Sorry Samsung, the Google Pixel 3A is 2019's most important phone

Commentary: I can't think of a phone that's ever been this easy to recommend.

Daniel Van Boom Senior Writer
Daniel Van Boom is an award-winning Senior Writer based in Sydney, Australia. Daniel Van Boom covers cryptocurrency, NFTs, culture and global issues. When not writing, Daniel Van Boom practices Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, reads as much as he can, and speaks about himself in the third person.
Expertise Cryptocurrency, Culture, International News
Daniel Van Boom
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The 5.6-inch Pixel 3A was released alongside the 6-inch 3A XL. They're cheaper versions of Google's excellent Pixel 3 phones. 

Angela Lang/CNET

As far as non-folding phones go, the Samsung Galaxy Note 10 Plus is the most extravagant of the year (the Galaxy Fold is another level entirely). Announced recently alongside the smaller Note 10, it has a 6.8-inch display, four rear cameras and an S Pen with new gesture controls that essentially make it a magic wand. If you have an unlimited budget, it may end up being the best Android phone of 2019. But it's not the most important phone of the year. That honor goes to the $399 (AU$649, £399)  Google Pixel 3A .

To understand why, consider two trends happening simultaneously in the phone world. First, phones which cost around $500 and under are becoming faster, getting better cameras and looking more stylish. Second, partially as a reaction to this, "ultrapremium" phones like the Galaxy Note 10 and iPhone XS offer sumptuous features to differentiate themselves -- and get pricier as a result.

The latter trend is more noticeable. In 2017, it was borderline scandalous when the Samsung Note 8 launched at $949. Then, just two months later, Apple released the $999 iPhone X . Since then, phones that cost as much as a MacBook Air or Dell XPS 13 are just a part of life. The Note 10 and Note 10 Plus, as the most recent examples, retail for $949 (AU$1,499, £899) and $1,099 (AU$1,699, £999) respectively. 

But the more significant trend is the advancement of midrange phones, exemplified by the 3A and the $479 (AU$799, £469) 3A XL. Why? The law of diminishing returns. The better something is, the harder and more costly it is to improve. Expensive phones are great, but they've been great for years.

It's harder for the Apples and Samsungs of the world to invent new technologies to justify a $999 price than it is for companies like Google , Moto and OnePlus to make existing tech more affordable. As a result, the gap between midrange and premium phones is shrinking.

More and more people are figuring this out. Apple's quarterly sales are down 12% year-over-year, and Samsung's revenue from the S10 series fell compared to last year. Apple doesn't release data on specific model sales, but analysts believe the $749 XR is a better seller than the $999 XS or $1,099 XS Max. Meanwhile, Samsung's total phone shipments are up -- because of its cheaper Galaxy A range being so successful.

Oh, and the Google Pixel 3A? Between its affordable price and widespread availability, versus the Pixel 3's Verizon exclusivity, it doubled Google's phone sales.

But sales aren't what make the Pixel 3A 2019's most important phone. The 3A is momentous because it sets a new standard for what to expect from a $399 phone, and in doing so redraws the line between midrange and premium. This is mostly thanks to its astounding camera.

Pixel perfect

Over the past few years, the most significant difference between a good midrange phone and a premium phone has been the camera. Affordable phones often look slick and are often fast enough, but compare photos from a recent Samsung flagship (or a recent iPhone) with, say, Moto's excellent $299 G7 phone and you'll likely immediately notice a difference in sharpness, color vividness and ability to capture detail. Midrange and budget phones like the G7 often do have impressive cameras, but only with the qualifier: "for such a cheap phone."

The Pixel 3A is the first inexpensive phone I've used where I didn't feel I was sacrificing picture quality at all. That makes sense, because it has the same camera as last year's Pixel 3. It doesn't have 10x zoom, like Oppo's tremendous Reno 5G, or an ultrawide lens as on the P30 phones, but the camera on the Pixel 3 and 3A phones is still my favorite on any phone right now.


That this photo was taken on a $399 phone feels just as futuristic as any feature on an exotic new flagship.

Daniel Van Boom/CNET

I assume Google is able to port such outstanding photography to the Pixel 3A because so much of the Pixel 3 phones' picture quality is thanks to software. Even though dual- and tri-cameras have become the in thing in recent years, Google's phones have shown that one camera is better than two -- if you've got the right software.

Photography is only where the Pixel 3A's software excellence begins, though. The phone is also set apart by its operating system, stock Android 9.0 Pie. Competitors release phones with modified versions of Android, like Samsung's OneUI and Huawei's EMUI (and now HarmonyOS). But Android is best pure. As a result, the Pixel 3A's operating system is as smooth, and as regularly updated, as any Android you can buy.

Between an astonishing camera and its delightful user interface, the 3A is more pleasant to use than Androids that cost nearly three times as much. It also has one thing the Galaxy Note 10 phones don't: a headphone jack.

The Pixel 3A also means Google has to raise its game. The company in the coming months will announce the Pixel 4. Let's assume it'll start at $799, like the Pixel 3 did last year. We know the Pixel 4 will have facial recognition tech, as well as motion controls. What we don't know is if it will be $400 better than the Pixel 3A. 

Luxe life

This isn't an indictment on Samsung, Apple, Huawei or anyone else. It's not that these companies make bad phones -- my colleague Jessica Dolcourt says in her review-in-progress that there's a lot to like about the Note 10 phones -- it's that they make luxury phones. The Pixel 3A is the perfect line between utility and luxury in that it excels at everything the average person needs. It's perfectly fine to want more from a phone, but any features on top of the Pixel 3A are what I'd call luxuries.

The most obvious one is processing power. The Note 10 phones are powered by Qualcomm's Snapdragon 855 chips, while the iPhone XR and XS phones are powered by Apple's own A12 Bionic chip. These processors are powerful. They shoot to the top of every benchmark test, especially Apple's A12 CPU. The only problem is that you don't need that much power to do 99% of what phones are currently capable of.

The exception is 3D gaming, but even this is just a slight exception. It's only the tippy top of graphically demanding games that midrange phones can sometimes struggle with. This isn't even always the case though. The Pixel 3A, for example, can play PUBG on high settings just fine.

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You may be a hardcore gamer who wants the smoothest possible experience. In that case, sure, go ahead and get a bigger, more powerful phone. But the key here is that a specific type of person has need for a specific feature.

Similar sentiments can be made about all of the other bells and whistles now standard on premium phones. It's perfectly legitimate to want water resistance, wireless charging, a stylus, 512GB of storage space and face-scan unlocking, but these features range from "nice to have" to "a waste of money" if you don't have a specific need for them.

The Pixel 3A isn't perfect. The battery is good but not great, the speakers are weak and it's sometimes a second or two slower than an exotic new phone. And inversely, not considering price, the Samsung Galaxy Note 10 looks like it'll be terrific. Millions of people are going to drop four digits on a Galaxy Note. Same for Apple's new iPhone, likely to be unveiled in September. That's all fine.

But the Google Pixel 3A, more convincingly than any midrange phone before it, asks the question: "Are you sure it's worth it?"

Originally published Aug. 16.

Update, Aug. 19: Adds information on Pixel 4, adds link to Galaxy Note 10 review-in-progress. 

Galaxy Note 10 and Note 10 Plus look incredible

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