Almost everyone can agree on two things about Google’s Pixel 3 and 3 XL phones: They’ve got incredible cameras (especially Night Sight mode), and they’re a bit too expensive (at $799 and $899, respectively).
Sure, some people will feel those phones are packed with features worthy of their premium prices. But most people are better going with the Samsung Galaxy S or Note, with even more capabilities for roughly the same price.
And now, the tech giant’s launching the Pixel 3a and 3a XL. The new Android phones retain much of the Pixel 3’s DNA, including its top-notch camera, but start at a more affordable $399 and $479.
Of course, you’re probably wondering what corners Google had to cut to shave off hundreds of dollars. So let’s talk about that.
Plastic instead of glass
While the Pixel 3 and 3 XL are made of metal and glass, the Pixel 3a and 3a XL are plastic. The design still looks like a Pixel and has fun details like the different-colored power button, but the materials obviously feel different in the hand.
Thankfully, a plastic body doesn’t mean that the “Active Edge” feature — which launches the Google Assistant with a squeeze — got the axe. It’s still alive and well on the new Pixels.
Same great cameras
The one thing Google says it didn’t want to compromise on with these new models? The cameras. Both phones have the same single 12.2-megapixel rear camera with f/1.8 aperture.
On the front, both phones also have a single 8-megapixel selfie camera with f/2.0 aperture instead of the Pixel 3’s faster f/1.8 aperture lens. There’s no secondary ultra-wide selfie camera like there is on the Pixel 3 and 3 XL.
All of the Pixel 3’s camera modes, including portrait mode, Top Shot, Motion Auto Focus, Super Res Zoom, Night Sight, and Photobooth modes are also present on the Pixel 3a’s. New is a timelapse video mode.
The phones also come with unlimited high quality Google Photos storage.
No notch in the display
The Pixel 3a has a 5.6-inch display (2,220 x 1,080 resolution) with 441 pixels per inch (ppi) and the Pixel 3a XL has a 6-inch screen (2,160 x 1,080 resolution) with 401 ppi. Both displays are OLED and don’t have a notch.
Of course, no notch means there’s a sizable “forehead” and “chin” bezel above and below the screens.
There’s a headphone jack!
Yes, you read that correctly. The Pixel 3a and 3a XL both have 3.5mm headphone jacks. While Google expects Pixel 3 owners to embrace a wireless headphone future, it acknowledges that people who are more budget-conscious might not.
Mid-range Qualcomm chip
Arguably the most notable difference between the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3a series is the chipset powering the phones. Unlike the Pixel 3 and 3 XL, which are both powered by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 845 chip, the Pixel 3a and 3a XL are equipped with a “mid-range” Qualcomm Snapdragon 670 chip.
A lesser power chip means slower performance and graphics processing, but if Google’s optimized Android to its fullest, it’s possible users might not notice any real day-to-day drop in performance. In fact, Google says the phone’s chip is still powerful enough to run AR-intensive features like the AR navigation for Google Maps.
The Pixel 3a’s still come with 4GB of RAM, which, combined with the 670 chip, should keep the phones running smoothly.
One storage capacity
Both phones come with 64GB of internal storage. Sadly, there’s no microSD card slot for storage expansion.
Long-lasting batteries, but no wireless charging
The Pixel 3’s had pretty respectable batteries that could last a full day to a day and a half depending on your usage.
On paper, the Pixel 3a and 3a XL have even larger batteries, with capacities of 3,000 mAh and 3,700 mAh. Google says battery life is on par with the Pixel 3’s.
With quick charging, the phones can get up to seven hours of battery life with a 15-minute charge.
One thing you won’t find on the Pixel 3a and 3a XL is wireless charging. If you want that, you’ll need to step up to the regular Pixel 3’s.
Available at more carriers
In addition to being sold directly from Google, the Pixel 3 was available exclusively on Verizon. For the Pixel 3a and 3a XL, Google has expanded carrier availability to T-Mobile, Sprint, and U.S. Cellular.
The phones won’t be sold at AT&T, but they will work on the network if you purchase them directly from Google.
Returning to Nexus roots
Assuming that the rear camera is as great as the ones in the Pixel 3’s, the battery life is long, and the midrange Snapdragon chip isn’t unbearably slow or sluggish, the Pixel 3a and 3a XL sound like good phones.
But the new Pixel 3a phones might also represent a step back — a return to the company’s original Nexus roots. Those high quality phones were a hit with consumers because they didn’t cost an arm and leg.
The new Pixels may be a quiet admission that Google can’t compete in the high-end, premium-priced market dominated by Apple and Samsung. We hope we’re wrong.
But if the company is really committed to making flagship phones, it’ll need to add a whole lot more for the Pixel 4 this year — features like triple cameras, face unlock, in-display fingerprint readers, and more RAM to prevent Android from bottlenecking after a few months. We’ll wait and see.