In a world of £1,000 smartphones, the fanfare for the mid-range Google Pixel 3a has been refreshing to say the least. On paper, the handset brings more than a dose of what the Pixel 3 can offer but for a fraction of the price. Where the flagship Android Pie mobile costs £739, the Pixel 3a comes in at just £399.
But there’s competition at every level of the smartphone market and just because it’s cheaper, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s better value. Has the Pixel 3a taken too much of a hit in performance and should Google’s big sell of affordable unadulterated Android be enough to turn your wallet its way?
The design and build of the Pixel 3a is a pretty simple affair, but if that’s where Google has chosen to save money, we’re fine with that. It’s made of polycarbonate in a choice of white, black and lilac, but there is a nice coloured power button on the side to distract you from the lack of premium materials. We are delighted to find there’s a fingerprint reader on the rear, as well as a 3.5mm jack on the top of the phone.
Sizewise, it’s almost identical to the Pixel 3 with a 5.6in screen. In real terms, it’s thin enough, light enough and just about small enough to use one-handed.
The 3,000mAh battery and USB-C charger combo delivers about a day and a half’s worth of moderate use and it quick charges to full again in about 90 minutes. There’s no microSD storage available, but the 64GB of internal space goes a long way when all your pictures and videos are uploaded to the Google Photos cloud space.
Inside, you’ll find a slight drop down in chipset to the octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 670 from the Snapdragon 845 of the Pixel 3. While there's less processing power on offer, it’s enough to run graphics-heavy games and hi-res video without a hitch – only with the camera does it occasionally stick when switching between modes. The only other design feature of note is the dual speakers on the bottom edge of the device.
The Pixel 3a does not get the HDR compatibility of the Pixel 3, and while that’s less of an issue on a 5.6in smartphone screen than on a 55in TV, we’d expect the amount of HDR content to increase over a 24-month contract, so it could be something to consider. And although the specs and performance are similar, the Pixel 3a falls just short of the flagship in terms of picture quality.
That said, in its own right and given the price of the handset, the 2,220 x 1080 OLED display gives a sharp image with a pixel density of 441ppi. In terms of pure detail, the Pixel 3a gives a crisp image at what is just beyond 1080p resolution. Faces are not as hair follicle-accurate as with 4K but there’s still plenty of texture.
Leave the phone on the default Adaptive setting and colours are a bit overcooked, with whites that are a little warm and skin tones that are a touch unnatural. But while the Adaptive setting isn't what you'd call truly authentic, it does make for an enjoyably punchy watch.
Switch it to Natural and you get a more balanced, but still vibrant, image. The bright lights of New York reflected in the wet pavements in Russian Doll feel accurate and help establish a sense of place to the drama. It’s the kind of performance that would give any smartphone a good run for its money.
The stated contrast of 100,000:1 certainly feels as strong as it sounds, with the OLED panel delivering the true and deep blacks we’ve come to expect and bright highlights that punch through the darkness. It is fair to say that the Pixel 3a struggles to dig up the finest details in the very darkest and brightest parts of the picture, but that barely dampens the viewing experience.
Internal storage 64GB
Storage 64GB storage
Camera 12.2 MP dual-pixel
We watch Episode 3 of Russian Doll on Netflix and are very impressed. The folds and textures of Nadia’s black suit jacket and grey wool overcoat against an almost pitch background in the Synagogue scene are excellent. It’s only the shadowy set behind her that’s a little hard to make out. And while there's a bit of haloing around bright objects on otherwise black backgrounds and a little haziness to the snow of the alpine attack dream of Inception, there's more than enough control and detail overall to make the scene a pleasure.
The screen also comes in handy in concert with the camera, which is the best feature of the Pixel 3a. The vibrancy of the display means even an enthusiastic amateur can look like a pro photographer when showing snaps. The photo editing software is superb too, with a range of photographic modes offering a different set of sliders to play with and often sub-sliders within them.
The other camera feature of note is Night Sight, an HDR photography solution that removes the need to use the flash for better colour capture in low lighting. The Pixel 3a camera is often good enough, even in dingy pubs, but Night Sight takes that further. We take a snap at near blackout conditions in our windowless AV test room, and the image it produces is as good as if we’d had the lights on.
Sound quality is the Pixel 3a’s biggest drawback. Audio is less expressive than we’d hoped for in comparison to the rest of the phone’s brilliant features. There’s a lot to like, though; plenty of balance throughout the range and it’s perfectly respectable for detail.
We play Cigarettes And Alcohol by Oasis on Tidal, and the love-it-or-loathe-it edge in Liam Gallaher’s voice is just where you want it, while the bassline rolls well through the track. Compared to the iPhone SE, though, the Pixel 3a struggles to render harmonic information. The skin of the kick drum isn’t quite there and the dirty rattles of the bass guitar strings are just short.
Timing is not quite as consistent on the opening strums of Wonderwall and the bottom line is that the audio is where Google seems to have cut corners to achieve the 3a’s tasty price tag. That said, you do at least get a 3.5mm jack and the stereo speakers are loud.
The Google Pixel 3a brings much of the fun and quality of the flagship Pixel 3 – most notably the excellent screen and terrific camera – within the reach of many more people. But for the below-par sound performance, this would be a five-star phone.
Given that for so many people their phone is their primary music player, we can’t fully recommend the Pixel 3a. Otherwise, this is a strong option at the price.
- Screen 4
- Sound 3
- Features 5
Read our Google Pixel 3a XL review