I switched to Google's new $400 phone, and I'm never going back to $1,000-plus smartphones

Hollis Johnson/Business InsiderThe Pixel 3a is Google’s $US400 smartphone. (Pictured: Pixel 3a XL model.)

Google’s best phone in years is also its least hyped smartphone in years: the understated, shockingly affordable Google Pixel 3a.

The phone costs just $US400, comes with Google’s best-in-class camera, and works just as well – or better – than phones that cost double its price.

I’ve been using the Pixel 3a since its launch earlier this month, and I’m convinced it’s the best smartphone available at anywhere near its price point. Here’s why:


1. The price.

Hollis Johnson/Business Insider

In case it wasn’t already clear, a major selling point of the Google Pixel 3a and 3a XL is the incredibly low price – at just $US400, the Pixel 3a comes in at half the price of its predecessor.

And if we’re talking about the Pixel versus Apple’s iPhone, the Pixel 3a is less than half the price of the $US1,000 iPhone XS. It’s nearly half the price of Apple’s less expensive version of the iPhone, the XR, which costs $US750 to start.

The Pixel 3a and Pixel 3a XL are each an incredible value for what you get.

Most importantly, the Pixel 3a demonstrates that great phones don’t need to cost an absurd amount of money.


2. The camera is ridiculously great.

Ben Gilbert/Business InsiderOne of many very nice photos I’ve produced in the past week with Google’s Pixel 3a smartphone.

As you can see above, the Pixel 3a takes gorgeously detailed photos up close. This falafel sandwich from Nish Nush that I had covered in garish orange amba looks absolutely ridiculous. Light glistens off the sauces and the moisture of the cucumber and tomato salad. Individual specks of parsley are visible.

This wasn’t a carefully rehearsed photo – I snapped it quickly before diving into my lunch. (And yes, it was delicious.) I was so impressed by the camera that I wrote a whole piece about it that you can read right here.

It looks so good because the cameras in the Pixel 3a are nearly identical to those in the far more expensive Pixel 3. That’s right: Despite the Pixel 3a costing far less than the Pixel 3, the crucially important camera is basically the same.


3. It’s more than powerful enough.

Hollis Johnson/Business Insider

At just $US400, you might imagine that the Pixel 3a isn’t as quick or nimble as its competition. I thought that might be the case as well, but I was pleased to discover I was wrong.

While using Google Maps, listening to Spotify, chatting on Slack, and messaging a friend through Google Messages all at once last weekend, I was glad to see that there was no discernible slowdown. I double-tapped the power button to bring up the phone’s camera in the middle of all this, and it handled that command just as quickly as ever.

I hadn’t intended to test the Pixel 3a’s processor like that, but it provided a great use case for putting the device through its paces.

If you’re somehow doing more than that all at once with your Pixel 3a, and it slows down, I think that’s on you.


4. The Pixel 3a acknowledges that there’s a smartphone market outside the superrich.

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That we as a society refer to the $US750 iPhone XR as the “cheap” version of the iPhone says it all – there are nearly no major smartphones being made for people who don’t want or can’t afford bleeding-edge $US1,000 devices. The “cheap” version of Samsung’s Galaxy line, the S10e, is also $US750.

As flagship smartphones drop headphone jacks, remove bezels, and use your face as a login, the price keeps going up. The latest iPhone, the iPhone XS, looks great and has some cool tricks. But $US1,000? One thousand American dollars for a device that gets maybe two years of use and does essentially the same things as the previous model, albeit in a sexier form factor? It’s no surprise that, for the first time since its launch, fewer people are buying the newest iPhone than in the previous year.

The Pixel 3a is perhaps the greatest example yet that smartphones don’t need to cost so much money. If nothing else, it’s a tremendously strong example of the power of utilitarian design in smartphones – not since Google’s excellent Nexus line and the iPhone SE has a smartphone so directly appealed to the huge market of smartphone owners who don’t want the bleeding edge of tech (or the price that usually comes with it).


5. The screen on the Pixel 3a is superb.

Ben Gilbert/Business InsiderPhotos from the Pixel 3a camera look great on the Pixel 3a OLED screen.

The bezels on the Pixel 3a are slightly larger than those on the Pixel 3, but the Pixel 3a makes up for that with a slightly larger screen overall.

The Pixel 3a has a 5.6-inch screen, whereas the Pixel 3 has a 5.5-inch screen – not exactly a huge difference, but it doesn’t hurt. The Pixel 3 XL has a slightly larger screen than the Pixel 3a XL at 6.3 inches versus 6.0 inches on the Pixel 3a XL.

Apart from the size of the screen, the Pixel 3a has the same gorgeous OLED display as the more expensive Pixel 3 (just at a slightly lower resolution).

In practice, the screen on the Pixel 3a is vibrant, bright, and sharp. Admittedly, I’m not watching feature films on it – but, even more crucially, photos look excellent on it. And that’s particularly great considering how good of a camera is on the Pixel 3.


6. The battery life is strong, and the headphone jack is a nice bonus.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

I’ve made it 1 1/2 days on a fully charged Pixel 3a battery (not the large-screen Pixel 3a XL, but the standard issue Pixel 3a). That battery performance is entirely anecdotal, and what you’re doing with the device can dramatically alter battery-life expectations. If you’re sitting around watching videos at full brightness or playing games a lot, you shouldn’t expect the battery to last 1 1/2 days.

That said, I intentionally didn’t charge the Pixel 3a overnight, and when I woke up it had more than 50% of its battery life left. It’s not going to blow you away, but it’s plenty strong – even a bit longer-lasting than I was expecting.


Read more:
‘Do Google Pixel phones have wireless charging?’: Here’s what you need to know

The same could be said for the inclusion of a headphone jack. Personally, I’m over the moon about it. Not having to charge headphones is great, and being able to plug headphones directly into a smartphone is as convenient as ever. If I want to use wireless Bluetooth headphones, I can. I’m just glad the option is there for wired headphones as well.


7. I don’t miss “flagship” phones whatsoever, and that’s huge.

Antonio Villas-Boas/Business InsiderOff colour buttons!

Given the Pixel 3a’s $US400 price – a difference of hundreds of dollars from the closest “flagship” phone – it’s hard for me to imagine switching back to phones like the Pixel 2. What would be the point? So that I could pay much more for something nearly identical?

The Pixel 2 – like the Pixel 3, the Samsung Galaxy S10, and the iPhone XS – feels premium. It’s made of nice-looking metal, and it’s got a heft that makes it feel like the real deal.

But in terms of what it does, it’s a slightly less good version of the Pixel 3a.

Perhaps you’re spending a lot of time inspecting the build quality of the materials on your smartphone. I most certainly am not. But even if I were, I’d appreciate the totally sweet little off-colour button on the side of the Pixel 3a over the comparatively bland facade of the Pixel 2 (and the Pixel 3 for that matter).

In any case, the Pixel 3a doesn’t feel like a trade-off compared with more technically capable devices, such as the iPhone XS and Pixel 3. It feels like a slick, modern phone with great features and a shockingly great price tag that I would unequivocally suggest to anyone looking for a new phone.

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