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Google Pixel 8a review: full featured AI power for everyone

The Pixel 8a can go toe-to-toe with the Pixel Pro as well as the best from Samsung and Apple. Google's AI software might now push its hardware into the lead for most users.

Seamus Byrne
Seamus Byrne
4 min read
The black handset sits on a grey textured and patterned rug.
Google Pixel 8a

What do we need from a smartphone in 2024? We need a nice piece of glass to look at. We need solid networking that gives us access to the online world. We need a great camera experience. We need all day battery. And we need smart solutions to daily problems.

The Pixel 8a might be the right answer for most people, with Google starting to flex its AI credentials throughout the Pixel handset in ways that make fans of the Google ecosystem feel completely at home here.

Apple has been the master of unifying hardware and software in its devices. With the past two years of AI shifting into the spotlight, Google's emphasis on AI in the 8-series Pixel phones made plenty of sense. With the Pixel 8a receiving the same G3 processor as the Pixel 8 Pro, we see that they mean it. AI demands processing power, and getting the same chip here means we get all the same AI capabilities at less than half the price.

There's not much to say about the hardware this time around. Very similar to its predecessor, ever so slight adjustments, feels good in the hand and the OLED screen looks great. Phones are slabs of glass and aluminium differentiated by what they do more than what they look like. Though if you want the colour pop option, I think the 7a 'Sea' was better than the 8a 'Bay' (both are blue, but Sea was a softer lighter blue).

This camera is not exactly a camera anymore

The camera does a great job but this is where AI has been doing a lot of work for many years before ChatGPT got everyone excited / scared for the future. Google is a master of taking what the image sensor captured and improving it so much it is a wonderful image that represents reality but wasn't exactly what the sensor captured on its own.

I don't want to debate this right now, but smartphone cameras aren't really just 'cameras' anymore. And to that end the Pixel 8a is one of the best not-quite-cameras you can get in a smartphone, and it doesn't get carried away with the oversaturation or image 'boosting' you can sometimes see in these AI processing systems. It's subtle and feels accurate to what you saw with your eyes. That's all we can ask for without buying a serious camera with a very large sensor and very big piece of glass on the lens to capture reality as it was in the moment.

This is especially the case with the new Magic Editor features, which not only give you the Magic Eraser to remove things you don't want. You can even reposition your subject in the frame for a more pleasing finished image – but that wasn't what happened in the real world. Audio Magic Eraser is a big win for video too, helping to remove background noise like noise cancelling headphones after the fact.

Add the incredible Night Sight photography, Best Take to capture everyone's best smile over a series of shots, correcting for blur even if it's pretty bad, and Super Res Zoom for long range photos that look as clear as if you had an optical zoom lens? Smartphone cameras are doing magic tricks now and all the Pixel 8 devices have some of the best tricks around.

AI superpowers

Pixel 8a gets access to a lot of new AI capabilities built on Google's Gemini. There's the new Circle to Search option, whether it's text, an image, or a video, and there's summary tools for all your email and Google Docs use cases.

The 'Assistant' features here are better than any other phone, working across anything from quick voice typing efforts to full fledged Ask Gemini helpfulness. And the Call Screen feature is a massive win given how many spam calls we get these days. I'm often dealing with a dozen a week so I've just stopped answering my phone. Call Screen helps give me my calls back.

Choosing a phone is choosing an ecosystem

The Pixel 8a really feels like the clearest picture yet that when you choose a smartphone you are choosing an ecosystem. Not just the iOS vs Android difference anymore, but one where the hardware maker is aiming to integrate a layer of AI-powered services to elevate the device for this new era.

Google has a distinct advantage here. Open AI got the jump on them with ChatGPT, but Gemini has been closing the gap and no one has better infrastructure than Google for delivering real-time cloud processing to a device at global scale.

Google holds the greatest capacity to continue to accelerate its AI features and roll them out to every Pixel owner at a pace few others could follow. Samsung? Apple? They have the money, but they don't have the infrastructure in place today. As for the wider market of Android manufacturers, they largely have to hope that Google lets more AI features flow through to core Android functions. That does happen, of course, but Google is clearly on a path to making its hardware the home of a uniquely Google experience.

And there's a promise here of seven years of security, operating system and feature updates that will keep things in great shape until the end of the decade. I doubt every future feature will be able to run on the G3 chip, but it's good to know you'll be running a device that will get appropriate updates for many years to come.

'a' isn't for entry anymore

The a series used to be an on ramp to Pixel phones, but at $849 this is not exactly a budget handset compared to many other Android phones.

But it doesn't seem like Google is worried about what the wider market options look like. It's $850 less than the Pixel 8 Pro and $350 less than the Pixel 8, making its own line up split up nicely across price points.

Clicking around the Pixel 8a search results, there are more than a few "$200 gift card" or other deal sweeteners to make this price look better out of the gate.

If you are someone who wants to be all in on Google's AI features across its cameras, organisation, assistant, cloud storage, and call management services, Pixel is your hub device for the future. With the G3 chip and all those software features, the Pixel 8a is a new kind of flagship for getting all the features you need without spending big to get them.

GoogleTechnology

Seamus Byrne Twitter

Founder and Head of Content at Byteside.


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