The best thing about the new Google Pixel 3a and Pixel 3a XL is just how similar they are to the full-price Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL respectively. It would take more than a casual glance to distinguish the two new phones from their more powerful siblings, and Google is very proud of this. At the opening keynote of Google's annual I/O conference in Mountain View on Tuesday, the Pixel 3a and Pixel 3a XL were introduced with the promise that they deliver the same impressive cameras as the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL. Even the subtle difference in naming was a deliberate choice to emphasise that the more affordable models have the same premium identity.
It's interesting that the less expensive Pixel 3a and Pixel 3a XL have pretty much the same camera hardware and software as Google's flagship phones. The single 12.2-megapixel rear camera boast of dual-pixel phase detection autofocus, an f/1.8 aperture, and optical as well as electronic image stabilisation.
Google's highly praised Night Sight mode delivers shockingly clear low-light shots, and AI is used in place of a physical depth sensor to separate subjects from backgrounds for dramatic portraits. You get free, unlimited photo storage for an unspecified amount of time, but files will be compressed, not stored at their original quality as they are with the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL.
Most of the cost-saving measures, such as ditching wireless charging and water resistance, are not visible on the outside. The Pixel 3a and 3a XL are built around the mid-range Qualcomm Snapdragon 670 processor rather than the former flagship Snapdragon 845, and use a different brand of toughened glass for the displays.
As for the exterior design of these two new phones, they don't look and feel as good as their more expensive siblings. You get polycarbonate bodies rather than the dual-textured glass rears of the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL. It's worth pointing out that many other manufacturers offer premium glass and metal bodies at lower prices now. One visible change is that the two new models only have a single front camera each, losing the additional wide-angle camera that both the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL have. They do have stereo speakers, but they're bottom-firing rather than front-facing.
The two new phones are both available in Clearly White and Just Black in India, and there's an additional Purple-ish option in some countries instead of the Not Pink of the higher-end Pixel 3 models. For some reason, Purple-ish is not being offered in India, at least not at the time of the launch. In person, it's very hard to distinguish this colour option from plain white. It's a very subtle tint and isn't really even visible under bright sunlight. The quirky colours of the power buttons continue, with bright orange on the Clearly White versions and green on the Purple-ish versions of both new phones.
The two XL models have less in common than the non-XL ones. The Pixel 3a XL loses the QHD resolution screen of its high-end sibling, but it also loses the notch. Google clearly heard feedback regarding how distracting and ugly people found the huge notch on the Pixel 3 XL, and so it's gone. On the whole, we think this is an improvement.
The displays on both phones weren't particularly bright when we tested them under sunlight at a demo zone on the scene at Google I/O, but they looked decent enough in the shade. Compared to a Pixel 3, both phones' screens had a slightly yellow colour cast.
The Pixel 3a and Pixel 3a XL have two advantages that the more expensive models don't – many people will be happy to note that 3.5mm headphone sockets have returned. We hope that this is another example of Google learning from customer feedback, but there's no word on whether the successors to the high-end Pixel models will also benefit from this, or whether Google will take different approaches for different price bands.
The second advantage is that both new phones have slightly larger batteries than their equivalent premium models. The Pixel 3a has a 3000mAh unit while the Pixel 3a XL has a 3700mAh one. Both phones come with 18W chargers and can be charged quickly. Google also says all Pixel models benefit from software that learns users' habits and reduces power consumed by apps that aren't needed frequently.
The mid-range SoC seemed more than powerful enough to handle the stock Android 9.0 UI and Google's default apps. There's the same 4GB of RAM on both new phones as on the high-end ones, but the only option when it comes to storage is 64GB.
It will be interesting to see how the new Google Pixel 3a and Pixel 3a XL can compete against other phones in their price bands in India, considering that similar core specifications can be found in phones that cost much less. Priced at Rs. 39,999 and Rs. 44,999 respectively, these new models will still be out of reach for many buyers. It will all come down to the camera quality, the stock Android experience (with Android Q coming soon), and the Google brand.
Fans of the long-dead Google Nexus smartphone series will undoubtedly be thrilled to have new options at prices that don't break the bank. Stay tuned to Gadgets 360 for our full review of the Pixel 3 XL, coming up soon, in which we'll examine it in great detail.
Disclosure: Google sponsored the correspondent's flights and hotel for the trip to Mountain View.
Has Google Pixel 3a's pricing ruined its prospects in India? We discussed this on Orbital, our weekly technology podcast, which you can subscribe to via Apple Podcasts or RSS, download the episode, or just hit the play button below.