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Google Pixel 4a review: Excellence at an affordable price

sandra-vogel.jpg
Written by Sandra Vogel on
google-pixel-4a-header.jpg
8.4

Google Pixel 4a

Excellent
$550 at Amazon$468 at Walmart$704.42 at eBay
Like
  • Three years of Google updates
  • Compact and lightweight
  • Unfussy design
  • Good rear camera
  • Good OLED screen
  • 3.5mm headset jack
Don't Like
  • No MicroSD card slot
  • Screen might be too small for some users
  • Sound quality could be better
  • No IP rating for dust/water resistance
  • Editors' Review
  • Specs

Google has been on a journey with its Pixel handsets. What started out as a project to bring high-end capabilities to the affordable smartphone sector changed emphasis along the way, and last year saw two Pixel 4 phones -- the 5.7-inch Pixel 4 (£669/$799) and 6.3-inch Pixel 4 XL (£829/$899). The 4XL is no longer available at Google's online store, while the 4 has had a price cut to £499 in the UK. But the 5.8-inch Pixel 4a is the handset du jour for Google, and marks a return to the original business model, offering some good specifications at an affordable price. It undercuts the Pixel 4 by some distance at £349 (inc. VAT) or $349.

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The 5.8-inch Pixel 4a is compact and pocket-friendly, and weighs just 143g.

Image: Sandra Vogel / ZDNet

It's tempting to call the Google Pixel 4a a 'back to basics' handset. For example, it isn't 5G, is reasonably small, has a flat glass screen rather than curved, there's a notable screen bezel, and the build has a plastic back rather than a glass one. There's just the one rear facing camera (cue a gasp of shock from those who expect at least three cameras on the back of any handset). And it only comes in one colour -- black. 

google-pixel-4a-side.jpg

Volume rocker, power button (white), rear camera and fingerprint reader.

Image: Sandra Vogel / ZDNet

All of that will be acceptable if this phone performs well, and even the absence of 5G should not be too alarming. 5G has yet to make a serious impact in terms of availability, in the UK at least, and if you're determined to get hold of a 4a and want 5G when it comes to your area, then keep your eyes open, because a 5G version is promised later in the year, starting at £499/$499. 
 
The Pixel 4a is quite a small phone by today's standards, measuring 69.4mm wide by 144mm tal by 8.2mm thick. This compact size makes it pocket-friendly, and it's reasonably light at 143g. 

I found it easy to hold the Pixel 4a in one hand and reach right across the screen. The matte black back might look unglamorous, lacking a reflective finish or fancy colour-changing properties, but it's not in the least slippery, and I was confident the phone wouldn't escape my grip when using it one-handed. Don't think the plastic polycarbonate build material is flimsy, because it isn't: this handset feels solid and robust. Using Gorilla Glass 3 for the screen might be somewhat behind the times, but it's worth noting that there's a two-year warranty with this handset. 

There is a generally pleasing minimalism to the design. The rear camera sits in a square raised section to the top left of the back, and there's a fast and responsive fingerprint sensor positioned so that it falls comfortably under the finger. This is all very neat and tidy. Google hasn't given up completely on design nuance, though. The power button is a distinctive bright white.

The volume rocker is black, and both this and the power button protrude significantly from the right edge of the chassis, making them easy to find when the phone is in a pocket. There's a 3.5mm headset jack on the top edge, a couple of speaker holes and the USB-C port on the bottom. 

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Those two speaker holes on the bottom edge work in conjunction with a tiny grille above the screen to deliver stereo sound. Between them they pump out a good degree of volume, and while there's a rather tinny aspect to audio at higher volumes, this is not uncommon.

The screen, which has a hole-punch camera in its top left corner, is surrounded by noticeable bezels. The screen-to-body ratio is a moderate 83%. This isn't enough to cause concern, but the design is definitely not 'edge to edge'. 

The screen measures 5.8 inches across the diagonal. Text is quite small to read, and tappable elements (in particular the keypad and links in web pages) are somewhat tricky to hit accurately. It's going to be a matter of personal choice whether this screen size is a limiting factor.

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Colour settings for the OLED screen.

Image: Sandra Vogel / ZDNet

However, the OLED screen itself is bright and clear, with a resolution of 1,080 by 2,340 pixels (443ppi). There are three different colour stylings (adaptive, boosted and natural), which affect the vibrancy of the display. I found the adaptive setting was fine for a range of uses from watching video to reading emails. Google doesn't offer higher refresh rates, as we've seen, for example, from OnePlus with its new mid-range, 5G and somewhat larger Nord -- surely a key competitor for the Pixel 4a at £379. I didn't feel I was missing out on anything by being stuck at 60Hz here. 

As well as taking a minimalist approach to design, Google has a minimalist approach to software. Android 10 is here untroubled by third-party overlays, additional software or other tweaks and features. When the next Android version appears, it's likely that Pixel 4a users will see it very quickly, and the same goes for other updates and additions. Three years of updates are guaranteed by Google. The benefit of a clean, uncluttered user interface and bare minimum of applications will appeal to many, including those who like to add the third-party apps of their choice rather than finding extras pre-installed.

Another consequence of the relatively small size of this handset is that the battery capacity is just 3,140mAh. But this doesn't mean the battery performance is poor. It kept the handset going for 12 hours 10 minutes under the PCMark for Android battery life test, and when I asked the phone to play a video full screen for three hours from a 100% charged it dropped 17% during that period. 

This is exactly the same as the Nord dropped under the same test, and the Nord only managed to keep going for 11 hours 27 minutes from its 4115mAh battery under the PCMark battery life test. In everyday use, I would expect the Pixel 4a to provide all-day life for many users -- especially as the moderate screen size is not ideal for extended video viewing or gaming expeditions.

The Pixel 4a only supports one physical SIM. The trend these days is for dual SIM support, and its absence here is notable. However, it's easy to download an eSIM should you wish to. It's a shame that the internal storage can't be expanded: the 128GB that's installed is really the acceptable entry level these days, and with 14GB used out of the box, there is 114GB free. That might be enough for most people, but if you think it won't be, then this might not be the handset for you.

SEE: 5G smartphones: A cheat sheet (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

The Pixel 4a is powered by the Snapdragon 730G mobile platform, supported by 6GB of RAM. The 730G is not at the leading edge of Qualcomm's range, but it's perfectly capable -- nothing I did during testing held it up. The handset delivered average Geekbench 5 CPU scores of 550 (single core) and 1489 (multi core).
 
With just two cameras, one rear-facing and one front-facing, Google clearly isn't courting those who think more is better. But in this case, less is definitely pretty good. The 12.2MP f/1.7 rear camera gave me some nice landscapes and decent close-up shots. Tweaks include the ability to vary the blurring behind your subject (bokeh) by using a slider, and further excellent slider controls for (digital) zoom, brightness and contrast. Night Sight for shooting in low light is available to both the front and rear cameras, and once you've taken a photo a quick tap on it in the bottom right of the viewfinder opens up a range of share options for both Google apps and any third-party apps you have installed. 

Google has nailed the ability to quickly and easily take photos and share them, and this, along with great usability, is a breath of fresh air compared to phones that often have an overly complex array of camera features. 

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Snapdragon 730G, 6GB of RAM, 128GB of internal storage (no MicroSD expansion): £349 (inc. VAT), or $349.

Images: Google

Conclusions 

The Pixel 4a is in a tight corner of the handset market. Its main competitor in the UK is probably the recently released OnePlus Nord, which is larger and has a bigger screen, supports 5G, and more cameras. But if you want a compact handset that's guaranteed early Android updates, don't mind a relatively small screen and appreciate the simplicity of point-and-shoot photography, Google might just have nailed it with the Pixel 4a.

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