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Google Pixel 3A review: Google's cheaper Pixel 4 alternative has a great camera

No water resistance and no wireless charging, but Google packs the $400 Pixel 3A with the features that matter.

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Lynn La
Lynn_La2.jpg

Lynn La

Senior Editor / Reviews - Phones

Lynn La covers mobile reviews and news. She previously wrote for The Sacramento Bee, Macworld and The Global Post.

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9 min read

Despite an exceptional camera and a handful of useful software tricks, the Pixel 4 (and its sibling the 4 XL) didn't blow us away when it launched in October 2019. That's because the phone had an average battery life that rivals easily outlasted, it had limited storage and other phones had excellent cameras with their own impressive low-light modes (like the iPhone 11 and OnePlus 7T at the time).

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Google Pixel 3A

The Good

The Pixel 3A is cheaper than the original Pixel 3 but packs the same grade-A camera that shoots great in low light. 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

If you want the latest software from Google and the ability to capture excellent photos, the Pixel 3A has the best camera for its price.

But most of all, the phones were expensive. The Pixel 4 and 4 XL started at $799 and $899, respectively. Fortunately, if you want a Google phone that has a great camera and receives prompt software updates, the Pixel 3A and Pixel 3A XL are much more affordable options. Though Google has discontinued selling them to make way for the Pixel 4A, you can still get them from third-party retailers. When they first launched last year, these midtier handsets cost $399 and $479 (£399 and £469 in the UK, and AU$649 and AU$799 in Australia), but these days they can sell for even cheaper. The phones are essentially reworked Pixel 3 phones from 2018, and the Pixel 3A doesn't have a second telephoto camera like the Pixel 4. But it's these few hardware downgrades that result in the lower price.

This lower price, coupled with solid performance and a great camera, is how the Pixel 3A earned a CNET Editors' Choice.

Read morePixel 3A: I 'dumbed' down my phone and didn't last 24 hours  

Pixel 3A and Pixel 3A XL look familiar, but are more affordable

See all photos

Editor's note, July 17, 2020: Updated with news that Google has discontinued selling the Pixel 3A and 3A XL. The original review, published on May 7, 2019, follows below.

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

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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 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 a 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.

Because the Pixel 3 and 3A have the same camera, photo quality is still excellent. Images are clear, bright and vibrant. You can still take portraits with that dramatic, depth-of-field effect and adjust the focus and blur of the picture after you take the shot. Though I liked how colors on the Pixel 3A were more accurate in portrait shots, the contrast between the fore- and background is higher compared to the iPhone XR and Galaxy S10E. This can make the subject look artificial and superimposed. The Pixel 3A also didn't always nail down hair strands exactly right, and you can see patchiness around my head. For more about the phone's camera, check out the slideshow below, as well as CNET's deep-dive camera comparisons.

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Using the camera's HDR Plus Enhanced mode, this photo combines several exposures and images into one picture.

Lynn La/CNET
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Super High Res enables me to zoom in and see more detail on the snow lantern on the right.

Lynn La/CNET
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In this tricky scene, I was able to take a portrait photo of this slow-moving dancer in low light.

Lynn La/CNET
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Comparing portrait images across three different phones. The color in the Pixel 3A is more accurate, but I don't prefer its colder, bluer tones here. You can also see the patchy bokeh effect around my hair.

Lynn La/CNET
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Though you can't tell from this picture, this was taken inside a very dark bar with Night Sight turned on.

Lynn La/CNET

Other important camera features

  • Unlike other phones at its price range, the Pixel 3A still has its own dedicated low-light mode. Called Night Sight, it's incredibly impressive how it brightens up dimly lit settings. Compared to the iPhone XR, Galaxy S10E and Moto G7, the Pixel 3A takes superior low-light photos with this tool.
  • Photobooth autorecognizes kissing poses (aka duckfaces).
  • The phone still has Top Shot, which helps you choose the best image out of a series, and Super Res Zoom, which improves detail when you zoom in at faraway objects. On the Pixel 3A, objects that were zoomed in had more details and looked sharper than on the iPhone XR, Galaxy S10E and Moto G7.
  • Google changed its Google Photos storage policy with the Pixel 3A. Unlike Pixel, Pixel 2 and Pixel 3 users, who can save pictures to the cloud at their original resolution, Pixel 3A owners have unlimited storage only at a compressed size it calls "high quality." This should be enough to satisfy most people, but if you take image quality seriously or want to back up all your 4K videos, the Pixel 3A only has 64GB of onboard memory with no option to expand.

Photos from the Pixel 3A's camera

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Google introduces new AR features in its Maps' walking navigation.

Google

Android Pie and AR Maps

The Pixel 3A runs Android Pie, but can be updated to Android 10. Google didn't add a whole lot of new things in terms of software, but the phone does come with the nifty AR walking navigation tool in Google Maps right out of the box. 

I was able to test an early version of the feature, and I found it especially useful when I first started navigating and had to orient myself. It helped solve my main issue with walking Maps directions, which is determining the correct direction to head towards. After getting confirmation from Maps that I'm indeed going the right way, I could put the phone down until I got a buzz for the next step. If I held the phone up for too long, the app reminded me to put the Pixel down. As someone with a terrible sense of direction, I'm looking forward to seeing this roll out to other phones.

Other software notes

  • The Pixel 3A and 3A XL come with a free three month subscription to YouTube Music.
  • Still one of my favorite features from the Pixel 3 is Call Screen, which screens spam calls and telemarketers and shows you a live transcription of the conversation so you can decide whether to accept or reject a call. FYI, Call Screen will be available on non-Pixel phones including the Moto G7.
  • Digital Wellbeing comes natively on the Pixel 3A, but other Android phones can get it from the Play Store. It helps curb phone usage by giving you info about how much time you're spending on the phone and it lets you set time limits for apps.
  • To help reduce eye strain, you can schedule Night Light to turn your screen to a yellowish, sepia color. There's an option for grayscale too.
  • Like with other Pixel phones, the Pixel 3A will likely be one of the first to receive software updates as they roll out from Google. If you bought your phone through a carrier though, you may experience some delay.

Pixel 3A performance and battery

The Pixel 3A and Pixel 3A XL have the same Snapdragon 670 processor, which is less powerful than the Snapdragon 855 in the Pixel 3. But Google reoptimized the software to work with this chipset, and I didn't feel any slowdown with speed or performance. 

Don't get me wrong, on paper the Pixel 3A XL had lower benchmark scores than the Pixel 3 of course, as well as other "budget option" handsets from Google's competitors. (During our testing, the only phone it consistently beat was the Moto G7, which has a slower Snapdragon 632 processor.) But during my time with it so far, day-to-day usage didn't feel much different from the Pixel 3. Photo modes that required extra processing time, like HDR Plus Enhanced, Night Sight or making the screen flash for the front-facing camera, all felt like they took the same amount of time as before too.

3DMark Slingshot Unlimited

Google Pixel 3A XL 2,533Google Pixel 3 5,735Motorola Moto G7 941Samsung Galaxy S10E 7,769OnePlus 6T 6,590Apple iPhone XR 4,268
Note: Longer bars indicate better performance

3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited

Google Pixel 3A XL 27,084Google Pixel 3 61,673Motorola Moto G7 14,803Samsung Galaxy S10E 57,600OnePlus 6T 64,993Apple iPhone XR 77,814
Note: Longer bars indicate better performance

Geekbench v.4.0 single-core

Google Pixel 3A XL 1,632Google Pixel 3 2,395Motorola Moto G7 1,260Samsung Galaxy S10E 3,512OnePlus 6T 2,384Apple iPhone XR 4,814
Note: Longer bars indicate better performance

Geekbench v.4.0 multicore

Google Pixel 3A XL 5,199Google Pixel 3 7,907Motorola Moto G7 4,772Samsung Galaxy S10E 10,959OnePlus 6T 8,853Apple iPhone XR 11,392
Note: Longer bars indicate better performance

As for battery, Google bumped up the capacity in the new Pixels. Lab tests showed that the Pixel 3A had a slightly longer battery life than the Pixel 3. With continuous video playback on Airplane mode, the Pixel 3A lasted an average of 16 hours, 35 minutes while the Pixel 3 clocked in 15 hours. Sixteen hours is quite impressive, and it puts it about on par with the Galaxy S10E and OnePlus 6T. The iPhone XR, however, lasted nearly 20 hours.

Pixel 3A versus the competition

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The Google Pixel 3A.

Angela Lang/CNET
  • Pixel 3: While it doesn't have a headphone jack, the Pixel 3 is water resistant, has wireless charging and has a faster processor. Though it used to cost a steep $799, it's currently discounted at $499. If this deal continues, you may want to spring for it over the Pixel 3A.
  • Moto G7: At $250, the water repellant Moto G7 is one of CNET's favorite budget phones. But it doesn't work as fast or take nearly as great photos as the Pixel 3A. Unless you're on a tight budget, I'd pay $150 more for the Pixel 3A. For more info, check out CNET's Pixel 3A vs. Moto G7.
  • OnePlus 6T: Now that the OnePlus 7 Pro and OnePlus 7T are available, the 6T is on sale for $500. The OnePlus 6T offers twice the amount of built-in storage, a faster processor and a solid camera. You'll have to cough up $100 more, but you might find it worth it.
  • Galaxy S10E: As Samsung's most affordable Galaxy phone, the Galaxy S10E is water resistant, has wireless charging (and can charge other devices too), has a headphone jack and more onboard storage, and looks beautiful. It also packs a camera that beats the Pixel 3A in some aspects. But at $750 it's nearly twice as much as the Pixel 3A.
  • iPhone XR: The iPhone XR shoots better video and like the Galaxy S10E, has water resistance and wireless charging. But it doesn't have a headphone jack and you'll need to consider a totally different OS. Its $600 is cheaper than its original launch price, but the price tag is still notably higher than the Pixel 3A.

Pixel 3A spec comparison


Google Pixel 3AGoogle Pixel 3Samsung Galaxy S10EOnePlus 6TApple iPhone XR
Display size, resolution 5.6-inch gOLED; 2,220x1,080 pixels5.5-inch pOLED; 2,280x1,080 pixels5.8-inch AMOLED; 2,280x1,080-pixels6.41-inch AMOLED; 2,340x1,080 pixels6.1-inch LCD Retina Display; 1,792x828 pixels
Pixel density 441 ppi443 ppi438 ppi402 ppi326 ppi
Dimensions (Inches) 6x2.8x0.3 in5.7x2.7x0.3 in5.6x2.8x0.27 in6.20x2.94x0.32 in5.9x3.0x0.33 in
Dimensions (Millimeters) 151x70x8.2mm146x68x7.9 mm142x70x7.9 mm157.5x74.8x8.2 mm150.9x75.7x8.3 mm
Weight (Ounces, Grams) 5.19 oz; 147g5.2 oz; 148g5.3oz; 150g6.5 oz; 185 g6.8oz; 194g
Mobile software Android 9.0 PieAndroid 9 PieAndroid 9.0 Pie with Samsung One UIAndroid 9.0 PieiOS 12
Camera 12.2-megapixel12.2-megapixel12-megapixel (wide-angle), 16-megapixel (ultra wide-angle)16-megapixel (standard), 20-megapixel (telephoto)12-megapixel
Front-facing camera 8-megapixelDual 8-megapixel10-megapixel 16-megapixel7-megapixel with Face ID
Video capture 4K4K4K4K4K
Processor 2GHz Qualcomm Snapdraon 6702.5GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 845Qualcomm Snapdragon 8552.8GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 845Apple A12 Bionic
Storage 64GB64GB, 128GB128GB, 256GB128GB, 256GB64GB, 128GB, 256GB
RAM 4GB4GB6GB, 8GB6GB, 8GBNot disclosed
Expandable storage NoneNoneUp to 512GBNoneNone
Battery 3,000 mAh2,915 mAh3,100 mAh3,700 mAh2,942 mAh (not disclosed by Apple)
Fingerprint sensor BackBackPower buttonIn-displayNone (Face ID)
Connector USB-CUSB-CUSB-CUSB-CLightning
Headphone jack YesNoYesNoNo
Special features AR in Google Maps, Timelapse video shootingWater resistant (IPX8), wireless charging support, Pixel Buds USB-C headphones in the boxWireless PowerShare, hole punch screen notch, water resistant (IP68), Fast Wireless Charging 2.0In-display fingerprint sensor, dual-SIM, Dash Charging, notifications toggleWater resistant (IP67), dual-SIM capabilities (nano-SIM and e-SIM), wireless charging, Face ID, Memoji
Price off-contract (USD)* $399$799 (64GB), $899 (128GB)$750$549 (6GB RAM/128GB), $579 (8GB RAM/128GB), $629 (8GB RAM/256GB)$749 (64GB), $799 (128GB), $899 (256GB)
Price (GBP)* £399£739 (64GB), £839 (128GB)£669£499 (6GB RAM/128GB), £529 (8GB RAM/128GB), £579 (8GB RAM/256GB)£749 (64GB), £799 (128GB), £899 (256GB)
Price (AUD)* AU$649AU$1,199 (64GB), AU$1,349 (128GB) AU$1,199Converted: AU$774 (6GB RAM/128GB), AU$817 (8GB RAM/128GB), AU$887 (8GB RAM/256GB)AU$1,229 (64GB), AU$1,299 (128GB), AU$1,479 (256GB)

Prices at launch*

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Google Pixel 3A

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 7Performance 9Camera 9Battery 10
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