When Google discontinued its Nexus smartphone lineup, it left a void in the market that has been hard to fill. People didn’t really have an affordable option running powerful hardware and stock Android software. Multiple smartphone manufacturers have tried to make something like a Nexus smartphone, but have fallen short. Google tried to offer a substitute with the relaunched Android One programme, which helped participating manufacturers offer a stock Android experience on their devices, but it still hasn’t been the same.
Finally, Google wants to address the same segment again with two new smartphones, the Google Pixel 3a and the Pixel 3a XL. These smartphones promise to deliver most of the same Pixel experience as the flagship Pixel 3 (Review) and Pixel 3 XL (Review), but at lower price points. Powered by a mid-range processor, are these relatively affordable smartphones worthy of the Pixel name? We put the new Pixel 3a devices to the test to find out.
Google Pixel 3a and Pixel 3a XL design
The Pixel 3a and Pixel 3a XL are the company’s first attempts at making relatively affordable Pixel smartphones. In order for the new devices to look as though they belong in the Pixel family, Google designed them to look just like the Pixel 3. From the back, it is hard to distinguish between the Pixel 3a models and their Pixel 3 equivalents. However, to keep costs down, Google has opted for polycarbonate bodies instead of the glass and metal combination of the premium Pixels. The difference is evident when you hold one of each family in your hands, as the Pixel 3 models feel more premium.
Google’s idea of affordable price points are still a lot higher than most people would like. Priced at Rs. 39,999 and 44,999 respectively, the Pixel 3a and the bigger Pixel 3a XL are still premium smartphones. The Asus ZenFone 5Z (Review) and OnePlus 6T (Review), which are priced lower, are made of glass and metal, and feel better in comparison. Google has at least attempted to make these phones’ polycarbonate bodies look premium by giving them a partially frosted look, but they lack that high-end in-hand feel.
The Google Pixel 3a is smaller than the Pixel 3a XL and more manageable in the hand. It sports a 5.6-inch OLED display with an 18.5:9 aspect ratio. The Pixel 3a XL, on the other hand, has a 6-inch OLED display. Interestingly, neither model sports a notch, which the Pixel 3 XL was criticised for. Instead, they stick with 18:9, full-HD+ resolution displays.
However, the bezels on the Pixel 3a models are quite thick, making the phones look a little dated. These bezels aren’t symmetrical either as the space on the bottom is thicker than the space above the screen. This might put some people off, and the difference is further accentuated when the black navigation bar pops up. There’s Asahi Dragontrail glass for protection.
The Pixel 3a phones sport stereo speakers, but unlike on their premium equivalents, these aren’t front-firing. On both phones, the earpiece sits in the top bezel along with the selfie camera, while the second speaker is bottom-firing, positioned to the right of the USB Type-C port.
A surprising addition to the Pixel 3a series is a 3.5mm headphone jack, which sits on the top along with a secondary microphone. Google first removed the headphone jack from its Pixel 2 (Review) devices, and it was missing on the Pixel 3 models as well. You do get a pair of in-ear earphones in the box.
Both Google Pixel 3a devices sport 12.2-megapixel cameras
Both Pixel 3a models sport a single 12.2-megapixel rear camera with a single-LED flash. While other manufacturers offer multiple sensors, Google is relying on its software and AI expertise to do the magic. There’s also a rear-mounted capacitive fingerprint scanner that is within reach when holding the phone in one hand. It is worth noting that the OnePlus 6T, which is priced slightly lower than than the Pixel 3a, offers an in-display fingerprint scanner.
The battery capacity of the Pixel 3a is 3000mAh while the Pixel 3a XL packs in a 3700mAh battery which should help it deliver better battery life. Just like the Pixel 3 series, Google ships the 3a series smartphones with 18W chargers and USB Type-C to Type-C cables.
You also get a USB Type-C to full-size USB Type-A adapter in the box, which can be used to transfer data to the Pixel 3a from your previous smartphone. There is no USB Type-C to full-size USB cable in the box, so you’ll have to buy one separately to transfer data to and from a computer.
Google Pixel 3a and Pixel 3a XL specifications and software
At lower prices than the PIxel 3 models, the Google Pixel 3a devices get slower hardware. Both models share the same specifications, starting with a mid-range Qualcomm Snapdragon 670 SoC. This is an octa-core processor with two performance cores clocked at 2GHz and six efficiency cores clocked at 1.7GHz. It’s a slight upgrade over the Qualcomm Snapdragon 660, and is based on a 10nm process. The Pixel 3a phones also get the same Titan M Security module as the Pixel 3 devices, which Google says helps strengthen OS integrity and secure sensitive data such as fingerprints saved on the device.
The Pixel 3a devices both come in one configuration only, with 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage, which is not expandable unless you use cloud services. The amount of storage seems too little, and we think Google should have offered 128GB variants as well. Google offers some relief in the form of unlimited photo storage on Google Photos but there is still a catch here. Unlike with the Pixel 3 series where you get unlimited photo storage at full resolution, with the Pixel 3a you can only save compressed (but still high-res) photos.
The 3.5mm headphone jack returns to the Pixel series
Google has used OLED displays, both with full-HD+ resolutions (2220×1080 and 2160×1080 pixels respectively for the Pixel 3a and Pixel 3a XL) and an 18:9 aspect ratio. They miss out on HDR support, which the Pixel 3 siblings have. The displays offers three colours modes to choose from. Our Pixel 3a test units were set to Adaptive colour mode by default, which Google says offers a vivid yet natural-looking output. If you prefer muted colours, you can switch to the Natural colour mode. Boosted mode bumps the contrast up.
Since the Pixel 3a devices sport OLED displays, they support the Always-on Display feature that shows incoming notifications. Just like the Pixel 3 models, these new Pixels also get the Now Playing feature which displays the name of a song and the artist on the home screen if there is music playing around you.
Both phones have one Nano-SIM slot but offer dual-SIM functionality using an eSIM. Currently, eSIM functionality is only offered by Airtel and Reliance Jio in India, and you can convert your physical SIM into an eSIM if you are using either of these carriers.
Pixel 3a and Pixel 3a XL offer dual-band Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 5, NFC, GPS, GLONASS, and Galileo. Compared to the Pixel 3 models, the low-cost options don’t have an IP68 waterproof rating or Qi wireless charging.
Both Pixel 3a devices get three years of guaranteed software and security updates
On the software front, the Pixel 3a phones are at home running the latest version of Android Pie. The software is identical to that of the Pixel 3 devices, and we could not spot any differences. Our Pixel 3a review units were running the March security patch, while our resident Pixel 3 unit was running the April patch. With both Pixel 3a devices, Google offers three years of guaranteed Android and security updates.
The Pixel 3a phones have the same Active Edge feature as their more powerful siblings. The sides of the phones are pressure-sensitive, so you can squeeze them to summon the Google Assistant. Digital Wellbeing helps you track the amount of time you spend on these smartphones. Gesture navigation is available, just like on the Pixel 3 series.
There’s also the Call Screen feature which uses Google’s Duplex technology to answer incoming calls for you, although this is currently only available in the United States and Canada. Other features include the Flip to Shh gesture which puts the phones in DND mode when flipped. You can read about the other features in detail in our Google Pixel 3 Review.
Google Pixel 3a and Pixel 3a XL performance, battery life and cameras
The fingerprint scanner on the Pixel 3a duo works well, and the phones are quick to unlock. Google’s offerings surprisingly do not offer face recognition, which is less secure but more convenient, and is available on many other smartphones in the market. We aren’t complaining, since the fingerprint scanner is easy to reach.
The OLED screens on both phones have good viewing angles and were usually bright enough to be visible outdoors in our experience. Since there are no notches in the way, you can enjoy content without a portion of the display being blocked.
The stereo speakers are loud enough when watching videos on the device, but sound tinny at full volume. The bottom-firing speakers are easy to muffle, so you’ll need to ensure you don’t block them when holding either device. A lot of smartphones at this price point lack stereo speakers, giving the Pixel 3a phones a small win.
Call quality is good and the earpieces are loud enough to hear callers clearly. The bundled earphones are good, and are slightly bass-heavy, which a few of us do appreciate.
We had some reservations about performance looking at the middle-of-the-road processor on the Pixel 3a and Pixel 3a XL, but they managed to deliver smooth user experiences. We did not notice any lag or stutter while using them, and day-to-day was similar enough to what we’d expect from the powerful Pixel 3 models. Yes, it takes slightly longer to launch apps and load files, but you won’t really notice this unless you have a Pixel 3 next to a Pixel 3a doing the exact same thing.
Bottom-firing speaker on the Google Pixel 3a models
The Google Pixel 3a and Pixel 3a XL performed as expected in the benchmarks we ran. Starting with the larger of the two, it scored 1,59,555 points in AnTuTu as well as 1,616 and 5,194 in the single-core and multi-core tests respectively in GeekBench 4. In GFXBench T-Rex, Manhattan 3.1, and Car Chase, it managed 53fps, 19fps, and 11fps respectively.
Our Pixel 3a delivered equivalent results with 1,57,584 points in AnTuTu, and 1,632 and 5,188 points in Geekbench’s tests. The results in the same GFXBench graphics tests were virtually identical at 53fps, 19fps, and 10fps respectively.
The Pixel 3a phones scored higher in CPU benchmarks than the Realme 3 Pro (Review), which is powered by the Snapdragon 710 SoC, but lower than the Redmi Note 7 Pro (Review) with its Snapdragon 675 SoC. . In graphics benchmarks, it was the opposite result, with the Pixel 3a phones still in between the other two smartphones. The Realme 3 Pro and the Redmi Note 7 Pro are both priced at Rs. 13,999, roughly one-third of the Pixel 3a duo
Since the phones we are testing today scored well in graphics benchmarks, we fired up PUBG Mobile on the Pixel 3a XL to see how it would run. The game defaulted to High settings with Graphics set to HD and the Frame Rate set to High, and the Pixel 3a XL was capable of playing the game without any stutter at these settings. We played a few matches for close to an hour, and we registered a 14 percent battery drop at the end of it. The device barely got warm to the touch in the air-conditioned room we were playing in.
Of the two new Pixel 3a devices, the Pixel 3a XL packs in a bigger battery rated at 3700mAh. In our HD video loop test, the Pixel 3a XL managed to go on for 13 hours and 9 minutes, whereas the Pixel 3a with its 3000mAh battery gave us only 11 hours, 3 minutes. The Pixel 3 XL managed around 10 hours in the same test, so what we see here is the efficient Snapdragon 670 SoC and the lower screen resolution at play.
Even with our heavy usage, the Pixel 3a XL delivered good battery life in day-to-day use. We took the phone off the charger in the morning, ran all our benchmarks, had an active WhatsApp account, and used Google Maps for close to 2 hours for navigation, and still had close to 45 percent battery life at the end of 24 hours. This phone should go on for at least a day and a half before needing to be recharged. We would expect slightly less from the Pixel 3a, but still enough to get through a full day on a single charge.
As we noted before, Google supplies an 18W charger with a Type-C port in both phones’ boxes, and a Type-C to Type-C cable. It was capable of charging the Pixel 3a XL to 43 percent in 30 minutes, and to 78 percent in an hour. A full charge took close to 1 hour, 30 minutes.
The Pixel 3a series get the same primary hardware like the Pixel 3 series
Google’s Pixel smartphones are known for their cameras, and both the Pixel 3a and Pixel 3a XL have some big shoes to fill. Google has used the same primary camera as with the Pixel 3 series, giving these phones proven hardware. It uses a Sony IMX363 sensor, with an f/1.8 aperture, dual-pixel autofocus, and a 1.4 micron pixel size. The Pixel 3a duo supports OIS as well as EIS which should help with stability when recording video.
At the front, both phones have only a single camera, compared to the dual selfie cameras on the Pixel 3 devices. Google has opted for an 8-megapixel sensor with an f/2.0 aperture and an 84 degree field of view. The Pixel 3a devices also lack Google’s Pixel Visual Core chip, which helps the Pixel 3 models in image processing.
The camera software is identical across all models, and the features that help the Pixel 3 stand out such as Night Sight, Super Res Zoom, Google Lens, Playground, and Photobooth, are all supported. This phone also has the Top Shot feature from the Pixel 3, which captures a motion photo and suggests the best frames.
Since both phones have identical hardware and software, we used only the Pixel 3a XL for camera tests. Photos taken with the Pixel 3a XL in daylight were excellent. The camera was quick to focus but photos came out with a slightly cool colour tone. Photos were sharp and have good detail but there was slight grain visible on objects when zooming in. Macros were sharp, with accurate colours and good amounts of detail.
The Pixel 3a XL excels at portraits by managing good separation between a subject and the background. Edge detection is quite good , and this phone manages to apply bokeh perfectly. The Pixel 3a smartphones also have Motion Auto Focus which maintains a focus lock on a moving subject, resulting in sharp shots when you press the shutter button.
Tap to see full-sized Google Pixel 3a XL camera samples
HDR+ is on by default and the Pixel 3a XL does a very good job of setting the exposures right. You can take manual control of this by enabling HDR Control in the settings menu. This will give you the option to turn HDR off or set it to HDR+ Enhanced. Just like with the Pixel 3 series, the HDR+ Enhanced option helps capture slightly better details by keeping the shutter open for longer and slightly lowering the ISO.
Pixel smartphones have an edge over most others in the market thanks to the software-driven Night Sight mode. The Pixel 3a XL also takes full advantage of it to deliver bright low-light shots. Photos taken without Night Sight were grainy, especially in the darker areas of the frame. With Night Sight enabled, the Pixel 3a XL could eliminate grain almost completely.
We also tried the Playground feature which adds AR characters called Playmoji into the frame. While you can use this feature even with the selfie camera on the Pixel 3, the Pixel 3a XL can only do it for the rear camera.
The 8-megapixel front camera is great for selfies, and we found the output to be sharp with good details. Portrait mode is available to add a bokeh effect to selfies. Photos taken in portrait mode had good edge detection as well.
Video recording maxes out at 4k 30fps for the primary camera and 1080p for the selfie camera. Google uses a combination of OIS as well as EIS and calls it Fused Video Stabilisation. When shooting at the default 1080p resolution, the phone managed to stabilise video quite well.
Verdict The Pixel 3a and Pixel 3a XL are the results of Google’s effort to offer the Pixel experience at lower price points. Yes, the company has cut a few corners in order to lower the prices and to differentiate this new series from the powerful Pixel 3 devices. The polycarbonate bodies looks the same but lack the premium experience that the flagship models offer. Google has also opted for a slower processor, missed out on waterproofing, and dropped wireless charging.
With such omissions, do the Pixel 3a and Pixel 3a XL offer a proper Pixel experience? In a way, yes. Google’s software does all the magic, and the phones are capable of delivering a smooth user experience even with the mid-range Qualcomm Snapdragon 670 SoC. This processor is also frugal with power, helping the Pixel 3a phones deliver better battery life than the power-hungry Pixel 3 series. Cameras are yet another highlight, and do complete justice to the Pixel branding.
What we are not happy about is the pricing. While the Pixel 3a starts at $ 399 (roughly Rs. 27,922) and the Pixel 3a XL at $ 479 (roughly Rs. 33,523) in the US, the India pricing is a lot higher. The Google Pixel 3a retails for Rs. 39,999 and the Pixel 3a XL at Rs. 44,999. These high prices put the two models up against competitors that are a lot more powerful and are priced lower, making it hard for people to justify choosing them for anything other than photo quality. Phones like the Realme 3 Pro (Review) and the Redmi Note 7 Pro (Review) offer similar performance and features — other than their cameras — for significantly less money.
If camera performance is your top priority, the Pixel 3a devices are great options for less than Rs. 50,000. When Google releases Android Q later this year, the Pixel 3a models will also be among the first devices to get all its new features.
The Pixel 3a is more compact and a little easier to handle, but the Pixel 3a XL offers better battery life than its smaller sibling, making it a very tempting option. If you are interested in the Pixel 3a XL or Pixel 3a, you’ll get a great experience, but we would recommend that you wait for a sale to pick either one up at a better price.
Has Google Pixel 3a’s pricing ruined its prospects in India? We discussed this on Orbital, our weekly technology podcast, which you can subscribe to via Apple Podcasts or RSS, download the episode, or just hit the play button below.