Google Pixel 3a review: Less is more
This changes everything
- Incredibly good camera
- Headphone jack
- Compact form-factor
- Clean software
- No MicroSD slot
- No waterproofing
- No wireless charging
If you can live without things like wireless charging, water resistance and the ability to take photos of the moon, there are almost zero reasons to look and buying anything other than the Pixel 3a.
Google’s Pixel hardware has always been exciting - but it’s also always been expensive.
The Pixel 3a isn’t.
It’s Google’s first endeavour outside the premium market, occupied by the iPhone XS and the Samsung Galaxy S10 and anything else of that tier. And, honestly, it’s hard to talk about the Google Pixel 3a without quickly devolving into the hype around it.
The Pixel 3a feels like a device that doesn’t just raise the bar for what a mid-tier Android smartphone can offer. It twists, warps and changes that equation around pricing outright. Basically, the Google Pixel 3a made me change the way I look at and evaluate smartphones.
Before I reviewed this phone, I thought had a clear picture of what a AU$649 smartphone looked like.
I’m going to have to go back to the drawing board. Between the clean software, sharp-looking design, headphone jack and the camera, Google’s budget flagship is head-and-shoulders above everything else in its weight class.
The Pixel 3a doesn’t redefine what a great smartphone should be but it does redefine what a great smartphone should cost.
Specs - Google Pixel 3a
Display size: 5.6-inches
Display type: OLED capacitive touchscreen
Processor: Snapdragon 670
Operating System: Android 9.0 Pie with Android One
Fingerprint Sensor: Yes, rear-mounted
MicroSD slot: No
Ports: USB Type-C
Connectivity: Wi-Fi (802.11 a/b/g/n/ac), Bluetooth 5, NFC
Rear Camera: 12.2-megapixel (f/1.8) dual pixel camera
Front-Facing Camera: 8-megapixel (f/2.2)
Colors: Clearly White, Just Black
Dimensions: 151.3 mm x 70.1 mm x 8.2 mm
Price: Starts at AU$649
Design - Look, Feel and Features
Though radically priced, the Google Pixel 3a is somewhat less innovative when it comes to look and feel. If you’ve seen or handled a Google Pixel smartphone before, you’ll probably find the Pixel 3a very familiar.
If you want to get more specific, it probably has the most in-common with the Pixel 2. As with their second-gen flagship, Google have opted for a plastic “polycarbonate” body rather than the liquid glass or metal found elsewhere. Obviously, this makes the Pixel 3a feel a little less premium.
However, the design here (combined with the affordable price) has the side effect of making the 3a feel a little more durable. I wouldn’t recommend dropping the Pixel 3a, but I wasn’t really worried about the unit getting damaged by the scuffles of everyday life - which was a refreshing change of pace.
You’ve got a coloured power button on the right-hand edge, plus a fingerprint sensor on the back. Unlike the Pixel 3, there’s no notch here, and, in a break from recent tradition, the Pixel 3a even has a headphone jack on top. This is sure to delight the usual crowd. The same goes for the thin(ish) bezels flanking all four sides of the Pixel 3a’s 5.6-inch OLED display.
I really dug the overall size and feel-factor here. If you’re after something with a bigger screen, there are plenty of options out there. But if you’re after the best looking small smartphone you can buy right now, the Pixel 3a is a clear winner.
Of course, for all that you do get here, there are a few features that Google are keeping exclusive to the more premium Pixel phones - at least, for now. If you’re after IP68 water resistance, facial recognition or wireless charging, you won’t find them here. There’s also no MicroSD slot, which is a shame.
Camera - How does it compare to the competition?
The real crowd-pleaser here is the camera on the Google Pixel 3a.
In terms of the hardware involved, the camera on the Pixel 3a is exactly the same as last year’s Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL. There’s a 12.2-megapixel dual pixel camera on the back, with an f/1.8 aperture plus both electronic and optical image stabilization. On the front, the Google Pixel 3a wears its 8-megapixel selfie camera with pride (with an f/2.0 aperture). Both cameras also feature all the usual thrills you’d find in any Pixel phone, from Portrait mode to Night Sight and, presumably, whatever comes next.
The key difference here between the Pixel 3a and the Pixel 3 is the absence of Google’s custom-built Pixel Visual Core processor. Since t can’t offload image processing duties to this dedicated processor like the Pixel 3 can, the Pixel 3a uses its own CPU and GPU instead. This can sometimes result in image processing that is a few seconds slower than its premium counterpart, but it's a small price to pay for photos that look this good.
As for the quality of the images themselves, I was pretty happy with the Pixel 3a’s daylight shots. There’s a good balance of color, detail and dynamic range that you won’t get out of any other smartphone camera in this price range - and probably plenty more above that.
Night Sight shots proved similarly impressive. It’s not as good as the night mode you’ll find in Huawei’s flagships - but, at $649, the Pixel 3a doesn’t really have to be. It just has to be better than every other mid-tier smartphone camera out there. (And it is.)
You can’t use the Pixel 3a’s camera to push the boundaries of smartphone photography in the same way that you can with devices like the Huawei P30 Pro - but you can definitely take some really sharp-looking snaps for your Instagram page.
If you’re not a photography nut, the Pixel 3a’s camera will definitely do pretty much everything you need it to.
Performance - Software, Benchmarks and Battery Life
A big selling point for previous Pixel smartphones was the idea that you were getting the cleanest, best version of Android that was available. After all, Google owns the platform. They can push it in ways that other vendors can’t or aren’t able to. Even if that’s no longer as true as it once was, you’ll still be getting the best Android experience possible, ahead of even other flagship phones like the Huawei P30 Pro and Samsung Galaxy S10.
Right out of the box, the Pixel 3a is super quick and easy to set up and, moment-to-moment, it’s a delight to use.
To their credit, Google’s swipe-based alternative to the usual navigation bar has matured a little. I think I still prefer Huawei’s overall approach, but, that said, my time testing out the Google Pixel 3a was so clean and worry-free that I was honestly considering retiring my Huawei P30 Pro to make it my daily driver.
When it came to gaming, I had a reasonable enough time with the Pixel 3a. 2D games looked fine. 3D games like Elder Scrolls: Blades and Armello sometimes got a little choppy. These games, along with any similarly-intensive apps, would probably run better on the 800-series Snapdragon processor found in the Pixel 3 - but, for half the price, the Pixel 3a gets most of the way there.
When it came to benchmarks, the Google Pixel 3a held its ground remarkably well. Even if it lagged behind flagships like the Galaxy S10 and Xiaomi Mi Mix 3, it got close enough to prove itself a bargain when it comes to performance.
In terms of everyday battery-life, I’d easily make it through the usual 9-5 work day with the Google Pixel 3a and often well into the evening as well. I’d still have to charge it back to full overnight - but if I had forgotten, I’d usually still have a little bit to go on until I found a power source.
We’re talking eleven or twelve hours of average use here, though - as always - your mileage may vary, particularly if you watch or film a lot of video content.
It’s also worth noting that battery performance might improve over time. Since it runs on Android 9, the Pixel 3a features the same adaptive battery tech found in the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL. As you use it, it’ll learn your what your favourite apps are and reduces power to those you rarely use.
The Pixel 3a supports 18W fast charging via USB Type-C, but does not support any form of wireless charging.
The Bottom Line
As the price of buying a good smartphone has risen in recent years, I’ve often preached that you’d have to be crazy to spend more than $1000 on a modern smartphone.
Well, not crazy crazy - but a certain type of person. A power-user. You’d have to be the person who wants the best technology available, either for bragging rights or for the future proofing. You'd have to be the kind of person who can afford to spend more than $1000 on a phone. You'd have to be the kind of person who sees the impossibly good photos the Huawei P30 Pro can take, and takes that as a challenge.
There’s an easy parallel here between what Google are doing with the Pixel 3a, and what Microsoft are doing with their Surface hardware. If Google’s first effort at an affordable mid-range Pixel phone is this good, what does that mean for the rest of the Android crowd? And if $650 gets you almost everything you want in a modern smartphone, why would you ever spend more?
Right now, there’s not a single smartphone directly competing with the Pixel 3a that I’d recommend over it. There’s plenty more expensive devices that’d probably lose out as well.
If you have $650 to spend, and can live without things like wireless charging, water resistance and the ability to take photos of the moon, there are almost zero reasons to look at buying anything other than the Pixel 3a.
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