Google Pixel 3a Display Review — Mid-Range With Top-of-the-Line Color Accuracy
Google’s newest handset, the Pixel 3a, has been making tons of headlines—at its forefront, it boasts the renowned imaging prowess of the Pixels’ cameras at a more affordable price range, and it maintains the simplicity and aesthetic of its pricier counterparts.
Much to my surprise, the Google Pixel 3a not only comes with flagship-competing cameras, but its display is among the most color-accurate in the smartphone world in its Natural color profile, which complements its imaging chops really well. It’s not really that surprising, though; Google has been leading the pack in chroma calibrations for a while now, and every Pixel phone so far has been very well-tuned for color, even the dreaded Pixel 2 XL (which was plagued with other issues, but chroma calibration wasn’t one of them). However, the Pixel 3a display’s strengths end there.
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Google Pixel 3a Performance Summary
The Pixel 3a uses a 5.6-inch 2220×1080 (18.5:9) Samsung panel with 441 pixels per inch. For a mid-range display, it’s considerably sharp, and it should appear as sharp as most flagships unless you tend to handle your phones really close or just have extraordinary visual acuity.
The uniformity on my panel is okay—all sectors of the display are less than a ΔE of 2 from the center, with a barely-noticeable ΔE of 2.6 comparing the top-left of the display to the top-right, since there is a slightly warmer “bleed” on the top-right of my display.
For the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL, Google put in excellent polarization layers that significantly lowered screen reflections and viewing angle tints, and those had to be compromised in cutting costs for the Pixel 3a. The Pixel 3a is using less-effective layers, shifting segments of the display towards red, green, or blue at small sudden angles and rainbowing out near the edges. They also don’t filter out as much incident light as current flagships, causing higher screen reflections, and allowing the OLED layer to bleed through and become more visible. The circular polarizer layer, which was introduced in the Pixel 2, was also omitted on the Pixel 3a.
The display brightness is bottom-of-the-barrel in typical Google style. The display gets just about as bright as any other Google phone, about 400–450 nits. There is most certainly a high brightness mode in the panel that Google does not wish to tap in to, but perhaps since the Pixel 3a has a mid-range panel it might not get that much brighter anyway. There is a lot to be desired from all of Google’s displays, as none of them are particularly enjoyable to use outdoors.
The Pixel 3a defaults to a color saturation-expanding profile that Google calls “Adaptive”, though I’m still not certain what’s “adaptive” at all about it. I’m still strongly averse to this decision, as I believe content should be originally served how it was meant to while keeping the setting to increase content saturation as an option. The Boosted profile is the Natural profile with a roughly 10% increase in saturation, though this profile should instead be a saturation slider since there is a system resource that controls the saturation level of the display between 0% and 200%, with Boosted simply setting the value to 1.1 (110%).
The color-accurate profile is the Natural profile, which I’ve measured to be the most chromatically accurate on the Android side of handsets in reproducing the sRGB color space. This is the profile that should be the default, given how accurate Google has calibrated it along with the news that wide color photos are coming to Android, which wouldn’t work properly in the Adaptive profile due to its lack of color management. Unfortunately, the panel in the Pixel 3a does not fully cover the P3 color space since its red emitter does not get saturated enough. The white point in this profile, as well as in the other two profiles, appear completely accurate to D65, although Google lists the Pixel 3a to have a D67 white point. The tone response of the display tends to render color tones just-slightly darker than standard, resulting in a display with slightly more contrast than what is considered accurate. At the low end, the Pixel 3a has a bit of trouble reproducing very dark scenes, and it does clip blacks a bit more than other displays.
The Google Pixel 3a maintains the same three profiles as on the previous Pixels: Natural, Boosted, and Adaptive, with Adaptive as the default.
The Natural profile is the accurate, color-managed profile that targets the sRGB color space for non-contexted color values. Despite Google’s specification sheet listing the Pixel 3a as having a D67 white point, I measured the Natural profile to have an astoundingly accurate D65 white point across its brightness range.
The Boosted profile is based on the Natural profile and, according to Google, increases saturation in all directions by 10%. This description isn’t completely faithful, however, since the perception of the boost in color differs for the three primaries: Green colors receive the highest increase in perceived saturation, followed by reds, and blues show almost no discernible boost. Furthermore, the boost in saturation for red and green isn’t in the same hue direction, with greens tinting slightly towards yellow, giving them a slightly warmer tint, and reds also tinting towards yellow, making them appear more orange. The profile is actually still very color-accurate, save for highly-saturated reds-to-greens.
The default Adaptive profile stretches out the saturation of all colors: Greens are saturated the most and tinted slightly cooler, while reds and blues are saturated about equally, with reds tinting towards yellow. The profile shares the same white point as the Natural profile, which differs from the Pixel 3 where their Adaptive profile has a cooler white point than the Natural profile.
Google doesn’t have a history of having bright displays—at all—and the Pixel 3a is no different. This is more acceptable on the Pixel 3a, however, since it’s Google’s mid-range device. At 50% APL, which is a good pixel level to attribute to the typical brightness of a display, the Pixel 3a emits 442 nits, which is middle-of-the-road for displays without a high brightness mode and is completely fine for its price point. The brightness drops off to a minimum of 406 nits at 100% APL, which is also just fine. At these brightness levels, the display does have legibility issues outdoors, which users will have to keep in mind.
At its dimmest, the Google Pixel 3a can achieve a white level as low as 1.7 nits, which is dimmer than what most other handset displays are capable of (excluding handsets capable of DC dimming), including the Samsung Galaxy S10 (1.8 nits) and the Apple iPhone XS (1.8 nits). The Pixel 3a gets much noticeably dimmer than the Pixel 3 (-29%) and the Pixel 3 XL (-23%).
Contrast & Tone Response
The Google Pixel 3a has a fairly accurate display gamma, albeit just-slightly higher than standard, resulting in slightly darker color tones which are more prevalent in highly saturated patches.
The Google Pixel 3a slightly flops in rendering shadow details, consistently rendering shadows darker and crashing in luminance below 5% signal level. The Pixel 3a clips completely black at signal levels below 3% (color byte values below 7) at 200 nits, which correlates to luminance values below ~0.008 nits. This performs considerably worse than most OLEDs, including that of the Pixel 3 XL, but not as bad as on the Pixel 3. Google’s Pixel phones have consistently had subpar black rendering, and it is certainly due to their calibration and not hardware.
The Natural profile is as accurate as it gets—the Pixel 3a can reproduce the sRGB color space without blemish (save for black clipping). The profile has an indistinguishable-from-perfect average color error ΔE of 0.8 with a very low standard deviation of 0.5. The largest color difference we measured read a ΔE of 2.5 at 75%-saturation blue, which is unnoticeable and appears accurate.
The Google Pixel 3a panel cannot fully cover the P3 gamut since the red emitter does not get saturated enough, but the Natural profile still reproduces the rest of the P3 color space really well. The attraction to the P3 color space does lie in those high-saturation reds, however, so although the average overall color difference of the Natural profile to the P3 color space is low, it is not a well-representative metric unless it can hit those deep reds.
The Natural profile is calibrated tightly with very little variance, maintaining an accurate D65 white point even at low signal levels. This means that there should be little-to-no discernible shift in the colors on the Pixel 3a display when rendering them at a different brightness, and the color will maintain its chromaticity when rendered at a lighter or darker tone. This is important since many displays shift the appearance of the colors, especially the white point, either warmer or cooler as brightness increases or decreases. The Google Pixel 3a display renders colors consistently throughout its brightness range in its Natural profile, and this is a very impressive calibration feat only similarly achieved by Apple. The Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL are not calibrated this tightly, most likely due to their wider gamuts, so it is very impressive to see it in Google’s mid-range handset.
Vendor panels are usually baseline factory-calibrated at or near their native gamut, so it isn’t unusual for color profiles with the widest gamut to be calibrated the most tightly. That doesn’t seem to be the case with the Adaptive profile, as we measured a higher variance from the profile than on the Natural profile. This is because the Adaptive profile isn’t just based on the panel’s native gamut, so it requires additional color mixing and LUTs at different signal levels to keep them consistent. The calibration is also imperfect since the profile targets a red primary that is not within the Pixel 3a panel’s native gamut. The resulting white balance for the Adaptive profile is still consistent, but the red and blue LEDs are quite finicky below 10% signal level.