The Google Pixel 3a and Pixel 3a XL are the worst kept secret in the mobile industry right now.
The long-rumored “Lite” versions of Google’s flagship phones are expected to drop in the coming weeks with price-tags that could be as low as half the cost of the regular third-gen Pixel series.
While budget Android phones — even ones from the OS’s creator — aren’t usually the most exciting handsets to hit the market, the Pixel 3a duo is a special case that could be a game changer in the mid-range handset sector.
“Lite” is alright
Before we get to the really good stuff, let’s have a quick recap of what we know about the Pixel 3a series so far (head here for a longer breakdown of all the major rumors).
- Expected to cost between $300 to $500
- LCD displays instead of OLED
- Similar design to the regular Pixel 3, but made from plastic
- Identical cameras to the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL
- Powered by Qualcomm’s octa-core Snapdragon 670 SoC
- Have 3.5mm headphone jacks
Now, there’s probably one bullet point there that stood out more than the rest, and no, I’m not talking about the headphone jack — though there’s absolutely reason to celebrate its return over inferior USB-C audio.
No, I’m talking about the Pixel 3a camera, which will apparently be identical to the Pixel 3 camera.
The Huawei P30 Pro is stealing much of the limelight in the smartphone camera wars (and for good reason), but the Pixel 3 is still the best phone when it comes to capturing killer photos, consistently, with a quick point-and-shoot.
Factor in Night Sight, which is still a magical bit of software trickery, and an equally clever Portrait mode, and you’ve got one of the best camera phones money can buy.
The problem is that last part: money. The cheapest Pixel 3 costs $799, which is a hefty sum, especially for a phone with only 4GB RAM, a now outdated processor, and mediocre battery life when compared with 2019’s heavy hitters.
That’s a high price of entry if you want a top-tier camera, but consumers have long been used to paying through the nose for the best camera phones.
The Pixel 3 is one of the best camera phones money can buy, but it isn't cheap.
Affordable flagships from brands like OnePlus and Xiaomi have been lavished with praise for their high-spec, low-price handsets that deliver elite hardware for half the price. Yet, while the raw megapixel numbers and features suggest otherwise, too many affordable flagships are saddled with underwhelming cameras. Google itself is guilty of this — even the classic Nexus 5, probably my favorite phone of all-time, had a relatively rubbish camera.
The Pixel 3a and Pixel 3a XL could change all that by bringing world-class smartphone photography to the even more affordable mid-tier price bracket.
Trading power for perfect pics
Understandably, Google has seemingly had to cut some corners elsewhere, most notably in the SoC, display, and design departments. The shift to a plastic design and an LCD display are realistic and reasonable trade-offs, but the biggest concern is the Snapdragon 670 SoC.
Compared with the rest of Qualcomm’s mobile platforms, the Snapdragon 670 is still a competent, mid-range processor that manages to cram in flagship features like a multicore AI engine and Quick Charge. That said, overall performance, especially when gaming, will inevitably still be below the regular Pixel 3’s Snapdragon 845 chipset.
For many buyers, however, a modest processor will be a small price to pay to get their hands on the Pixel 3’s camera, not to mention the phone’s other major selling points like timely updates and the Pixel software and launcher.
Personally, I’d take an underpowered Pixel over a cheap powerhouse like the Pocophone F1 any day. Xiaomi’s ultra-budget phone might pack the same processor as the mainline Pixel 3, but it’s hamstrung by its bulky design and underwhelming camera.
If you’re a regular here at Android Authority and other mobile tech blogs, you’re probably already heading to the comments to mention the Pixel Camera port. In theory, the port means you can have your cake and eat it by having the Pixel Camera app on any phone, but there are two niggling problems.
First off, the Pixel Camera port is far from perfect. I use it on the OnePlus 6T and while the rear camera results are great, the selfie camera always gives photos a weird pink hue. As this is all unofficial, it can sometimes be a long wait for a fix and finding the latest version isn’t as easy as just booting up the Play Store.
The second, more general issue, is that the vast majority of phone buyers won’t even know the Pixel Camera port exists, where to download it, or whether it’s safe to do so. A phone you can buy off the shelf with the same Pixel 3 camera is a much easier sell.
Capturing a gap in the market
Even without hard figures, it’s pretty clear that hardware isn’t moving the needle for the big G as much as it’d probably like. The search giant is reportedly clawing back sales from Samsung in the U.S., but the phone’s sales at Verizon and the Google Store likely represent a tiny fraction of the overall U.S. market share.
Meanwhile, the mid-range sector in the U.S. is lacking any truly stand-out phones. With popular budget phone makers like Huawei and Xiaomi both out in the cold, there just isn’t as much choice in the mid-tier compared with other regions like India and the U.K.
The Pixel 3a will bring world class smartphone photography to the mid-tier price bracket.
The Pixel 3a series could be the perfect solution for both Google’s sluggish phone sales and the U.S. lack of budget handset options. For Android aficionados the broader hardware trade-offs may be too much to stomach, but bargain hunters looking for a best-in-class camera phone may pick the Pixel 3 “Lite” with its obvious photography upgrades over a less tangible performance boost.
Do you think the Pixel 3a will be the best “Lite” Android phone yet? Let us know in the comments.