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Google Pixel 3a smartphone
4.3Overall Score
Name: Google Pixel 3a and 3a XL
Price (RRP): $649/799
Manufacturer: Google

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.

  1. Foldable $2500+
  2. Premium Flagship $1600-2499 (usually a flagship with more memory/storage, additional camera lens and now 5G)
  3. Flagship $1000-1599 (account for about 10% of sales)
  4. Premium mid-market $800-999 (10% and often last year’s flagship at run-out price)
  5. Mid-market $500-799 (about 25% of the market)
  6. Mass-market $200-499 (about 25% of the market)
  7. 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 PayWave readers.

International models numbers G020A, G020E, G020G and G020H, are not for Australia.

Review: Google Pixel 3a Model G020F SKU: GA00745-AU

Australian Website here.

Although the review is for the 3a, we will note the 3a XL specs in brackets. Performance should be identical.

In the box

  • Handset
  • 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 – affordable excellence.

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.

Screen

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.

Google Pixel 3a screen

Performance

Processor Type: Qualcomm SD670
Core: 2×2.0 GHz 360 Gold & 6×1.7 GHz Kryo 360
Geekbench 4 single/multi 1615/5176
GPU Type: Adreno 615
Video encode/decode:
Game suitability: up to fps
RAM 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.

Comms

Comms Wi-Fi AC, dual bands, 2 x 2 MU-MIMO
Speed: 192 Mbps at 2 metres from D-Link AC5300 router, 192Mbps at 6m
Hotspot
Bluetooth: 5.0
USB-C 2.0
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 measure.

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.

Sound

Sound 3.5mm audio jack
Standard 3.5mm buds/mic
Earpiece speaker
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
Google Pixel 3a sound

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.

Other

Other Rear fingerprint sensor
GPS and e-compass
Active Edge

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.

Battery

Battery 3000 mAh (3700)
  USB-C PD-2.0 5V/3A, 9V/2A (18W)
Qualcomm Quick Charge 4+ compatible: 15 minutes = 7 hours
No Wireless charge

The battery is average for this class of device, but it has better lasting capabilities than the Pixel 3/XL. Given time, Android 9 will improve the overall life via its adaptive battery technology.

Tests:

  • 1080p Video loop, 150 nit’s brightness, Airplane mode – nearly 11 hours
  • 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 100%.

4G/LTE

LTE 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, and 66.
This is perfect for Australia and most of the world.
Sim Single sim (not carrier locked)
Other 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.

Operating system

OS Android: 9
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 is compressed

Build etc

Colours Clearly White
Just Black
Build Frame: Unibody polycarbonate frame and back two tone
Reasonably grippy
Dimensions  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)
IP Rating None

I strongly recommend a clear bumper case and screen protector if you intend to keep it for a few years.

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.

What’s missing

Google Pixel 3a case
You can also get cases online
Missing Facial detection
IP rating
Notification LED
Wireless charge

Are they deal breakers? Do you expect them in this price category

Camera

Rear Camera 1
Primary
MP: 12.2MP single
Sensor brand/model: Sony IMX363
Pixel Size: 1.4um
F-stop: f/1.8
FOV: 76°
Stabilisation: OIS/EIS
Focus type: dual pixel PDAF
HDR: Yes
AI scene recognition
Night Sight
Flash type: single, dual,
Saved images: RAW or JPEG
Video:[email protected] with mono/stereo recording
New: Time-lapse video
Google Lens: Yes
Selfie 8MP
1.12um
F/2.0
FOV 84°
Fixed focus
[email protected]

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 Auto

Daylight, outdoors (normal day around noon)

Colours are accurate, detail is excellent and overall it is a realistic photo with good sky tones.

Google Pixel 3a outdoors

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.

Google Pixel 3a office light

Low light (room with less than 100 lumens)

We took both a standard shot and night sight.

Google Pixel 3a low light
Low light sis pretty good
Google Pixel 3a Night sight
Night sight is just that much better but loses a little colour

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.

Selfie

Google Pixel 3a night sight

Cooler blue tones may be closer to reality, but we all want warm saturated colours.

Video

Limited to [email protected] with no OIS but Qualcomm’s EIS for stability.

AI software

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 is it!

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 cake maker.”

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.

YouTube

Google Pixel 3a smartphone
Name: Google Pixel 3a and 3a XL Price (RRP): $649/799 Manufacturer: Google
Build quality – plastic unibody is fineGoogle design style if you like thatGood 24+ hour battery lifeThe best single lens camera in its classPure Android
OLED Display but needs more nits!!!No Google Daydream VR supportLacks IP rating64GB and no expandable microSD storage
Features
Value for money
Performance
Ease of Use
Design
4.3Overall Score
Reader Rating 0 Votes