Don’t let the cheaper pricing fool you: Google’s Pixel 3a and 3a XL still have terrific cameras.
It’s a very weird time for phones.
Just as phones started rocketing into the stratosphere with $ 1,000+ prices, Google’s going in the opposite direction with the Pixel 3a and 3a XL.
At $ 399 for the 3a and $ 479 for the 3a XL, Google’s new Android phones cost hundreds of dollars less than its premium Pixel 3 and 3 XL, which sell for $ 799 and $ 899, respectively.
But how much of the Pixel 3 experience can you really get with the new phones? Surely, there have to be compromises right?
That was my concern at first, but after a week of using the 3a XL, I can confidently say the features that matter the most, such as the Pixel 3’s outstanding camera, clean Android 9 Pie, and long battery life, are all present and accounted for.
Of course, the Pixel 3a and 3a XL have some tradeoffs, like the less powerful Qualcomm chipset, a plastic construction, and the lack of wireless charging and water-resistance. But I don’t think those are dealbreakers for people who’d rather save a few hundred bucks and gain a headphone jack (yes, you won’t need a dongle to listen to music on these phones).
Cheaper materials, but that’s okay
At first glance, the Pixel 3a and 3a XL look right at home with the Pixel 3 and 3XL. The rear’s got the Pixel’s signature two-tone glossy and matte design with rear-positioned fingerprint reader. The power button’s also a subtle splash of color on the “Clearly White” and “Purple-ish” models. There’s no mistaking these for a Samsung or iPhone.
Once you hold the phones, you’ll see this is where Google saved on cost. Instead of the ubiquitous and premium-feeling glass and metal design of most phones these days, the Pixel 3a and 3a XL are made of plastic.
Nothing wrong with plastic — it’s lighter and more durable — but it doesn’t feel as nice in the hand as glass. It’s a little disappointing Google used plastic when Motorola sells a glass-and-metal phone like the $ 300 Moto G7 for even less than the Pixel 3a.
Cheaper materials aside, the plastic doesn’t hinder usage. The buttons are all reachable and clicky, the Pixel Imprint fingerprint reader unlocks quickly, and — gosh — it’s just so great to have a headphone jack. If I’m to nitpick on one feature, it would be the vibration motor — the haptic feedback isn’t as strong as I would have liked.
Excellent sound and vision
The Pixel 3a has a 5.6-inch display and the Pixel 3a XL has a 6-inch screen. Both are OLED screens with FHD+ resolution (2,220 x 1,080 on the 3a and 2,160 x 1,080 on the 3a XL), meaning you still get the same inky blacks as on the Pixel 3 and 3 XL.
I can see some people complaining about the resolution. “It’s only 1080p,” is the common criticism, but if history has taught us anything, it’s that 1080p is plenty crispy on a smartphone screen. The Galaxy S10e, Huawei Mate 30 Pro, and OnePlus 6T all have 1080p screens and it’s not like people aren’t buying them. Hell, the iPhone XR’s screen resolution is less than 1080p and yet that hasn’t stopped Apple from selling boatloads of them. The fact is: There’s a lot more to a phone screen than resolution — like color, brightness, and viewing angles.
But I’ll nitpick again: The Pixel 3a XL’s screen is warmer compared to the Pixel 3 XL’s cooler display, but I’ve seen this minor display color temperature variation when comparing iPhones as well.
All that said, the Pixel 3a XL’s display looks great. Plus, neither the 3a nor the 3a XL have a notch. There are still sizable bezels above and below the screens, but they’re similar to bezels on the Pixel 2 XL and, truthfully, nothing to fret over.
Complementing the good displays are good speakers. Both phones have stereo speakers — one firing out of the earpiece and one from the bottom grille. When I pumped up the audio to its highest setting during my tests, I didn’t get a ton of distortion.
Mids and highs aren’t quite as rich-sounding and the bass is nowhere near as deep coming out of the Pixel 3a XL’s speakers when compared to the two front-facing speakers on the Pixel 3 XL, but for the price, I bet few will lament a slight downgrade in sound quality.
Same great camera with Night Sight
OK, enough about the phone stuff. Here’s what you really want to know, probably: Are the cameras on the Pixel 3a and 3a XL as good as on the Pixel 3 and 3XL?
In a word: yes.
My colleague Karissa Bell and I have been shooting with the Pixel 3a and 3a XL in San Francisco and New York and we’ve concluded the camera’s photos hold up to the Pixel 3’s.
Prior to getting the phones to review, Google told us its top priority was making sure the camera wasn’t inferior to the Pixel 3’s. From our test shots, I’d say Google mostly nailed it. Using Google’s magical computation photography algorithms, the 3a and 3a XL 12.3-megapixel rear cameras produced shots similar to the Pixel 3’s.
Pictures from Google’s latest phones are sharp, vibrant, and contrasty — exactly the way they are from the Pixel 3 cameras. A lot of people seem to like the photos’ high contrast. I’m still on the fence. Sometimes the results look really good, but sometimes they’re simply too moody and too processed in my opinion. I’d happily take photos with more dynamic range, which gives me more information to edit with than rely on an algorithm to create a stylized shot.
While I’m not including a comprehensive collection of photos from multiple shooting scenarios here, I have added a variety of shots below that show how the Pixel 3a and 3a XL cameras compare to premium phones that cost hundreds of dollars more. (Go check out our Pixel 3 and 3 XL review for even more photo comparisons.)
In the above set, you can see the Pixel 3a’s rear camera produces noticeably cooler-colored photos. In comparison, the iPhone X captures warmer photos.
Again, I’m not completely in love with this indoor shot of a few potted plants — it’s darker and has more contrast. But other people seem to like it.
Here, in the above and below photo sets, you can see the Pixel 3a XL and 3 XL produce very similar-looking photos. The differences are in the details, but you’d be hard-pressed to spot them unless you were looking very carefully.
On Pixel 3 and 3 XL, Google introduced Night Sight — a special camera mode that’s able to capture photos in low-light and darkness beyond what the naked eye can see. (The feature was expanded to Pixel 1 and Pixel 2 soon after.) With its ability to turn night photos into shots that look like they were taken in the daytime, Night Sight might as well be magic.
Impressively enough, Night Sight works on the Pixel 3a and 3a XL, as well. I shot the below photos in the dead of night, and you can easily see how the camera feature brightens images.
Though the Pixel 3a XL took a few seconds longer to take multiple photos and composite them together into a final shot, the results are still incredible.
In the above photos, you can see how the Pixel 3a XL’s Night Sight holds its own against the $ 800+ Huawei P30 Pro’s regular “Super Spectrum” image sensor.
And in the below shots, you can see how the Pixel 3a XL’s Night Sight compares with Samsung’s Galaxy S10+’s automatic night mode.
Shooting with Night Sight requires that you hold the phone steady for a few seconds after tapping the shutter button. But I noticed Google tweaked one thing to make it appear quicker: It moved the processing to the background.
In my tests, the Pixel 3a XL’s Night Sight usually took a second or two longer to finish capturing multiple exposures compared to Night Sight on the Pixel 3 XL. In some cases, though, the 3a XL’s Night Sight was quicker. But that was a trick. If you tap on the photo just as it’s finishing up capturing to open it in Google Photos, you’ll see the Pixel 3’s more powerful Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 chip is able to composite the multiple exposures quicker than the Pixel 3a XL’s Snapdragon 670 chip. The “processing” ring on the Pixel 3 XL’s screen quickly disappears, but the Pixel 3a XL’s needs another couple of seconds.
Karissa wasn’t too hot on the slow Night Sight processing, but I’m not too peeved by it. Yes, it can sometimes be annoying to hold steady for a few seconds, but the results speak for themselves. Better to get a good shot than one that’s just dark and grainy.
So much for the money
Despite how excellent the Pixel 3 and 3 XL are, Google says consumers have made one thing loud and clear: They’re too expensive.
The Pixel 3a and 3a XL are an attempt to broaden the Pixel’s appeal to a wider range of users who want what Google’s offering — clean Android, excellent cameras, and long battery life — but don’t want to spend top dollar to get it.
Until now the best value in phones came from OnePlus. But with the company poised to release a premium phone that’ll reportedly cost about $ 700, it’s likely going to cede the midrange-priced phone market to another brand. Google looks ready to pick up the baton with the Pixel 3a and 3a XL. Both phones are an excellent value for the price. There simply isn’t a better pair of phones at this price range that’ll get you such superb cameras.
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