Google Pixel 4a full review
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For a while it felt like Google’s new mid-range phone would never arrive but the Pixel 4a is finally here in another attempt to provide the best value-for-money Android smartphone around.
On the whole, Google has done another fantastic job of getting the key things right here and at a cheaper price than the Pixel 3a. However, tech nerds are likely to be tempted by some rivals due to a couple of missing features.
Google told me “Like many companies our supply chain was impacted by COVID-19 and we had to adjust our launch plans accordingly to ensure the safety of our employees, partners and customers.”
Is the Pixel 4a the right phone for you? Let's find out.
Design & Build
It’s a case of the same, but different when it comes to the Pixel 4a’s design.
While it still very much looks like Google’s handiwork, there are a few changes that make the 4a a bit better than its predecessor but also a little worse.
Starting at the back, the 4a still uses a polycarbonate unibody instead of the glass used on the flagship models. While it might not feel quite as premium, it won’t smash if dropped and is lighter.
The phone is still 8.2mm thick but is a tad lighter at 143g. It’s also a little shorter despite the larger screen and importantly is one of the most compact handsets on the market.
I was excited about the OnePlus Nord, hoping it would be a smaller version of the OnePlus 8 closer to the OnePlus X design but it’s still huge. There’s a real lack of smaller phones out there so it’s great to see the Pixel 4a fill this need for those that crave it.
I like the soft matt finish but it’s a shame that the distinctive glossy section at the top has gone. The fingerprint scanner is still at the back and is more subtle than other Pixels. The camera module in the corner might be square to match the Pixel 4, but there’s actually only one lens there.
As you can see, I’ve been testing the Just Black colour and never has a colourway name been more appropriate. The Pixel 4a is only available in this option for now due to the supply chain issues.
Update: A Barely Blue colourway is now available but it's exclusive to the Google Store in the US.
There’s good news because Google has kept the 3.5mm headphone jack but fans of the Active Edge feature will be disappointed. The sensors Google has previously put in the sides so you can squeeze the phone to launch the Assistant are gone on the Pixel 4a.
I assume this is partly to achieve a lower price point and focus on other features. To that end, it’s no surprise that there is no waterproofing here.
At the front, the Pixel 4a looks dramatically different and more modern compared to its predecessor, and even a fair bit when compared to the Pixel 4. So let’s take a look at that new screen.
Bezels are barriers and as such, slimming them down significantly on the Pixel 4a means the display is halfway to the Pixel 3a XL despite the chassis getting smaller.
This is actually the first Pixel phone with a ‘transmissive hole’, aka a punch-hole where the screen completely surrounds the front-facing camera.
It makes the 4a look contemporary and is a big improvement on the bezels of previous Pixels as well as the notoriously disliked notch of the 3 XL. Speaking of XL models, there is no Pixel 4a XL so this is your only choice this year.
If you’re new to the punch-hole notch then it can feel a little weird at first but it doesn’t take long to get used to. Google even includes a set of wallpapers which use it as a focal point, which also sort of hides it at the same time.
I find this 5.8in screen to be a really nice sweet spot between usability and having enough real estate to enjoy content. It’s so rare to find a compact phone with a sub-6in screen these days that it’s a big reason to get the Pixel 4a if those don’t suit you.
Despite rumours of dropping the tech, the Pixel 4a has an OLED panel and still uses a Full HD+ resolution. At 443ppi, that’s plenty of pixels for a sharp image without unnecessarily draining the battery.
Colours are vibrant, contrast is solid and there’s HDR support, too. You also get always-on functionality complete with Google’s Now Playing feature which tells you what music is playing nearby if it can recognise it.
It’s one of the most beautiful screens you can get for this price. The only thing missing is a high refresh rate, but I don’t think the 4a is really aimed at users who will care about this.
If you are looking for 90- or even 120Hz then you’ll need to look elsewhere, probably to the OnePlus Nord or Realme X50 5G.
Specs & Performance
5G is another thing you don’t get on the Pixel 4a and this is because Google has gone for a Qualcomm Snapdragon 730G processor, where many rivals have the more powerful 765G.
As per the display refresh rate, if 5G is something high up your priority list then the Pixel 4a doesn’t cut the mustard. However, Google will be launching a Pixel 4a (5G) later this year if you must have the latest tech.
If not, then the Snapdragon 730G provides perfectly smooth operation day-to-day and Google has bumped the memory to 6GB of RAM and 128GB of storage space. A nice upgrade on the 3a despite the price drop.
There’s still no microSD card slot, though.
You can see our benchmark results below compared to the main competition. Note that we haven’t tested the Realme X50 5G yet so the Realme 6 Pro is another option, although with a Snapdragon 720G and no 5G support.
There’s something of a false economy going on with smartphone cameras, with many manufacturers adding as many lenses as possible - often for the sake of promoting an impressive number when you won’t even use all of them.
Google does nothing of the sort here, but don’t be fooled by the Pixel 4a’s apparent lack of photography specs. As previously, the idea here is that you get the same main camera found on the flagship Pixel 4 inside a cheaper phone and Google’s incredible software.
So the Pixel 4a has 12Mp rear camera with an f/1.7 aperture, although not the telephoto lens as a secondary option. It’s got dual-pixel phase detection autofocus and optical image stabilisation.
At the front, there’s an 8Mp camera with an f/2 aperture. The main difference here is the positioning in the corner of the screen.
Having lots of cameras might sound appealing but if you don’t know what aperture means and you really just want a phone that can take great photos by doing all the hard work for you then the Pixel 4a fits the bill.
Where rivals have overly complicated camera apps, Google lays things out in an intuitive way making it simple to access the features you’ll use all the time. That’s namely the regular camera mode along with Portrait and Night Sight.
As we’ve found with the previous Pixel phones, the level of photography on offer here is excellent and in an essentially point and click method. The app will bring up useful pointers like moving slightly back to improve focus and letting you know when you’re holding the phone perfectly level.
Live HDR+ means you’re looking at the final result before hitting the shutter button and you can adjust things like the brightness and shadows in the same way too.
You can see the test photos in the gallery below with low light shots looking like regular photos and a night time shot appearing to have some lighting rigged up. Night Sight can also handle astrophotography, although this isn’t made clear in the app.
I haven’t been able to test it due to weather conditions but point it at the sky and it can take long exposures of the night sky. You’ll just need a tripod or somewhere to rest the phone because holding it will cause too much movement.
You’re likely to shoot video more often than use the astrophotography feature. While the Pixel 4a can shoot up to 4K resolution, note that it’s capped at 30fps. You can shoot 1080p at up to 120fps and results are pretty solid, especially with some smooth stabilisation. Still, the primary feature here is photography.
The front camera takes excellent selfies and an exclusive Pixel feature called ‘Portrait Blur’ meaning you can add the bokeh effect of portrait mode on an image taken with the regular camera mode.
Google has bumped the size of the battery a litter here from 3000- to 3140mAh. Not enough to make a huge difference but, oddly, Google quotes a battery life of 24 hours for the Pixel 4a when the 3a is touted at 30 on the official store.
Still, I’ve found battery life to be very good with the 4a lasting me a day and a half on average without using any dark modes and with the always on-screen feature switched on. Things should get better over time as the Adaptive Battery feature works its magic - namely reducing power to apps you rarely use, according to Google.
Fast charging hasn’t got any faster and there’s no wireless charging of course (not without a glass rear cover). However, when the supplied 18W charger gets the Pixel 4a from dead to 51% in 30 minutes, that’s a pretty decent result.
It’s no surprise that the Pixel 4a comes with Android 10, the latest version of Google’s mobile operating system.
What you get by buying a Pixel device is Android in its purest form. This means everything is clean and simple, without a bunch of tweaks in an effort to make it unique and add value. It also means no bloatware in the form of pre-installed apps.
Even though third-party Android makers have gradually made their Android skins closer to stock, it’s still refreshing to use a Pixel in comparison.
One thing that might be new to you is the gesture control, which is similar to using an iPhone. You need to swipe up from the bottom of the screen to go home or pause that same swipe to bring up recent apps.
It’s pretty easy to get used to and you can quickly swap between open apps by swiping left and right along the bottom, too. The main issue is the lack of a back button so you have to swipe in from either side of the display.
In a way, it’s a clever solution but it’s easy for it to go wrong, especially if the keyboard is on-screen so it typically gets registered as typing a word. Or it’s easy to do when you don’t want to, such as swiping through your camera roll.
If it gets too much then you can, fortunately, switch back to the older style navigation buttons.
I don’t think it’s talked about enough, but a further advantage is that Google guarantees at least three years of Android updates. And those future versions of Android will arrive on Pixel phones before others.
This gives the Pixel 4a a sort of hidden value that you might not have thought about.
Price & Alternatives
Coming in at just £349/US$349, the Pixel 4a is £50/$50 cheaper than the Pixel 3a when it first launched (Google then later reduced it to £329). This is despite various upgrades so this represents good value.
That said there’s strong competition this year, partly because OnePlus has gone back to its roots with the £379 OnePlus Nord. As mentioned earlier, this has 5G and a 90Hz screen if those sound tempting.
Then there's the impressive Moto G 5G Plus, which also has those features the Pixel lacks as is the same price for the equivalent 6/128GB model. Or you can drop down to £299 if 4/64GB is enough.
One more spanner in the works is Realme’s X50 5G at £299 - again with 5G support as the name suggests and, somehow, a 120Hz screen. The Xiaomi Mi 10T Lite is another with 120Hz at €279.
Check out all the best mid-range phones in our ranked chart.
Even though the Pixel 4a has tough competition this year, I still think it has a lot going for it.
Although it might not tick boxes that rivals do, such as support for 5G and a high refresh rate display, there’s plenty of charm and benefits here that will woo many buyers.
Essentially, it will appeal to less techy users who don’t care about going beyond 60Hz and who would rather have the hard-to-find compact design of the Pixel 4a along with easy-to-use stock Android 10 and the promise of at least three years of OS updates.
This isn’t about playing smartphone Top Trumps, it’s about providing a smooth and accessible experience, which I think Google has done very well. If you do want to play Top Trumps then various rivals objectively outpace the 4a.
Note that I've scored the Pixel 4a partly on rivals available in the UK. In the US, the phone has much less competition and is easily one of the best, arguably the best, mid-range smartphone you can buy.
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Google Pixel 4a: Specs
- Android 10
- 5.8in Full HD+ (1080x2340) 19.5:9 OLED, 443ppi
- Qualcomm Snapdragon 730G processor
- 6GB RAM
- 128GB storage, no microSD support
- 12.2Mp f/1.7 rear camera with dual pixel autofocus
- 8Mp f/2.0 selfie camera
- Pixel Imprint rear fingerprint sensor
- Stereo speakers
- Headphone jack
- Dual-band 11ac Wi-Fi
- Bluetooth 5.1 LE with aptX HD
- 3140mAh battery
- 18W Fast charging
- 144 x 69.4 x 8.2mm
- Available in Just Black