Google Pixel 3a is the latest entry into the Pixel smartphone series and a very different proposition from the Californian search company. Until now, Pixel has always been a direct response to the iPhone – a premium smartphone powered by high-end internals and with tightly integrated hardware and software.
But the latest Google-designed handset is something entirely new. From the outside, it looks almost indistinguishable from the Pixel 3, but it costs £340 less. Tempted? Frankly, you'd be a fool not to be.
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Google Pixel 3a review: Display, Design
If you're familiar with the design of the Pixel 3, then you're already familiar with the design of the Pixel 3a. Google has fitted it with the same dual-tone case and garishly coloured power buttons as its pricier sibling. The only difference is the Pixel 3a's case is plastic, not glass. That gives the smartphone a slightly cheaper feel, but it's minimal. The Pixel 3a still feels well-built and sturdy. Unfortunately, the move to plastic does mean you'll lose wireless charging, which is a shame as Pixel 3a owners will be unable to take advantage of the Pixel Stand and its nifty exclusive features.
Google Pixel 3a Key Specs
Dimensions: 151.3 mm x 70.1 mm x 8.2 mm
Weight: 147 g
Screen: 5.6-inch, FHD+ (2220 x 1080) OLED at 441 ppi
CPU: Qualcomm Snapdragon 670
Cameras: 12.2MP dual-pixel rear / 8MP front
OS: Android 9.0 Pie
Active Edge, which lets you squeeze the sides of the phone to summon the Google Assistant, makes a return here. It's a nice feature and makes the experience of talking to the virtual assistant more enjoyable than saying "OK, Google" which feels really clunky and reminds you of the faceless corporation pulling the strings.
Look a little closer at the Pixel 3a and there are a number of differences between this new more affordable handset and the costlier Pixel 3. First off, the once-ubiquitous 3.5mm audio port makes a very welcome return after being dropped from the Pixel smartphone line since the introduction of the Pixel 2 in October 2017.
Regardless of whether you use Bluetooth headphones, or wired USB-C or 3.5mm variants – you'll be able to connect to the Pixel 3a and listen to your tunes. Google says it decided to reintroduce the option into its new mid-range offering because it wanted to provide as many options as possible for consumers at this price point, which seems a little counterintuitive. After all, why should those paying almost double the price of the Pixel 3a have to deal with more limitations on their audio?
Elsewhere, Google Pixel 3a has a 5.6-inch FHD+ OLED display, that's slightly bigger than the 5.5-inch HD OLED on the Pixel 3. Google stayed tight-lipped about exactly why it chose to increase the screen size by such a negligible amount, but the Pixel 3a feels like a good size – and is almost manageable one-handed. Although those with smaller hands will likely have to resort to two hands (or a PopSocket) to type while wandering down the street to work, juggling house keys and a boiling cup of coffee.
One feature that didn't make the transition to the Pixel 3a is the IP68 water and dust resistance rating awarded to the Pixel 3, so make sure to keep a strong grip on your new mid-range phone when you're taking photos from high places or near water.
Google Pixel 3a review: Camera
But let's be honest, Pixel 3a owners aren't really bothered about Active Edge, the 0.1-inch screen size difference or even the return of the 3.5mm headphone port – when it comes to the Pixel 3a, it's all about the camera.
After all, that is the single feature that has come to epitomise the Pixel smartphone brand. Each year, the latest Google Pixel phone becomes the benchmark that other flagship devices are measured against – and Google Pixel 3 was no different. Among other improvements, £739 smartphone brought us Night Sight, which ekes out bright, accurate colours from the toughest low-light conditions where the human eye struggles to make out more than rough shapes.
With the Pixel 3a, Google says it strived to bring the same camera performance to a more affordable price point. When you first launch the camera app on the Pixel 3a, it is (almost) impossible to tell you’re holding a lower-cost handset to the Pixel 3: Night Sight, Portrait Mode, Panoramas, Motion Shots are all present and correct.
In fact, the only real giveaway is the absence of the ultra-wide selfie feature found on the Pixel 3, which lets you squeeze a large group into the frame without the need to resort to a selfie stick.
According to Google, it has managed to wrestle close to the same performance from the Qualcomm Snapdragon 670 sans Pixel Visual Core using a mixture of Artificial Intelligence and software as the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL achieves using the flagship Qualcomm silicon.
Pixel 3a Camera Samples
That’s a bold claim for any manufacturer debuting a new mid-range handset, but given the photography chops of the Pixel 3, it seems especially bold here.
Thankfully, it's not too far from the mark at all. We'll need more time with the smartphone to truly assess its photography prowess, but in our time with the Pixel 3a so far we've been pretty impressed with the images. Details are sharp, colours are natural – far from the overly-saturated look of images taken on Samsung devices.
Despite the price difference, there is no mistaking that you're shooting on a Pixel – with each resulting image carrying the same razor-sharp, slightly cold appearance that has characterised every generation Pixel camera ever launched. As such, those who prefer warmer images will have to tweak the photos after the fact.
Portrait Mode, which still only uses a single lens, is as effective as it has ever been. Like the Pixel 3, when it works – which is does most of the time, the subject is beautifully framed by the artificial bokeh in the background. However, the Pixel does sometimes throw-up some weird results – with bokeh randomly missing one of the corners of a poster or picture frame on the wall behind the subject. So far, so usual. That said, Google remains the champion when it comes to separating strands of hair from the background, which really elevates your pet shots for Instagram. Trust us.
One area where we did notice a real difference between the Pixel 3a and its pricier brethren is Night Sight. While the feature works as advertised – illuminating the darkness when there is only the tiniest slither of light – the resulting images do seem a little grainier than the same shots taken with the Pixel 3.
Of course, we’ll have to spend some more time with the Pixel 3a to see how the Pixel camera matches up to other handsets in this price bracket – as well as the £739 Google Pixel 3, but our initial impressions are good.
Google Pixel 3a review: Software
One of the biggest advantages of opting for a Google Pixel device is that you're updates and security patches are coming directly from Google. As such, you'll get access to the latest features faster than those who own Android handsets built by the likes of Samsung, Huawei, LG and more.
Pixel 3a runs the latest version of Android OS, dubbed Pie. It's worth pointing out this is Android 9.0 with the stock user interface, which is much more attractive than the icons and garish colours slashed on the operating system by the likes of LG, Oppo, and Huawei.
Despite its lowest price point, Pixel 3a is no different in this respect. And as if to emphasise this point, Google has preloaded the new smartphone with an early version of a new Augmented Reality (AR) feature for its popular Google Maps service which superimposes directions in front of you to help navigate around urban areas where the standard blue dot might be a little inadequate.
Google guarantees at least three years of operating system and security updates, which is standard for Pixel smartphones. However, that guarantee is more of a rarity in Android handsets in this price range, compared to those rivalling the £739 Pixel 3.
Pixel 3a comes with the same unlimited photo and video storage in Google Photos, too. So you can happily snap away on your shiny new Pixel camera without worrying about getting a pop-up asking you to cough-up for more cloud storage, or start deleting treasured memories.
Speaking of Google Pixel 3 features that have made the jump to the lower cost handset, Now Playing – an always-on Shazam-like feature that displays the name and artist of any track the Pixel can detect playing – also returns here. The incredibly handy feature, which quietly displays whatever is playing at the bottom of the always-on display means you'll never have to seek-out a specific app and wave your device in the air like you’re struggling to find signal.
Google Pixel 3a review: release date, price
Google Pixel 3a is available to order online now, and will start to appear on high street shelves from tomorrow, May 8, 2019.
Pixel 3a starts from £399 for 64GB of storage, while a beefier 128GB configuration is available, too. Google Pixel 3a ships in three colours – Just Black, Clearly White, and Purple-ish, with the latter exclusive to the range.
Google Pixel 3a review: our early verdict
If you've found yourself longingly scrolling through images tagged with the #ShotOnPixel social hashtag, but didn't fancy coughing-up more than £700 to get your hands on that camera, this could be the ideal handset.
You'll get the latest Android OS features and security updates guaranteed for the next three years, and will enjoy the Material Design user interface designed by Google, which is objectively more attractive than the software on most Android handsets in this price range (here's looking at you Huawei, Honor and Xiaomi).
Sure, Google has cut some corners to achieve the £399 starting price: the plastic body doesn't feel as premium, the lack of water and dust resistance means you'll have to be more careful out and about, and the ability to shoot ultra-wide selfie shots will be sorely missed. That said, we're not sure these are worth paying twice as much as the Pixel 3a and getting the flagship Pixel handset instead.
Like the iPhone XR and Galaxy S10e, the new Pixel 3a is designed to be a palatable balance of price and features. The camera has always been the star of the show when it comes to the Google Pixel range, and it's one area where you won't really notice that you're not using the £739 flagship. Believe it or not, that might just be enough to make this one of the best devices at this price point.