Living with the Google Pixel 3a – A review at 90 days

Here’s the thing about doing phone reviews that a lot of people don’t know: they’re often done within a short amount of time and don’t truly represent what it’s like to live with them.

Many outlets get their review units with an embargo date and maybe 1-2 weeks of time to spend with the phone. In other words, there’s no way it can fully capture what it’s like to have this as a daily driver or spell out what gets annoying or troublesome with time.

Surely your opinion of something has changed since the first few days or weeks with a product. It takes time to get a true understanding of what’s convenient or inconvenient, battery life, and other details.

With that said, we wanted to wait until we had spent three full months (about 90 days) with our Pixel 3a before putting a review online. As we saw it, this is a key device that’s got a lot of attention around it. And, just because everyone was quick to heap praise on it, we didn’t know if that “feel good” stuff would last.

All that out of the way… here we go.

Spoiler Alert:  You can skip this entire review if you’d like, but I hope you read it. Nevertheless, this is the best $400 phone you can buy.

Let’s Go

I’ll be the first person to admit that I desire a top-tier smartphone. I fully understand the attraction to new things and adopting tech early. Truth be told, it is difficult for me to “settle” when there’s so much more available on the market.

I’m fortunate in that I get to test devices as part of what I do for a living. I am routinely sent new phones to review, including everything from the latest and greatest down to stuff you’ve likely not heard of before.

Once I found myself regularly using a high-end phone as a daily driver a few years back, it became hard for me to live with a so-called lesser model. Why take a step or two back when I don’t have to do so?

I have noted in reviews time and again that mid-tier models are no slouch and are far and away more than enough for average users. So, why don’t I practice what I preach?

In trying to understand the reasons I have come to the conclusion that there’s really one factor that sticks out above others. At least in my eyes. It’s not build quality, materials, processor, storage, or anything related to AI. To me, it all boils down to the camera experience.

To be specific, I do not want to live without the quality of the Google Pixel line and I don’t want to think about storage. That I can take endless, high resolution photos and automatically back them up to Google Photos is the very reason I don’t step away from the Pixel.

More often than not, when I qualify a phone, I find myself saying something to the effect of “It works absolutely fine on its own and should suffice for most people. Just so long as you don’t do a hard A-to-B comparison you’ll be happy with the results.” That’s true every day of the week and fits most phones.

Given that most of how we look at photos tend to center around social media, and on mobile devices, pretty much all handsets take a decent enough picture. Sprinkle in a filter, effect, or add an emoji on top, and share. Rarely do we print out photos.

So, as Google introduces great features with each iteration of the Pixel family, I move happily along. I love the Pixel line. At the same time, I miss where Google’s head was when it produced the Nexus series.

There was a period around five years back where the Android space seemed to be in a proverbial race to the bottom. Key phones were dropping from $800 to $600 to $450 over the span of a year. Everyone was happy with their devices.

Google’s Nexus 5 was the best value proposition around in back 2013 and one of those sweet spot devices.

Then things had to go and get extra premium.

Before we knew it, flagship prices started going back up and started hovering around $1,000 for the newest name brand devices. And Google got wrapped up in it.

Who Am I?

I don’t demand a lot of my phones. I don’t play 3D games, I don’t need any fancy desktop PC experience, and I don’t care if it’s glass.

I put a protective case on my phone and it tends to stay on the desk much of the day. In the evenings, and on weekends, I spend a bunch of time messaging, browsing reddit, checking emails, and playing Pokemon Go.

For all the really cool and interesting things that a phone can do, the reality is that I don’t use them. What’s more, nobody in my life has ever truly pushed their phone to its limit.

There are plenty of people online who care about processors, RAM, and benchmarks. I used to think that this segment of the market was much larger, but that was just my perspective as a blogger face down in the smartphone space.

Most of my friends buy phones that are a year old, and that’s not annually. A lot of people in my circle are content with holding onto a device for two or more years. Much of what I see in statistics and studies indicate this is how the mobile landscape looks in general.

So, why do I preface a phone review with all of this? Because the Google Pixel 3a is the cure to what ails me. It does everything I need, with more than enough untapped potential. The camera experience is exactly what I want and it’s priced to move.

Design

The Google Pixel 3a looks every bit like its predecessors on the outside. Right up until the moment you touch it, it’s hard to differentiate it from its forebears. Even after feeling the plastic/polycarbonate body and powering the device on, it’s difficult to see how this one differs from much pricier siblings.

If you know the Pixel line well, you understand that Google had to cut some corners to bring the price down. Things have to change if you want to get from $800 down to $400. Out is the glass body, wireless charging, and water resistance. Cool. That’s fine. None of those are needed.

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Speakers move from front-facing to bottom-firing and that’s about it. There’s nothing else noteworthy about the Pixel 3a as compared to the Pixel 3. Wait, that’s not true. The lower-priced phone adds a 3.5mm headphone jack that’s not present in the Pixel 2 or Pixel 3. That’s awesome stuff.

To be fair, I do notice a certain amount of tiny particles and dust that have made their way into the edge of the display Even with a protective case on it, the phone managed to pick up the rare specks of dust and debris. Most of this is easily removed with the edge of a thin piece of paper.

Display

The Pixel 3 XL, and a few other top phones of the day, have a noticeable “notch” cutout display. Love it, hate, enable it, disable it. Thankfully, that’s a trend that seems to be on its way out. For some users they might be able to skip an entire generation of devices with this “feature”.

The Pixel 3a does not have the notch. And that means thicker black bars at the top and bottom of the screen. I know there are plenty who will complain about it but, to me, it’s barely noticeable and certainly not terrible.

Color is warm and accurate, and is better than expected. The Pixel 2 XL had its share of problems with color, but so far the general consensus among reviews is that Google did well here.

The Pixel 3a has Dragontrail glass instead of Corning Gorilla Glass. In the few weeks I’ve used the phone I cannot say with certainty that this is more susceptible to cracks, scratches, or breaks.

Google makes no mention of Daydream View compatibility but that may be a non-starter. I really liked it in the first two generations of Pixel phone but didn’t even think about it when the third generation rolled around. Something about the apps and games and the seemingly slowed development curtailed my enthusiasm.

Software

Powered by stock Android 9 Pie out of the box, the Pixel 3a is the great, cohesive experience that we’ve come to love. It perfectly blends Google hardware with its latest version of software. What’s more, it is promised a minimum of three years of updates.

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If you’ve ever had an Android phone in the past and left to try an iPhone, I suggest giving the Pixel experience a try. I’ve heard from multiple people over the past couple of years who said they couldn’t believe it was the same platform. Things have evolved nicely, and it’s smarter, more efficient, and better looking than ever.

That I can load Android Q on this already, and test the beta stuff, is great. I am content, for now, to sit on the official build, but I’ve enjoyed a little bit of the early builds before going back to the out-of-box experience.

Availability

Another area where the Pixel 3a gets the edge over its predecessors is the availability. Indeed, you can pick this one up through most wireless service providers. Whereas Verizon had the exclusive rights to the Pixel 3, this one can be purchased at Verizon, T-Mobile, Sprint, US Cellular, and Google. It’s universally unlocked so you can also use it with AT&T.

Hmm, another win for the Pixel 3a. When do we get to the drawbacks?

Performance

Ahh, there it is. This is where the corners are cut and things get ugly, right? Not quite. Admittedly, the Pixel 3a is noticeably slower to open certain apps and games when compared to the Pixel 3. Loading web pages on Chrome is sometimes a little slower, too.

Once you’ve got apps open, it’s nearly impossible to see the difference. The mid-range Qualcomm Snapdragon 670 processor is certainly less powerful than the Snapdragon 855 found in the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3a, but it’s more evident on paper than in practice. It boils down to the user, and results will vary, but users in the middle of the pack should have no qualms.

Battery life is tremendous. The 3,000mAh power supply easily gets us a day’s worth of usage and the quick charging means minimal time plugged in for a top-off. I’m happy to trade off that roaring monster of a processor for something that’s more in line with my needs and less demanding.

This is one of the first phones that I have used in a long time where I purposely do not charge it at bedtime. I simply place it on the night stand and go to sleep, charging it a bit here and there during the day.

I’m happy to say that, while I might appreciate a little more juice at the start of a day, it charges quickly if I hop in the car and set out with a busier schedule.

Storage

Storage is limited to just 64GB on the Pixel 3a while the standard model allows up to 128GB. That doesn’t mean much to me, but it surely will for some. With no microSD expansion card slot, you’ll have to use the cloud for anything else.

Keep in mind that Google Photos lets you automatically upload your pictures to the cloud. That’s often what consumes the storage. To be clear, Google does give unlimited hosting of pictures on the Pixel 3a, but it’s not the same as what you get in the Pixel 3.

The former gets unlimited high quality pics while the standard bearer has unlimited original resolution. Does that matter? You have to answer that yourself. For me, I’m content with what Google’s giving me so far.

Camera

Getting a little deeper into the camera experience, it’s nearly imperceptible. At least, for all of the photos I take. Although the Pixel 3a doesn’t have the Pixel Visual Core present in the main models, I haven’t noticed anything in terms of quality.

The Pixel 3a doesn’t have the Group Selfie Cam, or wide-angle camera, on the front side of the phone. This matters little to me as the rare occasion I snap a selfie it’s with two other people at the most. On the other hand, I know of plenty of people who love full group shots.

Another thing worth pointing out is that when snapping a number of photos in a row, the Pixel 3a is slower to process them for viewing. It takes a little longer to render those great portrait images for sharing, but it doesn’t really impact the speed of taking them.

Conclusion

If you’re working with a budget and want to get the most phone for your money, start here. If you need to move down to something less expensive, I can appreciate that. There’s still a lot of great stuff out there at $300 that should last you a long time.

On the other hand, you could definitely spend more money, and get more hardware. A lot of companies are doing awesome things in the AI space, and the desktop PC experience in Samsung and Huawei phones does seem like it has some interesting use cases. Wireless charging is one of those features where once you use it regularly, you sort of depend on it.

If there was one feature that I’d like to have here it’s water resistance. I’ve come to like having that extra peace of mind, but you may remember that most of the time my phones are sitting on a desk.

Importance is subjective. Ask yourself whether it’s worth moving up to the Pixel 3 if you want to have the all-in-one killer experience. There are a few things that may justify the $300 difference, including wireless charging, water resistance, wide-angle front camera, extra storage, original resolution photos, and front-facing stereo speakers.

The more I’ve used the Pixel 3a the more my perception has changed. Rather than viewing what corners have been cut to bring the price down, now I look at what spending the extra money adds to the experience.

I am more than happy with what Google gives me in the Pixel 3a and suspect most people would be, too.

Where to buy

Pick up the Google Pixel 3a from Google, Amazon, and a variety of carriers and other retail outlets.