It’s fair to say I’ve had my ups and downs with the Google Pixel. Across four generations of the product line, all of the flagship models have been too expensive, given the uncertainty of an unknown brand and its lack of decent distribution. And each generation has had specific cons, plus a few pros generally tied to Google’s prowess in computational photography.
More specifically, the first generation Pixel too closely copied the iPhone but had a market-best camera system. The second-generation version suffered from endemic reliability issues—I owned three of them—but had a market-best camera system. The third-generation version had a ludicrously large notch on the XL model but had a market-best camera system. And then the fourth-generation version had a bland design … but didn’t even have a market-best camera system.
The problem for Google—and for Pixel fans—is that the firm’s dominance in online search and advertising never helped it get favorable terms from component makers. And as a boutique device maker, Google had to charge too-high prices for handsets that, all too often, had more downsides than upsides. So in early 2019, it tried something different: It released the Pixel 3a and Pixel 3a XL, mid-range handsets that retained the photographic excellent of the more expensive models but in far more affordable packages. They were great phones and were a smash hit with consumers, at least compared to other Pixels, and the success of the Pixel 3a line influenced how the firm would proceed forward with smartphones.
That is, Google isn’t going to release any expensive flagship handsets in late 2020, in a first for Pixel. Instead, the Pixel 5 will be a mid-market handset with 4G/LTE and 5G variants and with lower price tags. That’s fine—in fact, I support this change—but it leaves the Pixel 4a, which would normally have arrived back in May, in a tough spot. With the Pixel 5 now targeting the middle of the market, the Pixel 4a has to be even cheaper, not just from a price tag perspective, but from a components and features perspective. And that’s both good and bad.
That the price—just $350, an incredible value—is among the good points is, of course, obvious; this phone makes the overhyped iPhone SE look like even more of a bad idea. So, too, is the fact that the storage configuration has risen from the middling 64 GB in the Pixel 3a line to a more acceptable 128 GB.
But some of the bad aspects of this strategy change are hitting me—and, I suspect, many others—hard. The Pixel 4 is available only in one size, and it’s small, with no larger XL variant. There is only one camera lens at a time when other mid-market phones are offering more versatile three-lens configurations. There is only one color, black. There is only one storage configuration. There is no wireless charging. And so on; obviously, at a $350 price point, compromises need to be made.
And I am OK with that for the most part. But the problem is that those who want more—a larger display, perhaps, or more storage—can’t upgrade from a base model. There are literally no other options, no configuration choices. The base model is the only model, and you get what you get. And that’s really the biggest problem with the new Pixel strategy: Google saves a lot of money by not offering these options, and it’s not just passing the savings along to you, the potential customer, it’s also passing along the pain … to those who want just a bit more.
For those who do not, or for those who can only afford a $350 phone and look at the $1000 to $1500 flagships of today as if they were fantasies aimed at the rich and shameless, the Google Pixel 4a looks like a viable way forward. And even my first few hours with the device verify that belief. Assuming you can live with the small display and form factor. Which … I probably cannot.
That said, the Pixel 4a is as delightful as I’d expected, and the upside of the small size is it actually looks cute. The polycarbonate shell—be still, my heart—is matte instead of the Pixel 3a’s glossy coating, and I love it even more for this change. This is perhaps the only phone I’d buy this year and not put a case on if I were planning to use it full time. (But yes, I am actually putting a case on it to protect its resale value, as I did with the Pixel 3a.) When was the last time you didn’t use a case … and never worried at all about damaging the phone? (Lumia owners, that was a rhetorical question. Please stand down.)
Aside from the small size and the excellent polycarbonate form factor, the next thing you’ll notice is the rear-mounted fingerprint reader. It wasn’t that long ago that this kind of thing was state of the art and that those of us using Pixels and other phones with rear readers walked around with an air of superiority. Today, of course, facial recognition is all the rage, but unless you have an iPhone, Huawei, or OnePlus flagship, the experience isn’t all that great. And the Pixel 4a’s fingerprint reader already works much better than the Pixel 4’s facial recognition. That’s a win, and not just because of the price point.
The display, while small, looks fine: It’s a 5.81-inch OLED panel with a resolution of 2340 x 1080, so it’s what I’d call a tall HD display, and it’s reasonably bright. I had to bump up the font and display sizes in Display settings because, again, the display is tiny. But it supports Dark theme and Night Light on automatic schedules and has adaptive brightness.
As important, the Pixel 4a has the most sophisticated display of any Pixel yet, at least from a bezels perspective. It’s an-all screen phone if the iPhone is, with similar bezels all around and a hole punch for the camera. It looks great.
The other notable hardware feature is … there’s a headphone jack! I mean … seriously. I’ve moved on to wireless earbuds for the most part, but why doesn’t every phone just have this feature? It’s criminal.
The specs are surprisingly solid, especially given the pricing: The Pixel 4a is powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 730G processor/SoC, a more-than-reasonable 6 GB of RAM, and a perfectly acceptable 128 GB of storage. Connectivity comes via worldwide 4G/LTE cellular, 802.11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 5.0, and NFC for contactless payments, a nice feature to have during a pandemic.
And then there’s the camera. That’s all everyone really cares about, it seems. I’ll need to do some testing here, but there’s only a single wide-angle 12 MP lens with an f/1.7 aperture on the rear and an 8 MP front-facing selfie camera that no one is going to wax poetic about. I can already tell I’m going to miss having an ultra-wide lens—I literally used it several times just this morning—but I’m expecting very good shots overall.
From a software perspective, the Pixel 4a continues the tradition from previous Pixels with a clean Pixel software image with a few unique features that is devoid of both crapware and, conversely, anything truly interesting. It’s gotten a bit bland, frankly, and moving from the system I was using—a Huawei P30 Pro with the Lawnchair launcher—the Pixel experience seems a bit tired. Upgrading to Android 11 should help a bit, as there are a few UI niceties in there that I’ll be writing about soon. But all Pixels also get monthly security updates, quarterly Pixel feature drops, and annual Android version upgrades, which is nice.
So we’ll see how it goes. So far, I’ve switched over Mint Mobile to the new handset, installed about half the apps I use regularly, and have made some basic configuration changes, but have more to do. I’ll continue configuring it and then will simply use it normally, and since I take pictures every day, I should have some good samples soon.
I’ll have more soon, but I can already tell that this phone is fulfilling its basic promise, and that there’s nothing quite like it in this price range. The Pixel 4a, despite a lack of configuration options, looks like a winner.