Pixel 3a hands on: Who should buy this phone?

People who want all the Pixel 3's best features at a friendly price, that's who.

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Holding the Pixel 3a XL in my hand, it feels indistinguishable from the Pixel 3 XL I’ve been using since October. Yeah, as a phone reviewer, you almost want a budget phone to feel different, but despite the fact the 3a has a plastic body instead of aluminum, its tactile feel remains unchanged.

The Pixel 3a XL also includes all the same computational photography tricks as the more expensive Pixel, including Night Sight, which renders impossibly dark environments as if they were shot in daylight. And despite boasting a slower Snapdragon 670 processor, the 3a’s software experience doesn’t feel any slower than my Pixel 3’s (though, granted, comparisons like this are risky—I’ve been using the original 3 for months now, so it’s possible it’s grown a bit laggy over time). 

So since these phones look and feel so similar, are there any other compelling reasons to buy the cheaper phone? For starters, the Pixel 3a is solidly a full-fledged Pixel phone—at a friendly $399 for the 5.6-inch model, and $479 for the 6-inch model. This means all of the cool next-generation Assistant features that Google announced on the I/O stage today will almost certainly hit the Pixel 3a and 3a XL when they launch later this year.

pixel 3a back Adam Patrick Murray/IDG

Yup, that's a headphone jack on the Pixel 3a.

And of course Pixel phones get Android security and OS updates as soon as Google releases them, for at least three years. Getting the most cutting-edge Android experience has always been the strongest rationale for buying a Pixel, and now you can have that at a budget price. Indeed, the Pixel 3 and 3 XL still cost $800 and $900, respectively. 

But for some, simple price savings may not be the only reasons to buy. Indeed, the new budget Pixels have features that don’t appear anywhere on the more expensive models, and two features in particular erase some controversies.

First, both the Pixel 3a and 3a XL boast a 3.5-inch headphone jack. I migrated to Bluetooth earbuds eons ago, but wired earbud users remain steadfast, and the 3a is now ready to fight their fight. So if you want a Pixel 3, and insist on wired headphones, one of the 3a models is your only choice.

pixel 3a no notch Adam Patrick Murray/IDG

If you hate the Pixel 3 XL's notch, you'll love the Pixel 3a.

Second, the notch. The dreaded, endlessly ridiculed display notch. It remains big, bad, bouncy and beautiful on the 6.3-inch Pixel 3 XL, but on the 6-inch Pixel 3a XL it’s... just not there. The 3a’s resolution is 2160x1080 versus the 3 XL’s 1440x2960, but display quality remains excellent—and, hey, no notch!

Oh, and do you care about paint jobs? The Pixel 3a comes in a new color called Purple-ish. It looks almost white, but its subtlety notwithstanding you won’t find it on the Pixel 3.

pixel 3a white purple Adam Patrick Murray/IDG

The Purple-ish Pixel 3a (top) isn't all that different than the white one. But the buttons tell a more vivid story.

But let’s not kid ourselves, the Pixel 3a is all about delivering Google’s amazing A.I. tricks—from Google Assistant to computational photography—at a price that middle-class buyers can afford, and that non-nerds can justify. This is the phone for all those folks who’ve seen Google’s dazzling Pixel 3 TV spots, legitimately wanted the phone, then spit-take’d at the price.

The only reason not to buy the Pixel 3a for folks pining for a Google phone? It’s called the Pixel 4, and it’s sure to promise some amazing exclusive features when it launches this October. But until then, the Pixel 3a is just as much phone as the Pixel 3—at half the price.

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