Google Pixel 4a Preview

Posted on August 7, 2020 by Paul Thurrott in Android, Mobile with 26 Comments

While I know that the Pixel 4a will never meet my needs, I can’t ignore what I feel is the single-best value in the smartphone market today. And so I’m replacing my Pixel 3a XL with a Pixel 4a.

A couple of points up front.

First, I really like the Pixel 3a XL, despite its humble innards, and you can read my thoughts as they evolved over time in Google Pixel 3a XL Review: The New Sweet Spot, Where the Google Pixel 3a Falls Short, and Revisiting the Google Pixel 3a XL. But the short version is that this phone was a tremendous value in its own right, and its wonderful polycarbonate body, best-in-class camera system, and clean Android image really won me over.

Second, I was somewhat taken aback by some of the responses to my recent post, The Problem with the Pixel 4a (Premium). I wrote that with an eye towards my own needs and decision-making process, not as a general review for others. For those non-Premium readers who didn’t see that post, the basic gist is that the Pixel 4a is an improvement in many ways over the Pixel 3a series, and is decidedly superior to Apple’s over-hyped iPhone SE. But for me personally, it lacks a few personal requirements. This isn’t a phone I’d use myself.

For critics of this stance, the argument seems to boil down to a single semi-rhetorical question: What exactly did I expect from a $350 smartphone?

Well, that’s easy. I expect it to meet or beat its similarly-priced competitors in the ways that matter most to me. And the Pixel 4a falls short in two key areas: It only has a single-lens camera system at a time when even sub-$400 phones (save the overrated iPhone SE, of course) have multiple lenses. And there isn’t an XL version with an appropriately-sized display. The Pixel 4a only comes in a single non-XL model with a small 5.8-inch display.

I’d expect to pay more for the latter feature, of course: The Pixel 3a XL cost $80 more than the non-XL variant, if I remember correctly, and that would be as acceptable today as it was over a year ago. But Google doesn’t offer that upgrade now. Indeed, Google doesn’t offer any upgrades; the Pixel 4a is what it is, and there are no user-configurable changes that can be made, at purchase time or at any time thereafter.

I get that. The Pixel lineup has been a failure for Google, and it is cutting costs in all-new ways with the Pixel 4a and, soon, the Pixel 5. But not offering what I’d call a normally sized display makes no sense to me. If Google is only going to offer one Pixel 4a model it should be the XL version, not the smaller one.

As to my other issue with the Pixel 4a, I expect the single-lens camera system to be a mixed bag. By all accounts, it’s an improvement over the excellent single-lens camera system in the Pixel 3a/3a XL, and I did love that camera. But it lacks an ultra-wide-angle lens, which I missed in the expensive Pixel 4 XL. And it lacks any form of optical zoom, which is less problematic but still not ideal. As we move forward in time, a camera that would have been ideal a year or two earlier is less than ideal because the whole market has improved. And the low-end/mid-range OnePlus Nord, Samsung A-series, various low-end Moto handsets, and others all offer multiple lenses.

So, those are my issues with the handset. But I recognize that everyone has different needs and wants, and that my problems may be no problem at all for you. And that for many, many people, the Pixel 4a is an ideal, affordable, and modern smartphone that will work well for years to come. And as I noted up front, I don’t feel comfortable ignoring it from a review standpoint. (I do, by comparison, feel comfortable skipping the iPhone SE.)

But $350 is still $350, and in these less-than-ideal COVID times, it’s hard to justify such an expense when I know that I won’t come out on the other side of this review actually using this handset. Fortunately, I am getting $135 on trade-in for my Pixel 3a XL, lowering the out-of-pocket cost to $215. And thanks to a small payment from Leanpub adding to my small PayPal-based devices budget, I can simply afford to pay the remainder in full. So no worries there.

So. What can we expect for the paltry sum of $350 here in 2020? A phone that is superior, in every way save one, to the Apple iPhone SE, which is $50 to $100 more expensive than the Pixel 4a depending on whether you configure it with an acceptable amount of storage.

Like its predecessor, and unlike Google’s previous flagship handsets, the Pixel 4a body is made of polycarbonate, a wonderfully durable material that means the device can be safely used without a case if you so desire. When was the last time that was possible? (Oh, right. When Nokia still made flagship Lumias.)

But there are some differences. The Pixel 4a’s polycarbonate body is matte where the 3a’s was glossy and even somewhat slippery, and I’m curious to feel it in person. The Pixel 4a uses the same dull and indistinct form factor as the Pixel 4, and not the “two-pane” style used by all previous Pixels. And the Pixel 4a, like the original Ford Model T, is available in one color, and one color only: black. Or, as Google calls it, Just Black. Just black indeed.

The display is small by modern smartphone standards, but the 5.8-inch OLED panel is superior to the even smaller 4.7-inch LCD panel in the iPhone SE, and its resolution (2340 x 1080) and pixel density are both higher. It’s also a true edge-to-edge display that takes up almost all of the front of the handset, save the squircle bezel and hole-punch camera hole. It makes the iPhone SE look like the 2014 design that it is, which is great. But even more amazing, this is the most modern Pixel design yet; it makes the Pixel 3a and Pixel 4 designs look antiquated too.

Internally, the Pixel 4a is a step up from the 3a family with an improved processor, the mid-market Qualcomm Snapdragon 730, more RAM (6 GB, double the amount in the flagship Pixel 3 XL, and half again as much as the 4GB in the 3a), and more storage (128 GB vs. 64). Those are all welcome improvements, and while the iPhone SE has the decided edge from a performance standpoint, it only comes with 64 GB of storage in the entry-level $400 model; you will need to pay $450 to equal the Pixel 4a’s 128.

Communications are as expected, with global 4G/LTE compatibility, Wi-Fi 802.11ac,  Bluetooth 5.0 + LE, and NFC. No surprises or disappointments there.

The camera system, as noted, is mixed. There’s a single 12.2 MP wide-angle lens on the rear with optical and electronic image stabilization, an ƒ/1.7 aperture, and a 77-degree field of view. It can shoot video at just 1080p/60 fps max, but it does come with all the standard Pixel 4 camera goodies, like HDR+, and Night Sight, programmatic Portrait Mode. I suspect there will be performance issues with each, and some Portrait Mode fuzziness thanks to the single lens, but whatever. It’s $350. The front-facing camera is an 8 MP unit with a fixed focus and an 84-degree field of view.

Unlike the iPhone SE, the Pixel 4a both supports fast charging and actually comes with an fast-charger in the box, in this case an 18-watt unit. There’s also a headphone jack, which should please many potential customers. And there are stereo speakers, also appreciated.

Battery life is allegedly excellent, thanks to its large 3140 mAh battery and the less demanding nature of its internals. By comparison, the Pixel 4 had a smaller battery and the battery life of the non-XL version was routinely panned as being inadequate. I’m expecting all-day battery, but I also expect it to fall short of the magical uptime I get from the Huawei P30 Pro.

The Pixel lineup has its problems, but the clean Android software image is always a highlight, and Google will support the handset with a minimum of three years of OS updates. That could get interesting because the Pixel 4a ships with Android 10, even though Android 11 will be finalized within the month and will arrive on this handset very soon.

Overall, the Pixel 4a looks really solid, and it beats all of its competition in all the ways that really matter. The sole exception, depending on your needs, is the processor in the iPhone SE, which is the same high-end chip that Apple used in its 2019 flagships. But the display, form factor, storage, and camera advantages of the Pixel 4a are to me—and, I suspect, most others—far more important. And unless you’re locked and loaded in the Apple ecosystem and love tiny displays for some reason, I can’t see any reason to go in that direction.

I’ll let you know how it goes when the Pixel 4a arrives later this month.

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