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Takes excellent photos
Android 10 is a joy to use
Very appealing price
Vibrant 5.6-inch OLED screen
Has headphone port
Limited storage and no option to expand
Slightly clunky design
No water resistance
The Pixel 3a is one of the best mid-range phones you can buy thanks to its excellent camera and appealing Android experience.
Google's approach to its Pixel smartphones has echoed that of Apple's iPhone, delivering a minimal design with refreshingly clean, easy-to-use software—and a higher-than-average price point. All of the previous Pixel phones, including 2018's Pixel 3, have been pricier flagship-style smartphones, but the new Pixel 3a breaks from that trend.
It's a proper mid-range phone, keeping the style of the Pixel 3 intact while swapping in some lower-end components to significantly trim down the price. The result nearly chops the Pixel 3's price in half while keeping two of its best elements intact: the brilliant 12.2-megapixel back camera, and the super-useful and brand new Android 10 operating system. If you want a flagship-level camera without spending flagship-level money, then the Google Pixel 3a might be the phone for you.
The Google Pixel 3a is nearly identical in visual design to last year's Pixel 3, which has its ups and downs. On the positive side, the subtle two-tone backing pattern has a matte finish with a glossy chunk at the top, giving it a distinctive allure—and the orange power button is a nice, playful touch. On the front, however, there's still an excessive amount of bezel surrounding the screen, especially on the top and bottom. It makes the phone feel larger than it needs to be.
If you want a flagship-level camera without spending flagship-level money, then the Google Pixel 3a might be the phone for you.
You won't notice it at first glance, but there is one very big difference about the Pixel 3a—the frame and backing are fully made of plastic, while the standard Pixel 3 has an aluminum frame and glass on the back. This does make the Pixel 3a feel less like a high-end handset, but after a few days, we didn't really notice or mind the difference at all. It still feels durably built and ready to withstand the everyday rigors of smartphone use.
The switch to plastic does come with one functional loss, however: the Pixel 3a loses the wireless charging capability that was added with the Pixel 3's debut. It also loses water resistance. The Pixel 3 had the same IP68 dust and water resistance rating as many top phones, but the plastic Pixel 3a doesn't have any rating.
The Pixel 3a still has the fingerprint sensor on the upper back, however, and it's still plenty speedy at unlocking your phone. The phone also has pressure-sensitive sides so you can physically squeeze its frame in your hand to bring up the Google Assistant in a hurry. Don't worry, you can adjust the sensitivity to avoid accidental squeezes. We set ours to require a firm squeeze and never accidentally triggered the feature, but could still activate it easily when we actually wanted to. And unlike the Pixel 3, the Pixel 3a has a standard 3.5mm headphone port onboard.
There is one very big difference about the Pixel 3a: the frame and backing are fully made of plastic, while the standard Pixel 3 has an aluminum frame and glass on the back.
The Google Pixel 3a comes in three color options: Clearly White, Just Black, and a new Purple-ish option, which is very subtle but has a neon yellow power button as another welcome accent. The Pixel 3a is only sold with 64GB of internal storage and there is no option to insert a microSD card to expand upon that—so this isn't the right phone for anyone who wants to cram their handset full of downloaded videos, games, and other media.
Every Pixel phone is meant to represent the best of the best in Android experiences, making it incredibly user-friendly. The Pixel 3a is no different in that regard. It only takes a few minutes to get the phone up and running, and following the simple and straightforward prompts will get nearly anyone from powering the phone on for the first time to placing calls and downloading apps. It will even let you carry data over from an iPhone or another Android phone to speed up the process and avoid making you manually download apps, photos, and contacts.
Google made a couple of tweaks to the display for the Pixel 3a, but it's still a very good-looking screen. It uses an OLED panel instead of Super AMOLED, but both are made by Samsung and the differences are minor. Everything looks bold and vibrant, and at 1080p resolution, the 5.6-inch screen crams in 441 pixels per inch and is plenty sharp. The colors look a bit oversaturated, though, and it doesn't look quite as precise or natural-looking as the Pixel 3's screen.
Higher-resolution Quad HD panels deliver improved clarity, but you won't find one of those on a $399 smartphone. The Pixel 3a's screen lacks HDR10 compatibility for supported content, so you won't get the benefit of punchier colors with certain videos. That's a small concession, however.
The Pixel 3a's screen still has the low-power, always-on display mode, which shows the time, date, weather, battery life, and notification icons even when your phone isn't in use. OLED screens can power off unused pixels, so the mode won't significantly impact battery life in any way, but you can still turn it off if you're trying to squeeze out every percentage point.
One of the key areas in which the Pixel 3a steps down from the full-blooded Pixel 3 is in terms of cutting-edge tech. Rather than using the flagship-level Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 chip, the Pixel 3a opts for a mid-range Qualcomm Snapdragon 670. Yes, it's fair to infer that the smaller number means a less powerful chip, but what does that rmean in everyday use?
Not that much, luckily: Google's clean and straightforward version of Android 10 still feels very smooth in most cases, whether you're flipping through menus, using apps, browsing the web, or shooting off text messages. We did see small hitches here and there, but it was nothing particularly concerning. In the PCMark Work 2.0 benchmark test, the Pixel 3a scored a modest 7,413—a dip from the very good 8,808 score from the Pixel 3.
Gaming performance suffers a bit, however, with racer Asphalt 9: Legends looking a little bit fuzzier than we've seen on top-end phones with occasional bits of slowdown. Benchmark testing bears that out too, with GFXBench's Car Chase demo delivering an incredibly choppy 10 frames per second (fps) in our test, while the less-elaborate T-Rex demo hit a peak of 52fps. Compare that to 29fps on Car Chase and 61fps on T-Rex with the standard Pixel 3, and you can see the impact of a weaker Adreno 615 GPU onboard. You also can't use the Pixel 3a with Google's Daydream VR headset, unfortunately.
The Pixel 3a is designed to connect to both 2.4Ghz and 5Ghz Wi-Fi networks and performed admirably with both in our testing. Using Ookla's Speedtest app, we notched typical download speeds between 30-32Mbps and upload speeds around 8-11Mbps using Verizon's 4G LTE network. That's in the same range as many other handsets we've tested in the area.
The Pixel 3a produces very good stereo sound from its speakers, with one at the top with the earpiece and the other at the bottom of the phone. It's not quite as impressive as the standard Pixel 3, which has dual front-firing speakers, but the Pixel 3a doesn't disappoint. Playback stays pretty clear even at louder settings, in case you want to use it to play music on the spot or watch media without headphones. Call quality was also stellar in our experience on Verizon's 4G LTE network.
Camera quality has been Google's calling card since the first Pixel arrived, and that's been true even as the company has stuck with a single back camera instead of dual- or triple-camera setups. Google's advantage is all in the software, and we see it in action again with the Pixel 3a.
Amazingly, the Pixel 3a has the same 12.2-megapixel (f/1.8 aperture) camera hardware as its pricier sibling. The only thing that's missing is the Pixel Visual Core chip inside the phone, which speeds up image processing on the Pixel 3. It can take a little bit longer for shots to finish processing on the Pixel 3a, but it's typically worth it once you get a glimpse of the results.
Thanks to the wizardry of Google's algorithms, the Pixel 3a's shots pack in more detail than just about any other smartphone we've used, including those on phones at twice the price. Scenes we've shot time and again take on new life with the Pixel camera, whether it's capturing the dog chewing on a ball in the backyard or a vivid field full of flowers. It also excels at taking portrait shots of people with blurred backdrops, even without a second back camera to assist with depth calculations.
You'll hold the phone still for a couple seconds as it captures multiple exposures, and the result is often shocking, delivering flash-less, natural-looking illumination even in the darkest of settings.
The Night Sight feature deserves a special shout-out. It takes nighttime phones wholly unlike any non-Pixel phone out there. You'll hold the phone still for a couple seconds as it captures multiple exposures, and the result is often shocking, delivering flash-less, natural-looking illumination even in the darkest of settings. It feels like magic.
Video shooting is great on the Pixel 3a, letting you capture 4K-resolution footage at 30fps, as well as 1080p at up to 60fps. Electronic video stabilization impresses with its ability to smooth out even the choppiest of movement, plus there's a slow-mo mode for seeing speedy scenes in great clarity.
The Pixel 3a sticks with just one front-facing camera (down from two on the Pixel 3), and that's just fine. The 8MP camera takes fine selfies and solid portrait photos, which is about all we really needed or expected from it.
The Google Pixel 3a packs a 3,000mAh battery cell, which should give you a solid day's usage with moderate usage. Most days in our testing, we finished the night with about 30 percent left after a full charge, although a heavier day of media and game usage put us at just 2 percent by bedtime. It's not a hearty enough battery to withstand excessive usage without needing a top-up by late afternoon, but most days you should do just fine.
As mentioned above, the Pixel 3a lacks the wireless charging capabilities of the standard Pixel 3, but it does have an 18W fast-charging cable, which Google says can get you up to 7 hours of usage in just 15 minutes. It's definitely speedy.
Google is the company behind Android, and the Pixel phones were meant to deliver an ideal, Apple-like marriage of hardware and software. And while the hardware hasn't always been as flashy or feature-rich as some competitors, Google continually nails the software.
That's true again on the Pixel 3a, even with the weaker processor inside, as the latest Android 10 update runs very well here (it originally shipped with Android 9.0 Pie). While other device makers typically fuss with Android's look and feel to put their own stamp on the software, Google's own take is thankfully clean, easy to understand, and downright helpful. Getting around is a breeze, and the minimal aesthetic looks great.
While other device makers typically fuss with Android's look and feel to put their own stamp on the software, Google's own take is thankfully clean, easy to understand, and downright helpful at that.
Google continually adds beneficial features too, such as the ability to screen calls, a dark theme, gesture navigation, improved privacy controls, and the new Focus Mode that helps you limit your usage of distracting apps. Even the small perks are appreciated, such as a little reminder right on the lock and home screens that an appointment from your calendar is about to take place.
The Pixel 3a feels very well-priced for what you get, considering the quality of the camera. It's $399 for the lone model with 64GB of internal storage, and that price gets you a powerful phone with the speedy Android 10 update (and three years of guaranteed updates), a very good screen, and one of the best cameras found on any smartphone today.
If you like a larger phone, you can spend a little more and get the Pixel 3 XL—which has a 6-inch screen and a heftier battery—for $479. You might also consider bumping up to something like the OnePlus 6T, which has more power and a more premium build for $549.
Both the Google Pixel 3a and Samsung Galaxy S10e are designed as trimmed-down versions of much more expensive phones, but they approach that task in very different ways. As noted throughout this review, the Pixel 3a opts for less power, a cheaper-feeling build, and removing perks like wireless charging and VR support to hit its $399 price point.
The Galaxy S10e doesn't make quite the same concessions, however, packing in the same flagship Snapdragon 855 chip as the S10, maintaining a sleek glass-and-aluminum design, and keeping both wireless and reverse wireless charging intact. There's a significant price difference, however, with the Galaxy S10e selling for $749. It's hardly a budget option.
The best mid-priced phone you can buy.
At just $399, the Google Pixel 3a is a seriously impressive phone. It's not as fast, premium-feeling, or feature-rich as the standard Pixel 3—but keeping a flagship-quality camera helps the cheaper Pixel stand out among its mid-range competition. If you're eager to keep your smartphone spending at an affordable level, the Pixel 3a is one of your best options.
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