Google has done it again, releasing the Google Pixel 3a and 3a XL – quality handsets with a stunning camera at a more affordable $649/799 price. That is niche marketing in action.
GadgetGuy loves the Pixel line and still has a Pixel 2 and Pixel 3 (XL models – we are big phone GadgetGuys) which we use as perfect examples of pure Android and Qualcomm reference phones. It is nice to see what a single lens camera can do as well. Enter the Google Pixel 3a and 3a XL.
The Pixel 3a and 3a XL were no surprise. Both are basically a Pixel 3/XL (GadgetGuy review here) with a slower Qualcomm SD670 processor (was SD845) and the same camera sans the Pixel Visual Core (the SD670 does this). There are a few other changes, but a Pixel is a Pixel and deserves consideration as such.
In fact, this move portends the future of the Pixel 4 series due for launch in October (GadgetGuy rumours here). We are guessing there will be the full-fat version with the SD855 and the ‘a’ version with either the latest SD7XX or SD6XX SoC.
How we rate smartphones
We have paradigms to
slot them into market segments based on performance and price.
Our original four categories have grown to seven, and we review against different paradigms for each category.
Premium Flagship $1600-2499 (usually a flagship
with more memory/storage, additional camera lens and now 5G)
Flagship $1000-1599 (account for about 10% of
Premium mid-market $800-999 (10% and often last
year’s flagship at run-out price)
Mid-market $500-799 (about 25% of the market)
Mass-market $200-499 (about 25% of the market)
Value pre-paid <A$199 (about 30% of the
market – good for pre-paid and children)
The Pixel 3a is $649, and the 3a XL is $799 putting them squarely against mid-market offerings like the Nokia 8.1, LG G7 ThinQ, OPPO R17 Pro and last year’s flagship Samsung Galaxy S9. These are very tough competition – all of these are excellent.
Buy here – or you will regret it
We issue the standard
warning that you must buy the genuine model with Australian firmware as it
works on all Australian Telco carrier LTE bands and can make a 000-emergency
call (not 911) without a SIM. These also have Google Pay that works with Australian
International models numbers
G020A, G020E, G020G and G020H, are not for Australia.
Review: Google Pixel 3a Model G020F SKU: GA00745-AU
Although the review
is for the 3a, we will note the 3a XL specs in brackets. Performance should be
In the box
USB-C 5V/3A and 9V/2A (18W) charger
USB-C 2.0 to USB-C cable
USB-A (female) to USB-C (male) adapter
3.5 mm earbuds and mic
The first impression
OK, I know Pixel, and it’s utilitarian (some call it dull) looks. Pixel style is not so much bland as functional. This has a plastic two-tone back/frame unibody, the typical largish top brow (no notch) and bottom chin and it is a flat panel with widish side bezels. That all makes for easier repairability scoring a 6-out-of-10 according to iFixit’s teardown.
Those who love Pixel
style (a.k.a. Google’s design language) will appreciate the simplicity. In
fact, the ‘a’ series may win back those who loved the Nexus program –
The lack of an alloy
frame makes it a little flimsier than the Pixel 3, but it passes #bendgate
tests with aplomb. And it still has a side squeeze gesture.
It also has a 3.5mm
audio jack – Google says at this price range you expect it to, and it has the
usual non-expandable 64GB storage (Google offers unlimited ‘compressed’ Google
cloud Photo and video storage).
Add to that a great all-around
camera (101 DxoMark), a good battery, OLED screen, pure Google Android, and a
largely Qualcomm reference design and what is not to like? Me – I wish all
phones were as good as this at such a sweet-spot price.
PS – Google cares
little of competition comparisons. The Pixel is a reference phone that should
run perfectly, and its owners appreciate that.
Size: 5.6-inch (6.0-inch) Resolution: 2280 x 1080 (2160 x 1080) PPI: 441 (402) Ratio: 18.5:9 (18:9) Type: OLED with Always on display
S-T-B-R: 75% Colour depth: 16m Brightness: 400 nits peak but typically 300 Contrast: maximum 100,000:1 (infinite due to OLED producing so-called true blacks) HDR: No Colour gamut: claimed 180% sRGB (not tested)
Notch: No – it has a larger ‘brow.’
Screen protection: type: Asahi Dragontrail glass (just as scratch resistant
as Gorilla glass, but not as bendable/impact resistant)
Google lists a ’67
whitepoint’ and all that means is that it is cooler white and allows colours to
be adjusted about +/-10% towards warm or quite cold. It has an adaptive setting
as well that enhances reds and warm tones.
It is a good display
(Samsung sourced) with accurate sRGB colours (if we can believe the claim) and
off-angle viewing is fine. It lacks brightness (nits) compared to the Pixel 3 but
still is a good outdoors readable screen.
Screen summary: Once
you get over the massive bezels, it is a good screen.
Type: Adreno 615
Game suitability: up to fps
RAM: 4GB LPDDR4
Storage: 64GB eMMC 45GB free
Micro-SD card expansion: No but free unlimited ‘compressed’ Google Photo and
video cloud storage
The Qualcomm SD670 is a mid-range processor with the secret sauce being that Google (and HTC) engineers know how to tune Android to the Qualcomm SD processor. Launching apps and multi-tasking, even on a mid-range processor is a delight.
The Pixel Visual Core is missing, and the SD670 handles that, apparently well. It is a little slower in post-processing times.
From a gamer’s
perspective, the Adreno 615 handles most popular mobile games.
Wi-Fi AC, dual bands, 2 x 2 MU-MIMO
Speed: 192 Mbps at 2 metres from D-Link AC5300 router, 192Mbps at 6m
NFC: Yes – Galileo
Google Cast (not Miracast)
Network strength is -51dBm,
and while that is acceptable, it could only get a 192Mbps connection at 2m from
our reference Dlink AC router. It did hold that quite well to 6 metres before
dropping back to 2.4Ghz.
We understand that
this is due LTE and Wi-Fi sharing the same antenna – a cost and space saving
However, to put that in perspective, a Wi-Fi AC device like
the Samsung Note9 will achieve 866Mbps (and up to 1.2Gbps using VHT80) and
signal strength of -35dBm (lower is better).
Summary: Adequate Wi-Fi
AC performance for a mid-range device.
3.5mm audio jack
Standard 3.5mm buds/mic
Single down-firing speaker (Stereo with the earpiece)
Mics: 2 with noise suppression
Google Assistant: Yes
FM Radio: No
Codecs: SBC, aptX/HD
We tested the 3.5mm
buds – themselves a curiosity these days and the sound was, as expected,
muffled and boomy with poor upper-mids and treble. Typical of most low-cost buds.
Maximum speaker volume
was up to 74dB – quietish – but adequate for personal use. Back off 10dB and
the stereo sound is acceptable but lacks any real stereo L/R separation.
Ring tone volume is
also quietish – look for a ring tone track that has a lot of mids in it.
Note: Frequency response is from 20Hz to 20kHz
Deep Bass: 20-40Hz – none
Middle Bass: 40-100Hz – none
High Bass: 100 to 200Hz – creeping in
Low-mids: 200-400Hz – flat (good)
Mids: 400-1000Hz – flat (good)
High-mids: 1-2kHz – flat (good and strongest peaks)
Low-treble: 2-4kHz – flat (good)
Treble:4-6kHz – starting to decline
High Treble: 6-10kHz – declining
Dog whistle: 10-20 0 none – drops off a cliff
The sound signature
is Bright Vocal, which is best for vocal tracks and handsfree. While it can be
a bit harsh at 74dB backing off slightly makes it quite listenable – and no
phone does bass anyway.
Bluetooth 5.0 is good and supports aptX/HD if
your headphones do.
Rear fingerprint sensor
GPS and e-compass
The Titan M security chip provides almost flawless and
speedy fingerprint recognition. Missing is 2D facial recognition, so if your
fingerprint fails, you can use a PIN or swipe.
Active Edge only lets
you squeeze the lower sides of the handset to activate Google Assistant – there
are no other options.
Under 100% load, maximum brightness and
everything turned on it was empty in just over 6 hours
Given typical use we expect this to run for 24 hours between charges. The 3a/XL
should last a few hours longer.
While USB-PD 2.0 is
faster charging it uses the 9V/3A to get o about 60% then the 5V/2A to finish
it off. Overall the battery takes about 1 hour to 60% but 2-3 hours to get to
Cat: e.g. 11/5 600/75Mbps
LTE: Bands 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 12, 13, 17, 20, 25, 26, 28, 32, 38, 40, 41,
This is perfect for Australia and most of the world.
Single sim (not carrier locked)
VoLTE and VoWiFi depends on the carrier
Network strength was
-95dB – not as high as some and it won’t earn a Telstra Blue Tick for rural use,
but it’s fine for city and suburban use.
We understand that the
signal strength issue is due to the antenna sharing of LTE and Wi-Fi.
Android One: Minimum three years security update and likely OS updates
UI: Pure Android
Will be eligible for Android Q beta test program
Android Digital Wellbeing app
Pure Android should
receive at least three years of OS upgrades, patches and security updates.
Pie has loads of
features, including AI, to learn about your use and adapt the phone to it. In
the test week, we started to see minor
improvements, especially in the over aggressive adaptive brightness setting.
Our only gripe is that
Google’s unlimited photo/video storage is now 15GB uncompressed and the remainder
Frame: Unibody polycarbonate frame and back two tone
151.3 mm x
70.1 mm x 8.2 mm x 147g
(160.1 mm x 76.1 mm x 8.2 mm x 167g)
I strongly recommend
a clear bumper case and screen protector if you intend to keep it for a few
The absence of any IP
rating is disappointing. The headphone jack, dual down-firing speakers and the
unibody design make that very hard to do.
Are they deal breakers? Do you expect them in this price category
Rear Camera 1
MP: 12.2MP single
Sensor brand/model: Sony IMX363
Pixel Size: 1.4um
Focus type: dual pixel PDAF
AI scene recognition
Flash type: single, dual,
Saved images: RAW or JPEG
Video:1K@30fps with mono/stereo recording
New: Time-lapse video
Google Lens: Yes
It is the same camera
as the Pixel 3/XL, but the work of the Pixel Visual Core is handled by the SD670
instead. It appears to make no difference in quality, but the post-processing
is marginally slower, so it feels a little less responsive than the 3/XL.
While I cannot fault
the single lens strategy backed by a truckload of AI post-processing, I suspect
Google will need to go multi-lens soon if it is to regain its crown. No matter
how good post-processing is (and Google learns every day from every shot uploaded
to its Photo cloud), it is manufactured – not true colours and details.
Still, in the mid-range, there is nothing to match this camera – single lens or not.
All our tests are in
Daylight, outdoors (normal day around noon)
Colours are accurate, detail is excellent and overall it is a realistic photo with good sky tones.
Indoors Office Light (500 lumens)
Our well photographed ‘dog’ has never looked so good with fur detail, great colours and the background detail and colours are excellent.
Low light (room with less than 100 lumens)
We took both a standard shot and night sight.
Night Sight is impressive
how it brightens up dimly lit settings. It does this by ‘guessing’ what the colours,
tones and brightness should be and adds them to the shot. It may not be totally
accurate, but it is one of the best low-light photos ever.
Cooler blue tones may
be closer to reality, but we all want warm saturated colours.
Limited to 1K@30fps with
no OIS but Qualcomm’s EIS for stability.
The SD670 uses its
processing power coupled with Pixels amazing camera app to achieve more.
We have mentioned Night
Sight. It also has Top Shot to help choose the best image out of a bracket series,
colour pop, good bokeh and more.
Super Res Zoom
improves detail for far-away zoom.
AR Emoji cartons,
motion tracking autofocus and time-lapse – it has it all.
GadgetGuy’s take: Pixel 3a and 3a XL are excellent mid-market phones
The Pixel 3/XL are not strong sellers despite being excellent handsets. The 3a/XL fits the niche for pure Android lover’s at much more affordable prices. If Google gets its marketing right, then these will easily outsell their big brothers.
It is without peer as
a camera phone in the mid-market range. Simple – if you want the best shots, this
It is also one of the
best made Qualcomm reference phones with the advantage of pure Android. The old
Japanese saying comes to mind, “If you want the best rice cakes, go to the rice
To some, the trade-offs
will be a deal breaker – no IP rating (few in the mid-market have), no wireless
charge (ditto) and no microSD expansion (groan – cloud storage is not for all especially
if you have to pay for download and upload data). Here the OPPO R17 Pro and Nokia
8.1 are well ahead on points. There is a spec comparison here.
Regrettably, those trade-offs
reflect in its rating – 4.3, which is the same as the 3/XL. Come on Google –
add a microSD, and it would be nearly a 5-out-of-5 for a mid-range device.
Let’s not get
nit-picky – these are mid-range phones. Pixel is for a discerning owner that
knows the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. And don’t dare call it a
budget phone – ‘a’ stands for affordable!
And they come with three
months’ free subscription to YouTube Music.