Google’s Pixel 3a is the best bet for a bargain smartphone

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At a time when phone-makers seem to be vying to out-do each other on asking the highest price — Google is taking the opposite approach.

With its new $400 Pixel 3a, the search giant is betting that it will be able to gin up interest for its struggling Pixel line by offering customers premium features at a palatable price.

And though the Pixel 3a can’t go head to head against the flagship offerings from Apple, Samsung and Google, it’s a sleek, modern phone that is perfect for anyone who wants most of the features of a thousand-dollar smartphone at a steep discount.

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Design: At first glance, the Pixel 3a doesn’t look so different from its $800 luxury counterpart. It comes in a regular and XL size, and features the same matte/glossy contrast finish on its back. It is a gorgeous device, no doubt, but once you get it in your hand the budget-cutting differences are readily apparent.

Unlike the Pixel 3, which has a glass back, the casing of the 3a is made of plastic — though Google would prefer we call it “polycarbonate.” It would be a stretch to say that the phone feels cheap, but it certainly doesn’t feel as solidly-built as the other members of the Pixel family do.

Still, it is an elegant device that doesn’t look like a bargain-barrel phone. And the addition of a headphone jack is a huge perk in an age where it has become an endangered species.

Display: The 5.5-inch and 6-inch displays on the 3a and 3a XL are another area where the cost-cutting is noticeable. Though still an OLED display, the screen on the Pixel 3a doesn’t look as sharp as that of the Pixel 3 or iPhone XS. Additionally, the colors on the budget Pixel aren’t as vibrant and seem to have a yellowish hue.

Unlike the Pixel 3 XL, which has a virtually edge-to-edge display, the 3a has a relatively chunky bezel around the screen — another reminder that the device isn’t top-of-the-line. On the bright side, there’s no unsightly notch cutout to house the front-facing camera to distract from what’s on your screen.

Camera: This is where the Pixel 3a becomes a bargain. Google lifted the Pixel 3’s stellar camera and stuck it directly into the 3a. The pictures this budget device can take rival those of any $1,000 smartphone, and blow all its reasonably priced competitors out of the water. In addition, it features all of Google’s best camera features, including Night Sight and its AI-assisted portrait mode.

Smarts: The Pixel 3a has a less powerful processor than its more expensive brethren. Depending on your needs, this could be a deal-breaker. For graphics-intensive gaming, the Pixel 3a could be a bit laggy. And loading apps like YouTube and Spotify were a second or two slower than on the high-end phones. Browsing the Web, as well, is a noticeably lower-tier experience with sites loading more slowly instead of popping up at once.

That said, many of these speed differences aren’t too noticeable unless you are comparing it side-by-side with a $1,000 phone. But how the 3a’s processor will age over a year or two is certainly something to consider.

Verdict: There’s no mistaking the Pixel 3a for a bank account-breaking smartphone. It doesn’t look or feel as nice as its $800 sibling, and its performance is noticeably slower. But for $400, it is difficult to call the Pixel 3a anything but a bargain. It has a stellar camera, attractive design and all the same software as the top devices on the market.

If you’re looking for a modern smartphone without an eye-watering price, the Pixel 3a is your best bet.

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