The Pixel 3a was Android Police's Smartphone of the Year, and for good reason. It marked Google's return to the budget phone arena, which it left after the Nexus 5X and 6P were retired in 2016. More importantly, the 3a is just a really good phone, with decent performance and one of the best cameras in the smartphone world.

In light of the Pixel 3a's recent update to Android 10, and the impending release of its sequel, we thought it was a good time to check in again on the 3a. In what will likely be a surprise to no one, Android 10 makes it better than ever.

Specs

Processor Snapdragon 670 octacore (2x "big" Kryo 360G @2.0GHz, 6x "little" Kryo 360S 1.7GHz)
RAM 4GB
Storage 64GB
Display 5.6" (2220x1080) or 6.0" (2160x1080) FHD+ OLED
Battery 3000 or 3700mAh with 18W USB-PD fast charging
Cameras 8MP f/2.0 84-deg FoV front-facing, 12.2MP f/1.8 74-deg FoV rear-facing (Sony IMX363 sensor)
Headphone jack Yes
NFC Yes
Fingerprint Capacitive scanner, rear-mounted
Software Android 9.0 Pie, with 3 years of guaranteed OS updates (May 2022)
Carrier compatibility All major US carriers, LTE bands 1/2/3/4/5/7/8/12/13/17/20/25/26/28/32/38/40/41/66
Dimensions 151.3x70.1x8.2mm / 147g (3a), 160.1x76.1x8.2mm / 167g (3a XL)
Colors Just Black, Clearly White, Purple-ish

Revisiting the hardware

David already went into detail about the basic hardware experience of the Pixel 3a and 3a XL in his review, so I won't re-invent the wheel here. However, there are a few points I want to bring up before we dive into the updated software experience.

First, I still love the design of the Pixel 3a. The fully-plastic shell might not seem ultra-premium, but it makes the Pixel 3a one of the lightest phones I've used in recent memory. In general, I think the Pixel 3a is one of the best-designed phones Google has ever produced — though that's not a particularly high bar to cross in the first place.

Partially because of cost-cutting, and partially because the mid-range market has different priorities than flagships, the Pixel 3a sidesteps many of the worst smartphone design trends we've seen recently on $800+ devices. There's no notch, no half-working in-screen fingerprint sensor, and no insecure face unlock. Just a simple flat OLED screen with decent colors, small bezels, and a good ol' headphone jack.

Battery life at the end of two different days (notice the screen usage at the bottom)

The battery life is also still excellent. I have the Pixel 3a XL, which has a larger 3700mAh battery, and very rarely did I drop below 50% by the end of the day. That's on a mixed workload of checking messages, browsing the web, and watching videos. Four hours of screen-on time would be enough to kill my Galaxy S10e, but the Pixel 3a XL keeps on trucking.

Hello, Android 10

Major Android updates aren't as exciting as they used to be, now that huge sections of the core operating system are updated through the Play Store. That doesn't mean there's nothing to get excited about, though. The Pixel 3a is one of the very few budget phones updated to Android 10 right now.

Android 10 is all about refinements: a system-wide dark theme is finally here (but no automatic toggle!), full-screen gesture navigation is available, the share menu isn't a laggy mess anymore, notifications have been slightly tweaked, and so on.

Just like with the last several Android updates, most of the changes are smaller quality-of-life improvements that make the OS better than ever. Being able to skim through a Spotify track from the notification bar is great, and seems like something that Android should have had years ago.

Privacy is a key focus of Android 10. Apps can no longer manage your Wi-Fi settings, many undocumented APIs were restricted, overlay-based malware is less effective, and there are new limits on location access and device IDs. While these changes are controversial for some, since they make power-user apps like Tasker less capable, these protections make the Pixel 3a one of the most secure Android devices on the market right now—especially since it has also been receiving monthly security updates since day one.

The privacy enhancements are some of my favorite changes in Android 10, especially the ability to block applications from obtaining my location in the background. Android 10 also snitches on apps that check your location periodically, which can be enlightening.

Pixel goodies

Everything mentioned above is part of the general Android 10 release, but what about features exclusive to the Pixel 3a? Well, the OS update also included new functionality you won't find on (very many) other phones.

The most impressive addition is Live Caption, which was originally a Pixel 4 exclusive, but arrived on the Pixel 3a in the December OTA update (it's also on the Pixel 3 now). Live Caption adds floating captions to any video or audio, all done through local processing. While this is mostly intended for people hard of hearing, it comes in handy if you want to watch a video in public without bothering others.

The Pixel 4's theming features has also been ported to the 3a, allowing you to customize the system font, colors, and icons. This isn't particularly special, since other manufacturers have had variations of themes for years (Samsung and LG being notable examples), but it does make the Pixel 3a that much more customizable.

Beyond the new stuff, many of the features that originally shipped with the Pixel 3a still make the phone stand out against the competition — Pixel Call Screen, Google's top-tier camera processing, monthly security updates, an unlockable bootloader with a small development community, and so on. Best of all, that is all in a package several hundred dollars less than Google's flagships.

Better than ever

So, the question is this: should you consider buying a Pixel 3a in 2020, even with a sequel on the horizon? The answer to that, at least in my opinion, is still a resounding yes. The Pixel 3a was already an excellent budget phone, and the Android 10 update made it an even more compelling package.

Google has also kept its word to update the Pixel 3a every month, with OTAs usually rolling out at the same time as the company's flagship devices. In some respects, Google has actually handled the software better on the 3a than on the Pixel 4, with fewer delays and post-update bugs.

I'm excited to see what the Pixel 4a has in store, but if you need a new phone in the immediate future, the Pixel 3a is still an excellent option.