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Pixel 3a comes with unlimited Google Photos storage at high quality instead of original quality — but does it matter?

By Ng Chong Seng - on 8 May 2019, 2:32am

PSA: Pixel 3a comes with unlimited Google Photos storage at high quality instead of original quality

One of the perks of being a Pixel owner is you get free, unlimited Google Photos storage at “original” quality for photos and videos taken and uploaded from the phone. But since the Pixel 2, this free, unlimited full-resolution offer no longer lasts forever. For Pixel 2, it’s available through 2020; and for Pixel 3, it’s until end Jan 2022.

For the new Pixel 3a phones (our review here), Google is changing the terms yet again: Pixel 3a owners will get free unlimited online storage at “high” quality instead original quality. Basically, if a photo is larger than 16MP, it will be resized to 16MP. And any video larger than 4K will be resized to 1080p. This is the same quality that current Pixel 2 and 3 owners get when their max-quality offer period ends.

Does this matter? Personally, I think it’s fine. But only because the Pixel 3a only has a 12MP camera, and that I think Google’s image compression algorithms are sophisticated enough that most people won’t notice any difference. However, it’s a bummer for those who like to take 4K videos, because the Pixel 3a does have the ability to capture 4K @ 30fps.

I’ve asked Google about its motivation for this change, and this is the reply I got:

We believe that Unlimited Storage on Google Photos is a real differentiator for Pixel devices, and one we know that users love. In an effort to bring that feature to more Pixel customers, including future generations of the product, we had to make some trade offs. Our internal research showed us that our initial testers could not tell the difference between original quality and high quality photos. With that in mind, we were still able to prioritise and make the investment in bringing Unlimited Storage to Google Photos for Pixel 3a, with what we felt was a trade-off that would have minimal effect on the overall Pixel 3a user experience. Users can opt to purchase original quality storage through Google Photos if they want to continue to get that experience.

I won’t say Google is wrong with its research, but I don't quite understand the “investment” bit. Did Google foresee that it'd be selling a lot of Pixel 3a units and thus conclude that it’s not feasible or sustainable, cost-wise, to provide unlimited full-res storage for free for the phone for a couple of years? And removing a long-time Pixel benefit at a time when it’s trying to sell more Pixel phones — how does that work? Also, is this a precursor to Google removing the max-quality Google Photos storage offer for future Pixel phones? I’ve so many questions.