The Pixel 4a 5G has a confusing name, but it offers the best value in Google’s 2020 lineup, with a larger display and an improved camera system. No, it’s not perfect. But I’m personally quite taken with this budget handset, and I suspect it will tick a lot of boxes for many readers as well.
Like the diminutive Pixel 4a, Google’s larger Pixel 4a 5G arrives with a matte polycarbonate unibody design that I very much prefer to the shiny glass and aluminum sandwich design used by most smartphones, whether they’re more expensive or not.
I also like the Pixel’s new design language, which is subtle and understated. The “squarcle” camera bump on the back is unique and not overly big, so it’s not obnoxious in any way. And the power button, which is a very light purple on the 4a 5G, provides a nice accent color. I feel like Google struggled to visually differentiate the Pixel in previous years, but the new look works.
That said, it is a bit plain, especially since there’s literally only one color available, black. But it’s also pleasant to the touch and it gives off a nice utilitarian vibe that speaks to its role as a tool, and not as a delicate bauble that one has to obsess over.
With that in mind, I experimented with using the Pixel 4a 5G without a case. But it was a bit too slippery and fingerprint-prone, so I ended up sticking with an inexpensive case that matches the handset’s minimalist vibe. It’s a great combination that doesn’t hide what I like about the design. Plus, it makes it easier to feel for the fingerprint reader on the back.
The Pixel 4a 5G has a 6.2-inch OLED display with the same Full HD+ resolution (2340 x 1080) and 19.5:9 aspect ratio as the smaller Pixel 4a, but at a lower density of 412 pixels per inch (PPI, vs. 443) because of its larger size. It has HDR and always-on capabilities, the latter of which are triggered by a tap or by lifting the handset when the display is asleep.
The display is adequate overall, in keeping with the handset’s price point, and I feel that the resolution is perfect for its size. But it’s not overly-colorful or bright, and the adaptive brightness feature often chooses a too-dim brightness level for the surroundings and can be slow to adapt. (I experimented with disabling adaptive brightness, but that was even more annoying.)
In keeping with its predecessor, the Pixel 4a 5G is “all-display” Pixel, with no notch (Pixel 3 XL) or giant forehead/chin bezels (Pixel 4 XL), and its wraparound bezel is quite small, delivering a decent 84.1 percent screen to body ratio. As with the Pixel 4a, the bezel is for some reason slightly bigger on the bottom than on the other sides. But many probably wouldn’t even notice that.
And as with the Pixel 4a, the 4a 5G positions its front-facing selfie camera under the display, so there’s a circular hole in the upper left. I like this design. It’s the right compromise, and the camera hole doesn’t really get in the way when watching videos.
The Pixel 4a 5G is powered by a midmarket System on a Chip (SoC), the Qualcomm Snapdragon 765G with Adreno 620 graphics, a step up from the Snapdragon 730G/Adreno 618 in the Pixel 4a. As with its smaller sibling, the handset comes with 6 GB of RAM, which is generous for this price point, and 128 GB of non-expandable UFS 2.1 storage, which is adequate. (Recent flagships utilize faster UFS 3.0 and 3.1 storage.)
Performance has been acceptable overall, and most day-to-day tasks happen with the alacrity one should expect of a new smartphone. But I have concerns about the long-term viability of a midrange chipset like the Snapdragon 765G. And I’ve already seen a few performance issues, both related to the camera, that give me a bit of pause.
The first isn’t hugely problematic, and it’s something I experienced previously with the Pixel 3a XL and Pixel 4a: Because the cost-reduced Pixel 4a 5G doesn’t include Google’s custom Visual Core chipset, photo processing the SoC’s responsibility, and it’s much slower. If you take a shot and switch immediately to the camera roll, you can see what it looks like before Google applies its computational photography magic, improving it, often dramatically. It can take a few to several seconds to complete.
The second is a bit more concerning. With the Pixel 4a 5G, Google is for the first time auto-detecting whether the shot you’re taking would be better with Night Mode enabled, rather than requiring you to switch to Night Mode manually. In theory, that’s not a horrible idea. But it’s a bit overly aggressive with this automatic switch—denoted by a crescent moon shape on the shutter button—and applies it in situations in which a normal shot would often be better.
Because Night Mode is so slow on this handset—I’m guessing that the lack of Visual Core is partly to blame here as well—I’ve taken snapshots of people that come out blurry because they’re moving around slightly. This is a failure of my “it just works” requirement, but the good news is that you can disable it and use Night Mode manually and explicitly as before. (There’s also a toggle in the Camera app to turn this off on the fly.)
The Pixel 4a 5G provides dual-band Wi-Fi 802.11ac (and not the newer and faster Wi-Fi 6), Bluetooth 5.0 (with A2DP, LE, aptX HD support), and the more common form of 5G cellular connectivity (called Sub-6). Verizon customers who purchase a Pixel 4a 5G directly from the carrier will pay $100 more than the rest of us, but they will receive the more powerful but geographically limited mmWave variant of 5G networking as well.
I’ve not experienced any connectivity issues out in the world, but my experience locally with 5G hasn’t impressed, as its never been better than a 4G/LTE connection. But 5G compatibility is an interesting bit of futureproofing for a phone that is otherwise questionable for the long term. It’s unfortunate that Google couldn’t sell 4G variants of the Pixel 4a 5G at a lower cost, I’d have made that purchase instead.
I generally only watch videos on my phone while using an elliptical trainer at the gym, and the Pixel 4a 5G provides what I’ll call a decent-enough experience under the harsh lights of this environment, though the screen is somewhat dim. Worse, and this isn’t strictly Google’s fault, different entertainment apps—Google TV, Hulu, Netflix, Prime Video, and so on—handle video playback differently, and none seem to be able to truly fill the entire display (even if doing so means cutting off a bit of video to meet the aspect ratio). Instead, video is cropped differently from service to service, and from movie to movie. In some cases, I have up to a half-inch of dead space on either side of the video, which is unwelcome on a display this small.
That said, the stereo speakers sound surprisingly strong, given the relative smallness of the device, and they are evenly balanced. That’s not always the case.
Last year, Google finally added a second sensor to the rear camera system of its then-new Pixel 4 family, but it added the wrong sensor, choosing telephoto over ultra-wide. I have to assume I wasn’t the only one who complained, since the Pixel 4a 5G and Pixel 5 both include an ultra-wide instead of a telephoto sensor this year. This was is the right choice if we have to limit the camera system to two sensors. But having three sensors—main (wide), ultra-wide, and telephoto—would be even better.
Maybe next year. The Pixel 4a 5G provides a familiar 12.2 MP main (wide) sensor with an f/1.7 aperture and optical image stabilization (OIS) and a 16 MP ultra-wide sensor with an f/2.2 aperture and a 107-degree field of view. Overall, it works well enough, but this is what I’ll call the minimally acceptable camera configuration for 2020. The main sensor is aged—it basically first debuted in 2017 with the Pixel 2—and the ultra-wide, while appreciated, doesn’t offer a truly wide field of view compared to contemporaries like the iPhone 12 (120 degrees), Galaxy S20 FE (123 degrees), or OnePlus 8T (123 degrees). My guess is that Google was hoping to avoid the overly-skewed edges we see in ultra-wide shots on other systems.
Furthermore, Google argues that its computational photography algorithms are so well-tuned to the Sony IMX363 main sensor that it still uses that upgrading to a more modern sensor doesn’t make sense. But the rest of the industry is racing forward, and Apple, Huawei, and Samsung have long ago met and surpassed the photographic prowess of the Pixel line. I’ll give Google a pass because its 2020 models are all low-end and mid-level products. But it will need to push forward with better hardware in 2021 if it intends to remain competitive.
The good news? For the most part, the Pixel 4a 5G delivers terrific shots. And the consistency of this experience is both excellent and much-appreciated, especially when compared to the horrific inconsistencies I saw with the OnePlus 8T. Google aims for realism over HDR “fauxtography,” and it doesn’t even make it possible to over-saturate shots with filters. If you want that kind of thing, you’ll need to apply it yourself after the fact.
Overall, the camera experience is a welcome reminder of what most people would agree has been a key strength of the Pixel lineup since the beginning: It just works, at least in most conditions.
Helping matters, the Pixel 4a 5G comes with a new version of the Pixel Camera app that includes some useful new features. In addition to the automatic Night Mode that I mentioned above, it also includes new video stabilization modes—Standard (the default), Locked, Active, and Cinematic Pan—that are very interesting. Pixels aren’t well-known for video quality—this is an area in which Apple has long led—but this addition is a major step forward.
So what are the downsides? The big one I already mentioned: Because Night Mode is automatic, subjects who move in some shots will be blurry unless you remember to turn off (or toggle off) this feature.
And while the Pixel’s digital zoom shots are surprisingly good for digital zoom, they do not approach what’s possible with true optical zoom. Consider the following shots of a moon, the first taken with the Pixel 4a 5G at its maximum zoom level and the second taken with the Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra. Granted, that latter phone is about three times as expensive as the Pixel 4a 5G.
Perhaps the better comparison is with the OnePlus 8T, which also features digital zoom and no dedicated telephoto sensor with optical zoom. Here, the Pixel is the clear winner.
These are minor complaints, frankly. If you’re looking for a consistently good camera experience, there are few smartphones that equal what Google delivers with the Pixel 4a 5G, and certainly none at this price point.
Like the Pixel 4a, the Pixel 4a 5G provides a fast and reliable rear-mounted fingerprint reader instead of the pokey and unreliable Soli-based facial recognition that dogged the Pixel 4 and 4 XL. This was the right choice, and not just because we’re all wearing masks during a pandemic.
There is, alas, one problem with the fingerprint reader: As with the Pixel 4a, it’s not recessed enough, which can make it difficult to accurately find with your finger. The solution is one that most users will be comfortable with: Just get a case. The two cases I’ve used with this handset so far make the fingerprint reader much easier to find.
The Pixel 4a also contains the Titan M security module that first debuted in the Pixel 3. Described by Google as a “superhero-level security chip,” the Titan M “helps keep your digital life secure, so you can rest easy” by securing on-device data and the operating system and providing boot loader security to protect against malicious bootloader unlocking attempts.
The Pixel 4a comes with a 3885 mAh battery, which is much bigger than the Pixel 4a’s small 3140 mAh unit. Better still, the battery life is noticeably better, and I can easily get through a day and a half of use without charging. I also notice that the battery life doesn’t plummet overnight, as was the case with the Pixel 4a. Overall, battery life is a big improvement.
Google includes an 18-watt charger in the box, which is fine. But I think we’re getting to the point where anything under 20-watts can hardly be called fast charging. And there’s no wireless charging, which will certainly be an issue for some.
Like the Pixel 4a, but unlike the Pixel 5, the Pixel 4a 5G includes a headphone jack. I’ve moved to wireless earbuds for day-to-day use, but the headphone jack will come in handy if I can ever get on a plane again and need to use my Bose noise-canceling wireless headphones.
Reviewers often laud Pixel handsets for their clean Android software image, but it’s important to differentiate what I’ll call Pixel Android from stock Android. That is, like third-party hardware makers, Google does in fact augment stock Android with additional features on the Pixel. The difference is that none of it is crap, let alone crapware. All of Google’s additions are well-considered, appreciated, and real differentiators.
(Actually, there was one exception that I had forgotten about until I looked through the screenshots I had taken: The Pixel 4a 5G came with a T-Mobile app for some reason. I deleted it.)
These additions can be found throughout the system: You’ll find some as standalone apps—like Recorder and Personal Safety—while others will require a bit of spelunking in Settings. My two favorites, perhaps, are Now Playing, which identifies songs playing nearby—kind of an onboard Shazam, if you will—but right from the lock screen, and the new improvements to Styles & Wallpapers, which lets you configure the look and feel of the system. With the Pixel 4a 5G, this interface finally picks up the ability to customize how many icons can appear on each row and column on the home screens.
(That said, Pixel Android still isn’t as fully customizable as is OnePlus’s OxygenOS. For example, you cannot remove the Google search box from the home screen, which I do immediately on other phones.)
Finally, Google also supports Pixel with three years of major OS upgrades. Since it ships with Android 11, you can look forward to getting Android 12, 13, and 14 in the years ahead in addition to monthly security updates and quarterly Pixel Feature Drops that add new features between major upgrades.
The Pixel 4a 5G costs $500 and comes only in black (or, as Google calls it, Just Black). There are no configuration options or upgrades available, and no fun color options as in the past. (If you buy at Verizon, the Pixel 4a 5G costs $600 and includes mmWave 5G compatibility.)
If you want a smaller display, you can get a $350 Pixel 4a, but that suffers from lower performance and a single-sensor rear camera system. (Plus it doesn’t support 5G, if that’s a concern.)
Don’t mind its confusing branding and positioning. The Google Pixel 4a 5G is the best value in smartphones in this very troubled year, with the right mix of features at an excellent price. I do have a few worries about the long-term viability of the Pixel 4a 5G’s mid-level components. But overall, I feel like Google has found the right spot in the market for its poorly-selling smartphone family, and that these changes could help turn things around.
The Google Pixel 4a 5G is highly recommended. This is the smartphone I’ll be using for the foreseeable future.