Google Pixel 4a 5G First Impressions

Arriving about a month after the Pixel 5, and about three months after the Pixel 4a, the Pixel 4a 5G—sometimes called the Pixel 4a (5G) or Pixel 4a with 5G—is the closest we’ll get to an XL Pixel this year.

And boy, have I struggled with that. There have been some ups. And some downs. And then finally, resignation. The 2020 Pixel lineup is what it is: An admission by Google of defeat in the flagship part of the smartphone market. And a recalibration of what it means to be a “phone by Google,” with lower costs, fewer capabilities, and, one hopes, a return to the value proposition of the Nexus years.

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The $350 Pixel 4a was absolutely a step in that direction. And so too is the Pixel 4a 5G, which costs $500 and appears to nicely justify the additional cost while addressing most of the issues I had with its smaller predecessor.

So. What do you get for that additional $150?

Most obviously, you get a bigger handset with a bigger display. So if the size of the diminutive Pixel 4a was problematic for you—as it was for me—this change alone may warrant a look. The Pixel 4a 5G is not huge by any measure, but I find it to be right-sized, if that makes sense. It’s clearly bigger than the Pixel 4a and almost identical in height, while being thinner side-to-side, when compared to the Pixel 4 XL.

Pixel 4a (left), Pixel 4a 5G (center), Pixel 4 XL (right)

Second, you get a second camera sensor, fixing another major issue I had with the Pixel 4a. This year, Google dropped the telephoto sensor that debuted last year in the Pixel 4/4 XL and adopted a more versatile ultra-wide lens. This was a smart move, though the continued use of the same years-old primary camera sensor is getting harder to justify.

Whatever. Taking just a handful of photos indoor last night and outdoors this morning, I am instantly transported back to that world in which Pixel cameras were the best on the market. The shots I’ve taken so far are excellent, and while I know it’s still early, I feel like I’m ready for the high quality and consistency that this camera system will deliver.

Third, the internal chipsets are a little different. Where the Pixel 4a provided a Qualcomm Snapdragon 730G processor with Adreno 618 graphics and 4G/LTE connectivity, the Pixel 4a 5G comes with a slightly more capable Qualcomm Snapdragon 765G processor and Adreno 620 graphics and 5G connectivity, albeit only in the more common but less powerful Sub-6 variant. (Verizon customers can pay another $100 for a Pixel 4a 5G with mmWave compatibility as well.)

That said, my understanding is that Google is somewhat underclocking the processor, perhaps for heat reasons, and that it should deliver about the same performance as the original 4a. That’s … OK, certainly for now. We’ll have to wait and see whether this changes over time.

Fourth and finally, the Pixel 4a 5G has a larger 3885 mAh battery, which should solve any battery life concerns triggered by the Pixel 4a and its smaller 3140 mAh battery. Here again, I have only a little bit of experience, obviously, but it looks like battery life will be solid. 18-watts of wired fast charging—there is no wireless charging—will help, but we’re getting to the point where 18-watts can hardly be considered fast anymore.

Beyond all that, the Pixel 4a 5G is either identical or nearly so with its smaller predecessor, both inside and out. It features the same black polycarbonate body, which I like, though some color options would be nice. And it has the same asymmetrically-sized bezel, which is larger on the bottom of the display than elsewhere for some reason. (The Pixel 5’s bezel is the same width all the way around.) At this price point, I have no issues.

On the rear, the Pixel 4a 5G has a larger camera module to accommodate its additional camera sensor, but the same rear-mounted fingerprint reader with the same too-shallow depth; a case helps the finger more easily locate it: I purchased an interesting plant-based case from Pela that is soft and easily removed.

Power is via USB-C, of course, and the Pixel 4a 5G has two surprisingly strong and distortion-free stereo speakers that don’t suffer from the problems that Pixel 5 owners are struggling with. (That handset uses a terrible under-display system for sound on the top/left speaker and it’s horribly unbalanced.) This was a nice surprise.

The Pixel 4a 5G also has the same 6 GB of RAM, which is perfectly adequate, and the same 128 GB of middling UFS 2.1 storage as its predecessor. The same 8 MP fixed-focus selfie camera. The same dual-SIM (nano-SIM/eSIM) capabilities and so on. It’s like the Pixel 4a. But bigger.

Overall, I’m surprised by how much I like the Pixel 4a 5G. I sort of thought of it as settling in some way, but the only ways in which this handset is inferior to the Pixel 4 XL I’m trading in—raw performance, a telephoto camera sensor, and wireless charging—are not an issue, at least for now. And there are some things I really prefer, like its ultra-wide camera sensor and its polycarbonate body. Oh, and the price, though I’ll feel the backside of those savings when I have to trade this in a year from now.

That’s OK. That’s a problem for future Paul. As is my eventual review. More soon.

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Conversation 17 comments

  • yoshi

    Premium Member
    19 November, 2020 - 9:48 am

    <p>It's going to be hard for me to resist this one. I'm always drawn to the Pixel line. </p>

  • faustxd9

    Premium Member
    19 November, 2020 - 9:56 am

    <p>I bought the Pixel 4a and while I do like it, the small size is hard to swallow. I am debating between the 4a 5G and the mid level Samsung but since I am on Google FI, this is probably the better (and cheaper) option.</p>

  • djross95

    Premium Member
    19 November, 2020 - 10:54 am

    <p>For me, this handset is the sweet spot in Google's line-up. Glad to see that your initial impressions were positive! With T-Mobile's trade-in program, I can give them my 3a and get half off the 4a 5G (over 24 months, I assume). At that price it's an absolute steal. </p>

  • MikeCerm

    19 November, 2020 - 11:06 am

    <p>Definitely the one to get if you have to get one of this years Google phone, but it's too bad they couldn't have left 5G off of this model and cut the price by $50 or $100. For anyone buying this phone, 5G will offer no tangible benefit, but having another $50 or $100 would be immediately noticeable. For $400 or $450, this would be a no-brainer recommendation. Anyone asks you what phone to buy, "just get the 4a if you want a small/cheap phone, or the 4a XL if you want something a little bigger." At $500, it's like, "you might just want to spend $600 on the Galaxy S20" because that's about what they're going for now.</p>

    • Pbike908

      19 November, 2020 - 11:16 am

      <blockquote><em><a href="#594210">In reply to MikeCerm:</a></em></blockquote><p><br></p><p>Yeah, I agree. It's either the Pixel 4a5 or wait for a good sale on the Galaxy S20. I am no a fan of S20FE — too big, wonky fingerprint sensor and wonky proximity sensor.</p>

  • sirdilbert

    Premium Member
    19 November, 2020 - 11:32 am

    <p>Paul, I am not sure where you get your sushi/sashimi, but it looks good regardless of what camera you use. Have to rate the 4a based on other shots due to my bias towards the sushi. :)</p>

  • rlcronin

    19 November, 2020 - 12:22 pm

    <p>I returned my Pixel 5 because of the volume issue. I couldn't hear callers talking to me if there was a lot of background noise (e.g. outside on a busy street, in a restaurant, etc.). My 4a 5G should be here Saturday. I'm looking forward to it, all the more now because Mikey likes it!</p>

  • jdmp10

    19 November, 2020 - 1:26 pm

    <p>I thought about the Pixel 5 as well as the 4a 5G but having gotten used to a top tier SoC the last several years and watching as many videos possible on the 5 and 4a 5G, the performance hit is noticeable apart from the plastic cheap feeling build.</p><p><br></p><p>When last year's excellent LG V50 is readily available for under $350 unlocked with a SD855, 6GB of RAM, 128GB of Storage and expandable up to 2TB, best phone HiFi DAC, QHD+ OLED display, list goes on and on then reasoning with paying $500 (4a 5G) to $699 for the 5, it becomes harder to jusitfy.</p>

    • winner

      19 November, 2020 - 1:58 pm

      <blockquote><em><a href="#594277">In reply to jdmp10:</a></em></blockquote><p>For me it just boils down to high consistency in photos, and immediate security and OS updates versus the potentially better HW in other handsets.</p>

  • wordz42

    Premium Member
    19 November, 2020 - 5:26 pm

    <p>Graf that starts "Fourth and finally" — "…but it looks like battery life will be sold" [solid?]</p>

    • Paul Thurrott

      Premium Member
      21 November, 2020 - 9:04 am

      Fixed, thanks!

  • rmlounsbury

    Premium Member
    19 November, 2020 - 6:51 pm

    <p>The one thing that has surprised me the most about the Pixel 4a is how good it's battery life has been. My typical daily usage has me with near 50% left in the tank by the end of the day. On days where I really push it I still end up around 20-30% battery life left. So, the smaller battery on the 4a has been surprisingly good. </p><p><br></p><p>As I noted on the earlier post about the Pixel line; I still think the 730G leaves something to be desired. To be clear, the 4a is an excellent deal and at the price the 730G is good. But, it does leaving me wanting for a more powerful SoC. I'll be curious to see how the 4a 5G performs in your review. I may ultimately end up grabbing a Note 10 Plus off Swappa which now that it is a year and change old can be had for $600. The Note 10 also has the bonus of getting 3 Android updates instead of the traditional 2 so it should get Android 12. </p>

    • Paul Thurrott

      Premium Member
      21 November, 2020 - 9:04 am

      It’s been fine so far, but the concern is the long-term. I feel like the performance will always need an asterisk until more time goes by.

  • sandy

    21 November, 2020 - 1:03 am

    <p>Hi Paul, a couple of errors slipped through: "Qualcomm Snapdragon Snapdragon" (and the "battery life will be sold." wordz42 already mentioned).</p><p><br></p><p>I'm looking to replace my now ageing Android phone so interested to see how you go, although I wonder if I'll miss wireless charging (which I use when driving) &amp; the lack of an IP rating (of course these aren't a problem for everyone).</p><p><br></p><p>The Samsung Galaxy S20 FE looked good until I saw the complaints from people with touch issues, so there's no obvious choice right now.</p>

    • Paul Thurrott

      Premium Member
      21 November, 2020 - 8:48 am

      Thanks! Fixed.

  • kdjones74

    Premium Member
    23 November, 2020 - 4:31 pm

    <p>Just saw the Google Fi black Friday deal for the 4a5G – it's $349 ($150 off). Plus, I can get ~$50 trade in for my Pixel 2. Might just have to do it.</p>

  • andrek

    Premium Member
    29 November, 2020 - 5:53 pm

    <p>Just sent my 4xl away had bought a Samsung s20 fe 5g (tried of paying more than a thousand for phone). Been three weeks just finished buying pixel 4a 5g thru fi ($350) was still waiting for Android 11, updates couple months behind, won't even mention bloat ware. I'm back Google! </p>

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