Pixel 4a raises questions about why Google bothers with flagship phones

Unless you hate money, you want the 4a if you want a Pixel phone today.

pixel-4a.jpg

Image: Google

Over a year has passed since Google released its Pixel 3a, a phone that did a pretty good impression of Nexus devices, which were solid value for money without all the bells and whistles.

In the time since, Google has released a new flagship in the form of the Pixel 4, and as if to prove that reception from punters was utterly lacklustre, Google removed it from sale after less than a year, although stock is still being sold.

Until the Pixel 5 arrives, that leaves the 4a carrying the weight of the series. Luckily for Google, this little phone can do that.

With the 3 and 3a, it was clear that the former was the flagship and the latter was the cheaper cousin. For the newer devices, that division is murky due to the 4a having some hardware improvements over the 4.

The most obvious upgrade is the hole-punch camera, which gives the 4a an extra 3mm of display in a smaller physical package compared to the Pixel 4 due to ditching much of the top bezel. The 4a has a 5.8-inch 19.5:9 OLED screen and physical dimensions of 144 millimetres by 69.4 millimetres, while the 4 is 19:9 5.7-inch OLED display with dimensions of 147.1mm by 68.8mm.

Cipriani take: Google's Pixel 4A is nearly perfect, but it's missing a key feature

The 4a also improves on the 4 by having a larger battery, rated at 3140mAh versus 2800mAH for the 4, makes 128GB of storage standard compared to the 64GB/128GB options of the 4, and offers two things the 4 cannot: Fingerprint scanning and a headphone jack.

On the flipside, what the 4 offers over the 4a is a better processor in the Snapdragon 855 compared to the 730G, water resistance, the ability to run the display up to 90Hz, a Neural Core processor, wireless charging, a telephoto lens, and a choice of colours.

Here's the rub for the Pixel 4 though, most of those missing features are neither here nor there. Water resistance would be nice, but in using the 4 for a year, I'm not going wild for the 90Hz display, the neural processing capabilities, nor the telephoto lens. I miss wireless charging but that is only because my house has Pixel Stands, but it's hardly a deal breaker.

In everyday use, the slower chip in the 4a doesn't have an impact and all phones in the 4 series have 6GB of memory at any rate.

Of course, unmentioned until now is the third 4-series Pixel on offer, the 4 XL which has a 537ppi 6.3-inch display against the 443 ppi screen in the 4a. The 4 XL also houses a much larger 3700mAh battery due to its much bigger dimensions.

But you pay for that bigger screen and battery, with a 4 XL costing more than double what it costs for a 4a. In Australia, the 4a retails for AU$600, the 128GB Pixel 4 is sold for AU$1,200, and the 4 XL costs AU$1,430 for 128GB of storage -- 64GB versions were still available at the time of writing for AU$150 cheaper.

That price figure really is the killer number in this comparison.

If you are a fan of large Pixel phones, then the XL is for you, but otherwise, there is little reason to seriously contemplate a 4 over a 4a, other than someone else is offering to pay for it or you really hate money.

At no point while using the 4a over recent weeks did I think it was half a phone compared to the 4. Visually, it is a better looking phone, feels considerably lighter than the 4 -- thanks to its polycarbonate backing instead of glass in the 4 -- and where it does fall short, it isn't a deal breaker.

Vogel review: Google Pixel 4a review: Excellence at an affordable price

Should I need a new phone tomorrow, I would have no hesitation in picking up a 4a, and if the need arises in a few months' time, maybe that purchase would be replaced by the previously announced 4a 5G.

The 4a closes the feature gap on its flagship brethren to such an extent, all the while being AU$50 cheaper than the 3a, that it raises questions about whether Google should even be in the AU$1,000+ smartphone category at all.

If the rumours are true, and Google shifts from the 800-series Snapdragons down to the 765G chip for the Pixel 5, while also giving the 5 a hole-punch camera and a fingerprint reader, then the 4a looks to be the future of the Pixel series. At the very least, it should be an acknowledgement that fingerprint readers are superior and more convenient than a hit and miss facial recognition system for unlocking phones, and that app makers never really embraced it.

In many ways, moving out of the premium flagship market would make a lot of sense. The phones haven't moved many people out of Apple's ecosystem, so that leaves them fighting with Samsung's cavalcade of Galaxy devices -- from Note to S and Flip -- that offer all sorts of hardware tricks and different cameras that Google does not compete with.

If there is a psychological barrier to paying over $1,000 in the United States for a phone, it is doubly so in Australia where the upper end of Samsung's range trades for over AU$2,000.

Provided Google lowers the Pixel 5 price by a reasonable amount, it might give the series a new lease on life for a new time.

Money is tight, people are wearing masks, and despite Apple having more powerful silicon in phones than ever, what is it actually used for? Late 2020 could be the time for a good enough phone -- with a fingerprint reader that doesn't cost four figures -- to storm back into favour.

Of course, if Google doesn't lower the price of the Pixel 5, the company might end up thinking its underwhelming Pixel 4 sales were the glory days.

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The Monday Morning Opener is our opening salvo for the week in tech. Since we run a global site, this editorial publishes on Monday at 8:00am AEST in Sydney, Australia, which is 6:00pm Eastern Time on Sunday in the US. It is written by a member of ZDNet's global editorial board, which is comprised of our lead editors across Asia, Australia, Europe, and North America.

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