The Pixel 3a, Google’s new ‘lite’ version of its flagship phone, has been rapturously received in the US where it costs $399. Here in the UK where the Pixel 3a is £399, its reception has been positive if slightly more muted.
This is a capable smartphone that mostly cuts the correct corners in order to keep the price down and bucks the trend for silly tech extras that don’t amount to much.
The only problem? It’s far from alone with lots of choice in this nebulous space between budget and flagship phones, including the brilliant value OnePlus 7 (£499) and the new Motorola One Vision (£269). (Admittedly, Google has been forced to curb one smartphone maker and partner Huawei this week – in a dramatic move, it has banned Huawei from using full Android and Google services to comply with the US government.)
Like last year’s Pixel 3, the 3a is doing something subtly different. The combination of the compact, non-intimidating design; clean Android interface and simple but reliable camera mean that this isn’t a phone built for tech geeks, it’s a phone for everyone else. That’s to be applauded, but without the obvious upgrades to reel us in, the Pixel 3a’s biggest competition is, in fact, the phones already in our pockets.
The Pixel 3’s camera and AR Maps
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Part of the problem that a phone like the Pixel 3a, and the larger £469 Pixel 3a XL, face is that whether it’s through bombastic press conferences or huge billboards, it’s easy to get swept along in all the jargon and gimmicks. Google has thrown a few of those in – yes, Photo booth will automatically take a selfie with the 8MP front facing camera if you smile or do a ‘duck face’, but it pretty much just takes a snap every time you move your head.
Mostly, though, the Pixel 3a is not for power users, looking to maximise the hardware they’re paying for, but we would recommend it for say, iPhone users who haven’t upgraded in a while and have been put off Android until now. It’s clear this is the kind of segment Google is pursuing with this series, but the sluggish sales so far suggest they haven’t cracked the formula yet.
The major selling point – aside from the fact the Pixel 3a has a headphone jack – is that it uses the exact same single 12MP camera as the Pixel 3 with Google’s Night Sight, Photo Sphere and Photo booth modes. With all the onboard processing, your photos will look detailed and eye-catching, just not necessarily true to life if you stick to Google’s suggested settings.
Where this helps is that low-light photos are more impressive than they have the right to be, thanks to Google’s Night Sight mode. While this has been surpassed by what Huawei’s doing, at this price the Pixel 3a is a great choice if this is a priority.
Essentially, the Pixel 3a makes more sense for social media shots that you’d stick a filter on anyway rather than carefully composed phone photographs meaning some will find the experience limited. You also don’t get the versatility here of more expensive phones with telephoto zoom lenses, for instance, but that’s to be expected.
The big new feature here is actually augmented reality walking directions in Google Maps – you just click ‘start in AR’ when you’re looking up directions to use it in preview. This took a few tries to calibrate on the residential streets of south London, where admittedly all the houses look the same, but when the camera picked up our location and big blue arrows appeared onscreen, it all made sense. It’s not a feature for everyday, but it’s a neat combination of the camera and StreetView data.
A one-handed phone
The plastic build means it’s very light, at just 147g, and it’s easy to hold one-handed – no pop socket required here. Aesthetically, it’s also more fun and much less of a futuristic slab than current Android flagships, too.
But there’s a couple of downsides: the ‘Clearly White’ model we tested was not so clear after a week or so, it got grubby quickly; the phone doesn’t flex but you can feel the stereo speakers rumbling when you place your hand on the back. Speaking of which, the speakers – no longer dual front-firing, one is now on the bottom – are passable but they aren’t as clear as we’d like either.
An IP water-resistance rating is the main design spec that’s missing, but that’s common at this price point and the right choice from Google. More importantly, the Pixel 3a is the kind of phone you can throw around a bit.
We haven’t experienced any major problems, but the Pixel 3a might also not be a shining example of finished design.
This isn’t anywhere close to the Samsung Galaxy Fold debacle, but users who bought a Pixel 3a on day one are reporting everything from random shutdowns to crooked USB ports to slowdown tied to Google’s Digital Wellbeing feature. In order to save our wellbeing from a slightly slower phone, we turned off usage access for the feature which you’ll no doubt have turned on at setup.
When it comes to performance, unskinned Android 9 Pie keeps things snappy enough, but the Snapdragon 670, while respectable for a mid-range phone, isn’t as powerful or energy efficient as say the OnePlus 7’s Snapdragon 855. That’s okay. This device shines when flitting between Google’s suite of apps or taking quick photos for Instagram, look elsewhere if you want a gaming-focused phone. The Pixel Imprint fingerprint sensor on the back of the phone, meanwhile, while not as fancy as in-display ultrasonic scanners, is fast and reliable.
That’s particularly important as the 3,000mAh battery lasts a day of regular use, but it’s not as long lasting as either a Huawei P30 Pro at the top end or a Moto G7 Power at the budget end. (Even though it has a larger 6-inch display, the Pixel 3a XL’s 3,700 mAh battery fares better). There’s no wireless charging, but that’s nothing to cry about in the mid-range. The fact there’s no microSD slot to expand the 64GB of storage might be more of an issue, though.
Person riding Skarper e-bike
If you can overlook the now-retro bezels around it, the Pixel 3a’s 5.6-inch 2220 x 1080 display is small but perfectly formed. Sure, the contrast levels could be kicked up a touch and the display isn’t premium enough to have top-notch viewing angles, so the Pixel 3a’s screen is distinguishable when it’s laid down. But we can live with that, otherwise it’s sharp and vivid and does the job.
The Pixel 3a is easy to live with, especially for people who care more about a phone that will slot into their lives than the latest specs.
It’s a gamble for Google and it’ll be interesting to see if it pays off. But if you’re up on your smartphone releases, you’ll notice both the lack of real innovation (aside from Maps AR Mode) and those signs of a premium device, something OnePlus has done better at bringing down to £500 phones.
In the context of ever-rising iPhone, and now Samsung and Huawei, prices, £399 seems like a bargain. If you’re looking for a ‘good phone’ with a ‘decent camera’ and you’ve set a budget, go for a Pixel 3a, you won’t be disappointed. If you’re looking to get anything more specific than that, you’ve got more options than ever elsewhere.