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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