At half the price, how does the Pixel 3a camera stack up to the Google Pixel 3?

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Google Pixel 3a XL (left). Google Pixel 3 XL (right). Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

Google’s latest phones — the Pixel 3a and Pixel 3a XL — share the same camera set up as their more expensive brothers, the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL. You’re getting one of the best smartphone cameras at half the price. So are there any real differences or compromises between the cameras?

We pit Pixel 3a XL versus Pixel 3 XL in a camera shootout to find out.

Camera specs

Before we start, let’s take a quick look at the camera specifications. Both phones have a 12.2-megapixel rear camera with an f/1.8 aperture, optical image stabilization, and they even share the same Sony IMX363 sensor.

The selfie camera situation is a little different. The Pixel 3 XL has two front-facing cameras, both with 8 megapixels. One is a normal lens with an f/1.8 aperture and a 75 degree field of view (FoV), and the other is a wide-angle lens with an f/2.2 aperture and a 97 degree FoV. Meanwhile, the Pixel 3a XL has a single 8-megapixel lens with an f/2.0 aperture and fixed focus, as well as an 84 degree FoV.

google pixel 3a review xl hands on 6
Pixel 3a XL Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

The Pixel 3 and 3 XL also have a custom Pixel Visual Core chip, which helps with machine learning and speedier image processing. The Pixel 3a and 3a XL lack this chip, which is why image processing is slower, but the engineers spent months reengineering Pixel 3 camera capabilities into the Snapdragon 670 processor that power the Pixrl 3a and 3a XL.

Otherwise, all the two features between the cameras are the same. The Pixel 3a and 3a XL introduce a new Time Lapse mode, but this will make its way to all Pixel phones.

Disclaimer

If the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3a have the same rear camera, how can one win over the other? There are still some other factors that can affect the end result, though different-looking images could ultimately be due to hand shake, a moving subject, a change in lighting, or a multitude of reasons. I tried to capture these photos in automatic mode as naturally as I could to mimic the average person.

Early mornings

Our first images are almost identical, showcasing the similarity between the rear cameras between the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3a. The Pixel 3’s photo is perhaps a hair warmer and ever-so-slightly more saturated, but it’s incredibly difficult to tell without zooming in to objects.

Both are equally well-detailed, and capture the mood effectively.

Winner: Tie

There’s one difference here that’s relatively easily noticeable. The Pixel 3’s photo is more visibly saturated. The leaves of the tree in the background are greener than in the Pixel 3a XL photo. That’s not to mention the subject’s skin color, which is warmer and more vibrant.

That being said, the Pixel 3a XL’s image is a bit more detailed. Zoom in on the eyebrow, for example, and you can individually count the strands of hair. You can still see these strands in the Pixel 3 photo, but they’re not as sharp.

The winner here will ultimately depend on whether you like the more saturated look, or the sharper details. I prefer the latter, along with the cooler look paired with more natural colors, so the Pixel 3a XL scrapes a win.

Winner: Pixel 3a XL

Portrait Mode during the day

Here’s one area where there’s a difference between the Pixel 3a and Pixel 3 — in Portrait Mode, the Pixel 3a crops into the image much more than the Pixel 3. It means you’ll have to step back a bit in your photos to get the subject fully in the frame. Look at the photo of the flower below and see how much closer it is in the Pixel 3a XL photo compared to the Pixel 3 XL image. Both phones were in about the same place when this photo was captured.

Both are strong photos, offering comparable color accuracy, though the Pixel 3 XL’s image is a tad more detailed. I also like the stronger blur effect in its photo.

Winner: Pixel 3 XL

Insert Portrait Mode 2 vs. Portrait Mode 2

You can see here again how much the Pixel 3a XL image crops into the subject for Portrait Mode. It happens to help, because the camera does a better job applying a strong blur in the background. The Pixel 3 XL photo has a strange-looking bokeh effect, with the left side particularly offering a weaker blur than the right.

The Pixel 3 XL image is again a little more saturated, though the outline around the subject is more accurate. Look at the strap of the headphone, and you’ll notice a small part of it is blurred in the Pixel 3a XL image.

Regardless, I like the better blur effect in the Pixel 3a XL photo, so it takes a win again.

Winner: Pixel 3a XL

Night and Night Sight

Both cameras fare relatively well in low light, and it’s difficult to call a winner in our first night-time photo. There’s a bit of grain in both, and details are decent, though zoom in on the face and things can look a little blotchy.

The Pixel 3 XL keeps much of the background of the image in focus, whereas the Pixel 3a XL looks as though it has a more natural blur. However, the Pixel 3 XL’s HDR does a better job of managing the bright lights from the storefront on the bottom left corner. For example, you can actually read the signs from the corner deli, whereas it’s completely unreadable in the Pixel 3a XL photo. The same rings true for other bright parts of the image — the Pixel 3a XL just has bright white splotches.

Winner: Pixel 3 XL

For ultra dark situations, Night Sight is available. It takes multiple images and combines them, using artificial intelligence to color the photo. The lighting in the below photo may not look as dark, but it’s Night Sight that brightened up the image greatly. You have to keep still, too, as small hand shakes can disrupt the process and could result in blurry images.

The Pixel 3 XL’s photo here is better, because it offers a better white balance; zoom in on the dog’s fur, and it’s far more detailed as well.

Winner: Pixel 3 XL

Portrait Mode at night

What about Portrait Mode at night? It seems the Pixel 3 XL’s f/1.8 aperture on its main lens wins out, as the image is not as blotchy as the Pixel 3a XL photo. There’s more definition, though I do like the blur effect more on the Pixel 3a XL image.

You can yet again see the level of zoom the Pixel 3a XL automatically performs in Portrait Mode — I’d need to take a step back to capture a photo similar to the Pixel 3 XL’s image.

Winner: Pixel 3 XL

Selfies

Selfies are where these two phones diverge. The extra lens on the Pixel 3 XL offers more versatility; the wide-angle lens lets you capture group selfies easily. Here are all the different types of selfies you can capture on the Pixel 3:

These selfies are incredibly detailed, and Portrait Mode looks fantastic thanks to the excellent blur accuracy. Now here’s what the Pixel 3a XL offers.

The photos are similarly strong in detail, but you can see the Pixel 3a XL’s normal selfie offers a tad more than the Pixel 3’s normal selfie. There’s a slightly larger field of view, though it doesn’t quite match the wide-angle lens on the Pixel 3 XL.

Regardless, in daylight it’s difficult to find much fault with any of these photos, though  the Pixel 3 XL does have an edge for its versatility.

Insert Portrait Selfie Night vs. Selfie Night (FROM Pixel 3a) vs. Normal Selfie Night vs. Normal Portrait Selfie (FROM Pixel 3)

In low light, the winner’s easier again. The Pixel 3 XL’s f/1.8 aperture helps capture more light, which is why the standard selfie is the sharpest image of the lot. It also has the best color accuracy, as the rest of the selfies tend to get more red.

The Pixel 3a’s selfie camera offers only fixed focus, which is likely why images aren’t as sharp.

Winner: Pixel 3 XL

Time Lapse

There’s one new camera feature in the Pixel 3a and 3a XL, but it’s also making its way to all the other Pixel phones, so the Pixel 3a doesn’t have any real edge here. It’s a Time Lapse mode, and you can capture video to create an effect that speeds it all up, as though time is passing quickly. You even have various options to increase the speed, which can be beneficial based on what you’re filming.

The standard 5x speed may be sufficient for cars and people, but 30x or 120x may be more beneficial for time lapses of clouds or sunsets.

Overall winner:

The Pixel 3 XL is the reigning king, but it was a very, very close match up. Keep in mind, the Pixel 3a and 3a XL start at $399 and $479, respectively, so you’re getting almost the same experience at half the cost. That easily makes the Pixel 3a and 3a XL the best camera phones under $500.

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