Reviews

Pixel 4a Review: Everything you need, nothing you don’t

To say Google’s hardware release strategy has been weird in 2020 is an understatement. We were expecting to see the Pixel 4a and 4a XL launch in May at the now cancelled Google I/O developer conference. Fast forward to August where Google launched a single Pixel 4a, at the same time noting a 5G model with slightly different specs, as well as a single Pixel 5 were due later in the year. 

Priced at $599, the Pixel 4a sits in the same segment of the market as the Pixel 3a was aimed at, though at $50 cheaper than the Pixel 3a launched at. 

The specs on the Pixel 4a, at the $599 price are fairly impressive though with a 5.81-inch 1080 x 2340  resolution display which is now OLED. The screen on the Pixel 4a is also Google’s first use of the hole punch camera cut-out for the selfie cam. 

Internally the Pixel 4a uses a Qualcomm Snapdragon 730G, an update on last years 670 with a new 8nm manufacturing process offering improved speeds and power usage, as well as faster RAM which is now 6GB (RAM) and 128GB of storage – all powered by a 3140mAh battery, which again is bigger than last years Pixel 3a. 

The Pixel 4a in Australia comes with one small extra which most countries aren’t getting: earbuds. They’re nothing to talk about, but they’re included. I think Google should brand these buds, so hopefully next year.

The phone does include the same 12MP camera sensor used for the past couple of generations, and unlike the full Pixel phones, there’s only one sensor – which obviously contributes to that nice $599 price tag.

So basically, the phone hardware is a jump on last years model and it’s cheaper. Sounds like a winner right? Well, Long story short, it is. Want the full run down? Let’s go.

Hardware and Design

When it comes to design, the Pixel 4a sticks to the basic mobile phone shape and design we’ve come to know – a black rectangle with rounded corners. It’s made of plastic rather than the glass and metal the regular Pixel line uses. 

Google has only given you one colour option for the Pixel 4a: Just Black, but then they’ve added in a mint green coloured power button to add some flair. It’s actually quite nice, though a whole phone in that green would be amazing.

The Pixel 4a has the power and the volume rocker on the right of the phone, as they’ve done for all the Pixel phones. What they have removed is the ‘Active Edge’ squeeze to call Google Assistant which is found on the higher end Pixel phones. If you never used it, it’s no biggie, but if you did it’s something to think about, and as always you can always just say ‘Hey/Ok Google’ to summon the assistant and it works well.

Google has also stuck with their Nexus Imprint style rear fingerprint scanner – which I hadn’t realised how much I’d missed until it was gone – rather than facial recognition which was introduced on the Pixel 4 series last year. The Pixel fingerprint scanner is fast, and reliable and I love it.

As well as the fingerprint scanner, Google has also retained the 3.5mm headphone jack, a big plus for audio lovers. Further pleasing them is the inclusion of stereo speakers, with one speaker is located in the bottom of the phone near the USB-C port (which is centrally aligned), while the other fits into a tiny notch at the top of the display. In terms of quality they’re about what you’d expect from a mobile phone speaker, which is to say fairly unimpressive, but they’re there if you need them.

The display is lovely on the Pixel 4a, thanks to the inclusion of an OLED panel, which offers brighter colours, as well as the true, deep blacks that only OLED can really deliver. It’s not a perfect OLED with viewing angles not quite as good as an IPS LCD display, and you definitely need to blast the brightness up when outdoors – but including an OLED in the Pixel 4a is definitely a winner.

The screen is also only 60Hz, which means you don’t get the smooth transitions of a display capable of higher refresh rates, but it’s nothing you really need.

There’s a bit of bezel around the edge of the display, but it’s about what I consider a perfect amount letting you hold the phone without accidental touches.  

The Pixel 4a uses Gorilla Glass 3 on the display, and comes with an IP53 dust/water resistance rating that means it’s resistant to a light spray for a limited (up to 10 mins at 60° angles) time which affords some protection. These little extras plus the plastic case means it’s the first Pixel phone I’ve used without a case and I’m really happy with how thin and comfortable to hold the phone is.

In terms of specs, the phones Qualcomm 730G processor, 6GB of LPDDR4 RAM and 128GB of UFS 3.1 storage means it’s a modern phone which is able to handle day to day smartphone duties mostly without issue. 

It’s obviously not top of the line processor, so yes you do get some pauses as the phone loads something to memory, or some stutter when scrolling as the phone loads more information. For the most part though it’s a mostly smooth experience.

The Pixel 4a is also an absolute battery champ. Last year, the Pixel 4 and Pixel 4a suffered abysmal battery life, but with the Pixel 4a Google have turned a corner and the Pixel 4a battery is hard to kill in a single day of use. 

It won’t quite get you through two full days of use, but from my testing I had several days with screen on time over 6 hours, with some almost up to 9 hours. The phone also reported over 20 hours off charge which was decently impressive. 

There’s no fast charging – though 18W is nothing to sneeze at – nor wireless charging, but given we mostly charge phones at night, this shouldn’t be an issue for most people.

Camera

Here’s where the rubber meets the road metaphorically for Google, as the camera is their big selling point for the Pixel line. The Pixel 4a again uses the same 12MP rear camera sensor from other Pixel phones. There’s an 8MP selfie camera in the punch hole display, and the long and short of it is you’ll get the same picture quality on a 4a that you get on the higher end Pixel 4 phones. 

There’s some caveats though, with the Pixel 4a not including the Visual Cortex co-processor found in the Pixel 4 and 4 XL, which means you get a small beat as you wait for their computational Portrait Mode or other effects to be applied to your pictures. 

The photos you take have the usual high contrast, sharp detail you expect.

The portrait mode on the Pixel 4a is also great, and even now works on your pets.

Google also includes live HDR+ with dual exposure controls to give you more options when shooting in difficult lighting conditions. The sliders appear at the top of the camera interface and offer easy ways to lessen the back lighting or shadows on the fly, which is pretty impressive for a phone without the additional processing of the Visual Cortex chip.

Even though it’s a ‘budget’ Pixel you still get the amazing Night Sight that the Pixel series introduced on the Pixel 2 series, and improved on ever since. Google’s Night Sight has become somewhat of a defacto standard for low-light photography, though other cameras from the likes of Huawei, Oppo and others certainly come close – but not at the price point Google is offering the 4a at. I mean this was taken in almost pitch black darkness.

The Pixel 4a also offers an ‘Astro Photography’ mode for late night shutterbugs. It’s somewhat of a novelty in terms of features, but it’s a novelty I’ve had a bit of fun playing around – and the results are pretty impressive.

While it’d be nice to have a wide angle, or telephoto lenses on the Pixel 4a, it’s also nice to get a phone for $599 which includes such a great camera – so until they can offer those at that price, a single sensor is a good trade off, especially when it gives results as good as this.

Google still hasn’t nailed video on the Pixel 4a. You can take 1080p or 4k resolution video, but only 1080p supports 60 fps. Again, the wish for higher frame-rate 4k video is more a want than a need in video, but it’s a chink in Google’s vaunted camera experience and they really should add this in.

Software

The Pixel 4a comes with Android 10 on-board, and it’s in line to be one of the first handsets updated to Android 11 when it’s released in the next month or so. Google has advised the phone will be getting three years of updates, so we should see Android 13 running on it in a couple of years. 

Obviously Google is vested in keeping the phone up to date, so this means you’ll get updates monthly for security updates, and as a Pixel it also gets feature updates to improve niggly issues.

The Pixel interface is simple, and it works. It’s Google’s idea of what Android should look like, and as such they’ve made a real effort to make it easy to navigate with their new gesture navigation – which you get a brief run through when you set up the phone.

The Pixel 4a includes the same Pixel exclusive features as all Pixel phones like Live Transcribe and Recorder. If you’ve ever needed to record a meeting or even a phone call and then get transcribed notes, it’s almost magic. It’s not perfect, but it’s so close that it takes minimal editing to make the transcription almost exact.

You also get the Personal Safety app, which has car crash detection, as well as the ‘Now Playing’ feature which recognises songs playing around you. This feature uses a constantly updated local database for comparison stored on the device, so your information is never even shared with Google. 

The Google Assistant is also heavily integrated into the phone, allowing you to open apps with voice commands, and then use them with the Google Assistant’s contextually aware of what you’re doing. So, you can simply say ‘Ok Google, open maps, search for Italian restaurants – or just tell it to share the pic you’re looking at with someone and Google Assistant grabs their contact details from your account and shares it with them.

Put simply, the software experience on a Pixel is as it should be, fast, fluid and it will be kept up to date. 

Should you buy it?

It’s hard to come up with reasons why you wouldn’t buy a Pixel 4a, though even at this ‘low’ price it remains out of the budget of some. Google has quite obviously made a concerted effort to bring the price as low as they can, but without compromising the Pixel phone experience. 

I usually like to ‘compliment sandwich’ the end of reviews, but there’s very little wrong with the Pixel 4a, it’s everything you need, and nothing you don’t.

Sure you can want wireless charging, higher Hz display, dual or even triple cameras, but that’s not where Google is pitching the 4a. If you want more features like that then the Pixel 4a (5G) and Pixel 5 are coming later this year, and you can pay for those extras. 

When it comes down to it, the Pixel 4a is all most people could need from a smartphone, and if you’re looking for a great Android phone on a budget, then this is definitely the phone to get. 

The Pixel 4a is available to pre-order now for $599 through the Google Store, with stock shipping on September 10th.

Pixel 4a Review: Everything you need, nothing you don’t
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