A $399 Pixel 3a could be the Google phone we should have gotten all along

Premium without the price.

Credit: Evan Blass

The Pixel 3a is shaping up to be the Pixel phone we've always wanted. YouTuber Brandon Lee of This is Tech Today posted pics and specs of the Pixel 3a's retail boxing, and it confirms much of what was already rumored: a 5.6-inch screen, 64GB of storage, down-firing speaker, headphone jack, and a new light purple cover (which Google calls Purple-ish).

But what's most intriguing about the Pixel 3a is the price. According to Lee, it will start at $399 for the 3a and $479 for the 3a XL, presumably with a $100 option for 128GB of storage. That's cheaper than an iPhone 7 and a Galaxy S8. And it's the Pixel phone Google should have made all along.

The Pixel premium

When the Google Pixel launched in 2016, it wasn't about looks. With giant bezels and an extraordinarily minimal design, it had the engine of a souped-up Porsche but the body of Kia.

What made the Pixel special was its brains. It ran a newer version of Android than was available on any other phone at the time. It had a single camera but blew away its competitors when it come to computational photography. Google Assistant was always at the ready, a rarity at the time, and best of all, it promised three years of updates, something few if any Android phones can deliver.

pixel and xl size Jason Cross

The original Pixel wasn't pretty, but that's not the point.

Unlike the Galaxy S10 or even the iPhone, Google's Pixel doesn't have a head-turning design. Which is why its premium price tag always held it back, and it's only gotten worse. The Pixel 3 is $150 more than the Pixel 2, and according to a statement by CFO Ruth Porat made during parent company Alphabet's earnings results earlier this week, sales are suffering: "Hardware results reflect lower year-on-year sales of Pixel, reflecting in part heavy promotional activity industry-wide given some of the recent pressures in the premium smartphone market."

That could mean a lot of things, but in short, the Pixel 3 is too expensive to compete with the Samsung, Apple, and even Huawei phones of the world. Especially since the design is nowhere near as good. When you're competing in the premium space, looks are as important as speed, and when presented with an $900 Pixel 3 XL or a Galaxy S10, nearly everyone will choose the Samsung phone, regardless of the advantages Google offers.

But those expectations are much different for mid-range and budget phones. Plastic, bezel-heavy bodies are common in this space, and when compared to phones like the Motorola One or the Galaxy A7, the Pixel 3a won't be an eyesore. And its performance could put it over the top. With control over the end-to-end experience, Google doesn't have to compete in the premium space to be successful, and I think a $399 Pixel will be far more attractive than a $800 one, even if it pretty much looks the same.

Cheap but not cut-rate

With a camera and Assistant features akin to the Pixel 3, the 3a will be a killer handset at $399. Even the rumored Snapdragon 670 processor isn't too shabby—in Geekbench score, it matches up to the three-generation-old Snapdragon 820, which is still a fine processor for most tasks. Most people simply don't need the speed that the Galaxy S10 or iPhone XS deliver.

s10 main Michael Simon/IDG

The Pixel 3a won't compete with the Galaxy S10 on looks, but at half the price, it could be a more enticing alternative.

Simply put, people want three things in a phone: A great camera, an all-day battery, and steady updates. And the Pixel 3a could deliver on all of them. Google could have a real hit on its hands, a phone that wouldn't just entice bargain hunters, but premium phone fans as well who are sick of spending upwards of a thousand bucks to get the latest and greatest features.

The Pixel 3a is expected to make its debut at Google I/O, which kicks off on Tuesday May 7. If these rumors and price point are correct, the Pixel 3a could be the phone Google should have made from the start: Premium without the price.

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Michael Simon

Michael Simon

PC World (US online)
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