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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Comments (24)

24 responses to “Google Pixel 4a: The Morning After”

  1. rusty chameleon

    I may be getting one to replace my 2XL which has served admirably but is almost 3 years old.

    Actually this screen size is perfect for me, as I don't like carrying a large phone in my pocket.

  2. IanM

    This article is great but let's focus on the big news: Paul is back on Pocket Casts! :)

  3. crunchyfrog

    For the money, the 3a XL was a good phone and I believe my new 4a is fantastic. Also, I want to know what's in that drink. Looks good.

  4. lightbody

    Thanks for the write up Paul. I think I'm waiting for the next larger cheap Pixel phone, although not exactly sure what one that will be, or when.


    My Oneplus 5T is an 18:9 display - when I compare it to a new 20:9 display I'm amazed how much less text you can see on the display. The gmail inbox list is a good example, its much more usable on my older 18:9 display - so its not just about screen size for me.

  5. ZeroPageX

    I never liked the trend of phones getting bigger and bigger, even the small versions. I may be the only one, but the smaller size makes me happy. They should still offer an XL version for everyone else though.


    I used spend way too much on flagship phones, but the 3a and 4a are just better overall than any of them I've owned, and I didn't get that horrible feeling in my gut after clicking "Submit" on the order page either time. I haven't noticed any more lag when using apps or browsing the web after I "downgraded" to the 3a, and I've had the convenience of a headphone jack and fingerprint reader. The 3a had the best battery life of any smartphone I've ever owned. I love that the experience hasn't changed much with the 4a except the increased storage and better screen. I'll stay on the "a" train if they keep it going like this.

  6. elhieger

    I think you may be surprised with the Motorola G series, when you consider what you get for the price. It does what most people truly need in a device, and the camera is perfectly fine. Now, if only Microsoft could acquire Motorola from Lenovo...

    • dbonds

      In reply to elhieger:


      ...cough...Nokia...cough....


      I'm not sure if MSFT would want to go down the "manufacturer" road again, although they're somewhat already doing that with the Duo. I suppose it's different tackling that market with an established OS (Android) vs Windows Phone (where they went with Nokia).

  7. maxima

    Comparing the camera of the h30pro (700.00) to 4a (350)

    I am shocked the more expensive phone has better camera

  8. rmlounsbury

    I was ready to get a Note 10+ but with Paul reviewing the 4a and I revisiting the rest of the reviews I went ahead and ordered one.


    I don't much care about wireless charing, waterproof rating, and other fluffy add ons. I was interested in the Note for its stylus and baked into the OS Microsoft Your App support.


    But, Google seems to have gone back to their Nexus style of simple but supremely functional and not expensive. I actually look forward to the polycarbonate case instead of glass. It's more durable and easier to hold without feeling slick as a bar of soap.


    I thought about waiting for the Pixel 5 but based on what we know I assume it'll be north of $600 and I'm not sure it can justify that with dual cameras, wireless charging, 90hz, and slightly more RAM and processor. I can solve the camera system issues with Moment lenses.

  9. jlmerrill

    Why does everyone want a big phone?

    • Paul Thurrott

      In reply to jlmerrill:

      For practical and completely understandable reasons.


      The most obvious is that I have large hands and typing on the Pixel 4a's small display is very difficult. But I also find it hard to read text on a smaller display, and when you bump up the size there's not enough room on-screen so icon names, items in lists, etc. get truncated and you can't see all of the information.


      What I don't understand is why people even question this need. It's fine that small display devices exist. But there needs to be an option with a larger display too. I tested the Pixel 3 and 3 XL side-by-side a couple of years ago because I was curious if I could deal with the smaller size, but I couldn't.

      • sevenacids

        In reply to paul-thurrott:

        I don't question the need for big phones, but I question the vanishing of smaller devices. I'd like to have a smaller phone but I've got no choice because there are only big ones now. For example, if there was an iPhone 5s sized phone but with a display that covers the whole device (remember the 5s had really large bezels back then), I'd be more than happy. But there is none.


        A smaller phone is way easier to carry around in a pocket. Plus, to do anything serious, I will find every phone cumbersome to use no matter how big it is. I'm way faster and feel more comfortable on my 12,5" laptop with keyboard and mouse. To me, a phone is simply not a productivity device, it's a communication device. You can check this out by trying to write a long comment like this or larger text (1000+ words) on a touch keyboard.


        It's okay that there are big phones. But I think there would be a reasonable market for smaller devices too.

      • RobertJasiek

        In reply to paul-thurrott:

        Except that small display smartphones (iPhone SE 2016 or smaller) vanished.

        • Paul Thurrott

          Smartphone makes generally sell what consumers want. This is what makes only offering small screen versions of the iPhone SE and Pixel 4a so confusing.
          • RobertJasiek

            In reply to paul-thurrott:

            You were right that different consumers have different hands, eh, needs. You are wrong to suggest that consumers would have a uniform desire. Current mainstream consumers buy mid-sized smartphones to phablets but there are also millions wishing really small smartphones. Confusing? Let us say: surprising.

            • luthair

              In reply to RobertJasiek:


              I think you're projecting your own desires onto the population, if there really were as you say millions wanting a small phone Samsung would certainly be filling that niche as they do every other niche.

              • RobertJasiek

                In reply to luthair:

                These reasons support an expectation of millions wishing a small smartphone: 1) with ca. 1.3 bn smartphones sold in 2019, even if only every 500th consumer wanted a small snartphone, it would be (more than 2) millions; 2) in discussions, quite a few people prefer a small smartphone, and not extraordinarily fewer than people preferring mid to large smartphones; 3) when small smartphones were available, they altogether sold in millions.

                Not every manufacturer would sell millions and not every model would reach such numbers but manufacturers would earn good money also from small smartphones, and extra money from those otherwise not buying a (new) smartphone.

                So it is not just my preference.

  10. kherm

    The more I read about this phone the more I am disinterested by any and all flagships. I would be really interested in your opinions of Samsung's A71 (very similar insides to the 4a but a huge screen) as well as LG's offerings.

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