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Google Pixel 3A review: A cheaper Pixel 3 with the same great rear camera

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The Good The Pixel 3A is cheaper than the original Pixel 3 but packs the same grade-A camera that shoots great in lowlight. It can also record time-lapse videos and has a headphone jack.

The Bad The phone isn't water resistant and doesn't have wireless charging. Local storage is capped at 64GB, and Pixel 3A owners have unlimited uploads to Google Photos at a compressed high quality resolution, not original.

The Bottom Line The Pixel 3A has the best camera for its price. But if a fast processor or more memory is your priority, get the OnePlus 6T instead.

8.2 Overall
  • Design 7
  • Features 7
  • Performance 9
  • Camera 9
  • Battery 10

Google is trying its hand at something new. Its signature phone, the Pixel, is jumping into the midrange market with the Pixel 3A and 3A XL. At $399 and $479 (£399 and £469 in the UK, and AU$649 and AU$799 in Australia), the handsets are essentially reworked Pixel 3 ($813 at Walmart) phones. They have the same rear camera and overall look, but there are a few hardware downgrades that contribute to the lower price.

Why did Google go the budget route? For starters, its flagship phones, the Pixel 3 and 3 XL, aren't selling very well despite their exceptional cameras and critical acclaim. This could be because the phones are exclusive only to Verizon (though they work on other US carriers), plus the fact that people in general aren't buying phones as much as they used to. There's also been reported issues with the Pixel 3's performance, though we at CNET haven't experienced them personally.

But perhaps the biggest factor are the phones' prices: $649 for the 3 and $769 for the 3 XL. The Pixel 3 and 3 XL aren't as expensive as their iPhone XS ($999 at Amazon) and Galaxy S10 competitors, but they're pricey enough that Ruth Porat, the chief financial officer of Google's parent company Alphabet, acknowledged sales have been low because of "pressures in the premium smartphone market."

With a lower price, the Pixel 3A has a better chance of attracting a new set of customers and ultimately increasing sales. And while it doesn't have as many features as the other "budget" options of its competitors, such as the iPhone XR ($570 at Amazon) and the Galaxy S10E, the Pixel 3A is still at least $250 cheaper. If you want the latest software from Google and the ability to take fantastic photos -- all at under $400 -- then the Pixel 3A is the phone to get.

Pixel 3A and Pixel 3: What's different?

  • The Pixel 3A comes in a new color, "Purple-ish" (in addition to black and white)
  • It has a 3.5mm headphone jack
  • Battery capacity is slightly bumped up, from 2,915 to 3,000 mAh
  • It's available through Verizon, T-Mobile, Sprint and US Cellular. It works on AT&T too, but you can't buy it directly from the carrier. Here's more info on how to order the Pixel 3A.
  • It does not have wireless charging
  • It's not water resistant
  • It doesn't have a second wide-angle front-facing camera
  • It doesn't come bundled with Pixel Buds earbuds
  • It has the less powerful Snapdragon 670 chipset
pixel-3a-xl-37
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The Pixel 3A (left) and the Pixel 3.

Angela Lang/CNET

Pixel 3A looks nearly identical to Pixel 3

Both the Pixel 3A and Pixel 3 have a lightweight, unibody design, a matte finish with a glossy shade on the back and a rear fingerprint reader. If I came across both phones for the first time, I wouldn't know off the bat which one was the more expensive.

But there are some differences. The Pixel 3A is bigger and made out of polycarbonate instead of glass like the Pixel 3. Its bottom bezel is thicker and the display is a tad larger. The phone also uses a different type of OLED display that features glass as its base layer instead of plastic. Even when both displays are in the same color mode (which you can change in Settings), the Pixel 3A looks a bit punchier at times. Reds, yellows and oranges are warmer and whites look brighter, purer. In contrast, the Pixel 3's screen is bluer and despite being the more high-end device, it has much more obvious color shift.

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The Pixel 3A sports a new purple shade and a highlighter-green power button.

Angela Lang/CNET

Other design takeaways

  • It's a drag that the Pixel 3A isn't water resistant, so I don't have that extra peace of mind when I have my phone around a pool or sink. But I do like that the Pixel 3A has a headphone jack. Fellow wired headphone users rejoice!
  • Like Not Pink, Purple-ish is a very subtle shade of purple. Depending on the light, it sometimes looks obviously purple and other times it can be washed out to white. Either way though, the neon green power button is a cool touch.
  • You can still launch Google Assistant or silence an incoming call by squeezing the phone's sides. Google calls this Active Edge. Unlike other phones that have the same feature (like the HTC U11), you can't reprogram the squeeze to do anything else. Bummer.
  • The phone has stereo speakers and the bottom audio speaker moved from the chin to the bottom edge of the phone.

Pixel 3A camera: Same camera but with time-lapse

One new feature is time-lapse video. You can set your frames to record at various time intervals -- for example, you can condense between 50 seconds or 20 minutes of recorded footage into 10 seconds -- and there's a useful indicator that denotes how long your video will be in real time. To save battery, the viewfinder will also dim after some time, while the phone is still recording.

In general, time-lapse videos were clear and steady, and I love that I can see how long my video will be in the end. But the quality isn't as good as the iPhone XR. In one video I shot at a darkened cocktail party, footage on the Pixel 3A was muddier and grainier than that captured by the iPhone XR. The time-lapse also looked jerkier or more "pulsating" than on the iPhone. Despite the fact that the interface for the iPhone XR's camera is bare and doesn't have different time frame options, it churns out better video.

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