Google Pixel 8a is an impressive deal even with some lackluster AI features from Mashable

Last year, I called the Google Pixel 7a a “great potential swan-song” for Google’s budget Pixel A-series line of phones. I couldn’t have been more wrong about the “swan-song” part, though, because I’ve been using a Pixel 8a for the past several days.

That’s fine, though, because Google’s track record of making really good $500 Android handsets has remained consistent over the years, and is unchanged in 2024. While I’m not totally enamored with every “new” feature packed into the Pixel 8a (enough with the AI stuff), its remarkable parity with a phone that was $200 more back in October makes Pixel 8a a compelling option for anyone who’s overdue for an affordable Android upgrade. 

What I like about the Google Pixel 8a

It’s important to note up-front that much of what makes the Pixel 8a good also made the Pixel 8 a quality handset late last year. Its design and specs are nearly identical in all the ways that matter, but again, you’re paying $200 less for this one, so that’s cool.

Google didn’t fix what wasn’t broken

Looks like a Pixel, alright.
Credit: Joe Maldonado/Mashable

When I say the design and specs are similar, I mean it. 

Pixel 8a looks like the spitting image of Pixel 8, with Google’s now-distinctive horizontal camera bar situated in the upper portion of the phone’s backside. Its corners are rounded and its back has a matte finish in one of the four following colorways: Aloe, Bay, Obsidian, and Porcelain. 

Our review unit came in the cool blue Bay color and I personally adore it. The other colors are fine, I guess, but Bay is definitely the way to go this year.

Here are the basic specs of the review unit Google provided us:

6.1-inch Actua display with 2400×1080 resolution and up to 120Hz adaptive refresh rate

Google Tensor G3 chipset

128GB of storage

8GB of RAM

You can also upgrade to 256GB of storage this year, which bolts an extra $60 onto the Pixel 8a’s $500 starting price tag.

Those specs are all right in line with the Pixel 8, with the exception of display size, which is a tenth of an inch smaller than the 6-2-inch glass present on last year’s entry-level Pixel. Despite that, Pixel 8a is actually a tenth of an inch taller than Pixel 8 and two-tenths of an ounce heavier, to boot. 

Look, these aren’t big differences, but they are differences, and they need to be noted, folks.

Almost everything you want is here

I like the new colorway a lot.
Credit: Joe Malonado/Mashable

Point being, this is basically a Pixel 8 with a few small cuts around the edges that barely impact the everyday experience at all. That means all of the AI features that made their debut in Pixel 8 are here, and how you feel about that depends on how you felt about them last year.

The Pixel 8 experience has been pretty faithfully recreated in a cheaper phone. You can use Circle to Search to draw a little circle around anything on the screen and have Google’s AI bring up a relevant web search for you. You can also use the AI call screening feature to have conversations with service workers without actually talking to them.

That means AI camera features like Magic Editor and Audio Magic Eraser also make their return in Pixel 8a. Best Take allows you to composite together a “perfect” group photo based on several tries, and Magic Eraser is back to remove photobombers from your vacation pictures.

I have…feelings about some of these features that I’ll get to in a bit, but it’s at the very least commendable that Google included so much of the Pixel 8 in the comparatively more affordable Pixel 8a.

Flagship-level performance

That goes for performance, too.

There isn’t a ton to say about it, honestly. Pixel 8a uses the same Tensor G3 chip as Pixel 8 and Pixel 8 Pro, and my experience from an everyday performance standpoint has been pretty much the same as it was on those phones. It doesn’t ever hitch even when several apps are open, everything is smooth as can be, and I haven’t found heating to be a problem.

The 120Hz refresh rate doesn’t hurt, either. It just makes everything feel more responsive and quick. Points to Google for getting it into the Pixel 8a this year after the 7a could only go up to 90Hz. For reference, the base iPhone 15 is still stuck at 60Hz.

What I dislike about the Google Pixel 8a

There’s nothing functionally wrong with Pixel 8a that I can discern. My main concern is philosophical.

It’s time for some new ideas

Don’t change the camera bar, though.
Credit: Joe Maldonado/Mashable

Basically, the Pixel 8a suffers from being an iteration of the Pixel 8, which wasn’t the most exciting Pixel in years. At least, not for me.

I just don’t think most of these AI features are all that useful or would even be desirable if they were useful. I’ve seen the TV commercial where a woman edits a photo so it looks like her husband is throwing a baby dangerously high in the air hundreds of times during basketball games and I still don’t understand who exactly Magic Editor is for. 

Well, I guess features like that and Best Take are for people who want to strip their social media presences of all imperfection and genuine humanity, but that’s not me. 

In other words, the things that separate the Pixel 8a from the Pixel 7a (aside from the boosted refresh rate and new chip) aren’t all that enticing. This is a very good phone for the price, but the need to upgrade to Pixel 8a is not especially urgent if you bought a Pixel in the last two or three years.

What’s ‘meh’ about the Google Pixel 8a

Somewhere along the line, Google has to make cuts to justify dropping the price of the 8a to $500. This year, the only difference that really bothers me is one little cut camera trick.

One missing camera feature

Pixel 8 and Pixel 8 Pro both had a Macro Focus feature that allowed you to position the camera way up close against objects with small, fine details and get snazzy looking shots. 

[Insert macro shot here]

As you may have guessed by now, Pixel 8a can’t do that. Bummer! That said, the camera is still pretty good for what you pay for.

Google Pixel 8a camera

I’m going to keep this section relatively brief because Google didn’t do much to the Pixel 8a’s cameras compared to the Pixel 7a. In fact, specs-wise, Google didn’t do anything at all. Both Pixel 7a and Pixel 8a share the exact same physical camera specs:

64MP wide rear lens

13MP ultra-wide rear lens

13MP front lens

That’s not necessarily a bad thing because this isn’t a flagship phone. The Pixel 8a’s cameras combined with Google’s computational photo software can still create nice-looking shots, even when New York City conspires to be gloomy and grey outside for an entire weekend:

Sorry for the lack of blue skies.
Credit: Alex Perry/Mashable

As someone who loves the 30x zoom in the recent Pixel Pro phones, I’m a little sad the Pixel 8a’s zoom lens only goes up to 8x, but I get it. That said, shots taken at 8x zoom do look very sharp.

No zoom.
Credit: Alex Perry/Mashable
All the zoom.
Credit: Alex Perry/Mashable

Portrait mode is back and does portrait mode things.

Who wouldn’t hang this in their estate?
Credit: Alex Perry/Mashable

Night Sight continues to work wonders in the right circumstances, such as my nearly totally pitch-black backyard at night:

You couldn’t see this with your eyes at all.
Credit: Alex Perry/Mashable

This is a perfectly fine camera array for a $500 phone. Hopefully Google finds some more interesting improvements for Pixel 9a that don’t involve AI.

Google Pixel 8a battery life

Another very marginal cut from Pixel 8 came in the form of battery size. Last year’s baseline Pixel had a 4,575mAh battery, while the Pixel 8a has a reduced 4,492mAh engine powering itself. 

As tends to be the case with recent Pixel phones (at least in my experience) though, that doesn’t really matter. I was able to go about 24 hours between charges while using the phone regularly for video streaming, web browsing, and social media. That’s right in line with both the Pixel 8 and Pixel 7a in my testing. It’s also more than good enough for me.

Google Pixel 8a final thoughts

Whether or not you should buy the Pixel 8a really depends on where you’re at in your personal phone upgrade journey.

If you’re on an older Android device and desperately need something affordable that will get years of software upgrades and general reliability, the Pixel 8a is a great choice. Its elite performance coupled with a flagship-esque display and decent enough camera specs are more than enough to make up for some lackluster returning AI features.

But if you have a more recent Pixel (even an A-series from the last year or two), I would recommend waiting until the Pixel 9 announcement later this year. Pixel 8a is an appealing option for those in need of an urgent upgrade, but it doesn’t create any urgency by itself.