Google Pixel 3a and 3a XL vs Pixel 3 and 3 XL: Half as good or twice as nice?

Everything that's the same and everything that's different.

pixel 3a xl compare
Adam Patrick Murray/IDG

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For the first time ever, the choice between buying a Pixel is more than just the big one or the small one. At its I/O Developer's Conference Tuesday, Google took the wraps off the Pixel 3a, a brand new entry to the Pixel line that costs half as much as its older sibling. But how much are you really giving up when you opt for the cheaper model? Let's break it down:

Google Pixel 3a vs Pixel 3: Design

The Pixel 3 and Pixel 3a external designs are similar in many ways, including size. The Pixel 3a is slightly larger all around:

Pixel 3a: 151.3 x 70.1 x 8.2mm
Pixel 3: 145.6 x 68.2 x 7.9 mm
Pixel 3a XL: 160.1 x 76.1 x 8.2 mm
Pixel 3 XL: 158 x 76.7 x 7.9 mm

Moving on to major design characteristics, the Pixel 3 and 3 XL are distinctive—if not as beautiful as flagships from Apple or Samsung. From the 3 XL's notch to the two-tone frosted-glass back, the Pixel 3 family is instantly recognizable at a distance.

The 3a follows a similar aesthetic, with some tweaks. The 3a XL doesn't have a notch, for instance, so there's a fair amount of space above the screen. The other big change is on the 3a's back: It's made of plastic rather than glass.

As far as external components, both have a single camera lens in the top left corner and a smooth "window" above the matte body. The 3a lacks a front-facing speaker below the screen, as you'll find on the Pixel 3.

The 3a is also a bit lighter, particularly comparing the larger models of each:

Pixel 3a: 147 grams
Pixel 3: 148 grams
Pixel 3a XL: 167 grams
Pixel 3 XL: 184 grams

Google Pixel 3a vs Pixel 3: Display

While it would have been perfectly acceptable for Google to put an LCD display in the Pixel 3a, it opted for OLED technology, like the Pixel 3 line. However, the displays differ in quality when it comes to resolution and ppi:

Pixel 3a: 5.6-inch FHD+ (2220x1080) OLED, 441 ppi
Pixel 3: 5.5-inch FHD+ (2160x1080) 443 ppi
Pixel 3a XL: 6-inch FHD+ (2160x1080), 402 ppi
Pixel 3 XL: 6.3-inch QHD+ (2960x1440), 523 ppi

While the smaller phones' displays are pretty close, the 3 XL uses a much higher-quality display than the 3a XL does.

The displays are also protected differently against drops. The Pixel 3 and 3 XL use Gorilla Glass 5, while the Pixel 3a and 3a XL use Dragontrail glass.

pixel 3a back front Adam Patrick Murray/IDG

The Pixel 3a XL has a 6-inch OLED display, a rarity among phones in this price range.

Google Pixel 3a vs Pixel 3: Performance

One of the biggest differences is inside. Because the Pixel 3a is a budget phone, it uses a much slower processor:

Pixel 3a/3a XL: Snapdragon 670
Pixel 3/3XL: Snapdragon 845

The Snapdragon 670 is decidedly a mid-range processor, while the Snapdragon 845 was last year's top-of-the-line chip. In benchmark testing, the 670 matches up closest with the original Pixel's Snapdragon 821 processor, so you're definitely giving up a fair amount of performance with the cheaper model.

As far as memory goes, all four phones use the same 4GB 4 GB LPDDR4x RAM. That should be plenty to keep apps and animations snappy.

Google Pixel 3a vs Pixel 3: Battery and charging

Google hasn't skimped on the battery with the Pixel 3a in the slightest. In fact, it's a little bigger than the ones in the Pixel 3:

Pixel 3a: 3,000mAh
Pixel 3: 2,915mAh
Pixel 3a XL: 3,700mAh
Pixel 3 XL: 3,430mAh

While Google says both will last "all day," heavy users should be able to squeeze a little more out of the Pixel 3a, especially given its lower-powered processor, as well as the lower-resolution display on the 3a XL compared to the 3XL.

When it comes to charging, both phones will fill up fast. With the bundled 18W USB-C power adapter, Google says you'll get seven hours of use on a 15-minute charge. However, you'll definitely need to plug in your Pixel 3a in at some point, because it doesn't have wireless charging like the Pixel 3 does.

Google Pixel 3a vs Pixel 3: Front camera

Google introduced its first dual-camera system with the Pixel 3's selfie cam, so it's quite different from the Pixel 3a's standard single cam:

Pixel 3a/3a XL: 8MP, f/2.0, 1.12 μm, fixed focus
Pixel 3/3XL: 8MP wide-angle (107 degrees), f/2.2 + 8MP telephoto, f/1.8

Without a second camera, the Pixel 3a is missing out on the Group Selfie Cam feature, but when taking regular shots, you still get portrait mode and Super Res Zoom.

pixel 3a plastic Adam Patrick Murray/IDG

The Pixel 3a has the exact same rear camera as the Pixel 3.

Google Pixel 3a vs Pixel 3: Main camera

Unlike the front camera, the Pixel 3a's rear camera is exactly the same as the one on the Pixel 3:

Pixel 3a/3a XL: 12.2MP, f/1.8, 1.4 μm, OIS
Pixel 3/3 XL:12.2 MP, f/1.8, 1.4 μm, OIS

The identical camera hardware is mirrored in the app as well. That means Top Shot, Night Sight, and the new Time Lapse are all available, as well as portrait mode. One note: On the Pixel 3, you get free unlimited Google Photos storage of everything you shoot no matter the size, but on the 3a, Google saves only the high-quality version for free, just like on other phones.

Google Pixel 3a vs Pixel 3: Audio

Both the Pixel 3 and 3a include stereo speakers, but the ones on the Pixel 3 and 3 XL are "front-firing," while the Pixel 3a has a speaker on the bottom edge. But the biggest difference is the headphone jack: The Pixel 3a has one, and the Pixel 3 doesn't. But you'll have to bring your own headphones, because the Pixel 3a doesn't include a pair of buds in the box.

pixel 3a back Adam Patrick Murray/IDG

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

Google Pixel 3a vs Pixel 3: Storage

While both sizes of both phones come with 64GB of storage in the base model, only the Pixel 3 and 3 XL include an option to upgrade to 128GB for an extra $100. None of the phones have an expandable storage slot for an SD card.

Google Pixel 3a vs Pixel 3: Colors

The Pixel 3 and 3a both come in black and white, with a slight variations: The power button on the white Pixel 3 is light green, while it's orange on the Pixel 3a. Each phone also has an exclusive color:

Pixel 3a/3a XL: Purple-ish (with a yellow power button)
Pixel 3/3 XL: Not Pink (with an orange power button)

Google Pixel 3a vs Pixel 3: Carrier compatibility

The Pixel phone has been exclusively sold in Verizon stores since its arrival in 2016, but the unlocked version has always supported all bands and networks. That's changing with the Pixel 3a. Now you can also buy it through T-Mobile, Sprint, and U.S. Cellular stores. AT&T customers will have to settle for the unlocked version, however.

pixel 3a white purple Adam Patrick Murray/IDG

The Purple-ish Pixel 3a (top) isn't all that different than the white one.

Google Pixel 3a vs Pixel 3: Price

Obviously the two phones have very different price tags, with the Pixel 3 and 3XL occupying the premium space and the 3a and 3a XL targeting budget-conscious buyers:

Pixel 3a: $399
Pixel 3a XL: $479
Pixel 3: $799/$899
Pixel 3 XL: $899/$999

Google Pixel 3a vs Pixel 3: Miscellaneous

Other than the categories above, there are a few more things that are different between the Pixel 3 and 3a. The Pixel 3 is rated for IP68 dust and water protection, meaning you can dunk it in 1.5 meters (about five feet) of water for up to 30 minutes. Also, if you're a VR fan, you won't be able to use the Pixel 3a with Google's Daydream headset.

Google Pixel 3a vs Pixel 3: Conclusion

If you're considering the smaller form factor, the Pixel 3 and 3a are extremely similar. They both have 1080p OLED displays, the same rear camera, very similar batteries, and bezel-heavy designs. So the difference really comes down to whether the Pixel 3's faster processor, dual selfie cam, wireless charging, and water resistance are worth an extra $400.

When it comes to the XL, the display on the Pixel 3 XL is both bigger and denser than the 3a, and otherwise the differences are pretty much the same as they are for the smaller models. The price difference is wider: $420. That means you can actually buy a Pixel 3a and a Pixel 3a XL for less than the price of the 3 XL. 

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