Monday, 13 May 2019

Pixel 3a

The Pixel 3 was only made available last autumn but just a few months later in Spring this year, along comes the Pixel 3a. There's also the Pixel 3a XL but I don't have that to hand just yet, so will focus on the smaller brother and compare it with the Pixel 3, which I do also have to hand.

First impressions are very much about how light it is in comparison, though in actual fact, the weights are almost the same, by 1g! This is because the 3a is bigger. It's bigger in all directions, slightly taller, slightly wider and slightly fatter. The screen is 5.6" instead of 5.5" but the real-world difference is really only the width when using the keyboard, the experience being not quite so cramped. The 3a is made of plastic and glass, rather than the aluminium and glass found in the 3. I don't really think this is significant as although the 3 might 'feel' more premium because of it, the 3a is lighter and will bounce more readily without denting!

The screen does not go as far out to the edges as it does on the 3, though the 'chin' is the biggest offender here, for those who don't like bezels, as it is significantly bigger, even though it doesn't need to house a front-facing speaker like the 3 does. The corners of the OLED panel are wonky, too! Take a closer look and you'll see that they haven't been 'rounded' properly! Only a small point and hardly noticeable, but who let that through QC?!

LG's P-OLED panel of the 3 has been replaced with OLED, which, on the face of it seems like the wrong way round! You'd think that the more economic version would have the 'plastic' version, but that's not taking into account that the P-OLED screen is newer (and presumably more expensive) as we move towards foldable and flexible panels. It makes no difference here really, except for the money. All of these OLED panels, as I understand it, are AMOLED whether or not they're made by Samsung, LG or some Chinese outfit.

What is significant however, is that the screen on the 3a is 'whiter' (full brightness, Adaptive off, 100%) than the 3's - the latter retaining that LG blue cast. Looking straight on from the front it's only very very slightly noticeable, but as you tilt the device, it becomes more apparent. We've had this in numerous devices and the user gets used to it of course. The Pixel 2XL was a culprit - as is my beloved Nokia 8 Sirocco - all with LG panels. But it's not really significant, rather worthy of note. In terms of brightness, I think they're about the same. The 3a appears brighter, just, but only because it's whiter.

Both screens are 1080p and their pixel-count is about the same at around 440ppi. Returning to those bezels, and particularly the chin, brings us to the speakers and the fact that instead of the (faux) stereo speakers both facing forward on the 3, so left/right in landscape, the 3a follows the herd and places the 'bottom' speaker to be downwards-firing. I really don't see why they had to do that, except to reduce the chin, which has got bigger! But then I'm no mobile phone engineer! Net result, pragmatically, is that it's easier to block with fingers.

The sound coming from both devices is this popular kind of 'stereo' which isn't, but emulates it by tuning and overall rounded delivery. As I've said before, I don't really care much about stereo on such a tiny device as nobody is really expecting a surround-sound cinema experience in their pocket, but what is important is overall output volume and quality. The volume of these two devices is about the same, I reckon. Maybe the 3 just edges it, but the difference is in the quality of sound. The 3 sounds significantly better than the 3a, which is slightly more tinny, less rich, less bass'y and an altogether less appealing sound. This is, of course, test-bench situation! If you didn't have the devices alongside each other testing them note-for-note with all the same settings, sounds and software of course, the average user would be more than happy. But for me, there is a difference. How much it has to do with speaker placement, I don't know. If the speaker components are the same ones, then maybe that's it. I suspect however that the 3a has not quite so good parts and it's reflected in the output.

What the 3a does have, however, is the 3.5mm audio-out socket, which it can boast over the 3! The return of sanity! Not that I use it much personally, but for those who do, it's clearly a bonus. I do get very confused still when comparing headphone output from 'apples and oranges', so I just listen with what is supplied (and my headphones) and judge on that, not on what dongle is doing what - as the average user will just use what's supplied and available. So my test is with my headphones and the supplied USB-C to 3.5mm dongle in the box with the 3 - and just plugging straight into the socket on the 3a. For what it's worth, the same applies as it does with the speakers - the sound coming from the 3 is markedly louder, richer, bass'y and more qualitative than with the 3a. Again, most people using this will be more than happy - but up against the 3, I can tell the difference even with my wonky old ears!

Battery is worth a mention here, not because the 3a's has been increased from the 3's 2915mAh to 3000mAh, which seems a little insignificant, but that the 3a is missing the wireless Qi charging which the 3 has. Now, how much this matters to the user is a personal thing. I find that if I have Qi available I'll use it, but if I don't, I don't tend to miss it! The advent of widespread USB-C means that plugging in cables is no longer a fiddly gamble and most phones these days get the user to bedtime anyway, obviously depending on usage pattern. In my short use, it's a bit hard to say, so I'll point to others who report that on slightly longer use, the battery is performing more robustly than the 3 - so no trouble at all getting through a long day with medium/mixed usage - partly due to the demands of the different chipset.

The chipset in question in the 3 is the (near) top-end SnapDragon 845 whereas in the 3a, the more modest SnapDragon 670 has been used. I have been playing with both phones for 2 or 3 days now and I really can't see any problem with that - except for a couple of notables. Firstly, if you're a demanding 'gamer' you might see some slowdown not experienced with the faster processor - and secondly, if you're a pixel-peeping photo-taker! In a sense, the 3a has been made for the likes of me and photographs - the very casual snapper, not advertising-board poster-creator! What's missing from the otherwise almost identical camera setup is the Pixel Visual Core thingie! They've tried to rework this machine-learning algorithm for the SD670 but the net result seems to be that it's slower to process shots, for those who are counting! OIS, AI digitally enhanced zoom, excellent Portrait and Night Sight remain in the main camera, which is the same 12MP f1.8 with all the Google software magic. Well, most of it! The selfie camera is apparently not as good either, for those who go pubbing! Anyway, I'll leave further analysis of the camera to those who care! All the above add to the battery's performance of course and help it to stay a cut above the expectation of the 3's.

One of the things that's really important to me still (I know, I'm a dying breed) is storage. Not having to rely on always-connected cloud-based access to data and media. I don't think we've got there yet, to rely on such services (though I have to admit that we're pretty close). In the meantime, 64GB storage is pretty much a deal-breaker for me. With the other Pixel models there was always a 128GB option for more cash (often disproportionate) and armed with 128GB for all the stuff I want to carry and access instantly, I can live with that. But not 64GB. It's a bridge too far! Having said that, the USB OTG capability and big-capacity microSD cards do enable a wallet-based expansion of these facilities and maybe it won't be too long before I reverse my position. As long as Google don't remove that functionality to further drive consumers online!

The software experience is, of course, identical to that found on the 3. All the glorious Vanilla flavoured Android, pure as the driven snow straight from HQ! We've covered the ins and outs of this before, and you don't need it all spelling out again, just to remind you that the promise of (pretty much) immediate monthly updates will be here, like with all Pixels, 2 years of OS updates and 3 years of security, minimum. Some find it boring, being so clean, as we know, and like to dabble with what other manufacturers are adding over the top, whereas others see that dabbling as a hindrance. Some of us even sit on the fence, the wind blowing to lean us one way or the other as the weather shifts! I must admit that I approach Pixel as a reference device, not daily, so that I can enjoy the enhancements of others - but I'm soon running back in the first week of every month and following major OS updates!

To wrap up a couple of lingering points, there's no IP6/8 environmental protection (that it's been tested for) and the USB-C port is rated as 2, not 3.1 like the Pixel 3 has, which means data transfer speeds of about 500mbps, from memory, on the new one instead of 10Gbps on the old.

Now we come to the most important factor. Price! In the UK, the Pixel 3 (64GB) was released last autumn for £739. This 3a is £399. There are many who will say that the original 3 should really have been pitched at this £399 price to begin with and that Google were taking the rise, working on an algorithm of market expectation. This price is much more in keeping with the original Nexus theme for reference device mainly for development. Having said that, there's no sign of this being a replacement, rather to sell alongside. It is, however, hard to imagine anyone with their head screwed on now buying the 3. Yes, it's plastic, has no Qi charging, has a lesser chipset, no waterproofing and very slightly less good camera and speakers, but it's also a bit bigger and has a battery that lasts longer. Might be a difficult choice for some, but not from where I'm standing! The Pixel experience is all about the software and services, which you will get with both.

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