Pixel 3a review: the people’s Google phone? Express News

Google’s latest phone, the Pixel 3a, offers the firm’s fantastic camera and software for less than £400, cutting a few corners on the way.

The pitch for the Pixel 3a is simple: everything that made the £739 top-end Pixel 3 good, but at a lower price.

From the outside it’s not immediately obvious what has changed. Google ported the look and feel of its more expensive glass and metal phones into high-quality plastic. It even has the matt back panel with a gloss window at the top, and the same large bezels at the top and bottom of the screen.

Gone are the front-facing stereo speakers and the dual selfie camera, leaving a more basic look on the front. The 5.6in FHD+ OLED screen is very good for the money, rivalling that fitted to the more expensive Pixel 3 if not quite reaching the quality of phones such as Samsung’s Galaxy S10+ or Huawei’s P30 Pro.

Google Pixel 3a review



You have to truly scrutinise the back of the Pixel 3a to realise it isn’t frosted glass like the more expensive Pixel 3. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

The top of the phone heralds the surprise return of the headphone socket, while the back has the same excellent fingerprint scanner as fitted to the Pixel 3. There’s no face recognition or other biometric unlock option.

The Pixel 3a is a light and fairly small phone by today’s standards, making it one of the easiest modern smartphones to hold and use one-handed. Weighing 147g it’s 1g lighter than the Pixel 3 and considerably lighter than the 180g Honor View 20, one of its main rivals.

Overall the Pixel 3a feels well made and fairly sturdy, if not quite as premium as similarly priced metal and glass rivals. When most people will put it in a case, that point is likely moot.

Specifications

  • Screen: 5.6in FHD+ OLED (441ppi)

  • Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 670

  • RAM: 4GB of RAM

  • Storage: 64GB

  • Operating system: Android 9.0 Pie

  • Camera: 12.2MP rear camera with OIS, 8MP front-facing camera

  • Connectivity: 3.5mm headphones socket, LTE, wifi, NFC, Bluetooth 5 and GPS

  • Dimensions: 151.3 x 70.1 x 8.2 mm

  • Weight: 147g

Mid-range performance

Google Pixel 3a review



The USB-C port in the bottom supports fast charging, but only USB2.0 data transfer speeds. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

The Pixel 3a comes in three colours but only one version, which has one of Qualcomm’s recent mid-range processors, the Snapdragon 670, 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage.

To make this perfectly clear: unlike the more expensive Pixel 3, the Pixel 3a is not a top-performing smartphone. The Snapdragon 670 is significantly slower than the flagship chips such as the Snapdragon 845/855 or Huawei’s Kirin 980, and the Pixel 3a uses slower eMMC storage too.

On the whole the Pixel 3a performs far better than its paper specs might suggest, which goes to show how important optimisation of the software is to a phone’s performance.

Swiping between home pages is smooth. Switching between recently used apps is fairly quick too, and once loaded apps run fine. It’s only when you try doing something a little taxing, such as shooting a burst of photos, installing a new large app, or loading an app not recently used that you see the Pixel 3a’s performance dip.

It performs fine for a lower-end phone, but at £400 it isn’t that cheap, meaning there are significantly faster phones with flagship components available in the UK and Europe costing the same or less.

Battery life is disappointing too, coming in at just under 24 hours between charges when used as my primary device, with hundreds of emails, messages and push notifications, four hours of Spotify via Bluetooth headphones, 45 minutes of Netflix and 10 photos a day.

The Pixel 3a would make it from 7am to 11pm with about 10% battery left, but then would often be dead by the morning. Turning off the always-on display added about two hours of life, but it still won’t have the staying power to get you home after a night out without being topped up during the day.

At least the 18W fast charging is fairly rapid up to about 80%. There’s no wireless charging.

Google’s Android 9 Pie

Google Pixel 3a review



Android 9 Pie on the Google Pixel 3a is a joy to use – smart, looks good and is well optimised all round making the very best of the mid-range hardware. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

While performance and battery life is slightly disappointing, the software on the Pixel 3a is anything but.

The software is exactly the same as running on the Pixel 3, including Google’s various Pixel-first features such as AR navigation in Google Maps, Now Playing ambient music recognition and squeeze-to-activate Google Assistant.

It will also get at least three years of both Android version updates and monthly security updates, making it one of the very few Android smartphones to do so. While updates aren’t a whizz-bang feature, they are very important and something on which third-party manufacturers lag far behind. The Pixel 3a will even get Android Q before practically anything else.

Camera

Google Pixel 3a review



The Pixel 3a has one of the best cameras available on a smartphone at any price. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

Beyond software, the camera is the primary selling point for the Pixel 3a and for good reason. It has the same stellar, competition-beating camera as the Pixel 3 with all the bells and whistles attached. Point, shoot and get fantastic images nearly every time.

Top Shot, HDR+, Super Res Zoom, Google’s excellent motion-tracking auto-focus and the brilliant Night Sight are all included. New since the launch of the Pixel 3 is a timelapse feature, which works surprisingly well.

While the Huawei P30 Pro has bettered Google’s camera in zoom, flexibility and low-light performance, the camera on the Pixel 3a still tops any phone costing any amount of money on fine detail and HDR.

The selfie camera is also very good, as is video capture performance. Simply put: you have to spend literally twice as much on a P30 Pro to get a better camera than this.

Observations

Google Pixel 3a review



Squeeze the sides of the phone to trigger Google Assistant. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian
  • The matt plastic sounds like vinyl when you run your nail over it

  • Haptic vibrations are much better than the competition at this price

  • The stereo speakers work fairly well with one firing out the bottom of the phone

  • The screen is covered by the cheaper Dragontail, not Gorilla Glass

  • There’s no water resistance, dual sim or expandable storage

Price

The Google Pixel 3a comes in three colours and costs £399.

For comparison, the bigger Pixel 3a XL costs £469, the Pixel 3 costs £739, the Honor View 20 costs £399, the OnePlus 6T costs £499, the Samsung Galaxy S10e costs £669 and the Apple iPhone XR costs £749.

Verdict

The Pixel 3a is a very important product to Google. It marks a return to cheaper but good phones, and it brings many of the excellent features from the £739 Pixel 3 to under £400.

The camera is simply better than anything else at this price and so is the software. You also get a full three years of monthly security and Android version updates, and access to Google’s features first including the upcoming Android Q.

But in getting down to the £400 price point Google has had to cut a few corners. A plastic body with large bezels and a good screen is fine. Poor battery life and slower hardware is less so.

It’s not that using the Pixel 3a is like treacle, it’s just that for the same money in the UK and Europe you can get smartphones with much faster, flagship hardware and significantly longer battery life. That’s not the case in the US, which makes the Pixel 3a much more tempting across the Atlantic.

So the Pixel 3a is a good start, but an opportunity missed to become the king of the mid-range.

Pros: great camera, good screen, great software and support, headphone socket, relatively small, fairly inexpensive, squeezable sides

Cons: poor battery life, average performance, no wireless charging, no water resistance, no expandable storage or dual-sim support, large bezels

Google Pixel 3a review



The fingerprint scanner on the back of the Pixel 3a works great, lining up perfectly with your index finger when holding the phone normally. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

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