Y’all know the drill by now, so let’s do a world-famous BirchTree camera comparison®. These photos are separated into a few different categories, but know that the first photo will always be the iPhone XS and the second will be the Pixel 3a. Enjoy!
I’ll also note up front that we’re comparing a $399 camera and a $999 camera. Yes, the Pixel 3a makes other compromises, but the fact this comparison is even worth doing is remarkable and I’m very happy there is a budge phone out there will a killer camera.
I think the iPhone takes a better portrait here, especially when it comes to details in my scruffy face. It’s remarkably more clear than the Pixel’s image.
The iPhone once again smokes the Pixel here. Edge detection is better, and the iPhone has a better depth map as you can see the Pixel is just blurring everything that isn’t the gargoyle, but the iPhone is blurring everything that’s closer/further away than the gargoyle.
This is my all time favorite portrait mode test, and I think the iPhone wins again with better colors and better depth sensing (see between her hair and neck).
This one goes to the iPhone because the Pixel didn’t even try to blur anything. I will say this is the least “real world” test shot in the bunch, so take it for what you will.
This is serious stress test territory, and I think the Pixel does a better job here, although neither is good enough yet to nail this.
This might be a taste thing, but the iPhone shot is way better to my eyes. It was a bright, sunny day and the Pixel makes it look like a more cloudy, overcast day. Also the iPhone’s colors are more appealing and details are sharper when zooming in.
Pretty much the same story here as I think the Pixel photo has too much contrast and makes the building look darker than it should be.
I kind of like the Pixel image more here than the last two, but it’s still clearly contrasting the hell out of this photo and I prefer the nicer colors and clarity of the iPhone one.
This is a 5x zoom comparison, and while I think I got the iPhone to like 4.5x, it’s clear that Google’s fancy zoom enhancements can’t match simply having a longer lens (at least for now).
These selfies are mostly a wash, but I do prefer the iPhone’s FOV, which produces a more flattering image of people’s faces. The Pixel has a wider FOV, which is nice for getting more in the frame, but makes people look a little “off” sometimes.
This is another zoom shot, this time at 2x, and these are basically identical. If you zoom in there is a tad more detail in the iPhone shot, but you really have to squint to see it.
The Pixel is betrayed again by its overly aggressive contrast and this looks too dark compared to the iPhone’s more pleasant image.
Note for this section that it’s still iPhone, the Pixel, but if there is a third photo, it’s Night Sight on the Pixel.
This one is super close, but the Pixel has a slightly crisper image while the colors on the iPhone are a little better.
This one is hard to call too. The iPhone produces what is basically a watercolor painting as it blurs so much of the image to avoid noise, but it still looks a tad cleaner than the Pixel’s shot. The third image uses Night Sight and I think is what I’d like to have for myself. It’s a tap over brightened, but it’s easy enough to darken it a little in post than brighten up the other shots.
Holy white balance difference, Batman! I’m not even going to call this one since they’re so different. I think the Pixel gets closer to reality, but I think the iPhone shot, which unrealistic, is more pleasing.
On this last comparison I’d say the standard Pixel shot is the worst with its unappealing yellow coloring, and it’s a toss up between the iPhone and Night Sight photos. The iPhone holds its own here, and even zooming in shows as much detail as the Night Sight shot.
Camera, performance, and build quality. You can get all three of those by spending $800+ but midrange phones always require some sacrifice. The Pixel 3a is no different, but it makes different trade-offs than many phones in the same price range and I think that makes it a really interesting and compelling phone.
I’ve only had a Pixel 3a in my hands for about 12 hours at this point, but I wanted to share my first impressions of the device since it looks like a lot of people I know are looking at this phone and thinking “$399 for that camera is pretty good…”
First off, let’s touch on that camera. I think this is the main reason of get this phone over some of the other mid-range smartphones out there. While most phones in this price range sacrifice quite a bit when it comes to camera quality (the OnePlus lineup is a great example of this) but the Pixel 3a goes the other direction. Google has included the exact same rear camera that they have in their flagship Pixel 3 phones. This camera is stunning and deserves all the hype it receives. The Pixel 3a gets all the tricks its big brother has, with the only downside being that it takes another second or two for images to finish processing. This isn’t a big deal most of the time since you only even notice this if you go to the camera roll immediately after snapping a photo.
On the other hand, I did notice that if you take 5 or more photos in quick succession, the shutter will get laggy and will not keep up with your taps. It’s worth noting that the burst mode works fine, and snapping individual shots has no shutter lag at all.
The other reason to get this phone is the software, which I won’t get into much right now, but is everything great about the main Pixels is here, so as far as I can tell nothing is cut.
Build quality is a place Google definitely cut corners for this phone. The all-plastic frame is certainly good, but it certainly feels less premium than the iPhone XS, the Galaxy S10, and the Pixel 3. This is fine, of course, because this phone costs less than half of what those phones go for, but those of us who enjoy the feel of a nice phone will find this a bit lacking. That said, this phone feels perfectly competent and does feel good in the hand.
Oh, and the purple model looks great! It’s a very subtly purple, so most people will think it’s just white at first glance, but sometimes the light hits it just right and makes you go “daaaaaamn, I got a purple phone!” Oh, and the green accent on the power button is gorgeous.
Performance is a concern with this device and I’m happy to say that it’s been perfectly fine for me so far. You certainly feel the difference between this and a 2018/19 flagship, but it’s competent. AS you can see in the benchmark above, it clocks in just a bit slower than the Snapdragon 835 which was the flagship Android processor in 2017. That means it’s a tad slower than the Pixel 2, which is still a pretty decent performer.
I have, however noticed some more stuttering in animations than I ever experienced on the Pixel 2, so I suspect the GPU is less powerful here, even though it performs most functions in about the same time. That’s a bit of a guess, so I’ll just say that you don’t get a “buttery smooth” feel from this device, but it also doesn’t feel particularly slow and can do basically anything you ask of it…just not at 60fps.
Finally, it’s not coming across very well on camera, but after just a few hours in my pocket last night I noticed some blue from my jeans had worn onto the phone. I tried wiping it away and it won’t budge. I’ll keep my eyes on this, but I’m a little worried this light plastic finish is going to discolor very easily.
I’ll have more impressions of the Pixel 3a on Twitter and of course here so stay tuned for more!
Google I/O kicks off today and I have a lot of thoughts! This episode is split in half, recorded both before and after the keynote, so you’ll get to see how close I was to guessing what Google would focus on (spoiler: I nailed the security angle and missed on my OnePlus 6 being included in the beta).
Update: looks like the comparison shots are taken on the iPhone XS, which I got wrong in this episode.
Gris came out on December 13, 2018 and didn’t really stand a chance at getting a ton of traction. It’s a short, small game from a tiny game studio and it came out right before Christmas when people are catching up on all the games they missed throughout the year. It also didn’t manage to get as much attention from the gaming press at the time because they were all full up on getting year end lists out before they took holiday break. But it’s 5 months later and Gris is still totally, absolutely, completely worth your time and money.
So obviously the big draws of Gris are its visuals and soundtrack. The game looks hand-drawn and has a gorgeous aesthetic that surely has been done before, but is completely new to me. It just looks dead gorgeous and constantly had me staring at the screen in awe as I moved through the world.
And like any game that emphasizes beautiful visuals, it has a gameplay loop that inherently makes the game look even more vibrant and unforgettable as it goes on. This is a minor spoiler, but the objective of the game is to bring color back to a colorless world. You start out in a quiet, black and white environment. You soon unlock red and the world lights up, but only the elements that are red. Then other colors come into the picture and the world you’re exploring gets more striking every time you add a new color to its pallet.
By the end of the game you’re running and jumping and swimming through a lush, vibrant world that is teeming with life and character.
The game completes the presentation package by having one of the most gorgeous soundtracks to any game I’ve played in recent memory. The soundtrack, written and performed by Berlinist, is unforgettable. The music not only matches the tone of the game perfectly, but it’s integrated with the gameplay in a way that makes sure you’re always hearing exactly the right music at exactly the right time. Considering there are few cutscenes, and even those are not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the music crechendoing right when an enemy bursts into the room or a note holding at the precise moment you jump off a cliff edge.
And that brings me to the gameplay, which is less amazing than the elements I’ve mentioned already, but it more than holds its own and is simply enhanced by the music and visuals.
This is a 3D platformer and you can do all the things you expect to be able to do in the genre. You are presented with increasingly difficult jumping puzzles, but these never get too challenging. It’s more a matter of figuring out where to go rather than actually making the jumps when you figure out what to do.
As the game goes on you get to do more than jump, and over the short 3 hour run you will have a handful of abilities that build on each other and let you do more and more in the world. It’s not a Metroid-vania by any means, but the game does do a great job of guiding you through the world so you never get lost and there are parts where you’ll return to that have new opportunities in them later in the game.
The colors that you’re unlocking throughout the game play into this as well, as parts of the game world are not available to you until their color is revealed. Once it is, you look at the world differently and will sometimes see whole new ways to move around. It’s a very clever mechanic that builds up to an ending that has you combining all the skills you have learned and colors you have revealed to perform some pretty complex, but always achievable maneuvers.
The game is not terribly difficult, and this is definitely a game that skews a bit more casual than something like Celeste or Dead Cells. You’re not going to be fighting enemies nor is it even possible to die. The game makes you feel clever when you solve a puzzle, but it’s clearly intent on you always moving forward rather than have you try the same platforming challenge over and over again.
And finally there’s the story, which is completely wordless and relies entirely on imagery to get its point across. I did not do any research on this before making this video so this could either be totally off base or literally what everyone says, but I found it to be a story about loss and redemption. It’s about a character who goes to literal dark places and strives to get out of them. Even as they are on the tip of escaping, the darkness comes back more intensely than ever. This may not resonate with everyone, but if you have suffered from depression or even generally dealt with severe sadness I think this will resonate with you. By having no explicit story or character names or anything like that, Gris allows the player to attach things to their own experiences and I think that’s a great quality in any piece of art.
I think Gris is a miniature masterpiece. It’s quite short and there is not a ton that’s super innovative from a gameplay perspective, so I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s in the top 10 video games of all time or anything, but it had more or an impact on me than most games I play. I can’t stop thinking about the visuals and the soundtrack has been on repeat while I’m at work for the past week. More importantly, it made me feel something intense. The story of Gris, as much as it has an explicit story, resonated with me at a deep level, and struck an emotional core that I was not entirely expecting from it. It pairs an open-ended story with engaging but not overly complex gameplay with and audio-visual package few games can compete with, all to create an experience that I think was criminally overlooked in 2018 and should be experienced by as many people as possible.