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Pixels for the Masses

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Google is upping their game with the new Pixel 3A and 3A XL

The Pixel 3 smartphone that Google came up with last year was a solid little piece of work, with an extraordinary single-lens (which is now pretty much a rarity in the world of flagship smartphones) rear-facing camera, bolstered by outstanding image-processing algorithms, that managed to best pretty much all its multi-lensed competitors. Even aside from the camera, the Pixel 3 was a pretty magnificent little machine, that was quite firmly on the expensive side of things, but it nevertheless managed to hold its own because of its excellent premium-grade hardware and bloatware-free operating system – Android at its finest. But this year, with the Pixel 3A, and its larger but mostly identically specced-out sibling, the 3A XL, Google is bringing something a lot more affordable to the table, without making a lot of compromises along the way.

The biggest game-changing feature of the Pixel 3A, as it usually has always been with the Pixel series, is its camera. For a phone priced very competitively at USD 400 (and USD 480 for the XL variant), the 3A absolutely decimates the stereotype that one needs to spend upwards of USD 600 to get a phone with a decent camera. The 3A, in fact, boasts the exact same overpowered camera that is present on the Pixel 3, with an old-style single-lens layout and a 12-megapixel sensor, and optical image stabilization to boot. However, the 3A lacks the dedicated Pixel Visual Core image processor that is present in the Pixel 3, and it uses its regular CPU for that purpose instead, as most regular phones do.

For users, the lack of a dedicated image processor only translates into slightly slower saving speeds for photos (especially if effects such as Portrait Mode or HDR are in use), as well as a longer two-second camera launch time from the lock screen. All the fancy photography features present in the Pixel 3 are also readily available on the 3A, and the camera performs admirably even in low-light conditions, easily matching even the beefy camera of the elite Galaxy S10 or iPhone XS devices that cost more than twice as much – a feat made even more impressive because the 3A’s camera has only one lens. The 8-megapixel front camera does not have a wide-angle lens, but it still manages to be quite a powerful performer that does not disappoint much. Face Unlock is not an option on this phone, but it is not a feature many users are likely to miss.

In order to maintain its low price tag, the 3A doesn’t shy away from cutting corners, but thankfully, users who would choose to buy a 3A would not miss said corners very much. For starters, Google’s decision to go with a durable black, white or purple-ish polycarbonate (read: plastic) chassis instead of a more premium metal-and-glass design makes sense, because not only does it help to keep the device’s price down, but it also makes the phone more resilient to smashes and drops.

At less than 8mm thick, the 3A is quite a svelte device, weighing in at less than 150 grams (with the 3A XL weighing about 20 grams more). The fingerprint sensor is placed centrally on the back of the phone, in the most ergonomically friendly location. The 3A also makes the very practical call of retaining the beloved 3.5mm audio jack, making the use of wired earphones a breeze. The speakers on the phone fire downward instead of toward the front, but their sound output is crisp and pleasantly loud.

The Pixel 3A runs a mid-range Qualcomm Snapdragon 670 CPU. It isn’t the fastest CPU on the market, but it isn’t the most sluggish one either. Apps sometimes take a second or two longer to fire up, but once an app is loaded, it runs smoothly with no noticeable lags. With 4 gigabytes of RAM, the 3A is quite a capable multitasker as well. It doesn’t have the blistering pace of phones with Snapdragon 845 or 855 CPUs, but it nevertheless does its job quite well without feeling cumbersome.

The screen of the Pixel 3A is pretty much standard fare. Instead of going with an edge-to-edge display, the 3A’s face retains a prominent forehead and chin that is especially noticeable on the larger XL variant, which makes it look decidedly last-gen. However, the display itself is quite formidable, with a sheet of Dragontrail Glass shielding a 1080p 5.6” 9:19 (6” 9:18 in case of the XL) OLED panel that displays richly saturated colors and deep blacks. The OLED panel also makes it possible for only a few pixels of the display to remain active at all times for displaying the time and notifications while sipping very little battery power.

The 3A’s operating system, as expected on Pixel devices, is Android at its purest, bristling with useful Google services. The 3A is also eligible for officially receiving the latest Android updates for the next three years from the time of its release. Google does not offer free original-quality photo backups to 3A users (as it does for users of the Pixel 3), but the regular high-quality backup feature is still available.

The 3A lacks support for wireless charging, and it does not officially offer water resistance of any level. However, at this price point, wireless charging is not likely a priority for most users, and most regular smartphones nowadays can shrug off all but the most unfortunate of water splashes. However, one particularly depressing feature of the 3A is its lack of support for any expandable microSD storage. The 3A is only available with 64 GB of internal storage, and not having the option to expand it can be a possible dealbreaker.

The 3A has a 3,000 mAh battery, and the 3A XL’s battery goes up to 3,700 mAh. However, thanks to Google’s excellent optimization of Android Pie, both phones manage to hold up fine against a day of heavy use. A bigger battery would have been welcome still, but it’s not anything to complain about.

The Google Pixel 3A manages to marry a fantastic camera to a ridiculously affordable price tag, and even with its compromises, makes a very compelling case for the buyer on a budget. If the lack of expandable storage and some other more esoteric features is not a problem, it is very possibly one of the best available options in this price range, and it greatly pleases this reviewer to recommend it. This is a phone that showed up fashionably late to the party, but not without turning more than just a few heads.

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