Here's What We Like
- Incomparable value
- Excellent camera
- Great battery life
And What We Don't
- No waterproofing
- The gesture navigation is bad
After months of rumors, the Google Pixel 3a is finally available. It’s a more affordable take on the company’s flagship phone, with corners cut in all the right places. It’s 90 percent of the Pixel 3 at half the price.
It still offers most of the things that make the Pixel 3 special: an excellent camera, Pixel-specific Android with updates directly from Google, the crazy-fast and convenient rear fingerprint sensor, and meaningful software features—all for a starting price of $399 for the Pixel 3a ($479 for the 3a XL).
Of course, at half the price, it’s also missing a few things: wireless charging, waterproofing, “premium” materials, and a top-of-the-line processor. But what it lacks in so-called “high-end” features, it makes up for in…well, everything else.
The most exciting part of the 3a is that it still offers the Pixel 3’s best feature: that killer camera. Since most of the magic is in the post-processing on Pixel phones, Google was still able to offer things like portrait mode, Night Sight, and other excellent camera features in the 3a.
Before we get into the nitty-gritty, it’s worth mentioning that this review focuses on the smaller of the two 3a phones. Since the 3a XL is basically the same phone with a bigger screen, however, you should be able to apply everything said to it, as well.
Build Quality, Hardware, and Specs: Oh Plastic, How I’ve Missed Thee
As manufacturers have shifted to use more “premium” materials like aluminum and glass in phones, handsets have also gotten more slippery, fragile, and expensive. I don’t know about you guys, but I’m not into any of those things. Despite the direction the phone industry has been moving in, I’ve longed for a plastic phone worth using. The Pixel 3a is the answer to that longing.
So, why plastic? Because it’s light, it’s nearly indestructible, it doesn’t scratch easily, and it’s not slippery. What more do you want from a phone’s body? I can’t think of anything better—“premium” materials be damned. And the 3a is plastic done right. Some plastic phones can feel cheaply made, but this little guy feels excellent. It’s a well-made little device. The plastic on the 3a is excellent (though it is a fingerprint magnet).
As for the rest of the design, it’s pretty much what I would expect from a phone with the Pixel name. It feels great and well made. Despite being incredibly lightweight, it still feels like a solid little phone. If the Pixel 1 XL and 3 had a baby made of plastic, it would be the 3a, as it has characteristics from each.
If you’re interested in the overall layout of the phone, here’s your rundown: the right side houses the power button and volume rocker; the bottom is where you’ll find the USB-C port and bottom-firing speakers (more on these in a bit); the SIM card tray is on the right and 3.5mm headphone jack in on the top. Oh yeah, it has a headphone jack. Cool, right?
Let’s talk about that controversial jack a little bit, shall we? A lot of people were confused about the inclusion of the headphone jack on the 3a, especially since Google killed it on the Pixel 3. According to the company, however, they “felt that consumers at this price point, in this price tier, really needed flexibility.” That’s…pretty interesting. Because customers who buy at higher price points don’t need flexibility? Such a fascinating statement. But I digress—it has a headphone jack, which should make most people happy.
Oh, and if you’ve already invested in USB-C headphones, those will still work on the Pixel 3a. Flexibility! Heh.
On the back side of the phone, you’ll find the fingerprint sensor. I’m a massive fan of rear-mounted fingerprint sensors, and this one is no exception. In fact, the Pixel line is the reason that I love rear-mounted fingerprint sensors in the first place. And the one on the 3a is lightning fast, always works, and is just refreshing to use after dealing with the in-display sensor on the OnePlus 6T, which has been my daily driver for the last six months. Some things just shouldn’t be messed with, and the rear-mounted fingerprint sensor on Pixel phones is one of them.
Flipping back around to the front of the phone, let’s take a quick minute to talk about the display. Like many other aspects of the phone, it’s okay. It’s not a best-in-class panel, but it’s a damn serviceable one. While it doesn’t have the qualities that you’ll find in a much more expensive phone—high-resolution, super accurate color, and generally just beautiful—it’s probably the best panel you’ll find on a phone at this price point. And the more you use it, the more you’ll find that you don’t mind its “okayness.” I sure didn’t—I’ve been delighted with the 3a’s display, because it’s a small trade-off that is made up in other areas (like software and camera).
If I had one complaint about the 3a’s design from a usability standpoint, it would be with the speakers: not because they sound bad; because bottom-firing speakers suck. Always. No matter what. They’re so easy to cover up at the worst of times and throw the sound in a way that doesn’t make sense at the best of times. I get it though—it’s a $400 phone. It’s a compromise and by no means a dealbreaker. And when it comes down to it, they do sound pretty good—you know, when you’re not accidentally covering them up.
Update: After the review was published I realized that the earpiece is also a speaker. This wasn’t functioning properly while I was writing the review (I’m not sure why), but must have been fixed by a reboot. After more testing though, I can confirm that the earpiece is a speaker, which dramatically reduces the annoyances created by bottom-firing speakers.
As for the other specs, here you go:
- Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 670
- RAM: 4GB
- Storage: 64GB
- Display: 5.6-inch 2220×1080 (Pixel 3a); 6-inch 2160×1080 (3a XL)
- Cameras: 12.2MP rear, 8MP front
- Ports: USB-C, 3.5mm headphone jack
- Headphone Jack: Yes!
- Battery: 3,000 mAh (Pixel 3a); 3700 mAh (3a XL)
- Fingerprint Sensor: Rear-mounted
- Carrier Compatibility: All major carriers
- Colors: Just Black, Clearly White, Purple-ish
- Price: $399 (Pixel 3a); $479 (3a XL)
Sure, these aren’t the hottest specs on the market right now. But they’re not supposed to be—this is a $400 phone geared towards the midrange market. It’s a better-priced competitor to the iPhone XR and Galaxy S10e.
The compromises made in the Pixel’s hardware to hit the lower price are all things that make sense. The display isn’t best in class, but it’s still good; the processor isn’t the fastest, but it gets the job done; it has a plastic shell instead of more “premium” materials. And while most of the decisions are fine, the lack of waterproofing is a huge bummer. At this point, that’s not a premium feature—it’s a necessary one. It’s probably the only thing I would change about the 3a.
Before we move on the performance, let’s talk about the size for the second. The 3a is such a good-sized phone—the 5.6-inch display 18.5:9 makes for an easily pocketable and excellent one-hand experience. While I realize and respect that some people prefer massive phones, I think the Pixel 3a is the most perfectly-sized phone I’ve used in a long time. So good.
Software and Performance: Pixel Android is the Best Android
If you know anything about stock Android, then you know there’s a universal truth here: it’s the purest version of Android you get can get. It’s Google’s Android, free of the kitchen sink approach you’ll find from manufacturers like Samsung. It’s Android as it was intended.
And while stock Android is freely available for any manufacturer to download and use, there are certain things that Google does to make the Pixel special. Things other Android phones don’t get access to, like Call Screening—the feature that allows you to hear what a caller wants without picking up—and camera enhancements, for example.
But those are the things that make Pixel phones worth buying because once you’ve used something like Call Screening, it’s tough to go without it. Hell, that one feature almost makes the whole phone worth it. It’s a game changer. Same thing with call spam filtering.
Pixel Android—not stock Android—is about those little things. The little touches that make life easier. Refinements to the call process, the ability to take a great picture without having to know how to take a great picture. So much of what makes Pixel Android great is in the software. Despite only slightly modifying stock Android, the Pixels’ OS is the most personal version of Android out there. It’s designed to make life easier in a significant way.
But since I’m a long-time Pixel user, I knew what to expect from the experience. What I was unsure of with the 3a, however, was performance. It’s a mid-range handset, which in this case means it has a mid-range processor. Android has notoriously run like crap on mid-range and low-end hardware, so I will admit I had some reservations about how well the 3a would perform.
The good news is that, at least in the time I’ve had the phone, the performance has been fine! It’s not a speed demon by any means—I can feel the difference when switching between the OnePlus 6T and the 3a, but it’s not enough to avoid using the 3a. And after a short time (a couple of hours at most), I stopped noticing the difference altogether.
It’s really because the performance nuances aren’t even easy to pinpoint—there’s no way to quantify the difference when it comes to feel. Sure, there are benchmarks, but that’s just a number that doesn’t directly translate to any kind of real-world use. It just doesn’t.
But I digress. The point is that I was pleasantly surprised with the 3a’s performance, especially coming from a beast like the 6T. The transition was painless, and I would have no reservations at all with recommending the 3a to anyone (and everyone!), regardless of what phone they’re currently using.
The only part of the switch that is a pain, however, is adjusting to the 3a’s gesture navigation. Like the Pixel 3, Android Pie on the 3a uses the awkward and irritating new gesture system that is, plainly put, half-assed and poorly executed—and there’s no built-in way to change it. (There is, however, a workaround for inclined users that uses ADB.)
The good news is that it looks like Google is ripping off iOS’ gesture system—which is easily the best I’ve ever used—in Android Q, which should fix the navigation mess on the current-generation Pixels.
Battery Life: It’ll Get Ya Through a Day
I’ve been writing about and reviewing Android devices for a long time, and I clearly remember when battery life was a hard subject to talk about because it was wretched. Android has come a long way since those days, and battery life on most phones now is pretty good.
The Pixel 3a is no exception to that rule—the battery life is solid. I wouldn’t say that it’s exceptional, but it will easily get you through a day (and then some!). I’m a pretty heavy phone user—especially when reviewing a device and testing battery life—and I was able to get around five hours of screen-on-time with battery to spare. There were a couple of “bump” charges thrown in when I was in the car and connected to Android Auto, but otherwise, this was just straight usage.
Put simply: you shouldn’t have much of an issue getting through a day with the Pixel 3a, even with pretty heavy use.
Camera: Wine-Fine on a Beer Budget
Let’s be real here: if there’s one reason to buy a Pixel 3a, this is it. Pixels have a reputation for excellent cameras, and the 3a wears that as a badge of honor. To put it as plainly as possible: you’ll have to spend at least twice the cost of the Pixel 3a to find a comparable camera…which is basically the Pixel 3. But at this price point, the camera is beyond contestation.
The Pixel 3a doesn’t have the best camera hardware out there, which is the beauty of it—Google can take otherwise mediocre hardware and make it great thanks to its incredible post-processing software. Just like I said earlier, the software is what makes the experience on a Pixel phone, and the camera software is a big part of what makes this true.
Left: without Night Sight; Right: with Night Sight
A few additional samples:
Conclusion: A Fantastic Camera Attached to a Good Phone
You may have already figured this out, but the Pixel 3a (and by extension, the 3a XL) is the best mid-range handset you can buy—nothing else even comes close. There may be phones out there close to this price range with better screens or even better hardware. But none of those can come close to the Pixel experience. If you’ve ever owned a Pixel, you already know what I’m talking about—between the small touches in the software and the insane camera tweaks, it just provides an unprecedentedly thoughtful experience.
And if you’ve never owned a Pixel, the 3a is a great way to dip your toes in the water. It’s not a wallet-breaking flagship, but rather a mid-range phone with the flagship features that matter. It’s a win-win (and a better value than the Pixel 3 overall).
If you’re the fence, don’t be. If you’re looking for your next phone and want to get it on a budget, this is the one.
Here’s What We Like
- Incomparable value
- Excellent camera
- Great battery life
And What We Don't
- No waterproofing
- The gesture navigation is bad