By the time you’re reading this, the Google Pixel 3a will be announced and official (and probably will have leaked even more in the meantime). Google’s new entry-level smartphone starts at an attractive $399, and comes in only two configurations: regular and extra large. The 3a XL is the phone I’ve been using for a week now, and it costs a bit more, at $479. But that seems eminently reasonable for the larger 6” screen and 3700mAh battery the extra $80 net you. Otherwise, there really aren’t any noteworthy differences: both phones have 64GB of storage, 4GB of RAM (yes, yes, I know), Snapdragon 670 processors, and identical cameras. And no doubt, many people’s first question with a cheaper version of any phone will be “what am I giving up?” To be sure, that’s important – and you can find the answers over here. But from the standpoint of this review – a review of half-price Pixel phones – I think the far more important question is “what am I keeping?
In my experience so far, the Pixel 3a and 3a XL retain far more than 50% of what make the Pixel 3 and 3 XL so good. And while that may not be exactly what Google wants to hear about its premium smartphones, it’s good news for consumers who want the Pixel experience without the Pixel price.
Our Pixel 3a review is sponsored by dbrand, crafters of fine-lookin’ mobile skins. Read more about drand’s skins for these new Pixels after the conclusion.
Hardware, design, what’s in the box
As with any exercise in cost-cutting a premium product, materials are often the first item on the chopping block. Exotic or processing-intensive metals, glasses, and ceramics come with often equally exotic prices, and we all know what the alternative is: good ol’ hardened dinosaur extract. But I’ve been impressed with the plastic Google has used on the 3a, because most of the time you don’t even really notice it’s plastic at all. The Pixel team came up with a process to give the bulk of the rear cover a highly uniform and exceptionally smooth matte finish, and texturally it’s almost indistinguishable from the the regular Pixel 3’s colored glass. The edges and “window” at the top of the phone are a high-gloss plastic that, aside from lacking glass’s characteristic coldness, also really don’t feel that much different from last year’s phones.
What you do notice about the 3a is how much weight it’s lost as a result of the changes in construction – these phones are much lighter. Much of that is down to removing the glass, but it’s also because the 3a and 3a XL don’t have the same rigid aluminum skeleton of the premium Pixels (though they don’t feel “flimsy”). While some people may claim more heft offers a more premium feel, in the end it is also heft which propels our phones with ever more force when they almost inevitably collide with the ground. While Google wasn’t keen to admit it, this combined with the plastic backing will almost certainly make the 3as more impact-resistant than their expensive counterparts (worth noting, though: they aren’t IP certified and should not be submerged in water).
The only real downside to the plastic is going to be aesthetic durability (the rear will scratch far more easily), but if you’re putting the phone in a case, you’re never going to notice anyway. And speaking of cases, Google will offer the same premium case options including fabric and live photo cases for the 3a as it does the regular Pixel 3s.
The one glass piece on these phones is, obviously, the screen. Google says it saved a significant amount of money by moving to a “rigid” OLED panel at full HD resolution, as opposed to the UHD flexible OLEDs in the Pixel 3, but I think the takeaway for would-be buyers is that this is still an excellent display for the money. There are noticeable black shifts at extreme off-axis angles, and peak brightness can be wanting in direct sunlight – but that’s largely the rule for phones at these prices, which rarely see OLED panels used anyway. That OLED screen means you keep features like Google’s always-on ambient display, as well as excellent black levels and superior viewing angles. The material covering that screen is Dragontrail glass, a cheaper alternative to Corning’s ubiquitous Gorilla Glass, another of the 3a’s little here-and-there cost cuts.
The headphone jack returns to a Google smartphone.
Don’t get your hopes up for the return of 3.5mm in the Pixel 4.
And if you want to talk about features the 3a gains, there’s a really notable one: a headphone jack. But don’t get your hopes up for the return of 3.5mm in the Pixel 4 – Google says this was a strictly demographic driven decision, and that they felt the jack was necessary because buyers of more affordable smartphones may not have made the jump to Bluetooth just yet. Given Google intends to make a big to-do of this phone’s launch in countries like India, that makes sense. But of course you still get a USB-C port with support for USB audio (yes, this phone works with wired the Pixel earbuds) and USB-PD quick charging at 18 watts. Wireless charging, however, has been removed (again, money). Finally, there’s still a proper capacitive fingerprint scanner on the rear of the phone, and it works extremely well, thank you very much, all you manufacturers switching to awful in-screen readers.
As for what you get in the box, it’s a bit more spartan than the standard Pixels – there are no included earbuds (and obviously no headphone dongle) – but you still get a USB-C to C cable, the 18W USB-PD wall charger, and an adapter to help transfer data from your old phone.
Software, performance, battery life
Given the software is a carbon copy of the other Pixel phones, rewriting our entire Pixel 3 review’s software section would be, quite frankly, silly. What you need to know about the Pixel 3a’s software is that it’s the same experience you find on the premium Pixels, and it will receive the same guaranteed three years of software updates and monthly security patches. That’s huge on phones in this segment of the market. Sure, Nokia is pretty good about OS updates, but they’re never going to be as fast as Google, and they’re probably not going to provide three major OS updates to their entire lineup. The Pixel 3a and 3a XL will receive Android S. Android S will come out in 2021. And three years is only the minimum commitment – they might even get Android T, we can’t be sure. There are not many other Android phones at any price you can say that about, even ones being released six months from now.
The software itself comes down to where you fall on “stock” (read: Google’s) Android – we’re big fans here, and the Pixels have become fairly well-rounded if minimalist phones. Features like ambient display notifications, the Google Discover feed on the launcher, and value-adds like Call Screen and Duplex (in the US) don’t put the Pixels head and shoulders above other Android phones, but some are definitely things I miss when I’m not using a Pixel.
There are two little changes to the 3a’s software worth noting: first is that original quality Google Photos backup is not unlimited on these phones. The standard high quality uploads are available, as with any other phone. Second, there’s no support for live text recognition in the camera viewfinder (Google Lens still works, though).
Performance is likely to be the biggest question people have about the 3a and 3a XL, and the Snapdragon 670 in these phones doesn’t disappoint. It uses proper Kryo CPUs from Qualcomm (albeit only two high-performance cores) and, given the Pixel 3a runs at 1080p resolution, it doesn’t seem terribly taxed. Responsiveness is very good, though I do think these phones lose that magical screen latency that makes the Pixel 3 feel quite so perfect to scroll on. It’s still pretty good, but very obviously not quite as good. While 4GB of RAM feels increasingly stretched on modern Android smartphones, it’s not given me any issues I wouldn’t expect. Yeah, apps reflow from the multitasking UI sometimes, just like they do on most phones – I even see this often on my Galaxy S10+ with its big, bad 8GB of memory. But scrolling, app switching, and general interface responsiveness feel best-in-class on the 3a, and without using visual trickery like sped-up animations. I worry more about the RAM from a future-proofing perspective, though, and a 6GB option would have been nice to have.
Google estimates battery life on the 3a and 3a XL will be comparable to the Pixel 3 and 3 XL, respectively, though I’ve only really been evaluating the XL in this respect. So far, I’ve been quite impressed – the 3700mAh battery is a full 270mAh larger than the 3 XL’s, and the 3a XL’s screen is also smaller and less dense than the 3 XL’s, so it uses less power as well. I think six or seven hours of screen time should be easily achievable with the 3a XL, and I’d put it up near the Galaxy S10+ for longevity – this is a properly long-lasting smartphone from Google. I’m less optimistic about the smaller 3a, as its 3000mAh battery is just a hair larger than the Pixel 3’s, but its screen is basically the same size (5.6” 18.5:9 versus 5.5” 18:9), if reduced in resolution.
The cameras on these phones are fantastic. That’s because Google brought over the exact same rear camera module it used on the Pixel 3 and 3 XL and ported over all of the same features and processing. Google says photos out of the Pixel 3a should look exactly as they do out of the Pixel 3, and I believe them – the results are outstanding. There is simply no other smartphone at that cost which comes even close to producing these kinds of photos, unless you’re talking about old Pixel 2 stock.
You really shouldn’t notice much of any difference between capturing photos on a $400 Pixel 3a versus capturing them on a $900 Pixel 3 XL.
Night sight, Top Shot, portrait mode, AR stickers, Photo Spheres, Google Lens, slow-mo – you name it, it’s all here. Google’s also introducing a new camera feature on the 3a: timelapse, which will capture one photos at 4 or 6 frames per second, then play them back at 30 frames per second. You can capture footage in several preset speeds – 5x, 10x, 30x, or 120x. For example, at 120x mode, 20 minutes of footage will become 10 seconds.
As to the issue of camera performance, I talked with Google about this a bit, because the Pixel 3a lacks the Pixel Visual Core hardware of the Pixel 3. Google says it worked a lot on porting over features to run on Qualcomm’s Spectra ISP on the 3a, and that it was challenging – but that overall, you really shouldn’t notice much of any difference between capturing photos on a $400 Pixel 3a versus capturing them on a $900 Pixel 3 XL. That Google was both willing and able to bring this camera experience to such an approachable price is impressive as much as it is a little concerning – what exactly is that extra $600 buying you if not the Pixel’s renowned camera experience? Anyway, it’s still here on the 3a, and I think anyone who picks one of these phones up will be blown away by the pictures it takes.
Should you buy it?
While every Android phone has bugs and glitches, basically none of them are going to see the level of software support this one will – even proper “flagships.”
Yes. If you’re in the market for a smartphone and don’t want to spend more than $400-500, the Pixel 3a and 3a XL are no-brainer phones. I’d definitely opt for the 3a XL if battery life is high on your list of concerns, but that aside, I have no other real reasons not to recommend the smaller one, either. For many people, it’s probably just the right size (and the right price). While the photos you’ll take with the Pixel 3a will have you impressed from day one, I think getting those three years of OS updates – and just as fast as every other Pixel phone – will leave you feeling like you made the right call. Google gets a lot of flack for bugs on its smartphones – and not unjustifiably, at times – but while every Android phone has bugs and glitches, basically none of them are going to see the level of software support this one will – even proper “flagships.” It’s hard to put a dollar value on that, but Google has: half the price of our other phones. I think that makes the Pixel 3a and 3a XL a pretty good deal, and pretty much without compare in the sub-$500 price bracket.
A message from dbrand
We’ll keep this to the point. We are pretty sure a load of you will be buying a Pixel 3A. If you do, you’d be crazy not to pick up a dbrand skin to install on it from day one. A dbrand skin will prevent scratches, enhance your grip, and look freaking awesome while doing so.
With dozens of colors and textures to choose from, there’s guaranteed to be an option that matches your style. They are available to purchase now – you can have one shipped to your doorstep before your phone arrives for protection from day one. Here’s the link, get er’ done.