Alex Kidman was the tech and telco editor at Finder and is now a freelance technology writer. He's been a technology writer with experience spanning more than 20 years, writing and editing at Gizmodo, CNET, PC Magazine, Kotaku and many more. Alex has a Bachelor of Arts from the University of New England and a serious passion for retro gaming.
Google's Pixel 3a is meant to be the more "affordable" Pixel phone, with a price point that plants it squarely in the mid-range category of mobile phones.
Google's essentially taken the recipe for the Google Pixel 3 and shaken out a few premium features, but nothing truly essential. The end result is the best mid-range phone you can buy right now.
Plastic case, but classic Pixel design
No water resistance
Active Edge sides
For all of its positioning as a premium flagship phone, 2018's Pixel 3 wasn't that fancy a device in design terms. You got a two-tone back in your choice of three colours, no headphone jack and active edge squeezable sides to invoke the Google Assistant, and that was pretty much your lot.
It's a recipe that Google has only ever so slightly tweaked for the Google Pixel 3a. The screen size improves, up to a 5.6-inch 2220 x 1080 display from the Pixel 3's 5.5-inch 2160 x 1080 panel. Where the Pixel 3 features a glass back, the Pixel 3a is pure plastic, although this does mean it's not a particularly slippery handset.
Like the Pixel 3, there's no notch in the screen to deal with. Instead, there are prominent top and bottom bezels. Your take on whether that's a preferable state of affairs may differ from mine, but I can't say that I either missed them or bemoaned the heavy bezel that much during real-world usage of the Pixel 3a.
Google has been quite adamant for years that we don't need 3.5mm headphone jacks on Pixel phones
One curious change that actively benefits the Pixel 3a is in audio connectivity. Google has been quite adamant for years that we don't need 3.5mm headphone jacks on Pixel phones because Bluetooth is meant to be good enough for our purposes now.
Which is why it's rather odd – but very welcome – that the Pixel 3a is the first Google Pixel phone to feature a full headphone jack. You can also hook up Bluetooth headphones with ease, but it feels very odd to have the cheaper Pixel get a feature you don't find on the flagship models.
Google produces the Google Pixel 3a in three different colour variants. There's Clearly White, Just Black and Purple-ish, but the latter colour isn't one that Google is going to sell in Australia.
It leaves the Pixel 3a looking and feeling just a little bit plain and conservative in its colour choices. You could always directly import a Purple-ish model if you really wanted to.
The model I've tested with is the Clearly White variant. It's a glossy, plastic-finished white tone with a slightly discordant peach-accented power button. You certainly can't miss it, and it fits the style that Google established with the Pixel 3 series colour scheme.
Google could probably have cut the "Active Edge" feature out of the Google Pixel 3a, but even it made the cut. It's a feature that Google picked up via its near-acquisition of HTC, where the sides can be squeezed in to perform actions. On HTC phones, you can choose what action you want, but on the Pixel 3a, it's purely used to invoke the Google Assistant.
The same great rear Pixel camera
Selfie cam doesn't shoot as wide as the Pixel 3
A great choice for those who don't want to tweak photos themselves
Camera technology is absolutely a feature that gets reserved for flagship phones.
Except it seems that nobody told Google this because the Google Pixel 3a features a rear mounted, AI-assisted 12.2MP camera. It's the same lens that sits on the back of the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3XL, which means you get the same suite of features.
Google hasn't opted to go down the multi-lens approach of competitor flagships such as the Samsung Galaxy S10+, Apple iPhone XS Max or Huawei P30 Pro for its phones. Instead it argues that it can get all the great shots you want with a single lens and a whole heap of machine learning optimisation for every shot.
It's a strategy that can work well, but it's not guaranteed to. The issue with single lenses is that you're stuck within their frame of vision, so you have less flexibility for wide shots or zooms beyond simple cropping that you could do to any photo.
That being said, within the mid-range it's astonishing how good the Pixel 3a's camera is. The standout feature for some time now has been its "Night Sight" camera, which takes multiple exposures and uses AI to enhance the colour and detail in the final shot. It's a touch slower on the Pixel 3a than on the regular Pixel 3 due to the lack of the Pixel Visual Core processor, but the results are still excellent even within the premium space. For a mid-range phone, they're amazing.
Within the mid-range, there's certainly nothing that can match the Google Pixel 3a for low-light prowess.
The AI approach of Google makes a lot of sense for most everyday phone users who don't necessarily want to go down the route of adjusting exposure, ISO or other factors in their photos. Within the mid-range, there's certainly nothing that can match the Google Pixel 3a for low-light prowess.
Where there is a distinct difference on the Pixel 3a compared to the regular Pixel is around the front. 2018's Pixel 3 range features dual cameras at the front, in order for Google to enable wide-angle "group selfies".
Is it actually a selfie if there's a bunch of you? Doesn't that make the term redundant?
In any case, the Pixel 3a has to make do with a single 8MP lens, which means your selfie game is a little more restricted.
Google Pixel 3a sample photos
Snapdragon 670 provides solid performance for the mid-range
Android upgrades assured
64GB storage with no expansion
Google AR maps works quite well
The Google Pixel 3a might look a lot like a Google Pixel 3, but the differences are most keenly felt under the hood. Where the Pixel 3 features a Snapdragon 845 processor, keeping it in the company of 2018's flagship phones, the Pixel 3a saves money with the Snapdragon 670, paired with 4GB of RAM.
As a result, it's most definitely a mid-range device, and you can see that in the benchmark results it generates. I've included the Pixel 3 in these figures for comparison purposes, although it's most definitely in the premium flagship range. Here's how it compares against the existing Pixel models and a range of mid-range handsets using Geekbench 4's CPU test:
It's a slightly more flattering picture with 3DMark's Slingshot Extreme test:
The Pixel 3 and Pixel 3XL outclass the cheaper Pixel 3a, and they absolutely should given the huge price difference between them.
The secret weapon that Google has here is optimisation because it can tailor Android very specifically for its Pixel phones. That means you get a clean Google UI to configure as you like, with little – beyond Google's regular apps – pre-installed. You're guaranteed updates to the core Android OS first for at least two years, as well as the regular security update patches as soon as they're ready.
Google's always had a few "exclusive" features for its Pixel phones at launch, and for the Pixel 3a, it comes in the form of compatibility with Google's new AR-assisted Maps. I've run those through their paces on the streets of Sydney, which you can read about here.
One significant limitation with the Google Pixel 3a is in storage. Google sells it with 64GB of onboard storage only, and there's no microSD storage expansion slot. That's not a new story for Pixel phones, but it does point to the way Google wants you to store just about everything in the Google Cloud.
3,000mAh battery is acceptable, but not great
Lacks wireless charging
The Pixel 3a runs on a 3,000mAh battery, which is very much middle of the road when it comes to power for smartphones in 2019. We've seen plenty of mid-range and even a few budget phones ship with higher battery capacities than this.
Still, the Pixel 3a does a decent job in a comparative sense when tested using Geekbench 4's battery test. Here's how it compares:
It's a sign of how well the Pixel 3a is optimised that its 3000mAh battery comes within just a couple of minutes of tested runtime to the Google Pixel 3XL's 3,430mAh battery. There's scope for it to get even better over time, thanks to Google's strong focus on AI-led battery optimisation, plus any system-wide optimisations we may see in Android Q or Android R.
Still, the Geekbench 4 battery results do signal what the real-world performance of the Google Pixel 3a is likely to be. It's entirely capable of single-day usage without too much stress, but you're going to want to recharge it overnight.
The plastic back on the Pixel 3a means that it lacks the wireless charging capability of the full Pixel 3 range, but there is support for faster wired USB-C charging with the supplied 18W charger.
Clean Android and an excellent easy camera make this a good choice
Google's Pixel phones have, to date, been out there largely for the Google faithful. While the company has innovated with AI-led photography, you had to be pretty keenly into the whole Google ecosystem to opt for a Pixel 3 rather than a Samsung Galaxy S10 or Huawei P30 Pro.
Google flips that assumption around with the Google Pixel 3a because it's pitched at a much more affordable price point.
We're not quite back in the good old days of Google's highly affordable Nexus phones, but for the asking price, there's really no phone that compares on a camera level to the Pixel 3a. That's clearly the best reason to buy one because it's otherwise a little plain in the looks department and not the fastest phone in its range.
The promise of Android updates also gives it a lot more scope to improve in the future, and that marks it out as a good long-term investment too.
Google Pixel 3a: Alternatives
If you've got the cash to upgrade, the Google Pixel 3 could be a very good alternative. You'll get the same design, same upgrades and camera, but much better app performance than the Google Pixel 3a:
Google Pixel 3
Google's newest flagship
The Google Pixel 3 provides the best of Android and Google's own vision of a premium smartphone that's uniquely Google-centric.
The relatively high price for the Google Pixel 3a makes it feasible to consider some of 2018's flagship phones via direct import. We've seen models of the Samsung Galaxy S9 selling for near the same price as the Pixel 3a/Pixel 3a XL for example:
Samsung Galaxy S9
The Galaxy line continues to evolve
A faster processor and a new operating system make the Samsung Galaxy S9 a worthy successor to the S8. Available for purchase right now!
The Google Pixel 4 XL offers a clean Android experience and very good camera capabilities, but it lacks that critical spark that would make it a must-buy flagship phone. Read more…
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