Pixel smartphone variants offer better value

Article By : Brian Dipert

With its “a” variants, Google’s seemingly perfected the recipe for Pixel smartphone success.

As I first mentioned three years ago, and until fairly recently, I’ve been toting two first-generation Google Pixel smartphones in my pocket (one on Verizon for work, the other on A&T for personal use). And my wife used another (this a larger-screen Pixel XL) for a while, before returning to Apple’s “walled garden.” The guiding principles behind the Pixel line, the conceptual extension to the earlier Nexus series that kicked off with my beloved Nexus One of a decade ago, were always intriguing to me:

  • “flagship” phones that (intentionally) weren’t the equal of other manufacturers’ from a hardware standpoint, but didn’t come with four-digit price tags, either,
  • (in recent years) mainstream product family variants that delivered even better value for the dollar, while not making egregious feature set tradeoffs to hit a lower price point,
  • features implemented in (increasingly deep learning-based in recent years) software versus hardware whenever possible,
  • a “pure” Android experience devoid of additional OEM- and third-party-developed “bloatware” (a benefit that might seem superfluous or even counterintuitive to some of you until you read stories like this, that is), and
  • (my theory) a development motivation, as with Microsoft and its Surface mobile computers, not only to be market successes in their own right, but (even more importantly, I’d argue) to use them to push Google’s Android partners, such as Samsung, to make similar-to-better advancements over time.

Source: Wikimedia, Maurizio Pesce

The first-generation Pixel/XL launched in October 2016; I picked up my units on sale late the next summer (knowing as I did that this was probably an inventory-purging promotion) just prior to the Pixel 2 launch. And I remained quite content with my two handsets for several years, through multiple Android O/S generational upgrades (starting from an Android 7.1 foundation) and in the process resisting both the Pixel 2 and Pixel 3 upgrade temptations.

Last December, however, the Pixels got their last security patches:

screenshot of Pixel smartphone during a security update

Do the math and you’ll realize that this was a several-month extension to the “official” three-year support cycle; it even enabled Google to squeeze in the Android 10 update. Still, it was clearly time to upgrade to something within the support window. And anyway, my units were beginning to exhibit notably degraded between-charges battery life, one of them in particular. When I took it out of its case for the first time in who-knows-how-long, I realized why:

photo of a Pixel smartphone with a swollen battery

(Hint: displays aren’t supposed to curve in the middle like that, and that’s stretched-out glue between the OLED and chassis that you see pulling apart.)

No wonder I was experiencing diminished battery life, and no wonder this particular unit had (seemingly spontaneously) been cracking its tempered glass screen protectors across the middle in recent months! The other handset wasn’t quite as bowed, but obviously also had a swollen battery. I’ve kept both units on hand for future-teardown purposes, of course.

So what did I replace them with? For the first time, Google had followed up the “flagship” third-generation devices’ introduction in October 2018 with the “budget” Pixel 3a and 3a XL the following May (2019):

Google photo of a Pixel 3a smartphone

Specs for the Pixel 3a’s SoC, versus that in my Google Pixel precursor, might deceptively seem to be a back-step if the only thing you looked at were their respective Qualcomm product names. Peer closer, however, and you’ll quickly realize that a “6”-series application processor from 2018 is still a notable advancement over its two-year-older “8”-series predecessor:

Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 (Google Pixel) Qualcomm Snapdragon 670
(Google Pixel 3a)
CPU (64-bit ARMv8) 2 + 2 cores (2.15 GHz + 1.593 GHz Kryo) 2 + 6 cores (2.0 GHz Kryo 360 Gold – Cortex-A75 derivative + 1.7 GHz Kryo 360 Silver – Cortex-A55 derivative)
GPU Adreno 530 Adreno 615
DSP Hexagon 680 Hexagon 685
ISP (imaging signal processor) Spectra (first-generation) Spectra 250
Bluetooth support Bluetooth 4.1 Bluetooth 5
QuickCharge support QuickCharge 4+ QuickCharge 5

The system-level advancements delivered by these SoC improvements, especially in less than three years from what was originally a $649 (32GB) or $749 (128GB) Google Pixel to the $399 (64GB-only) Google Pixel 3a are equally if not more impressive. Only one evolution gave me a bit of pause, however:

Google Pixel Google Pixel 3a
Screen 5″ OLED, 1920 × 1080 (441 ppi) 5.6″ OLED, 2220 × 1080 (441 ppi)

Fortunately, the newer phone’s screen ended up being only longer, not also wider; the chassis widths of the two phones were near-identical (to within 0.02″ of each other), so they still fit in the front pockets of my pants and shorts. The Pixel 3a XL, on the other hand, 0.24″ wider and 0.34″ longer than its smaller sibling, wouldn’t have “fit” this particular all-important (at least to me) criteria.

Stellar reviews at sites I trusted, like Ars Technica, the Wirecutter, and Wired, sealed the deal. Now, speaking of which, I just needed to wait for a good deal to show up. Fortunately, I didn’t have to wait long. In mid-December, timed for last-minute Christmas shoppers, Best Buy promotion-dropped the price on the Pixel 3a to $279.99. I snagged two, one for each network (about a month later, in fact, I picked up a third, this time from Amazon, for $249 to hold in “spares” reserve in case one of my primary units died).

And what am I going to move to in mid-2022 (or earlier, if I’m unable to resist the Siren’s song tempting a replacement), when the Pixel 3a’s three-year’s support cycle draws to a close? The Pixel 4a, introduced in early August (after an abundance of intentional-or-not in-advance leaks) to equally rave reviews as its predecessor, would seemingly be a prime candidate. And check out its feature set and other advancements over that predecessor:

Google Pixel 3a Google Pixel 4a
Price $399 $349
Storage 64 GB 128 GB
Screen 5.6″ OLED, 2220 × 1080 (441 ppi) 5.81″ OLED, 2340 × 1080 (443 ppi)
SoC Qualcomm Snapdragon 670 Qualcomm Snapdragon 730G

(Interestingly there’s no super-sized “XL” variant this time; Google’s getting increasingly serious about its cost-slimming aspirations.)

Then again, though, a move to the Pixel 4a would only give me ~1 incremental year of “runway” until its support cycle would end, too. And anyway, there’s a 5G version of the Pixel 4a still to come, and probably a Pixel 5a following that, and …

Google’s “flagship” phones subsequent to the first-generation Pixel haven’t done particularly well in the market; the Pixel 4 family lasted less than a year, for example, and were obsoleted even though their Pixel 5 successor hasn’t yet hit the scene. With its “a” variants, however, Google’s seemingly perfected the recipe for success. I’m curious to see what’s coming down the pipe from the company, as well as to see how its Android partners and Apple competitor respond to its moves. Your thoughts, readers? Sound off, as always, in the comments!

This article was originally published on EDN.

Brian Dipert is Editor-in-Chief of the Edge AI and Vision Alliance, and a Senior Analyst at BDTI and Editor-in-Chief of InsideDSP, the company’s online newsletter.

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