The Pixel 4a keeps the best of the Pixel series and ditches features that are arguably a luxury rather than a necessity. Compromises were made on the design, but the result is one of Google’s best phones to date. It’s also one of the most affordable phones out. Meet the Pixel 4a.
Note: I am part of #teampixel, which gives me access to the latest Google Pixel products. I’m not obligated or paid to review any of the products. Google had no editorial control or voice regarding this review.
The Pixel 4a
The Pixel 4a is compact, stripped down, and only available in “just Black”. The only pop of color on mine is a mint green power button.
The front of the Pixel 4a is all about the screen. With no chins, notches or thick bezels in sight, you can enjoy the 5.8″ Full HD+ OLED screen. It’s also easy to overlook the unobtrusive punch-hole style camera in the top left corner of the screen.
The 4a has a thin polycarbonate body instead of glass. It makes the 4a feel extremely light in your hands, almost like a toy. The material is smooth without the slip of glass and more resistant to fingerprints. Since the 4a isn’t made of glass, I’ve been using it without a case. So far that hasn’t come back to bite me.
The headphone jack remains at the top of the phone and there are stereo speakers (earpiece and bottom). Music, videos and calls on speaker are satisfyingly loud in a room by yourself, but easily drowned out by background noise.
The back of the 4a is just as discreet as the front. A single camera and flash, fingerprint sensor, and a black Google logo are all that’s on the back.
The 4a doesn’t support wireless charging and isn’t water resistant. However, these trade-offs, in my humble opinion, strips the 4a down to only the essentials and none of the gimmicks. This could be a deal-breaker for some, but I can live without these features.
The Pixel 4a doesn’t come with any new “Pixel exclusive” features. In fact, it’s missing the infamous squeeze gesture for bringing up Google Assistant. Most of of the 4a’s new features come from Android 11, the latest version of Android.
New Assistant Interface & Media Player Controls
There’s a new Google Assistant interface accessed with a short swipe up from the bottom corners of the screen. The power menu doubles as a dashboard of controls for connected smart devices and Google Pay.
One of my favorite Android 11 features is being able to control multiple media players from the notifications area. I can quickly jump between playing music and listening to an audiobook. Additionally, Bluetooth now stays on when you enable Airplane mode with Bluetooth headphones connected.
Bundled Conversations & Chat Bubbles
What should’ve been breakout features for Android 11 (imho) are bundled conversations and chat bubbles. Bundled conversations separates messages from other notifications, making them easier to find. Unfortunately, it’s not clear which apps support this feature, though it is clear more support from app developers is needed. Instagram direct messages and Google Messages texts are the only messages I’ve actually seen bundled.
As for chat bubbles, I have yet to see one bubble after using the Pixel 4a for over a month now.
Android 11 also brings more controls over app permissions. Scores storage limits storage permissions to select folders instead of the entire phone storage. Permissions can be approved on a one-time basis or set to auto-reset. Repeatedly denying a permission request will block the culprit app from requesting it again.
Other notable Android 11 features include built-in screen recording, live captioning, and a notification history panel in the Settings app.
More Than Capable
Screen quality is vivid, detailed and sharp, but brightness continues to be a sore spot for Pixel screens. I keep the brightness on the maximum manual settings. Anything lower and I can feel my eyes strain to see through the dimness.
On top of that, manually setting the brightness slider to the max doesn’t even reach the 4a’s real maximum brightness level. For that, you have to turn on adaptive brightness. With this setting, the screen gets bright enough to clearly see in direct sunlight without a covering. It’s a struggle to see otherwise. Adaptive brightness is helpful when outdoors, but a mixed bag in other lighting conditions.
With 6GB of RAM the Pixel 4a has no trouble keeping up with a heavy load. It’s snappy when opening and switching apps. Scrolling through documents or swiping through photos is a smooth experience.
The 2019 mid-range processor (Qualcomm Snapdragon 730G) powering the 4a is supposed to be optimized for gaming and it shows in the Pixel 4a. Playing graphic heavy games like Asphalt 9 is a smooth and stutter free experience. I did notice occasional lag in cut scenes, but not during gameplay. Graphics don’t look as sharp as they do on a phone like the Pixel 4 XL. However, it’s still an enjoyable experience. The 4a also gets warm with heavy use, though not to the point of discomfort.
The Pixel’s 3140mAh battery is small, but can roll with the punches. My typical daily usage consists of taking 20-50 photos, sending emails, social media, editing photos, reading ebooks or listening to audiobooks, and 2 or more hours on personal and work calls.
Without using adaptive battery or battery saver features, my Pixel 4a easily makes it from 8AM-11PM with 10-15% battery remaining. If you care about screen on time, I’m averaging ~7 hours on the 4a.
Charging times are quick enough to not even worry whether the 4a will last all day. I can fully charge the battery from 10% within an hour. Just 15-20 minutes of charging gives the battery as little as 15-20% more power.
Google isn’t offering a 64GB storage model this year. Instead, there’s only a 128GB model. Who can complain though? If I had to choose only one, I’d choose 128GB as well. That’s plenty of space to save tons of pictures, games, and music.
The Pixel 4a has the same 12.2MP rear-camera and 8MP front camera as the Pixel 3, 4 and upcoming Pixel 5. This is both amazing and frustrating. Top-tier and entry-level phones usually have different cameras. Not so with the Pixels, which is great! However, there aren’t any noticeable improvements to image quality or new ways to take advantage of the camera technology with this release, and that’s frustrating.
The 4a produces the same kind of photos you can get from just about any Pixel: sharp, detailed, and thoroughly blurred backgrounds in portrait mode.
Again, this is great, but when is Google going to step up the Pixel’s camera game again?
I’d love to see Google offer more camera features. Aside from Astrophotography, which can only be used in specific conditions, Google hasn’t offered much more for everyday people to take advantage of such a great camera and its software in new ways.
Video is another area the Google could greatly improve on the Pixels. The rear camera shoots sharp 4K video at 30 frames per second and 1080p videos look vivid and detailed. However, you’ll get better quality videos from other phones if video is really important to you.
The Pixel 4a is an easy phone to recommend because it contains a nice mix of great phone features at a convenient price, especially in these times. For $350, the 4a feels like a steal in a sea of $1000 phones.
I think the 4a is the best design iteration of the Pixel series so far. I also think it’s more or less the same as the Pixels before it. One reason I wouldn’t recommend the 4a is because of the technology powering it. There’s nothing wrong with the tech. I just question buying a new 4a if you can get the same features and technology in an older model for cheaper — if you can find one.
Other phones manufactures are also catching up to the Pixel. It may still be the camera phone king, but competitors like Apple’s iPhone SE are right behind them and surpassing them in some areas.
Which Pixel To Buy: 4a, 4a 5G, 5?
If you’re already on the Pixel bandwagon, I’d only recommend upgrading from a Pixel 2 or older. If your Pixel 3, 3a or 4’s screen isn’t broken, stick with it.
The Pixel 5 has a bigger screen and battery, 5G support, more RAM, a 16MP ultrawide camera, new camera features, wireless charging and water resistance. However, it’ll cost you $350 extra. The Pixel 4a 5G is only $150 more and boasts the biggest screen of the bunch (6.2-inch), a bigger battery (3885mAh), and the same cameras and features as the Pixel 5.
Of the three, the Pixel 4a 5G actually steals the show — if you can live without water resistance and wireless charging. It pairs the best features of the Pixel 5 with the trade-offs of the Pixel 4a for a fair price.
Share your thoughts in the comments on the new Pixel 4a. Will you buy it or pass for another phone?