Since the advent of Google’s first smartphone, the Pixel branding has been reserved for premium flagships. That ship has now sailed, as the Silicon Valley giant is making affordable handsets in the Pixel 3a and 3a XL and selling them through almost every retailer it can.
The addition of lower-specced Pixels to Google’s roster allows it to show off its hardware-making skills not to mention its ever-smarter assistant. Because of how the company has positioned the Pixel branding, Google couldn’t just ship two generic budget smartphones and call it a day. The handsets needed to be close to their older siblings in terms of features and performance.
This is Android Authority’s Google Pixel 3a review.
Google Pixel 3a review: The big picture
At first glance, you might not spot any differences between the budget-friendly Pixel 3a and the premium Pixel 3. But to get the Pixel 3a’s price point low enough to make a significant impact on the market, Google had to remove some niceties. The Pixel 3a drops the IP rating, swaps the glass for plastic, removes wireless charging, and changes out the high-end CPU for something more middling.
Where Google succeeds in the mid-tier market is by not removing core features found in the premium Pixels. For example, the search giant kept its best-in-class camera intact and is offering it to those not willing (or able) to spend nearly $1,000 on a device.
The larger Pixel 3a XL is spec-for-spec almost identical to the smaller Pixel 3a. The most significant difference is the bigger battery and larger display. More juice equals more power to get you through the day. You might want to consider the 3a XL if those are the features you prefer.
What’s in the box
- 1m USB-C to USB-C cable (USB 2.0)
- 18W USB-C power adaptor
- Quick switch adaptor (USB-C to USB-A)
- Quick start guide
Google hasn’t changed up what comes in its phone boxes much since it first started releasing hardware. In addition to the 18W fast charging power adaptor and USB-C cable, the Pixel 3a includes a quick switch dongle. This USB-C to USB-A accessory makes it much easier to transfer data from an older handset to Google’s handset.
Unlike its older siblings, the Pixel 3a doesn’t include a USB-C to 3.5mm headphone jack adaptor in the box. Thankfully, this is because Google decided to bring the port back on its mid-tier line. The 3a also drops the Google earbuds found in the box with the pricier 3.
Although the Pixel 3a doesn’t come with a case, Google and other third parties make all types of options for you to choose from. Thanks to the plastic backing, a case isn’t vital to protect the handset.
- 151.3 x 70.1 x 8.2mm
- No notch
- Plastic build
- Single rear camera
- Imprint fingerprint sensor
- Stereo speakers (one downward firing)
- 3.5mm headphone jack
As mentioned, the Pixel 3a is the spitting image of the Pixel 3 series. This includes Google’s iconic dual-tone design, except that things had to be switched up a bit.
Budget phone means cheaper building materials. In the Pixel 3a’s case, this came down to Google building the phone out of plastic instead of glass. This change is incredibly noticeable when you hold the 3 and 3a side by side, but the plastic doesn’t ruin the experience at all.
Just like the premium models, the Pixel 3a appears to be made out of a single piece of plastic with a glossy texture up top and matte texture covering the bottom two-thirds of the handset. This gives a soft-touch feel to the rather grippy phone.
The Pixel 3a only comes in one spec configuration, but it does feature a new color. In addition to the traditional Just Black and Clearly White, the two mid-tier models come in Purple-ish. As you can see from the photos, the phone only shows a slight tint of purple. This option also comes with a neon-green power button that I adore.
We’re glad to see the reappearance of the headphone jack. The company ended up placing the 3.5mm hole on the top edge of the phone. I would have preferred the port on the bottom based on how I put the Pixel 3a in my pocket, but I don’t use wired headphones often, so it ultimately didn’t make a difference for me.
Google decided to place the Pixel 3a’s second speaker on the bottom edge, just right of the USB-C port. The placement gives the phone a uniform look, as an identical cutout can be found on the left side of the port for a microphone.
The rest of the phone is pretty much identical to the Pixel 3 in terms of design. Google continues to stack the power and volume buttons on the right side of the phone. The fingerprint sensor is nicely located in the top middle portion of the device’s rear panel, and the primary camera is kept in the top left corner of the handset.
- 5.6-inch OLED
- 2,220 x 1,080 Full HD+ resolution
- 18.5:9 aspect ratio
- Always-on display
- 100,000:1 contrast ratio
The display on the Pixel 3a is fantastic. I never once looked at the phone during the review period and thought I was looking down at a phone that cost $399.
Other than having a slightly lower pixel density than its premium counterparts, the Pixel 3a’s display was great to look at. I did tend to keep the screen brightness up throughout the day, bumping it up to 100 percent when outside. It would have been nice to have a brighter display, particularly for outdoor use.
Google allows you to tweak the color tone of the screen. I kept the default Adaptive setting enabled because I found it the most true-to-life, even if colors were a bit over-saturated at times.
It’s hard to show in pictures, but the Pixel 3a’s display has a blue tint to it. You likely won’t notice it in person, but I did when I held the phone up to an iPhone XS with True Tone turned on. Fortunately, it isn’t anywhere nearly as bad as the Pixel 2’s display.
- Qualcomm Snapdragon 670
- 2.0GHz + 1.7GHz, 64-bit octa-core
- Adreno 615 GPU
- Titan M security module
- 4GB of RAM, 64GB storage
- No expandable storage
To bring the cost of the Pixel 3a down, Google had to go with a mid-tier processor: the Snapdragon 670. Paired with the Adreno 615 GPU, the phone felt just as responsive as some premium handsets. The Pixel 3a checked through just about every task I threw at it, including some light gaming such as Asphalt 9.
Side-by-side with the Pixel 3, you can spot longer load times on the Pixel 3a. But when you remove the other handset from the equation, those slight differences go away. During my review period, I never felt like I was standing there waiting ages for the phone to do something.
You could easily go a full day on a single charge, but not much longer than that
Photo processing was the one place that I consistently saw the Pixel 3a take its time. No matter if I snapped a regular photo or a portrait, the handset took an extra two to five seconds to render the final image.
Just like with other Pixels, the Pixel 3a suffers from poor RAM management. I didn’t have as many bottlenecks as I did with the Pixel 3 XL and its additional horsepower, but I did notice the 3a nearly always maxing out.
Spotify wouldn’t get killed off in the background, but I could hardly make it past 20 posts on Reddit before autoplaying GIFs and videos started to lock up the phone. This type of behavior is expected on a lower-specced device, but some additional work on Google’s part would go a long way.
Just like with other storage minimums over the years, it might be time to retire 64GB as the default. If you install apps with large file sizes by the dozen, you’ll find the Pixel 3a’s storage quickly fills up.
- 18W fast charging
- No wireless charging
The Pixel 3a comes with a 3,000mAh battery and it gets the job done. This is near the bottom of the expected battery size in modern smartphones.
From my testing, I was able to get through most days without having to top off before going to bed. I don’t tend to do too many battery-consuming tasks throughout the day, but I do watch YouTube videos and scroll through social media, which drain the battery faster than some may like.
As you can see from the screenshots, I could easily get five to maybe six hours of screen usage before the phone would die. Thankfully, the 18W fast charger that comes in the box can get the Pixel 3a back up to 100 percent in just about an hour and a half.
If battery life is a priority and just making it to the end of the day doesn’t cut it, go with the Pixel 3a XL. It has a slightly larger 3,700mAh battery that helps the phone get closer to eight hours of screen time.
My biggest disappointment with the Pixel 3a is its lack of wireless charging. Now that all of the major players in the phone market make phones that support the Qi standard, I’ve become accustomed to placing my devices down on a charging pad.
As the handset is made out of plastic, there should be nothing holding Google back from including wireless charging other than price. Here’s hoping that Google makes the feature available with the Pixel 4a.
- Rear: 12.2MP dual-pixel
- ƒ/1.8 aperture, 76 degree field of view
- Optical + electronic image stabilization
- Selfie camera: 8MP
- f/2.0 aperture, fixed focus
- 84 degree field of view
If there is one reason why you should buy the Pixel 3a over any other mid-tier smartphone, it’s the camera. Following in the footsteps of all Pixel handsets before it, the Pixel 3a’s rear shooter captures some of the best-looking photos out there.
On paper, the rear camera on the Pixel 3a matches the Pixel 3’s spec for spec. When comparing photos, though, the Pixel 3a does show a slight loss in quality.
The Pixel 3a’s camera is better than the competition, but worse than the Pixel 3
Despite being a budget-friendly handset, the Pixel 3a is still capable of outshooting many flagship-level smartphones.
The Pixel 3a includes the various shooting modes found on its premium siblings. This includes Night Sight, Photobooth, slow motion, and a new time lapse mode.
Taking a look at Night Sight, the low light camera mode works just as well on this budget handset. Above, you can see it pull in more light around the wall without blowing out the individual items. Below, you can see the camera brightening up scenes, bringing a more even exposure to most of the shot.
Portrait mode also makes its way to the Pixel 3a and it’s hard to beat. The AI-driven bokeh effect brings an object into the foreground while nicely blurring out the background. This is still an amazing feat with a phone with one rear camera, let alone a handset with lower specs.
If the bokeh look is too much for your taste, Google still allows you to dig into Photos and adjust the depth effect.
The front-facing camera on the Pixel 3a dived in quality compared to the dual-camera setup found on the Pixel 3. Not taking into account the lack of a wide-angle lens, the 3a’s selfie shooter has this weird flat feel to it. No matter the lighting conditions, the 8MP camera never captured the best-looking photos.
- Android 9 Pie
- Two years of firmware updates
- Three years of security patches
There isn’t much new to say about the software on the Pixel 3a. Google is serving up its same great stock Android Pie experience that many view as the proper version of Android. Weirdly, the phone launched with the March security patch, but once June hits the handset should be getting monthly updates alongside Google’s other Pixel phones.
As with all of Google’s hardware, the company promises at least two years of firmware or major version updates and three years of security patches. This ensures that you will get support through the life of the device.
The Pixel 3a will hit its stride once Android Q is available
I am excited for Android Q. I was only able to run the beta firmware for a couple of days, but the overall experience was fantastic. Android Pie’s gesture navigation system is atrocious, but that will soon be fixed. Google is implementing new gestures, as well as allowing users to move back to the three-button layout.
- Headphone jack
- Stereo speakers (one downward facing)
- Two microphones, noise suppression
Google seemingly did the impossible and brought back the headphone jack. We’ve already proven that wired headphones are better than Bluetooth options, so this is good news for any audiophile looking at the Pixel 3a.
Despite the jack’s return, I don’t expect it to show up in any of Google’s future premium handsets. The jack will likely be reserved for the budget phones.
Surprisingly, the stereo speakers on the Pixel 3a sound incredible. The sound is loud and clear with minimal distortion. The bass was lacking a bit, but it surpassed a handful of phones that I used for comparison.
Google Pixel 3a specs
|Google Pixel 3a|
2,220 x 1,080 resolution
18.5:9 aspect ratio
|Processor||Qualcomm Snapdragon 670|
No microSD slot
12.2MP f/1.8 sensor, 1.4µm pixels, 76-degree field-of-view, autofocus with dual-pixel phase detection, optical + electronic image stabilization
No wireless charging
|IP rating||No IP rating|
|Other features||Stereo speakers (one downward facing), Active Edge, USB Type-C, single nano-SIM|
|Software version||Android 9 Pie|
|Colors||Just Black, Clearly White, Purple-ish|
|Dimensions and weight||151.3 x 70.1 x 8.2mm
Value for the money
- Google Pixel 3a: 4GB RAM, 64GB ROM — $399
When compared to similarly-priced flagship phones, Google’s Pixels have always lagged a little in the spec department. The company says the real value for customers is in the software department.
Google followed the same formula with the Pixel 3a. The Snapdragon 670 processor and 4GB of RAM are on par with other mid-tier smartphones, but the 3a’s $399 price tag is $50 to $100 higher than other budget-friendly phones like the Moto G7. Again, Google makes up for that with its software experience and stellar camera.
To save money, many OEMs drop certain features and slack on software updates. With the Pixel 3a, you not only get NFC for things like Google Pay, but you get a camera that outpaces most flagships and the security of monthly software updates.
Since the phone first went on sale, Google and other retailers have been discounting the price of the device or offering up to $100 in credit, bringing the cost of the handset down to roughly $299. At that price, it matches some of its fiercest competitors. With this in mind, the value of the Pixel 3a is clear.
Google Pixel 3a review: The verdict
This is the phone that should work for everyone. The Google Pixel line has long been called one of the greatest Android experiences on the market. Now, the search giant has a phone that is much more accessible for a larger portion of the market.
For $399 (or less), you get the best features from the Pixel 3: camera quality and consistent Android updates. No phone in the Pixel 3a’s class comes close to capturing as nice of photos or matching its update schedule.
There are some trade-offs, though, by going the budget-friendly route. You don’t get waterproofing, wireless charging, or premium glass, but you do still get a solid all-around package. As a bonus, it comes with a headphone jack.
Google has finally made a phone that includes almost every feature that makes the Pixel lineup so popular in a budget-conscious package. Toss in the fact that virtually every carrier (other than AT&T) will sell the phone in their stores, and this phone should be an instant success.