The Pixel 3a and 3a XL were the best smartphones of 2019 – we said that here at Android Police – and they undoubtedly remained the best in their class in the three years that have passed since our reviews. Google pretty unpretentiously 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 comes next month. Some 3a owners will be more than happy to take on cruising, but it is clear to many others that they do not have much of a future left with a phone officially out of fashion. I think it’s an equally good time to rate them, not just holistically per se, but as what may be the most significant increase in the legacy of what we call “Google phones.”
As for the physical artifact itself, it is fair to say that I was quite excited about the Pixel 3a. I made a pre-order for a purple-like one. Okay, not so thrilled with the overwhelmingly bland in its inherent color scheme – I aimed for a purple and got a lily instead.
For Pixel 3a retrospective.
But I loved the colors the camera released so much that I went completely crazy. Twilight and Night Sight images were easy to capture because I could hold a small phone more stable than the powerful LG V40 ThinQ I had used before, and they came out with flaming, eye-catching gradients. More conveniently, I could take pictures where and when I wanted. My Pixel 3a was responsive enough to go from detecting a double tap on the power button to snapping for just a moment, even getting out of a heavy load. The hardware kept up with me – something I can not say for some current premium flagships, let alone others that ran a Snapdragon 670 chipset. Free backup of Google Photos, even at just high quality, cherries were on top. These cumulative effects enabled my point-and-shoot madness, and no other phone since has impressed such a loving feeling on me.
Lots of pictures came from many trips and it was during days of transit that I pushed my daily driver to its limits. Podcasts, music, YouTube streaming, and a heap of live location data for navigation eroded energy out of what was already a modest powerhouse. The battery usually hit the half-empty mark after three or four hours of use, so my powerbank and its awkward cables came out of my backpack and slid down into my pocket. Still, despite the Pixel 3’s mediocre battery life, I was glad that the phone’s raw performance seemed to continue in the rest of the software. The phone handled its 4GB of RAM decently, making sure I got some just-in-time tasks – like seeing unexpected bus stops and pulling up gigabytes of cloud files – done just in time.
And most of the time I’ve had my Pixel 3a, I can say I was happy with it based on just solid performance and its excellent camera. Not only did it reliably do what I wanted it to do, but it also allowed me to do something I could never have done before.
Google’s guarantees for software updates have always been insufficient compared to Apple’s support for iOS. In the end, like it or not, they were the standard for Android in 2019. The 3a started on day one with Android 9 and was promised two OS updates, but the extra “1.1” OS upgrades it ended with, actually felt on par with the course. After all, the company expanded support windows for some of its phones as far back as the Nexus era. Of course, like Nexuses, the Pixels retain their status as first-rate developer workhorses. These days, however, users do not have to wait for an annual version bump to squeeze more out of their phones.
When Google began targeting the average consumer, it was able to redesign an aggressive strategy of developing and distributing new features across generations of Pixels through what it calls the Pixel Feature Drops. As banal as many of these exhibits were, people could not live without Direct My Call, Hold for Me, or Call Screen after trying them. Long-suffering Dark Mode fans had to wait until the second fall ever in March 2020 to get automatic scheduling options. At the more exciting end of the spectrum, some 3a totters were particularly pleased to see Pixel 4’s astrophotographic capabilities brought over. There were some costs to mass market appeal, and platform developers who have had to deal with background activity constraints that came with some of these declines can attest to that.
But most of these tweaks and tricks, as editor-in-chief Daniel Bader said on our new Android Police podcast, were well-meaning, well-executed, and competitors in the Android arena would have been hard-pressed to copy them. Well, maybe most apart from Samsung, but with such an extensive device portfolio and some eclectic options to promote utility, I bet it would be just as frustrating as it would be interesting to see that camp coordinate an attempt.
That’s not to say I don’t have frustrations with how things are. The availability of these new features has not always been as wide as I would have liked it to be. Some of these omissions can be expected as they come to hardware or firmware dependencies, such as UWB-augmented Nearby Share for Pixel 6, but a missed option that sticks out in my head was to transfer Pixel 3’s Top Shot feature to Pixel 2 Recently, 3a owners just missed the opportunity to mark songs from their Now Playing story as favorites – I feel it’s a particularly arbitrary and awful diss.
Some of these recently “dropped” features are just not even exclusive to Pixel. Anyone who writes with Gboard can play with the incredibly fun Emoji Kitchen and custom text stickers, but you probably would not know better if you saw the word “Pixel” near them.
Bending of the arch
On brass sticks, the 3a was the advantage of its fair share of Feature Drops, which took a good phone and made it a new one again and again. In my eyes, the $ 399 I paid for seemed to stretch for miles.
And that was not just my feeling: Buyers took the phone in part thanks to its low prices as well as Google’s tremendous performance in expanding wireless network retail from just Verizon to five providers (plus Google Fi, but first party does not count). More tellingly, positive long-term reviews of 3a and the associated word of mouth may have helped push Pixel 4a sales even higher.
However, that momentum has stalled as the pandemic destroyed the supply chain and the economy. Pixel 6 also heralded an era of buggy updates (possibly stemming from the circumstances surrounding Google’s custom Tensor chipset) that have, so to speak, left it telephonically non grata with buyers.
With a little luck, the Pixel 6a may be ready to redeem the series; all it needs to be affordable and all it has to do is work. The latest updates to the 6 Series seem to have stabilized in quality, so we cross our fingers that the situation holds. That said, Google today may find it difficult to match what it could offer to former 3a users. While we do not know what future Feature Drops will bring, the loss of free Google Photos backups will not help.
When the time comes, I’m pretty sure I’ll take the leap to 6a. The battery on my 3a is only getting older and you can probably spot the more crunchy scratches and bits from my photos. But I do not think I want to trade it in or sell it out. I like this thing – the thing itself and what it has brought me – too much to let it go.
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