It was almost three years ago that Google said goodbye to the Nexus brand and, in the process, affordable handsets.
Despite their flaws, devices like the Nexus 5 won well-earned acclaim for delivering robust feature sets at affordable prices. Now, amid a global downturn in smartphone demand, Google is releasing a phone that is reminiscent of its earlier efforts in all the best ways possible.
With the Pixel 3a and Pixel 3a XL, the company has created a pair of smartphones that price conscious and savvy consumers will love. Best of all, unlike the Nexus phones of yesteryear, the Pixel 3a and Pixel 3a XL feature an excellent camera.
As I did in my Pixel 3 review, to make this piece more concise and easier to read, I often refer to the Pixel 3a and Pixel 3a XL using the singular ‘Pixel 3a’. Where applicable, I note any differences between the two phones. Google didn’t provide an XL unit to test, so I can’t speak to some specific aspects of the device.
Conspiracy theorists finally get their Pixel 3 Ultra
Next to the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL, what’s most noticeable about the Pixel 3a and 3a XL is that the latter doesn’t feature the deep notch of its more expensive sibling. It’s a better look, even if, compared to the current crop of high-end flagships, the Pixel 3a and 3a XL look dated.
Less apparent is that the Pixel 3a and 3a XL feature different dimensions from their high-end counterparts.
Compared to the Pixel 3’s 145.6 x 68.2 x 7.9mm dimensions, the Pixel 3a measures in 151.3 x 70.1 x 8.2mm. At 147g, compared to 148g, it’s also a touch lighter than the Pixel 3.
The Pixel 3a XL, meanwhile, measures in at 160.1 x 76.1 x 8.2 mm, instead 158 x 76.7 x 7.9 mm. Similar to the Pixel 3a, it’s lighter than its more expensive sibling, weighing in at 167g as opposed to 184g.
A byproduct of their different sizes is that case designed for the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL don’t fit the Pixel 3a and Pixel 3a XL.
Likewise, the Pixel 3a and 3a XL feature different sized displays compared to the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL. The Pixel 3a’s display measures in at 5.6-inches diagonally, instead of 5.5-inches, while the Pixel 3a XL measures in at 6.0-inches diagonally instead of 6.3 inches.
Physical differences aside, functionally the displays are identical with one exception: the Pixel 3 XL features a QHD resolution panel, instead of a Full HD panel like the Pixel 3, Pixel 3a and Pixel 3a XL. Otherwise, all four displays support HDR playback on YouTube and Netflix (but don’t get bright enough to support HDR10 or Dolby Vision) and DCI-P3 wide colour gamut support.
One annoyance is that Google moved the Pixel 3a and 3a XL’s stereo speakers. Instead of facing towards you, they now fire from the bottom of the phone. It’s a perplexing design choice, particularly since both the Pixel 3a and Pixel 3a XL have more than enough bezel to accommodate front-firing speakers. Neither phone is waterproof either, but one thing the new Pixels have over their older siblings is a headphone jack.
At launch, the Pixel 3a and 3a XL are only available in a single configuration with 64GB of internal storage. What’s more, the Pixel 3a and 3a XL don’t include a microSD slot, a feature that’s found on almost every smartphone at this price point. That means the only way to expand their storage is to use cloud-based services like Google Photos.
After I downloaded my entire Spotify library (all 28GB worth at high quality) and installed all the apps I use frequently, I had 14.35GB of available storage left on the phone.
That said, what works for me is unlikely to work for someone else, and if storage is a significant concern, there are better options available. For example, the Huawei P30 Lite (approximately $480 outright, depending on the carrier) ships with 128GB of internal storage, and includes a microSD card slot.
A great processor
Going into this review, I wasn’t sure what to expect of the Pixel 3a’s Snapdragon 670 processor. In hindsight, it has turned out to be one of the highlights of using the phone.
Without getting into too many technical details, the Pixel 3a’s Snapdragon 670 chipset is more high-end processor than its 600-series designation suggests. The 670 and 845 share several of the same characteristics. To start, both the 670 and 845 are 10nm chipsets. Moreover, the 670 features, like the 845, a 600-series Adreno GPU. To protect users, Google has also included its Titan M security chip.
It’s also worth noting both the Pixel 3a and Pixel 3 have the same amount of RAM at their disposal: 4GB.
In Geekbench 4, the Pixel 3a earned a single-core score of 1657 and a multi-core of 5164. In the same benchmark, the Pixel 3 obtained a single-core score of 2373 and a multi-core of 8263. Put another way: the Pixel 3a performs 30 and 38 percent worse in a benchmarking environment.
In use, however, I didn’t find the Pixel 3a felt noticeable slower or less responsive than my Pixel 3. It was only when I put the two phones side by side that I was able to discern a difference, and then even then the Pixel 3 was only a touch faster at navigating Android, launching apps and multi-tasking.
Modem performance was similarly excellent. Using a Fido SIM, the Pixel 3a consistently hit days download speeds of 100Mbps when I used Ookla Speedtest to test its modem across several different days at MobileSyrup‘s downtown Toronto office.
In short, when it comes to performance, the Pixel 3a doesn’t feel like a mid-range smartphone.
Same great Pixel 3 camera
One aspect of the Pixel 3’s design Google hasn’t changed with the Pixel 3a is the main camera. Like the Pixel 3, the Pixel 3a features a 12.2-megapixel camera with f/1.8 aperture lens.
Where the cameras of the two phones differ from one another is that the Pixel 3a doesn’t include Pixel 3’s ultra-wide selfie camera. The one lone front-facing camera of the Pixel 3a has a slower lens that captures one-third of a stop less light.
Not one to take many selfies, I didn’t particularly miss the absence of the Pixel 3’s extra-wide front-facing camera while I was reviewing the Pixel 3a. That said, I’m sure I would miss it if I were to take the phone on a trip with me.
The Pixel 3a also doesn’t include Google’s Pixel Visual Core custom silicon. The company says it was able to code all of the Pixel 3’s camera features to work without issue on the Pixel 3a without the chip.
Significantly, Google hasn’t limited the Pixel 3a’s camera by withholding any of the software features that made the Pixel 3’s camera so compelling. Whether it’s Super Res Zoom, Motion Auto Focus, or, most notably, Night Sight, all of the Pixel 3’s best camera features are available and work just as great on the Pixel 3a as they did on the Pixel 3.
Otherwise, there’s not much left to say about the Pixel 3a’s camera that hasn’t already been said about the Pixel 3’s camera.
Even with the release of phones like the Galaxy S10 and Huawei’s P30 Pro — that is, devices that cost at least twice as much as the Pixel 3a — the Pixel 3a features among the best smartphone cameras on the market currently. Obviously, with just two individual cameras, the Pixel 3a’s camera isn’t as versatile as the cameras on the S10 and P30 Pro. However, the important point here is that it’s significantly more expensive to obtain a more versatile smartphone camera.
Put another way: at its price point, the Pixel 3a’s camera is nearly unmatched.
A bigger battery
Both the Pixel 3a and Pixel 3a XL include higher capacity batteries than their high-end counterparts.
The Pixel 3a features a 3,000mAh — instead of 2,915mAh — battery, while the Pixel 3a XL features a 3,700mAh — instead of 3,430mAh — battery. Relative to one another, that means the Pixel 3a features a three percent higher capacity battery than the Pixel 3, and the Pixel 3a XL an almost eight percent higher capacity battery than the Pixel 3 XL.
With the help of Android’s Adaptive Battery functionality, Google claims the Pixel 3a and Pixel 3a XL’s batteries can last up to 30 hours on a single charge when users disable the phones’ ambient display feature.
In practice, with ambient display enabled, I found I was able to comfortably get a full day of battery life out of the Pixel 3a.
For instance, on my first full day with the Pixel 3a, the phone had 36 percent battery power remaining as I was about to go to bed at 10:40 pm. My usage that day involved two-and-a-half hours of screentime and several hours of listening to music through Bluetooth headphones.
When its battery isn’t acting up, that’s about what I get from the Pixel 3 on a typical day. As I mentioned earlier, Google did not provide MobileSyrup with a Pixel 3a XL to test, so I can’t speak to how much better or worse it performs in a battery test compared to the Pixel 3 XL.
When it comes time to top up the Pixel 3a’s battery, the phone ships with the same 18W power adapter Google includes with the Pixel 3. In total, it takes about an hour to charge the phone using the included power adapter.
I’ll note here that neither Pixel 3a nor the Pixel 3a XL features Qi wireless charging.
This is the one feature I’ve consistently missed in my time with the Pixel 3a. Not only because its absence has made it less convenient to keep the phone topped up throughout the day, but also because I came to love the Pixel Stand’s digital frame functionality.
You’ll have this phone for a while with Google support
The Pixel 3a offers few surprises when it comes to its software experience. Overall, what’s here is intuitive and easy to use.
That said, I haven’t had enough time with the device to see whether it’s affected by some of the same frequent issues that crop up in any discussion of the Pixel 3 and 3 XL.
The good news, however, is that should any issues come up, Google is ready to support the Pixel 3a for the long haul.
As with Pixel 3, Google promises it will support the Pixel 3a with a minimum of three years of platform and security software updates. What’s more, the company says it will update the 3a and 3a XL at the same time it updates the Pixel 3 and 3 XL.
All of that to say: in the context of other mid-range devices, Google will furnish the Pixel 3a and 3a XL with an unprecedented level of software support.
With most mid-range devices, consumers can typically expect the OEM that made their handset to provide one major Android platform update (sometimes two, if they’re lucky). Moreover, if it’s not an Android One device, major updates take weeks and sometimes months longer to arrive than they do on high-end devices.
A smart purchase
The best compliment I can pay the Pixel 3a is that it didn't give me any cause to miss my Pixel 3. That speaks to the incredible job Google has done building a phone that doesn't feel like a compromise.
In fact, the more I use the Pixel 3a, the less I think I would recommend the Pixel 3 over it. Even taking into account the Pixel 3's frequent price drops, the Pixel 3a offers, in essence, the same experience as the Pixel 3 at a much more accessible price point.
Potential issues with limited storage aside, what Google is offering with the Pixel 3a is an incredible package: unmatched software support, a great camera, decent battery life, and, best of all, a reasonable price.
"The best compliment I can pay the Pixel 3a is that it didn't give me any cause to miss my Pixel 3."