Google Pixel 4a review: A $350 phone for everyone

pixel4a2

If you want a phone with a nice design, good performance, a great camera, reliable battery life, and guaranteed software support for at least three years, you should buy a Pixel 4a.

That’s really what this phone, Google’s latest in its A series of mid-rangers, boils down to. At the end of the day, the Pixel 4a is a stellar smartphone that you can get for only $349. You’d be hard pressed to find something better in this price range (at least in the States). And even against most flagships nowadays, the 4a does some things better for way less money.

You’ve heard this tale before though. Every Pixel 4a review seems to praise the phone for the same stuff.

“It has the same camera from the Pixel 4 which costs, like, $500 MORE!”

“Battery life is FINALLY good!”

“The software experience is AMAZING!”

To be perfectly clear, I’m gonna be repeating most of that in this review. Why? Because there aren’t a ton of angles to look at this phone from.

As reviewers, sometimes I feel like we all tend to follow a common consensus with certain devices and add our own flair to make each review unique. In other words, it’s the same review regurgitated from different people. Most of the time, it’s all a load of B.S. since those reviewers don’t take the time to consider each aspect of the gadget they’re evaluating. But when it comes to something like the Pixel 4a, a phone that’s as simplistic and easy to understand as it gets, you can’t help but write a piece that’s similar to something published by a competitor.

So at the end of the day, reviewers aren’t just praising the 4a to praise the 4a. It’s genuinely one of the best values on the market, and it’s by far one of the best smartphones you can get.

Design

Here’s something you’ve probably heard before: the Pixel 4a has a nice design. It’s made of a soft-touch plastic that makes the phone super light and thin. It doesn’t feel as premium as the regular Pixel 4, but the plastic doesn’t flex and the phone doesn’t sound hollow when you knock on it. Those are two really good signs when considering durability over the long term.

Speaking of durability, I’ve been using Catalyst’s Impact Protection case for the 4a during my review period and I like it. It adds a lot of thickness to the device, but it definitely makes it more grippable. It’s also nice and light which you might not assume to be true by looking at it. Here’s a link to the case if you wanna pick it up. (Note: This isn’t an ad.)

Around the phone, you get your normal array of buttons in the form of volume and power controls (all of which are nice and clicky). On the bottom, there’s a USB-C port and two speaker grilles (one’s a speaker, the other’s a mic). On the top, there’s a headphone jack which is a pleasant surprise. Admittedly, I barely used the jack since a majority of my headphones are Bluetooth, but it’s nice to have it nonetheless.

On the back there’s a fingerprint sensor, and I have to be honest: I didn’t know how much I missed having a rear-mounted fingerprint reader. It’s such a perfect way to secure your phone. It’s in a convenient spot, it works 100 percent of the time, and you can swipe down on it to see your notifications. What’s there not to like?

Picking up the Pixel 4a for the first time, I was surprised by just how comfortable the device is. The phone is much smaller than most devices nowadays thanks to its 5.8-inch display which is surrounded by nearly non-existent bezels. This keeps the footprint of the device nice and compact, and it’s made the 4a one of the best one-handed phones you can find.

Display

Touching a bit more on the screen, Google uses an AMOLED panel with a 2340×1080 resolution. For a $350 phone, this screen is extremely nice. Colors are nice and vibrant, brightness is decent, and off-axis viewing isn’t the worst I’ve seen. Plus, there’s no unsightly notch or forehead on the device. The company only includes a tiny hole-punch cutout in the top left for the selfie camera which isn’t intrusive whatsoever.

Because of this, the phone looks a lot more modern than the Pixel 4, and that’s one of its strongest selling points. I remember when the Pixel 4 came out, a lot of people just didn’t like how dated it looked compared to phones like the iPhone 11, Galaxy Note 10, and OnePlus 7 Pro. The 4a, however, completely capitalizes on a 2020 aesthetic, and it’s nothing short of eye-pleasing.

Audio

With its tiny bezels, the 4a is a great phone for watching widescreen videos on, and it’s even better when you pair that to the stereo speakers on the device. I’m not sure why other reviewers bashed the speaker setup on this device, but I think it’s great. There’s enough bass and clarity to make any kind of music pop. I’ve been listening to Logic’s No Pressure with its wide sound stages and clustered production and every track sounds fantastic out of the 4a. You won’t have any problems with the speakers on this phone, despite it costing under $400.

Performance

When it comes to phones in this price range, performance always tends to be a mixed bag. Whether it’s a low-end processor or bad software to blame, you can never really do anything on these devices beyond the basics. Folks, I’m thrilled to say the Pixel 4a bucks this trend.

Inside the 4a, Google packs in the Snapdragon 730G processor paired to 6GB of RAM and 128GB of storage. This combination of specs paired with Google’s lightweight approach to software makes the 4a a perfectly serviceable phone that’s able to handle just about any task you throw at it. Social media, email, web browsing, and light gaming all fly on this handset. The only time I ever saw a major slowdown was when I was jumping between apps at a frequent rate. The 730G isn’t an 865 and I wouldn’t expect it to perform like one, so you will notice a hiccup or two here and there.

At the end of the day, though, I was seriously impressed. During my review period, I had to keep reminding myself that this phone was only $350. It felt exceptionally snappy and capable each day I used it. Based on this statistic alone, I could see myself using this phone for the next couple of years as my daily driver. That should tell you just how good it is.

Software

During those years, you’d get guaranteed software updates as well. Google ships the 4a with Android 10 out of the box with all of the Pixel goodness you come to expect like the new Assistant, call screening, Live Caption, Now Playing, the Pixel Launcher, and next to no bloatware. Come next month, the phone is guaranteed an update to Android 11 and (potentially) Android 14 in 2023. Between those major releases, the phone will get security patches, feature drops, and more.

Personally, I find this to be one of the most compelling reasons to buy a Pixel phone. If you care about up-to-date software and are on a budget, you should buy a 4a. Most phones under $400 get one major system upgrade and a handful of security patches. But because this phone comes right from Google, you get the latest updates as soon as they become available. If that’s not appealing, I don’t know what is.

Camera

Another reason why I can see myself using the Pixel 4a frequently is the camera. I’m not gonna beat around the bush here: the 4a’s camera is exceptionally good. It’s right on par with the regular Pixel 4 which already produces class-leading photographs, and for $350, it has the ability to compete with the $1,000+ flagships of the world without breaking a sweat.

Left: Pixel 4 XL, Right: Pixel 4a
Left: Pixel 4 XL, Right: Pixel 4a
Left: Pixel 4 XL, Right: Pixel 4a
Left: Pixel 4 XL, Right: Pixel 4a

I took both my Pixel 4a and 4 XL to the Ocean City, NJ boardwalk to do some side-by-side comparisons. As you can see, each shot is nearly indistinguishable from one another. I will say, I noticed the 4a had the ability to overblow white balance more often than my 4 did, but without having both phones in your pockets you won’t notice it at all. The photos above also don’t demonstrate that . In the end, both cameras are fantastic.

In case you’re curious, the 4a has a single 12.2MP f/1.7 shooter with phase detect autofocus, optical image stabilization, and all of Google’s software-based tricks under the hood. The lens supports the same contrast-y aesthetic you get from other Pixel phones when it comes to photography, and you even get astrophotography mode for longer exposures to capture the night sky. Portrait shots also look good from this camera, and so do selfies thanks to the 8MP sensor onboard.

Admittedly, video isn’t the greatest. The Pixel 4a can shoot at 4K 30 frames per second, but it still looks kinda choppy and certainly not as smooth as something like the iPhone SE. Still, it gets the job done, and for $350 you really can’t complain.

If there’s anything to complain about when it comes to the camera on the Pixel 4a, it’s the fact that it tends to be slower than the one on the regular 4. The Snapdragon 730G can’t process photos as fast as the 855 can inside my Pixel 4 XL, so you’ll be waiting a beat or two longer after hitting the shutter button for your pictures to finish processing. That being said, unless you have a Pixel 4 to compare it to, I don’t see anyone having a problem with the camera performance on the 4a. Y’know, unless you’re trying to capture super-fast action shots.

Battery Life

Another solid component of the Pixel 4a: battery life. Under the hood, Google includes a 3,140mAh cell. By no means is that a big battery by today’s standards, but boy does it get the job done in terms of lasting a full day.

I’m not sure I understand what Google did here. Yeah, the screen’s smaller, it’s 60Hz, and it’s 1080p. Yeah, there’s a Snapdragon 730G processor instead of an 855 or 865 so it doesn’t suck up as much juice. But 3,140mAh isn’t very big at all, yet the 4a manages to outlast my Pixel 4 XL on a full charge. At some point in the afternoon, I’m typically looking for a charger for my 4 XL so I don’t die before dinner. Meanwhile, my 4a keeps chugging until I hit the sack at about 10 p.m. At that point, it’s usually at about 15 percent, but you get the idea.

I don’t measure screen-on time since it’s never an accurate metric for me. I play a lot of music over Bluetooth with Spotify, and during that period, my screen is off. Despite that, I’ve heard of people getting six to seven hours of screen-on time before they have to recharge. Therefore, I don’t see anyone having a problem with the stamina of the 4a.

In order to recharge the 4a, Google includes an 18W fast charger in the box. I’ve found that, coupled with the relatively small battery, the phone can charge up in about an hour once it hits zero percent. Unfortunately, there’s no wireless charging on the 4a so you’ll have to lug around your cable if you’re paranoid about it dying before the end of the day.

Compromises

As you can tell by the overwhelmingly positive tone I set this review to, there’s not a lot wrong with the Pixel 4a whatsoever. But to get that price to $350, Google had to cut corners somewhere, right?

Well… sorta. Instead of offering multiple storage configurations, Google only gives you one option: 128GB with 6GB of RAM. It also only offers the 4a in one color: Just Black. And like I said, the camera is behind the Pixel 4 in terms of performance.

But as a package, there’s nothing evident about the Pixel 4a that you can point to and say, “Yup, that’s why it’s so cheap.”

I do have a theory on this, however. The whole phone doesn’t capitalize on one feature to stand out, and it doesn’t have a ton of bells and whistles to grab headlines. Google poured all its attention into building a phone that could master the fundamentals at a reasonable price, and the company pulled it off. I have to assume by cutting out any gimmicks, they saved a few extra bucks, hence they can turn some type of profit off the device.

Conclusion

At the end of the day, the Pixel 4a is fundamentally a great smartphone. It has the design, performance, camera, and battery life most consumers need, all for $350. If you need something to handle a more demanding workload, there are plenty of options on the market. But if you just want a plain good smartphone, the 4a is what you’ve been looking for.

Google Pixel 4a

$349
7.9

Design

7.5/10

Display

7.5/10

Performance

7.5/10

Camera

9.0/10

Battery

8.0/10

Pros

  • Fantastic camera
  • Great battery life
  • Clean software with guaranteed updates
  • Nice, compact design
  • 2020-esque screen

Cons

  • Only one color available: black
  • 6GB RAM/128GB storage is nice, but you can't get more of either
  • Video recording is still a mixed bag



There are 4 comments

Add yours

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: