Google’s latest Pixel pops with AI tricks at budget price


Holding the power button or saying “Hey Google” will summon your choice of either the Google Assistant or Gemini, a generative chatbot that the company calls an “experimental AI assistant”. The former is still the best choice if you just want straightforward answers or to use your voice to control smart home devices, while the latter can handle requests that require a lot more natural language understanding than the standard Google Assistant can provide. However, like all generative chatbots, it also gets things wrong quite a lot.

For example, you can ask about data in your Google apps and services (like, “did I get any emails from Steve today”), and it will be able to find out and summarise or discuss the content. But it also could completely miss the email for no clear reason, and give you gibberish when you point out the mistake. You can also ask it to summarise any web page you’re looking at, help you draft messages and documents, or get help building a weekly meal list and export it to a Doc. The technology isn’t exactly refined, but it can glean enough context from what you happen to be doing on your phone that it does feel like a meaningfully new way to gather information.

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Other AI-powered features on the 8a include Circle to Search, which is a quick way to send something you see on your phone to Google Lens for analysis, even if you don’t know what it’s called. Then there’s a whole suite of phone-related features that can screen calls for scammers, listen to hold music for you and alert you when a human picks up. It can also eliminate background noise on both sides of the conversation, even answer the phone for you and ask questions, displaying the answers in text so you can dodge annoying unsolicited calls.

Many of the most impressive AI features have to do with photos, and they work the same on the Pixel 8a as they did on the 8. New photos you take on the Pixel are processed to automatically fix blurry faces and improve skin tone accuracy, while the digital zoom and low light photography have some of the cleanest and most natural-looking results of any phone.

After the fact, you can choose any photo from your library (even if it’s very old) and tweak it with AI. “Magic Eraser” lets you tap or circle any element of the photo to delete it, while “Best Take” lets you mix and match facial expressions if you took multiple shots of the same group of people, so nobody has their eyes shut. Magic Editor is like the eraser, except once you’ve selected an element, you can move or resize it however you want, or change the sky and lighting. All of these tools rely on the AI being able to blend elements and create replacement backgrounds in a way that looks natural, and it by no means does that 100 per cent of the time. But for small edits, it generally works out, delivering Photoshop-like edits in seconds. Videos don’t have their own version of a Magic Editor yet, though there is a powerful audio eraser to remove unwanted sounds.

Few compromises on hardware

Outside of the software, the Pixel 8a is a solid phone that delivers above the competition in its price category.

Looks-wise it doesn’t deviate at all from the recent Pixel style; it’s a soft and friendly design with a rounded metal frame and flat front glass. The rear is matte textured plastic with the raised metal camera bar across the top. I like this detail on Google phones because it means the device sits sturdily on flat surfaces like desks rather than rocking on a camera bump. The lack of a glass back is one of the very few visual clues — along with slightly thicker screen bezels — that this is not a $1200+ phone.

The Pixel 8a has the same streamlined software as all Google’s smartphones.

The Pixel 8a has the same streamlined software as all Google’s smartphones.Credit: Tim Biggs

The screen is very similar to that found on the Pixel 8; a sharp (Full HD+) and bright (up to 2000 nits peak) OLED covered in Gorilla Glass with HDR support and a 120Hz refresh for smooth animation. This is not a fancy LTPO display like you’d find on the most expensive devices — while those can move between 1Hz and 120Hz depending on the content, this one will only lock to 60Hz or 120Hz — but it still makes swiping around the device feel immediate and look great.

Inside, the phone is powered by Google’s Tensor G3 processor, which again is the same as the Pixel 8. In benchmark tests, this chip is outperformed by the beefiest Qualcomm Snapdragons from this year or last, but it still runs rings around the processors used for many sub-$1000 phones. Playing new games at high graphics settings is no problem at all for the 8a, and the Tensor also has the specific advantage of being tuned for the kinds of AI tasks detailed above. The phone supports wired and wireless charging at decently fast speeds, though there is nothing category-leading.

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The dual-camera set-up is a slight downgrade hardware-wise from the Pixel 8. There is no laser autofocus and it has a narrower sensor and aperture. But in practice, there’s no noticeable difference, and the 8a hands in some stunning pictures. Notwithstanding their lack of a telephoto lens, I would put the Pixel 8 and 8a on par with Apple’s iPhone 15 Pro as some of the best phone cameras you can get. Compared directly, the Pixel tends to produce slightly more muted and realistic colours, and it captures more detail. The iPhone has a slight edge when it comes to selfies and portrait mode, not to mention macro shots (which the 8a is missing entirely), but then the Pixel costs a full $1000 less than the iPhone 15 Pro.

Though I’ve pointed out the slight differences, in most practical senses the Pixel 8a is just the Pixel 8 — which was already a good value phone — after a $350 price cut. With all the same software features, AI, processors and camera goodness, it’s hard to make an argument for premium Android devices costing twice as much or more, unless you need absolutely top-tier performance and long zoom lenses.

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