'ZDNET Recommends': What exactly does it mean?
ZDNET's recommendations are based on many hours of testing, research, and comparison shopping. We gather data from the best available sources, including vendor and retailer listings as well as other relevant and independent reviews sites. And we pore over customer reviews to find out what matters to real people who already own and use the products and services we’re assessing.
When you click through from our site to a retailer and buy a product or service, we may earn affiliate commissions. This helps support our work, but does not affect what we cover or how, and it does not affect the price you pay. Neither ZDNET nor the author are compensated for these independent reviews. Indeed, we follow strict guidelines that ensure our editorial content is never influenced by advertisers.
ZDNET's editorial team writes on behalf of you, our reader. Our goal is to deliver the most accurate information and the most knowledgeable advice possible in order to help you make smarter buying decisions on tech gear and a wide array of products and services. Our editors thoroughly review and fact-check every article to ensure that our content meets the highest standards. If we have made an error or published misleading information, we will correct or clarify the article. If you see inaccuracies in our content, please report the mistake via this form.
Last year's Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL incorporated flagship specifications, but had terrible battery life and were priced too high. This year we see a different strategy with lower prices, midrange specifications, and fewer available options with the Pixel 5 and Pixel 4a 5G. All indications are this may just prove to be the right strategy for Google.
When I saw the outstanding Black Friday deal on a Pixel 4a 5G from the Google Fi website and great trade-in offers from the Google site I ordered a Pixel 4a 5G for both my wife and myself with an average out-of-pocket cost of about $250. After more than a week of use, I couldn't be happier with the phone as it provides all of the essentials needed to get work done while supporting 5G and sporting a fantastic camera.
See also: Google Pixel 5 review: Less is more. In fact, it's exceptional
ZDNet's Jason Cipriani tested the Pixel 5, priced $200 more. This $200 premium brings a metal body, slightly smaller display, a bit more RAM, 200 mAh larger battery, IP68 dust/water resistance, wireless charging, and a 90Hz refresh rate display. If there had been better offers I could have easily justified the Pixel 5 as I like to run with my phones in the rain and have been spoiled by high refresh rate displays.
The battery is 1,000 mAh greater than the Pixel 4. The phone is only available with one internal storage option and in one color. There is a 3.5mm headphone jack so that's a great option that is a bit of a throwback in the smartphone world.
This year Google went all in on the Pixel 4a 5G with a lovely AMOLED display that is big, bright, and clear. It doesn't have the high refresh rate of $1,000 phones, but it still looks great and running stock Android may help keep things zippy.
There is a small hole punch front-facing camera tucked over in the far left corner and I barely even notice its presence. The handset speaker is centered just above the display and also serves as one of the stereo speakers. Audio is loud and sounds fine, but it doesn't have the clarity of more expensive phones.
The Pixel 4a 5G has a couple of throwback features that I love; a centered rear fingerprint sensor and 3.5mm audio jack. While we are wearing masks regularly, quickly tapping the back of the phone as you pick it up is a tried, true, and brilliant solution.
The back of the Pixel 4a 5G is matte plastic and that's just fine. Many people slap a case on their phone and if not a phone with a plastic back is more likely to survive a drop than a glass phone. It's easy to hold onto and doesn't get ugly with greasy fingerprints.
Google's camera software is brilliant and in this phone it is paired up with standard and ultrawide lenses to help you capture the world around you. I've taken some lovely photos with it since it arrived and my wife cannot stop praising its performance as she captures the holidays, our daughters, and our pets.
See also: Google Pixel 4 XL review: A perfectly disappointing phone
The Pixel 4a 5G launches with Android 11 and already has the 5 December Android security update. It's Android the way Google designed it with a clean, responsive user interface. We even just received some cool Mandalorian wallpapers and AR characters to try out.
It's nice to use Android as Google intended and with this approach you also get a chance to use some new features in Android 11 before other Android users. Some of these features include Live View with Location Sharing in Google Maps, app suggestions, and Voice Access.
Live View with Location Sharing is a bit like Find My Friends on an iPhone. Within Google Maps you can tap on their icon and see where they are in relation to you. Tap start to then receive navigation directions to meet up with them. Maybe not as useful right now, but it can be a great way to stay in touch with family.
Thanks to Google's app suggestions, I actually changed the way I commonly setup my Android home screen so I could leave open some spots on the bottom bar for Google to dynamically manage. The phone now pops up apps throughout the day, based on my usage patterns and typical needs for that time of the day. It's a pretty cool feature that I find more useful than I ever thought I would.
Voice Access has been present on Android devices since 2018, designed to help people control their phones using just their voice. This is an accessibility feature that is very useful for people with motor disabilities, but can also be helpful when your hands are unavailable and you want to use your phone.
My wife is a huge fan of the spam filtering on Pixel phones, which was a major reason she wanted a new Pixel when the older Pixel 3 expired. The new Hold for Me feature is also great during this time of remote buying when you may need to speak to a customer service representative by phone with stores closed.
The Pixel 4a 5G has a full price of $499. There are various sales, currently $50 off, and trade-in offers for older phones so you may be able to find a way to save on this purchase.
$500 for a 5G phone is a fair deal though, but you can save $100 and pick up a TCL 10 5G UW on Verizon with similar specifications and arguably a bit more capability.
See also: Google Pixel 4 review: Solid camera, but poor battery and cellular performance kill it for business
If I didn't bump into a Black Friday sale for my Google Fi Pixel 4a 5G then I likely wouldn't have picked one up and that would have been terrible. The phone is just what I want in an affordable Pixel with a fantastic camera, excellent 5G performance, and all the great Android goodies that come with a Pixel such as timely Android security updates and new feature drops.
The display is lovely, the matte back finish is easy to grasp, and performance has been flawless. If I wasn't told about the processor, I would have no idea the phone was sporting a midrange Snapdragon 765G. I only miss 90Hz or 120Hz refresh rate when I jump on another phone and zip around, but using just the Pixel 4a 5G I don't see an issue with the 60Hz display.
We may see another flagship priced twice as much as the Pixel 4a 5G, but I'm a fan of this strategy of providing a solid stock Android phone with all the great camera and Google goodies that set the Pixel line apart from the rest.