Quick, what is better than getting your hands on a new piece of tech? Being amongst the first in the world to do so. No surprise then, that getting an invite to the new Pixel 3a launch event had me rubbing my hands in anticipation. With the launch of the Pixel 3a range, Google has taken a plunge into heated waters. The sub 40k segment is interesting to be in. Not quite budget, not quite high end. In a price sensitive market like India, the sales figures of any smart-phone will inevitably come down to what a manufacturer decides to compromise on. Because make no mistake, compromise will be involved. No manufacturer will make a claim to be “the best” here…… Or can they?
The usual strategy would be to take the middle path. Which is to say, present a device with middling performance and middling features at a middling price. This is usually what customers expect at this price range and this is what they will get. The more interesting option though, would be to double down on certain key features and not bother with things that, hopefully, do not matter. Google has taken the latter path. I’ve been using the 3a XL for a couple of weeks now and these are my thoughts.
Design wise, there is little to separate the 3a XL from its high end counterpart. Viewed from the front, it looks almost exactly like the Pixel 3XL. The only notable difference being the absence of the much talked about “bathtub notch”. From the back, the only difference would be the single lens camera as opposed to the XL’s dual lens setup. The differences are more pronounced in the audio department with the 3a eschewing the XL’s dual front facing speakers for a mixed approach. The top of the 3a houses a front facing speaker while the bottom sports two along the lip, flanking either side of the charging port (USB C). Also making a return is ye olde 3.5 mm jack, for those you that refuse to let that one go (seriously folks, this is 19th century tech, lets please move on shall we?)
Build quality is decent but the plastic body lacks the solidity of the XL’s metal finish. On the plus side, the 3a XL is technically a tad lighter and thus should be comfortable to hold for longer periods of time. I say “technically” because in my experience, the weight difference is negligible. As with the flagship models, folks that insist on a bezel-less display will be disappointed. Also on the chopping block are waterproofing and wireless charging. The latter is far from a deal breaker but the former might be an issue for some people.
Coming from my primary device (A Pixel 3XL), performance wise, the 3a definitely feels like a step down. But hey, this a device that is half the price. Much like its big brothers, the 3a has been saddled with only 4 gigs of RAM. I’m still scratching my head over that one. Still, it is far from being a slouch. When it comes to most standard use cases, the 3a is capable enough. These are the numbers I got by bench-marking on PC Mark and 3D Mark:
As you can see, the 3a XL’s performance puts it comfortably in the middle of the pack. Not unexpected given the Qualcomm Snapdragon 670 running the show. This is still a snappy phone, but no where near current flagship models. Ultimately, this will come down to what you are upgrading from. Its safe to say that even those “middling” numbers will beat the pants off most flagship devices from two years ago.
Ever since the Pixel range was launched, Google has managed to hold on to the top spot in terms of picture quality. I’d go so far as to suggest that the vast of the Pixel’s fan-base exists because of the camera. It makes sense for Google to double down on this feature. To put it bluntly, nothing in this price range can touch the 3a’s camera. Especially in low light conditions. If taking pictures is one of the primary use cases for you, then this is the phone you need.
I’m far from an expert in photography and seldom use my phone to take pictures. If you want a good break down of just how the 3a’s camera is an Instagrammer’s wet dream, it makes sense to take a professional photographer’s opinion. So head on over to Naina’s blog to see how every other device is basically fighting for second place. Don’t forget to take part in the give away while you are there too!
Taking all those pictures would necessitate a decent screen and the 3a delivers here too. Sporting a Full HD display (2160 x 1080 OLED at 402 pp), it is married to one of the best haptic motors on the market. Touch sensitivity is excellent and using the swype method for typing is a joy. One pleasant surprise was the sound. The speakers may be lackluster, but the sound processor is top notch. Paired with an excellent set of earphones right out of the box, the 3a will keep most listeners happy. I hasten to add that is “good” but not “outstanding” territory. Sony and LG still rule the roost when it comes to audio quality. For those rocking bluetooth accessories, the BT 5.0 compatibility is a plus.
Data hoarders will rightly complain at Google’s decision to cap the device storage at 64GB max. Though this is offset a little with Pixel 3a owners getting unlimited uploads to Google Photos (for compressed high quality resolutions, not original). I’ll never tire of saying this “Not allowing expandable storage on a device that is supposed to be central to one’s digital life is just stupid”. I don’t care who the manufacturer is, this is something that drives me up the wall. But hey, at least the box comes with a USB adapter that allows for some external storage (via flash drive) on the go.
Being a part of the Pixel family also means that any Android updates that get rolled out will reach these devices first. In a world where the line between software and hardware is getting blurrier by the day, this is no small thing. If you are looking for the stock Android experience, without any skinned UIs, this is as good as it gets. Users of Google Assistant will of course find that the Pixel range is where it performs best. Add to that the “Active Edge” functionality of the flagship Pixels and you have a device that is beautiful to look at and pleasant to use at a price that doesn’t break the bank. Speaking of which, it is unfortunate that Indian consumers are getting the shaft here due to an additional 10-12 k in taxes (the device is 400$ in the US market). Even so, the 3a XL is solid competitor in this range and a “no brainer” for photography enthusiasts.
FINAL SCORE: 7.8/10