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Google Pixel 3a – review

Intro

Back in the days Android was an up and coming OS, Google paired with a series of manufacturers offering a stock version of Android on some great hardware and put it under the brand of Nexus.

Nexus phones were known for being amazing value for money, whilst not skimping on specs, but as with most things the price kept on creeping up and up until Nexus was replaced with the Pixel brand several years ago and didn’t look back. 

Having used every Pixel phone so far, I was interested to find out can a cut price version still impress in the key areas Pixel were known for.

Google kindly sent me the Pixel 3a and I used it as my daily driver for several weeks to get the best experience.

As someone who uses large screen phones mainly, it was interesting to see how the smaller Pixel 3a would handle my daily use.

Design

When comparing the Pixel 3a to the original Pixel 3, not a lot has changed in the design with the back looking the same, and the front dropping that second wide angle camera in exchange for a single lens.

Looking right at the phone front you have up top a single front facing 8 megapixel camera for selfies and for video calling.

One of the great selling points for the original Pixel was the double front camera which allowed for some wide angle selfie shots, with the single lens on the 3a you don’t get that option, and was one of the few cutbacks to get the phone at this low price.

You have a 1080p resolution display which is 5.6 inches in size, and this is a good size for most people, and if you feel the screen is a little small for you, there is always the larger XL version available to pick for a bit more money and this gives you a 6 inch display instead.

Thankfully there is very little bezel surrounding so you get more screen to enjoy, some phones still have large bezels getting in the way, there is also no notch, instead Google stuck with the black bar up too above the screen to house the camera and earpiece and sensors. 

Whilst others have gone with a pinhole cutout in the display for the camera, at least on the Pixel you get to see all your content and not have a small hole when watching your videos.

On top you have one of the twin microphones used for noise cancellation in voice calls, this also acts as one of the stereo audio recorders in video mode. 

You also get something that a lot of other phones these days lack, that is the 3.5mm headphone jack so you can plug in your existing pair of headphones if you have some you like.

It also means you can plug your phone in to charge whilst also listening to music or watching video, something you can’t do if you have to use a USB-C headset and charger.

On the bottom there is the other microphone which as mentioned earlier is used for recording audio in video recording mode, and also for part of  voice calling for clearer quality audio.

You also get the USB-C port used for charging the phone and for data transfer.

Whilst the Pixel 3a lacks any wireless charging, there is 18W fast charging using the charging cable and block in the box, which will top you up with any extra juice when you may need it.

All the buttons are found on the right hand side, the volume up and down controls as well as the power button, no dedicated camera key here as all controls are on the screen.

Over on the left you have the SIM card tray which is popped out using a pin you get in the box to place your Nano SIM. It is worth noting depending what network you choose, you may have the option to enable eSIM for a virtual SIM.

Apparently in the UK EE allow this on the Pixel 3a but I have yet to test out how this works and if it then enables Dual-SIM with a separate network physical SIM.

Google also have a hidden trick up it’s sleeve though called Active Edge.

This is where you gently squeeze both sides and up pops the Google Assistant so no need for any tapping or long pressing. 

This can be setup in settings where you can set how hard you need to squeeze to activate this feature, some may like it, I found I switched it off and used the ‘Hey Google‘ Voice command most of the time.

Finally over on the back there is a setup that looks exactly the same as the older Pixel 3.

Up top is the shiny area which has the LED flash and single 12 megapixel camera, still a single camera as Google have that magic software that is one of the best for separating layers in a photo for portraits.

Below this is the fingerprint sensor which feels a little deeper than on the older model.

Looking at the 3a and 3 side by side on the back you could not tell the difference, only when you pick it up and you notice the plastic material instead of aluminum and glass will you start seeing where the cost saving came in.

Camera

The camera is one of the areas that the Pixel range has become known for, and with some magic software trickery, Google were able to capture better portrait photos than some phones with multiple cameras, and with their Night Sight mode able to blow away the competition with their low light skills.

Thankfully Google kept the same camera in the 3a as they had in the 3, and this means you can now capture those amazing photos at a fraction of the price.

The single lens 12 megapixel camera is able to use software from Google for better edge detection for portraits, as well as stack multiple images together with different exposure levels to offer an all round superior image than some other manufacturers are able too.

The UI is very simple and fast with all the camera options just a slide away from each other, including that all important Night Mode that users will come to love using.

You also get Google’s playful side in the Playground set of interactive stickers, and the catalogue is growing all the time.

So if you want to include a T-Rex in your family photo, or want to add a stormtrooper to your day out, this is now possible.

Best of all, some of the stickers interact with each other which is very fun to watch.

Whilst the 3a lacks the Visual Core part which is the dedicated processor for photos found on the Pixel 3, images come out the same when using the stock camera app and still gives some of the most pleasing results from any mobile device.

You still get the handy Top Shot feature when the Motion switch is on, this captures a sequence of photos and lets you pick the best one, so if you are about to get that great photo, and the family pet jumps in the way, you can rewind to the best shot and save that one, saving the day.

Video mode produces good quality results, especially when it comes to stabilization.

Colours are clear and accurate, and sound quality is also on par with the Pixel 3 which is important.

Below are a few samples to check out. 

Something worth pointing out, owners of the Pixel 3 were given unlimited free photo backup at full resolution, including video as part of their experience.

Owners of the Pixel 3a get unlimited high quality backups free of charge, or can switch on the full resolution version but will go against your Google storage allowance.

When it comes to the camera, the Pixel 3a offers the best experience possible without paying a flagship price, and unless you have a need for multiple lenses, the Pixel 3a gives you the best point and shoot experience possible.

Performance

Performance on the 3a was fairly decent, the Snapdragon 670 may fail to impress on paper, but daily tasks usually only take a split second longer than the nearly twice the price Pixel 3 it is often going to be compared against.

The biggest area I noticed the slower processing power was in the camera, often when taking a photo, especially portrait shots, there was a quite lengthy delay in being able to view the image, often showing me the photo I had taken before first.

Whilst this is not a huge issue, it will impact you if you are wanting to point and shoot several photos in a few seconds.

When it comes to the RAM, here you get 4GB which is enough to do multitasking and some graphic heavy work in games, it is also on par with the more expensive Pixel 3.

One handy part of having a slower processor is the improvement on battery life, the 3000mAh battery does a good job at getting through the day even with hefty use of the camera, although this is not a two day phone, you will need to charge overnight to get you through the second day.

You do unfortunately lose the ability to wireless charge as this was left out, however as that is normally slower anyway, most people will not miss this and be happy with the 18W wired charging.

Storage comes in at 64GB but also as expected, non removable so you will have to rely on that important Google Photo storage for photos if you want to start snapping away everything you see, or want to download lots of movies or apps.

If you want the full on Pixel top of the line experience this is possible, but by purchasing the twice the price Pixel 3, if you are ok with accepting some cutbacks in performance but saving a huge amount of money, the Pixel 3a is for you.

Software

Software on the Pixel range is what Google want you to use without any of the additional services or applications added by the manufacturers for their own custom skins.

Because of this, Pixel owners are some of the first to get the latest updates as they become available, and can also opt in to the Android Beta program to test out the future versions.

I tried out the Android Q Beta on the 3a to see all the new changes coming up and was pleased with where Google are heading with their gesture navigation, dark mode as well as some other key under the hood improvements you will never see, yet get to experience when using the phone normally.

Right now we are on Beta 5 which Google say is nearly a final build, so most features are nearly ready to go with just a bit more tweaking.

Digital Wellbeing is a big area Google are looking into showing off on Android, and the built in app shows you everything from the amount of notifications you had, to how many times you pick your phone up to check if you missed anything.

Results can be pretty scary when you see just how much your use your phone in a single day, and some people might use this to help improve their phone use by cutting down when possible, something we could all do with doing sometime or another.

One key feature found on Android Q is Dark Mode which is something lots of people have been asking for and adds a whole new experience.

This is technically not available right now on the Pixel 3a unless you install the beta software, however as the final release is just around the corner, anyone buying the Pixel 3a now will get to use it very soon so was well worth mentioning now.

Conclusion

Being a big fan of the so called ‘stock’ android experience, I was really excited to see what a cheaper version of the Pixel 3 could do, especially considering the camera technology being the same.

In total I used the Pixel 3a as my main device with my personal SIM in for three weeks, and overall I was very impressed.

At around half the price of the larger Pixel 3, there were a few corners that needed to be skipped on, thankfully the camera was not one.

The biggest concern I had was on the display, where Gorilla Glass was replaced with Dragontail Glass, and this seemed to not hold up as well, with some scratching appearing after just a day or two.

With this in mind I was quick to install a glass screen protector which can be picked up for as little as £5, and this would be a wise investment to keep the phone looking pristine for as long as possible.

Considering the price, Google have done a great job keeping the impressive camera on the Pixel 3 and chosen to cut some corners on some other non premium selling points such as the material of the body, which feels premium anyway, and missing out on wireless charging.

At £399, the Pixel 3a offers a superior camera performance paired with the pure stock Android experience which I can say personally makes it one of the best, if not best phones at under £500 right now.

If you are mainly looking for a flagship camera phone but don’t want to pay the hefty flagship price, the Pixel 3a or larger Pixel 3a XL is a clear winner and a phone many should look at purchasing.

Those of you who want the best Google Pixel experience and don’t mind spending whatever it takes, the Pixel 4 is due by the end of the year so may want to hold out for that, if so, start saving your money as expect it to cost a pretty penny.

Pixel 3a

Design - 91%
Camera - 97%
Battery - 88%
Software - 93%
Performance - 80%

90%

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