Google Pixel 3a review: A budget phone that acts like a premium flagship

The right combination of great, good enough, and affordable.

Credit: Michael Simon/IDG

The Google Pixel 3a makes a strong case for tossing out the spec sheet. On paper, it looks like yet another boring budget smartphone, with a middling processor, single front and rear cameras, and a bare-minimum 1080p screen. But in your pocket, you might just mistake it for a premium phone.

Part of the reason why is because, well, it’s a Pixel. Specifically, it looks a lot like the notchless Pixel 3 and the rumored design for the Pixel 4, and of course, it runs the latest version of Android. But while the high-priced G-stamped phones always left something to be desired when it came to design, the $399 Pixel 3a looks like a budget phone but acts like a premium one. It’s almost like Google has been setting us up for this all along.

Ignoring the numbers game

For as long as high-end Android phones have existed, we’ve been trained to believe that we need the biggest battery and best processor to get the best experience. As such, handsets have crossed the thousand-dollar threshold to give us the specs they’ve convinced us we need, as premium phones have all sought to outdo each other with cameras, RAM, storage, and pixels.

pixel 3a assistant Michael Simon/IDG

You can squeeze the sides of the Pixel 3a to summon Google Assistant.

The Pixel 3a does none of that. Spec-, design-, and most importantly, price-wise, it’s the antithesis of a premium Android phone. It’s made of plastic rather than glass, has a Full HD screen instead of a Quad HD one, and its interior attributes are decidedly non-premium as well:

  • Processor: Snapdragon 670
  • RAM: 4GB
  • Storage: 64GB
  • Battery: 3,000mAh
  • Front camera: 8MP, f/2.0
  • Rear camera: 12MP, f/1.8, OIS

But numbers aren’t what the Pixel 3a is selling. Much like the premium Pixel—which also has just 4GB of RAM and 64GB of base storage—the 3a makes the most of its parts, offering an Android experience that rivals phones that cost more than twice as much. Plus it has a headphone jack, which makes the lack of one on the higher-priced Pixel more glaring. I’d like an option for more storage or at least a slot for an SD card, but as it stands, the Pixel 3a maxes out at a relatively paltry 64GB of storage. Keep in mind that you don’t get free unlimited storage of photos in original quality like you do on the Pixel 3, so space might become an issue.

In benchmarks, the Pixel 3a’s Snapdragon 670 scored around 7,250 in the PCMark Work 2.0 test, lower than the Snapdragon 845-based Pixel 3’s 8,828, but not crippling by any stretch. Geekbench 4 returned similar results, with the Pixel 3a posting a 1,600/5,125 (single-core/multi-core) score versus 2,358/8,337 on the Pixel 3, but all in all, the Snapdragon 670 wasn’t as laggy as I expected. Only occasionally during my testing was I consciously aware that I wasn’t using a near-thousand-dollar phone, and even then, it was fleeting. More often than not, I forgot that I wasn’t using the grown-up Pixel.

pixel 3a android Michael Simon/IDG

The Pixel 3a runs the latest version of Android—and will until Android S in 2021.

That’s because Google has taken an iOS-like approach with the Pixel 3a. Instead of building a phone optimized to run Android, Google has optimized Android for the handset to the point where the Pixel 3, which costs twice as much, doesn’t feel all that much faster than the 3a in normal use. Even with a lesser processor, Android Pie on the Pixel 3a is as fast or faster than it is on phones that cost twice as much. Little touches like Now Playing (which listens to background audio to automatically ID songs on the lock screen and notification panel) are delightful without dragging things down. And because you’re guaranteed to get three years of Android updates—something few phones in this price range can promise—your Pixel 3a might actually feel faster even as its hardware ages.

A design that finally fits

The Pixel phone’s design has never challenged the iPhones and Galaxies of the world, so the Pixel 3a’s big bezels and plastic back don’t really feel out of place. It’s noticeably lighter than its all-glass older sibling, but in the right light, it could easily be mistaken for Google’s higher priced Pixel 3, right down to the colored power button (yellow on the purple model and orange on the white one). That’s as much of an indictment of the Pixel 3 as it is a complement to the Pixel 3a, but the fact remains that the design here feels right.

pixel 3a headphone jack Michael Simon/IDG

Is that.... yes, it’s a headphone jack!

The front of the phone has a modest screen-to-body ratio, but the 5.6-inch OLED display’s rounded corners and 18.5:9 aspect ratio give it a high-end feel. The Full HD display itself is basically the same as the one in the 5.5-inch Pixel 3, with 441 ppi (vs 443 on the Pixel 3) and full 24-bit color depth, though it’s wrapped in Dragontail glass rather than the more famous Corning Gorilla Glass. You likely won’t notice the difference, however. My case- and screen protector-less Pixel 3a picked up a few visible smudges reminiscent of the Pixel 2’s oleophobic coating issues, but it emerged scratch- and scuff-free.

The plastic back means the Pixel 3a doesn’t have wireless charging, which isn’t a surprise for a phone in this price range. However, if you’re downgrading from a phone that does have wireless charging, as I did, you’ll probably pop it onto a wireless charger, walk away, and wonder why it hasn’t charged an hour later. We’re probably about two years away from that golden era when wireless charging will be cheap and ubiquitous enough to be a standard feature on a $399 phone, but convenience aside, I’m not sure it’ll be a deciding factor for anyone considering the Pixel 3a over the Pixel 3.

pixel 3a camera Michael Simon/IDG

The Pixel 3a has the same two-tone look as the Pixel 3, except here it’s all made of plastic.

Besides, you’re not going to have to charge it all that often. Not only does it feature 18W fast charging via the bundled charger, it’ll also likely last you through a whole day. In testing, I was able to reach more than seven hours of screen-on time and 14+ hours between charges, which should get most people through a day. If you can’t make it, a quick 30-minute charge will give you all you need.

A premium shooting experience

Anyone who’s ever bought or considered buying a Pixel phone knows that the camera is its best feature, and the same is true of the 3a. In fact, Google has given the Pixel 3a the exact same rear camera specs as the Pixel 3:

  • 12.2MP dual-pixel
  • ƒ/1.8
  • Autofocus + dual pixel phase detection
  • Optical + electronic image stabilization

Granted, those aren’t killer specs in an age of triple cameras and time-of-flight sensors, but that’s where Google’s smartphone prowess comes into play. Rather than relying on high-end hardware to do the heavy lifting, the Pixel has done the bulk of its work behind the scenes, using computational wizardry to generate shots that rival those of phones with far more-powerful cameras. That’s what truly gives the Pixel 3a its advantage.

pixel 3a iphone xr camera test Michael Simon/IDG

The Pixel 3a, left, actually captured better distance detail than the iPhone XR in this shot.

Unfortunately the dedicated Pixel Visual Core image signal processor isn’t present on the 3a, so photos aren’t quite as sharp or as detailed as they are on the higher-priced Pixel phones, but they’re still fantastic for a phone in this price range. I was most impressed with the color accuracy, which was rich and vibrant without being oversaturated. Portraits were equally impressive, with crisp edges and impressive definition even when dealing with objects instead of people.

pixel 3a photos samples Michael Simon/IDG

In good lighting, the Pixel 3a is capable of taking some fantastic shots.

Even motion shots, which generally cause all kinds of issues in budgets smartphones, showed minimal blur. In the photo of the rollercoaster above (center), the Pixel 3a not only captured the quickly-moving car, but legs and arms are also in focus. That’s the kind of quick shutter that I expect from a $900 phone but not from a $399 one. Heck, some premium phones can’t handle motion as well as the Pixel 3a does.

pixel 3a low light Michael Simon/IDG

With Night Sight turned on, the Pixel 3a (left) is able to capture an incredible amount of color with barely any light, but the Pixel 3 (right) makes the most of the Visual Core.

Without the Pixel Visual Core, nighttime pictures with the Pixel 3a were noisier and had less definition, and bright lights that the Pixel 3 properly exposed were consistently blown out and muddy on the 3a. But with Google’s unparalleled Night Sight mode turned on, as you can see in the photos above, the computational photography at work here is second to none. You won’t find another phone in the Pixel 3a's class that’s better at taking photos.

Should you buy a Google Pixel 3a?

Whether you’re in the market for a Pixel 3, Galaxy S10, or OnePlus 7 Pro, you should give the Pixel 3a some serious consideration. It may technically be a mid-range phone, but it’s really hard to tell when using it. It’s plenty fast, takes great pictures, and has a killer price tag.

But you don’t have to think of it as a great alternative. Just think of it as a great phone that doesn’t cost a lot.

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Michael Simon

Michael Simon

PC World (US online)
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