I review phones for a living — and this is the best Android phone of 2023

Pixel 7a held in hand
(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

The very best phones take the most important tasks you count on your handset to perform and handle them with such aplomb, you never really think about all the amazing things happening under the hood. It's even better when that phone can handle all those tasks while also saving you money.

It's for those reasons that the Google Pixel 7a was the best mobile device I saw in 2023. And I happen to be in a position to see a lot of them.

As the managing editor for mobile coverage at Tom's Guide, I wind up reviewing a lot of phones. And the handsets I don't review personally, I'm usually working with my colleagues who are reviewing those devices — asking them questions about their experience, listening to their observations and seeing the results from the various display, processor, camera and battery tests we run.

It's been a really strong year for phones, with Apple releasing the best iPhones ever in the form of the iPhone 15 lineup, and Samsung putting out an amazing camera phone with the Galaxy S23 Ultra. Competition among midrange models was particularly intense as well, and there's never been a better time to buy a foldable phone.

So what made the Pixel 7a stand out from that crowd? To me, it boils down to a trio of reasons.

The Pixel 7a's camera is hard to beat

I'm not saying the Pixel 7a's camera setup is the best out there. I've already mentioned the Galaxy S23 Ultra and its pace-setting camera performance, particularly when it comes to zoom shots. The Pixel 7a doesn't even offer a dedicated telephoto lens, just a 64MP main camera and 13MP ultrawide angle shooter.

But those cameras, combined with the photo-processing powers of Google's Pixel phones are enough. Point your Pixel 7a's cameras at a subject, and you're going to get a great shot — certainly better than anything another phone in the 7a's price range can produce. 

This sculpture of a bug using recycled materials shows off what the Pixel 7a's cameras are capable of. The Pixel shot is colorful and well-balanced and lacks the over-exposure that's crept into a similar photo taken by the Samsung Galaxy A54. You get less of a glare off the red bicycle seat that doubles as the bug's head in the Pixel 7a photo, and the silver eyes remain in sharp detail.

The Pixel 7a also excels when the lights are low, as represented by this photo of a lantern at night. You see more surface details in the Pixel 7a photo, and the edges of the shot aren't as shadowy as the Galaxy A54 depicts them.

That's all well and good when we pit the Pixel 7a against a phone in its price range. (At $449, the Galaxy A54 costs $50 less than the Pixel 7a.) But what happens when you look at photos from a more expensive phone with a better camera setup, at least on paper?

The Galaxy S23 FE has the dedicated zoom lens the Pixel 7a lacks, and it benefits from Samsung's know-how with zoom shots. However, I think the Pixel 7a does a better job with this 3x zoom of a movie theater marquee. The text is clearer in the Pixel 7a photo, and the surface of the theater facade looks more colorful and richly detailed. The Pixel 7a is using Google's SuperResZoom feature to remove the distortion that can creep into shots relying on a digital zoom, and in this case, it helps level the playing field.

The Pixel 7a offers flagship-level smarts

Pixel 7a review photo unblur

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

SuperResZoom is one of the many photo processing tools that benefit from the on-device smarts Google packs into its Pixel phones. You also get editing tools like Magic Eraser, which lets you remove unwanted objects and annoying photo-bombers from photos with a simple tap. The Photo Unblur tool takes images shot by other cameras and removes some of the blurriness, particularly around faces, for a better overall shot.

Those capabilities are tied to the Tensor G2 system-on-chip powering the Pixel 7a. It also happens to be the same silicon inside Google's Pixel 7 flagships, which means the same AI-driven experiences available on those more expensive phones are also on the 7a.

And we're not just talking bout photo-editing tools. The excellent built-in Recorder app now recognizes when different people are talking in a recording and separates them out when generating an on-the-fly transcript. It's great for meetings with multiple speakers or interviews. Other AI features available to the Pixel 7a include quick phrases that trigger the Google Assistant without first saying "OK Google," clear calling to eliminate background noise on phone calls and Direct My Call for better navigating menus on phone calls to 800-numbers.

Because the Pixel 7a uses a Tensor G2 chipset, it misses out on the more advanced features made possible by the Tensor G3 silicon inside the Pixel 8 phones released after the 7a came out. (I'm afraid you'll have to wait for next year's Pixel 8a to get more advanced call screening features or the ability to manipulate photos with the Magic Editor tool.) 

That's the trade-off you sometimes have to make with budget phones like the Pixel 7a, where you give up more advanced capabilities in exchange for a lower price tag. In the case of the Pixel 7a, I'd say the trade is worth it.

The Pixel 7a delivers good value for money

Google Pixel 7a

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

And that bring us to the last major point in the Pixel 7a's favor — it doesn't cost all that much when compared to the flagship phones out there.

We're living in a time where people can stare down a $999 price on a phone and not even blink. Even Google's own flagships, which undercut the price of their rivals, have a starting price of $699 for the Pixel 8. But the Pixel 7a proves you don't have to spend that kind of money to get a first-rate experience.

At $499, the Pixel 7a isn't the cheapest phone in its class — the Galaxy A54 and iPhone SE both undercut it on price. But those phones don't offer the same kind of features as the Pixel 7a, which manages to keep pace with phones that cost hundreds of dollars more.

Even with the Pixel 8a likely to arrive by mid-year, the Pixel 7a remains a great buy — especially if the best Pixel 7a deals allow you to save even more on this fully featured phone. There may be newer models out there, but nothing impressed me as much as the Pixel 7a did during the past year.

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Philip Michaels

Philip Michaels is a Managing Editor at Tom's Guide. He's been covering personal technology since 1999 and was in the building when Steve Jobs showed off the iPhone for the first time. He's been evaluating smartphones since that first iPhone debuted in 2007, and he's been following phone carriers and smartphone plans since 2015. He has strong opinions about Apple, the Oakland Athletics, old movies and proper butchery techniques. Follow him at @PhilipMichaels.