Google Pixel 3a Hands-on: A camera ace with lackluster performance
Google’s Pixel series is rightfully named for its impressive photography talents. The latest of this bunch – the Google Pixel 3 – puts forward a heroic stance with its single-camera against the other heavily armed flagships like the Samsung Galaxy S10 series, Huawei P30 Pro, or the latest iPhone X which feature two, three, or even four cameras. But despite being at the top of its game, the Google Pixel 3 has been failing to command the similar kind of popularity as the others, forcing Google to ponder over pricing. While that does not imply that Google could radically cut the prices of the Pixel 3 or the Pixel 3XL (or the upcoming Google Pixel flagships), it has been working to bring the same camera experience at a lower price for quite some time. The brainchild of this mediation is the new Pixel 3a and the Pixel 3a XL, announced today as inauguration to Google I/O 2019.
The Pixel 3a and Pixel 3a XL have been primed to offer a camera experience that suits the palates of the Pixel users. On the rear, the Pixel 3a duo uses a 12.2MP Sony IMX363 sensor to offer an amusement similar to the Pixel 3 series, which uses the same sensor. Even in terms of software support, the new affordable Pixel devices offer support for all the features including Night Sight, Top Shot, Super Res Zoom, Playground, as well as gets a new Time Lapse feature. Google intends to place its two new smartphones adjacent to the other entry-level flagships like of OnePlus 6T (and perhaps, the OnePlus 7 series) – although avoiding any competition due to different priorities.
Besides the same rear camera, the Pixel 3a and the 3a XL retain the Pixel 3’s Active Edge, dual speakers, Titan M Security chip, obviously leaving us to wonder about the compromises that Google may have made to make the Pixel 3a affordable. After spending a few hours with the smartphone, the answers to this question have become much more noticeable.
|Specs||Pixel 3a||Pixel 3a XL|
|Display||5.6-inches, 2220 x 1080, gOLED, 441 ppi, 18:9||6-inches, 2160 x 1080, gOLED, 402 ppi, 18:9|
|Size||151.3 x 70.1 x 8.2 mm, 147g||160.1 x 76.1 x 8.2 mm, 167g|
|System-on-chip||Qualcomm Snapdragon 670||Qualcomm Snapdragon 670|
|GPU||Adreno 615||Adreno 615|
|Battery Capacity||3,000 mAh||3,700 mAh|
|Fast Charging||Yes, 18W||Yes, 18W|
|Biometrics||Rear fingerprint scanner||Rear fingerprint scanner|
|Water and Dust Resistance||n/a||n/a|
|Software||Android 9 Pie||Android 9 Pie|
|Colors||Just Black, Clearly White, Purple-ish||Just Black, Clearly White, Purple-ish|
Pixel 3a Design
The Google Pixel 3a, from the very first glance, feels like a familiar device. This is because of the placement of the camera and the dual texture surface on the back which splits it into glossy and matte sections. From a distance, the Pixel 3a can be mistaken for a Pixel 3, especially if you’ve never paid attention to the flicker sensor on the latter. Google’s design team should be commended for almost replicating the aesthetics of this two-texture back panel, despite choosing a different material. While the Pixel 3 series uses glass for its back, the Pixel 3a makes use of a polycarbonate shell. This design choice does rob the smartphone of a premium feel, per se, but also makes it feel lighter. Therefore, the Pixel 3a and the 3a XL weigh 147g and 167g, respectively.
My only concern with Google’s use of polycarbonate is that it feels very prone to getting scuffed or stained, especially the Clearly White variant that we have here. Google will also be offering other color options – Just Black and Purple-ish, which may be more resilient against stains if not scratches. The matte part of the Pixel 3a also accommodates a capacitive fingerprint scanner and monochrome “G” logo.
When visiting the Google Pixel 3a from the sides, the first thing to note is that the shiny part of the back curves around the edges without any breakage in continuity. Although appealing, the designed can be likened to the iPhone 5C or the Xiaomi Mi 4i. However, this design choice might have some repercussions in the event of repairing and we hope to learn more with a teardown by disassembly enthusiasts likes JerryRigEverything or iFixit. The continuity of the white surface is punctuated by the neon orange button that has a matte surface. Beside the orange button lies the volume rocker cloaked in the same finish as the remaining glossy part of the body.
Update: Repairing the Pixel 3a is fairly simple, as per iFixit.
There are some basic changes on the Pixel 3a compared to the Pixel 3 – the single SIM slot lies on the left of the smartphone instead of the bottom. This is because one of the speakers is present at the bottom on one side of the USB-C slot, with a faux grille on the other to maintain symmetry as well as to hide the primary mic. The other speaker is present at the same spot as on the Pixel 3, i.e. under the grille covering the earpiece. Since the Pixel 3a targets the affordable flagship segment, Google has also undertaken the effort to add a headphone jack, which was purged from the Pixel series with the second-gen Pixel device. Alongside the headphone jack lies the secondary noise-canceling microphone.
Unlike the design, the haptic feedback makes it much easier to differentiate between the Pixel 3a the Pixel 3, even with a blindfold. While Google majorly refined the haptics on last year’s flagship, the Pixel 3a comes nowhere close to it and this may peeve certain users seeking a flagship experience from the 3a. To compensate for this, the smartphone retains the Active Edge feature that summons the Google Assistant when the lower half of the frame is squeezed.
Clearly, the familiar and minimalistic design of the Pixel 3a is palatable but it might seem a bit pale and drab against the sandwich glass designs on the likes of LG V35/V40 ThinQ or the OnePlus 6/6T. You should be able to fix that with a cover, especially if your preference for the design of the smartphone is limited to the utility and not aesthetics. We can also expect Google to release fabric cases for the Pixel 3a, even though there is no confirmation yet.
Compared to the P-OLED panel on the Pixel 2, the OLED display on the Pixel 3 brought a huge improvement in terms of the color accuracy and vibrancy and completely did away with the blue-ish tint that plagued the previous panels. But on the Pixel 3a, Google has retraced its steps and chosen a seemingly new technology called gOLED, in which the “g” appears to imply glass (instead of plastic in the P-OLED).
The Pixel 3a features a 5.6-inch Full HD+ display with a resolution of 2220 x 1080 (18.5:9) and a pixel density of 441ppi. The Pixel 3a XL, on the other hand, features a 6-inch Full HD+ display but a with different resolution and aspect ratio – 2160 x 1080 (18:9) – and a lower pixel density of 402ppi. The displays on both of the smartphones are protected under Dragon Trail glass. Furthermore, the Pixel 3a XL skips the giant notch from the Pixel 3 XL that brought Google a lot of bashing.
The gOLED display on the smartphone is fairly crisp and readable even under strong sunlight. In terms of the color accuracy, however, it feels mildly yellower compared to the Pixel 3. The colors lack the same depth or contrast and might hinder the experience when taking pictures with the smartphone, in spite of a marginal deviation from the Pixel 3’s camera.
You can choose between the different color modes, but there isn’t much difference between the three available settings. I wouldn’t really call the display defective or a blunder, especially because the display gets really bright and is very detailed when compared to an LCD panel. But looking at Google’s bad history with fixing display inaccuracies, it might not feel very assuring to anyone eager to buy the Pixel 3a. Despite this, if you’re planning to use the Pixel 3a for some serious photography, it is not very difficult to get used to the display’s imperfection.
This brings us to the relevance of a cheaper Pixel smartphone – its camera.
The perfection that the camera on the Pixel 3 brings to the table has not only earned it endorsements from many camera experts but also sparked a wave of unofficial Google Camera mods that borrow Google’s virtue of AI-powered image processing and maximize the utilization of the camera hardware on numerous Android smartphones. When it comes to the Pixel 3a, it cuts through the crowd and sits right beside the Pixel 3 in terms of photography.
As mentioned above, the Pixel 3a uses the same 12.2MP Sony IMX363 sensor on the back as the Pixel 3. Like its more powerful sibling, the 3a leverages the advantage of this sensor to take stunning images and utilizes Google’s HDR+ to capture stunning details both during the day and the night. The camera is equipped with features like Night Sight, Top Shot, Super Res Zoom, auto-focus tracking which helps it fare equally well as the Pixel 3. Additionally, it gets full support for AR features like Playground and besides that, Google is also introducing a Time Lapse feature with the new entrant.
Notably, the Pixel 3a lacks the Pixel Visual Core chip, which is a dedicated image signal processor for a highly improved post-processing on the Pixel 2 and the Pixel 3 smartphones. As a result of this omission, the processing of images take significantly longer on a Pixel 3a, but that has minimal effect on the quality of the images. I took a stroll around the neighborhood to see how the Pixel 3a performs in a test of real prowess and these samples could help you judge its abilities better. Spoiler alert: it continues to amaze just like the Pixel 3.
The HDR+ functionality on the Pixel 3a ensures that there’s a good balance of highlights and shadows in the images, especially when the shots are taken in outdoor lighting. Like the Pixel 3, most of the images clicked with the Pixel 3a are super sharp and have a satisfying amount of detail. Details appear to be preserved even in the case of far-off objects unless you intend to take macro shots. In the latter case, the blurring in the background is accompanied by a strange form of shakiness, even though the object in focus is perfectly clear.
Overall, the images are abundant with details and saturation, which does not feel unnatural for any reason. There might be a loss of saturation in the events of shade but the details remain unaffected.
The images that were taken with Night Sight during the day have a higher dynamic range and a shred of more light. Since most of these were taken during an hour before the sunset, images appear soaked in a yellow blush. This makes them look more vibrant and attractive, in spite of a negligible loss of focus in some parts due to a longer exposure.
At night, the Night Sight feature in the Google Camera adds a great deal of exposure, and the results produced are on par with the Pixel 3. Differentiating between the camera samples of the Pixel 3 and the Pixel 3a is a very challenging task, which suggests that Google has optimized the camera remarkably.
When it comes to selfies, the Pixel 3a comes with a single camera compared to the dual camera setup on the Pixel 3. However, it makes up for this lack of a dedicated wide-angle sensor by a broader, 84-degree field of view (the Pixel 3 has a 75° FOV). Notably, while both sensors have the resolution of 8MP, the front camera on the Pixel 3a has a narrower aperture of f/2.0 compared to the f/1.8 aperture of the Pixel 3.
This results in a noticeable decline in terms of both lighting and details. The selfies clicked with the Pixel 3a are even darker than the ones snapped with the secondary f/2.2 sensor on the Pixel 3. This is perhaps because of the automatic white balance adjustments in the slightly larger field of view on the Pixel 3a.
While using Night Sight with the front camera, even though both – the Pixel 3a and the Pixel 3 – manage to light up selfies fairly, the detailing in the images is not tasteful. The wide-angle sensor on the Pixel 3 capture much less light and that is expected, especially when you’re in a pitch dark ambiance. Nonetheless, even though these selfies may not be good enough to be shared with your Instagram followers, they can be deemed better than most flagships.
In terms of videos, the Pixel 3a once again comes shoulder to shoulder with the Pixel 3, being able to capture 4K videos at 30fps. The stabilization, both in videos and in terms of Super Res Zoom shots is cordial with the onboard “fused video stabilization” which uses a mix of OIS and AI-based stabilization.
In all, the rear camera on the Pixel 3a performs surprisingly well and on par with the Pixel 3 almost every time. Whether day or night, the Pixel 3a’s rear camera appears to possess all the great qualities of the mightier sibling. The gap between the two becomes observable when you’re using the selfie camera, especially at night and this is because Google has tried to counterbalance the lack of dual cameras. Albeit, if you look at the bright side of the equation, the selfie experience on the Pixel 3a is very good.
A caveat I’ve come across is that the lack of Pixel Visual Core slows down the image processing, so you might have wait longer if you’re in a hurry to click the perfect picture. That may not be a challenge if you take many pictures at once and review the entire bunch later. Lastly, the Top Shot feature does not seem to work very well on our review unit but we expect that to be fixed with a future update to the Google Camera.
The Pixel 3a and the Pixel 3a XL come without any compromise to the Pixel experience in terms of software. Active Edge gestures, Always-On display, 18W fast charging are some of the features that have been carried over from the high-end Pixel. Further, the addition of the headphone jack completes the package for those seeking entertainment besides impeccable photography.
However, since the smartphone is powered by a slower Snapdragon 670 SoC, the experience in terms of performance is not as fluid. Scrolling sometimes feels jittery and there is an observable lag while opening system apps or accessing features like emojis on the Gboard. Furthermore, there’s only a 64GB option for storage with no options for expansion. Additionally, even though there’s eSIM support, the Pixel 3a may not support Dual SIM, Dual Standby until the Android Q update is available for the smartphone.
While this warrants that the Pixel 3a may not be suitable for gamers or performance-hungry users, we’ll be digging in deeper to see how the Pixel 3a performs under the stress of too many apps running at once.
Pixel 3a: A rare sight at this price
The Google Pixel 3a furnishes a great camera performance for the price, which appears to be unbeatable by any other smartphone that competes with it. With its flagship-grade photography, the Pixel 3a feels true kin to the Pixel 3 and a worthy bearer for the Pixel banner. But that’s where its expertise is limited to. We do not think the Pixel 3a will survive a challenge against its price-wise competitors including the OnePlus 6T (or the upcoming OnePlus 7).
The Pixel 3a will be available in all markets where you can buy the Pixel 3. As for the pricing, the Pixel 3a will cost ₹39,999 in India ($399 in the US) while the Pixel 3a XL will be priced at ₹44,999 ($479 in the US). At this price, the Pixel 3 is definitely a great choice if the camera is all that you’re after and the Pixel 3 is out of your budget. This, however, is no jack of all trade and may not be a suitable choice if you’re looking to accomplish a bit of everything, especially gaming. This feels like a gamble from Google, especially because users in the price range are looking for a wholesome package, so the Pixel 3a might only do well in less competitive markets like LATAM and North America. We will, however, wait to see if this new strategy helps Google revamp the declining sales of the Pixel series or rather makes it fall flat on its face.