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

google-pixel-3a-xl-vs-pixel-3-xl
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 and 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.

Mobile

5 features I’d like to see in Google’s Pixel 4 smartphone

We’ve had a sneak peek at Google’s forthcoming Pixel 4 smartphone, and it offers few clues about what we’ll get. These are the 5 features I’d like to see Google include to take the Pixel line to the next level.
Mobile

Leaked Pixel 4 display sizes could mean smaller bezels on Google's new phone

Rumors abound about the Google Pixel 4, Google's next Pixel phone following the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3a. Getting around the leaks, Google straight-up teased an image of the back of the phone. Here's what you need to know.
Mobile

These are the best Pixel 3a XL cases and covers to protect your Google phone

If you want to change up the look or feel of your new Google phone, you want some decent drop protection, or both, then we have you covered with this list of the best Google Pixel 3a XL cases and covers.
Mobile

Cover your glass with the best cases and covers for Google's Pixel 3 XL

The Pixel 3 XL is Google's plus-sized flagship handset. Having paid $900 for that beast — best make sure you protect it, too. Here are some of the best Pixel 3 XL cases to keep your phone safe.
Photography

Sony’s new full-frame 600mm f/4 is a $13,000 monster of a lens

More expensive than a new Apple Mac Pro and Pro Display, Sony's $13,000, 600mm f/4 is a dream telephoto lens for professional sports and wildlife photographers. For the rest of us, Sony also announced a $2,000, 200-600mm f/5.6-6.3.
Photography

Fujifilm black-and-white film returns from the dead — thanks to millennials

After discontinuing black and white film, Fujifilm is bringing back the monochrome thanks to demand from younger photographers. The updated Neopan 100 Across II is designed for sharpness and minimal grain.
Product Review

It's a camera! It's a printer! And it's more fun than it has any right to be

By going digital and adding a built-in mobile printer, the Instax Mini LiPlay puts more features into a smaller form factor than previous Instax cameras, while still being every bit as fun.
Social Media

Will this deepfake of a power-hungry Zuckerberg make Facebook rethink fake news?

Just how committed is Facebook to earlier statements on leaving deepfake videos intact but demoted? A fake video of Mark Zuckerberg proclaiming power over your data has lasted for four days on the platform.
Deals

The GoPro Hero7 action camera gets price cut on Amazon ahead of Father’s Day

Got an adventurous Dad? If so, a GoPro action camera will make a great Father’s Day gifts. Ahead of Father’s Day, capture the GoPro Hero7 Black on Amazon for just $329, down from its normal $400. Don't just settle for socks again this…
Social Media

These are the best ways to make your own animated GIF to share

Love sharing GIFs with your friends and peers, but wish you could make your own? Here's how to do so in Photoshop, or using a few other methods that don't require you to shell out a premium fee with each calendar year.
Photography

You don't need an epic budget to shoot epic photos with the best cheap cameras

You don't need a huge budget to shoot epic photos with the best cheap cameras. There are great deals to be found on both lower-end cameras and older versions of high-end cameras that you can still find new.
Photography

Can’t afford this $150 tripod head? Just 3D print the Edelkrone Ortak FlexTilt

Edelkrone's FlexTilt tripod head retails for about $150 — or you could 3D print your own with a $30 part kit and the cost of materials. The Edelkrone Ortak FlexTilt Head 3D is a 3D-printed tripod head.
Photography

The Loupedeck Plus custom keyboard will make you feel like a pro video editor

With recently added support for Final Cut Pro X, the Loupedeck Plus improves speed and accuracy for video editors. With a collection of customizable buttons and dials, the Loupedeck can almost completely replace a mouse and keyboard setup.
Photography

What’s the difference between Lightroom CC and Lightroom Classic?

Lightroom CC has evolved into a capable photo editor, but is it enough to supplant Lightroom Classic? We took each program for a test drive to compare the two versions and see which is faster, more powerful, and better organized.