Not everyone needs an iPhone XS, an expensive piece of glass and metal that feels more like a priceless artifact than a necessary tool you carry every day. The steadily increasing megapixel camera, the always more powerful processor, the unending price creep.
As an example of how far things have gone, Apple’s “cheap” phone option—the iPhone XR—still starts at $750. These are the familiar steps we’ve all learned in an endless dance of technological excess.
Of course, not to pick on Apple—Samsung isn’t any better, with a near $2,000 folding phone that doesn’t really fold very well, and Google is playing the game. In 2017, you could score a Pixel 2 starting at $650, but the Pixel 3 jumped up to $800 with only marginal improvements. Last year’s top-of-the-line Pixel 3 XL, meanwhile, nearly approached the $1,000 mark.
But Google’s new Pixel 3a is a record scratch, reversing a trend that seemed near irreversible—at least among the big three—and in the process, Google has finally created a phone for the rest of us.
Because the real thing that sells the new Pixel 3a is the price. Starting at $400—half the original asking price of the Pixel 3—the Pixel 3a (and the 6-inch Pixel 3a XL starting at $480) is an affordable phone worth lusting over.
Life by One Thousand Cuts
At first it doesn’t sound like high praise, but the Pixel 3a and Pixel 3a XL are stunningly mediocre. The processor comes with a bit less muscle. The Pixel 3a is wrapped in plastic rather than aluminum. The display devolves to an OLED Full HD screen. Wireless charging is completely MIA.
For the most spec-obsessed, the Pixel 3a is DOA, another needless mid-tier phone that doesn’t push boundaries in any meaningful way. As for the rest of us? There’s a lot to love, but let’s first walk through these perceived negatives.
For one, the slower processor is almost a non-issue for most casual smartphone users. I’ve used the Pixel 3 everyday for nearly 6 months, and after switching to the Pixel 3a for the past week, I’ve only noticed the performance hiccups when opening apps. Other than that, it just ticks along.
That display? Can’t say I’ve noticed the missing pixels. In a side-by-side comparison, the Pixel 3 might edge out the Pixel 3a in terms of color accuracy, but it’s a near dead heat during everyday use.
As for the plastic/metal debate, if you use a case, it won’t really matter.
The only thing that might be a setback is no wireless charging. But with the ever-increasing domination of USB Type-C (even Apple’s latest laptops are using the standard), it’s more likely your friends and family will have a usable cord lying around than some dedicated Qi-compatible charging pad.
Getting Things Right
In fact, the Pixel 3a arguably improves on the Pixel 3 in a few key ways.
The most obvious addition is the re-introduction of the headphone jack. Finally, I can dust off my noise-canceling Bose earbuds, which became almost unusable when my headphone jack adapter (inevitably) broke.
Another big one is battery. Although not huge gains over the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL’s batteries, the Pixel 3a packs in a few more mAh to help you get through an entire day without charging.
On the software side of things, the Pixel 3a gets Google’s latest and greatest with Android Pie 9.0, and being a Google device, you’ll be the first to get Google updates and features as they become available.
And if your personal phone philosophy tends to skew more utilitarian, the lower price tag and plastic body feels more capable to handle the scrapes and scratches of everyday use. At the very least, you won’t be out a cool 1k if your phone takes an unfortunate plunge.
But really, the 3a’s biggest tech advantage is one it copies wholesale from its pricier predecessor.
Great Camera, Great Price
The Pixel 3 camera is among the best shooters out there. On the hardware side of things, its 12.2mp dual-pixel camera captures stunning detail, while software enhancements like Night Sight help capture shots in even the darkest lit scenes. It’s one of the best smartphone cameras you can buy—and the rear shooter inside the Pixel 3a is an exact clone.
The same sensor, same stabilization tech, same aperture, same 4K video specs—and the results prove the near match.
Pixel 3a XL
While the front-facing camera doesn’t receive the Pixel’s dual lens system, the possibility to get this camera in your pocket for only $400 is quite the selling point, especially since you’ll save money by never buying a point-and-shoot again.
A Return to Cheap
The Pixel 3a XL next to last year’s Pixel 3.
The Pixel 3a and 3a XL represents Google’s triumphant return to the cheap phone fold. As with its old “Nexus” devices, designed by a rotating parade of phone makers, the Pixel 3a feels remarkably premium without an outlandish price tag attached. It’s a good sign for those of us who don’t mind buying a new phone—as long as it doesn’t cost near-laptop prices.
These new phones are available in available in White, Black, and Purple (pictured) and available starting today at $400 for the Pixel 3a and $480 for the Pixel 3a XL.
Simply put, the Pixel 3a is an uninspiring spec sheet. It’s a great camera. It’s a phone for the rest of us.