Google Pixel 3a Review: Peace of Mind and a Superb Camera for the Mainstream

Google Pixel 3a Review

It has to be said that the Google Pixel 3a (and 3a XL, not shown here) is something of a work of material science magic. So much of this handset screams ‘premium Pixel’, yet it’s plastic and yet it costs less than £400 in the UK, roughly 60% the cost of last Autumn’s Pixel 3. So what’s missing, does it matter, and how will the Pixel 3a fare in the mainstream ‘normob’ market? Read on for my verdict!

Google Pixel 3a Review

The 3 to 3a changelog

In no particular order, there’s:

  • no Qi charging
  • a slower chipset
  • no official water or dust resistance
  • no Visual Core image processor
  • no guaranteed full resolution backup to Google’s servers
  • only the one selfie camera and it’s not as good.

Plus the Pixel 3a is around half a centimetre longer than the ‘3’ and it’s not entirely clear why (other than the display being 0.1″ diagonal larger). Admittedly the list above is quite a changelog from the premium ‘3’ to the cheaper ‘3a’, but the lack of water resistance is the only one that should bother a buyer. And even then there are gaskets around the 3a’s ports, so it probably will survive a dunk in the basin, it just hasn’t been tested or rated officially.

Finally, Google has brought back the 3.5mm audio jack to the Pixel line, recognising that most ‘normal’ people like being able to plug in headphones – any headphones – without trying and then, scratching their heads, realising that they need an adapter that they lost months ago. Which is great news and a genuine plus for the cheaper device.

Pixel 3a - 3.5mm audio jack

The Pixel factor

But all of the above notwithstanding – you could argue the spec lowering versus price equation either way, it all depends what you need in your smartphone. The core thing to note in the Google Pixel 3a (and 3a XL) is the fact of its mere existence at a price point at half the cost of today’s flagships (or a third, if you include iPhones in the mix).

Pixel 3a rear

Not because it’s a specifications miracle, as on the Xiaomi Pocofone F1, for example – it’s not. The 4GB RAM and Snapdragon 670 are matched by a dozen sub-£400 competitors – but because it’s a Google Pixel at this price. Yes, bringing back memories of the old Google Nexus handsets, with the 3a reminding me in many ways of the breakthrough Nexus 5 in terms of price and capabilities.

So, why does being a Google Pixel matter so much? Updates, that’s why. Up to three years of security updates, bug fixes, OS updates (Android Q, R and maybe even S). In a world where I’m constantly frustrated by sub-£500 phones being left high and dry in terms of updates, month after month, year after year, with security vulnerabilities unpatched and bugs unfixed, the prospect for a regular phone buyer of years of care from Google and knowing that they’ll not be left behind is worth a lot. We’re almost talking Apple levels of OS care here.

Google OS and updates

And all this is doubly important away from the flagship end of the phone market. Enthusiasts buying Galaxy Note 9s, Huawei P30 Pros, and so on, are all too well aware of updates, we complain that we’re two months from the cutting edge and we hound manufacturers to get the latest bits and bytes out to us.

Back in the real world, where the typical Pixel 3a buyer exists, they just want to use the phone and not worry. And this is where Google has stepped in with the 3a series. No frills in terms of hardware, but 100% rock solid updates. Every month. For the supported lifetime of the device (typically three years). Perfect. The phone alerts the user when an update is available and already downloaded and then they tap to restart and they’re bang up to date. Again.

All of which is enough to recommend the Pixel 3a already, but there are – of course – things still to test.

Pixel 3a camera

Imaging

Not least the camera, which is identical to that in the premium ‘3’, so we’re talking the 12MP f/1.8, 1/2.55” sensored, OIS-equipped, dual pixel-focussed monster that’s in the high-end Pixel 3s. I say ‘monster’ because this already very capable optical setup is enhanced significantly by Google’s HDR+ algorithms in its Pixel Camera application. Every shot has multiple exposures and they’re combined in super-intelligent fashion for optimum dynamic range and detail. And you’ll already have heard of Google’s Night Sight mode, now joined by Super-res zoom.

Plus super-stable video capture, at least at 1080p, which is what I’d recommend.

In fact, there is no need for examples here because you saw what this camera can do in my review of the Pixel 3 and 3 XL. It’s true that there are some differences, but mainly in post-processing time (typically up to 2 seconds per image after capture, rather than one second) and slight changes in the quality of the images fed to Google’s algorithms, thanks to the different chipset used.

To have all this imaging goodness in a smartphone that costs less than £400 is noteworthy in itself. Yes, I know enthusiasts can try hacking the Pixel Camera software onto other, cheaper phones, but that’s a technical exercise for others – the target market here wouldn’t have a clue what xda-developers was!

Audio

Multimedia is made better with the 3.5mm audio option, of course. The DAC behind it is that in the main 670 chipset, so don’t expect audio pyrotechnics. But it’s fine for most people and just being able to plug in a cheap £10 pair of headphones from a corner shop, in an emergency (say a user’s main headphones are damaged), is invaluable.

Pixel 3a front, with apps

The stereo speakers are the same as on the more expensive Pixel 3, i.e. pretty darned good, with the minor difference that the bottom speaker is vented out of the phone’s bottom edge rather than below the screen on the front. In use, there’s little difference, and the edge placement actually helps when the phone’s playing a podcast in a pocket, for example.

Yes, the speakers on the larger 3a XL will be louder, as on the 3 XL before it – and I’ll test these in due course, but the standard 3a speakers are absolutely fine for general use and a pleasure when watching YouTube or Netflix.

The Pixel 3a display differs from the 3’s in that its (I think) made by Samsung and not LG, meaning that it’s higher contrast and more accurate in a wider range of lighting conditions. True, the technical ratings (DCI-P3, HDR) are nominally missing, but the 1080p display looks excellent to me. We’re told that the glass is ‘Asahi Dragontrail’ rather than ‘Corning Gorilla Glass’, but they’re both toughened and I don’t expect any issues here.

Internals

The Snapdragon 670 and 4GB of RAM is speedy enough for the target market, I believe. Yes, if you put this side by side with a premium Pixel 3 (with its Snapdragon 845) then you can see a speed difference in terms of applications loading up, but you don’t notice any lag in day to day operations, partly because of the wealth of ‘disguising’ animations in smartphone UIs these days.

The Pixel 3a (and 3a XL) are limited to 64GB of internal storage, and there’s no microSD facility, of course. On the one hand, 64GB is a lot of bytes to fill and the target market is not going to be sideloading entire media collections. On the other, anyone installing enough big games or capturing enough 4K video will run out at some point. Maybe that’s the point they’ll think of grabbing a second-hand 128GB Pixel 3!

Battery life is excellent, as it should be with a 1080p display, a Snapdragon 670 and a 3000mAh battery. Google provides an 18W charger in the box, which is great, typically filling the Pixel 3a in just over an hour and meaning that the lack of Qi charging (itself something of a phone enthusiast expectation) isn’t ever a problem.

Verdict

Feel in the hand is superb for the Pixel 3a, once you get used to feeling ‘warm’ plastic in your grip rather than ‘cold’ metal and glass. The use of plastic not only saves a lot of money on production cost (and therefore the purchase price) but should also mean that the Pixel 3a is less likely to be damaged if dropped. Given this fact and given the textured back, I’m even wondering whether regular users might not feel the need to put this in a case, instantly making it smaller and sexier in the hand than many cased glass flagships. Very interesting.

It’s somewhat amazing how well the Pixel 3a (and 3a XL) have been received by the tech media, given that these two handsets have been massively leaked for many months now. Much of the praise – as here, with me – has to come down to the Nexus-era price points. This is where Pixels should be in order to get Google’s vision of Android and guaranteed updates out to as many people as possible. That Google hasn’t had to sacrifice too much in terms of hardware in order to get here is to its credit and everyone’s benefit.

You might also want to read our Google Pixel 3 review before you make a decision.