Since Google rebranded the Nexus program with Pixel smartphones, it has driven the price up pretty considerably, to compete with the other flagship smartphones out there. But, Google has decided to go back to its roots with the new Pixel 3a. Offering a pretty impressive smartphone for under $500 (under $400 if you get the smaller Pixel 3a).
Surely, Google cut some corners to hit this price point. After all, it is about half the price of the standard Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL. But somehow has the exact same camera. So how well does it perform in day-to-day tasks? And does it have the same performance issues as the Pixel 3 line? Let's find out in our full review.
A familiar, notch-less design
First thing you'll notice about the Pixel 3a is the design. Particularly on the Pixel 3a XL, as there is no notch. Unlike the Pixel 3 XL, Google did decide to drop the notch, and give us some pretty sizable bezels. That's expected on something that costs this much, but it is also a welcome change. With most smartphones declaring war on bezels and making them as thin as possible, it makes it tougher to play games. It also makes it easier to register some accidental touches on the display - a big issue on the Galaxy S10 line.
The bezels aren't so big here that you're going to think this was a phone from 2015 though. The side bezels are larger than the Pixel 3 XL (throughout this review, we'll be comparing the Pixel 3a XL to the Pixel 3 XL, as those are the two models we have in hand), while the forehead is actually smaller than that notch. There is a slight chin here, which, to be honest, doesn't even bother me in the least.
The design looks very familiar on the Pixel 3a. It has the same two-tone backside, with a frosted lower portion and a glossy top part near the camera. When you first pick it up, you would think that this was a glass-backed phone. But instead it is made of polycarbonate - also known as plastic. Google did a good job of using cheaper materials without making the Pixel 3a look or feel cheap. Though with this being polycarbonate instead of glass, that means that there is no seam on the back. So it's a seamless frame that meets the front of the phone. Making it look very clean.
Finally, solid battery performance from a Pixel
When comparing the Pixel 3 line to the Pixel 3a lineup, one thing is a bit strange to most people. The cheaper, Pixel 3a line has larger batteries on both models. With the Pixel 3a sporting a 3000mAh capacity battery and 3700mAh on the Pixel 3a XL. This is likely because Google is using plastic, which is thinner than glass so more room for the battery. There is also less space being taken up inside the Pixel 3a for things like waterproofing and wireless charging. Not to mention the Pixel Visual Core is not included. So there's a lot more space inside, and Google decided to fill that up with battery. And not a single person will complain about that.
Not only does the Pixel 3a XL have a larger capacity battery, but it also has a smaller, lower-resolution display. Instead of a 6.3-inch QHD+ display like the Pixel 3 XL, it sports a 6-inch Full HD+ display. It also has a very battery efficient chipset included, in the Snapdragon 670. This is all a recipe for some great battery life.
With the Pixel 3a XL, we've been able to get about six to seven hours of on-screen time, over about 24 hours. And that was with around 20-percent left still. That is pretty impressive battery life, of course the Galaxy S10+ could likely do better with its 4200mAh capacity battery. But compared to the Pixel 3 XL, this is a huge improvement.
Pixel 3a performs better than its more expensive brother
The Snapdragon 670 is a solid step down from the Snapdragon 845 found in the Pixel 3. Just because it sports a Snapdragon 670, does not mean that this is a mid-range phone. Mid-range phones are usually about half the price, and do not provide as great of an experience as this phone does. The 670 is effectively a "premium mid-range" chipset, according to Qualcomm. Bringing down a lot of the features from the Snapdragon 800-series to the 600 range, which is also cheaper.
The Pixel 3a still has an octa-core chipset, with two cores clocking in at 2GHz and six at 1.7GHz. This is what helps to keep the phone alive while in standby. It also helps it to be more battery efficient. Sure, it's slower than the Pixel 3, when it comes to day-to-day tasks, but you would only notice the difference when using the two phones side by side. We only noticed it when doing a speed test of the two next to each other. Most users won't notice a difference. As the Pixel 3a is still plenty speedy.
On top of that, the Pixel 3a has none of the performance issues that the Pixel 3 has. For example, if you're listening to music, and open the camera, your music doesn't stop playing. The camera is also miles faster than the Pixel 3's camera, even after several updates. Basically, what I'm saying is, the cheaper Pixel 3a has better performance than the Pixel 3, as a whole. Yes, it's a bit slower, but that doesn't outweigh the many other issues that the Pixel 3 has when it comes to performance.
A great camera, period.
Typically when we are talking about the camera on these smartphones that are priced around the $400, we normally say "it's a great camera for the price". As it's typically unfair to compare the camera on a $399 smartphone to a $999 smartphone. That is not the case with the Pixel 3a. It is the best camera available right now. For any price. Some might disagree and say that the Huawei P30 Pro or the Samsung Galaxy S10+ has a better camera, and that is mostly due to the different focal lengths that those smartphones include. But when it comes to camera experience, it's hard to beat the Pixel 3a right now. And that's a crazy sentence to write in 2019 for a $399 smartphone.
We've gone out and took pictures with both the Pixel 3 XL and Pixel 3a XL, and most people cannot tell the difference between the two. The two smartphones have the exact same camera module and the same camera software. Now where things change is when it comes to the processing of those images. Since the Pixel 2, Google has used the Pixel Visual Core, which is a custom ISP that Google has built, to process images. It is not included on the Pixel 3a lineup, and for the most part, you wouldn't even notice that it was missing.
The Pixel Visual Core is an important part of the Pixel 3 camera experience. There are a few instances where you can tell that the Pixel 3a is really missing out on the Pixel Visual Core. For example, in the Flickr gallery below, there are a couple of Portrait Mode shots where you can tell that the phone had trouble finding the edges. That is due to there being no Pixel Visual Core included here. But those shots are very rare, in our time using the phone.
— Alex Maxham 😎 (@alexmaxham) May 11, 2019
Other than that, we haven't had really any issues with the Pixel 3a camera. It has performed pretty incredibly, and it's hard to recommend anything else over this smartphone, at any price point.
As always, you can check out the images we've taken with the Pixel 3a XL in the Flick gallery linked below. These have not been edited at all. All using auto or Portrait mode.
The fingerprint sensor actually, ya know, works
Not surprisingly, Google kept the fingerprint sensor on the backside of the Pixel 3a. This means a fast, capacitive fingerprint sensor instead of an in-display sensor that has been pretty slow so far. Not to mention unreliable. Pixel fingerprint sensors have always been lightning quick, even going back to the Nexus 6P built by Huawei. So it should be no surprise that this one is both fast and accurate.
After using other smartphones like the Samsung Galaxy S10+, that have an in-display fingerprint sensor, it is definitely nice to be able to use a phone that does have a working fingerprint sensor.
Finally, the headphone jack has returned
In a trend that has been happening for the past year or two, Google has brought back the headphone jack to its cheaper smartphone. It's a weird trend that a lot of other smartphone makers are doing these days. Removing the headphone jack from the more expensive models and keeping it on the more affordable models. Many will be glad to see it available on the Pixel 3a, particularly audiophiles that are not impressed with the Bluetooth headphones that are available right now.
It's just a headphone jack however. Unlike LG, Google has not added a quad DAC inside the Pixel 3a, so you're not getting anything special other than the ability to plug your headphones in. We've used it throughout this review period, and it is definitely a good thing to have a headphone jack available on your smartphone once again. Especially after using many, many smartphones without one.
The trend of removing this "premium" feature from the more expensive smartphones and leaving it on the more affordable ones is a pretty strange one. But if companies start making phones as good as the Pixel 3a, most people likely won't mind.
You can't have everything for $399
While there is a lot to like from the Pixel 3a at this price point, Google did cut some corners. For one, we no longer have dual front-facing speakers. Instead, the earpiece is a speaker and there is a downward firing speaker. Technically, we do still have stereo speakers, they just aren't front-facing. There is a noticeable difference in the sound quality out of the Pixel 3a versus the Pixel 3. The bass is definitely stronger on the Pixel 3.
There's also no ingress rating, like the Pixel 3. Google says that it is water repellent, similar to Motorola's smartphones. But don't take it into the shower or the pool, and expect it to survive. If this were a couple of years ago, this wouldn't be an issue, as it wasn't a huge feature back then. But in 2019, it's a feature that a lot of people look for, even at this price point.
Google also kept wireless charging out of the mix on the Pixel 3a. That's another one that is probably not a big deal. While there are some out there that really love having wireless charging available on their smartphone, it's still slow and can be pretty finicky. It also means that Google can't bundle its shiny new Pixel Stand with the Pixel 3a - though those buying the Pixel 3a likely won't be buying a $79 wireless charger anyways.
Not a lot of RAM available on the Pixel 3a, which doesn't look great on the spec sheet, but it does perform better than the Pixel 3's 4GB of RAM did. Many people are looking for a smartphone that is going to give them a few years our of it, and despite Google promising three years of software updates with the Pixel 3a, the 4GB of RAM may not work as well when Android T comes out in 2022. Considering, it's a bit of a stretch in 2019, that wouldn't be too surprising.
No headphones included in the box. Likely to cut down on costs a bit, Google opted not to include a pair of Pixel Buds in the box with the Pixel 3a. So instead you are getting just the power brick and USB-C cable, nothing else. Considering there is a headphone jack available on the Pixel 3a, many likely won't even notice or care.
The best sub-$500 smartphone available
Is the Pixel 3a perfect? Nope. There is no perfect smartphone. But when looking to get a new smartphone, the Pixel 3a is an excellent choice. It does cut a few corners, but it definitely looks like Google cut the right corners, instead of cutting stuff that would be a deal-breaker for most people, like the camera. Keeping the Snapdragon 845 chipset inside would have been ideal, but going with the Snapdragon 670 provides better performance, it drives down the cost of the phone, and it also improves the battery life.
On top of that, the Pixel 3a is available at almost every carrier now - instead of just Verizon. So you can walk into Verizon, T-Mobile, Sprint and US Cellular stores and buy the Pixel 3a. It is also available at Best Buy and through the Google Store. That's a lot better than just being available through Verizon. It is not sold at AT&T, but you can buy it from Best Buy or the Google Store and take it over to AT&T, since the phones are fully unlocked and support all four major carriers.
The Pixel 3a is quickly becoming the new "affordable" phone to buy in 2019. And it's not hard to see why.