Every year around this time, the internet is inundated with roundups. Lists of the best movies, albums, TV shows, and books are everywhere, and people can't wait to catch up on all the award-winning titles they missed or overlooked when the weather was warm.
In the tech world, things are a bit different. Most people don't consume phones the way they consume TV shows (though I know a bunch of our most loyal readers would beg to differ), but that doesn't stop people from passing judgment on those products, often without using them.
There were two products released this year, though, that received almost universal acclaim: the OnePlus 7T and the Pixel 3a. In fact, both were almost unanimously picked to be the best phone and the best value phone of 2019 respectively, and everyone I've spoken to who bought one of them has been exceedingly happy with their decision.
If you cast your mind back to May, when the Pixel 3a was announced, it was already the recipient of months of rumors and speculation. In fact, we knew practically everything about the phone back in November of 2018, when the Russian site, Rozetked, received a fully-working prototype of the eventual Pixel 3a, then known as the Pixel 3 Lite.
Given the mid-range spec sheet, expectations were understandably low for the Pixel 3a. And yet when it debuted, all plastic and unremarkable, at $399 and $479 for the small and large versions, it blew everyone away. Performance was excellent, the camera was nigh identical to the then-flagship Pixel 3 series, and perhaps most surprisingly, the battery wasn't garbage. In fact, it was pretty damn good.
Even after reviewing the Pixel 4, switching to the Pixel 4 XL and then back to the Pixel 4, I think the Pixel 3a is a better experience for most people. The plastic is hardy and crack-resistant, the rear fingerprint sensor is super-quick and just works, unlike many people's experiences with the Pixel 4's face unlock, and as I said above, the battery lasts a whole day with room to spare, even on the smaller model.
While we don't know how well the Pixel 3a series has sold, it's likely in much higher numbers than Google's typical flagship sellthrough rate, even with the addition of carrier channels. During Black Friday, a significantly discounted Pixel 3a was the top-selling unlocked phone on Amazon, frequently selling out before being restocked and quickly bought out again. And it's easy to see the value proposition: you get 80% of a typical flagship phone for a third or quarter of the price.
We now know that Google's acquired-from-HTC's Taiwan-based team created the Pixel 3aand 3a XL from start to finish. That it did such a good job — keeping prices low without sacrificing experience — is a testament to its exceptional skill at producing high-quality handsets, and reaffirms Google made the right decision to splash $1.1 billion for it back in late 2017.
Saying that the Pixel 3a is Google's best phone of 2019 is obviously a tongue-in-cheek joke. The Pixel 4, for all of its faults, is a better device. But in its ambition — face unlock and Soli sensor included — it's also troublingly flawed and overpriced in a way that the more conservative Pixel 3a never will be. The contrast of the two brings to the fore what Google's ultimate goal is with the Pixel phone line and whether it can, or even should, compete in the high-end Android space.
Google's stuck between creating disappointing flagships and superb budget phones, and without breaking down its own firewall it may have to continue doing so.
There's an argument to be made that Google's failure to knock down the wall between the Android software team, which designs the open-sourced version of the mobile operating system for thousands of companies and billions of users, and the hardware team behind the Pixel line, is what's holding back the Pixel phone from success. This isn't a new argument, but it's easy enough to follow the threads. If Google had more control of both the hardware and software, as Apple does with the iPhone, it could more assiduously outmaneuver companies like Samsung and Huawei which have far more experience building hardware but still have to build on top of base-coat Android.
But Google will never do that. The Android team must treat Made By Google as just another hardware vendor, limiting the scope of the project and likely hamstringing the flagship indefinitely. And that's all the more reason why the a line and the Taiwan team behind it, without the baggage of needing to innovate, is more likely to succeed in the long run.
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