Reviews

Pixel 4a (5G) review: 5G and Pixel features for a bargain price

Google announced their 2020 Pixel phones in a staggered fashion this year, with the Pixel 4a announced in August. The 5G version of the Pixel 4a, as well as a Pixel 5 was teased at the August launch, but it wasn’t until October 1st we got our first official look at the new phones. 

The Pixel phones this year are a response to Google’s desire to build a phone range that offered different price points, allowing consumers to choose the specs that are important to them. 

The Pixel 4a very obviously fits into the entry level, though the line blurs a little more with the Pixel 5 and Pixel 4a (5G). 

Google shares many aspects of hardware between the two models, including the same processor (Qualcomm Snapdragon 765G), camera platform (12.2MP Main + 16MP Ultra-Wide) as well as sharing the Titan M Security Chip/Pixel Imprint fingerprint sensor and design across all three phones.

There’s many similarities but they are different phones with the Pixel 4a (5G) positioned as Google’s mid-tier option for Pixel phones this year. 

At $799 it’s priced at the same range as the Oppo Find X2 Lite, LG Velvet, but this is a ‘Google’ phone, so expectations are high. 

Google has supplied both a Pixel 4a (5G) and a Pixel 5 to EFTM for review, and I’ve used and reviewed them separately. If you’re interested in the Pixel 5 you can head that review here, or if you want to see how the Pixel 4a (5G) went after a week of pretty heavy use, here’s my thoughts.

Hardware and Design

Google is pretty conservative on the design of their Pixel phones, delivering small, thoughtful design changes from each generation to the next. The 2020 Pixel lineup shares many similarities with last years Pixel 4, starting with the square camera bump and Pixel Imprint fingerprint sensor on the rear.

The camera bump includes the same 12MP main sensor we saw on the Pixel 4, though this year it’s joined by a 16MP wide-angle secondary sensor instead of the Telephoto option Google went with on the Pixel 4. 

The Pixel 4a (5G) only comes in ‘Just Black’, which includes a delightful lavender power button as a ‘colour pop’. 

The phone has Soft-touch polycarbonate unibody, which curves around the back and sides to meet the glass display on the front which is Corning Gorilla Glass 3, a step down from the Gorilla Glass 6 on the Pixel 5. 

The polycarbonate rear feels good in the hand, and doesn’t attract fingerprints like a glass backed phone, it’s also easy to grip with the matte feel soft-touch plastic.

The polycarbonate on the Pixel 4a (5G) gives the phone a durability you don’t find in some glass backed phones, but it also doesn’t include any IP rating like the Pixel 5. The phone is taller than the Pixel 5 with its 6.2-inch display which makes one-handed use a little harder, but not impossible, though I do have some large hands.

The power and volume rocker are setup the same as all Pixel phones on the right side, with the SIM card tray on the right. The Pixel 4a (5G) and Pixel 5 also supports eSIM across all three Australian telcos so you can use that too.

As I found on the Pixel 4a (and on the Pixel 5), the Pixel Imprint fingerprint sensor is fast and sits where your finger rests naturally on the rear making it easy to unlock the phone. It’s surprising how much I missed the fingerprint sensor, though there are face unlock fans who will be unhappy about the absence of IR cameras we saw on Pixel 4.

The removal of the IR cameras and ‘Soli’ motion sense radar control in the top of the phone, as well as moving the 8MP front-facing camera into a punch-hole notch in the display has given Google the ability to shrink bezels around the screen of the 2020 Pixels, though the Pixel 4a (5G) chin is smaller than previous models, it’s still slightly larger than the Pixel 5. 

The increased bezel is likely due to the different OLED panel used on the Pixel 4a (5G). The display doesn’t have the 90Hz refresh of the more expensive Pixel 5 and it’s noticeable on the on-screen animations and transitions. It’s not bad, it’s just noticeable once you know it’s a factor.

Overall, the bezel is slightly larger on the Pixel 4a (5G) than the Pixel 5, but it isn’t bad, and protects against accidental touches when gripping the phone. I like a bit of bezel on a phone for this purpose, so it’s a win here.

The Pixel 5 uses an under-display speaker for the earphone, while the Pixel 4a (5G) gets a small grille at the top of the phone. Both phones offer stereo sound, with a bottom firing speaker on the bottom next to the USB-C port. Sound isn’t outstanding, but it is stereo and I prefer the two speaker setup on the Pixel 4a (5G) as opposed to the Pixel 5, but getting right down to it, it’s a smartphone speaker so neither will wow you.

As well as the speaker grille, the Pixel 4a (5G) also has a headphone jack. Google says they removed it to save space, but given there’s only 2mm difference between Pixel 4a (5G) and Pixel 5, I think I’d like my headphone jack on the Pixel 5 please.

The display itself is good, with Google using an OLED panel, but it’s not quite as good as the Pixel 5 display. The Pixel 4a (5G) display lacks the 90Hz refresh rate, and also has 100,000:1 contrast ratio vs the 1,000,000:1 contrast ratio on the Pixel 5. It’s still a decent screen with good colour reproduction – which you can tune to your personal preference of Natual, Boosted or Adapative Colours in settings. 

Like the Pixel 5 screen though it’s bright and easy to read indoors but can be a little hard to read in bright sunlight. 

The Pixel 4a (5G) internals include a Qualcomm Snapdragon 765G processor which we’ve seen on a number of phones launching recently. It’s classed as a mid-range processor, though it includes the X52 5G modem on the chip making it more power efficient. 

Google has included support for only sub-6GHz 5G compatibility on the Pixel 4a (5G) while the Pixel 5 supports both mmWave and sub-6GHz 5G bands in Australia. There’s only limited mmWave 5G support here in Australia, so while it’s nice to have in the Pixel 5, it’s not really a necessity…yet.

Google has paired the SD765G processor with 6GB of RAM in the Pixel 4a (5G) and 128GB of storage. 128GB of storage is now the only storage option for Pixel phones for this year, and it’s good to see the storage right through from the base Pixel 4a through to the Pixel 5, though a 256GB option for the more premium Pixel 5 would be appreciated.

Though there’s only 6GB of RAM on board for the Pixel 4a (5G) it’s still a decent performer. There’s little lag, though comparing the Pixel 5 and Pixel 4a (5G) side by side it can be observed.  It’s mostly noticeable in multi-tasking and loading apps, or when processing images in the camera, but it’s not so noticeable that you’re waiting a long time, it’s a brief beat before your application loads, or switches or the photo is processed, and it’s on its way.

The mid-range processor with an on-die modem, a FullHD+ resolution display and the included 3885mAh battery make for good, though not outstanding battery life. A full day of use is what you’ll get, with the option to eke out a little more with the Extreme Battery Saver mode if you need it.

Like every Pixel phone before them, this years Pixels include an 18W adaptor with USB-PD 2.0 in the box. The charger is classed as supporting ’fast charging’ and will top up the battery in a decent time-frame, though Google isn’t making any claims about the speed. It’s not on par with or even close to fast chargers from the likes of other manufacturers including OPPO, Huawei, Samsung and other manufacturers these days and even though I charge overnight, it would be nice to get a very fast top-up quickly when needed. 

Missing from the Pixel 4a (5G) is wireless charging. The Pixel 5 has both wireless and reverse wireless charging which is a nice inclusion, but if you don’t use wireless charging the lack of it is of no consequence. 

Camera

Google’s Pixel phones are notoriously good at taking photos. There’s a distinct look to Google’s Pixel camera, which Google managed to carry all the way down to the Pixel 4a this year. Google has expanded on the camera array for the Pixel 4a (5G) and Pixel 5 this year including the same 12.2MP main sensor we’ve seen on previous Pixel phones, though this year a 16MP ultra-wide angle sensor with 107° field of view joins it. 

Google has confirmed that the Pixel 4a (5G) and Pixel 5 do NOT include the Pixel Neural Core Image Signal Processor (ISP) that Google used last year to enable Live HDR+ and Dual Exposure features in the camera app. Though the Neural Core is not on-board, the Live HDR+ and Dual Exposure features are still present.

There IS a difference in processing photos between the Pixel 4a (5G) and Pixel 5, but it’s not a big gap. There’s just a second or so of ‘processing’ when you put the phones side-by-side. 

The decision to include an ultra-wide sensor on the Pixel 4a (5G)/Pixel 5 is a big one after Google talked up the telephoto lens on the Pixel 4. I personally prefer the ultra-wide option as it lets you capture more scenery, people or anything in the shot. 

Google isn’t just slapping in an ultra-wide lens, they’re also lending their computational photography algorithms to ultra-wide shots, correcting any lens distortion as soon as you take it. I like the Ultra-Wide option, but here’s to a triple sensor Pixel 6 with Ultra-Wide and Telephoto.

The 12.2MP sensor though is, as it has been on previous Pixel’s just great. I love the composition of Google’s Pixel photos. The camera takes a good shot in almost any light, with support for Live HDR+ and dual exposure controls allowing you to control the composition, and lighting in the frame, before you take the shot. 

Google’s much vaunted Night Sight is again on-board, though this time the camera app can automatically prompt you when it thinks you’ll see benefit from switching it on.  Google is also bringing Night Sight to portrait mode, letting you take some pretty good portrait shots in very low light. 

Though no physical telephoto option is present on the Pixel 5, Google’s ‘Super Res Zoom’ is still present with up to 7.0x digital zoom available in the camera app. Google told EFTM that there is a dedicated team working on Digital Zoom for Pixel and they will continue to improve the Super Rez Zoom/Digital Zoom including making images ‘crisper’, so that’s a bonus. And to be fair, the results on digital zoom are pretty decent but here’s hoping a Pixel 6 will just have a triple camera array with both ultra-wide and telephoto options.

For the launch of the Pixel 4a (5G) and Pixel 5, Google has really started looking at video seriously. They’ve been lagging behind on that front, but have finally begun working on it. For a start these are the first Pixel phones to support 4K/60fps video recording. There’s also easy access to Slow Motion (1/8x or 1/4x) and Time Lapse (5x – 120x) modes. 

One of the big features announced for the Pixel camera was a new range of stabilisation options in the camera app:

  • Standard – For light movement (default)
  • Locked – For far away still shots
  • Active – For heavy movement
  • Cinematic Pan – For Smooth shots (half speed, muted).

The Cinematic Pan mode is pretty decent, stabilising the video you just took, even in 4K. The effect is pretty impressive.

Another great addition to the Google Pixel experience is the ‘Portrait Light’ editor in Google Photos. You can retroactively add more light with varying degrees of brightness as well as change the source of the light, all while retaining the artistic blurred background.

Software

Android 11

The Pixel 4a (5G) and Pixel 5 are launching with Android 11 on board, and this being a Google phone, it already has the latest October 5th security update. Google updates the security patches on Pixel phones monthly, and these phones will both get a new security update monthly, as well as feature updates to new versions of Androidwhen available for the next 3 years as well.

This being a Google phone it’s essentially stock Android, though with the Pixel launcher in place. For all intents and purposes, this is how stock Android looks though. 

There’s no bloatware or pre-installed apps from random vendors to uninstall or pause. The system boots into Android and there’s just a folder of Google apps, and then it’s up to you to install your favourite apps from Google Play

There’s a lot going on under the hood with Android 11. Improvements to scoped storage which sandboxes app data better, updates to Project Mainline enabling Google to push updates for more Android OS specific updates without going through any extended approval process from carriers, manufacturers and others.

The user focused updates for Android 11 include a number of things including Persistent Media Controls, as well as Conversation and bubbles in the notification panel, notification history and new smart home controls and options in the power menu.

Persistent Media Controls

The persistent media controls in Android 11 are handy to have, with apps supporting the feature showing up in your notification panel, just below the quick settings. 

The panel can host up to five most recently used media apps, if they’re using the MediaBrowserService API in Android 11. YouTube, YouTube Music, and Pocket Casts slotted in there perfectly, though Audible doesn’t, and you’ll probably find a few new apps that need to update to use the feature.

I’ve lost media playing before, especially streams I’ve cast, so having them all appear in a swipeable carousel at the top of your notification panel is a great idea. There are some hold outs on implementing the new API into apps, so if your app doesn’t show up in there yet, maybe reach out to the developer.

Conversations and Conversation Bubbles

Conversations and Conversation Bubbles are a new way for Google to attempt to control the multitude of messaging services now available on Android. 

The Conversation control panel is similar to media controls, in that there is also a separate section on top of the notification shade containing only real-time conversations with people. Conversation Bubbles give you a fast way to access an active chat, by leaving it as a bubble, similar to Facebook’s Chat Head bubble, active on your screen even over other apps. 

The new Conversation Panel is definitely a handy inclusion in Android, given I message friends, family and colleagues daily through a variety of applications. 

Conversations are now on a per conversation, not a per app basis, so you’ll see a profile pic for your conversations. You also get a few new preferences for conversations  in Android 11, you can mark conversations as priority, or not a priority, as well as silence notifications for a particular conversation or set custom notifications and sounds for them. Finally, you can choose to promote a conversation to Bubbles. 

I have to say I’ve been a big fan of the Chat Head notification that Facebook came up with for Messenger years ago, and it works just as well for other conversations. Promoting an app to a conversation Bubble is easy from the notification – that is, if the app supports it. 

Notification History

Ever accidentally swiped a notification away before you properly digested it? I have, and the new Notification History option is the best thing since sliced bread as far as I’m concerned. 

Notification History is turned off by default in Android 11, but enabling it is as simple as searching ‘Notification History’ in the Android Settings and switching it on. Once enabled you’ll see a ‘History’ option at the bottom of your notification panel, tap it and you’ll see a list of your notifications. Simple, but effective. 

Notification panel encroachment

There are a lot of changes coming to the Android notification panel, with conversations and media controls both now getting a dedicated ‘section’. This has meant there are slight changes to Android’s notification panel layout, most notably the shrinking of viewable Quick Settings, which now only show six, instead of nine Quick Settings Tiles. 

I’m not such a huge fan of this new truncated view for Quick Settings, but it’s the new way and you’ll need to re-arrange your top six favourite Quick Settings to ensure you can access them quickly.

Power Menu

Google has slowly begun introducing more ‘features’ to the Android Power Menu and in Android 11 there’s now Google Pay, and Smart Home controls on show when you press the power button. 

To be honest the old power menu is looking a little busy these days. I only use a single card with Google Pay and so with no need to change which card I’m using it’s fairly useless to have this quick access. If however you have multiple cards and need to change them, it’s pretty fast to use.

For Smart Home Controls, I’m still trying to remember the new controls in the power menu are actually there. The Smart Home Controls in the power menu can show anything you’ve registered in Google Home, and in theory third-party apps can also interject their own page of controls here. 

I’m not a huge fan of these new controls on the Power Menu, but as long as Power and Restart are prominently displayed I can ignore the intrusion, but for anyone who finds the new UI attractive, there’s some good options for controlling your Google Pay and Smart Home.

Should you buy it?

The Google Pixel 4a (4G) offers a lot for its $799 price tag. There’s usually a limit to what a phone can do in this price range with the camera, but Google has effectively changed the game at this level by offering the same camera system on both the Pixel 4a (5G) and Pixel 5 this year.

There’s also the ‘Google-ness’ of the software side of the Pixel 4a (5G) release which means a guarantee of 3 years minimum on Feature and security updates. A promise most companies aren’t willing to offer with their phones. 

I like a large phone, so as the largest phone in the 2020 Pixel line-up this is probably by far the most comfortable for me to use. It’s also so well priced and full of features that it’s going to be hard to pass by.

While the Pixel 5 isn’t the top-of-the-line flagship phone we’ve seen in previous years, it does offer a little bit over the Pixel 4a (5G) like the more premium aluminium body, additional RAM, wireless charging, better display and IP68 water/dust resistance, and those are features I very much enjoy.

Given the price though, the Pixel 4a (5G) is a great option and comes with a software experience that will be kept up to date, and class leading camera at the same price point as other similarly specced phones. 

If you’re looking in this $700-$800 phone segment, the Pixel 4a (5G) is definitely the phone to pick up.

The Pixel 4a (5G) will be available from November for $799 in ‘Just Black’, with pre-orders live now from the Google Store, Telstra, Optus, Vodafone, JB Hi-Fi, Officeworks and Harvey Norman.

Pixel 4a (5G) review: 5G and Pixel features for a bargain price
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