Pixel 3a: Impressions from an iPhone user

First look and impressions with Google’s first “affordable” Pixel device.

Pixel 3a: Impressions from an iPhone user

This past week, I picked up a Google Pixel 3a to use alongside my iPhone XS Max. This isn’t my first experience with Android, as I’ve previously used a Blackberry Priv, and various other Nexus devices, but I wanted to get a firsthand feel for Google’s so-called flagship killer. Because I am coming from a XS Max, I opted for the smaller Pixel 3a over the 3a XL.

Design & Build 👁

The biggest difference in this area that sets the Pixel 3a apart from Pixel 3, or any high-end Android phone, is the unapologetically plastic build. The plastic case reminded me of the last Google-built device I owned, the Nexus 5. Honestly, for a device of this price point, I didn’t mind the design. It’s lightweight but still doesn’t feel cheap. It’s a fingerprint magnet, but that’s not unlike the all-glass design of the Pixel 3. The buttons are plasticky sounding, yet firm and solid.

The Pixel 3/3a also features what Google calls an “active edge” that, when squeezed, activates Google Assistant. I don’t really use Google Assistant, but I’ve inadvertently used the feature a handful of times when reaching for the power button with my left hand and activating the edge. (Somewhere buried in settings, there’s a way to change the sensitivity, however, I’ve chosen to leave it as the average consumer won’t find those settings, and this is the experience they’ll have.)

With iPhone X and beyond, I’ve gotten out of the groove of using a fingerprint reader. The Pixel 3a’s rear-mounted reader is quick and reliable, albeit a bit awkward. The phone immediately unlocks when it reads a registered finger, even when the display is off. I tend to retrieve my phones from my pockets by pinching the front and back, so this would often unlock the device and register touchscreen input before it was even out of my pocket.

The phone also features a 3.5mm headphone jack, if that’s your thing. I haven’t given it a second thought.

Display 🖥

For a device considered “mid-range”, the display on this device is top-notch. The OLED display is super sharp, and the pixels-per-inch is only slightly lower than what’s found on the Pixel 3 (441ppi vs. 443ppi). The default adaptive color setting is a little over-saturated (something Samsung is notoriously guilty of doing as well), but this can be changed in settings. The rounded corners of the display are a nice touch and help you forget that the phone features a top and bottom chin.

Software 💿

This is where it all falls apart. From a design standpoint, Android has gotten a bit more polished since 6.0 Marshmallow which I’ve last used. But performance-wise, it’s pretty much the same old song and dance. The biggest issue that I immediately noticed was scrolling. The scrolling experience on Android is still and has always been, awful. Animations are next to non-existent, and it’s very choppy. Regardless of the device you are using, bad scrolling makes it feel like the phone itself is slow and lagging.

Multitasking is also wonky. It’s basically a bad rip-off of iOS and how it implements multitasking. Swiping up from the little pill-shaped indicator takes you straight into the multitasking cards, versus taking you to the home screen. This has been difficult for me to get used to given I primarily use an iPhone. This whole experience is supposed to be improved in Android Q, so we’ll see. Currently, the Pixel 3a isn’t supported by Android’s Pixel Beta program until sometime in June.

Camera 📸

This is why everyone buys a Pixel, right? Every Google-built device before Pixel has had subpar camera performance, so when Pixel was announced with an “extraordinary camera”, Android enthusiasts were excited. In using the Pixel 3a’s camera, I didn’t find it groundbreaking. The camera on the Pixel 3/3a is on-par with what a smartphone camera should be, and what Android cameras should have been all along. I found that while the image quality was good, the images appeared darker than those shot on my iPhone.

Despite just a single lens on the rear, portrait mode is pretty good, even if it’s not as sharp as my XS Max.

The front camera has a better field of view compared to my iPhone, but it doesn’t capture details as well even with plenty of light.

I did find Night Sight rather impressive. Colors aren’t portrayed as super accurate to how they’d appear in real life, but it’s a great feature for trying to capture details in very low light.

Performance ⚡️

Somewhat mediocre software performance aside, this phone is pretty responsive. Even with a Snapdragon 670 and only 4GB of RAM (good for an iPhone, average for an Android device), the phone never really struggled to launch apps or take photos. I was worried about the less powerful processor being an issue, but it really hasn’t been.

Other Takeaways & Observations

  • In settings, you can enable swiping down on the fingerprint reader to pull down the notification shade and quick settings. It’s kinda neat.
  • With the camera open, you can turn your wrist back and forth to switch to the front camera.
  • I still feel the same about the level of customization you can do with Android as before. My mind goes “Neat, you can do so much with this!”, but in practice, widgets and most launchers are just unnecessary clutter.
  • Notification badges (new to Android 9 Pie) color code to the app icon, which is a nice touch.
  • Data performance on Verizon’s LTE network has been on par with my iPhone. This phone also has both a physical SIM slot and supports eSIM, but not dual-SIM to run two networks. Kind of a shame.
  • The speaker's performance is okay. At times, it sounds like the audio is rattling off of the plastic housing. You also won’t find two front-firing speakers on the front, like on the Pixel 3.
  • Only offering a 64GB storage tier is rather annoying, especially considering high-res Google Photos storage isn’t included with the Pixel 3a.

Conclusion 🏁

The Google Pixel 3a is not a bad phone. Is it going to replace my iPhone? No. This is a good secondary device for me because I’m very curious. I could be running an iPhone XR, iPhone 8, or even an iPhone 7, and still prefer the iOS experience. Apps are just nicer, and performance is exceptional.

If you’re just looking for a cheap Android device with a decent camera, I can recommend the Pixel 3a. But for us iOS fans, I think we’re just fine with what we’ve got. ■