New phone! Review time (Google Pixel 3A)

The other day as I sat at my desk avoiding any serious work I ruminated on my phone, a Motorola Moto G6. The G6 was bought to replace my G5S that I gave to my wife when her Galaxy S7 gave up the ghost after one too many tumbles on the floor. I’d had the G6 for a year at that point and had concluded that Motorola has gone down the shitter, as the preceeding device was objectively superior in nearly every way that mattered, and the G6 gave up much in the pursuit of trendy bullshit like curved glass back, larger screen to body ratio, etc.

Furthermore, it would not be getting the latest Android update to version 10, and the earpiece was absolutely pitiful and I had intense difficulty understanding anyone who called me, even after using compressed air and a toothpick in an attempt to void the earpiece of any debris.

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As I idly clicked through the same pitiable rotation of news websites and forums as my work inbox filled up with everything other than the login credentials I needed to complete the project I was currently “working” on I hopped on over to Credit Karma to have a gander.

Hmm, “low number of open accounts”. That’s lame. Maybe I should accept one of the 50 pre-approval offers I get in the mail every day?

Oh, wait.

Google finances phones.

Being as I was on my bosses BYOD legacy unlimited Verizon account financing a phone through the carrier wasn’t really in the cards for me, but on over to Google’s web shop I went and quickly specced out a white Pixel 3A with protection plan. I had done this song and dance before when the Pixel 2 came out and was denied after 3 months or waiting. I clicked “apply for credit” and clicked back on over to Reddit to finish the gripping tale of “I’m a freelance keyboard photographer AMA” only to have my seance broken by a new email.

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“Credit approved: $2000 limit.”

Huh.

Queue 4 weeks of wearing out the F5 button on my keyboard on the tracking page as I waited for my new phone to arrive followed by blatantly ignoring responsibility at my desk as I slapped in my SIM card and followed the setup procedure. So now I have it, what’s it like?

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The actual review

Other than the Moto G6 and some extremely low end Windows Phone devices (Lumia 520) a while ago this is one of the only actually brand new phones I’ve ever bought, and the first one that wasn’t bargain basement. I usually buy used flagships with their wear-and-tear and slightly worn batteries.

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Appearance/Build quality

The Pixel 3a “Is A Phone”. There’s very little special going on here. Bezels that are enormous by today’s standards, not-gorilla-glass on the front, plastic on the back, fingerprint reader on the back, volume rocker and charming orange power button on the right side, headphone jack on top, USB type C on the bottom. Two speaker grills on the bottom and an earpiece on the top front. Fairly unremarkable, but not at all offensive. I vastly prefer the plastic back to glass for durability reasons (the iPhone 5C was one of my favorite designs), the headphone jack is very welcome, and the phone feels light and easy to carry and fits the hand well. No complaints here whatsoever.

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Audio

Calls are very loud and crisp, especially on Verizon’s omnipresent 4G LTE network. When I flip the phone sideways with Youtube going the audio frankly blows me away. I have not heard phone audio this good since my HTC One. If you hold your face within a specific “audio bubble” in front of the phone an odd nearly-surround effect happens and my brain begins to break.

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Display

One place I am absurdly happy that Google did not skimp is the display. No cheesey LCDs here with their garbage blacks and total lack of contrast or sunlight visibility, the Pixel has an HD OLED display which enables always-on functionality and crazy contrast. Watching shitty japanese cartoons in bed at night has never been more of an experience, and the edges of the device simply melt away. I set my wallpaper to one that fades to black around the edges and because black pixels emit no light the result is a near-inability to tell where the display ends and the bezel begins in certain light. The effect was far more pronounced with my old Nokia Lumia 925 (the most gorgeous piece of hardware I have ever owned) but the Pixel is still a stunner in this arena.

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Sunlight visibility is decent. Could be better, honestly, but it’s usable.

Camera

Lordy the camera. The camera on this phone has a 100 on DXOmark. That is slightly above the iPhone X on a “budget” $400 device. Shutter delay is nonexistent and despite only having one camera sensor the whole bag of tricks are here. Portrait mode, night mode, pano, photo sphere, slow mo video, etc. are all present.

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But the standout here is night mode.

Here’s a picture of my motorcycle lit by a single solitary street lamp about 50 yards away:

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Now here’s the same image after I remembered to enable Night Mode:

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Go ahead. Look for noise. You won’t find any because of Google’s ridiculous AI-driven computational photography that I’m convinced will be singlehandedly responsible for plunging us into a Terminator-style hellscape future.

Also portrait mode works on dogs.

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I have no concept of how this crap works without a 3d sensor. I believe it does pixel-shift shenanigains but, again, I don’t recall the technical details. Picture is soft as hell because there was only a single crappy lamp on in my apartment and the dog wouldn’t sit still so I’m impressed you can even tell that’s a dog.

Software

It’s stock Android 10. The new gestures are the standout new feature. Edge-swiping sucks with a case on but other than that they seem fine.

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Software features I miss from my Motorola:

  • shake to turn on flashlight
  • twist to open camera
  • the ability to take scrolling screenshots

Other than that it has been a lag-free crash-free experience and I wholeheartedly believe at this point that flagship Android and iPhone devices are only differentiated by whose ecosystem you’d prefer to belong with, and not any objective measures of quality or “goodness”.

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Battery

It gets me through a day without much worry. Honestly it isn’t a whole load better than the battery on my Moto G6, which is almost a disappointment. The quick charging is pretty absurd though, and a few minutes tethered to a quick charger is enough to get me beyond work and to 2am parties out at the drag strip.

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Conclusion

This is a whole lot of words to say “damn good phone, get it.”

Google put money where it matters (screen, cameras, speakers) and saved it where it doesn’t (bezels, plastic back) in a very similar fashion to a “good” economy car that stands head and shoulders above the rest for having abnormally good seats, steering wheel, shift knob, and volume knob, even if maybe the latch for the glove box isn’t as good as you’d find in an S-class. The result is by far the best value on the market today for a “mainstream” Android phone that will have 100% compatibility with domestic carriers. If that seems like an oddly specific qualification it is because some more niche devices from the likes of OnePlus roundly stomp the Pixel in bang for buck, but have fun not having Band 12 on Tmobile or VoLTE on Verizon or whatever weird hang-ups they tend to have these days.

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