. There is nothing that majorly separates the two handsets save the size — which can’t be said for the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL. I think that really simplifies things and arguably makes the Pixel 3a a little more attractive to the average buyer.
I haven’t really discussed the camera hardware, the main camera sensor and lens setup is identical to that found on the Pixel 3. That means everything that has made the Pixel 3 camera so revered is present and correct on a device starting $400. That isn’t strictly true though as you won’t get Google’s custom Pixel Visual Core processing chip. That does mean that any processing is handled on the 3a CPU and GPU — more on how this affects performance later.
There is also one hardware addition that eludes even the Pixel 3 and 3 XL (and by extension the Pixel 2 and 2 XL): the headphone port. Clearly, even Google thinks that average Joes want headphone support right out of the box. I can’t pretend I’m not disappointed that a phone costing almost half include a port that I myself would like to see. If only it was on the bottom of the phone rather than the top — alas we won’t ever know — but it’s there.
Audio via the stereo speaker is just about okay on Pixel 3a. The downward facing speaker works in tandem with the earpiece to output audio in this hybrid-stereo format and the end result is not displeasing, it just isn’t particularly brilliant. That downward facing speaker is easy to cover, which is annoying as it does provide almost all of the ‘main’ sound.
Software & Performance
No dips, smooth as silk
Despite the dip in internal specifications, there is very little to distinguish the Pixel 3a from the Pixel 3 in general usage — save the hardware differences. The step down from Snapdragon 845 to Snapdragon 670 is not one that I can honestly say has inhibited the overall experience and ‘feel’ of each device.
The same can be said of the 4GB of RAM, I didn’t go in expecting insane multi-tasking and I’m not coming away disappointed. That doesn’t mean that performance has been disappointing, as, in all honesty, the day-to-day experience is the same as it is when using the Pixel 3 XL. I’ve seen some slower app loading and image processing due to the weaker chipset but in operation, Android Pie is slick, smooth and a joy on the mid-range internals.
This is one of the core reasons that the Pixel is such an attractive prospect. You often see watered down and indeed missing features on comparably priced devices. That simply isn’t the case with the Pixel 3a. Expect a full-fat experience that includes all the major bell and whistles seen on the Pixel 3.
Even features like the neat Active Edge squeeze to activate Google Assistant feature is included on the cheaper handset. You’re even treated to the Now Playing listening feature that identifies any music playing in the background and gives you an unobtrusive notification on the Always-on display.
As a Pixel, you won’t find any carrier bloatware, which is not that common on many devices at that sub-$500 price point. And while the 64GB internal storage does feel a little low at times, the lack of bloaty apps hogging space and system resources helps the Google Pixel 3a no end. You could point to Android One handsets like the Nokia 7.1 as examples of hardware that offers a sleek experience akin to the Pixel 3a, but I can honestly say that Android One doesn’t quite stack up against the full Android experience with no alterations.
A friend or relative looking for an affordable unlocked device that performs to this level will be more than happy, we’re sure of it. Heck, I’m contemplating switching over to the Pixel 3a XL for the slightly better battery life. That’s all because the day-to-day performance is just so good, and that is even considering many have criticised the 4GB of RAM.
The real deal
The full camera experience comes wholesale from the Pixel 3 and that includes all of that goodness of Night Sight, Top Shot, Super Res Zoom and AR features like Playground. The Google Pixel 3a also sees the introduction of the new Time Lapse feature too — which is a solid addition.
The lack of Pixel Visual Core processing means that you will see some slightly slower HDR+ image processing. It has no real bearing on the end result, as the Pixel 3a goes toe-to-toe with the Pixel 3 in the photography stakes. I’ve been amazed at the end result of many images taken on both the Pixel 3a and Pixel 3a XL.
Slower image processing is by no means a dealbreaker, and it’s a minor price to pay for the kind of quality on offer from the Pixel 3a camera sensor. It’s amazing to see the image quality stack up and exceed many devices that we consider the ‘top performers’ on the market. A minor sore point is that the OLED panel actually doesn’t quite do images justice, once exported to a higher quality display and you can instantly see just how well the Pixel 3a does in all shooting scenarios.
The power of the super-impressive Night Sight is included on the Google Pixel 3a too. Don’t expect any camera modes to go missing on these cheaper handsets — it’s one of the core reasons that the camera appeal will no doubt sway the purchasing decision by many looking for a cheap, accessible unlocked device.
You don’t get that dual front-facing camera with its wide-angle selfie lens, instead there is a solitary 8-megapixel sensor that is at a slightly wider angle than than the basic lens on the Pixel 3. It’s better for getting a bit more in the frame but it still isn’t quite as good as that ultra-wide selfie lens.
In video modes, the camera does crop in slightly but the overall quality is easily as good as the standard Pixel 3. That means exceptional stabilization and crystal clear clips in up to 4K at 30fps. It’s a shame there is still no 60fps option but you can get your slow-mo fix with the 1080p modes at up to 120fps or 720p at 240fps.
Solid but not quite spectacular
The Pixel 3a battery measures in at 3,000mAh while the Pixel 3a XL packs in a 3,700mAh cell inside. Unfortunately, even with the back being plastic, neither of the new Pixels comes with any sort of wireless charging. Evidently, Google decided it was not cost effective, but it would still have been a fine addition. You are treated to 18W fast-charging via the USB-C port, which brings parity with the Pixel 3.
In my experience the Pixel 3a has a solid lifespan, lasting a full day with screen-on-time breaking four hours. The Pixel 3a XL managed just shy of five hours from 100% to around 9% at the end of a busy day.
Topping up is as fast thanks to the included fast-charger, which is another bonus given many other devices simply don’t include the option at the lower end of the price spectrum. I’m sure that you’ll have no issues with the battery life on either the Pixel 3a or 3a XL handset.
The phone for the many, not the few
Affordability in the mobile space is almost always about compromise. Save for picking up a used device or an older flagship, there are a ton of areas where corners are cut to lower the initial entry price. With the Google Pixel 3a and Pixel 3a XL, there isn’t a major list of compromises that result in a stimped experience.
Compared to the iPhone XR and the Samsung Galaxy S10e, the Pixel 3a feels much more like a fully fleshed out handset that even has a lower entry price. Neither of those cameras can quite compete with the Pixel 3a either. Although the iPhone will likely receive updates for far longer, the best affordable Android device comes with full Google support for at least 2 years and the Pixel 3a and 3a XL could potentially get Android S given how close we are to Android Q heading out.
- What are you really giving up to save $400 on a Google Pixel 3a? [Video]
- Comment: Google Pixel 3a at (effectively) $300 is just a stupid good value
Now, it’s at this point I’ll address the OnePlus 6T, which comes in at $549 for the 6GB RAM, 128GB storage variant. That is a fantastic device for the price, and although the specifications do exceed those found on the Pixel 3, to the uninitiated or tech-phobic, proves a much harder sell unless they are recommended the handset. The camera also doesn’t get even remotely close to the solitary lens found on the Pixel 3a.
At this price-point in the United States, there are very few devices that can really stack up to the entire experience. The value proposition is exactly the win that Google clearly envisaged with the Pixel 3a and 3a XL, it just so happens to have caught me somewhat off guard. I expected a cut-down experience and what I’ve found is an amazing affordable smartphone that could easily slip in my pocket without fuss, loss of form and function. And for that, I have to really applaud Google’s efforts.
You can pick up the Google Pixel 3a and Pixel 3a XL unlocked at stores like Best Buy, direct from the Google Store. Although with B&H Photo offering a $100 gift card with a purchase, that effectively makes the smaller Pixel 3a just $300 — you simply can’t compete with this device at that entry-price.