Google Pixel 3a and 3a XL

Whether it was because of the extremely long run-up or just the prospect of getting a Pixel 3-level software experience and camera for a considerably lower price, the Pixel 3a and 3a XL launch was highly anticipated and hyped. Early takes on the phone were, rightly, positive — the Pixel 3a is an amazing phone for $400. We just named it our best sub-$400 phone, and it's absolutely worth the $50-100 premium over competitors like the Nokia 7.1 and Moto G7.

But the Pixel 3a love started to get out of hand when some said that the Pixel 3a was a better buy than the Pixel 3 itself. The argument being that the phone is functionally the same as the more expensive original, and Google's strategic hardware cuts meant you wouldn't notice anything different in daily use — but you'd absolutely appreciate the $400 savings.

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It takes only a few days to realize the Pixel 3a is a fantastic $400 phone — but nothing more than that.

Now that the initial Pixel 3a hype has worn off, and I've had a few weeks to digest what this phone is actually about, I have a better feel for where it stands without the superfluous narratives. It takes but a few days using the Pixel 3a (in my case, a 3a XL) to realize that it's a fantastic $400 phone — but it's nothing more than that, and in no way a better phone than the Pixel 3 or even a phone priced between the two like the OnePlus 7 Pro.

Comparing the Pixel 3a and 3a XL with the 3 and 3 XL is a typical case of the spec sheet not telling the same story as actually using the phones. On paper, they seem like they have the same basic features and perform in roughly the same way; in reality, the moment you pick up a Pixel 3a you know it's a far less expensive phone with many compromises.

Pixel 3a Xl and Pixel 3 XL

Plastic is a fine material to make a phone out of — but it isn't a replacement for metal or glass, and nobody is going to prefer the cheaper, hollow feel of the 3a to the substantial solidity of the 3. Similarly, the 3a's screen quality is right in line with the $400 competition and gets the job done, but it doesn't live up to even the Pixel 3's relatively low quality standards.

The Pixel 3a's software performance is also noticeably slower (although acceptable for the price), which should come as no surprise considering the lower-end processor. Animations are nowhere near as smooth as they are on the Pixel 3, and apps consistently take a couple extra beats to open. Google deserves credit for outfitting this inexpensive phone with the same 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage as the higher end model, though that's more of a condemnation of the Pixel 3 for being behind the times in both categories considering its much higher price.

The Pixel 3 is better in every respect, and substantially so in many areas.

The Pixel 3 also offers a bunch of little things that seem insignificant until you add them up. The ultra-wide selfie camera is great for group shots. The substantially better haptics make the phone just that much more enjoyable to use every day. Water resistance may not be something you can see or "use" per se, but you'll be thankful for it when the time comes. Unlimited full-resolution Google Photos backups can easily be valued at $50 per year considering how much Google One storage costs.

The Pixel 3a still deserves credit for what it offers and the immense value it represents at $400 (and for the 3a XL at $480, of course). Being able to get the same Pixel 3 camera quality — from both main and selfie cameras — at this price is a massive differentiator, and the primary reason it's such an amazing phone. The same goes for the Google software experience, which is one of the best you can get at any price; and years of guaranteed updates is an even bigger deal on a sub-$500 phone where update futures are questionable. And the Pixel 3a actually has something the 3 doesn't: a headphone jack. A little victory.

Just because the Pixel 3a and 3a XL aren't dominant phones that obviate the need for their high-end predecessors doesn't mean they're failures in the least. The Pixel 3a can be "just" a great $400 phone and still be a completely successful and valuable product for Google. It isn't some world-beating unexplainable value that is inarguably a better phone than the $800 Pixel 3. And it doesn't have to be in order to be a great phone I'll regularly recommend to people shopping for a new phone on a budget.

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