I have needed a new phone for a while.
That’s not because I was bored with my phone. I have been rocking a first-generation Google Pixel phone for two-and-a-half years and loved every bit of it. I just had some issues with it that rendered it nearly unusable (and mainly my fault – see below).
But with a limited budget, it’s been hard to find a good upgrade. Business has slowed the last couple years, so the checkbook has been tight. We are Ting users, and we have to buy our phones unlocked and at full price.
And herein lies the problem: if you want a good phone – and I do – the cost of flagship phones has become just out of control.
Here’s a look at the full cost of the most popular flagship phones on the market right now:
- iPhone: $999
- Galaxy S10: $899
- Pixel 3: $799
That’s just a quick look at the major players on Ting’s device page. And yes, I could buy used or refurbished, and that’s what I had been planning on doing.
But geez: $1000, basically?
I’m not saying it wouldn’t be worth it, because a device that I use literally every single day for 2.5 years can cost a little more. That’s less than $2/day, and I would get the value for that, for sure.
But out-of-pocket, woof. That’s a huge upfront cost.
With my birthday coming up at the end of the month, my wife had been discussing with me getting a new phone – maybe a used Pixel 3 if I could get it for around $500 or so.
Then the Pixel 3a was announced last week – and it ticked every box that I wanted in a phone. At $399, it was a no-brainer, too. We ordered one literally the day it was announced, which is not like us at all.
And to understand why I wanted to upgrade, let’s look at the first-generation Pixel phone that I loved so much.
The Pixel 1: Nearly Perfect for Me
For over two years, I have been a proud owner of the Google Pixel – the original flagship phone that Google put out.
I’ve loved it. The camera was superb, it was a fast, pure Android experience (meaning, no bloated-but-you-can’t-uninstall-it software from the phone maker), and it just plain worked.
But in the last six months or so, I’ve run into a few problems with it, none of which were the fault of the phone makers.
First, there was a scratch on the camera lens. Not a dealbreaker, but at certain distances, the camera couldn’t focus. When I’m trying to take quick shots of my kids doing something cute before they stop, speed is of the essence!
Second, the GPS had been damaged. It worked for driving, but not for running/walking. It couldn’t measure distances and never could quite tell where I was. We remedied this with a cheap GPS Android watch that worked great, but was still an issue occasionally on the phone. I assume the GPS antenna got screwed up when I dropped it once.
Third, and most critically, the battery was damaged beyond belief. I ran a test that confirmed the battery was operating at 41% capacity when fully charged. In practice, this meant I would get “low battery warnings” when my battery hit 50%. And once it was under 45%, it could – and did – turn off completely with no warning. That was my fault for poor treatment of the battery, but it was still an issue.
I adored this phone and could easily have lived with it for another year or two with zero problems. But those three were pretty big, and it was time to replace it.
After I ordered the Pixel 3a, I browsed through tech reviews, and I was amused at the tone they took.
The Problem with (Most) Tech Reviews (and critics in general)
Listen, the Pixel 3a is very well-reviewed. Most people will say that it’s great, an awesome value, and worth buying.
But there’s still an underlying tone to so many of them that lines up with the disconnect between reviewers and consumers.
It happens in everything. Look at the difference between the Rotten Tomatoes score of a movie and the Audience Score. Critics will rip a movie apart because of X, Y, and Z, but audiences will walk away enjoying it.
Tech reviews are the same way. They kept knocking the Pixel 3a because of certain “limitations” or “missing features”… even though these things aren’t really that important to most consumers who aren’t phone geeks.
Here’s a partial list of things that are nowhere near dealbreakers to the average user (me included, and I’m a geek):
- The display (to a point): Most reviews of the Pixel 3a talk about “color temperature” and compare the display to high-end phones and whatever. Here’s what I care about: does it look nice? If so, great. Nobody knows or cares about the technical specs of a phone display. The eyeball can only process so much. Is it HD/4K/whatever? Is it bright and pleasant to look at? Okay, good. The end.
- The processor (to a point): Another one of those things that tech geeks nitpick to death. Nobody cares. Does it feel fast? Is it snappy? As long as it doesn’t feel slow, that’s all that matters. I saw side-by-side comparisons with other phones where they measured how long it took for an app to launch and it was literally not even a full second slower to launch an app. Who cares?
- Gaming. This one is mainly for me, but most average users aren’t using their phones to do heavy gaming. Some are. But it’s a niche, not the norm.
- It’s plastic! GASP!: My absolute favorite criticism. Yeah, it’s plastic. But you know what? Like, 90% of people will put their glass phones into plastic cases anyway. And those that don’t wind up damaging their phones. I hate cases and I take the risk, and I think the phone feels fine. And that’s the point: does it feel fine? Great.
- The limited storage (to a point): I use my phone as my main camera, and I don’t have unlimited data. So I need to sync music to my phone, download podcasts, and snap lots of photos. Storage is important. But 64GB is plenty. I had 128GB on my original Pixel and I only used about 55GB of it, even though I went overboard with music syncing. I could pay $400 for a phone with more storage to sync everything, or I could pay an extra $5 in data during the months when I want to stream a little more music. That would give me EIGHTY MONTHS of streaming. And I don’t stream music that often. Plus, with Google Photos backing up my photos and videos, that portion of storage isn’t a big deal. Again, there’s limits to what the end user really needs.
- Wireless charging: Before my Pixel, I had a Samsung phone with wireless charging and I really liked it. I was disappointed to learn after I ordered the Pixel that it didn’t have wireless charging. But for 2.5 years, I didn’t really miss it. It was fine to have, fine to not have. I just plug in my phone. Don’t really care.
A note on water resistance: This was a big knock on the Pixel 3a, that it isn’t water resistant. Also a bummer, but my original Pixel didn’t have it. In fact, no phone I’ve ever owned has had it. I dropped my phone in water once in the 15+ years I’ve owned cell phones. Not worth an extra $400 just for that. I’ll be more careful around the toilet.
Now then, there were three BIG reasons why I went with the Pixel 3a outside of the price. There are cheaper phones out there, but I needed a phone to nail these three things, and no phone can do what the 3a does in these areas at this price level…
Every Pixel 3a review begins and ends with the camera. And for good reason. It’s fantastic.
Between the 4K video, beautiful high definition photos, Night Sight, time lapse, Portrait Mode, and I could go on… it’s an elite camera that is way user-friendly.
This was the main reason I kept my original Pixel. The camera was so good. I can tolerate concessions everywhere else. But because I saw what Google could do with a camera in a phone, I wasn’t ever going to settle for less again.
Truth is, I’ve got two kids. We go places. We do stuff. There is always a reason to take a picture or video. I need to be able to whip out a camera and capture the memories.
The Pixel 3a did not compromise on the camera. It has the latest camera hardware and software packed into it – the same as the $800 Pixel 3. It doesn’t have the wide-angle “selfie” lens on the front – which again, isn’t worth another $400 to me.
Now, the Pixel 3a does not have the “Pixel Visual Core” in it, which means apps can’t take quite as good pictures. A lot of the criticism revolves around Snapchat – “Snapchat photos don’t look as nice!” Folks, Snapchat photos disappear after you look at them. Unless you’re some “influencer”, why does this matter? Snapchat is the disposable camera of the phone world. Use the camera app for photos you want to save or look extra good.
With the Pixel 3a (and my original Pixel), I can carry a pro-level camera in my pocket wherever I go. We had an HD camcorder that we sold because the phone’s camera takes better video. Quality + convenience = off the charts.
The Battery Life
This one isn’t exclusive to the Pixel 3a, but it bears mentioning: this thing sips power.
Maybe it’s just because I’m coming from a phone that needed to be charged again by 9:30am every day, but even having the ambient display on all the time and using it regularly, I almost never use up the battery on this thing.
As I write this at 10:11am, it’s at 95%, and I think I charged it to 97% before I left the house.
I’m trying to follow a few tips on keeping a phone battery healthy so I avoid the problems I had last time. But man, this battery life is superb. I no longer fear leaving the house at 35%!
The Fingerprint Reader
You can easily pass this off as a gimmick. And yeah, I could live without it if I had to.
But once I started using the fingerprint reader on the back of my original Pixel, I told myself I couldn’t go without it again.
It unlocks the phone faster than anything else. I have it linked to my bank accounts so I can log in without punching in my passwords. And I use LastPass to save all my passwords (and keep them random/secure), and I can access LastPass using my fingerprint.
The Pixel fingerprint reader was perfect, and it’s the same on the Pixel 3a. In fact, it’s twice as fast, so it’s even better.
So, in conclusion, I love this thing. No, it doesn’t have every feature of a flagship phone, and you can analyze the specs to death.
But do you need to? For many of us, we just want a phone with a great camera, great battery life, and a good-looking display. For $400, you can’t beat the Pixel 3a.
Remember, I said “most of us”. A hallmark of the internet is for someone who has a unique use case to comment on a review and say, “NUH UH IT DOESN’T WORK FOR ME”. You might be an exception. And the reason you’re leaving the comment is because you want to feel like an exception. So cool it.
Average users will probably love the Pixel 3a.
(It should also be noted that the Pixel 3a came with a $100 credit to the Google store – and most retailers are offering a similar deal – and my original Pixel was also worth another $100 as a trade-in. So the value was even better.)
I expect to use this phone for the next few years, and hopefully longer if I take good care of the battery. Maybe the Pixel 5a will come out and I’ll get that one.