Google I/O 2019: Pixel 3a's optimised imaging algorithms helping Pixel 3 too says product VP

The Pixel 3a series offers a lot of the same camera features that are seen on the Pixel 3 series.

Google announced mid-range variants of its flagship Pixel 3 smartphones in the form of the Google Pixel 3a and Pixel 3a XL at the Google I/O keynote. Starting from Rs 39,999 onwards, the Pixel 3a series is Google’s response to the mid-range flagship devices.

The Pixel 3a and 3a XL are identical in all aspects except the display size and the battery capacity - just like its elder siblings. Some of the common specs are as follows:

Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 670 SoC
Storage: 64 GB
Rear camera: 12.2 MP with support for Portrait mode, TopShot, Night Sight and Super Res Zoom
Front camera: 8 MP
3.5 mm audio jack present
No waterproofing or in-display fingerprint scanner or Notch display

The Google Pixel 3a XL. Image: Omkar G

The Google Pixel 3a XL. Image: Omkar G

The Pixel 3 being the flagship series is completely kitted out. Pixel 3a series, in comparison, has eschewed some of the flagship features to ensure that it is in line with the price point that it’s being sold at. We have done a detailed review of the Pixel 3a XL and feel that it offers the best camera in the price segment, and could prove to be a challenger to the upcoming OnePlus 7.

On the sidelines of Google I/O we had a chance to interact with the Google VP for Product Management, Sabrina Ellis who is looking after the Pixel 3a series. One of the driving factors for introducing the Pixel 3a series has been the confidence that after two generations of Pixel devices, now that Google has complete control over both software and hardware, the Pixel teams at Google felt that they were able to align a lot of the high-end features on relatively affordably priced hardware.

The Pixel 3a XL features a 12.2MP Dual-Pixel Sony IMX363 camera. Image: Omkar G

The Pixel 3a XL features a 12.2MP Dual-Pixel Sony IMX363 camera. Image: Omkar G

The Pixel 3a series has been developed by another team within the Pixel family, whose main focus was making the features such as camera algorithms optimised to work on the Snapdragon 670 platform. A lot of the people from these teams are from academia, according to Ellis. This team of formerly HTC engineers, according to Ellis brought a different skill set to the Pixel table as they have built phones for a long time and were aware of the processes needed to optimise the software and hardware at a lower price point.

(Also read: Pixel 3a vs Pixel 3a XL vs OnePlus 6T vs Honor View 20: 'Mid-range' range phones face budget flagships)

The Pixel 3a series offers a lot of the same camera features that are seen on the Pixel 3 series. The internals on these series are different, with the Pixel 3 housing the flagship Snapdragon 845 SoC and the Pixel 3a having the Snapdragon 670. Google has tried to keep the output and algorithms similar on both the devices when it comes to images. In our review, we found that the processing of images did take a tad longer than on the Pixel 3 series, but that’s because we are dealing with a new set of image signal processors and a low specced SoC.

According to Ellis, the battery life issue is moot as Snapdragon 670 is inherently a lower power SoC and so the battery optimisations are already taken care of. So according to her, the image algorithm processing on the Pixel 3a, to give you that NightSight image or that portrait with a shallow depth of field, will not affect the performance of the phone. Thanks to the massive amount of data that’s at Google’s disposal and the way people use the Pixel cameras with their different modes, optimising the algorithms has worked to an extent that they can work on lower-end hardware too said Ellis.

The Google Pixel 3a XL features the latest Android 9 Pie. Image: Omkar G

The Google Pixel 3a XL features the latest Android 9 Pie. Image: Omkar G

“Sometimes we even found places where we were not that efficient on the Pixel 3 and there were some bugs that were overlooked. Having high-end hardware can sometimes lead to that but I think the lower price hardware pushed us so real. So everything's faster. And everybody's feeling that,” said Ellis.

There is no clarity yet on whether some of the features such as AR in Search, on-device machine learning for Assistant will work on the Pixel 3a yet. With regards to the Daydream functionality on Pixel 3a, Ellis said that the Daydream team was working on optimising it for Pixel 3a series, but there is no clarity as to when or even if that will be possible anytime soon.

“I would say in the short term, it'll be a little difficult. We know that like with Pixel 3a in terms of everything from the resolution, it may not be there right now,” said Ellis.

Looking at the price point of the Pixel 3a series, Google has obviously cut out some of the features that are seen on the Pixel 3. For starters, it’s made of polycarbonate body and does not support wireless charging, which makes it much lighter, the presence of the headphone jack means that the Pixel 3a is not waterproof.

On being asked if there will be a budget Pixel device in the works, Ellis said that it would be difficult to comment on that.

For now, Pixel 3a will be Google’s most affordable Pixel series of devices.


Read our complete coverage of Google I/O 2019:

Google I/O 2019: Google presents its plan to safeguard privacy in an AI-First Future

Android Q Beta: Here's how to download and install it on your smartphone

Google's Android version distribution figures show Android Pie having a 10 percent share

Google I/O 2019: Amazon Echo Show-competitor Nest Hub Max launched, coming soon to India

Google I/O 2019: All you need to know about the new features coming to Android Q

Google's next-gen voice assistant is kinda epic, and it's coming to the Pixel 4 this year

Pixel 3a vs Pixel 3a XL vs OnePlus 6T vs Honor View 20: 'Mid range' phones face budget flagships

Disclaimer: Tech2 was invited to Google I/O 2019 by Google India. All expenses related to travel and accommodation were borne by Google India.

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