Google Pixel 3a vs. Pixel 3: Which should you buy?

Google Pixel 3a XL
Google Pixel 3a XL (Image credit: Alex Dobie / Android Central)

Google Pixel 3a

Google Pixel 3a

The Pixel 3a is particularly interesting because it brings the Pixel 3's excellent camera to the mid-range segment. That means you get the same image quality as a true flagship for much less. You also get the same great software experience, and it still offers incredible value even a year after launch.

Google Pixel 3a

Incredible value

Same great rear camera as Pixel 3
Astounding value for money
Headphone jack
Stereo speakers
No wireless charging
No IP rating
Plastic build

Google Pixel 3

Google Pixel 3

If you're looking for a small phone with top-notch hardware at a sub-flagship price, the Pixel 3 is a good competitor to the 3a. You're getting better hardware and IP68 resistance, but it's otherwise starting to show its age. This is now a nearly two-year-old phone, meaning its software update future is relatively short.

Google Pixel 3

Discounted flagship

Great for one-handed use
Dual front cameras
IP68 resistance
Wireless charging
Sleek metal build
No headphone jack
Weak battery life
Shorter software update lifespan

The Pixel 3a has a lot of the same qualities as the Pixel 3

At first glance, it's easy to see that the Pixel 3a shares a lot of similarities with the Pixel 3. Aside from minor variations in dimensions, these are identical devices from a design point of view. That said, both phones use different materials. The Pixel 3 has a glass back with a coating that gives it a matte finish, whereas the Pixel 3a is made out of polycarbonate (aka plastic).

The Pixel 3a has the best camera of any sub-$400 phone in the market today.

What makes the Pixel 3a truly stand out though is its cameras. Google is offering the same 12.2MP rear camera that you get on the Pixel 3, and the result is that the Pixel 3a blows every other device in this price point out of the water when it comes to image quality. I shot photos extensively with the Pixel 3a XL over a week and was constantly amazed by how close the phone was to the Pixel 3 series in this regard. Essentially, the Pixel 3a is a lightweight version of the Pixel 3 that has the same camera but with a few other features missing.

The Pixel 3a also has solid speakers, but they're both located at the bottom of the device. They deliver an impressive amount of sound, but it's not the same as the front-facing stereo sound that you get with the Pixel 3. That said, the Pixel 3a marks the return of the headphone jack, a welcome move from Google.

You also get a marginally larger 3,000mAh battery on the Pixel 3a, though that leads to notably better battery life when paired with the lower-power processor. The phone has the same capacitive fingerprint sensor as the Pixel 3. Best of all — particularly considering how much the Pixel 3a costs — Google is providing the same three years of guaranteed security and platform updates, making the Pixel 3a that much more enticing.

Elsewhere, you get the same 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage, but there's no 128GB option on the Pixel 3a. There's also a single camera at the front, and while the selfie quality is almost as good as what you get on the Pixel 3, you miss out on the wide-angle lens option for big groups.

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CategoryGoogle Pixel 3aGoogle Pixel 3
Operating systemAndroid 10Android 10
Display5.6-inch gOLED
2220x1080 (18.5:9)
Dragon Trail
5.5-inch OLED
2160x1080 (18:9)
Gorilla Glass 5
ChipsetQualcomm Snapdragon 670
Adreno 615
Qualcomm Snapdragon 845
Pixel Visual Core
Adreno 630
MicroSD slotNoNo
Rear camera12.2MP, 1.4-micron, PDAF
f/1.8, OIS
12.2MP, 1.4-micron, PDAF
f/1.8, OIS
Front camera 18MP, auto focus
f/2.0, 84-degree lens
8MP, auto focus
f/1.8, 75-degree lens
Front camera 2No8MP, fixed focus
f/2.2, 97-degree lens
ConnectivityWi-Fi 802.11ac 2x2 MIMO, Bluetooth 5.0 LE, NFC, GPSWi-Fi 802.11ac 2x2 MIMO, Bluetooth 5.0 LE, NFC, GPS
AudioStereo speakers
3.5mm jack
Stereo speakers
Charging18W USB-C PD18W USB-C PD
Qi wireless
Water resistanceNoIP68
SecurityFingerprint sensorFingerprint sensor
Dimensions151.3 x 70.1 x 8.2mm
145.6 x 68.2 x 7.9mm

You do get a few extras with the Pixel 3

Google Pixel 3

Source: Android Central (Image credit: Source: Android Central)

Although the Pixel 3a offers great value, Google has removed a few features to bring it to that sub-$400 price point. Key among them is wireless charging and water resistance. So if you need those features, you'll want to pick up a Pixel 3 instead. Those features come along with a better-feeling metal-and-glass body compared to the Pixel 3a's (admittedly well-executed) plastic build.

Pixel 3 has wireless charging, water resistance, and better cameras up front.

The Pixel 3a is powered by the Snapdragon 670 processor, and while it holds up to scrutiny for everyday tasks, it isn't quite as powerful as the Snapdragon 845 on the Pixel 3 for heavy-duty gaming. The 845 may be old by 2020 standards, but it's still a very powerful processor compared to the 600 series.

The Pixel 3 also has dual cameras up front that are better than what you get with the Pixel 3a. The primary sensor uses an f/1.8 lens (versus f/2.0), and the phone also has a secondary wide-angle lens that makes a lot of difference when taking group selfies.

Pixel 3a is the better choice for value

Google Pixel 3a

Source: Harish Jonnalagadda / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Harish Jonnalagadda / Android Central)

If I had to pick a winner of the two, it would have to be the Pixel 3a. The one standout feature on the Pixel series has always been the camera, and the 3a brings that to the mid-range segment. Yes, it doesn't have the same hardware as the Pixel 3, and it's missing out on wireless charging and water resistance, but it excels at the basics. Plus, it has a 3.5mm headphone jack. So if you're looking for a phone for under $400 that has an excellent camera and is great for everyday usage, the Pixel 3a is the obvious choice.

If you need the extra features, then you'll have to pay a little more to get your hands on the Pixel 3. And if you catch a sale, you may even be able to get the Pixel 3 for the same price as the 3a — and at that point, the 3 is a better choice. Just know that you're buying a two-generation old phone, with the Pixel 4 available, and that means it's starting to feel its age in some ways as well.

Harish Jonnalagadda
Senior Editor - Asia

Harish Jonnalagadda is a Senior Editor overseeing Asia at Android Central. He leads the site's coverage of Chinese phone brands, contributing to reviews, features, and buying guides. He also writes about storage servers, audio products, and the semiconductor industry. Contact him on Twitter at @chunkynerd.