The Google Pixel 3a makes a strong case for tossing out the spec sheet. On paper, it looks like yet another boring budget smartphone, with a middling processor, single front and rear cameras, and a bare-minimum 1080p screen. But in your pocket, you might just mistake it for a premium phone.

Part of the reason why is because, well, it’s a Pixel. Specifically, it looks a lot like the notchless Pixel 3 and the rumored design for the Pixel 4, and of course, it runs the latest version of Android. But while the high-priced G-stamped phones always left something to be desired when it came to design, the $399 Pixel 3a looks like a budget phone but acts like a premium one. It’s almost like Google has been setting us up for this all along.

Ignoring the numbers game

For as long as high-end Android phones have existed, we’ve been trained to believe that we need the biggest battery and best processor to get the best experience. As such, handsets have crossed the thousand-dollar threshold to give us the specs they’ve convinced us we need, as premium phones have all sought to outdo each other with cameras, RAM, storage, and pixels.

pixel 3a assistant Michael Simon/IDG

You can squeeze the sides of the Pixel 3a to summon Google Assistant.

The Pixel 3a does none of that. Spec-, design-, and most importantly, price-wise, it’s the antithesis of a premium Android phone. It’s made of plastic rather than glass, has a Full HD screen instead of a Quad HD one, and its interior attributes are decidedly non-premium as well:

  • Processor: Snapdragon 670
  • RAM: 4GB
  • Storage: 64GB
  • Battery: 3,000mAh
  • Front camera: 8MP, f/2.0
  • Rear camera: 12MP, f/1.8, OIS

But numbers aren’t what the Pixel 3a is selling. Much like the premium Pixel—which also has just 4GB of RAM and 64GB of base storage—the 3a makes the most of its parts, offering an Android experience that rivals phones that cost more than twice as much. Plus it has a headphone jack, which makes the lack of one on the higher-priced Pixel more glaring. I’d like an option for more storage or at least a slot for an SD card, but as it stands, the Pixel 3a maxes out at a relatively paltry 64GB of storage. Keep in mind that you don’t get free unlimited storage of photos in original quality like you do on the Pixel 3, so space might become an issue.

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In benchmarks, the Pixel 3a’s Snapdragon 670 scored around 7,250 in the PCMark Work 2.0 test, lower than the Snapdragon 845-based Pixel 3’s 8,828, but not crippling by any stretch. Geekbench 4 returned similar results, with the Pixel 3a posting a 1,600/5,125 (single-core/multi-core) score versus 2,358/8,337 on the Pixel 3, but all in all, the Snapdragon 670 wasn’t as laggy as I expected. Only occasionally during my testing was I consciously aware that I wasn’t using a near-thousand-dollar phone, and even then, it was fleeting. More often than not, I forgot that I wasn’t using the grown-up Pixel.

pixel 3a android Michael Simon/IDG

The Pixel 3a runs the latest version of Android—and will until Android S in 2021.

That’s because Google has taken an iOS-like approach with the Pixel 3a. Instead of building a phone optimized to run Android, Google has optimized Android for the handset to the point where the Pixel 3, which costs twice as much, doesn’t feel all that much faster than the 3a in normal use. Even with a lesser processor, Android Pie on the Pixel 3a is as fast or faster than it is on phones that cost twice as much. Little touches like Now Playing (which listens to background audio to automatically ID songs on the lock screen and notification panel) are delightful without dragging things down. And because you’re guaranteed to get three years of Android updates—something few phones in this price range can promise—your Pixel 3a might actually feel faster even as its hardware ages.

A design that finally fits

The Pixel phone’s design has never challenged the iPhones and Galaxies of the world, so the Pixel 3a’s big bezels and plastic back don’t really feel out of place. It’s noticeably lighter than its all-glass older sibling, but in the right light, it could easily be mistaken for Google’s higher priced Pixel 3, right down to the colored power button (yellow on the purple model and orange on the white one). That’s as much of an indictment of the Pixel 3 as it is a complement to the Pixel 3a, but the fact remains that the design here feels right.

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