Google puts a Pixel camera in your pocket for under $500

To date, Google's Pixel phone sales have not exactly set the world on fire. The Android maker's phones have long offered great cameras and excellent software support at flagship prices, but competition is fierce. Yesterday at IO 2019, Google announced the Pixel 3a and 3a XL, which will purportedly bring those features to a mid-range price point.

Arguably the most important question is that of price. Let's get that out in front for context. The Pixel 3a retails for $399 and the Pixel 3a XL will set you back $479. That puts the Pixel 3a family at a price point somewhat below even the cheapest $549 OnePlus 6T. According to The Verge's liveblog of the IO keynote, Google's SVP of Hardware Rick Osterloh told the gathered crowd that there's a "troubling trend" in the price of phones, which was no doubt a shot at both Apple and Samsung's latest. The question that remains, then, is "what do you give up to hit that price point?"

To try to answer that question, we can look at a spec sheet. The Pixel 3a devices are both driven by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 670 SoC with eight Kryo 360 CPU cores that run between 1.7 and 2.0 GHz and Adreno 615 graphics. 4 GB of LPDDR4x RAM and 64 GB of flash storage fill the memory loadout. The smaller Pixel 3a has a 5.6" 2220×1080 OLED display and a 3,000 mAh battery while the larger Pixel 3a XL has a 6" 2160×1080 OLED panel and a 3700 mAh juice pack. Colors include black, white, and "Purple-ish."

The big selling point of the Pixel 3 family is its camera system. All of the tricks that the more expensive Pixels can do, the Pixel 3a can do, too. That includes AI-assisted Night Sight and portrait modes. Osterloh says that the exact same camera hardware from the Pixel 3 is in the new devices. Google's spec sheet says that camera has a 12.2-megapixel count. The front snapper has a lower 8-megapixel sensor which should be plenty for video chats and Instagram selfies.

Software support doesn't seem to have suffered in these devices, either. Google advertises that three years of core OS upgrades and another year of security updates come standard with the Pixel 3a family. It probably comes as no surprise to anybody using an Android phone that this is a longer support life than even most flagship devices, though it may still pale in comparison somewhat to Apple's iOS update lifespan (2013's iPhone 5s is still supported on iOS 12, the most recent version).

One last change worth mentioning is the addition of a 3.5-millimeter (1/8-inch) hole at the top of the Pixel 3a. This brand new port can connect a pair of revolutionary devices called "headphones" to deliver stereo analog audio and capture monophonic sound without the need for Bluetooth or a dongle.

Sarcasm aside, astute readers will remember when ads for the original Pixel poked fun at Apple's "courageous" effort to kill the headphone jack on the iPhone 7. Google then bore the brunt of its own jokes when the Pixel 2 launched without said port. The jack is back, baby!

In the US, the Pixel 3 was a carrier exclusive for Verizon, but that's not true of the Pixel 3a. The Pixel 3a will be available at Verizon, T-Mobile, and Sprint. Unlocked versions of the phones can be purchased directly from Google or at Best Buy. Best Buy is also offering a $100 gift card with activation on Verizon and Sprint. If you don't mind the gift card, that can bring the total price down to a cool $299.

Ben Funk

Sega nerd and guitar lover

Comments closed
    • K-L-Waster
    • 4 months ago

    When did a phone’s capabilities as a camera become more important than it’s capabilities as a phone? It’s almost like now that smartphones have destroyed the point’n’shoot market, they’ve decided the one thing they want to be is a point’n’shoot.

      • Anonymous Coward
      • 4 months ago

      I don’t see how you can claim the camera side has become more important that the phone side, but in any case, both of those are merely aspects of the whole package, and its the whole package which is selling.

    • ronch
    • 5 months ago

    That bit of sarcasm there gave me flashbacks of the 80’s, the age of cassette tapes and those portable boom boxes. And everything good and electronic was Made in Japan. Such good times when I was still a kid. Carefree living. Ahh…

    Nostalgic visions aside, am I the only one who thinks this device just doesn’t offer much bang for the buck? There are tons of phones below $400 that not only look good on paper but are really good phones. There’s the Nokia 7 Plus ($220), Pocophone F1 ($300), Honor 8X ($220), Oppo F11 ($310), F11 Pro ($366), F11 Pro Avengers edition 128GB ($390), Samsung A50 ($340), Huawei P30 Lite ($350), Realme 3 Pro (should be around $300), Vivo V15 ($350), etc. All have 128GB except for the F11/Pro (non-Avengers) which are admittedly the expensive ones of the bunch. These are all very nice phones, and while they may give up something that the Pixel phones have one way or another, they have something to compensate with and seem to be better value overall. Just look at that Nokia. And it’s not like their cameras are garbage either, at least to those who have reasonable expectations and aren’t looking to use them professionally.

    PS – these are prices in my little part of the world so your mileage may vary.

      • BabelHuber
      • 5 months ago

      It depends on what you want or need:

      – All Pixels have a bootloader which can be unlocked [b<]and re-locked[/b<] with a simple fastboot command - Timely security updates - Always the newest Android release with the possibility to flash Betas - The Google Camera in the stock ROM, without the need to mess around with hacked APKs - 3 years Google support - Stock Android without forks and bloatware If you aren't interested in these features, fine. Get some other device, it's your money. Choice is good after all, there are literally hundreds of devices to choose from 🙂 Anecdote: My father fell in love with the camera of my Pixel 2 XL, so he also bought one. Could I have told him that it is possible to sideload a hacked APK to get the same features? Of course! Would I be willing to waste my time with providing the support for updates and bug fixes for his hacked camera? No way! If he wants these features, he has to get a Pixel, end of story.

        • derFunkenstein
        • 4 months ago

        Verizon devices cannot be fastboot oem unlock’d. You can put an unlocked one on Verizon tho.

    • GrimDanfango
    • 5 months ago

    I love the way marketing does that.
    “Flagship” phones now suddenly cost $1000-1200 instead of $500.
    So naturally, $500 is now “mid-range”. So now we need to spend half a grand just to get phones with reasonable functionality that don’t grind along at a snail’s pace.

    At this rate, I’m going to end up going back to a candy-bar phone some day.

      • derFunkenstein
      • 5 months ago

      Back when flagship phones cost $500, they were laggy enough to say they “grind along at a snail’s pace”. Ever use a Droid X2? That was my first phone on Verizon, and it was Motorola’s flagship of the time, and I absolutely hated it.

      I’m thankful for the way SoC single-thread performance improved with the Snapdragon S3 in 2012/2013.

        • GrimDanfango
        • 5 months ago

        Nah. I got the Galaxy Note 2 soon after release, for £438. That went like a bat out of hell until someone stole it :-/
        I got by on a £99 Moto G 2nd ed, which was surprisingly snappy for that little, but admittedly couldn’t handle much in the way of games.

        Three years later I spent the ludicrous sum of £699 on the flagship iPhone (6s plus), and that still feels as fast as the day I bought it – I really don’t feel much compulsion to move on another three years later.
        At the current rate of phone-inflation, I’ll be looking at £1500+ for a flagship phone by the time my iPhone is forced into obsolescence.
        …and by then I doubt paying £500 will get me anything significantly faster than the Note 2 I had a decade before.

          • derFunkenstein
          • 5 months ago

          That phone came out like 18 months after my X2. You benefited greatly from exactly what I was talking about. 😉 The CPU cores ran at around 50% faster than the X2 and it had twice as many. By then performance had improved. Just so you know, it wasn’t always like that.

      • Chrispy_
      • 5 months ago

      I was playing with a 2018 Moto E5 in a store the other day. It’s a $99 phone and I picked it up just to see how much worse it was than flagships costing eight to fourteen times more. My expectations were that it would have a laggy interface from the underwhelming processor, a low-resolution, grainy and washed-out screen, an awful camera, awful audio, and a nasty plastic build quality.

      What was supposed to be a couple of minutes turned into a failed 20-minute investigation into trying to find the fatal flaw that made it a ‘bad’ phone.

      All I can surmise is that it lacks USB-C and face-unlock. That’s it, really.

      [list<][*<]It's a well-built aluminium chassis with Gorilla glass, narrow bezels yet no gimmicky notch. [/*<][*<]The modern 18:9 screen is sharp enough that you can't tell what the PPI is, has great brightness, great contrast, and rich colours. [/*<][*<]The plastic back isn't as classy as glass, but it's solid-feeling like the Pixel 3 and at least it will survive a trip to the floor without coming back cracked! [/*<][*<]Performance was fine; I had to wait a second or two for the camera to open and I'm sure if I ran 20 browser tabs though the lousy facebook app browser, it'd be awful, but that's a torture that nobody sane should have to endure. I also have no doubt that the Snapdragon 425 is not a 60fps PUBG or Fortnite solution, but there are other cheap phones if mobile gaming is your priority. [/*<][*<]A MicroSD slot means that you can spend $25 on a Samsung EVO card instead of paying Apple $800/TB for internal storage. (Yes, $800 per 1TB of generic Toshiba QBiCS NAND that you'd find on a budget SATA drive for $99) [/*<][*<]The camera was good, too. Not pixel 3 quality but certainly iPhone 6S or Galaxy S7 quality, and we all raved about those a couple of years ago. [/*<][*<]Audio quality was okay - loud and not all just distorted treble, which is about as good as it gets for most phones, even flagships.[/*<][/list<] Okay, but it has to be missing something at such a low price, right? Well, here's the rest of the feature list - many of which are missing on flagship devices! [list<][*<]NFC? Yes. [/*<][*<]Headphone jack? Hell yes. [/*<][*<]Waterproofing? Yes, though no IPXX certification. [/*<][*<]Bluetooth? Yes [/*<][*<]Quad band globally-compatible radio and GPS? Of course. [/*<][*<]NFC? Yes [/*<][*<]Fingerprint sensor? Yes [/*<][*<]4000mAh flagship-shaming battery with two-day real-world runtime? Yes. [/*<][*<]Near-stock Android 8.1? Yes - not bad for a 2018 phone. [/*<][*<]Fast charging? Yes - 15W so 1H of charge will give you a full day of battery life.[/*<][/list<] Is it as good as an S10, iPhone XS, or Pixel 3? Of course not. Am I questioning what makes those three phones worth so many times more? Absolutely.

        • willmore
        • 5 months ago

        You’re really excited about NFC, huh. 🙂

          • Chrispy_
          • 5 months ago

          Totally!
          What’s NFC?

            • willmore
            • 5 months ago

            LOL!

        • MOSFET
        • 4 months ago

        So what if 1TB of phone storage is $800? A 32GB phone is plenty in 2019 considering the persistent internet connection.

          • Chrispy_
          • 4 months ago

          Well, exactly.

          My phone is on Oreo 8.1 and I had to check how much storage it has because I’ve never bothered looking at how much space it was using before, and I’ve never even considered deleting anything – I just install what I want and let Google Sync archive old stuff to the cloud.

          Apparently I’m using 40GB free of 64GB and I’m sure if I uninstalled junk and deleted the half dozen bad photos for every one I actually want to keep, I could get my careless use of 14GB down to 10GB.

    • JonnyFM
    • 5 months ago

    It’s a step or two in the right direction, but it is still too expensive and far, far too large. Slightly larger than the Pixel 3, actually.

    They need to offer a model for the market segment that the Nexus 4 and 5 addressed so well. Something at most 140x65mm in size for under $300.

    • moose17145
    • 5 months ago

    I have given up on hopes of ever seeing a phone with a user replaceable battery ever again, but the MicroSD slot is still non-negotiable for me, which from what I see, this lacks. So unfortunately this phone is still a no-go for me. A while longer with the Galaxy S5 it is…

      • DreadCthulhu
      • 5 months ago

      Another person here who won’t buy a phone without a microSD card slot. It confuses me that Google won’t put one on its phones, given that the best selling Android flagships (Galaxy S & Note series) have, one generation aside, always included one. I may not be a genius marketer, but generally if you have an established competitor that sells more than you, you should strive to have [i<]more[/i<] features than them, not less. Oh well, at least there are plenty of other Android phones that include the card slot.

        • moose17145
        • 5 months ago

        If they made a TRUE successor to the Galaxy S5, that had user replaceable battery, Micro SD slot, and a Headphone jack I would be all over that instantly. Those are honestly the 3 key features I want in a modern phone (with maybe slightly updated hardware and software). Give me those and I will likely drop a 1,000 bucks on that phone.

        My current Galaxy S5 is still serving my needs well enough since the most intensive thing I do is consumption of video content via netflix / amazon prime video, so my hardware needs I would argue are modest. But I do use the heck out of my MicroSD card, and I DO still use the headphone jack semi-regularly, and I have replaced the stock battery with a monster sized 8,500mAH extended runtime battery.

        They keep adding features I do not really care about to these dumb phones while taking away ones that I still use regularly; while simultaneously making the phones disposable by making it almost impossible to change the stock battery once it stops taking / holding a charge.

      • ronch
      • 5 months ago

      Laptops are not far behind. Planned obsolescence. Here’s a fun fact for you: LG even made the battery inside the G8 very hard to pry off because they used very tough glue to stick it in there instead of using pull tabs or light adhesive. So not only do you have to open it up to replace the battery but you also have to wrestle with the battery to get it out. The problem is, given how volatile lithium batteries are and you run the risk of them exploding if you twist and turn the battery like Play-Doh, they are effectively even making it dangerous to replace the battery. I don’t think they’ll offer battery replacement service either. Get the G9 then, they’ll say.

    • Zizy
    • 5 months ago

    Sounds nice, but this is at best a midrange phone with good camera software.
    You can get the same device from Xiaomi for much less and if I let Google spy on me I might as well invite Chinese to the party too 😀

      • derFunkenstein
      • 5 months ago

      How many years of manufacturer-provided OS updates (i.e. not something downloaded from xda-developers) do you get from Xiaomi?

        • sweatshopking
        • 5 months ago

        You’re not wrong, though neither is he.

          • derFunkenstein
          • 5 months ago

          His “at best” scenario leaves out the best part.

    • chuckula
    • 5 months ago

    [quote<]One last change worth mentioning is the addition of a 3.5-millimeter (1/8-inch) hole at the top of the Pixel 3a. This brand new port can connect a pair of revolutionary devices called "headphones" to deliver stereo analog audio and capture monophonic sound without the need for Bluetooth or a dongle.[/quote<] We here at AppleSung are working on this technology and will debut it once we run out of courage and can get the creases out of our screens.

      • Neutronbeam
      • 5 months ago

      Tell me more of this new learning brother, it intrigues me. Sound through a tiny hole? Seemingly tis witchcraft!

      • Chrispy_
      • 5 months ago

      We here at Sapple are also working on this technology.

      Clearly you have stolen our intellectual property so we must initiate a 43-nation multi-billion-dollar international lawsuit against AppleSung, and seek to block sales of your products whilst continuing to license your technology that was stolen from our subsidiary that includes other technology patented by Kraft Foods.

      • Wirko
      • 5 months ago

      The phone would have to be at least 3.6 mm (1/7-inch) thick. Well I’m sure you have already patented your way around that nasty limitation (it’s just physics after all, nothing serious), I just don’t get to read all new patent applications every day.

    • Goty
    • 5 months ago

    Just bought my wife one to replace her OG Pixel (baby drool incident led to a short in the charging circuit), so we’ll see how it does. Hopefully the larger battery, lower-resolution screen, and mid-range SOC should lead to much better battery life than she had been getting with her ~75% capacity battery.

      • gerryg
      • 5 months ago

      The 3a specs don’t list it as being drool-proof or drool-resistant, much less water proof/resistant. Use at your own risk. At least it doesn’t fold or crease.

        • Goty
        • 4 months ago

        Funny story, she dropped it in a toilet less than an hour after opening the box. Good thing I bought device protection! Too bad Google isn’t actually capable of processing a claim for the device yet…

          • Chrispy_
          • 4 months ago

          See, when I smashed a phone I bought a smash-resistant phone (Droid2Turbo) and when I drowned that I bought a waterproof phone and a bumper-case – still going strong despite my best unintentional attempts to squash/bend/shatter/drown it.

          If she lost two phones in a row to liquid damage, perhaps start with a waterproof replacement?

            • Goty
            • 4 months ago

            Well, the first one was actually a wet (read: drooly) charging cable, not actual drool on the phone, so I’m not sure that actually counts as it would have killed a “waterproof” phone as well. For reasons that are many and varied, the only real waterproof option is a Pixel 3, and that’s a no-go due to its glass back and exorbitant price.

    • drfish
    • 5 months ago

    No physical keyboard?!?! Hard pass.

      • gerryg
      • 5 months ago

      No mouse support, either

        • willmore
        • 5 months ago

        Android has had mouse support forever. Really.

          • gerryg
          • 5 months ago

          I have yet to see anyone use a mouse with their phone

            • willmore
            • 5 months ago

            *willmore slowly raises their hand*

            • willmore
            • 5 months ago

            I’ve even done it with a BT mouse. Works quite well.

    • Voldenuit
    • 5 months ago

    They’re asking too much. Most of the magic in the camera is in the software, and you can install a GCam apk onto most smartphones with a couple clicks.

    The Pixel 3a needs to be $299/$349 in 64/128 GB capacity, and the 3a XL $399 with 128. The 3 is the most egregious and is not worth anywhere near $799. It should be $499 with its SD 845 chip, which is in the ballpark for a new but last-generation Samsung S9 with the same SoC.

    I’m interested to see how the nokia X71, with its 48 MP main camera, fares in the midrange market, as well as pricing.

    EDIT: Looks like Google is smarter than I am (no duh). You can get the Pixel 3a on Google Fi and [url=https://fi.google.com/about/phones/#pixel-3a<]get $100 credit[/url<], which nets you a discount and google a customer. Win-win.

      • barich
      • 5 months ago

      It’s pretty easy to get the Pixel 3/XL on sale, and hopefully once the 3a isn’t brand new anymore that will be the case there, too. The retail prices for the 3/XL are nuts, but the $500 I paid for my 3 XL is a lot more reasonable (and easily worth the tiny premium over the 3a XL at its list price).

      • derFunkenstein
      • 5 months ago

      Best Buy has a similar $100 deal for Verizon and Sprint customers, if you don’t mind that $100 in the form of a gift card. Post updated to reflect that.

      • chµck
      • 5 months ago

      gcam support on a third-party device can be spotty and unstable unless you have a similarly expensive/enthusiast device

      • Chrispy_
      • 5 months ago

      Honestly, at $299 net cost on Google Fi it’s perfect. Decent size/cost/battery/screen/camera.

      I miss the Nexus line. It’s too hard these days to buy a no-nonsense phone with stock android and regular, timely updates.

        • K-L-Waster
        • 5 months ago

        Still running a Nexus 6P for exactly that reason.

        • MrDweezil
        • 5 months ago

        ” I miss the Nexus line. It’s too hard these days to buy a no-nonsense phone with stock android and regular, timely updates.”

        These essentially resurrect the Nexus line. The last Nexus phones were the 5x and 6p, which launched at $380/$500. These are $400/$480 with a longer update policy than the Nexus phones had. And that’s not even accounting for the $100 discount.

    • MrDweezil
    • 5 months ago

    Doesn’t really seem like you’re giving up all that much for half the price. I would buy this if I needed a new phone.

      • DPete27
      • 5 months ago

      Agreed. The only reason I upgrade phones anymore is to:
      1) Get a better camera
      2) Get waterproofing (if old phone didn’t)

        • mattshwink
        • 5 months ago

        Only reason I upgraded from my Note 4 was that I dropped it while watching a YouTube video in January on how to fix my snowblower I dropped it and shattered the screen (I did get the snowblower working, though). I got a OnePlus 6T and have been very happy with it (battery life is outstanding). I expect to keep it as long as the Note 4 (four years).

      • derFunkenstein
      • 5 months ago

      Midrange chipsets have come a long way. I don’t think I’d say what you just said about a Snapdragon 625, but the per-core performance should be improved on the 670 and enough to not mind missing out on the 800 series.

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