Pixel 3a, Pixel 3, Pixel 4 — which phone is right for you?

Jason Cipriani, CNN Underscored
Thu October 17, 2019

Google on Tuesday announced its latest pair of smartphones, the Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL. The phones are nearly identical, with screen size and battery life being the biggest differences. But that's been the story for all of Google's Pixel phone releases.

With the launch of the Pixel 4 and 4 XL — available for preorder right now, starting at $799 or $899 — Google's smartphone lineup includes the Pixel 3a and 3a XL, along with the Pixel 3 and 3 XL. The prices range from $399 to $999. Trying to decide between the different Pixel models can be confusing, but it doesn't have to be. Let's take a closer look.

Pixel 3a

The Pixel 3a and 3a XL are Google's entry-level version of the Pixel 3. In exchange for removing features like wireless charging, reducing the display size and using a mid-tier processor, Google is able to sell the Pixel 3a and 3a XL at a lower cost than the Pixel 3 XL.

That said, Google didn't completely gut the Pixel 3a. The core experience that a Pixel phone provides, with routine software updates and one of the best cameras on a smartphone, is still very much intact.

The Pixel 3a starts at $349 for a 5.6-inch display, 3,000 mAh battery and 64 GB of storage. The $429 3a XL has a 6-inch display, 3,700mAh battery, and 64 GB of storage.

Both phones use Qualcomm's Snapdragon 670 processor and 4 GB of memory. Neither phone is as fast as the Pixel 3 or Pixel 4, but the performance difference is minimal. On the back of the phone, you'll find Google's 12.2-megapixel rear camera, the same one that's on the Pixel 3.

Google gives Pixel 3a users unlimited Google Photos storage for pictures and videos in high quality. That's the same quality Google offers free backup for any user who installs the Google Photos app; even iPhone users.

The Pixel 3a is ideal for a tween or teen, or someone who doesn't care about having the fastest phone but wants the Pixel's high quality camera and photo quality.

Pixel 3

The Pixel 3 is actually older than the Pixel 3a. Google first released the Pixel 3 last October and the 3a followed in May.

As with the rest of the Pixel lineup, the Pixel 3 comes in two sizes. The Pixel 3 has a 5.5-inch display, and the 3 XL measures 6.3 inches. Both models are powered by Qualcomm's Snapdragon 845 processor and can be configured with 64 GB or 128 GB of storage.

The smaller model has a 2,915mAh battery with a 3,430mAh battery taking up space in the larger version. Wireless charging is possible with a Qi-compatible charging pad.

The Pixel 3 starts at $499. The Pixel 3 XL starts at $599. Doubling the storage bumps up the price $100.

There's a dual front-facing camera setup on the Pixel 3, allowing for wide-angle selfies and videos. But a potential downside is that some don't like the look of the camera cutout — also called a notch — at the top of the Pixel 3 XL's display.

The rear-facing camera is the same as the Pixel 3a, but instead of limiting photo backup to high quality, Pixel 3 owners get unlimited photo and video backup at original quality.

A year after release, the Pixel 3 and 3 XL are respectable phones with solid performance and a camera that's sure to impress.

Pixel 4

For those who have to have the latest and greatest, the Pixel 4 perfectly fits the bill. It's available for preorder right now, with deliveries set for Oct. 24.

The Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL are Google's newest, and most expensive, phones. From that added price tag, however, you get the latest features and hardware Google has to offer.

The Pixel 4 is priced at $799 for 64 GB of storage or $899 for 128 GB. The Pixel 4 XL starts at $899, with the same $100 increase for identical storage amounts.

Both devices are powered by Qualcomm's Snapdragon 855 processor and 6 GB of memory. They should be faster than last year's model, and thanks to more memory, apps shouldn't have to reload as often.

There's a new motion sense feature that users radar to let you control music or silence incoming calls just by waving your hand over the phone. Google ditched the fingerprint reader on the back of the phone and replaced it with Face Unlock. The feature works like the iPhone's Face ID feature, where a user holds up the phone and it scans their phone — unlocking in a fraction of a second as long as it recognizes you.

For the first time, the Pixel lineup has two rear-facing cameras. There's the standard 12.2-megapixel camera that's on the Pixel 3a and 3, but new this year is a 16-megapixel telephoto camera. The added camera will improve portrait photos, thanks to added depth information, and improve the quality of photos captured when you zoom in on a subject. There's also a new night sight feature for taking photos of the night sky.

Unfortunately, Pixel 4 owners won't get unlimited storage for original quality photos and videos. Instead, you'll have to settle for high quality backups. It's not a deal breaker, but it's a feature that has always made the Pixel line stand out in a crowded market.

Which Pixel is the best Pixel?

That's a tough question, one that doesn't have a single answer. The decision comes down to your budget and how much you care about having the latest phone.

For some, the Pixel 3a's affordability and stellar camera will be enough. For others, the year-old Pixel 3 is worth a slight discount for mostly the same experience as the Pixel 4. And for others, the Pixel 4's new camera tricks, Motion Sense and Face Unlock are worth the premium cost.

Note: The prices above reflect the retailer's listed price at the time of publication.