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Google Pixel 3a & 3a XL review: The best camera gets cheaper

Pixel 3a
(Image: © Android Central)

I love living somewhere with distinct seasons — there's nothing like going outside in a t-shirt for the first time after a cold, unrelenting winter — but I envy people who can go outside year-round and find lush color wherever they go. It's not just that it's good for the soul, but it's better for reviewing phone cameras — the reds and blues of budding flower petals and the growing canopy of green tree leaves make for better backdrops than bare branches and cold, snowy sidewalks.

So it's kind of nice to be reviewing a phone, especially a phone this good, as the buds bloom and the sun shines stronger than it has in months. It's also really nice to be able to walk outside and take photos of that new life with a phone camera so good for its price it's almost hard to believe.

The phone I'm talking about is the Pixel 3a XL, Google's first sub-$500 phone since the Nexus 6P in 2015 and the first Pixel meant to compete directly with Chinese brands like Xiaomi, OPPO, Vivo, and others that are being rewarded for outfitting their products with top-of-the-line specs and accepting razor-thin margins. (There's also a smaller Pixel 3a, which costs $399, but I haven't had a chance to use it).

Google's aim with the Pixel 3a line is to recreate as much of the Pixel 3 experience as possible without undermining the brand, and it's done a pretty great job.

Google Pixel 3a + 3a XL Hardware & Specs

The Pixel 3a XL looks like what the Pixel 3 XL would have looked like if Google decided that it didn't want to emphasize screen size over aesthetics: its 6-inch OLED display has a symmetrical 18:9 aspect ratio and, technically, less real estate than its more expensive counterpart only because it lacks that phone's divisive (and ugly) notch.

The Pixel 3a looks like a Pixel 3. The Pixel 3a XL looks like a... Pixel 2 XL.

This makes the 3a XL look a lot more like the Pixel 2 XL, though its screen resolution is a more modest 1080p and it only has one front-facing speaker, not two. Thankfully, the 3a XL doesn't imitate the Pixel 2 XL's worst quality: its display. While less dense, this is otherwise a fantastic screen and you'll likely never notice a difference in resolution unless you have a QHD phone next to it. Warm, vibrant, and with surprisingly good viewing angles and touch response, this is one of the better 1080p OLED displays I've used.

Google's also outfitted the Pixel 3a XL with an all-plastic body, or what the company's calling "polycarbonate unibody," but it feels remarkably, almost eerily, like the Pixel 3's combination of aluminum and glass. This is Google's long game: it made the Pixel 3 (and the Pixel 2 before it) to feel unlike the traditional metal-and-glass phones you're used to, so it gets away with putting the same glossed sides and frosted back coating on its cheaper phone, too. You lose wireless charging on the 3a series, which is a shame, but despite being an overall taller and thicker phone, the Pixel 3a XL is 17 grams lighter than the 3 XL.

Google achieves this without compromising build quality — the chassis is solid, and the buttons are clicky — but it also included a 3700mAh battery in the Pixel 3a XL, an 8% increase over the 3 XL, and the largest ever found in a Pixel phone to date. Of course, it's not hard to find a well-built phone under $500 these days — look at anything from Xiaomi, OPPO, Honor, etc. — but I'm impressed that Google did all this with plastic, which generally holds up pretty well to wear over time, and doesn't suffer the same gouge-and-shatter fate as many all-glass phones.

One could make the argument that the Pixel 3a series' design is a bit boring, and you wouldn't be wrong — the restrained minimalism inherent to all of Google's Pixel products is still here, but the large bezels on the front and the asymmetrical camera placement, plus rear fingerprint sensor, on the back isn't striking.

Give me a reliable capacitive fingerprint sensor over an in-display sensor any day.

That rear fingerprint sensor remains the sole way to authenticate on the Pixel 3: you won't find facial recognition of any kind here, and Google's yet to make the move to in-display optical or ultrasonic sensors, which is a logical decision for a phone at this price point. It's incredibly fast, and refreshingly reliable, and I'm honestly going to miss it once I revert to a more expensive 2019 flagship like the Huawei P30 Pro or Galaxy S10.

On the sound front, Google's maintained dual speakers, but the lower port no longer faces you: it's downward-facing, like most phones out there, while the phone's earpiece continues to play double duty. The speakers are still loud; they're now just fine instead of great, but I'm not complaining. There's also, almost inexplicably, a headphone jack on the top of the phone. It's a weird and wonderful addition, and one that may have been possible due to the phone's additional thickness over the Pixel 3 series, but it's more likely that Google just decided the regions this phone is being marketed to expect a headphone jack at this price point. Whatever the reason, I'm glad it's here. Unlike the Pixel 3, though, the 3a series doesn't have headphones in the box.

I mentioned you lose wireless charging, but you still have 18W fast wired charging, and Google includes its high-quality AC adapter and USB-C to C cable in the box, which is a plus. Google's also made sure to include the same high-quality vibration motor in here, so you're getting superb and precise haptics, easily the best on a sub-$500 phone.

Specs — Snapdragon 670, 4GB of RAM, and a lot of questions

CategoryPixel 3aPixel 3a XL
Display5.6-inch
2220 x 1080
OLED
18.5:9
6.0-inch
2160 x 1080
OLED
18:9
ProcessorQualcomm Snapdragon 670
2.0GHz + 1.7GHz
Octa-core
Qualcomm Snapdragon 670
2.0GHz + 1.7GHz
Octa-core
RAM4GB
LPDDR4
4GB
LPDDR4
Storage64GB64GB
Rear Camera12.2MP
Dual-Pixel Sony IMX363
OIS + EIS
f/1.8 aperture
12.2MP
Dual-Pixel Sony IMX363
OIS + EIS
f/1.8 aperture
Front Camera8MP
f/2.0 aperture
8MP
f/2.0 aperture
Battery3,000 mAh
18w fast charging
3,700 mAh
18w fast charging
Dimensions151.3 x 70.1 x 8.2mm160.1 x 76.1 x 8.2mm
Weight147g167g

Inside the chassis is where things get interesting. Google has opted for a Snapdragon 670 platform for its Pixel 3a line, and it's an interesting hybrid of a chip. It uses eight Kryo cores, much like the more expensive Snapdragon 8xx series, but only two of them are considered "Performance" cores, going up to a maximum of 2.0Ghz. The other six max at 1.7Ghz, and overall synthetic performance falls somewhere between the Snapdragon 820 and 835 for sheer power, at least from a CPU side.

But that's not telling the whole story. Modern Kryo cores are much more efficient than in previous generations, and when all eight cores are working together, this chip is pretty quick. The Adreno 615 GPU is also quite capable, delivering adequate performance in every graphics-intensive game and task I threw at it.

Can you tell the Pixel 3a XL from the Pixel 3 XL?

The rest of the chip is decidedly 2019 but for one exception. The Snapdragon 670 has a 2019-era Spectra image signal processor, so you can be sure photos from the Pixel 3a look as good as the Pixel 3, and the Hexagon DSP supports the same AI and machine learning frameworks as the more modern Snapdragon 855. The only major thing missing from the chip is support for gigabit LTE; this one maxes out at 600Mbps as it doesn't support 4x CA or 4x4 MIMO.

The Pixel 3a series also maxes at 4GB of RAM and 64GB of RAM, the former of which gets my hackles up. The regular Pixel 3 and 3 XL clearly suffer from insufficient RAM, which caused problems ranging from disappearing photos to slow app loading times. I've yet to have any of these experiences on the Pixel 3a XL — performance has been perfect so far — but it's still a bit worrisome given Pixel phones' predilections for slowing down over time.

The Camera

From what I can tell, the Pixel 3a series uses the same camera hardware as the Pixel 3, and despite processing differences, produces near-identical photos. Which is remarkable.

Both the 3a and 3a XL employ the same 12.2MP Sony IMX363 sensor as the Pixel 3, along with an f/1.8 aperture, optical and electronic stabilization, dual autofocus phase detection autofocus, and plenty of post-processing through Google's HDR+ algorithms. There are two omissions, though: the Pixel 3a series lacks a spectral/flicker sensor, which eliminates the banding found when taking photos or videos of backlit LEDs and helps with color accuracy; and it lacks Google's specialized Pixel Visual Core, which speeds up photo processing significantly.

So here's the tl;dr on the camera: it's spectacular. You're getting the same quality of photos that you get on the Pixel 3 but for half the price. And it's not just the photo quality — Google's brought over every major feature from its more expensive phones, too, including Night Sight, Top Shot, Super Res Zoom, Motion Autofocus, and insanely good video stabilization.

It's also debuting a new feature on the Pixel 3a, which will come to other Pixel phones shortly: Timelapse. The feature sits in the same overflow menu as Night Sight, and it allows you to stick your phone somewhere and get time lapses of between 6fps and 30fps, compressing up to 20 minutes into 10 seconds of video.

Pixel 3a XL (left) | Pixel 3 (right)

Pixel 3a XL Night Sight (left) | Pixel 3 Night Sight (right)

What Google's accomplished here is nothing short of staggering, and proves that when most of the magic is done with software, you don't need ultra-powerful hardware or multiple sensors to produce great shots. I can only point to a single aspect of the rear camera experience that left me wanting: processing speed.

Pixel 3a XL (left) | Pixel 3a XL Night Sight (right)

The Snapdragon 670 is considerably slower than the S845 in the Pixel 3, and compounding the issue is the 3a's lack of Google's Pixel Visual Core, so HDR+ photos take about double the length to "complete" as they do on Google's phones. It doesn't stop you from taking many photos at once, but when switching to the gallery you'll see a lower-resolution placeholder until the numbers have finished crunching. It doesn't break the spell, but it certainly exposes the strings being pulled behind the scenes to make these incredible photos happen.

Things are a bit more different on the front of the phone. There's only a single 8MP selfie camera this time, and while it's of the same very high quality as the Pixel 3, there's no autofocus, so you'll have to be sure you're not too close to the camera. There's also no second wide-angle lens, which I missed more than I expected to, but it was likely an easy cost-cutting decision for Google to make.

My one reservation about the camera comes back to my concern about long-term performance on the phone itself, but so far the Pixel 3a XL has been reliable and consistent, opening the camera app quickly and taking photos reliably.

Software and updates

The Pixel 3a launches with Android Pie, and it's the same version you'll find on all other Pixel phones. It also runs identically, because Google's done a lot with this hardware. Still, if you're not a fan of Google's navigation gestures, or prefer something a bit more feature-rich, this software experience won't change your mind.

But it may be worth putting up with the Pixel's interpretation of Android if you want three years of platform updates and security patches; expect the Pixel 3a to be updated to at least Android S in 2021, and perhaps Android T in 2022 depending on how generous Google is feeling. That's a pretty important distinction from the rest of the industry — plus Google's reliable monthly security patches add some more confidence to the whole affair.

Bottom line — Who is this for?

At $479 the Pixel 3a XL feels like a bit of a bargain. If you're into smaller phones, the $399 Pixel 3a is even more so. These phones have maintained most of what makes the Pixel 3 series among the most enjoyable phones to use, and in my week-long testing, I've noticed none of the performance hiccups that sullied some of that luster.

I miss wireless charging, and the lack of waterproofing is a bit of a bummer, but otherwise the biggest compliment I can give to the Pixel 3a series is that it using it on a day-to-day basis is practically indistinguishable from the Pixel 3. That may be its biggest curse, too, but at under $500 people are likely to be a lot more forgiving.

4 out of 5

Releasing the Pixel 3a lineup halfway through its flagships' product cycle appears like a strange move, but Google admitted during its recent quarterly earnings that it's not selling as many Pixel 3s as it would like; the high-end phone market is seriously competitive. So where is the remaining growth opportunity? In markets where the Pixel either doesn't yet sell, or is too expensive. Places like India, Latin America and parts of Europe where the Pixel brand doesn't hold sway. By introducing a sub-$500 phone to those regions that promises to offer the best camera you can buy, plus three years of platform updates and security patches, feels like a pretty shrewd move. We'll just have to see if it pays off.

Daniel Bader was a former Android Central Editor-in-Chief and Executive Editor for iMore and Windows Central. 

57 Comments
  • Proof that Pixel was over-priced all along. This is more like it.
  • It's missing quite a few things that's why it's cheaper
  • Doesn't matter, it was still over-priced.
  • Over-priced is meaningless unless assigned a comparative value, which is a subjective matter if there are differentiators. The premium Pixels (and for that matter, even these new models) offer certain functions/features better than any other flagship (or that aren't even available on others); in fairness, the same can be said for any other flagship as well. Feeling it's overpriced simply means one finds its value - for their needs - to be lower than that offered by its competitors.
  • The Pixel 3a series are missing things to achieve it's low price but it kept the thing that matters, like the great camera and the headphone jack is back.
  • no expendable storage, no sale
  • You have Google photos to back up your photos and videos so what's your problem? You'rel not the target audience for this phone.
  • Sometimes streaming a 3gig movie over mobile data is not the best way to go ;)
  • Why would you watch a movie on a phone?
  • I've never understood that either. All power to them though if you want to watch a movie on a 6 inch screen though. Makes no f'in sense to me.
  • Maybe he's homless?😁
  • If I was homeless, I wouldn't have anyplace to charge my phone, lol.
    Seriously though, I like watching movies on the phone because I can watch things that I wouldn't have time for otherwise. Same with books that I used to read on my Palm. I can close my office and spend an hour watching something during lunch, or if it's a wait and see situation for work and I'm on standby, it's nice to have a collection when you are underground and without wi-fi. I have 32 full length movies on the phone right now, and also a few dozen episodes or regular shows. Your mileage may vary, but having a decent size screen with loud stereo speakers in theatre mode is pretty immersive. You just get sucked in and forget its a phone. Just after I bought Spiderman -Into the Spiderverse, a friend stopped in while I was watching it. It sucked her in too and after about 15 minutes we were laying down and watching it shoulder to shoulder, which didn't make my wife too happy, but it does show how much better the experience is than you would think.
  • I got the Pixel 3 for $599. My only regret is that a month later Fi had it at $400 for their anniversary. Now that the 3a is out, I still prefer the 3.
  • I also picked up a Pixel 3 at a massive discount late last year, but there have been some great annoyances with it as far as I'm concerned. First is the lack of headphone jack, which has turned out to be a much bigger impact than I anticipated with how I use my phones, and secondly the phone just sucks as a phone. Usually I hear people on the other end of the line well, volume is loud enough so that even my deaf years can do what they were intended to do by the Jesus. However, people on the other end of the line always complain about how terrible they hear me. So the phone is failing at the phone function, while it does everything else generally well. Lastly, my previous phone was a Nexus 6, which is still generally a better phone than the new Pixel 3, albeit in a behemoth form. I don't like the narrow screens used on the newer phones, not after having use it now for a good 5 or 6 months. I still prefer to use my N6 at home over the Pixel 3 for just about everything, and it's much easier to get into and repair. So while I do have a Pixel 3, I'm not in love with it. We already know the 3a has a headphone jack, win. We know it has a plastic case which is a win for potentially be able to access the internals of the phone easier, that's another win. Speaking of the plastic case, it's going to be much more durable, win. I'm so so glad to see phones go back to plastic. Premium materials don't mean jack if you cover the phone in a case anyways, plus plastic is just lighter. It has a bigger battery with a much more efficient processor, so the expectation should be that the 3a XL may become the new champion for battery life. I'm not sure how it could possibly be worse at handling phone calls than the Pixel 3 so that's probably a win though we should wait to be certain. Sure this phone isn't perfect, and the older 3, arguably the older Pixel 2, have better processors, better screens, etc, but this is a step in the right direction. When it's time for me to buy a new phone, or maybe even before then, I'm seriously looking at the 3a.
  • They need to bring their hardware to South Africa as well it’s needed.
  • Images looks slightly darker than the regular Pixel, which is already too dark and "contrasty" in a lot of situations. I know I'm in the minority, but I've always felt like the outdoor photos from the Pixel 3 look like there's a solar eclipse - they simply tend to be darker than reality based on my experience.
  • Should they have called this a Nexus instead? I can imaging someone at these cell phone stores trying to explain the differences?? 3 or 3a? 3XL or 3aXL???
  • I don't get it. Why would you choose this over, let's say, Pixel 2 (XL)? Yes, it's few years older, but still has better hardware. And you would able to get a mint/like new for under $400. Am I wrong to think that the 3a should have been priced more like $299 and 3a XL $350? I think they're overpricing their products (thus the slow sales of 3 and 3XL).
  • Way overpriced looks like a phone from 2016 I don’t understand what google is doing 4gb of ram 64gb storage for 400 and 479 really hard pass
  • It's a mid-range phone not a budget phone. There's no phone in it's category that can match the camera.
  • True... Nothing in this price range is going to touch the camera.
  • Yes, 4gb is questionable due to their RAM management issues, and I'd be uncomfortable with 64gb of storage, but what makes it look like 2016?
  • I agree. These phones are still too overpriced for these specs.
  • The price is justified with the greatcamera and best software on Android.
  • The Pixel 3a series price is completely justified with the same great camera and software from flagship Pixel 3.
  • So the pros are: Camera, camera, software updates, price, and camera. Got it! Cons are: 4GB RAM, 64GB storage, no memory expansion, no Edge Sense.
  • This has squeeze action which can be edited with third party apps.
  • Ah, thanks for that. I must have missed it in the article.
  • hmm...battery is what moves me. Reports are it's a two day phone for "non-heavy users".
  • 1 pro about the Pixel 3a series is that people don't mention is that the Pixel 3a camera has OIS which most midrange phones don't have at this price
  • Defo getting the XL of this.
  • Apart from the camera and battery, my Nokia 8.1 is better than the Pixel 3a and I use the GCam app so my photos are almost as good.
  • So glad they kept the same haptics engine in this phone as the more expensive Pixel 3. People really don't know what they're missing out on in regards to that. If I wouldn't have gotten the 3XL I'm using so cheap ($600 for a 128GB model) I would've definitely sprung on one of these phones. However, it'll most certainly be my mom and dad's Mother's Day and Father's Day gift because they're rocking a Moto G6 and Z2 Play respectively but love taking pictures and those cameras are trash. Plus, those devices are slow now and outdated to boot, and lack dual speakers. These new phones are definitely a smart move by Google, finally. Now I just hope they price their flagship Pixel 4 appropriately too.
  • This covers the checklist (camera, availability, ease-of-use, price, etc) incredibly well compared to its in-range competition. $300 after $100 Play Store credit for the 3a (where most people would find real use for most of that credit for car charger (since many won't have had USB-C before), case, etc) makes it a ridiculously compelling value. Only thing they missed was doing a rose-colored special edition in the XL version with a preset "Paradise City" ringtone - the Pixel 3 aXL Rose.
  • For me the Pixel 3a is priced correctly with that great Pixel Android software and camera.
  • Agreed. This is price at release. Within a month this phone will see reductions and toward the end of the year, as new phones start coming out, I wouldn't be surprised to see it at the $250 range, at which point it's going to be a steal.
  • This is a great phone for $400. If it had wireless charging it would be unbeatable. The opportunity to get into the Google ecosystem with a pure Android phone is awesome.
  • Agreed. I would like a wide angle camera (out back) as well. But certainly putting wireless charging would help make it more premium. Still, its tough to beat in the mid-range.
  • T-Mobile is giving you $400 in bill credits for a trade in. $400 for my LG V30. No brainer
  • Does T-mobile have a budget senior friendly plan?
    I'm fixed income, love this chance at a 3a XL
  • It's a game changer. Finally the price of phone hardware technology is going in the right direction. The ability to have a pure Android phone with the Google ecosystem for $400 is awesome. We may get to a point where we can upgrade every year for a few hundred bucks.
  • "Nothing in this price range is going to touch the camera."
    True, but if you're a camera buff an extra $300- $500 for a camera that can replace your carry around camera is a small price to pay. The largest incentive to buy a top line phone is the camera for most people. That's why I own a Huawei.
  • That is a good point, and I have to admit my Nikon is not getting used as much these days.
  • I would rather have a great camera with great bloat free software that is easy to use without no needless manual mode without useless bloat.
  • First off; I sometimes do paid professional photography, so having full manual controls over shutter speed, ISO, and being able to directly set the specific color temperature in Kelvin for white balance is very useful (for me at least). But when you don't need it, it's not in the way either.
    Secondly, I would not call it useless bloat, especially when the full featured software on the U12+ is faster than the Pixel software. That being said, The Pixel has an awesome camera, and I think it's great you can get it for this price now.
  • Just wait a few weeks or a month or so and these phones will be on sale and then it will be a no brainier for me at least. I just don't like having to go back to a phone with large bezels again considering all the newer phones are trying to do away with them.
  • Keep in mind that the 5.6 inch screen on the 3a only provides a 5 inch viewing area for 16:9 content
  • True, and not many people are aware that. In our desperation to get rid of bezels, we replaced them with virtual bezels and a notch-shaped bezel.
  • Small typo in article - The Pixel 3a series also maxes at 4GB of RAM and 64GB of RAM, the former of which gets my hackles up. 64 gb of ram instead of storage. Well written and on spot as usual otherwise.
  • Whelp, time to see how many quarters they will give me for trading in ye olden Pixel 1 128GB. LOL
  • The Pixel 3a XL is a game changer for the midranger segment, I can live with the compromises that Google had make to achieve this.
  • "In markets where the Pixel either doesn't yet sell, or is too expensive. Places like India, Latin America and parts of Europe where the Pixel brand doesn't hold sway. By introducing a sub-$500 phone to those regions that promises to offer the best camera you can buy,..." The pixel 3a XL is priced at around $642(converted to USD from INR). It's laughably expensive here, I don't see many people buying this overpriced phone, especially in India.
  • The Pixel 3 series have a "great" camera because of the "flagship" processor. The processor in this Pixel 3a are way inferior to that on the Pixel 3 so the camera quality are far from being the same.
    Do not be fooled. Camera quality is inferior to the Pixel 3
  • I don't know about that. The processing takes longer on the 3a, but the photo examples given in this article look almost identical.
  • If you want photos from children,
    Buy a real camera.
  • I don't know about that, the children I know take horrible photographs...
  • Just a note about the vibration motor: It's not the same as the Pixel 3.
    The Pixel 3a uses a coin style LRA (Linear Resonant Actuator) that vibrates at a specific frequency and moves front to back.
    The Pixel 3 uses a Precision Haptic Motor which can vibrate at whatever frequency the control driver sends to it. The PHM weights move side to side as mounted in the Pixel 3. Interestingly, although the 3a does NOT have the same precision haptic motor as the Pixel 3, the U12+ does. I have both vibrations motors from the 3 and U12 on my desk right now, and they operate exactly the same. An oval electromagnetic coil is centered over two magnets, and the polarity of the coil pushes the magnets left or right. Both vibration motor magnet/weight assemblies weigh about the same, with the Pixel weights being slightly heavier. However, the HTC haptic motor has the advantage because it uses four magnets with the coil in the middle. The Pixel 3 haptic motor has two magnets and the coil drives them from one side, wasting half the magnetic field of the coil.