Pixel 3a and 3a XL: Do the missing features justify the savings?

The newly-announced midrange Pixel 3a and Pixel 3a XL cut a few corners to reach an attractive price tag. TechRepublic explores how this affects business users.

How to use Pixel 3 Call Screening The Pixel 3 phones include a handy feature that screens and transcribes calls. Jack Wallen shows you the ins and outs.

The Pixel 3a and 3a XL are highly capable "midrange flagships" from Google, aimed squarely at the market Google vacated in 2016 with the discontinuation of the Nexus 5X and 6P. At $399 for the Pixel 3a, and $479 for the Pixel 3a XL, the duo provide mostly the same Pixel experience as the comparatively more expensive Pixel 3 and 3 XL.

However, there are some key differences and minor compromises made to reach that price point. TechRepublic sorts out the differences to help you in your smartphone purchasing and mass deployment plans.

How do the Pixel 3a and 3a XL compare to the Pixel 3 & XL?

The midrange Pixel 3a and 3a XL are largely the same phone in terms of experience. The four Pixel 3 models on the market share the same highly-regarded rear camera, which Google is heavily touting in advertisements as outperforming that found in the $999 iPhone XS. The less expensive Pixel 3a and 3a XL lack the "Pixel Visual Core," a co-processor first seen on the Pixel 2 that assists in the post-processing of photos, pushing this task onto the Qualcomm Snapdragon 670, which is modestly slower than the Snapdragon 840 found in the premium Pixel 3. The front-facing wide-angle "selfie camera" is missing on the cheaper Pixels, though the standard front-facing camera remains.

SEE: Wi-Fi 6: An insider's guide (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Other minor changes include the lack of wireless charging, the use of AGC Dragontail X Glass to protect the display rather than Corning Gorilla Glass, a polycarbonate back, and one front- firing and bottom-firing speaker, rather than dual front-firing speakers. The Pixel 3a and 3a XL are only available in a 64 GB model, with no microSD slot, while the Pixel 3 and 3 XL have a 128 GB model (but still no microSD slot.) Google Photos backups support only "High Quality" but not "Original Quality" without extra storage fees.

The budget-friendly Pixel 3a & XL have some positive changes, with the return of the 3.5mm headphone jack, and the Pixel 3a XL is simply a larger version of the Pixel 3a—eschewing the highly criticized notch from the Pixel 3 XL. Both launch with Android 9 Pie, and will receive the same software support—the Pixel 3a and 3a XL will receive the Android Q Beta next month, and both will be the first to receive Android Q (10) upon the start of general availability.

How do the Pixel 3a & XL compare to other midrange smartphones?

To put it succinctly, they compare extremely favorably.

Typical midrange Android smartphones often make difficult compromises to reach a particular price point. HMD Global (Nokia), maker of popular Android smartphones, was forced to find new manufacturing partners after complaints about poor margins from FIH Mobile. The Nokia 7.1 is a commendable attempt at a $350 phone, but the last-generation Snapdragon 636 struggles even with low-bloat Android One builds, and reviewers have complained of screen backlighting being uneven.

Because of Google's proprietary picture post-processing, no midrange Android phone—even with the same sensor—will be able to match the Pixel 3a & XL.

Software support is also somewhat shaky among Android OEMs. Despite initiatives to make it easier on smartphone manufacturers to build new OS images, the ability to practically do so is still uneven, with many OEMs providing only quarterly security updates, and fewer major version updates than Google.

Which is right for me?

If you are purchasing a smartphone for yourself, consider if you have the budget to spend a little more on a premium smartphone. For a device you might use for a couple hours per day, minor inconveniences can add up quickly. If wireless charging is a must-have, the Pixel 3a is not for you. Additionally, for personal use—particularly games—the slower Snapdragon SoC may be a source of frustration.

However, for corporate deployments, look no further—the 3a & XL performance for price is the best in the Android ecosystem. Insurance adjusters, compliance inspectors, and those in construction will benefit from the solid-quality camera, as minute details that can be lost in high-noise cameras on cheaper smartphones will come through cleanly here. Likewise, Pixel phones receive longer-lived software support than other Android smartphones; they will remain more secure and up-to-date for a longer period of time.

For more, check out "Google Pixel 3a specs, price, and features have near-perfect timing given 4G to 5G transition" and "Google Pixel vs. Samsung Galaxy: Which is better for business?"

Also see

pixel-3a-xl-6.jpg
Image: Angela Lang/CNET