The Pixel 3a and 3a XL were the best smartphones of 2019 — so said we here at Android Police — and they arguably stayed the best of their class in the three years that’s passed since our reviews. Google rather unceremoniously extended its OS support for the phones by a full year to allow them Android 12L and the last security update they are guaranteed to receive is due next month. Some 3a owners will be more than satisfied to go on cruising, but it’s clear for many others that they don’t have much of a future left with a phone officially out of fashion. I think it’s as good a time as any to assess them not just holistically in and of themselves, but as what may be the most significant crease in the legacy of what we call “Google phones.”
As to the physical artifact itself, it’s fair to say I was pretty stoked about the Pixel 3a. I put in a pre-order for a Purple-ish one. Okay, not so stoked about the underwhelming blandness of its intrinsic color scheme — I was aiming for a lilac and got a lily instead.
For the Pixel 3a retrospective.
But I did love the colors the camera put out so much that I went absolutely shutterbug crazy. Twilight and Night Sight photos were easy to shoot because I could keep a petite phone steadier than the stocky LG V40 ThinQ I had used prior and they came out with blazing, eye-catching gradients. More practically, I could take photos wherever and whenever I wanted. My Pixel 3a was responsive enough to go from registering a double-tap on the power button to snapping in barely a moment, even coming off of a heavy load. The hardware kept up with me — something I can’t say for some current premium flagships, let alone others that ran a Snapdragon 670 chipset. Free Google Photos backups, even at just high-quality, were cherries on top. These cumulative effects enabled my point-and-shoot frenzy, and no other phone since he has impressed such a lovin’ feeling upon me.
Plenty of photos came from plenty of travels, and it was during days in transit that I pushed my daily driver to its limit. Podcasts, music, streaming YouTube, and a heaping spoon of live location data for navigation sapped energy out of what was already a modest power plant. The battery usually hits the half-empty mark after three or four hours of use, so my power bank, and its awkward cabling, came out of my backpack and slid into my pocket. Yet, in spite of the Pixel 3a’s mediocre battery life, I was happy the phone’s raw performance seemed to carry on throughout the rest of the software. The phone managed its 4GB of RAM decently and made sure I got some just-in-time tasks — like spotting unexpected bus stop swaps and pulling up gigabytes of cloud files — done just in time.
And for most of the time I’ve had my Pixel 3a, I can say I was satisfied with it based on just solid performance and its excellent camera. It not only reliably did what I wanted it to do, but it also allowed me to do something like I never could have done before.
Google’s software update guarantees have always been inadequate against Apple’s backing of iOS. In the end, like it or not, they were the standard for Android in 2019. The 3a booted on day one with Android 9 and was promised two OS updates, but the extra “1.1” OS upgrades it ended up with actually felt par for the course. After all, the company did extend support windows for some of its phones as far back as the Nexus era. Of course, like the Nexuses, the Pixels retain their status as first-party developer workhorses. These days, though, users don’t have to wait around for an annual version bump to squeeze more out of their phones.
As Google began to cater to the consumer average, it was able to pivot to an aggressive strategy of developing and distributing new features across multiple generations of Pixels through what it calls Pixel Feature Drops. Mundane as many of these exhibits were, people couldn’t live without Direct My Call, Hold for Me, or Call Screen after they tried them. Long-suffering Dark Mode fans had to wait until the second-ever drop in March of 2020 to get automatic scheduling options. On the more exciting end of the gamut, some 3a toters were especially pleased to see the Pixel 4’s astrophotography abilities brought over. There were some costs to mass-market appeal and platform developers who’ve had to deal with background activity that came with some of these drops can attest to that limitations.
But the majority of these tweaks and tricks as editor-in-chief Daniel Bader said on our new Android Police podcast were well-intentioned, well-executed, and competitors in the Android arena would have been hard-pressed to replicate them. Well, maybe most except for Samsung, but with such an extensive device portfolio, and some eclectic choices in furthering utility, I’d bet it’d be frustrating as much as it would be interesting to watch that camp coordinate an attempt.
That’s not to say that I don’t have frustrations with the way things are. The availability of these new features hasn’t always been as wide as I’d like to have seen it. Some of these omissions are to be expected as they come onto hardware or firmware dependencies such as UWB-augmented Nearby Share for the Pixel 6, but one missed opportunity that sticks out in my head was porting the Pixel 3’s Top Shot feature to the Pixel 2 More recently, 3a owners just Missed out on the ability to mark songs from their Now Playing history as favorites — I feel that is a particularly arbitrary and terrible diss.
Some of these freshly “dropped” features just aren’t even exclusive to Pixel. Anyone who types with Gboard can play with the incredibly fun Emoji Kitchen and custom text stickers, but you probably wouldn’t know better if you saw the word “Pixel” near them.
Bending the Arc
On brass tacks, the 3a was the beneficiary of its fair share of Feature Drops which took a good phone and made it a new one over and over again. By my eyes, the $399 I paid for it seemed to stretch for miles.
And that wasn’t just my feeling: buyers snapped up the phone thanks in part to its low pricing as well as Google’s massive achievement in expanding wireless network retail carriage from just Verizon to five carriers (plus Google Fi, but first-party doesn’t t count). More tellingly, positive long-term reviews of the 3a and the associated word of mouth may have helped push Pixel 4a sales even higher.
That momentum has stalled, however, as the pandemic played havoc on the supply chain and the economy. The Pixel 6 also heralded an era of buggy updates (possibly stemming from circumstances around Google’s custom Tensor chipset) that have left it telephonica non grata with buyers, so to speak.
With some luck, the Pixel 6a may be primed to redeem the series; all it needs to be is affordable, and all it needs to do is work. Recent updates for the 6 series seemed to have stabilized in quality, so we’re crossing our fingers that the situation holds.That said, Google may find it difficult today to match what it could offer to 3a users of yore. While we don’t know what future Feature Drops will bring, the loss of free Google Photos backups doesn’t help.
When the time comes, I’m pretty sure I’ll make the jump to the 6a. The battery on my 3a is only getting older and you can probably spot the gnarlier scuffs and blunts from my pictures. But I don’t think I’ll trade it in or sell it off. I like this thing — the thing itself and what it has brought me — too, too much to let it go.
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