Hands-On Review: the Google Pixel 3a Smartphone

Google Pixel 3a Review

When Google first announced the Pixel 3a earlier this year, it seemed almost too good to be true. A mid-range smartphone with the same camera as its flagship counterpart at half the price—what’s the catch? Well, we did some digging, and it turns out there is no catch. The Pixel 3a really is that good. In fact, it might just be the best premium mid-range smartphone on the market. Here’s why.

Google Pixel 3a
Google Pixel 3a

Less is More

When making a premium mid-range phone, one of the biggest challenges manufacturers face is which features to nerf in order to hit that mid-range price tag. In many cases, mid-range means a weaker chip or not as much memory, usually a camera setup that’s not quite as good. Lessen the features, you lessen the cost.

But with the Pixel 3a, Google didn’t seem much interested in the conventional trade-off that comes with using more modest hardware. Instead, the company squeezed every ounce of performance power out of the Pixel 3a’s good-but-not-great internals, so what you get is a mid-range phone that does one heck of an impersonation of its high-end counterpart. Apps launch fast, scroll smoothly, and run flawlessly. In fact, it’s not a stretch to say that when it comes to overall performance and general day-to-day operation, the Pixel 3a runs on par with the Pixel 3.

Now, when it comes to the physical design, the fact the Pixel 3a is a mid-range smartphone is a bit more obvious. There’s no ignoring the extra amount of bezels on the front of the handset, or that the body is plastic, not metal or glass. But even though—on paper—the design sounds a little bit dated, I found it utterly charming.

First of all, looking at the Pixel 3a, it’s hard to tell the body is plastic, not metal. The back has the same two-toned look of the Pixel 3, making it difficult to tell the two apart. It even features the same fingerprint sensor and rear camera placement. When you hold it, you can tell the difference, but I didn’t find that to be a bad thing. There’s no denying that metal and glass generally look and feel more premium than plastic, but those handsets are often more slippery and bigger smudge targets. I liked how certain the Pixel 3a felt in my grip, how sturdy. I was never worried about dropping the Pixel 3a, partly because it felt secure, but also because it didn’t feel like a fragile ornament that would shatter on impact. That kind of reassurance from a smartphone is rarer these days; it felt nice.

The Pixel 3a’s screen is the most obvious indicator that it’s a premium mid-range device and not a flagship. As mentioned, the bezels are conspicuous—not the edge-to-edge design you see in most flagships. But on the other hand, the screen itself is excellent. It’s an OLED, something you don’t typically see on a mid-range phone, and it looks darn good. If you’re worried at all about resolution, clarity, or contrast—don’t be. The image quality you get from the Pixel 3a’s screen will not disappoint.

It's also worth mentioning that even though you’re not getting all the same premium build materials as the Pixel 3, the Pixel 3a does offer a couple of design features its older sibling does not. For starters, you get a slightly bigger battery which, thanks to the 3a’s less demanding hardware, yields excellent performance and battery life. Second, the Pixel 3a comes with a 3.5mm jack—can you believe it? I know the market has pretty much demanded we all move on to Bluetooth, Lightning, or USB-C headphones but I, for one, like having the option of the ol’ tried and true 3.5mm connection.

Pixel Perfect

If you’ve paid attention to the smartphone market at all over the last decade, then you’ll know what I’m about to say sounds a little bit ridiculous: In terms of overall image quality, the Google Pixel 3a features one of the best cameras on the market. The reason that might sound crazy is because of the price. Imagine suggesting a year ago, when premium mid-range devices weren’t even that prevalent, that a $400 phone has one of the best cameras you can buy—you’d be laughed off the Internet. But then here comes the Pixel 3a, wagging the same award-winning rear camera setup as the Pixel 3 and effectively making my absurd statement a reality.

Shot with the Google Pixel 3a
Shot with the Google Pixel 3a

Spec-wise, the camera is an 8MP sensor with f/1.8 aperture, dual pixel phase detection autofocus, and optical image stabilization—same as the Pixel 3. The camera app is also the same. The list of identical features goes on, but the important takeaway is that the Pixel 3a’s camera is the same as the Pixel 3’s, and the Pixel 3 is in the discussion for greatest smartphone camera ever. Daylight images are detailed, well balanced, and show off great color. At night, the Pixel 3a delivers some of the best, most detailed photos you’ll see in that type of lighting condition—thanks to its brilliant Night Sight mode.

Shot with the Google Pixel 3a
Shot with the Google Pixel 3a

Now, as incredible a camera system as it is, the Pixel 3a’s setup isn’t entirely identical to the Pixel 3. The big difference is on the front, where the Pixel 3a has only one 8MP sensor, as opposed to the Pixel 3’s two (a wide and ultrawide). On top of the missing sensor, I didn’t think the Pixel 3a’s front camera produced images as good as the Pixel 3. I had to go off memory, so I can’t be 100-percent certain, but all my photos seemed quite a bit softer than what I shot with the Pixel 3. Not a huge deal to me, however, because I don’t take a lot of selfies, but it’s worth mentioning if that’s important to you.

Pick a Pixel

At this point in the review, you might be asking: If the Pixel 3a is so great, why would anyone buy the Pixel 3? It’s a fair question. On the surface, the Pixel 3a does seem to match the Pixel 3 where it matters most, and costs a heck of a lot less. However, despite similarities in performance and near-identical camera, there are differences.

It might not be glaringly obvious, but the Pixel 3 does use more “premium” materials in its design, specifically aluminum and Gorilla Glass 5—compared to the Pixel 3a’s polycarbonate body and Asahi Dragontrail Glass. Also, the Pixel 3’s Snapdragon 845 chipset is more advanced than the 3a’s Snapdragon 670, something you might notice if you’re trying to run a ton of applications at once. We mentioned the extra ultra-wide front camera you get with the Pixel 3. In addition to that, the Pixel 3 also features wireless charging and water resistance—both missing from the Pixel 3a.

The question, then, is whether those features matter enough to drive buyers toward the Pixel 3.

Personally, I don’t think they are. If I were in the market for a new phone, and I was choosing between the Pixel 3 and the 3a, I would opt for the mid-range. The value is just too good. I can forego wireless charging and roll the dice on not dropping my phone in the toilet (again) to save the extra cash. Others might disagree, and that’s totally fine—I can see why you would. But whatever your preference, what’s clear is that Pixel 3a is an excellent smartphone with a best-in-class camera and arguably the best overall value you’ll find in a premium mid-range smartphone today.

Is the Pixel 3a for you? Let us know in the Comments section!