Google Pixel 4a Review: A Budget Winner

Posted on August 29, 2020 by Paul Thurrott in Android, Mobile with 20 Comments

With its delightful polycarbonate unibody, low pricing, and decent camera system, the Google Pixel 4a is the new sweet spot, assuming you can live with its tiny display and form factor, and a few other limitations.

Design

Though some may criticize the Pixel 4a’s unibody polycarbonate design as being plastic or even cheap, I think it looks great and feels great in the hand, and is a marked improvement over the glass and aluminum sandwich that predominates in the industry right now. There is just something very right about polycarbonate, and it helps define the handset’s minimalist vibe.

Google struggled through three and a half generations of Pixel handsets to define a look and feel that would be recognizable and iconic, but its original approach—a two-tone design with a glass “visor” on the top rear and an aluminum (later frosted glass) bottom—failed to make a lasting impression. Oddly, a more minor design element—Pixel power buttons are playfully implemented in an accent color—has proven more timeless, and the Pixel 4a continues this subtle design touch, in this case in a light mint green color.

The net effect is a phone I want to hold and turn around in my hand during idle times, and not hide under a protective case. And while that’s not particularly unique in the flagship market where expensive baubles are the norm, it is much more unusual in the far more affordable market segment in which the Pixel 4a exists. As important, I’d feel safe doing so: The Pixel 4a’s polycarbonate unibody is super-durable and can withstand drops and scratches in ways that glass and aluminum cannot. So getting a case is optional. When was the last time we could say that about a smartphone?

Overall, the Pixel 4a design succeeds not just by being different but by also being better in ways that matter. Many people confuse good design with “looks,” but it also encompasses function and the overall experience. Other handsets may be prettier to look at, but few have as good a design as the Pixel 4a, at any price. It’s not going to cause stares, just make you happy.

Display

The Pixel 4a has a 5.8-inch OLED display that delivers Full HD+ resolution (2340 x 1080) at 443 pixels per inch (PPI) in a small but tall form factor with a 19.5:9 aspect ratio. It has always-on capabilities, which allow for at-a-glance access to the time, date, temperature, and battery charge when the display is sleeping, plus active notification icons. It delivers HDR capabilities, too, though it’s not overly-colorful, bright, or glossy. Put simply, it is a good display at this price point.

Google also makes the most of the Pixel 4a’s tiny display by delivering it in the most modern Pixel display design yet. This is the first “all-display” Pixel, with no notch or giant forehead/chin bezels, and its wraparound bezel appears to be even smaller than those on Apple’s most expensive flagships. And there’s a circular hole in the upper left of the display for the front-facing camera, another first for a Pixel.

Hardware and specs

The Pixel 4a is powered by a midmarket System on a Chip (SoC), the Qualcomm Snapdragon 730G with Adreno 618 graphics, along with a generous 6 GB of RAM and 128 GB of non-expandable storage.

Overall, the performance has been quite good, all around, but I had one little hiccup that, thankfully, ended up being temporary. After about a week of use, the sign-in time after pressing the rear-facing fingerprint reader went from instantaneous to a weird and consistent three-second wait. That severely impacted the user experience after waiting unsuccessfully for a few days for it to correct itself, I finally rebooted the phone. That fixed it—authentication time is as quick as ever, again—and it hasn’t happened since.

Beyond that, I’ve not experienced any performance issues, and while the Pixel 4a is obviously no gaming handset, it seems to deliver what’s needed for the everyday tasks that most users will expect to undertake. And that includes my own needs, like photo taking, social media posting, email triage, media playback, and fitness tracking.

My fear of course, based on my previous experience with the Pixel 3a XL, is that performance will degrade over time. But so far, even certain actions that would trigger a bit of a pause on the 3a XL—like processing a just-taken photo—are behaving normally with the Pixel 4a. I’m guessing that the faster processor and 50 percent more RAM can be credited for that change, and I hope it continues.

Cameras

Coming off the Huawei P30 Pro, it took me a while to adjust to the Pixel 4a’s lack of multiple lenses and optical zoom, not to mention the surreal and colorful HDR pop of the photos it creates. I know that’s an unfair comparison, but that’s what I did. Sorry.

But the Pixel 4a has a great camera, despite its limitations, and most people will be delighted by the consistently solid shots. That the Pixel 4a’s camera is the leader in this price class is obvious. That it’s better overall than some flagships is, well, delicious.

This is a tough shot to get right, but the sky is blue, a win

The rear camera consists of a single 12.2 MP wide-angle lens with an f/1.7 aperture, a 77-degree field of view, and optical and electronic image stabilization. So there’s no ultra-wide or telephoto lens, let alone optical zoom. And as with its Pixel 3a predecessor, the Pixel 4a lacks a Pixel Neural Core processor, which improved image processing speed in Google’s previous flagships. But unlike the Pixel 3a, I never experienced any post-processing waiting. If anything, I’ve been impressed with the speed of the Pixel 4a’s image sensor as it adapts to lighting changes as you move it around.

Great dusk shot

I do miss an ultra-wide lens most of all, but the overall experience that Google delivers through the Pixel 4a’s single camera lens is impressive. At a high level, the Pixel 4a delivers a consistently high hit rate when it comes to taking quick snapshots: You just point and shoot, and the resulting shots are consistently pretty great. And if you don’t mind fidgeting with a few controls, you can improve matters further still as the Camera app supplies dual-exposure controls via its Brightness and Shadows sliders. There’s also a third slider for Zoom.

This might be the only decent zoom shot I’ve taken with the Pixel 4a

That the Pixel 4a’s camera lens first debuted almost three years ago in the Pixel 2 line and is physically unchanged since then would normally be troubling. But there is a wealth of Google computational photography expertise working behind the scenes to augment the somewhat out-of-date hardware, and the capabilities here are notable.

Great outdoor shot

It provides an excellent Night Sight mode for low-light shots, Top Shot for capturing the perfect image by analyzing the scene and taking up to 90 shots and picking the best one, a Portrait Mode that lets you configure the depth of field while taking a shot or later, HDR+ capabilities, Motion Auto Focus for sticking the focus to a moving object, and Super Res Zoom, which is supposed to improve digital zoom to the point where it is “roughly competitive with the 2X optical zoom lenses on many other smartphones.” (That has not been my experience: Zoom is a weak link in the Pixel 4a camera system.)

Decent drink shot

The front-facing camera doesn’t appear to have changed since the Pixel 3a, but it is adequate. It’s an 8 MP wide-angle and fixed focus lens with an f/2.0 aperture and a slightly wider (when compared to the rear camera) 84-degree field of view.

Security

The Pixel 4a reverts to the rear-mounted fingerprint reader that graced all previous Pixels save the Pixel 4 and 4 XL, which feature facial recognition capabilities instead. This was a good move: The fingerprint reader is fast and accurate in ways that Google’s facial recognition system never was, though I did get used to it. But in these COVID times, not having to remove or think about a mask is an unintended benefit.

The Pixel 4a also contains the Titan M security module that first debuted in the Pixel 3 family. Google describes Titan M as “an enterprise-grade security chip” that’s designed “to secure your most sensitive on-device data and operating system.” In addition to its Android security capabilities, Titan M secures the bootloader while the operating system is loading and prevents malicious bootloader unlocking attempts.

Audio-video

Given its small display, you won’t be surprised to discover that the Pixel 4a doesn’t deliver a cinematic experience when viewing movies and other videos. But it’s not a horrible experience, and you can pinch to zoom video playback so that it completely fills the available display space, which I like. And the stereo speakers sound great, again, given the smallness of the device, and are evenly balanced, unlike with some previous Pixels.

Anecdotally, I was surprised that the Pixel 4a worked fine for watching videos on the elliptical trainer at the gym, but it did. (I use Galaxy Buds+ earbuds for sound on the elliptical.)

Unique hardware features

The Pixel 4a includes a headphone jack, which is a rarity these days. I didn’t even test it, however, since I long ago transitioned to wireless earbuds. But I don’t see any reason why handset makers have been removing this feature, and those who rely on it will be delighted by its inclusion.

Battery

The Pixel 4a comes with a 3140 mAh battery, a slight improvement over the Pixel 3a’s 3000 mAh unit. And there’s an 18-watt fast charger in the box, which is appreciated, but there’s no wireless charging.

Unfortunately, battery life is middling at best, and I find myself regularly charging it throughout the day when possible because it seems to get low quickly. It also loses a substantial charge—usually between 10 and 20 percent—overnight when it’s just sitting there on my desk. This is perhaps another unfair comparison because the P30 Pro I was previously using routinely delivered about a day and a half of life and I never worried about charging it. But you’ll want to babysit this one.

Software

Like previous Pixels, the Pixel 4a comes with a clean but “Pixel-ized” version of Android that adds several new features and even a few unique standalone apps, though none of that can be categorized as crapware.

Beyond the standard lineup of Google apps, you’ll find useful Recorder and Personal Safety apps. The former is an audio recorder with automatic transcription capabilities, while the latter helps you configure your emergency contacts and medical information in case anything happens to you. Plus, you can enable optional features like car crash detection with automated 911 calling and crisis alerts so you’re notified if anything bad happens nearby. There’s also a Pixel Tips app.

A somewhat new Styles & Wallpapers utility lets you customize the home and lock screens in ways that are not possible in stock Android, including icon shape, icon style, font, and color customizations. Despite this, you can’t remove the Google Search bar from the home screen, which I’d prefer, especially given the scarcity of on-screen real estate. Other Android launchers allow this.

Pricing and availability

The Pixel 4a costs $350 and comes only in black (or, as Google calls it, Just Black). There are no configuration options or upgrades available, no fun color options as in the past, and no larger XL form factor.

Recommendations and conclusions

The Google Pixel 4a is an excellent and inexpensive smartphone that delivers unique value at a time when such a thing is especially appreciated, assuming of course that you can live with the small display size and a few missing capabilities.

This isn’t the phone for me as I miss the XL form factor and an ultra-wide camera lens. And yet I find myself drawn to this handset. There’s just something right about it. I wish I could keep using it. And I would do so, if Google had just made a few upgrade concessions. Maybe the Pixel 4a 5G, which will have a slightly bigger display and an ultra-wide camera, will be good enough to keep me in the Pixel community. We’ll see.

But if you prefer the smaller form factor and can live with a single camera lens and its middling battery life, the Google Pixel 4a is a winner. And it is highly recommended.

At-a-glance

Pros

  • Great price, great value
  • Excellent rear camera for a single-lens system
  • Modern and minimalist design, polycarbonate body
  • Fast and accurate fingerprint reader
  • Headphone jack

Cons

  • No configuration options, no XL form factor
  • No fun color options
  • No ultra-wide camera lens, optical zoom
  • Middling battery life
  • No wireless charging or water resistance

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Comments (23)

23 responses to “Google Pixel 4a Review: A Budget Winner”

  1. ghostrider

    None of the cons are deal breakers for most. Plain and simple, this is just a great phone for a great price. Google seem to have finally found their groove - and it's not competing with Samsung and Apple thankfully at the high end. I can imagine the Pixel 5 will also be refreshing and if it's priced around $600 or less should be a very good buy.

  2. ThemainJP

    I've had my Pixel 4a for five days now and I'm very happy with it. The screen feels a little small coming from an iPhone XR, but for me the biggest adjustment has been the weight... it's almost too light. But it's been fine performance wise, the camera is sufficient for my needs, and I'm enjoying the integrations I can do with Windows that weren't possible with iOS. Not having a bunch of manufacturer/carrier bloatware makes such a difference in the Android experience.

  3. Fuller1754

    A display of 5.8" is by no means tiny, at least by my standards. It's certainly bigger than I would ideally like. Still, looks like a great phone for a good price. Your list of cons has nothing I care about except for battery life, and I'm thrilled it has a headphone jack. *Sigh* Makes me wish I had waited instead of getting the iPhone SE, my first (and last) iPhone. If I were still in the market, I would definitely buy this.

  4. beematthews

    Me, reading about the Pixel 4a's 5.8 inch "tiny display", whilst holding my iPhone 8 with it's 4.7 inch display, thinking that screen must be massive! :)

  5. brettscoast

    Excellent write-up Paul. I really like the smaller form factor of this phone. I can live with the cameras on this device as there is much upside here in terms of features and performance. Have pre-ordered from my local retailer here in Australia. Looks like it will retail for around AUD$599.00 to purchase outright. 128GB onboard storage is I believe the sweet spot.

  6. kevineddy

    So far I've been getting a day and a half battery life at least on my Pixel 4a, including using it on my 35 minute run that uses GPS and playing music. I've not noticed a drain on the battery overnight like you described either, but I'll watch for that.


    I know battery life is highly dependent on personal app usage, but so far it's fantastic compared to my first gen Pixel.

  7. kazzed

    I know I'm in the minority, but I like the Pixel's "tiny display and form factor." For me, personally, I wouldn't want a phone any larger and actually wish there was more of a market for smaller phones. I'm hoping that the rumored 5.4-inch iPhone 12 will change things, and that will spark a new round of small Android phones.


    It seems like phones may finally be getting to a point where you don't have to "settle" for anything that isn't flagship-specs. Just like I personally don't need a bleeding-edge laptop, I may not be desiring a flagship phone in the future. And that's a good thing!

  8. wright_is

    Regarding zoom, even the Samsung Galaxy S20+ doesn't zoom well. Anything over 3x is pretty useless and the results are very disappointing. The only shot that worked at all was a cloud reflecting rainbow colours at 10x, but that is the only zoom shot in 6 months of use that was at all usable.

    If you want zoom, you need a proper camera with real glass - you have to take into account, a decent long focal length lens costs more than a Pixel 4a, a professional long focal length lens probably costs more than a Note 20 Ultra.

  9. wright_is

    I have a Galaxy S20+ and I would love it, if it had a polycarbonate back, instead of soapy-glass slipperiness. As it is, it spends all of its time in a case, so that you can actually hold it properly, let alone protect it, when it inevitably falls to the ground.

  10. RobertJasiek

    Let me give my different opinion why this smartphone, although having reasonably solid hardware, a tolerable price and a maybe tolerable camera bump, is unacceptable:

    • the manufacturer disrespects privacy
    • the operating system disrespects privacy
    • updates are provided for too few years by far
    • the display ratio 19.5:9 is almost that of a beanpole
    • the display is destroyed by the camera hole
  11. RonV42

    How difficult does Google make it to swap out all their apps and home page stuff with Microsoft launcher and their apps? I know on other "budget" phones like Nokia and Motorola it's easy to replace the stock items with Microsoft offerings. After having 3 generations of Moto devices may want to try something different.

  12. minke

    Personally, I am super happy to see a smallish phone again, with a headphone jack too! For me a phone is a portable communication device, and I need one that will fit in any pocket with ease for all day portability. I so rarely listen to anything using headphones that the only time I do is with a cheap pair of plug-in headphones. If there was no headphone jack I just wouldn't use headphones--not worth it for me to purchase a wireless set. The one thing I would really, really miss is water resistance. That is the #1 cause of phone failure in my experience, and it has made me hesitate. Frankly, I'm not sure I could get through a couple of years with a phone that is not water resistant. Just yesterday I was making myself an evening cocktail and when I opened a can of tonic water it sprayed all over the place including inundating my phone on the table.

  13. ShaneR

    I'm not too concerned about the screen size, personally. Looking at the specs, the screen is just a tad larger than my current LG G6, but in a slightly smaller body. That would be perfect. Granted, I haven't used, or held, today's larger phones, so maybe I can't miss what I've never had.


    My main concern was that the 4a appeared to use gesture based navigation. Something I'm sure I could get used to, but I'm getting old and I'm terrified of newfangled ideas. ;)


    But...I see there's an option to switch to "3 button" navigation, if so desired. All good. All that said, I'm probably going to wait until the other Pixels are released before I jump.


    Thanks for your thoughts, Paul.

  14. millicentpartridge2

    5.8" is large - too large for me. 6.5" handsets are phablets - fine if you carry a purse. If only an Android manufacturer would build a 4" premium handset.

    The elephant in the room with this review is the iPhone SE, which is $50 more but includes the fastest CPU available in any smartphone period. The longevity implied by that should make the $50 an easy win for budget conscious buyers hoping to hold on to the phone for 5 years or more.

  15. proftheory

    Remember the saying "You can get it in any color you want as long as it's black."


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