Google’s Pixel 3a is not a breakthrough when it comes to gee-whiz features or design, but it is a breakthrough in terms of sheer value. Starting at $399, this phone delivers the same high-quality camera features as the Pixel 3 in a device that’s half the price of the top flagship phones.
Sure, Apple has the iPhone XR, but that starts at $750. And the Galaxy S10e costs anywhere from $650 to $750. The 5.6-inch Pixel 3a is hundreds of dollars less. The 6-inch Pixel 3a XL costs $479, which is also a lot less than the most “affordable” new phones from Apple and Samsung.
More important, the Pixel 3a is not a Verizon exclusive like the Pixel 3. You can buy it from Sprint and T-Mobile, too, though AT&T is not part of the mix for some reason. (As with earlier Pixels, you can buy the 3a unlocked and use it on AT&T's network.)
“Google's Pixel phones have stood out for clean and updated software and incredible camera capabilities, but they have always been expensive, minimally marketed, and not sold widely,” said Avi Greengart, founder and lead analyst for Techsponential. “The Pixel 3a keeps its key differentiators while solving some of the problems, and it should sell a lot better than previous versions.”
Google itself has admitted that it has struggled to sell the more premium Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL, and part of that challenge is competing in a premium segment that has been dominated by the Apple-Samsung duopoly. By delivering a mid-range phone with solid features and performance, Google could woo many consumers who simply don’t want to pay top dollar for a Samsung phone.
To be fair, the Pixel 3a trims some premium features like water resistance and wireless charging. But it's very possible that someone walking into a carrier store or Best Buy will find that the Pixel 3a is simply “good enough” for what they want to do with their phone.
“The biggest threat would be to take valuable users who would have gone for a Galaxy S model or a Huawei P model,” said Carolina Milanesi, an analyst with Creative Strategies.
Samsung will respond to the Pixel 3a threat when it reportedly brings its own mid-range Galaxy A series of phones to the U.S. later this year. While nothing formal's been announced, prices will allegedly range from $200 to $500.
On the surface, Apple would seem to be immune from any competition from the Pixel 3a. iPhone users tend to stick with Apple’s ecosystem. And you can get a cheap iPhone like the older iPhone SE for $249 or the iPhone 7 for $449. However, those dated phones have smaller screens and lackluster cameras compared to the Pixel 3a, not to mention half the storage of Google’s phone.
“While the Apple threat is there, it requires a change in OS that some users are not prepared to make so a less direct threat than for Android makers,” said Milanesi. “What I do think is interesting though is that as users use more and more Google services on iPhone the change in OS might seem less daunting that it might have seem years ago. Google Assistant in the home might also drive some people to switch to have it on the phone.”
Milanesi added that camera features like Portrait Mode and Night Sight make the threat to the iPhone XR a bit stronger. Based on our face-offs, Apple’s cameras have indeed fallen behind the competition.
The biggest challenge for Google could simply be getting the word out about the Pixel 3a and Pixel 3a XL — and in educating shoppers that they won’t be skimping on quality if they go the mid-range route.
“U.S. consumers have not been interested in mid-tier phones,” said Greengart. “Consumers either buy budget phones because they don't have a lot of money/good credit, or they buy super-premium phones using free financing plans from carriers. Google will need to spend heavily on marketing and merchandising if it wants to change that.”
Based on our initial hands-on time with the Pixel 3a and Pixel 3a XL, Google could have two winners on its hands. And both Samsung and Apple have two big reasons to be looking over their shoulders.
Photos: Tom's Guide