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Google Pixel 3A review: The $400 smartphone that's smart where it matters

The first midrange Pixel comes without a shocking price, and is fast and capable with a very good camera and a nice-looking screen

By Brian X. Chen
Published: May 8, 2019

Google Pixel 3A review: The 0 smartphone that's smart where it matters
The Pixel 3A, pictured in San Francisco, May 6, 2019. Google is selling the new version of its popular Pixel smartphone, for about $400 — or roughly half the price of its high-end phones.
Image: Damien Maloney/The New York Times

Dear readers, I hear you: Plenty of you are making it loud and clear that you are frustrated with today’s smartphone prices, which are approaching the cost of a decent used car.

I’ve read your testy emails about skyrocketing prices for devices like Apple’s $1,100 iPhone XS Max and Samsung’s $2,000 Galaxy Fold. I’ve seen your anguish in the comments on our smartphone reviews. Sales of smartphones are slowing down worldwide, researchers say, partly because people are turned off by the escalating costs.

So this will probably come as good news. As of Tuesday, Google is selling the Pixel 3A, a new version of its popular Pixel smartphone, for about $400—or roughly half the price of its high-end phones. It is the first time that Google is introducing its Pixel phones for the midrange and low-end market.

“We’re seeing the fatigue with some of the flagship pricing of smartphones going up and up and up, and people thinking, ‘You know, five years ago I could buy the best possible phone for half this price,’” said Brian Rakowski, a vice president of product management for Google.

The Pixel 3A lacks some frills you may find in premium devices, like wireless charging and water resistance. But based on my tests, it is a great value. It’s fast and capable with a very good camera and a nice-looking screen — and, yes, especially for this price.

I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this phone to those who don’t mind going without some cutting-edge features. In fact, the Pixel 3A is so satisfying that at this point, I might hesitate to recommend its $800 counterpart, the Pixel 3, to people other than gear heads and tech enthusiasts. While I rated the Pixel 3 an excellent Android phone last fall, it is not two-times-the-cost better than the Pixel 3A.

Here were my impressions after a week of testing the Pixel 3A.

Smarts Where It Matters

The high-end Pixel 3 was widely lauded for its camera system, which has software features powered by artificial intelligence and machine learning. Fortunately, the Pixel’s most important camera features are also baked into the Pixel 3A.

Among the clever camera features is a software mode called Night Sight, which makes photos taken in low light look as if they had been shot in normal conditions, without a flash. Google accomplishes this with some AI sorcery that involves taking a burst of photos with short exposures and reassembling them into an image.

Google Pixel 3A review: The 0 smartphone that's smart where it mattersAn undated photo taken by a Google Pixel 3A. The smart phone's camera has "night sight," which makes photos shot in low light look as if they had been taken in normal lighting.
Image: Brian X. Chen/The New York Times

I was delighted to see that Night Sight worked well with the Pixel 3A. It was especially useful indoor, like in dimly lit restaurants or rooms. In one test, I dimmed my bedroom lamp to the lowest setting and took a photo of my dog as he slept. The image looked nicely lit up without seeming unnatural. With smartphones that lacked a similar lowlight mode, including Samsung Galaxy phones or iPhones, the photos came out very dark.

The Pixel 3A can also shoot images with portrait mode, also known as the bokeh effect, which puts the picture’s main subject in sharp focus while gently blurring the background. Portrait mode was effective at producing artsy-looking pictures of red flowers in a garden and of my dogs in a field.

However, in some photos of people, portrait mode made faces look grainy and unappealing. Google said that in my test shots, more light was coming from the background than from the person’s face. To capture both the face and the background, the Pixel 3A added noise to their faces, the company said. Anecdotally, I’ve had better results with portrait mode on the pricier Pixel 3 and iPhones.

Otherwise, normal shots in good lighting consistently looked crisp and clear, with nice shadow detail. Like other Google phones I have tested, the Pixel 3A left colors looking colder and slightly less natural than photos taken with an iPhone.

Still, on average, the Pixel 3A has a very good camera that plenty of people will enjoy. In cheaper phones in years past, a low-quality camera was always the biggest downside, but the Pixel 3A’s camera isn’t much of a compromise.

Insignificant Trade-offs

Other features missing from the Pixel 3A include support for wireless charging, a wide-angle lens on its front-facing camera and water resistance. Most of these omissions are negligible.

Wireless charging is a neat innovation, but it’s a novelty. The technology relies on magnetic induction, which uses an electrical current to generate a magnetic field, creating voltage that powers the phone.

My problem with wireless charging? Wires are still involved. While you don’t have to plug a cable into the phone, the accessories themselves — like charging pads or stands — have to be hooked up to a power outlet. There are only a few times when charging with induction is more practical than charging wirelessly.

With no wide-angle lens for the front-facing camera, the framing won’t be as broad when you take a selfie that includes lots of people. As an older millennial with no interest in taking selfies, I can live without that feature.

The biggest downside is the lack of waterproofing. Many people’s gadgets have fallen victim to heavy rain or spilled beverages. Still, this isn’t a deal breaker. Plenty of accessory makers sell inexpensive cases and pouches that protect phones from water damage. Or you can just be extra careful around liquids.

The other trade-offs are even less significant. The Pixel 3A is slightly slower than the Pixel 3, but not noticeably. The cheaper phone’s screen also has marginally less accurate colors than the high-end Pixel’s display, but you would need to hold the devices side by side and look very closely to notice the difference.

There is one upside to the omissions: The Pixel 3A includes a headphone jack, which many high-end smartphones eliminated to make room for other advanced components. So you can still quickly plug in a pair of headphones without shelling out for wireless earbuds.

Bottom Line

There’s little that casual technology users would want from a phone that the Pixel 3A doesn’t provide.

The device works well with Google’s software and internet services, which many already rely on. It will be sold through a large number of retailers where customers can get technical support, including Verizon Wireless, Sprint and T-Mobile in the United States; Google is also selling the device in Canada, Taiwan, Ireland, Spain, Japan and India, among other countries. People can buy a model with a 5.6-inch screen for $400 or a model with a six-inch screen for $480.

In many ways, the Pixel 3A feels like the phone Google should have delivered in the first place. The internet company built a reputation on making its products free or cheap and thereby accessible to as broad an audience as possible. With the Pixel’s latest iteration, Google is making a statement that many will agree with: Communication devices should be a tool for everyone, not just the elite.

©2019 New York Times News Service

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