Google Pixel 4a review: The Goldilocks Google phone
- Great display
- Superlative camera for stills
- No waterproofing
- No wireless charging
- Plain design
A much better buy than the normal Pixel 4, the well-priced 4a packs in an amazing camera and solid battery life with the promise of three years of software support.
The Pixel 4a is one of the best phones you can buy right now. For AU$599 you get an Android phone with the best single lens for still images on any phone, all-day battery life, a compact design, and guaranteed three years of software updates.
If you don’t need your phone to have a zoom or wide-angle camera, waterproofing, or wireless charging, then there’s no reason not to buy the Pixel 4a. It’s that good.
It might have a middle-tier chipset and a plastic build, but these drawbacks don’t take away from the excellent day-to-day experience and undeniable value for money. It even has a headphone jack.
- Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 730
- Operating System: Android 10 with three years of updates
- RAM: 6GB
- Storage: 128GB
- MicroSD slot: No
- Headphone Jack: Yes
- Fingerprint sensor: Yes
- SIM: Single
- Battery: 3410mAh
- Connectivity: 4G, Wi-Fi 802.11ac, Bluetooth 5.0, NFC, GPS
- Rear Camera: 12.2Mp (f/1.7) wide angle with OIS
- Front-Facing Camera: 8Mp (f/2.0) wide angle
- Dimensions: 144 x 69.4 x 8.2 mm
- Weight: 143g
The Pixel 4a, which only comes in black with 128GB of non-expandable storage, goes on sale in Australia on September 10 at $599 direct from Google, JB Hi-Fi, and Harvey Norman. In the box you get a charger brick, USB-C cable, and a pair of in-ear headphones.
The phone’s most obvious competition is the iPhone SE (2020), a phone that starts a little higher at $749 but has a top of the line processor and (importantly for some) has an Apple logo stamped on it. Neither phone has 5G compatibility.
Other phones in this price range include the Oppo Find X2 Lite and the Realme 6.
Google has toned down the design of the Pixel 4a to the bare essentials, which is to the phone’s benefit. It has a plastic back with a single camera module and a circular fingerprint sensor. More expensive phones have in-screen sensors, but you still can’t beat a normal physical one like this for reliability with unlocking and biometric entry into secure apps.
I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the 4a’s 5.81-inch OLED display. It has excellent colour reproduction, viewing angles, and brightness. Thanks to the tall 19.5:9 aspect ratio, it sits in a phone that is one-handed for all but those with the tiniest hands. You don’t get a high refresh rate screen but 60Hz will do just fine at this price point.
It’s a boon to get stereo speakers and they’re pretty decent too. There is a lesser-spotted headphone jack on the top, unlike phones that cost four times as much, and a hint of colour in the mint green power button. Aside from the circular cut out in the top left corner of the screen for the front facing camera – a first for a Pixel phone – the design is uniform and plain. But if you like black phones and are more concerned about the features of your phone then this won’t bother you.
Features and software
The Pixel leaves design inspiration at the door to wow you with everything else. Google’s Android 10 is right at home here, and if you don’t mind living entirely in Google’s world of free services in exchange for your personal data then the experience will be seamless. Google also promises two years of Android OS updates and three years of security updates from launch, better than most Android phones.
In the Android world only OnePlus phones, limited to Australian buyers via import, are as smooth in day-to-day use as the Pixel 4a. Despite the phone’s mid-tier Qualcomm Snapdragon 730G chipset the phone barely skips a beat – the advantage of a phone where Google controls the hardware and the software. Previous Pixels have not been this smooth, and it’s great to see Google has finally worked out how to make software sing on mid-range hardware.
The Google Assistant is right at home on the 4a and it runs quickly on 6GB RAM, but I like that you can completely ignore it if you want to. Other features Pixel-only features include Smart Storage, an optional setting that deletes files off your phone if they are saved in Cloud apps such as Google Photos, and Google Lens which is built into the camera app that scans an image and intelligently lets you click on URLs or perform a Google search.
It may only be a small thing but the vibration motor on the Pixel 4a is one of the very best. Feedback when typing on the keyboard is tight and punchy and similar to the premium experience on the Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra or even an iPhone (Apple reigns supreme here). On other Android phones of this price, the vibration motors are not as good, and very rattly. It’s something that makes the Pixel feel more expensive than it really is.
This is not a 5G phone. Rumour has it the upcoming Pixel 5 and Pixel 4a 5G (obviously) will be, but the regular 4a reviewed here is a 4G-only phone. Honestly, that is just fine. 5G is not worth the extra spend (on handset or mobile plan) yet.
Call quality was excellent via the top earpiece, and Bluetooth connectivity to various headphones was solid.
My favourite Pixel-exclusive feature – perhaps because I’m a journalist – is the transcription mode built into the Recorder app. It works offline and can transcribe interviews, lectures, or any verbal audio in astonishing real time and is incredibly accurate. Recordings are stored only on the phone for security reasons, and you can search audio with text, and it time stamps everything. It’s amazing, but only available in English at the time of writing.
The phone lacks dual SIM, microSD, waterproofing, and wireless charging. For power users those absences might be deal breakers, but many people don’t need these features and often don’t use all four even if they have them on their phone. For the price, the Pixel 4a is worth sacrificing those things for.
The Pixel 4a successfully continues the Pixel line’s legacy of having superlative cameras, even if it only has one on the back and one on the front, and the 12.2Mp f/1.7 main sensor is astonishingly good.
This is largely down to Google’s post-processing software, which performs HDR magic on shots that have no right to look as good they do. Still images look, to my eyes, better than those from the iPhone 11 Pro or Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, although all three are excellent and the processing is different for each.
It comes down to personal taste, but I can’t see anybody being disappointed in what the 4a can do, particularly with portrait photos. Google is doing the bokeh blur effect with just software, and it’s amazing. Unlike the iPhone SE, the 4a makes portrait mode available for everything, not just people photos.
You don’t get a zoom lens – zooming is done digitally (not optically like on the regular Pixel 4 and 4 XL) – or an ultrawide camera. Normally, that’s a downside given many Android phones at this price now have them, but it honestly doesn’t matter because the one lens on Google’s phone is that good.
Little software touches improve the camera app including an automatic level that ensures you take landscapes at zero degrees, as well as brightness and contrast sliders which appear when you tap to focus and allow the user to get the exact lighting required.
The camera excels with its Night Sight mode too, blowing most other phones out the water regardless of price. Scenes are brightened artificially so you get a not true-to-life image, but the results are still magical. The astrophotography mode (tripod required) automatically takes three- to four-minute exposures of the night sky and returns star-gazing results I’d struggle to get from my DSLR. It’s absolutely ridiculous this tech is available on a six-hundred-dollar phone.
Where the Pixel shows its price slightly is in the video department. Although 4K recording at 30fps is possible it’s not very stable and makes the phone run hot. Regular video recording at 1080p is fine for most people, but this isn’t a phone for videographers or anybody that takes a lot of video and is fussy about quality. The iPhone SE will serve you better there.
The 8Mp f/2.0 front-facing camera does a solid job of selfies and portrait mode and will do just fine for all those extra video calls you’re having thanks to the pandemic.
While not earth shatteringly good, I was more than satisfied with the day of juice I got from the Pixel 4a’s relatively small 3,140mAh battery. If you are an incredibly heavy user, then you will kill the battery before you are ready to go to bed, but I never did. And the 18W fast charger that comes with the phone fills it up more than fast enough.
On most days I was seeing over four hours of screen-on time before the battery hit 10 per cent. For context, my colleague only regularly got three hours of screen-on time out of the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, a phone that costs from $1999.
The Bottom Line
If you don’t want an iPhone and you’re on a budget, then the Pixel 4a is a tremendous option. For less than six hundred dollars you get a superlative camera, guaranteed three years of software support, all-day battery life, and clean Android software with exclusive features in a phone that you can hold in one hand. It’s surprising how rare that is to find today, let alone at such a good price.
The only reasons to steer clear are if the lack of 5G, waterproofing, wireless charging, or expandable storage are dealbreakers for you. For most people, they shouldn’t be. The Pixel 4a is one of the best phones you can buy, regardless of its low price.
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