Where the Google Pixel 3a Falls Short

Posted on August 16, 2019 by Paul Thurrott in Android, Mobile with 40 Comments

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.

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Comments (40)

40 responses to “Where the Google Pixel 3a Falls Short”

  1. prjman

    A casting issue isn't a 'show stopper'. It's a minor inconvenience that's most likely going to be fixed in an update at some point. No phone is perfect and works with everything 100% every time. Not the Note 10. Not the Pixel. Not the Iphone.


    Overall experience is what should count, and the Pixel 3a's deliver a great overall experience, as do many other mid-range devices.

  2. mgovro

    Wireless charging is by all means a battery advance drainer so no biggy, larger storage is an obvious downside and non-gorilla glass vs. dragon tail results for me still not in.... I could care less about camera specs as long as there is one but CAT, bluetooth and upgraded WIFI, VOLTE, number of BANDS, unlocked and ability to switch between networks is where Fi devices Shine. Expandable storage is a farse and has been been proven by Apple, what really matters in a smart phone is abilities of network connectivity and for some IP68 ratings and build for shock. 90% of buyers could care less about the affor mentioned specs as long as it's ease of use, that's why Apple products rank number 1 around the world. Personally I prefer Android.

    • skane2600

      In reply to mgovro:

      What #1 rank are you referring to and for which Apple products? I'm guessing they lead in tablets and smartwatches, I don't know if there are any other product categories they lead in.

      • Eric Dunbar

        In reply to skane2600:

        Apple leads in every category it competes in.


        They may not sell the most phones but that's because they don't sell budget phones. In 2017 they outsold the entire Android market combined by a factor of four to one in the $800+ market and even in the $400 to $800 market they sell around half of all phones. If that's not leading the market I don't know what is (at the risk of being accused of being colonialist, one consumer in a rich world country is equivalent to 50 in a developing country).

      • Eric Dunbar

        In reply to skane2600:

        PS yes Apple really gets what matters in the big picture.


        For example, expandable storage hasn't mattered in computers in at least two decades provided you have enough to run your phone. Since the late 90's I've always offered up the advice 'buy as much computer RAM or HDD as you can afford because you'll never upgrade it anyway and if you do it'll cost you an arm and a leg'.

  3. ubelhorj

    My OnePlus 3T will lose connection to my Chromecast if I don't poke at it occasionally. It seems like whatever process controls it will die when the phone goes into sleep mode or whatever it's called on Android.


    Usually it'll reconnect and figure itself out if I tell it to cast the same thing it's already casting, but it makes issuing a simple pause command a multi-step 30 second process.

  4. Tony Barrett

    I recently bought a 3a (not XL) to replace my Moto G5. This is the first time in 4 years (since my Nexus 5) that I went back to Google, and honestly, I'm so glad I did. I knew that buying a 3a is not going to give me the fastest phone, or biggest/brightest screen or the most storage options. It's not made of glass (thankfully!), and doesn't have wireless charging, but I can honestly say this after 1 month of ownership - it's a great handset. It does most things very well, and running stock Android is a pleasure - it's fast, smooth and bloat free, and will probably get the next 3 major Android updates. The camera is the icing on the cake - it's brilliant, and night sight is just amazing. For me, as well, not having a notch is a big thing - I'd never buy a phone with one. I don't care about not having a full screen display - it doesn't bother me one bit.

    Paul has some interesting points, but I cast a lot to my Chromecast audio's, and I've never had a problem - no dropouts or lost connections at all. Handset performance is fine for me, and the slightly slower photo processing only occurs, from what I can see, when using Night Sight, but it's an extra couple of seconds that's all. The only issue I did have was a known sleep bug issue, but Google fixed that in the August patch.

    Because Paul see's a lot of handsets, and probably changes his every month, he can be hyper-critical, but I think the 3a is one of 2019's most important handsets. It totally turns the mid-range Android market on it's head, and makes a lot of the premium handsets look average, inc Google's own Pixel 3. I also like the fact Google aren't trying to make obscene profits on these devices, or trying to make them desirable fashion accessories. It's a great smartphone at a great price.

  5. leilabd

    I've had the exact same problem with Chromecast devices, both audio and video, with my phone losing contact with the devices and thus being unable to pause or otherwise control playback. As you say, sometimes you can re-establish contact through Google Home, sometimes not. I currently have a Pixel (1st gen.) and previously had a Nexus 5X. I had concluded that the Chromecasts were a bit rubbish but maybe it's the phones. You would think that Google could manage to get their own devices to talk to each other! I shall pay more attention to which device I'm using when the problem next occurs and try using a different one.

    • skane2600

      In reply to leilabd:

      I've used both a video Chromecast and an Amazon Fire Stick and occasionally have problems with both. Maybe it's the location of my router although this has happened in different apartments. I don't find WiFi to be that reliable in a home environment.

  6. jchampeau

    And this is one advantage of Sonos. I'm sure some people do have trouble with their Sonos gear, but for me and other Sonos users I know, it works well and is perfectly consistent. The app is admittedly not great, but I find it to be sufficient, and it's quite nice to be able to control my Sonos stuff from any device that happens to be most convenient at the time: iPhone, iPad, Alexa, Windows PC. I even have a Wink (home automation) shortcut that starts the stream of my local NPR affiliate on my home office speakers if I arrive home between certain hours on a weekday. And when I pick a song or playlist in the Sonos app to play it, it always plays it, right then, with no delay, no dropouts, and it sounds pretty good too.

  7. skane2600

    You had to bring up the sub-$500 PC claim again? The problem with your comment was that you were being uncharacteristically dogmatic. Had you reasonably qualified your statement by simply saying "There's no decent laptop under $500 for professional use" there would have been minimal squawking. Adding qualifying language to generalizations almost always improves the end result.

  8. Eric Dunbar

    Umm. Not casting properly to a Chromecast. Really? This was worth an article? Summer time blues?


    Chromecasts are annoying. What's the point? If you're playing music get a Google speaker. If you're watching TV get a box that doesn't rely on a phone.

  9. OwenM

    The Pixel 3a would be perfect for me if only the storage were larger or expandable. It's always just has to be that one thing which stops me.


    Other phones I'm considering: the mid level Samsung devices A20, A50, A70 etc.

  10. briantlewis

    At some point google either needs to care about their hardware and software quality or get out of handsets.

  11. Craig P

    Regarding chromecast audio dongles: I have 4 of these set up as a cheap whole house music streaming system. One is connected to an amp for outside speakers, two are connected to stereo systems in the house, and the fourth to a radio in my office. When it works, it works pretty well. However, it has never been flawless: frequently the casting tab on the streaming device will not correctly show which speakers are connected and streaming (even when they are).


    More to the point: I currently stream music from a windows laptop (HP, running the latest version of windows 10). If I use Sirius XM as a music source, and the laptop goes to sleep, then the web page will freeze and lose connection to the casting devices, BUT... the music will continue to stream. If I kill the browser tab, and then restart it, and then access the cast menu, I can gain control of the devices again. My point is that I am seeing somewhat similar behavior with Windows Laptop as a music source in that the music will continue to stream even though the laptop software has frozen or disconnected.


    It seems like there must be some not obvious stuff going on under the hood when streams are established to these devices. I expect that glitches like this will not be fixed, since the devices are not longer sold. I'm always on the lookout for alternative ways to accomplish this which don't involve spending $350 per connection for a Sonos device.

  12. rmlounsbury

    I wonder if this is related to the issue the Pixel 3 had with aggressive memory management and it killing processes too quickly which would seem to match up with sporadic outages while casting. One would think it wouldn't kill an active process so maybe it is indeed the processor.


    This is an unfortunate issue and I hope one that isn't common for the Pixel 3a. I was just considering getting rid of my Apple TV's and switch over to Chromecast devices since both my wife and I have Android devices and we could just cast streaming video over via casting. This would be an excellent solution over the much pricier Apple TV.


    I'm going to pickup a 3a and experiment with this to see if I have the same problems. Hopefully not and if not I'll probably get rid of my more expensive main device for this.

  13. goofium

    I also, persistently, have this problem with my 3a. No other devices have the issue. It is strange, as I don't see other WiFi issues with the Pixel 3a, or at least haven't identified any. What in the world is the problem?!?

    • luthair

      In reply to goofium:


      I feel the issue here was part of one the major releases as at some point it had started happening on my Nexus 6p and still happens on my 2 XL.


      Unfortunately I get the impression that no one at Google actually uses their own products anymore, there have been a number of long standing bugs that go unfixed with Chromecast with Google services.

  14. codymesh

    As mentioned by others, this is most likely a Pixel-specific memory management issue, not a processor issue. There are widespread reports of Pixel owners having their music apps close/disconnect on them.


    For whatever it's worth, it's not just the Huawei. My 4 year old Android phone doesn't do things like this either.

  15. beckerrt

    Paul,


    Remember when Windows Phone users always rationalized using the platform, saying the lack of apps didn't matter, not having official Google services was no big deal, no path forward to Windows 10 Mobile, but that's okay,etc.? I feel like you are doing the same thing with Pixel devices ?. Just move on! Embrace better!

  16. wolters

    I really hope the Note 10 works out for you. I generally prefer the Note Phones but the cameras end up being overrated and often disappointing (though good enough to great for most users.) I always end up back on Pixel for the camera.

  17. Pbike908

    Thanks for the review. I am not currently in the market for a phone (Galaxy S8 is my phone), however, I have been following the new releases. The issues you pointed wouldn't be a show stopper for me -- except that 64GB storage limit would be. I have been wondering when an Android phone would show up a superior camera and a mid range processor.


    I only purchase I5 processor Windows laptops, with 8GB RAM, and 256K GB SSDs as they work just fine for me. I am sure a midrange Android phone with 128G storage (either on board or with a micro SD card) would work for me as well.

  18. yoshi

    Even flagship level phones have their issues. I've recently been bouncing between an S10+ and a Pixel 3a XL. While on the S10+, there would be mile long stretches where my services would drop during my commute. In these same stretches, while using the same SIM in the Pixel 3a XL, I have full services all the way through. These are both factory unlocked models.


    I don't cast to a Chromecast, so I can't speak on that situation. But in my own situation, it seems more important to have solid cell service in the places I go, rather than high end specs that I can't use due to no service.


    TLDR: No phone, no matter the price, is perfect. The best phone is the one that works the way you need it to.





    • rmlounsbury

      In reply to yoshi:

      I've found that almost every Samsung handset I've owned has exceptionally weak reception on T-Mobile's network. I tried the Note 10+ and it was no different for me than any other device. Conversely the OnePlus 7 Pro works darn near everywhere.


      I'm actually strongly considering the Pixel 3a (non-XL as I don't have Thurrott sized hands) because of it's price, weight, and what should be pretty spectacular battery life. I'd have to think having a poly-carbonate case also means it will do well in the reception area.

  19. jaredthegeek

    I have google home devices that I cast spotify with and have not encountered this issue. It may be the way its handled on my devices and I bluetooth connect to everything else so I have not encountered this issue with my Pixel 3aXL. I don't use it but I hear of people complaining regularly about Apple's airplay or whatever its called being very flaky as well.



  20. MikeCerm

    There's no possible way that the mid-range processor power of the phone has anything do with the casting issues described here. The Snapdragon 670 CPU is very close to "flagship from 2 years ago" level, just below the 835 in both single- and multi-threaded performance, and significantly better than the Snapdragon 821 and previous-gen midrange 600-series Snapdragons like the 625. Casting merely tells the playback device to play something, and the phone's CPU has basically nothing to do with it. It could be a radio/antenna problem, because you need to be on the same network as your casting, and if the Wi-Fi is flaky it could produce some casting issues. But the CPU is certainly not the issue.

  21. Jeremy Turnley

    I've been running the Android 10 beta, and have not seen this issue. I suspect it may be a software bug, rather than a hardware showstopper. I probably don't cast things as often as you do, and when I do I am usually going straight to my TV or receiver rather than a Chromecast, but it's very possible this issue will disappear shortly down the road.

  22. Divodd

    I've had that issue on a myriad of flagship Android phones and iOS, I think it's Cast that's the issue

    • jchampeau

      In reply to Divodd:

      To me, that sounds more like a network or wireless interference issue. I recently used AirPlay to play a 22-minute video (one I shot and edited; that's why I know its specific length) from my iPad to my Apple TV and it played perfectly. So good, in fact, that half way through I picked up the iPad to do something else with it having forgotten I wasn't just playing the content straight from the Apple TV. But I have almost no interference in my environment and nearly ideal wireless coverage from two wireless APs that are tuned for my space (I'm a former wireless systems engineer).

  23. nicholas_kathrein

    Are we sure this isn't an issue with over active power management? You can add permissions on an app per app basis. On my pixel 2 I long pressed on the app and above the quick actions was an i in a circle. Click on that then click on advanced then Battery. Make sure which ever app your casting from doesn't have a restriction.

    • Leslie Moor

      In reply to Nicholas_Kathrein:

      The LocalCast app for Android actually tells you that Android power management breaks the casting and to do just what you're describing, i.e., disable Android's power management for LocalCast. That does seem to help but I can't remember if it completely eliminated the problem for me. I find for me that the iPhone + Infuse app is the best for casting to LocalCast. It works with more video files and has virtually flawless reliability (I don't cast audio much so can't comment on that). But I LOVE my Pixel 3XL camera and some other things about Android so I keep coming back to it.

  24. Stooks

    "Where the Google Pixel 3a Falls Short"


    It runs Spydroid or...ummm...I mean...Android.



  25. dkomeshak

    I recently upgraded from a Galaxy S7 Edge to a Galaxy S10e. The difference in performance is incredible. And some apps that only marginally worked on the S7, work flawlessly on the S10e. Notably, the Ring doorbell app. And with 8GB RAM and 256GB storage, plus capability for 512GB, I don't worry about filling it up. And it supports wireless charging and has a headphone jack.

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