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Google Pixel 8a hands-on: 3 features make this my favorite $499 phone today

A morning spent with the newest Pixel revealed vital upgrades that make it the mid-range phone to beat.
Written by Kerry Wan, Senior Reviews Editor
Google Pixel 8a Aloe and Bay
Kerry Wan/ZDNET

While unassuming, the Pixel A series of smartphones has always been the most exciting lineup from Google to me. Something about the balancing act of creating a mid-range phone intrigues me, and the Pixel A series, since its inception, has set the benchmark for what value-for-the-money looks like.

With the new Pixel 8a, the story's no different. Google has once again shipped a phone that is ripe with flagship qualities while compromising in the most subtle ways, all for just $499, the same price as the Pixel 7a. Did Google fix all my qualms with last year's model? Almost. There are still some shortcomings that I'll mention below.

Also: When is Google I/O 2024 and what to expect: Android 15, Gemini, Wear OS, and more

After spending a morning testing and fidgeting with the newest Pixel, however, three standout features lead me to believe that the Pixel 8a will be the budget phone to beat in 2024.

1. A flagship-tier display

Google Pixel 8a Displays
Kerry Wan/ZDNET

A display can make or break your smartphone experience. The Pixel 8a delivers one of the best from Google I've seen. Besides having near-symmetrical bezels on all sides and a flat design that should make applying screen protectors a breeze, the 6.1-inch Actua display passed my initial eye test, delivering vibrant colors and more than enough resolution (1080 x 2400) for its size.

It's an OLED display, much like last year's Pixel 7a, but can now ramp up to a 120Hz refresh rate and reach a peak brightness of 2,000 nits. Both aspects should drastically improve your viewing experience and day-to-day phone interactions, especially when you're outdoors and in direct sunlight.

Also: Google just gave two compelling reasons to update your Pixel phone

Brightness was a big focus for Google's flagship Pixel 8 series last fall, so it's great to see the company carry its priorities downmarket. My one callout with the Pixel 8a display is that the 120Hz refresh rate can only be used adaptively, meaning you can't force the display to stay at 120Hz. Instead, the Pixel 8a will dial down to 60Hz when there are fewer animations on the screen (like when scrolling through a picture album) or the battery is low.

2. Seven years of OS updates

Google Pixel 8a Gemini
Kerry Wan/ZDNET

It's no surprise that the Pixel 8a will launch with several existing AI features like Circle to Search, Audio Eraser, and Gemini. Google credits the device's new Tensor G3 processor for enabling such on-device and cloud-based AI tools, and it should get just as much acknowledgment for supporting the company's ambitious seven-year-update policy.

Also: 5 Gemini features I hope Google announces at I/O 2024

First introduced with the Pixel 8 series, the Pixel 8a will also qualify for Google's long-term software commitment, meaning the $499 phone will receive the latest operating system upgrades, security patches, and Pixel Feature Drops from now until 2031. This is unprecedented, particularly in the sub-$500 phone market, and positions the Pixel 8a as the most stable and secure phone you can buy at this price point.

To further future-proof the Pixel 8a, Google now offers a 256GB variant, doubling the base storage for users who prefer more local space. The Pixel 8a's predecessors all have just one storage size; last year's Pixel 7a was limited to 128GB.

3. Small, colorful phones are hard to come by

Google Pixel 8a colors
Kerry Wan/ZDNET

When I first held the Pixel 8a, two thoughts came to mind: 1) The 6.1-inch size makes it very comfortable to hold when capturing photos and videos, and 2) The new "Aloe" color looks more like spearmint gum than the slime green that early renders had suggested. Was I disappointed for being misled? Absolutely, but then I picked up my own phone that's been in a plastic case since I first got it and realized why manufacturers are less adventurous with colors nowadays.

Also: 5 features I wish Google would copy from Apple's iOS (as an Android user)

On the bright side, Google opted for matte-textured back covers across all the Pixel 8a colors -- you won't find  fingerprints and oil stains on this year's devices. The phone is still rated for IP67 dust and water resistance, and the front cover is shielded by Corning's Gorilla Glass 3.

Bottom line (for now)

There's more to dig into with the Pixel 8a, but my first impressions are positive. The processor and display upgrades benefit the day-to-day experience, the seven years of OS updates should keep the phone relevant well into the next decade, and retaining last year's price point makes this still the best phone for under $500.

Achieving this price means that Google had to scale back on certain aspects, such as the less durable Corning Gorilla Glass 3, the slower peak 18W charging rate, and the dual-camera setup that's been recycled from last year's Pixel 7a. I'll see exactly how much this affects the overall experience when I review the phone for longer -- stay tuned.

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