The Google Pixel 3a might be the perfect antidote to the £1000 smartphone – and an answer to Google’s dwindling smartphone sales.
With flagship devices commanding ever higher prices, and people choosing to upgrade their phones far less in general, cheaper handsets are becoming more important. Samsung makes one of the best Android phones on the market in the Galaxy S10, but it’s still betting big on the more affordable Galaxy A80.
- Read our Google Pixel 3a XL review
Google wants a slice of this pie and is attempting to get its share with the Google Pixel 3a, which offers many of the flagship Pixel 3’s features at a wallet-friendly £399 (or £469 for the larger Google Pixel 3a XL model). This is the first time since the much-loved Nexus series that Google has focused on value, and after spending five days with the device I can say that there’s plenty here to like.
(Editor’s note: I’ve spent five days with the Google Pixel 3a, reviewing a final retail unit provided by Google. While most of my thoughts are conclusive, I haven’t had enough time to judge battery and camera performance. For that reason, this review will be updated with a star-rating and in-depth breakdown pages in the coming days.)
The Google Pixel 3a camera is the big deal here and it could set the bar for budget phones
The flagship Google Pixel 3 is all about the camera. And so is the Google Pixel 3a. The idea that a smartphone costing £399 could boast a camera that’s as capable as the stunning Pixel 3 is an appealing prospect.
Google has ported much of the Pixel 3’s feature set to the 3a, including use of exactly the same 12-megapixel sensor with an f/1.8 aperture.
The camera experience is near-identical as a result – and that’s important; nothing here feels diluted or sacrificed. You’ll even find headline Pixel camera features such as Night Sight for combining low-light snaps to create a brighter image and Top Shot, too.
- These are the best cheap phones
Much of what makes the camera on Pixel phones so good isn’t in fact the hardware; it’s the software and the AI that Google builds into the phone. There are other devices out there that feature the same camera hardware as the Pixel, but they can’t compete with the photos it captures.
During my briefing for the Pixel 3a, Google reps made it clear that the company has brought as much of the Pixel 3 camera DNA to the 3a. And while the lack of the Snapdragon 845 leads to some degradation in image quality, it isn’t noteworthy. Note, too, that there’s no Pixel Visual Core here – the physical chip that helps with image processing and enhancing.
I’ve been shooting with the 3a for five days now and it certainly sets the bar for handsets in this price range. If you’re after the best smartphone camera but aren’t prepared to spend more than £399 then this is absolutely the phone to buy.
It doesn’t shoot as fast as the Pixel 3, plus there’s significantly more lag when navigating the app and jumping between modes. But I’m super-impressed by the quality of the images. Detail is fantastic, that familiar contrasty-style of previous Pixel phones remains, and even the Portrait mode offers a clean bokeh effect around hair and glasses.
Here are a few sample photos:
Low-light photography is where the Pixel 3 shines, and it’s the area in which you’ll see the biggest difference between it and the Pixel 3a. In dark scenarios the 3a can struggle to gauge exposure, often varying wildly and leaving pictures looking dark overall.
A host of Pixel 3 features are cut for the Pixel 3a, but it hangs on to some vitals
The Pixel 3a looks very much like its pricier sibling, albeit with a smattering of cost-cutting measures. The glass and metal body has been replaced with a polycarbonate unibody. There’s only a single speaker on the front, and IP68 water-resistance is lacking – plus, the device is marginally thicker.
The switch to plastic could have left this device feeling cheap – but, thankfully, this isn’t the case. The Pixel 3a mimics the regular Pixel 3’s two-tone finish and, apart from the cold touch of metal, there’s very little difference.
On the rear is a single camera, flash and circular fingerprint sensor. On the front is an 18.5:9 display with rounded corners.
Google hasn’t opted to completely ditch the bezel here, and as a result the Google Pixel 3a doesn’t look particularly modern or inventive. It also lacks the charm of some of the Nexus phones of 5-6 years ago – the last time Google attempted to corner the budget market.
This is a slab of a phone that’s lacking flair or any interesting touches. The review unit is black (or Just Black, as Google calls it). The device is also available in Clearly White (which has a nice pop of orange on the power button) and a new Purple-ish colour. The latter is my favourite, even though it’s far more lilac in tone.
While some features have been lost, the Pixel 3a gains a headphone jack. Sitting along the top edge, the 3.5mm port makes its first appearance on a Pixel device since the original. This will be welcomed by all those who have yet to embrace the wireless future.
Google reps told me the reason for its reintroduction makes sense at this price, since buyers are less likely to have invested heavily in Bluetooth headphones.
The display remains an OLED panel, which is great to see and far from a given at this price, while the FHD+ resolution results in a crisp image. I haven’t delved down into the colour gamut coverage yet, but there don’t appear to be any discernible differences between this panel and the one that features on the Pixel 3.
Pixel 3a performance is the one area where there could be cause for concern
While the design tweaks have so far made little difference to me, the decision to sacrifice performance is more worrying.
Instead of the Snapdragon 845 of the Pixel 3, the Google Pixel 3a uses the Snapdragon 670. This is Qualcomm’s mid-range chipset and the silicone that powers the Oppo R17 and a couple of Vivo phones.
At £399 I’m not expecting Google to use top-end hardware and, of course, sacrifices are to be expected. And I’d assume the company also doesn’t want to completely kill its flagship line by giving away all the goodies here. Nevertheless, this remains disappointing. Go back a few years and Google’s Nexus line rewrote the rulebook by offering those top-drawer components for less than its rivals.
The Snapdragon 670 is no slouch in performance terms, and it’s supported here by 4GB of RAM here – although this, too, now feels like the minimum amount needed to run Android well.
Where I fear things might deteriorate is in a few months and years down the line. I haven’t been entirely convinced by how well Pixel phones perform over the course of a two-year contract, and switching to a less-powerful chipset has the potential to make such issues more obvious.
Pixel 3a battery life is as expected so far, matching the pricier Pixel 3
Tucked inside the Pixel 3a’s plastic body is a 3000 mAh battery; that’s slightly larger than the cell inside the Pixel 3.
Battery life is neither standout nor disappointing. The Snapdragon 670 is an efficient chipset and the small, 5.5-inch FHD+ display helps endurance here. Nevertheless, this is still a small battery, one that will require nightly charges and a degree of managing if you’re a heavy user.
An hour of streaming Netflix over Wi-Fi consumed 10% of the battery, a similar figure to the Pixel 3 in the same test.
I’ll save my final thoughts on the battery life for our scored review – but it’s safe to say there’s little to get excited about.
More appealing is the included 18-watt USB-C PD charger you’ll find in the box. Again, this is the same charger included with the Pixel 3 and 3XL, and it charges the from 0-100% in roughly 1hr 20mins.
Some similarly priced phones, such as those from Honor and Huawei, do boast faster charging. However, by using the USB-C PD standard, you’re not forced to use the bundled charging to get those speeds. Any USB-C PD plug will achieve these fast-charging speeds, including a Nintendo Switch or MacBook Air charger.
Google’s own version of Android is the best software, but will the bugs remain?
Pixel 3a ships with the latest version of Android 9 along with the Pixel Launcher. Visually, it’s identical to the software you’ll find on the flagship Pixels, and for many that’s a good thing. With these more affordable phones – especially if you want the highest-spec devices – you’re restricted to poor software from the likes of Oppo, Xiaomi and Huawei.
It doesn’t remove many features, either. You’ll find Pixel stalwarts such as Call Screen (the US-only self-answering phone trick), unlimited storage of your snaps in Google Photos, and the same Digital Wellbeing dashboard.
Smaller, but no less welcome, features such as the always-on display (made possible by the OLED panel) and accessing Google Assistant via a squeeze of the phone’s sides also demonstrate that Google wants your experience with the 3a to be similar to using an £800 Pixel phone.
While Google’s software is no doubt well designed and free of the bloatware you’d find elsewhere, it can be buggy. On my Pixel 3XL, I’ve run into countless issues with app crashes. These include an unresponsive camera and random reboots, and in my days with a 3a a few of same issues have arisen. RAM management seems to be the most obvious issue, with apps often dropping out of memory 10 or so minutes after they were last used. That shouldn’t be happening with 4GB of RAM onboard.
Why buy the Google Pixel 3a? Early Verdict
By sacrificing “luxurious” features, Google has managed to squeeze the essential Pixel features into an excellent £399 phone.
If you want a handset with a great camera and decent screen, but aren’t so fussed about sheer speed and performance, then you’ll be very happy with the Pixel 3a.
This isn’t a phone for intensive gaming or multi-day use, and you’ll still get better pure value by upping your budget to pick up a device such as the Honor View 10 or Xiaomi Mi 9. But if you value software and user experience then you’ll likely prefer the Pixel 3a.
Size matters, too, as finding cheaper phones that are as small as the Pixel 3a is becoming more difficult.
The Pixel 3a doesn’t quite bring back the pure bargain-basement pricing structure of the brand’s once-fabled Nexus series. However, it does lower the barrier of entry for anyone wanting a fantastic camera on a smartphone.
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