The Pixel 3a doesn’t quite bring back the pure bargain-basement pricing structure of the brand’s once-fabled Nexus series. However, it does lower the barrier of entry for anyone wanting a fantastic camera on a smartphone. The Google Pixel 3a might yet be the perfect antidote to the £1,000 smartphone – and an answer to Google’s dwindling smartphone sales.
- There's a headphone jack!
- Flagship-quality camera
- Fantastic display
- Great size
- No Qi charging or water resistance
- Can feel slow in certain activities
- Screen is a little dim
- Review Price: £399
- 5.6-inch OLED display
- 12MP camera
- Snapdragon 670
- 4GB RAM
- 64GB storage
- 3000mAh battery
With flagship devices commanding ever higher prices and people choosing to upgrade their phones far less in general, cheaper handsets are becoming more important. Samsung makes one of the best Android phones on the market in the Galaxy S10 but it’s still betting big on the more affordable Galaxy A80.
Google wants a slice of this pie and is attempting to get its share with the Google Pixel 3a, which offers many of the flagship Pixel 3’s features at a wallet-friendly £399 (or £469 for the larger Google Pixel 3a XL model). This is the first time since the much-loved Nexus series that Google has focused on value.
- Google has just announced the Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL. For an in-depth look at both phones take a look at our Pixel 4 review: hands on and Pixel 4 XL review: hands on.
The Pixel 3a’s camera is the big deal here, it sets the bar for budget phones
The flagship Google Pixel 3 is all about the camera and so is the Pixel 3a. The idea that a smartphone costing £399 could boast a camera that’s as capable as the stunning Pixel 3 is an appealing prospect.
Google has ported much of the Pixel 3’s feature set to the 3a, including use of exactly the same 12-megapixel sensor with an f/1.8 aperture.
The camera experience is near-identical as a result – and that’s important; nothing here feels diluted or sacrificed. You’ll even find headline Pixel camera features such as Night Sight for combining low-light snaps to create a brighter image and Top Shot, too.
- These are the best cheap phones
Much of what makes the camera on Pixel phones so good isn’t, in fact, the hardware; it’s the software and the AI that Google builds into the phone. There are other devices out there that feature the same camera hardware as the Pixel 3a but they can’t compete with the photos it captures.
Google has brought as much of the Pixel 3 camera DNA to the 3a as it can. And while the lack of the Snapdragon 845 leads to some minor degradation in image quality, it isn’t noteworthy. Note, too, that there’s no Pixel Visual Core here – the physical chip that helps with image processing and enhancing.
The Pixel 3a sets the bar for handsets in this price range when it comes to photo quality. If you’re after the best smartphone camera but aren’t prepared to spend more than £399 then this is absolutely the phone to buy.
It doesn’t shoot as fast as the Pixel 3, plus there’s significantly more lag when navigating the camera app and jumping between modes, but I’m super-impressed by the quality of the images. Detail is fantastic, that familiar contrasty-style of previous Pixel phones remains and even the Portrait mode offers a clean bokeh effect around challenging elements like hair and glasses.
Here are a few sample photos:
Low-light photography is where the Pixel 3 shines and it’s the area where the Pixel 3a once again outshines its price. Detail is retained, colours are bright and it’s all just thoroughly impressive. For an in-depth look at the camera, check out our Google Pixel 3a camera review page.
- Read our Google Pixel 3a XL review
A host of Pixel 3 features are cut for the Pixel 3a but it hangs on to some vitals
The Pixel 3a looks very much like its pricier sibling, albeit with a smattering of cost-cutting measures. The glass and metal body has been replaced with a polycarbonate unibody. There’s only a single speaker on the front, and IP68 water-resistance is lacking – plus, the device is marginally thicker.
The switch to plastic could have left this device feeling cheap – but, thankfully, this isn’t the case. The Pixel 3a mimics the regular Pixel 3’s two-tone finish and, apart from the cold touch of metal, there’s very little difference.
On the rear is a single camera, flash and circular fingerprint sensor. On the front is an 18.5:9 display with rounded corners.
Google hasn’t opted to completely ditch the bezel here, and as a result, the Google Pixel 3a doesn’t look particularly modern or inventive. It also lacks the charm of some of the Nexus phones of five or so years ago – the last time Google attempted to corner the budget market.
This is a slab of a phone that’s lacking flair or any interesting touches. The review unit is black (or ‘Just Black’, as Google calls it). The device is also available in ‘Clearly White’ (which has a nice pop of orange on the power button) and a new ‘Purple-ish’ colour. The latter is my favourite, even though it’s far more lilac in tone.
While some features have been lost, the Pixel 3a gains a headphone jack. Sitting along the top edge, the 3.5mm port makes its first appearance on a Pixel device since the original. This will be welcomed by all those who have yet to embrace the wireless future.
Google reps told me the reason for its reintroduction makes sense at this price since buyers are less likely to have invested heavily in Bluetooth headphones.
The display remains an OLED panel, which is great to see and far from a given at this price, while the FHD+ resolution results in a crisp image. Like the camera, the display here is best-in-class, with fantastic colour reproduction and viewing angles.
Pixel 3a performance is the one area where there could be cause for concern
While the tweaks have so far made little difference to me, the decision to sacrifice performance is more worrying.
Instead of the Snapdragon 845 of the Pixel 3, the Google Pixel 3a uses a Snapdragon 670 chipset. This is Qualcomm’s mid-range SoC and the silicone that powers the Oppo R17 and a couple of Vivo phones.
At £399 I’m not expecting Google to use top-end hardware and, of course, sacrifices are to be expected. I’d assume the company also doesn’t want to completely kill its flagship line by giving away all the goodies here. Nevertheless, this remains disappointing.
Go back a few years and Google’s Nexus line rewrote the rulebook by offering those top-drawer components for less than its rivals.
The Snapdragon 670 is no slouch in performance terms, and it’s supported here by 4GB of RAM here – although this, too, now feels like the minimum amount needed to run Android well.
Where I fear things might deteriorate is in a few months and years down the line. I haven’t been entirely convinced by how well Pixel phones perform over the course of a two-year contract and switching to a less-powerful chipset has the potential to make such issues more obvious.
Pixel 3a battery life is as expected, matching the pricier Pixel 3
Tucked inside the Pixel 3a’s plastic body is a 3000mAh battery; that’s slightly larger than the cell inside the Pixel 3.
Battery life is neither standout nor disappointing. The Snapdragon 670 is an efficient chipset and the small, 5.5-inch Full HD+ display helps endurance here. Nevertheless, this is still a small battery, one that will require nightly charges and a degree of management if you’re a heavy user.
An hour of streaming Netflix over Wi-Fi consumed between 9 and 11 percent of the battery, a similar figure to the Pixel 3 in the same test.
More appealing is the included 18W USB-C PD charger you’ll find in the box. Again, this is the same charger included with the Pixel 3 and 3 XL, and it charges the from empty to full in roughly 1 hour and 20 minutes.
Some similarly-priced phones, such as those from Honor and Huawei, do boast faster charging. However, by using the USB-C PD standard, you’re not forced to use the bundled charging to get those speeds. Any PD adapter will achieve these fast-charging speeds, including a Nintendo Switch or MacBook Air charger.
Google’s own version of Android is the best software but bugs remain
Pixel 3a ships with the latest version of Android 9 along with the latest iteration of the Pixel Launcher. Visually, it’s identical to the software you’ll find on the flagship Pixels, and for many, that’s a good thing. With these more affordable phones – especially if you want the highest-spec devices available – you’re restricted to convoluted software from the likes of Oppo, Xiaomi and Huawei.
It doesn’t remove many features, either. You’ll find Pixel stalwarts such as Call Screen (the US-only self-answering phone trick), unlimited storage of your snaps in Google Photos, and the same Digital Wellbeing dashboard.
Smaller, but no less welcome, features such as the always-on display (made possible by the OLED panel) and access to the Google Assistant via a squeeze of the phone’s sides also suggest that Google wants your experience with the £400 3a to be similar to using an £800 Pixel 3 phone.
While Google’s software is no doubt well designed and free of the bloatware you’d find elsewhere, it can be buggy. On my Pixel 3 XL, I’ve run into countless issues with app crashes.
These include an unresponsive camera and random reboots, and during my time with the Pixel 3a, a few of the same issues have arisen. RAM management seems to be the most obvious issue, with apps often dropping out of memory 10 or so minutes after they were last used. That shouldn’t be happening with 4GB of RAM onboard.
Should I buy the Google Pixel 3a?
By sacrificing “luxurious” features, Google has managed to squeeze the essential Pixel features into an excellent £399 phone.
If you want a handset with a great camera and decent screen but aren’t so fussed about sheer speed and performance, then you’ll be very happy with the Pixel 3a.
This isn’t a phone for intensive gaming or multi-day use, and you’ll still get better pure value by upping your budget to pick up a device such as the Honor View 20 or Xiaomi Mi 9. But if you value software and user experience then you’ll likely prefer the Pixel 3a.
Size matters, too, as finding cheaper phones that are as small as the Pixel 3a is becoming more difficult.
The Pixel 3a doesn’t quite bring back the pure bargain-basement pricing structure of the brand’s once-fabled Nexus series. However, it does lower the barrier of entry for anyone wanting a fantastic camera on a smartphone.