May 8th, 2019

We saw the launch of Google’s budget Pixel line at Google I/O 2019. The Pixel 3a and 3a XL take the standard Pixel 3 design and cheapen it to a starting price of $399 ($479 for the XL model). This includes replacing the rear glass with plastic, dropping the processor to a Snapdragon 670, lowering the screen resolution to 1080p, and more. However, the amazing camera remains, and that’s the main selling point of the devices.

Generally, when you go for a mid-range phone, you have to make sacrifices. This may include low light camera performance, vibration motor quality, features, display and overall fit and finish. Google’s approach is interesting, and it’s much like the companies approach to a lot of its hardware products. The Pixel 3a is deeply flawed, but it has redeeming qualities that make it worth it.

The main problem with the device is the build. The back panel is a visually convincing copy of the big brother, with a matte textured rectangle taking up most of the space and gloss around the edges and at the top. However, the glass was replaced with plastic, and it’s really cheap feeling plastic. It doesn’t feel good, it bends inwards around the camera lens (very slightly, most people may never notice), and it scratches very easy. Not only will it look pretty bad after six months of use, and I know this because the demo devices looked pretty beat up, it just doesn’t feel very good in the hand. Many $250 phones feel a lot better.

Then there’s the display, which is a 1080p OLED panel. It being OLED should be a big selling point, but many of the lovely characteristics of OLED simply aren’t there. It’s pretty dim outdoors, the colors aren’t all that vivid, and everything looks a bit washed out. It’s not a bad display for a budget phone, but again, many budget phones greatly outperform the Pixel 3a in this regard.

These two aspects definitely hurt the Pixel 3a experience, to the point where I almost wrote the device off after using it for five minutes. But I’m glad I didn’t. There’s plenty to redeem the Pixel 3a.

The near-stock Pixel experience is a wonderful one, I love stock Android and Google really knows how to do the bare minimum. The vibration motor is as sharp as a tack, just like a flagship. In fact, that’s not giving it enough credit: it’s better than most flagships. When typing, it just feels brilliant. The size of both the devices, but especially the regular 3a, is great. Performance is surprisingly smooth, masking the mid-range Snapdragon 670. And with Pixel’s problems with RAM management, you retain that critical 4GB instead of dropping lower as a cost-saving measure. The device also has a 3.5mm headphone jack, something the high-end Pixel 3 lacks.

But of course, none of those reasons are why you’re buying a Pixel 3a. The main reason is the camera, which claims to keep up with the best. The Pixel 3 is long proven to be amazing in this department, and we should expect similar results from the budget version. Our photo samples look excellent from the demo devices, and from the short time I’ve had with it, low light is nearly as good. Night Sight is just as great here as it is on the Pixel 3.You get Super Res Zoom, portrait mode both front and rear, and everything you’d expect from the high-end model other than the wide angle front facing camera.

After using it for quite a bit, I have to say I’m in love. The smooth performance, the lovely Pixel software experience, and the great camera really set this phone up for success at only $399. Yes the back feels pretty cheap, but the first party cloth case for the 3a is awesome and feels amazing. I highly recommend it if you’re buying a Pixel 3a, especially since it has a matching colored power button. With only a day to experience the device, don’t consider this a review. But it is a glowing recommendation from what I’ve seen so far. Only time will tell if Google can somehow screw it up.

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