Google Pixel 4a First Impressions

Posted on August 20, 2020 by Paul Thurrott in Android, Mobile with 27 Comments

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.

Pixel 4a t(op), Pixel 4 XL (bottom)

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.

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Comments (34)

34 responses to “Google Pixel 4a First Impressions”

  1. Avatar

    eric_rasmussen

    The camera is pretty good during daytime shots, definitely one of the better cameras available. But with a tripod at night, the astrophotography mode is almost unbelievable. Shots of the Milky Way are breathtaking. People I know with the iPhone 10 and the Galaxy S20 were jealous of the Pixel's nighttime photo prowess.


    But for daytime shots, both of those devices take more detailed photos than the Pixel can. The S20 Ultra is especially incredible, but it also costs $1400. I think the most recent Huawei phones best even the S20, but we can't buy those anymore. :(

  2. Avatar

    BudTugglie

    Hard to understand all of the concern about the material and color of a phone, when almost everyone covers it up with a case.

  3. Avatar

    interloper

    Have always liked the Pixel line and the 4a looks like fantastic value (despite the frustrating release delay in the UK). But please stop with the "overhyped iPhone SE" jibes. The SE has a small, dated screen but the rest of the phone is stellar - it's basically an iPhone 8s.


    It feels premium, has a compact aluminium build and glass back for wireless charging, an excellent camera and even has IP67 dust/water resistance. The latter is essential for many people like myself who use their phones to track outdoor activities, especially in countries with frequently lousy weather. The lack of this feature makes the Pixel 4a - and most other mid-range Android devices - a complete non-starter.


    Both the SE and 4a have compromises - they just happen to be very different ones - that mean neither is "a bad idea" for those who need a certain set of features at a lower price.

  4. Avatar

    harrymyhre

    My friend has a pixel xl 2 and has had zero hardware issues with it. However he BATTLES the u I of the thing every day. He can never figure out where to tap or where to turn. He says it’s the worst phone he has ever used.


    his favorite phone was his Lumia 928 and he rues the day that he went to this pixel.

  5. Avatar

    kevineddy

    So far (roughly 36 hours in) I really like my Pixel 4a. Yes, I should, since I came from a Pixel 1st gen. It's almost exactly the same size body with a much larger screen. That's a big win. The price is excellent, and the photos so far are very good. I've not noticed any performance issues yet. The improvements over the 3a (my wife has one) are immediately obvious. A better screen, twice the storage, more RAM. Same price. My wife likes her 3a and I would have gotten one too but I held out for the 4a and I'm very glad I did.

  6. Avatar

    lightbody

    My Nexus 4 and Nexus 5 were my all-time favourite phones.


    I then switched to Oneplus 3T and 5T, but Oneplus is frustrating me with their sluggish Android updates, and now forcing the Facebook application on you. I yearn to go back to pure Android and timely updates. I also refuse to spend more than about £350 on a phone, which caused me to turn to eBay for my 5T.


    Is the Pixel 4a a suitable replacement for my 5T (128gb/8gb) with its now disappointing battery life, but still superb performance?



  7. Avatar

    ghostrider

    Believe me, these days, simple is good. Don't overdo things, and 18 different versions of the same phone can get tiresome. It wasn't long ago that a 5.8" display would have been considered huge, but Google have crammed that into a small body, which is great as many don't want a slab of a phone in their pocket, so this sounds just about right. No notch (it's 2020 after all), is a bonus. Clean software, good performance, just the right amount of RAM/storage, upgrades for at least the next 3 Android versions, headphone jack (yay) and monthly updates bang on schedule. An excellent camera is just icing (certainly good enough for 95% of people), and the price is spot on. What isn't there to like, and if you want a different colour, buy a coloured case. Easy.

    I haven't said this in a long time, but I'm excited about phones again.

  8. Avatar

    wright_is

    It is funny how things change. A few years ago, people would laugh at a 5.8" screen as ridiculously large and unmanageable as a phone, I mean, it was tablet size!

    Now our phones really are tablet sized and we complain that 5.8" is tiny!

    I have an Hauwei P20 (without a case) and, yes, it is small. You know what? I can actually use it with one hand! My S20+ has a much bigger display and I can see more information on it, but the P20 fits better in the hand. That said, I prefer the S20+ over all.

    But I really miss the polycarbonate backs of my older phones, they felt better in the hand, they actually felt good in the hand, had a certain quality feel to them, something that is missing from the slipperier than a bar of soap glass backed phones, which just feel cheap and "dangerous".

    Question: Paul, what are the antennas like on the Pixel 4a? I grew so used to the Huawei antennas that it was a real shock, and a let down, when I got the Samsung S20+. It showed about 1/3 the signal strength at home and at work and a quick speedtest showed that the signal strength was weaker - around 5mbps instead of 30mbps at home and 0,01mbps at work, instead of 0,05mbps. In town the signal strength on both was full and the S20+ was actually faster than the Huawei, but in less well covered areas, the Samsungs (my wife has an S10, which shows the same characteristics) show the design weakness.

    • Avatar

      ponsaelius

      In reply to wright_is:

      Manufacturers always have a problem that people come in different sizes. If we could only standardise on that then phones could be right sized for all.

    • Avatar

      Paul Thurrott

      I'll need to test this as I move around. It shows less of a signal here at home than it did on the Huawei, and this is Mint Mobile, which is really T-Mobile. I've not had connectivity issues, per se, obviously we have Wi-Fi as well. But I don't have enough info yet.
    • Avatar

      Chris_Kez

      In reply to wright_is:

      I remember the 5" Dell Streak being widely mocked on TWiT in 2010 because it seemed so ridiculously large. But just two years later the Galaxy Note would really bring phablets to mainstream awareness if not full acceptance.


      Agree 100% with the love of polycarbonate. It was a great material in the right hands; I thought Nokia did an outstanding job with many of the Lumia phones. I was less enamored of the Nexus 5X body. I wish Apple would try their hand at another polycarbonate device, but maybe the 5C experience scared them away from that-- which is too bad because the bold colors and sturdy design were a nice departure from the traditional Apple options (their current colors are nice but most people put them in a case for good reason).


      Antennas! I really wish more reviews did extensive antenna and overall call quality tests. I realize there are a lot of variables when you have to deal with connecting to a cell tower but anything would be better than ignoring it. And perhaps we could dispel this notion that "no one makes phone calls anymore". Everyone still makes phone calls, and when we do we want them to work well.

  9. Avatar

    obarthelemy

    Alas, 128GB is too little for me, I don't care to move stuff on and off my phone all the time, and since I'm often out of data coverage I need... whatever I'll feel like listening to+watching+reading on it.this means 256GB mini, preferably 384 which is what I have now.

    Also, I hate today's narrow screens. Not only are they bad for reading, Office, Maps, gaming, even video, but I'm not sure what they're good at. Messaging ?

  10. Avatar

    yoshi

    I'm currently on a 20+, and I want this phone. I hate myself.

    • Avatar

      the escalation

      In reply to yoshi:

      Same. I am using an iPhone XR, but I am drawn to the simplicity of the 4a for some reason. I miss the fingerprint reader, for one. Face ID is great when it works, but frustratingly annoying when it doesn't.

      • Avatar

        yoshi

        In reply to the escalation:

        You may miss that XR if you made the jump. iPhones have a lot of simplicity to them too. Right now I'm debating the 4a or just going back to an iPhone. The S20+ is beautifully built, but the ads all over the place are driving me insane. I don't need to open a stock app and see an ad on the top on a device that costs $1200. For example, I just opened the stock weather app and there was an ad on the top for nursing school. Unacceptable.

  11. Avatar

    domi

    If all you want is a phablet, there are many phablets in the market, even with similar pricing.

    • Avatar

      Paul Thurrott

      That's not all I want. I want a larger display with a great camera, a clean software image, years of regular updates, etc. And Google could have done that for under $450. It's a missed opportunity.
  12. Avatar

    dcdevito

    It’s a great value, no question about it. But I’d argue a $700 iPhone 11 with 128GB storage is an even better buy.

  13. Avatar

    brettscoast

    Excellent post Paul. After reading though there is more upside than down, yes its small but I don't really mind the smaller form factor, specs seem excellent apart from the camera's but I can live with that. The price seems right on for a smartphone of this type no arguments there. Just for your info and other readers it looks as though this phone (128GB) will retail in Australia for around AUD$599.00 on pre order. This is a phone i would pay good money for.

  14. Avatar

    reformedctrlz

    Glad to hear you say positive things about this device - definitely giving me hope that Google will make good decisions with the Pixel 5 around the corner.


    That said I did want to ask something. You often mention enjoying larger screens so it doesn’t come as a surprise that you’re missing the XL model in the lineup here, but I do want to point out that the inverse is far more often true. There is a large market of buyers, including myself, who aren’t given many options when it comes to well made smaller form factor phones. Other than Google and Apple, most OEMs have been moving their screen sizes up more and more every year. I’ve been interested in several recent OnePlus phones, but for me at least anything after 6” just isn’t as comfortable to use.


    There’s obviously a market for larger devices, but it’d be nice for there to be smaller options too. Especially, when it isn’t called out that the latest OnePlus or Samsung phones only come in “XL” sizing. OnePlus cited battery concerns as a reason not to go smaller with the Nord, but if more OEMs would follow Apple’s lead (I know, I know) and stop making slimmer phones every year, then maybe there would be room for a reasonable sized battery. Corning has also cited the issue with their products, OEMs want slimmer and slimmer glass which makes it harder to increase the protections. We get it guys, you can make slim phones - they’re good enough now you can stop.

    • Avatar

      Paul Thurrott

      I'm sure there's a market for both sizes, but if they were going to sell only one, the larger size would make more sense since most phones sold today have larger displays. This was a cost-saving gesture only, which is why it's a bit troubling. People who do prefer larger displays understand they have to pay more for that upgrade. I'd happily pay $80 more or whatever to get an XL version of this.
  15. Avatar

    CaymanDreamin

    I hope the 5's come wider, I felt the 3a was too narrow at 2.8", this is 2.7". Much happier with the 3aXL at 3.0" but I hate having only 64gb. Willing to upgrade if the size is right.

    • Avatar

      Paul Thurrott

      Yeah, the aspect ratio thing is getting weird with phones. I think they go thinner to facilitate some one-handed use, but of course they also go taller, which makes that more difficult.
  16. Avatar

    the escalation

    In reply to RM:


    Wireless charging, I feel, is overrated. There are a number of times - such as at night when I'm in bed, for example - that I'd like to use my phone while it's plugged in and charging. Can't do that with a wireless charger. Also, depending on the charging pad, you may not reap extra benefits such as QuickCharge. I think in probably 95% of scenarios I'd prefer to just plug my phone in with a cord. Of course this is just my personal preference, YMMV.


    Also - if you're at all concerned about privacy, go ahead and delete your social media accounts - Facebook, Twitter, Insta, TikTok, etc. are all harvesting your data, as are Microsoft, Amazon, and Apple.

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