Google Pixel 4a review: Google’s best phone in years
Posted by admin on
Last year’s Google Pixel 3a was an accessible portal to the Pixel experience. It represented a way for people to try Google’s vision for Android without breaking the bank — something that hasn’t been possible since Google dumped the Nexus line for the more premium Pixel series in 2016.
This year’s Pixel 4a is an evolution of that vision. With the Pixel 4a, Google finally figured out how to mix the best aspects of Nexus and Pixel into one device. Its hardware is simple and minimalistic, but each individual component helps make Google’s killer software even better. With great build quality, a fantastic screen, signature cameras, and one of the best software experiences on Android, the Pixel 4a could be the budget king for 2020.
But with so much great competition available on the market right now, does the Pixel 4a stack up? Find out in the Android Authority Google Pixel 4a review.
Design and display: Punching above its weight
- 144 x 69.4 x 8.2mm, 143g
- Polycarbonate design with matte finish
- Stereo speakers
- Headphone jack
- 5.81-in. OLED with punch-hole
- 2,340 x 1,080
- 19.5:9 aspect ratio
- Rear-mounted fingerprint reader
The design of the Pixel 4a is leaps and bounds better than that of the Pixel 3a. Both phones are plastic, but Google gave the Pixel 4a a matte texture that makes it feel much nicer and less slippery than its predecessor. Google also removed the two-tone design, choosing a uniform polycarbonate shell instead. I’m a huge fan of the new design and finish. They make the phone feel more premium than its decidedly mid-range predecessor.
Google carried over the rear-mounted fingerprint reader of the Pixel 3a. Color me a fan. The 3a had a fairly deep divot with a different finish on the fingerprint reader itself. Google made the Pixel 4a’s fingerprint reader blend in better with the body. Both the reader and the rear shell have the same matte texture and black color, and the back of the phone even curves inward towards the reader to make it feel more cohesive.
Up and to the left from the fingerprint reader you’ll find the rear camera. The camera design of the Pixel 4a is similar to the Pixel 4 series, using a rounded square that matches its more expensive siblings. Unlike the Pixel 4, though, the Pixel 4a has but a single rear camera accompanied by a flash.
The sides of the phone aren’t a separate material as we saw on the Pixel 4. Instead, the polycarbonate back wraps around the edges to make a single shell. The left side houses the SIM card tray and the right side mounts the volume rockers and a turquoise power button — a fun feature Google tends to add to Pixel phones. The bottom includes the USB-C port and speaker, and on the top you’ll find a headphone jack.
The screen is a 5.81-inch, Full HD+ OLED panel, and it looks fantastic. Seriously, this is one of the best displays I’ve seen on a budget device. The Gorilla Glass 3-covered screen gets quite bright, maxing out at about 719 nits in our testing. The color balance was among the most accurate we’ve tested this year. It’s clear Google learned how to make a good display.
A punch-hole in the top left houses the front-facing camera, which allowed Google to make the Pixel 4a nearly bezel-less — a big shift from the Pixel 3a’s big-bezel design. This makes the phone more compact to hold, and reduces its overall footprint compared to the Pixel 3a. It also helps the phone look quite modern, which is appreciated in a budget phone.
This screen is better than most flagships this year. That's impressive.
Google only made one version of this device, so there’s no XL model this year. However, a rumored Pixel 4a 5G could replace the XL. I love small phones, and the Pixel 4a is quite a bit smaller than almost every phone that’s been released in 2020. Its overall footprint is just slightly larger than the iPhone SE, but the lack of bezels make its usable screen size much larger. I love it.
Overall, the Pixel 4a’s unibody design and fantastic display make it feel like a tiny portal to the Pixel experience. The chassis is simple with purpose. Google is a software company, and the simplicity of the Pixel 4a’s design helps you access that software. Google isn’t worried about flashy colors and designs — something the Pixel 4a showcases quite clearly.
Best of Android: Best display
Performance and battery: Nearly seamless
- Qualcomm Snapdragon 730G
- Adreno 618
- 6GB RAM
- 128GB storage
- 3,140mAh battery
- 18W Charging
- No wireless charging
- No microSD card expansion
A big reason Google was able to make the Pixel 4a so affordable was the decision to use the Qualcomm Snapdragon 730G processor, instead of something more expensive like the Snapdragon 765G. The 730G is much less powerful than Qualcomm’s flagship chips, so don’t expect it to fly through games. However, in daily use I experienced zero issues with performance, no hiccups, no stuttering. This is pretty surprising to me personally, and — to an extent— supports the idea that mid-range processors are perfectly adequate if you don’t need to do anything intensive on your phone.
The 6GB of RAM likely helped. The Pixel 3a was criticized for its measly 4GB of RAM. It often kicked active apps out of memory to make room for new ones. In an analysis last year, we determined that 6GB of RAM is the ideal minimum for an Android device. It’s nice that Google has been listening and maintained the same amount of RAM as the Pixel 4 series.
The 128GB of storage was also a nice surprise. Considering the more expensive Pixel 4 starts at 64GB of storage, it’s striking that Google would give the Pixel 4a more. It’s nice to see, especially since I like to store my entire music library locally alongside a variety of videos.
In benchmarks, the Pixel 4a didn’t perform particularly well, but that’s to be expected. For example, the Pixel 4a scored significantly lower than the OnePlus Nord, but this performance difference is due to the lesser chip in the Pixel 4a. In casual use, I didn’t notice a difference.
Battery life on the Pixel 4a was good in daily use, though not incredible. I got an average of 6.5 hours of screen-on time most days, resulting in over a full day of use. This was nice to see, considering the Pixel 4 series had some of the worst battery life we’ve seen in a long time. The lower-powered Snapdragon 730G played a role here, alongside the larger 3,140mAh battery.
The Pixel 4a took 87 minutes to charge to full on the included 18W charger. This result is squarely in the middle of the road compared to other devices we’ve tested this year. It’s certainly not the speedy 43 minutes achieved by the Oppo Find X2 Pro‘s 65W charger, but it gets the job done. Unfortunately, Google opted to skip wireless charging in this device.
Best of Android: Best battery life
Camera: Classic Pixel
- Main: 12.2MP
- Dual-pixel phase detection
- OIS + EIS, 1.4μm pixel size
- ƒ/1.7 aperture, 77-degree field of view
- Selfie: 8MP
- 84-degree field of view
- ƒ/2.0 aperture
- 1.12μm pixel size
The Pixel 4a uses the same 12.2MP Sony IMX363 rear sensor as the Pixel 4, Pixel 3, and Pixel 3a. Google hasn’t changed camera hardware much, but its software has progressively made image output better. The Pixel 4a adopts features from the Pixel 4 series, such as Astrophotography Mode and the dual exposure sliders.
The Pixel 4a produced images similar to those of the Pixel 4 and Pixel 3a. Images had great color and dynamic range, and maintained more contrast than other devices currently on the market. Many smartphone cameras will brighten shadows too much, which leads to a flat image without enough contour. The Pixel 4a adds just enough while maintaining shadow and highlight detail, leading to a very pleasing image.
That being said, we’re getting to the point where 12MP is just barely cutting it for the resolution of a smartphone camera sensor. I’m normally against massive resolution jumps, but mostly in instances where sensor size isn’t also increasing. Now that some smartphone camera sensors are starting to approach one inch, it’s acceptable to start adding more resolution. The Pixel 4a looks fantastic with no zoom or crop, but pinch in past 2x zoom and the image quickly starts getting an unpleasant texture. While I wouldn’t expect Google to use a new, larger sensor in a $350 device, I’d like to see a shift towards larger sensors in the future.
Since the Pixel 4a shares the same sensor with the Pixel 3a and Pixel 4, sharpness and contrast are generally the same, but the processing has changed a bit. The Pixel 4a produces images with better white balance, employing warmer tones and more balanced shadows. The Pixel 3a, in contrast, adds quite a bit of magenta to the shadows and produces greens that skew towards blue.
In comparison, the iPhone SE produced images similar to the Google Pixel 3a, with blue tones in the shadows. The iPhone SE certainly delivered more dynamic range than the Pixel 4a, but as I noted before, that’s not always a good thing. The iPhone seems to have raised the shadows quite a bit without much regard for contrast and contour, which leads to the image looking a bit washed out in comparison.
Just like on other Pixel devices, portrait mode is very good on the Pixel 4a, though it can get confused by — shall we say — messy hair. The phone will also crop to 2x in portrait mode to get a more pleasing image. This can lead to a slightly wormy image if you then crop the result.
Selfies on the Pixel 4a look pretty fantastic, even from an 8MP sensor. Images have great highlight retention and shadow detail.
Just like the Pixel 4, the Pixel 4a has access to both Night Sight and Astro Mode. It shows plenty of detail in the dark. Unfortunately, there was too much light pollution for me to fully test Astro Mode, but Night Sight remained solid, bringing out quite a bit of detail in darker scenes. Of course, images aren’t perfectly crisp, but it’s difficult to get a super clear image with longer exposures.
Overall, images from the Pixel 4a are classic Google. That’s to say, they’ll look fantastic straight out of the camera in nearly any situation. Don’t expect any fancy bells and whistles, such as wide-angle or super-telephoto cameras. For a $350 phone, I’m more than happy with the results the Pixel 4a’s single camera produced.
Note that all the images above have been compressed to optimize page load times. If you’d like to see the photos in their full resolution, we have them available on Google Drive.
The Pixel 4a can shoot 4K video at up to 30fps, and 1080p video at up to 60fps. In the video sample above, 4K video looks quite good with good stabilization, but it did tend to overexpose just a tad on a super bright day. If you’re in a more standard situation, lighting looks much better.
Best of Android: Which phone has the best camera?
Software: The best of Android
- Android 10
- Pixel Launcher
The Pixel 4a delivers some of the best software Android has to offer. Pixel Launcher is one of the smoothest and most simplistic on Android, with tight animations and UI elements. Maybe most importantly, the Pixel 4a has access to the many useful features that are exclusive to Pixel devices.
The Pixel 4a gives you the best Android experience. That's worth more than $350.
The Pixel 4a includes exclusive features such as the new Google Assistant, Call Screening, Now Playing, Google Recorder, and Google Camera. You can’t get these features on any other phone without rooting or sideloading APKs. Most of the AI features included in Pixel phones are actually useful. I’m often sad to lose these features when I swap to another phone. That’s what makes the Pixel experience.
Another important part of the Pixel software experience is the fact that it guarantees software updates and support for at least three years. That means the Google Pixel 4a will definitely receive Android 13, and will likely end up with Android 14 as well. Very few Android smartphones guarantee this much software support. This makes the Pixel devices some of your best options if you want to continuously upgrade to the latest version of Android. Moreover, owning a Pixel means you also have access to Android betas, if you’re into that kind of thing.
See also: Stock Android or UI skin?
Google Pixel 4a review: Specs
|Google Pixel 4a|
2,340 x 1,080 resolution
19.5:9 aspect ratio
|Processor||Qualcomm Snapdragon 730G|
No microSD slot
12.2MP f/1.8 sensor, 1.4µm pixels, 76-degree field-of-view, autofocus with dual-pixel phase detection, optical + electronic image stabilization
8MP sensor, f/2.0 aperture, 1.12µm pixels, fixed focus, 84-degree field-of-view
No wireless charging
|IP rating||No IP rating|
|Other features||Stereo speakers (one downward facing), Active Edge, USB Type-C, single nano-SIM|
|Software version||Android 10|
|Dimensions and weight||151.3 x 70.1 x 8.2mm
Value and competition
- Google Pixel 4a: 6GB RAM, 128GB Storage — $350
At $350, it’s impossible to deny the value Google’s Pixel 4a brings to the market. It offers one of the best experiences on Android in a uniquely compact package. Small phones are a dying breed, and getting a Pixel experience for half or even one-third the price of a modern flagship is an absolute steal.
Google is only offering one version of the Pixel 4a in the Just Black colorway.
There are a few phones in this price range you should be looking to for comparison: the Apple iPhone SE, OnePlus Nord, and Xiaomi Poco F2 Pro.
The iPhone SE offers metal and glass build quality, wireless charging, and a flagship processor. It’s very difficult to deny the value that phone brings, but the iPhone SE is missing the super-bright OLED display and headphone jack offered by the Pixel 4a. At $399, the iPhone SE probably represents the biggest toss-up between devices, but you’ll likely pick one over the other based on which ecosystem you prefer.
Pay a bit more, and you’re in the range of the OnePlus Nord. The Nord offers a faster Qualcomm Snapdragon 765G processor, a 90Hz AMOLED display, more RAM and storage, and faster 30W charging. Still, the cheapest version of the OnePlus Nord available globally costs close to $500, so it’s a significant price hike over the Pixel 4a.
If you’re willing to pay that full $500, the Poco F2 Pro is one hell of a device for the money. It offers the flagship Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 processor, a big battery, and fast charging. The software will certainly take some getting used to, particularly if you prefer the simpler interfaces of the Pixel UI or Oxygen OS, but if you’re a power user, this is a good get.
Google Pixel 4a review: Should you buy it?
The Google Pixel 4a doesn’t have a 120Hz display. It doesn’t have the latest Snapdragon processor or multiple rear cameras, but with the Pixel 4a, none of that matters. The Pixel 4a is an affordable way to access one of the best versions of Android, with support and features that you can only get from Google. That alone is worth more than the sum of its parts. Pair these with Google’s tight optimization that makes general performance on the Pixel 4a sing, and you’ve truly got the iPhone SE of Android.
So, should you buy a Pixel 4a? Yes, absolutely. If you’re tired of big, expensive phones and just want something compact that works, and works well, there is no doubt the Pixel 4a is one of the best pickups this year. At $350, it’s a no-brainer.