I compared the Google Pixel 8a with every major budget phone - here's my buying advice

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ZDNET’s key takeaways

  • The Google Pixel 8a is one of the few phones with AI features that cost less than $500.
  • I’m a fan of the comfortable design and IP67 dust and water resistance rating.
  • However, the display isn’t bright enough for outdoor usage and has thick, uneven bezels. For many, that may not matter as much.

The Pixel 8a is Google’s best smartphone in the sub-$500 segment. It features a design that’s very comfortable to hold, and a reliable camera system, and the phone will last you for years and years with frequent software updates.

Also: The best cheap phones in 2024: Expert tested and reviewed

Like its more expensive Pixel siblings, the 8a uses a new Tensor G3 for all its AI smarts, giving it faster and more efficient machine learning capabilities and ultimately giving the phone an edge over the competition. But are the AI features enough to stand out when the competition features better hardware and, oftentimes, better performance? I found out.

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The Google Pixel 8a features a soft-touch back that’s made out of 76% recycled plastic, but don’t let the number fool you; the phone looks gorgeous and is one of the few devices that I’d recommend using without a case. The metal frame for the camera module gives it that distinct Pixel look, and the size — which is much smaller than your traditional Pro Max, Plus, or Ultra phone — makes it very comfortable to hold.

Also: Forget Pixel 8a: The $400 OnePlus 12R may be the best-value Android phone this year

Still, the Pixel 8a could pass as a flagship phone when looking at it from the back. But once you flip it over, you’re taken back to the pre-2020 era of phones with thick, uneven bezels. I thought I would get used to the front design with time, but I haven’t — not when other phones in this $500 price range are starting to look more polished than ever. 

Google Pixel 8a display

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In addition, the screen isn’t bright enough outdoors for a comfortable viewing experience — at least not for me. In direct sunlight, which happens quite often as we approach the summer, I find myself raising the brightness meter to the max every time.

However, Google has improved the OLED display to offer a 120Hz refresh rate for a more fluid experience than last year’s Pixel 7a. It’s a gorgeous display for watching videos indoors, with no notch or notable interference to the viewing quality. I will mention that the OnePlus 12R is better for mobile entertainment, both for consuming media and gaming. You also get a faster and more reliable in-display fingerprint scanner with the OnePlus.

Where the Google Pixel beats the competition

google-pixel-8a-ai-features

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Having a flagship chipset in the Tensor G3 means you get the same AI features, or most of them, on the $499 Pixel 8a as the $999 Pixel 8 Pro. It’s not the most powerful processor on the market by any means, but Tensor is responsible for the clean, adaptive Pixel experience that many Android users tend to prefer. There are no extra features that you have to learn about or feel pressured to use. 

It helps that when Google does bring new features to the Pixel experience, you can expect them to be fairly polished. For example, my favorite Galaxy S24 Ultra AI feature, Circle to Search, is now part of the Pixel 8a. It’s a feature that’s become essential for my day-to-day, especially when I’m traveling, as I’m often searching about text and images on my phone screen. 

Also: Why Google’s cheaper Pixel 8 is the real star of its Android phone lineup

I also use the native Recorder app for AI-powered transcriptions, which is more reliable than third-party apps on Samsung and OnePlus phones. Then there are the AI camera features like Magic Eraser, Photo Unblur, and Magic Editor that come in handy when I need to make a good-looking photo even better.

The cherry on top is how Pixel 8a, a $499 phone, will get seven years of software support, which includes quarterly Pixel Feature Drop updates and security patches. Buying the device today means you’ll receive relevant features for at least until 2031.

How are the Pixel 8a’s cameras? 

The Pixel 8a sports a 64MP primary camera and a 13MP ultrawide sensor on the back. Google’s phones have had exceptional cameras in the past, and the Pixel 8a is no different. It relies heavily on software processing rather than the camera hardware to produce good-looking photos, and I’m not complaining. I like the shots better than the ones I’ve captured on the Nothing Phone 2a and the OnePlus 12R

Pixel 8a camera samples

Wide, ultrawide, wide shots on Pixel 8a primary camera

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The photos shot on the Google Pixel 8a look sharp and vibrant. The Pixel also handles high-contrast scenes better than other devices I’ve tested, and I’d pick it for low-light shots, which remain a strong suit.

However, I’ve noticed two issues with the camera system: the phone tends to oversharpen some shots, and there’s a pink hue on my face in portrait mode, which isn’t accurate to my skin tone. Despite that, the photos are still worth posting on social media. 

Prakhar Khanna clicked on Google Pixel 8a

Google Pixel 8a portrait shots

Prakhar Khanna/ZDNET

With the next iteration, or via software update, I’d love to see Google touch up the user interface of the camera app. For example, turning to Portrait mode switches to a 1.7x crop with a 2x zoom option. It’s not ideal, and jumping from 1.7x to 2x has no real benefits for my use cases. Secondly, when I switch to the front camera, it defaults to 1x, which is too wide and gives a fish-eye effect, which is weird if I’m the only person in the selfie. Instead, I’d like to see the phone automatically switch to a closer 1.4x when it only detects one person in the frame.

ZDNET’s buying advice

That’s to say, the Google Pixel 8a is the best budget Pixel phone you can buy. The smart AI features and long software support make it a formidable and reliable investment, and you won’t find a better camera system for under $500. But you should also consider the alternatives.

If you need a phone with a big and bright display, great performance, capable cameras, and faster charging, the OnePlus 12R is my preference. On the other hand, the Nothing Phone 2a offers more interesting hardware and software customization.