This story is part of the GP100, our annual roundup of the best products of the year. To see the full list of winners, grab the latest issue of Gear Patrol Magazine.
Each year, the telephones relentlessly improve. Their microchip brains increase in computing horsepower. Their physical forms get slimmer, more refined and more jewel-like. Their screens stretch outward towards their bodies’ very edges. But as the leading flagships converge towards a single expensive full-screen black-slab ideal, they avoid addressing a crucial question: What is improvement?
Google’s Pixel 3a, a pointed departure from its competition’s assumptions, is not just a great little phone — it represents a different idea of what a great little phone is.
Announced by Google earlier this year with little run-up or fanfare, Google’s plastic Pixel 3a has an offbeat combination of features compared to its contemporaries. In many ways, it’s gleefully adequate. Its polycarbonate body is not fancy, but it is functional. Its mid-range processor is fine with being just fast enough. Its screen is as good as you’ll reasonably need for browsing the web and drinking from social media’s firehose. It skimps on features like wireless charging and waterproofing, as you might expect from a $400 phone. But unexpectedly, its camera is top tier — a superb feature it shares with its high-end sibling, the Pixel 3, which cost twice as much at launch.
It’s this unusual inclusion of a premium feature in a seemingly budget phone that makes the Pixel 3a feel impossible — or worse, almost like a con. But in fact, it’s a more fundamental innovation than any face-scanning technology or gyroscopic stylus: it’s a reordering and redefining of what features matter in a phone.
Here in 2019, years into the reign of the “miniature 2001 monolith” school of phone design, it’s easy to forget that the collection of features a phone requires was not always agreed upon. (During and shortly after the dominion of the BlackBerry, for example, a physical keyboard was arguably a must.) What the Pixel 3a’s marriage of plastic and photography prowess argues is that a great camera — not just any smudgy shooter — is as integral to a phone as a 4G radio and onboard storage and more integral than premium materials and luxury fit-and-finish. It’s an argument that, if it proves persuasive to buyers, could shift the direction phones go from here.
But the combination of features found in the Pixel 3a could not have crystallized without all the tech that paved the way for it. Google has spent years developing its photography chops via software instead of hardware. Instead of using multiple (and expensive) camera sensors and lenses to attempt to recreate the depth-of-field effects of fancy lenses on full-fledged DSLRs, the company decided from the jump to put its algorithmic expertise to work to recreate the same effect with artificial intelligence.
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That decision came with an initial — but now rapidly diminishing — cost. Early versions of the tech produced images that could look ever so slightly off (and sometimes still do) compared to their impeccable analog competition. But the software is ever-improving. More importantly, it is extremely cost effective to scale, and even possible to implement retroactively. When Google released its “Night Sight” feature that algorithmically combined multiple low-light images taken at different exposures into a single image that appears almost magically bright, it was released not only for the brand new Pixel 3, but for the Pixel 2 and original Pixel as well — a camera upgrade, years after the fact, for free. Google isn’t the only company to upgrade its cameras via software, but with the Pixel 3a, it has taken an enormous step toward making its camera capabilities revolve primarily around software — and, as a result, universal across its phones, regardless of age or price.
And while the Pixel 3a is certainly laudable for how much it offers in a $400 package, it’s also exciting for where it indicates this road might lead. The lion’s share of flagship phones have become obsessed with offering additional luxuries to justify their growing prices, but the prevailing trends have left a whole host of assumptions completely unchallenged: The best cameras are unique to only the most expensive phones. Thinner is always better. One thousand dollars is a reasonable price for a phone that will be obsolete in three years at best.
Perhaps the Pixel line itself has no appetite for challenging more of these assumptions, but it has at least revealed one of them as false. And that’s about as exciting of a feature as you can get.
Display: 5.6-inch, OLED, 1080 x 2220 pixels
Headphone Jack: Yessir
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