There’s so much to like about the Pixel 3a, from its low price to its polycarbonate body to its high-end camera. But it’s not perfect, not by a long shot. And as is the case with a low-end PC, you need to know what you’re getting into when you choose Google’s cheapest smartphone.
To be clear, when I write Pixel 3a here, I’m referring both the smaller 3a and the larger 3a XL that I purchased and still use daily.
As I noted in my review, it’s a great smartphone overall and a tremendous value. And I only dinged the phone for a few, mostly minor, issues: Its lack of storage options or upgradability (64 GB is it), its less effective, non-Gorilla Glass display protection, and its lack of wireless charging and water resistance.
What I didn’t ding the Pixel for was performance. Instead, I pointed out two day-to-day performance issues—slow photo processing performance and slow voice-to-type functionality in the Gboard keyboard app—but determined they were “understandable and acceptable for a phone in this price range.”
If that’s all there was to it, I’d still agree with that statement. But performance is the type of thing you only notice when it’s not working. And something else has come up since I wrote that review. It just took me a long while to figure out that it was the Pixel’s fault.
As you may know, I have a nice pair of speakers attached to a Chromecast Audio dongle in our sunroom, and I’ll listen to music in that room by casting from Google Play Music. We typically spend one night a week listening to music this way, and I’ll manage the music from my phone, removing or moving songs around in the playlist as we go.
This system has always worked well. But this past summer, I started experiencing problems. Google Play Music would disconnect from the Chromecast, but the music would keep playing. This meant that I could no longer control playback, basically. Sometimes, I could access the Chromecast through the Google Home app, but even that would stop working. Less frequently, I could reconnect to the Chromecast using Google Play Music. But it was frustrating, and sometimes my only recourse was to unplug the Chromecast from power, reboot it, and reconnect. And then it would just happen again, of course.
This was happening sporadically all summer. But then we got home from our home swap and played music for the first time, it happened again. And it suddenly occurred to me that maybe the issue wasn’t the Chromecast, or my home network, or whatever. Maybe it was the phone. So, I grabbed another phone, the Huawei P30 Pro. And … it worked fine. No glitches, no lost connections. Nothing.
The problem was/is the Pixel 3a XL. And the reason I only had this problem sporadically over the summer is that I wasn’t always using the Pixel for music. Even though it’s become my daily-use phone, for the most part, I’ve been testing and using other phones all year. And when I was using other phones, the Chromecast audio system worked fine.
It’s unclear how the Pixel 3a XL’s middling performance causes this particular issue. But it’s very real, and when I tested it later to see whether I could duplicate the problem, it happened again. It is the Pixel.
This reminds me very much of the recent conversation around sub-$500 PCs, where I came to the conclusion that there is no such thing as a good PC in that price range, and that the reason is performance. To get a good experience—adequate day-to-day performance, the ability to multitask applications, and have multiple tabs open in the browser of your choice—on a PC, I opined, you need a Core i5, 8 GB of RAM, and SSD storage as the baseline. And more is always better.
I’m not sure what the metric is for smartphones, as most of the smartphones I’ve used over the past several years have always included high-end components. But the Pixel 3a XL is a mid-range handset with its Qualcomm Snapdragon 670 processor, Adreno 615 graphics, 4 GB of RAM, and 64 GB of non-expandable storage. And while I can’t be 100 percent sure, I suspect that the processor is the issue.
Look, everyone has their opinions. Every time I offer up a pat statement about any topic—“there is no such thing as a good PC that costs less than $500,” for example—I will receive vicious feedback from people who disagree, are in fact quite happy with their sub-$500 choices. I feel that they’re rationalizing a bad decision, frankly. But my role, as I see it, isn’t to make everyone feel good about their choices, it’s to give advice that I think is good for everyone or at least for most people.
And on that note, this Pixel 3a XL issue is troubling because it casts doubt on my previously established opinions about the phone and my ability to recommend it to others. It’s a qualifier. It’s something that people need to be aware of, something that is hard to test for ahead of a purchase.
As with the sub-$500 PC topic, there will be those who are so enraptured by their Pixel 3a purchase that they will not be bothered by this new wrinkle. Perhaps they don’t ever use Chromecast. Or have never experienced this problem themselves. I don’t know. I just know that I have, and it’s a problem. And I need to tell you about it.
The Pixel 3a is still a neat phone, and I like that Google is finally offering something for the large market of people that can’t afford a $1000 flagship or simply won’t pay that much for any phone, regardless. But it’s very much not “2019’s most important phone,” as CNET just declared. Why? Because middling performance is a showstopper. In the past, Google offered flagship specs at mid-level prices. Those phones were important, as are phones like the OnePlus 6T and 7 Pro, which continue that value tradition without sacrificing performance.
What you might be wondering is whether I will keep using the Pixel 3a XL.
Yes, for now, I will keep using it. The camera is great, I love the form factor, and its full Google Fi compatibility. But realistically speaking, every phone I use is temporary because I’m always reviewing and testing other handsets. I can always use a different phone when I listen to music, after all: I have several choices.
Too, I preordered a Samsung Galaxy Note 10, and I’m eager to use and test that handset and step more deeply into Samsung’s Galaxy ecosystem, which I’ll be writing about soon. For a variety of reasons, I’ll be trading in my Pixel 3 XL for the Note 10; but despite its better specs, the Pixel 3 XL is not as good of a handset, overall, as the Pixel 3a XL.
And that’s the thing. Were the Pixel 3a XL my only phone, this casting issue would be a showstopper, no matter how much I like it otherwise. But it’s not my only phone. And so here I am, not for the first time, using a deeply flawed Google Pixel-branded handset. You’d think I’d be used to this by now.