It's been two and a half years since we broke the story that the Nexus brand was going away to be replaced with an entirely new brand and vision — what ended up becoming the Pixel. With it came an equally dramatic pricing change: Nexuses had slowly increased in price over the last few generations, but the big bump in pricing with the Pixel, followed by further raises with the Pixel 2 and 3, truly left behind the Android enthusiasts who loved the low price and high value the Nexus line provided previously.
For the first time since the original Pixel launched, we have a phone that bears the Pixel name but a Nexus price: the Pixel 3a. The small size, plastic build and $399 starting price will give any Nexus fan flashbacks to the Nexus 5x and even the original Nexus 5 before it.
Let's make things clear from the start: the Pixel 3a isn't a Nexus, and the Nexus line isn't coming back. The Nexus was nominally aimed at providing developers with an inexpensive phone running Google-sanctioned Android. But its barebones software sprinkled with little Google flourishes, paired with guaranteed updates and great capabilities for the money, quickly made it the enthusiast phone of choice. The Nexus 6P was already starting to creep toward focusing on consumers (and higher prices), rather than developers — but that switch really didn't arrive until the first Pixel did.
The Pixel 3a, like the rest of the Pixel phones, is coming at things from the exact opposite side from the Nexus. With the Pixel, Google is targeting mass-market smartphone buyer, not the enthusiast or developer. And the Pixel 3a is just a continuation of that mission — this time focused on price-conscious consumers in order to add value to the Pixel and Google brands as a whole starting at a lower price point for even wider reach.
But the crucial difference with the Pixel 3a is that it blends the best consumer-facing benefits of the Nexus line with the already consumer-focused vision of the Pixel. Like Nexuses before, the Pixel 3a makes strategic cuts in hardware in order to hit a tantalizing price point — enthusiasts sure love that. But it does so while retaining all of what makes a "Google" phone so great — everyone loves that.
Sure the hardware quality is clearly a step down, and you don't get features like stereo front-facing speakers, water resistance or the latest processor. But even at $400, you get Google's simple hardware design, Google's excellent software with guaranteed updates, and most importantly the exact same camera quality that makes the Pixel 3 and 3 XL the benchmark for phone cameras at any price.
The Pixel 3a isn't a proper successor to the Nexus phones that so many enthusiasts (myself included) loved. But three generations into the Pixel line, it's clear that this is the closest thing we're going to get. And once you take off those Nexus-shaded glasses, you realize that isn't a bad thing at all.
In many ways, the fact that the Pixel 3a isn't a "Nexus" means that it's being held to a higher standard and ends up being a better device than Nexus fans were asking for. It follows many of the Nexus principles that mattered most to end users — affordable price, Google software and simple features — and brought them up to elevated levels for 2019 with a truly wonderful camera, which is something no Nexus ever had. And the only compromise that was made is leaving behind all of the truly nerdy and developer-focus heritage of the "Nexus" name. Nexus is dead, but the Pixel 3a is a capable replacement enthusiasts and normal smartphone buyers alike can embrace.
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Andrew was an Executive Editor, U.S. at Android Central between 2012 and 2020.