The Pixel 3a and 3a XL were finally announced at Google I/O, and while they're being well-received by reviewers and Android enthusiasts alike, they are coming out at an extremely awkward time: 7 months removed from the launch of the original Pixel 3 and 3 XL. Anyone who had any interest in the matter knew that the Pixel 3a and 3a XL were a thing for months before the launch. We started seeing substantial leaks back in March, and there were rumors and whispers well before that.
With each passing week it seemed more likely that Google wouldn't even bother releasing the phones, because at some point it'd make more sense to just wait for the Pixel 4 line. With the number of leaks and amount of information available on the Pixel 3a and 3a XL, everything pointed to there being some sort of unforeseen holdup in their launch. Now with the Pixel 3a and 3a XL in our hands, we have some solid clues as to just how long they were delayed.
What got me thinking about this was something I noticed while I was setting up my Pixel 3a XL for the first time: it had very out of date Google apps. There were a few examples, but the best was the Gmail app, which was such an old version that it had the old interface that was replaced starting in late January. That means the phone went through its certification process for Google's apps while that was the current app version, prior to February.
Then, I noticed other breadcrumbs in the software. The Pixel 3a is running software build number PD2A.190115.032, which looks like a random alphanumeric string but actually has a good bit of information we can easily decipher. Google uses a standardized build number convention that shows when a particular software build for a phone was synced into the development branch — in this case it's January 15, 2019. That isn't necessarily the exact build date for the Pixel 3a's software, but it's at least when that process was started. We don't need to split hairs on exact dates here to get to the same conclusion again: the Pixel 3a was in late stages of development in January.
It's clear the Pixel 3a and 3a XL were substantially finished and ready to go by March at the latest.
The last part is its Android security patch, which is surprisingly out of date for a Pixel. It has the March 5 security patch out of the box, which is now two versions behind and has yet to receive an update — and I don't have a pre-release or non-final phone, these phones are sale now. Yes the Pixel 3a isn't the same high-end device as the standard Pixel, but it still has the same level of commitment from Google for monthly security patches. You would expect it to come out of the box, or be updated immediately thereafter, with the latest available security update.
Normally this wouldn't be all that interesting, because we see phones from every company hit the market with out-of-date software, old Google apps and missing security patches. But if any company could release a phone with the latest security patch, and running the latest Google apps out of the box, it would be Google. Paired with the lengthy gap after the original launch of the Pixel 3 series, it sure seems like something came up that stopped the 3a from getting out to market as quickly as Google originally planned.
There doesn't seem to be a whole lot that would've kept the 3a from being released.
Interestingly, there doesn't seem to be a whole lot here that would have required Google to hold off launching the 3a and 3a XL. There aren't any new or cutting-edge components, the camera system is lifted straight from the Pixel 3, and there aren't any huge software feature updates that would've held back the launch. We still don't know why Google waited nearly 7 months after the Pixel 3 series was announced to get the 3a and 3a XL out the door, but we at least know there was some sort of setback. Was the delay related to a technical problem? Marketing holdup? Supply issues? It could have been anything.
But it sure looks like substantial parts of the phones were ready to go months before they were announced, and this wasn't a purely strategic decision to wait and launch at Google I/O.
The best cheap(ish) camera on the market
A remarkable mid-ranger from Google
If you've been dying to get your hands on a Pixel 3 XL but can't justify its $800 starting price, the Pixel 3a XL was made just for you. It has the same camera found on the Pixel 3, Android Pie out of the box, and it's guaranteed to get software updates for three years.
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