Google Pixel 4a Preview

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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Conversation 26 comments

  • yoshi

    Premium Member
    07 August, 2020 - 4:11 pm

    <p>Next week? I am jealous. It shows August 24-25th for me.</p>

    • Paul Thurrott

      Premium Member
      08 August, 2020 - 11:34 am

      <blockquote><em><a href="#559761">In reply to yoshi:</a></em></blockquote><p>My mistake, that's when my trade-in kit arrives. The PIxel 4a arrives the week after that.</p>

  • dinachin

    07 August, 2020 - 4:30 pm

    <p>The Pixel 4a is the phone for the everyday Joe [or Josephine] that is Google centric; that thinks maps and a weather app is a great reason to own a phone, texts kids and spouse throughout the day, checks email, and occasionally sends a client a PDF from Google Drive. A single-lens camera system is plenty for me and the display size is fine. I'll easily get used to it. Average user with average needs. I'm just happy that my phone power cord is in the same place by my bed every night, and that my power is 100% every morning.</p><p><br></p><p>I own a OnePlus 5t, which has been a great phone. I will buy a Pixel 4a simply for the direct line to OS upgrades that don't take months to reach me and my phone. However, after buying iPhones, Samsungs and One+ phones for the past decade – and holding on to them (probably) for too long – my give-a-crap meter for marginal phone improvements is near zero.</p><p><br></p><p>And $350?! Holy cow. I thought I'd be spending a depressing $700 or even a grand for my next phone. Now I can order that $400 Oculus Quest headset thing that my son turned me on to in Indianapolis and play the cool virtual putting game with my friends in Florida and North Carolina. Life now makes sense, despite the current mayhem.</p><p><br></p><p><br></p>

  • genecrispr

    Premium Member
    07 August, 2020 - 4:40 pm

    <p>Woah, I am pretty invested in iPhone and carrying an iPhone at this point. However what Paul just taught me about this phone has certainly caught my eye. $350 you say?</p>

    • red.radar

      Premium Member
      07 August, 2020 - 8:00 pm

      <blockquote><em><a href="#559771">In reply to GeneCrispr:</a></em></blockquote><p>It is tempting even for me. Until you realize the sunk cost issues. Apple watch..airpods.. purchased Apps…purchased Content .. Imessage … Ipad … (who wants to buy apps twice). </p><p><br></p><p>If you been in the iOS system long enough you realize that its not worth squabbling over the 50 bucks and the other (IMO) minor comprises to jump to such a handset. Then when you realize where IOS is genuinely superior the matter cools. Furthermore… if you wait long enough Apple will respond defensively on the next upgrade cycle (thank you Pixel and your wonderful camera). A calm head quickly realizes there is no benefit in switching eco-systems. Just be patient and wait. </p><p><br></p><p>I am interested in how the Anti-trust investigations unfold but I doubt this changes much because they are focused on the Vig rather than how high the walls are on the garden. </p><p><br></p><p><br></p><p><br></p>

    • bassoprofundo

      Premium Member
      08 August, 2020 - 12:27 pm

      <blockquote><em><a href="#559771">In reply to GeneCrispr:</a></em></blockquote><p>At $350 (and less if you have an older device that is tradeworthy lying around), this is cheap enough now where you can feasibly think about having both. Seriously thinking about ditching an iPhone7 knocking it's way around my cabinet so I can play with one of these.</p>

  • mattemt294

    07 August, 2020 - 4:40 pm

    <p>I feel like it would be fair to mention that the iPhone SE can run any high end app or game flawlessly and supports 4K 60fps unlimited recording compared to 1080p in 2020. Sacrificing screen quality for hardware in this phone compared to the iPhone SE. it depends where priorities lie but doesn’t necessarily make it a better value. </p>

    • MikeCerm

      07 August, 2020 - 6:08 pm

      <blockquote><em><a href="#559772">In reply to mattemt294:</a></em></blockquote><p>I think it would also be fair say that the people who care about high-end apps and games and unlimited 4K/60 video recording are not the kind of people who want to do anything of that on a phone such a small and outdated screen that can't even display 1080p. With the exception of "content creators," virtually no one ever looks at phone video on anything other than the phone they used to shoot it. It's true that the SoC in the iPhone SE is great. But, if you asked people which would they rather have, (A) pretty good performance and a pretty good screen, or (B) excellent performance and an okay screen from 2016, I'm sure 99% of people would go with option A. That's not to say a lot of people won't still buy the iPhone SE, but those that do aren't concerned with performance or screen quality or anything, really. They just want the cheapest iPhone. It doesn't bother them that the front looks identical to the iPhone 6 from 2014, because the only reason that they're upgrading is because their iPhone 6 just died and they just want the same thing they're already used to.</p><p><br></p><p>Also, for what it's worth, the Pixel 3a shoots 4K/30 video, and I'm sure the 4a does as well. </p>

      • mattemt294

        08 August, 2020 - 1:59 am

        <blockquote><em><a href="#559783">In reply to MikeCerm:</a></em></blockquote><p>I left out IP rating and wireless charging on the SE. I’m just saying at this price range you sacrifice certain things for others and it’s fair to point out the benefits and draw backs to each design to meet the price. The pixel you’re paying for screen and google computational photography. The iPhone se you’re paying for hardware and build quality while sacrificing on the screen. A lot of people like the old design iPhone or the smaller form factor. Some like me hate it. It’s two different preferences meeting head to head there. Was just pointing out it would be fair of Paul to make that comparison but I don’t think he’s used the iPhone SE </p>

    • red.radar

      Premium Member
      07 August, 2020 - 8:44 pm

      <blockquote><em><a href="#559772">In reply to mattemt294:</a></em></blockquote><p><br></p><p>Not certain about Pixel deivces but the IPhone SE has been historically supported for 4+ years of iOS upgrades. That makes it a great value when you consider longevity. Also iOS devices have traditionally remained snappy longer into their life vs Android devices. Now the Pixel is using UFS storage so that shouldn't be as much of an issue; however that processor does cause some concern. </p>

      • winner

        07 August, 2020 - 11:43 pm

        <blockquote><em><a href="#559808">In reply to red.radar:</a></em></blockquote><p>Haven't seen any performance rot issues with our Pixels, and the OS and security updates are 3 years – better than most other (all other?) Android phones, but not as good as Apple.</p>

  • bassoprofundo

    Premium Member
    07 August, 2020 - 5:54 pm

    <p>/beginRant I don't understand how wireless charging, a feature that's been around since 2012 (before that if you count Palm &amp; it's "Touchstone"), is still considered a premium feature for Android phones. I love my Note 10+, but this phone technically ticks all the boxes for me <em>except </em>that one and retails at nearly <em>$1000 less</em> than the Note did at retail. Apple might have been late to the game, but even the lowly SE now has it. I have a charger in nearly every room of the house, and it's hard to overstate the convenience of not having to connect/disconnect every time I want to alternate between charging and using the phone. /endRant</p>

  • reformedctrlz

    Premium Member
    07 August, 2020 - 5:56 pm

    <p>everyone has different requirements for their phones and that’s why the Nord and pixel 3a/4a are so exciting for me. In an era where flagship phones are increasingly costing $1000+, why can’t we have phones that are still great, but less insane for lower amounts?</p><p><br></p><p>For me personally, cameras are at the point where any reasonable shooter will take pictures the few times I want to take them. My real interests are that small footprint (5.8” is my personal sweet spot), full body screen, and daylong battery. Considering how well the 4a is being received, I’m thinking the pixel 5 is looking like a great contender for my new phone.</p>

  • petteri

    Premium Member
    07 August, 2020 - 5:58 pm

    <p>Google should be happy that the Oneplus Nord isn't available on North American shores. While more pricey (at least on a straight Euro to dollar level) it seems to better this on every front. Enough so to justify the higher price. </p>

  • ShaneR

    07 August, 2020 - 6:09 pm

    <p>Don't chime in here often, but…</p><p><br></p><p>My LG G6 is reaching end of life, though I could easily (I think) get a 4th year out of it. That said, I've been thinking about picking my next phone now If I found a good deal. I've had my eye on the Samsung A71 as my carrier had it heavily discounted, but I've also been waiting for this mythical 4a to arrive. Pretty sure it's the 4a I'll grab…If I finally decide a new phone is needed.</p><p><br></p><p>My needs are pretty simple these days and have no desire to take out a second mortgage for the next best thing, so today's mid/low range will suite me fine. Hell, even my wife's lowly Motorola G7 Play works surprisingly well. </p><p><br></p><p>Looking forward to your thoughts, Paul.</p>

    • winner

      07 August, 2020 - 11:39 pm

      <blockquote><em><a href="#559784">In reply to ShaneR:</a></em></blockquote><p>My son had the Moto G5 followed by the Pixel 3a.</p><p>Moto – nice phone, great value, really good battery life. But very poor (almost nonexistent) upgrades, and very mediocre camera.</p><p>Pixel 3a – No bloatware, great camera, monthly security updates and new OS updates first thing, for 3 years.</p><p>It's a tradeoff.</p>

  • solomonrex

    07 August, 2020 - 6:46 pm

    <p>Ultimately, people but the iPhone SE because it's the Toyota Camry if the phone world or because of the accessories. More and more the latter because the Apple watch is far and away better then the competition and they won't make it compatible with other devices, a clear violation of antitrust at this point. Not that their competition is complaining.</p><p><br></p><p>It's amazing to look at the prices and capabilities of the Chinese phones vs what we have in America and wonder how much is Chinese cheating and how much is actually the carriers illegal monopoly exploitation. Samsung is increasingly the only viable Android phone in America, and they've always been very friendly to carriers. They have also raised their prices in an illogical manner.</p>

    • red.radar

      Premium Member
      07 August, 2020 - 8:40 pm

      <blockquote><em><a href="#559790">In reply to solomonrex:</a></em></blockquote><p>People buy the iPhone SE because its the cheapest phone that runs iOS. People get really invested in their ecosytem buying exclusive peripherals, content, services and perhaps aligning their entire family on a common platform. Most rational, normal people understand the sunk costs they have financially and their personal understanding of how to operate the device. The last thing anyone wants to do is change and then create more hassle that consumes that 50 dollar savings.</p><p><br></p><p><br></p><p><br></p>

  • johnh3

    07 August, 2020 - 7:12 pm

    <p>I myself own a iPhone SE (2020) got IP rating for dust/water protection and wireless charging. But I think Pixel 4a are a nice device to. But not avaible in Europe until october 1.</p><p>A kind of strange decision by Google to wait so long time when they have announced it.</p><p><br></p><p><br></p><p><br></p>

  • winner

    07 August, 2020 - 11:36 pm

    <p>I believe the 5a will be out in Oct/Nov and be bigger screen with 5g, so that might essentally be the XL variant.</p>

  • goodbar

    Premium Member
    08 August, 2020 - 11:29 am

    <p>I'll be replacing an Essential PH-1 with the Pixel 4a. I like smaller displays, more pocketable and better for one-hand use. I'm also excited to not need a case again, </p>

  • Michael Rivers

    08 August, 2020 - 1:38 pm

    <p>I thought about trading in my 3aXL for a 4a, but I wasn't happy about getting a smaller screen. In that respect, the 4a is a downgrade.</p>

  • kflott

    08 August, 2020 - 7:43 pm

    <p>Preordered mine, been waiting all summer for this phone.</p><p>Was a Pixel 2 user and then inherited my wife's Pixel 3 that has had terrible battery life for me.</p><p><br></p><p>My needs in a phone are simple by today's standards. A basic camera (I don't need a dozen different lenses), run a few media apps like Youtube Music/Audible, and you know, communicate with others by voice, text, &amp; email. I can't afford $1000+ on a phone so this price point is exactly what I need allowing me to avoid paying for all of the bells and whistles I don't care about.</p><p><br></p>

  • pierrelatour

    08 August, 2020 - 9:39 pm

    <p>Can't wait to read in a year or so, Paul admitting he was wrong for whining about the lack of multiple lens on a 350$ phone, like he once use to whine about the lack of useless thunderbolt ports on laptop or headphone jack on high-end smartphone…</p>

  • jonsimon

    Premium Member
    08 August, 2020 - 10:19 pm

    <p>Expect mine in Canada to arrive on September 10th</p>

  • dhr2018

    10 August, 2020 - 7:46 am

    <p>I have one, just one main problem with this viewpoint of Paul's. I can hardly believe that the Samsung A71 (he explicitly mentioned the S A series in the article, and it is documented in several reviews that the A51`s camera is garbage so I assume he referred to the A71) has a better camera than the 4a. </p><p>Of course I say this based on past experience with Samsung, as I did not use either of those two devices.</p><p>If this is false and the A71 has indeed a better camera then I would be pleasantly surprised.</p><p>Looking forward to the review (of the Pixel) here as well</p>


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