Google Pixel 4a: The Morning After

Posted on August 21, 2020 by Paul Thurrott in Android, Google, Hardware, Mobile with 21 Comments

Having now spent some more time with the Google Pixel 4a, I’m reminded of the highs and lows of the Pixel experience. But the key message here, I think, is that this handset is a tremendous value that should satisfy the needs of most people. Assuming, yes, you can deal with the small display.

I know. I don’t want to keep harping on it either. But every time I reach for this phone, pick it up, or lift it towards my face to unlock it (using the rear fingerprint reader, of course), I have the same reaction. Man. I wish this display was bigger.

The Pixel 4a display isn’t that much smaller than the Pixel 4XLs. But I found that display smallish too

The good news? That’s the only major issue I have with the Pixel 4a so far, and it’s not going to be a problem for everyone.

Not that there aren’t other, more minor issues. There are. For example, I feel like the Pixel software experience has gotten quite stale, and that feeling continues as I use the Pixel 4a. I’ll try to define the problem more clearly for the review, but the basic gist, I think, is that Android on the Pixel hasn’t changed demonstrably in years. It’s familiar. But it’s also wearing out its welcome, like the last season of Mad Men.

The other minor issue, of course, is the camera system. There isn’t one. Instead, Google provides only a single wide-angle camera rear lens with limited digital zoom capabilities. And just this morning, on my daily dog walking ritual, I ran into a good example of the problem when three deer crossed the path in front of us, with one walking through a shallow part of the creek and the other two backtracking up the wooded hill they had just come from.

If I had had the Huawei P30 Pro, I would have caught some stunning shots of the deer, thanks to its optical zoom and rich HDR capabilities. With the Pixel 4a, I was able to get some decent pictures, but the zoom stalls out earlier than I’d like and results in washed-out images.

To be clear, this isn’t a huge issue. The Pixel 4a camera is generally very good, and while the sunny morning afforded ideal conditions for almost any smartphone-based camera, I was instantly reminded of all the things I like about the Pixel camera experience.

There’s a fun effect in the viewfinder when you bring the device up to take a shot of the outdoors and the sky reverse fades from a dull white to a more correct blue color. This happens in the time it takes you to raise the device, and you can tell that it’s going to take a great photo. It’s nice.

But it’s not just outdoor shots. Last night, in observance of our pandemic ritual of “almost weekend,” my wife made our now-traditional one round of cocktails and I figured I’d take a picture. The first shot in what was, granted, a somewhat dimly-lit room, was dull and unexceptional.

But then I remembered that Pixels have a great Night Sight capability that isn’t just for very dark rooms; it can often be used to improve shots in any sub-par lighting situation. So I tried the picture again with Night Sight. I had to hold the device steady for 3-4 seconds, which is fine. And the resulting shot was better, with truer colors and maybe even a bit of enhanced sharpness.

Aside from the camera, I spent time configuring settings and installing, signing-in to, and configuring the remainder of the apps I use regularly, including entertainment apps (Audible, PocketCasts, and Sonos), reading apps (Pocket, Medium, New York Times), and some utilities (Microsoft Authenticator, Hue, and so on). I downloaded a bit of content, like the audiobook I’m currently listening to, though I go a lot lighter on that stuff when I’m not traveling. And I connected the Pixel 4a to my Galaxy Buds+, which was surprisingly problematic (I blame Samsung) and my car, which was not.

With that all done, I can use the phone normally. I go for walks every day and take photos. I go to the gym every day and listen to audiobooks or podcasts. I listen to music via Sonos at home. I dim or change the lights with Hue. And so on.

It’s too early to make any determinations on performance or battery life, but I’ll make some general observations. The performance seems great, but it’s early. And the battery life is nothing special. I left the phone sitting on my desk when I went to bed with a 79 percent charge and when I woke up it was already done to 64 percent somehow. (I don’t charge overnight and prefer a more mindful/purposeful approach here so that no device is ever just sitting there on a charger.) The P30 Pro I’m coming off of is magical from a battery life perspective, so this was a bit troubling. But the Pixel 4 XL is like this too, and that was workable.

I’ll spend a lot more time with it. In fact, I’ll spend every day with it.

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