Google Pixel 4a 5G First Impressions

Posted on November 19, 2020 by Paul Thurrott in Android, Mobile with 14 Comments

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.

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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