The Pixel 3a and 3a XL are the affordable alternatives to the much more premium Google Pixel 3 and 3 XL released last year.
Compared to Google’s flagship 3 series, the Pixel 3a and 3a XL forego some of the more high-end features found on pricier handsets, like water resistance and wireless charging. But they've still got the things most people care about. The camera is one of the best on the market, the screen is high-quality, and you get an excellent software experience.
The dimensions and screen sizes are the only difference between the two, 5.6-inches for the 3a and 6.0-inches for the 3a XL.
First impressions and design
At this price range you wouldn't expect the phones to win any design awards. But there’s no doubt they're well-made devices that are great for everyday use.
Both the Pixel 3a and 3a XL are built with polycarbonate, a type of plastic that is light-weight and soft-to-touch but also extremely tough. You can safely keep them in your pocket or bag and they're sturdy enough to take a few bumps along the way.
Polycarbonate plastic is a durable material that can stand the test of time. Famously used on the classic Apple Macs, you’ll find it used on sky goggles and see-through bulletproof panels.
Both phones come in Black, White as well as an off-white Purple Google calls “Purple-ish”.
The fabric-lined protective case can be purchased from the Google store. At £35 it's an expensive accessory. But it's a perfect fit, very effective at protecting your Pixel and will undoubtedly add a touch of style to an otherwise anonymous design.
The Pixel 3a XL with optional knitted fabric case.
The smaller Pixel 3a is a very compact device that would appeal to anyone looking for a phone that can easily fit into a trouser pocket.
The 6.0-inch screen of the XL is a much better option if you like to use your phone for reading and value a bigger font size without having to compromise on screen space.
Fitting more text within the display or same amount of text but bigger font. The Pixel 3a XL offers more options for reading.
The screen is flat and is surrounded by a chunky black frame, while the top area houses the selfie camera and earpiece.
This design looks a bit dated nowadays when even budget devices have super thin bezels and pinhole-type cameras. Yet, it also says something significant about the Pixel and its place in the smartphone market. Its not trying to be a fashion accessory and it's more about what the smartphone can actually do. This is Google’s utilitarian interface design extended to its hardware.
If you ask anyone to draw a smartphone, you’re likely to get something that will look remarkably close to a Pixel.
The minimal, understated back of the Pixel 3a. The high gloss upper part houses the single lens camera and flash, while matte surface on the rest of the back surface is where the round fingerprint sensor is located. As there's no face-detection on the Pixel 3a series, your fingerprint will be the most convenient way to secure the device.
The glossy surface goes around the sides and the top device, where the audio jack is located. Without a case, which you will have to buy separately, the phone can feel slippery.
Reversible USB-C, microphone on the left and speaker on the right. Unlike most mid-range phones, audio is delivered using this and the earpiece speaker at the top, simulating as much as possible a “stereo speaker” setup. Sound quality is not great but it has the advantage that is a lot harder to muffle the sound with your hands when watching videos or playing games.
Google has equipped the Pixel 3a and 3a XL with OLED screens but they don’t carry the same specifications as the more expensive 3 Series.
Resolution is lower and so is pixel density, but more importantly the level of brightness and viewing angles are nowhere near what we saw on the Pixel 3 and 3XL.
The material used is also different. Instead of Corning Gorilla Glass, which offers the highest levels of shock and scratch resistance, the display on the Pixel 3a is built with Asahi Dragontrail. It's a lesser known alternative that can still withstand a similar level of accidental knocks but lags a little behind Gorilla Glass when it comes to scratch resistance.
The OLED display on the Pixel 3a and 3aXL offers vibrant colours and deep blacks that are hard to find on other smartphones at this price point.
The bigger 3a XL has a slightly lower pixel density but you’ll be hard pressed to find any difference when comparing the two screens side to side.
If you fancy the vividness and deep blacks of OLED screens, the Pixel 3a is the cheapest way to get one. Just don’t expect the same level of brightness you’d get on the Pixel 3 or OnePlus 7.
A white Pixel 3a XL with the optional grey fabric case. A unique look in a world of shiny glass phones and silicon cases.
||Pixel 3a XL
||Policarbonate body and Dragontrail glass
||Policarbonate body and Dragontrail glass
||151.3 x 70.1 x 8.2 mm
||160.1 x 76.1 x 8.2 mm
||1080 x 2220 pixels
||1080 x 2160 pixels
The Pixel 3 camera is still one of the best on any phone today and we’re pleased to see that Google has brought the same hardware to the cheaper Pixel 3a.
One single lens is all the Pixel 3a needs to deliver great photos. It doesn't have a dedicated image processing unit but it is still one of the best cameras out there when it comes to results.
The camera found on the Pixel 3a is identical to the one found on the Pixel 3 and that impressed us at its launch. It has a 12-megapixel sensor, Optical Image Stabilisation and most of all, the impressive Night Mode for unrivalled low-light performance.
The only exception is the lack of a dedicated image processing chip (called Pixel Visual Core) which, in the Pixel 3, handles complex imaging tasks like scene detection.
In the 3a, the lack of a dedicated chip means you get slightly slower image processing and higher power consumption. This is because all the imaging work is carried out by the main processor. The end result, however, is almost identical.
The story is slightly different with the 8-megapixel selfie camera. It comes without AutoFocus and is missing the extra-wide angle lens, essential for group selfies.
That aside, the front camera is decent for standard selfies, and in good light can rival most premium devices.
The camera app can be accessed by double tapping on the power button. The interface is clean and responsive but with some unusual choices. Camera settings, usually located at the top of the preview screen is actually grouped with the other camera settings in the “More” menu.
You may have to wait a few seconds before seeing the photo you have just taken. This varies according to the level of processing required and it's due to a less powerful platform compared to the more expensive Pixel 3 series.
||12.2 MP, f/1.8, 28mm
||8 MP, f/2.0
|Optical Image Stabilisation
Software, Performance and battery life
The Pixel 3a is a snappy performer despite running on a platform that is less powerful than the premium Pixel series. You’ll hardly notice any lag when switching between apps or browsing large web pages.
Demanding games are a different story though and if you’re a fan of 3D games like Modern Combat or Asphalt, you may have to switch to lower graphics settings to avoid some jerkiness. For the less demanding players, however, the Pixel is up to the task. More so, in fact, than many other devices at this price range.
Software is one of the strongest elements of the Pixel 3a. If you’re drawn to Google’s devices for access to the latest Android innovations, you’ll be pleased to know that the Pixel 3a comes with identical software experience found on the Google flagship devices.
Android 9 Pie comes pre-installed, and the device is eligible for the next Android version as soon as it is available. It also has a level of software support that no other brand can match with guaranteed monthly security updates.
”Stock Android” means a simple operating system with no extra apps pre-installed. You don’t get the level of customisation and extra utilities found on the likes of Samsung phones but you can expect timely updates whenever they are available.
The Pixel 3a comes with a relatively small 3,000mAh battery, while the larger 3a XL has a 3,700mAh powerpack.
These are actually larger than those in the premium 3 and 3 XL devices. And considering they need to power a less bright screen and a less powerful processing unit, they tend to last a lot longer.
After an overnight charge, and a full day's use that included plenty of photography and the screen at full brightness, the battery was still showing over 33% left at around 11pm.
There's no wireless charging of course, not a surprise given the budget nature of these models. But fast-charge is supported and when you use the Google charger supplied a half an hour of charge will be enough to fill up the battery.
Adaptive battery will learn from your usage patterns and optimise for the most used apps. You will find that battery life will get more consistent after a few days of use.
||3000mAh (Pixel 3a) 3700mAh (Pixel 3a XL)
|OS and Version
||Android 9 (Pie)
Value and verdict
There's very little not to like about the Pixel 3a series. And if you want to save yourself some cash on your next smartphone purchase it’s hard not to recommend them over the premium Pixel 3.
Retailing at around £400 for the 3a and £470 for the 3a XL these aren't super-cheap phones. But bear in mind that you would get, essentially, the best single camera on the market, great build quality and Google’s software support with guaranteed updates.
The alternatives? Both the Nokia 7.1 and Moto G7 are worth mentioning and both brands are pretty good when it comes to software and build quality. However neither comes close the Pixel 3a when it comes to camera quality and while the drab design may put off the most fashion conscious, this is the best overall package for a mid-range phone right now.
Convinced you need to get Google's latest smartphone? Take a look at all our best Google Pixel 3a deals.
Prefer the larger one? Here are all our best Google Pixel 3a XL deals.