RIP Google Pixel 3a – A modern classic that deserves a longer run

Google Pixel 3a and Pixel 3a XL at the back

Believe it or not, May 2022 marks the three-year anniversary of Google launching the Pixel 3a series. That means there will be no more Google Pixel 3a updates in the future (though Google might be able to have one more this month). The phones will still work fine, but the lack of future Android security updates makes them insecure. It will be advisable for users to upgrade.

Not only that, but the Pixel 3a also moved the budget and mid-range smartphone sectors as a whole. The very existence of the Pixel 3a forced competitors – particularly Samsung – to increase their game when it comes to non-flagship devices.

Our choices: The best budget phones you can buy at the moment

In other words, May 2022 not only marks the end of life for a normal smartphone. With Google Pixel 3a updates ending now, we’re waving goodbye to a modern classic – one to the history books.

In 2019, the Pixel line needed a shake-up

Google Pixel 3a XL power button on page orange

When the Pixel 3a series was launched in May 2019, the latest Pixel phones were the two in the Pixel 3 series from October 2018. They were not dismal failures, but they were very divisive. The huge notch on the Pixel 3 XL, for example, received a ton of ugly comments. Overall, the two phones did not seem to drastically derail – or promote – Google’s position in the smartphone world.

However, the Google Pixel 3a and 3a XL were different. They each looked like a Pixel 3, had the same camera system as a Pixel 3, and had most of the same software features, including the same speed and lifetime of updates. However, Google cut specifications and design elements to bring the price of the Pixel 3a to literally half the price of a Pixel 3 for only $ 399.

When Pixel 3a came out, no other Android company was doing anything similar.

In a way, these new phones were like a band’s collection of biggest hits: all kills and no filler. This may seem like an uninteresting thing, but at the time, there were no other Android companies doing this (I will explain more about this in a bit). The closest facsimile we had was the launch in 2016 of the first iPhone SE, which offered some advanced features (such as the processor), while others cut out to keep the price down. What Google, however, understood that Apple did not do is that buyers do not want a phone similar to the one from five years ago.

This shook Google’s entire smartphone strategy. Can you imagine trying to explain to a high-level business executive why buyers are far more interested in your cheap plastic phone as opposed to your expensive, premium flagship from both the previous and the current year?

After Pixel 4 crashed and burned, and the subsequent Pixel 4a continued the runaway success of Pixel 3a, Google even tried to merge its premium ambitions with its budget designs, resulting in Google Pixel 5. With that phone, Google left the design language for Pixel 4 and adopted the Pixel 3a / 4a language instead. A mid-range processor and a rehash of the same old camera system also kept the price down. Unfortunately for Google, this strategy did not work as it thought it could, which is why the company finally renewed its ambitions completely with the Pixel 6 series.

Basically, Pixel 3a changed everything for Google. Its success pushed the company in directions it probably had not expected to go. But Google was not the only company affected.

The industry also needed a shake-up

Google Pixel 3a and Pixel 3a XL screens

Earlier I mentioned that no other Android company adopted Pixel 3a’s strategy. Overall, that’s true, but it still deserves an explanation.

First, many Android had OEMs tried to do something like Pixel 3a. OnePlus X is a great early example. This phone cut out some of the more premium elements from the OnePlus One and OnePlus 2 while retaining the essentials, such as a flagship processor. However, both the OnePlus One and OnePlus 2 were never priced as premium phones, so a cheaper variant was not necessary. There was never a follow-up on the OnePlus X.

Related: A story about the entire OnePlus lineup so far

Samsung also tried in a way to make a Pixel 3a-like strategy with the Galaxy S10 line, which was also launched in 2019. It introduced the Galaxy S10e. Despite rave reviews and a devoted fan base, the phone failed to win a large consumer base, probably because Samsung simply did not go far enough. The phone cost $ 749, which was only $ 150 cheaper than the real Galaxy S10, so it was still a bit premium. As with the OnePlus X, there was no follow-up on the Galaxy S10e – though the Galaxy S20 FE and Galaxy S21 FE repeat this formula.

With Pixel 3a, Google was the first company to really get the concept of a cheap version of a flagship. This success forced all the other Android companies to notice it. Suddenly we saw a deluge of “Lite” models or new versions of phones with a small letter attached to the name. You know what they say about imitation and flattery, right?

Pixel 3a set the bar for what a budget version of a flagship should be.

However, competitor companies neglected to emulate one of the best aspects of Pixel 3a: its software and support. Keep in mind that for less than $ 400, Pixel 3a gave you the latest version of Android on Day 1 as well as monthly security updates such as clockwork. Meanwhile, competitors committed to one Android upgrade (or two if you were lucky) and occasional security patches. Knowledgeable consumers, of course, looked right through this list.

The company that took the most attention, however, was Samsung. Maybe it was the relative failure of the Galaxy S10e combined with Google’s success at the budget level, but Samsung completely changed its strategy after 2019. At the time, it was pointless to buy something like a Galaxy A phone as you would spend a lot more money than you should think for a complete sub-experience. Fast forward to today and the Galaxy A line is packed with amazing phones at very decent prices.

Also on the software front, Samsung’s modern Galaxy A line gets a solid commitment. In 2019, a user would be lucky if their Galaxy A phone got two years of support, with most only getting one Android upgrade. In 2022, advanced Galaxy A phones will receive four-year Android upgrades with three-year commitments to cheaper models. It is a completely different market.

Google Pixel 3a XL in hand

Clearly, Google will not stop releasing the A-Series phones. If Pixel 6a can repeat the same formula as Pixel 3a and deliver a Pixel 6-like experience at a price close to $ 400, things will fly off the shelves. We just hope Google does not make the mistake that Samsung made with the Galaxy S10e – if the Pixel 6a is too close to the Pixel 6 in price, it just will not work.

Either way, this month marks the end of the original Pixel 3a. We probably won’t see any more Google Pixel 3a updates, but we can reflect on its significance in the smartphone history books. So much has changed since it was launched and the industry is much better at it.

Here’s for you, Pixel 3a: gone too soon, but not forgotten.