Developer conferences are often mocked for their highly dramatic video segments and techno-utopian rhetoric. At the 2019 I/O Developers Conference on Tuesday, Google took a comparatively light approach, focusing on incremental yet meaningful updates. Assistant is getting better at multitasking, Google Lens can now look at a restaurant bill and calculate the tip, Maps shows users where to turn in 3D, and Live Caption automatically captions videos. The theme across the board is that Google is doubling down on machine learning, and that it’s outgunning its competition in this space. “To support the latest technology, everyone’s high-end phones are getting more and more expensive,” Google senior VP of devices Rick Osterloh said during the keynote. “So we challenged ourselves to see if we could optimize our software and AI to work great on more affordable hardware, so we could deliver these high-end experiences at a more accessible price point.”
The best example of this strategy comes in the form of a new piece of Google hardware. The Pixel 3a, which is slightly bigger than the Pixel 3, is breaking what’s become the mold for smartphone launches with its $399 price tag (the larger model, the 3a XL, costs $479). In recent years, it’s seemed as if device makers made a pact to turn smartphones into luxury items, with ever-increasing costs to match. Google played the game last year with its Pixel 3 ($799) and 3 XL ($899) release. Developers often blame rising prices on manufacturing and hardware costs: If consumers want better, more capable phones, it’s going to cost these companies more money to get the necessary parts. But today Google said that largely thanks to AI, it can deliver its new phone at a lower price point. For comparison’s sake, the iPhone XS costs $999 and the iPhone XR costs $749; the Galaxy S10 is $699.99 and the S10 5G is $1,299.99.
One of the most important features of a new smartphone is its camera. By early accounts and Google’s own demos, the new Pixel’s photos are comparable to those of the much more expensive Pixel 3, which is widely regarded as having the best camera on the market. The new phone, like the Pixel 3, uses Google’s HDR+ image-processing technology to take a burst of photos and then intelligently combine them to reveal the most vibrant, best-lit version of the photo. The new phone also has outstanding battery life, with a 3000mAh battery (the Pixel 3 has a 2915mAh battery and performed well in tests). The battery will also get a helping hand from the introduction of a juice-saving Dark Theme (an announcement that can’t sit well with Apple, considering a new report found it’s been exaggerating the life of its iPhones by anywhere between 18 and 51 percent).
Outside of its price, the Pixel 3a isn’t a huge revelation, especially when compared with the Pixel 3, which took a more considerable jump from its predecessor in terms of capability. To meet its lower price tag, the Pixel 3a’s processing power is going to suffer; also, it isn’t waterproof and it comes with only a 64GB storage option. Those limitations are to be expected, especially when it’s running features that use all of the progressive AI improvements Google unveiled on Tuesday. When those seemingly small features are combined, however, the result is an impressively capable device at a fraction of the price of its competitors.
Oh, and there is one additional hardware feature worth mentioning: The Pixel 3a comes with a headphone jack.