Three Pixels down the line, Google is doing something different: two mid-range Pixel phones, offering slightly less quality and power for significantly less money. Are the Pixel 3a and the Pixel 3a XL the phones you should be buying in 2019? We've spent a few weeks with the handsets to find out.
In summary, Google has packed these phones with slower processors and cut back on some of the premium materials used in the Google Pixel 3 flagships launched last October. Importantly, that fantastic single-lens rear camera stays the same – you should be able to get the same shots from either the mid-range or flagship Pixels.
With the Pixel 3a and the Pixel 3a XL costing substantially less than the handsets launched in October, it gives potential Pixel purchasers a difficult choice to make. It also gives Google the space to really push the premium aspects (and premium price) of the Pixel 4 phones, which we're expecting before the end of the year.
Design and hardware
What does a mid-range phone look like in 2019? In the case of the Pixel 3a and Pixel 3a XL, we're talking casings that are a little more plastic in nature, bezels that are a little thicker than they are on the very best phones, and screens that are a little less sharp.
The phones look very similar, except the 3a comes with a pocket-friendly 5.6-inch display and the 3a XL stretches that to a roomier 6-inch display. Neither phone uses a notch or hole-punch cut-out, preferring the inside of a thicker notch to house the front-facing camera. Your choice of colors in both cases are black, white, and a very light pink.
While it's fair to say these models wouldn't get confused for flagship smartphones, it's also true that they're a step up in terms of fit and finish from the handsets at the very budget end of the market.
The screens are bright and vibrant enough to make everything from games to movies a pleasant experience, though there's not the density and sharpness you'll find on other handsets – the resolution width tops out at 1,080 pixels. The stereo speakers can pump out a decent amount of sound too, and there are 3.5 mm audio jacks here as well for connecting up wired headphones.
These phones might not have the high-grade, premium materials of the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL, or the high-resolution screens, but they look almost as good. Considering you can pick them up for around half the price, that's a very good deal in terms of value for money – a theme that you can't help but keep coming back to with these devices.
Specs and features
Google has cut corners in the specs department as well, in order to keep the prices of the Pixel 3a and Pixel 3a XL down: you don't get the very best silicon on the market today, but rather a Snapdragon 670 chipset paired with 4 GB of RAM. Performance-wise, these two phones are exactly the same.
How much difference that slower processor makes is hard to quantify. The phones will still run everything you can throw at them, you'll just notice a few very slightly longer pauses when switching between apps or loading up games or doing something graphically intensive – playing YouTube in a picture-in-picture overlay, for example.
Longevity is another reason to always go with a flagship smartphone. We've only used the Pixel 3a and the Pixel 3a XL for a few weeks, but we suspect they'll slow down and start to become laggy sooner than, say, the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL will. If you want top performance for longer, maybe wait for the Pixel 4.
That's not to say these handsets are sluggish though. We were able to nip around different apps, documents, and websites without any problems, as well as run some fairly demanding games without any blips. If your needs aren't too demanding in terms of apps and activities, these mid-rangers will serve you well for years to come.
Unlike the Pixel 3 phones launched last October, the Pixel 3a and Pixel 3a XL don't come with any kind of waterproofing or dustproofing, which is something to bear in mind. Wireless charging has been cut too, to keep the price of the handsets down, though you do get the same 18 W fast charging as on Google's 2018 flagships.
Another sign that these are mid-range phones is the single 64 GB internal storage option. With no memory card slot, you're going to have to work hard to keep under that limit, though with so many apps running from the cloud now – and free, unlimited uploads to Google Photos for Pixel owners – it's not necessarily a big problem.
Camera and software
We've mentioned several areas (including the chassis materials and features like wireless charging) where Google has cut corners to bring the prices of the Pixel 3a and the Pixel 3a XL down, but one key feature remains untouched: the camera quality. These phones feature the very same single-lens 12.2 MP rear-facing camera as the more powerful Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL phones that launched last year.
That means these mid-range phones are also capable of taking some of the best photos in the business. Whatever Google is doing in the image processing department, it's enabling them to stay just ahead of the likes of Apple, Samsung and Huawei in terms of mobile photography, and that remains a huge consideration for a lot of users.
Almost anything you shoot with the phones ends up looking great (it's the same camera in both models). As you can see from our sample shots, they have no problem with landscapes, low light, macro shots, or whatever else you happen to be shooting. The Night Sight feature can – no exaggeration – turn night into (almost) day if you're able to keep the phone steady enough.
You can click on the gallery to check out some of the photos we've taken with the Pixel 3a and Pixel 3a XL, but in summary, this is a camera worthy of a very top-end phone – it's the feature that single-handedly moves these handsets from fairly average to just about the best mid-range phones on the market.
A slower processor and no dedicated Visual Core chip (as you get with the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL) means some effects like HDR take slightly longer to calculate, and capture times can be a little longer, but overall we'd say you're not going to get a better phone camera than this at the price you're paying for the Pixel 3a and Pixel 3a XL.
There's another reason to go Pixel besides the camera though, and that's the software. We've already mentioned the free and unlimited Google Photos storage that Pixel owners get, but there's also the clean, uncluttered version of Android on board too (Android 9 Pie in this case). You can be sure that when Android Q appears, the Pixels will be first in line for an upgrade.
Price and verdict
We're at the stage where mid-range and budget phones now offer some very, very compelling options, while flagship handsets are finding it harder to justify their (ever spiraling) top-end prices. Most users just don't need the power of a premium phone these days, which is a challenge for manufacturers.
That said, it was still a bold move for Google to bring out mid-tier handsets at the risk of drawing buyers away from the flagship Pixel 3 (and Pixel 4) phones. Every phone is a compromise, and with the Pixel 3a and Pixel 3a XL, Google seems to have picked the right compromises to make: you still get that fantastic camera, and you still get the pure Android experience that Google phones are known for.
In some ways with the US$399 (Pixel 3a) and $479 (Pixel 3a XL) pricing, Google is harking back to the days of the earlier Nexus phones – very decent hardware at affordable prices. The question is why you would pay so much more for a phone that has slightly thinner bezels and a bump in performance you might not need.
Battery life is another area where the phones won't let you down – with a lower-res screen and Android's adaptive battery technology, you'll always get through a whole day and then some with these phones. In our test of one hour of video streaming, the Pixel 3a (3,000 mAh battery) went down from a 100 percent charge to 92 percent, while the Pixel 3a XL (3,700 mAh battery) went down from 100 percent to 89 percent, both very respectable.
We can report that we were impressed during our time with the Pixel 3a and Pixel 3a XL. You will notice the areas where Google has cut back, whether it's the lower resolution of the screen, or the slight delay in switching between apps, but in the end they're not enough to take much away from what is a very good value-for-money proposition.
Hopefully Google carries on this new tradition with a Pixel 4a and a Pixel 4a XL next year – these mid-range phones are genuinely appealing options for those who want the best of the Pixel camera and software, but aren't too bothered about having the very top-end components on the market. Your move, Apple and Samsung.
Product page: Google
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