By Chris Ciaccia
Published May 24, 2019
Let's get something out of the way — I'm an iPhone guy through and through. Nothing will change that. But after having spent about a week reviewing Google's Pixel 3a, I've got to say it impressed me. A lot.
And at $400, the 5.6-inch Pixel 3a might just be the best Android phone on the market. At any price point.
Announced at Google's recent developer conference, it's clear Google took its time to get the hardware right to go with its world-class list of services. Not only do the OLED screen and camera both look and act great, but it's also dead simple to use, even for someone like me who has become accustomed to iOS, an operating system that prides itself on its usability.
Like every good George R.R. Martin fan, I put the screen to the test and watched "Game of Thrones" on it. The episodes looked great, even "The Long Night" episode, which people complained was too dark. I'm not sure what people were watching, but it didn't look too dark on my TV when I watched it the first time and it didn't look too dark on the Pixel 3a. Quit whining.
The software is where the Google Pixel 3a really shines. It uses Call Screen, an incredible feature in an era of seemingly neverending and annoying robocalls. Active Edge also lets you activate Google Assistant (which is better than Siri, but not by THAT much) by squeezing the phone. This is cool, but I'm not sure it's that much easier than simply hitting a button. To each their own, I suppose.
It comes with Android 9 Pie, the latest full operating system. Android Q is still in beta and being that it's a Google phone, you'll get access to it on the first day it's publicly available, which should be in just a few months.
Nearly every major phone company, from Apple to Samsung, are working their way up the price point ladder, Google included. But you don't need to spend $1,000 or more to get a great camera that takes incredible photos. And using the Qualcomm Snapdragon 670 chipset, it's plenty fast. It's not THE fastest phone on the market, so if that's something that concerns you, the Pixel 3a, in its three colors (purple, black and white) isn't for you.
But I was able to do the same tasks, such as sending WhatsApp messages to friends, or watching YouTube videos or listening to music, oftentimes performing multiple tasks at the same time and did not find my performance to be affected. For the average person, which Google is clearly going for with the release of this budget phone, it'll suffice.
And as someone who has religiously held on to their iPhone SE for many of the reasons mentioned above (price point, good, not great internals, headphone jack), this is saying a lot.
The battery life for a $400 phone is also pretty darn good, having lasted me about 12 hours or so on a single charge, continuously surfing the web and performing all the normal tasks I would do every day. This compares favorably to the iPhone Xr and beats some of the other budget Android phones out of the water. For an extra $100, Google's larger Pixel 3a XL has an even better battery life, but when you're talking 12 hours for $400, I'm not sure it's worth it to spend the extra money, even if the internals are a bit better.
One major improvement Google has made with the Pixel 3a is not with the phone itself, but its distribution methods — it finally works on T-Mobile, Sprint and US Cellular, as well as Verizon. It also works on AT&T, but you need to buy it from Google directly, which seems rather odd, given that a good number of people still get their phones from their carriers.
Like my trusty and reliable iPhone SE, the Pixel 3a has a 3.5mm headphone jack, an important distinction at a time when many (if not all) smartphones are moving towards doing away with the headphone jack. Yes, I understand wireless headphones sound better (I love AirPods), but I acknowledge that there is a good chunk of the population who are either not comfortable spending $100 or more on wireless headphones or worried they will lose them.
The Pixel 3a certainly does have a lot going for it, most notably its $400 price point. However, as with anything in life, there are drawbacks and the Pixel 3a has its fair share.
Unfortunately, the Pixel 3a does not come with its own headphones (presumably to keep the cost down), so you will still have to use either an old pair or buy them. Google said it wanted to give its users "the flexibility to choose the headphones," but I still think it's more about the price than it is about offering flexibility. For me, that's a drawback, given that older iPhone models do come bundled with headphones and many Android phones, including several Samsung models, do as well.
It's also kind of a bummer that instead of two years worth of unlimited same-resolution uploads that previous Google Pixel phones received, the Pixel 3a only gets 15GB of full-resolution images. You'll also get access to unlimited "high quality" storage for your photos, but so does every other Android phone. That's a bit of a drawback, especially if you're someone who wants to eventually showcase your photos somewhere other than your phone.
As you would expect, it doesn't have wireless charging. But a major drawback is that the Pixel 3a is not water resistant and although the camera is darned good, it has an 8MP front-facing camera and only one 12.2MP rear-camera. Apple's Phil Schiller has said in the past that the smartphone is probably most people's best camera, so if you're looking for an unbelievable camera, the Pixel 3a is not it. It's very good, it's just not great.
The Pixel 3a uses a hard plastic polycarbonate body, so you do notice the difference between plastic and metal. You can't help it. It doesn't feel like a toy or that it might break, but there is a noticeable difference in feel, something that was a bit off-putting to me during my review.
There's also the drawback of the processor. If you do a lot of gaming or work on your phone, the Pixel 3a is probably going to be a bit sluggish; the same could be said for any lower-end phone, though.
At the end of the day, the Pixel 3a isn't competing with high-end phones that have better tech specs and is not going to appeal to image-conscious buyers who want the latest and greatest. At $400, the Pixel 3a feels like a Toyota Corolla or a Honda Accord compared to the Porsche or Maserati feeling you get with some higher-end smartphones, be they from Apple or Samsung.
It is, however, going to appeal to Android users who don't want to spend a lot of money on a phone and want to feel like they're a part of 2019, something many lower-end smartphones either don't offer or can't compete with.
After years and years of trying to get it right, it looks like Google finally has a winner with the Pixel 3a.