When the Google Pixel 3 hit in 2018, I was a big fan of the features on offer. It was a sleek looking device that had some of the best cameras currently on offer.
Now, in 2019, Google has unleashed the Pixel 3a range of devices. While they do cut costs and lack some premium features, what is on offer is without question one of the best $400 devices you can buy in 2019.
Under the hood, the Pixel 3a rocks a Snapdragon 670, and while not the most powerful chip out there, I found it more than capable for everyday tasks and even most of the mobile gaming I get up to in a day. Sadly, the 3a is limited in storage, only offering a 64 GB 4GB RAM option on both the 3a and 3a XL, with no option for microSD storage expansion. If you are not okay with approximately 50GB of storage after you factor in system resources, the 3a range may not be for you.
Looking almost identical to its bigger, more powerful brethren, the Pixel 3a has an unmistakable Pixel feel throughout. Measuring 2×2.8×0.3 inches and weighing just 5.2 ounces, the Pixel 3a feels light and compact, especially considering its price tag. Granted, for that price you are not getting the premium materials found on more expensive phones, as the 3a is polycarbonate throughout. That does not mean it feels cheap in the hands, quite the opposite in fact, but it does lose that ultra-premium feel that some flagship phones offer in 2019.
Design wise, the Pixel 3a feels very similar to all Pixel devices, with the cameras, power and volume buttons, and even the screen all feeling very similar to the other devices in the Pixel 3 range. One notable addition the 3a range has over the bigger brothers is the 3.5mm headphone jack at the top of the phone. Yes, this does lead to a slightly thicker device, but if you’re like me and enjoy not carrying around dongles, the tradeoff is well worth it.
One feature I did not expect to see on the 3a was the squeeze to use Google Assistant feature, yet as I booted up the device for the first time and started playing around with settings, I quickly discovered that lo and behold it was indeed included, even at this lower price point. While it felt a bit less responsive compared to the Pixel 3 XL we tested, it still worked as advertised.
The Pixel 3a felt great to use one-handed, and the rear mounted fingerprint sensor was fast, accurate, and easy to utilize. From manipulating the volume with the rocker to turning off and on the device, Google has built a device that is easy to use, and despite the price feels great in the hand.
The display on the Pixel 3a is far better than I expected. It offers a Full HD+ OLED screen with a resolution of 2220 x 1080 and a pixel density of 441 ppi. While it is not the highest quality screen on the market, what the Pixel 3a offers for the price is staggering.
You will read statements like that a lot with this review because this phone feels—from the ground up—like a response to the price range in the Android phone space. With the 3a, Google has thrown the gauntlet down for all OEM’s to pick up and push forward in this sector of the market. Offering a great device that has minimal compromise in spite of the price they are trying to hit.
While yes, if you are used to the Pixel 3, the colour reproduction and sunlight viewing may leave you wanting your larger, more powerful device. Yet under most viewing circumstances, and for most use cases, what the 3a has on offer is more than enough to get through a day and have no major downsides with use.
One of the biggest selling points for the Pixel 3 range of phones are the cameras, and Google took this to heart when building the 3a range. On paper, the Pixel 3a has the same 12.2MP f1.8 shooter found on the 3 and produces some staggering shots, especially for the price.
The real limitation with the 3a compared to the 3 is in terms of the lack of any Pixel Visual Core imaging chip. This is used for many of the fancy imaging tricks the Pixel 3 range does while taking pictures. This is not to say the 3a lacks all these features, it will just seem less snappy in comparison.
The lack of the Pixel Visual Core imaging chip was most notable in testing during image processing times. On our test Pixel 3 XL, I found image processing times to be almost instantaneous, whereas on the 3a, there was a noticeable lag. Now, in reality, this is more a minor annoyance than an experience-breaking issue, but for someone who uses his camera on a daily, if not hourly basis, it was something that got to me after a time.
Beyond this, in testing, we also found the colours a bit overly saturated, especially compared to what the Pixel 3 XL could achieve. It was most notable in nature, with some images of green plants or fruit looking oddly alien, or at very least unnatural. It depended on lighting and surrounding colours, but it did make for some less than ideal shots at times.
Now if I am sounding down on the Pixel 3a’s camera, this could not be further from the truth, I found the 3a astounding for the price. The Pixel 3a blows many phones of 2018 out of the water, without question. My issue rests with the fact that the Pixel 3 currently has one of the best cameras you can find on a smartphone, and while the 3a comes close, it is still lacking in many areas to truly compete head to head.
One factor I loved about the Pixel 3a was the battery life. While using it during E3 2019, I had no issue, even when on the phone consistently, to make it through a day, thanks to the Snapdragon 670 and the 3,000mAh battery, the 3a was a great workhorse, even when being put through its pacing. In comparison, the Pixel 3 XL I had on me would be screaming for power at around 5PM. Granted, this is an extreme use case, but if a phone can make it through a day on the E3 show floor and have some juice to get an Uber to head back to the hotel after getting food, I consider that a win in my books.
Sadly the 3a lacks wireless charging, so when you finally need to charge the device, you will need to use a standard USB-C charger, or just rely on the included 18W charger. Thankfully this will get you back to 100 per cent in around 1.5 hours, and should you be in a hurry, back to 50 per cent in 30 minutes.
Gaming on the Pixel 3a was better than anticipated. While it does feature all the bells and whistles you can find on many flagship phones (daydream being one), what it does offer works well with a slew of games and applications. Despite the lack of power, nothing I tested had any noticeable slowdowns or issues. From Mortal Kombat to Fire Emblem, everything worked as advertised, and despite the screen size, were a joy to play on the Pixel 3a.
With the Pixel 3a, Google has shown what is possible in the low-cost smartphone space. The 3a gives offers up a lot of value to the budget hungry consumer. While yes, the device does feel slightly less capable than the bigger Pixel 3 range of phones, what it does do, it does well. If you are looking for a camera-centric smartphone on a budget, look no further than the Pixel 3a.