(Pocket-lint) - After being rumoured for some time as the 'Pixel 3 Lite', the more affordable Pixel 3 family has arrived in 'a' model guise. Just like the regular Pixel 3, the 3a comes in standard size, as reviewed here, and larger XL format.
We spent the long early May bank holiday weekend with the regular Pixel 3a as our day-to-day phone to find out whether this mid-range model brings many compromises, whether the performance is as good as Google promises, and if that camera performance really is exactly the same as its more expensive sibling.
Looks can be deceiving
- Measures: 151.3 x 70.1 x 8.2mm
- Weighs: 147g
- Plastic build
Glance at the Pixel 3a and you might just assume it's a standard Pixel 3. It has the same two-tone finish on the back, featuring the glossy top portion and more matte/eggshell finish on the bottom three-quarters. There's also a single camera, surrounded by the simple circular ring. Even from the front, with its long ratio display and fairly generous bezels (by 2019's standards anyway), it looks unmistakably like a Pixel 3.
However, hold the two phones and you'll easily tell the difference. For starters, the 3a is bigger than the standard Pixel 3. That's to incorporate the larger display, as well as the thicker chin on the bottom. It's not surprising to see thicker bezels on a cheaper model, but it is a little disappointing that there's no second front-firing speaker there, making use of that dead space on the front.
Without holding, you might not notice the biggest difference: the materials. The cheaper Pixel 3a is made of plastic, rather than the high-end glass used in the Pixel 3. Still, it has those iconic rounded corners and edges, with the subtly rounded corners on the display, as well as the same button layout on the edges.
Even on the front, rather than use the more high-end Corning Gorilla Glass, Google went with Dragon Trail glass, which you normally find on more affordable smartphones.
The one positive part of having a plastic smartphone is that it kind of feels like the old days of smartphone ownership. We didn't feel like we had to be overly precious with it, being mindful of where we put it down, or how carefully we slipped it in and out of pocket. Using the 3a is a care-free experience, and that's not something you can say with the £800+ all-glass premium devices.
In daily use, it's easy to just pick up and go, with most tasks at the bottom of the screen being easy to action with one hand. One thing we're glad to see is still there is the haptic feedback on the keyboard. The subtle "click" feeling when you type the keys is very satisfying.
- 5.6-inch OLED panel
- 2220 x 1080 resolution
- Always-on display
Google may have cut costs on materials used in the phone build and exterior, but the screen technology is largely the same as the Pixel 3. It's a similar FHD+ resolution, but spread over 5.6-inches. It means you don't really lose anything in terms of sharpness. In fact, in our experience you might even gain something from taking the cheaper model.
Being a slightly bigger display means you get a bit more real-estate for movie watching or gaming, but also you get a slightly nicer colour profile. Viewing the same images with the screens both in the Adaptive mode, the Pixel 3a came out looking a lot more natural, with toned-down reds, stopping it from looking oversaturated. In Natural mode, it's similar, but the 3a then appears to be a bit too flat. So the two are tuned differently - but it's likely not something you notice without the two phones side-by-side though.
It's a screen you won't find too much to complain about should you use it. It has plenty of sharpness for those times you want to see sharp fine text, and enough colour to make gaming enjoyable too. Whites are clean, and blacks are dark thanks to that OLED-based panel. Apart from the slightly oversaturated greens, the other colours look good. Blues and reds pop, without being overdone. It only shifts very slightly in colour when you view it from an angle too.
Hardware and software
- Google Android 9.0 (Pie) operating system
- Snapdragon 670 processor, 4GB RAM
- 3,000mAh battery
Read the spec list and you'll see a phone that's mid-range. The 3a uses the Snapdragon 670 processor, which while not flagship in stature, certainly isn't the worst processor around. In fact, the 600-series chips seem to be getting better each year, offering general interface animations and actions that are smooth and effortless. Take a phone such as the Moto G7 Plus, for example, with its SD632 processor, and it shows that there's enough power for most tasks.
Where you'll notice the difference in the Pixel 3a compared to more powerful phones is when gaming. We got the odd stutter here and there during some games, but it's not persistent. That means it's certainly good enough to cope with the rigours of daily life.
At this price point there are competitive products out there, from the likes of Xiaomi, Huawei and OnePlus, while if you spend an extra £70 then you're knocking on the door of the Xiaomi Mi 9 and OnePlus 6T, which might be highly tempting given their flagship specification.
The one thing you don't get from those manufacturers though is that clean, unadulterated Android experience. This is Android Pie as Google imagines it should be. It's fluid and minimal, and comes with useful features like the "Now Playing" information on the standby screen that detects the song playing in that coffee shop you're in, without having to hunt for Shazam.
Like its performance, the battery life is decent enough for daily life too. On most days, we've gone to bed with somewhere between 20-30 per cent battery left over after moderate usage. It's not as long-lasting a some of the bigger phones out there, but it's just about good enough. Even on busier days, it made it to bed time.
- 12.2-megapixel, f/1.8 main camera to the rear
- Optical & electronic stabilisation (OIS & EIS)
- 8MP front facing camera
The Pixel's greatest strength over the past couple of years has been its camera. With the approach of quality over quantity - and simplicity over complexity too - it's a range that's going against the norm of adding more and more cameras to the back. Instead, opting to have just one camera, and using its machine learning smarts to make those photos look fantastic with a simple press of the shutter
With the Pixel 3a, you still get that wonderful simplicity and top-notch results. That 12.2-megapixel sensor is the same as the camera in the more expensive models, and has access to the same Google smarts. As we said of the 3a XL's camera - check out our full review here - it's got the best camera of any mid-range phone you can buy, which is the single biggest reason for looking at these 'a' model phones.
Taking the 3a for a spin over the weekend, we couldn't see any noticeable difference between the Pixel 3 and 3a's results. If there was any, it was barely detectable. That means if you want an easy-to-use camera that takes great photos in any situation, the 3a is definitely worth considering.
Because of its software and algorithm smarts, the Pixel 3a can take shots in the dark like a champ too. Using night mode you can shoot images that almost look like they're in daylight, completely handheld, with no tripod for stability. The end result is a little hyper-real at times, but it's still incredible to see a phone at this price point achieve that. It even works with the front camera, so you can take unreal selfies at night time.
We're really impressed with what this sub-£400 phone can produce from its pretty basic setup. Our criticisms aren't in what it produces, more what it doesn't have on offer: there's no additional lenses for ultra-wide, for zoom, for various creative solutions. It's great to see the Pixel be different with its one lens solution, but we think if Google really cranked its muscles then a multi-camera solution from the company would be even more versatile and impressive.
We like that Google has opted to build a more affordable version of its pure Android smartphones, and even used some smart artificial intelligence (AI) to ensure the camera and performance is pretty much the same as the pricier models (save for some behind-the-scenes slower processing times).
The one lasting impression, however, is that this is a smartphone made with cheaper materials, with less powerful internals than what you can get from the likes of Xiaomi and OnePlus for not dissimilar money.
If what you want is that pure Pixel experience and access to its ace camera setup for less money, then the Pixel 3a is ideal. But if you're after as much bang for your buck as possible then this particular Pixel floats between the affordable mid-range and the budget flagship line-ups and, therefore, could be seen as being a bit lost.
Motorola Moto G7 Plus
When it comes to the mid-range, the Moto G7 Plus is a great choice - and quite a lot cheaper too. It offers plenty of features in a great design, without bloating the software with unwanted additions. Although the camera might not have some of Google's smarts, it's still a compelling package.
Xiaomi Mi 9
The Xiaomi Mi 9 really packs in the power for a price. It's only about £85 more expensive than the Pixel 3a, but still offers top-tier hardware, more storage and RAM. It also offers a triple camera system, giving you a number of features that the Pixel lacks. But the software experience isn't as clean and won't be as rapid to update.