Google Pixel 4a – Review 2020


The Pixel 3a was a game changer. When it came out last year, it was the only Android phone in its price range with guaranteed software updates and camera performance on par with significantly more expensive flagship handsets. But a year makes a big difference, especially this year, and while the new $349 Pixel 4a once again manages to be a strong offering for the price—particularly for shutterbugs—it isn’t the same clear-cut winner as its predecessor. With fierce competition from the $399 Apple iPhone SE, the $599 Samsung Galaxy A71 5G, and even the $249 Motorola Moto G Power, the Pixel 4a is definitely the right midrange phone for many users, but not all of them.

Design and Durability

In terms of design, the Pixel 4a looks like a much more sophisticated version of its predecessor. The bezels have been trimmed down significantly thanks to a camera sensor located right in the top of the display, rather than above it.

Top of Pixel 4a with hole punch display

The phone measures 5.7 by 2.7 by 0.3 inches (HWD) and weighs just 5.0 ounces, fitting comfortably in most hands. Right now it only comes in black, though we anticipate additional colors to come out in the future. 

The back of the phone looks like a smaller version of the Pixel 4. There’s a square camera module in the upper left corner with a single lens, and the fingerprint sensor is nearly invisible. The multi-textured finish from the Pixel 3a has been replaced with a simple textured polycarbonate that not only looks sleek, but does an excellent job of hiding smudges and fingerprints. 

On the top of the phone you’ll find a 3.5mm headphone jack, while the bottom houses a USB-C port and a speaker. The left side holds the SIM card slot, while the volume rocker and power button sit on the right, both of which are easy to reach and provide a satisfying click. Unfortunately, Google’s Active Edge feature that allows you to squeeze the frame of the phone to enable certain settings is absent here.

While we usually appreciate the extra durability a plastic back panel and chassis can provide, there’s some noticeable flex with the Pixel 4a. We’re worried that continued stress on the phone from tight pockets can lead to cracks down the line. The Gorilla Glass 3 display is unlikely to weather a hard fall without damage, but using older generations of strengthened glass is one of the concessions nearly every manufacturer makes to keep costs low on midrange models.

It’s also worth noting the Pixel 4a lacks any waterproofing or splash resistance, which feels like a missed opportunity when the similarly priced iPhone SE sports an IP67 rating. That said, there are no shortage of Pixel cases on the market, so pick one up for some peace of mind.

Display

The Pixel 4a is the least expensive phone in the US with an OLED display. While that sounds compelling in theory, it doesn’t provide a notable upgrade over the LCDs in the iPhone SE or the Moto G Power.

The Pixel 4a display has small bezels but is hard to see in bright light

The 5.81-inch OLED panel here features 2,340 by 1,080 pixels, for a respectably sharp 443ppi density. Unfortunately, the display is too dim to see under direct sunlight (we encountered this with the Pixel 3a as well), it’s very reflective, and viewing angles could be wider. It also tends to skew cool, with everything sporting a slightly blue tinge. 

We also noticed an issue with adaptive brightness. Within an hour of taking the phone out of the box, its display brightness began to shift in unchanging light. As the day wore on, these shifts became more bothersome, and while a reboot provided temporary relief, they started happening again soon after. We’ve reached out to Google for comment on this issue and will update this section when we hear back.

Connectivity and Audio

The Pixel 4a is available unlocked and has an eSIM in addition to a traditional SIM slot. It works on every major US carrier and supports LTE bands 1/2/4/5/7/8/12/13/14/17/18/20/25/26/28/29/30/38/39/40/41/66/71. It doesn’t support 5G, but Google is planning to release a 5G model later this year for $499.

We tested the phone on Verizon’s network in Philadelphia and recorded solid speeds: downloads averaged 67.8Mbps and uploads came in at 38.4Mbps. 

 Power and volume rocker on Pixel 4a

Call quality is excellent. Maximum earpiece volume clocks in at 78dB, fine for most environments short of a busy street. Noise cancellation worked well, save for a few occasions when some background construction sounds managed to creep in.

The Pixel 4a sports stereo speakers with a peak volume of 82dB. Audio quality is good, but not terribly loud, especially in a noisy room. Bass is essentially nonexistent and the sound stage is a little boxy, but it’s good enough for video calls and streaming media. 

The phone also supports dual-band Wi-Fi, but not Wi-Fi 6, which you get on the iPhone SE. Bluetooth 5.0 is included for audio and wearable connectivity, and there’s NFC for mobile payments and boarding passes. 

Cameras

When the Pixel 4 was announced last year, Professor Marc Levoy, Google’s former head of the computational photography team for the Pixel lineup, offered a presentation on computational photography. 

Pixel 4a camera stack close up

Levoy called the Pixel a “software-defined camera,” and said the key to successful computational photography, “means doing less with hardwired circuitry and more with code.” He listed subject, lighting, lens, and software as the four essential elements for successful smartphone photography, in descending order. 

If we’re to take Levoy at his word—and we should, as he’s one of the world’s leading experts in the field—it’s still hard to ignore the fact that the Pixel 4a uses the same 12.2MP IMX 363 sensor that Google has used since it introduced the Pixel 3 in 2018. Google’s computational photography technologies have indeed evolved exponentially since the Pixel 3 came out, though I can’t help but wonder how much a new sensor would help out as well.

Viewfinder on Pixel 4a

That’s not to say the Pixel 4a’s camera isn’t excellent for the price, because it is. But we’re starting to see the limits of Google’s “software-defined” camera philosophy. While the Pixel 4a absolutely has one of the leading cameras on a midrange phone, competitors like the Samsung Galaxy A71 5G have gained serious momentum on the imaging front. 

On the back of the Pixel 4a, you’ll find a single 12.2MP sensor with an f/1.7 aperture, optical and electronic image stabilization, and autofocus with dual-pixel detection. There’s an 8MP front-facing camera with an f/2.0 aperture and fixed focus. 

Since the Pixel 4a is a phone for camera enthusiasts, we took more test shots than usual in all lighting scenarios and collaborated with our resident imaging expert, Jim Fisher, to analyze the results. 

Let’s start with the primary 12.2MP sensor. Ultimately, it does a solid job with just about any type of lighting. Color and contrast look excellent in our test shots, and Google’s color science appears more natural than other phones in this price range, which tend to oversaturate and process images. 

It’s no surprise that the Pixel 4a can take a solid photo in good light, but what is surprising is that we managed to get some arguably better test shots with the Samsung Galaxy A71 5G. As you can see from our images in a hotel boutique, both phones managed to get excellent results, but when you compare the two at full size, there are a few differences. The Galaxy A71 5G captures some fine details that the Pixel 4a misses, like the print on the sign in the foreground. Depth of field is also better on the Galaxy, best seen by looking at the brown leather bag in relation to the shelf.

Indoor comparison shot between Pixel 4a and Galaxy A71 5G

Low-light photography is where the Pixel 4a really excels, with a Night Sight feature that captures better images in dark situations that any other phone you’ll find in this price range. That said, Live HDR+ is a strangely poor indicator of what your low-light shots will actually look like. The viewfinder is filled with noise and light flare that manage to disappear in the final image.

Night Sight comparison shot between Pixel 4a and Galaxy A71 5G

Surprisingly, Night Sight actually seems to do better when it has less light to work with. In a test shot of a city building taken at 3 a.m., you can see excellent color accuracy, contrast, and depth of field. The Galaxy A71 5G does a decent job as well, but examined at full size, there’s some distortion in the neons and softening of sharp lines. 

Low light street comparison between Google Pixel 4a and Samsung Galaxy A71 5G

In another of our street test shots, taken at 5 a.m., the Pixel 4a and Galaxy A71 nearly tie. While the 4a offers better resolution and more accurate color, highlights around the lamp in the store window blow out. The A71, on the other hand, doesn’t blow highlights and there’s better detail in the patterns on the walkway. 

Pixel 4a test shot at 2x zoom

Zoom isn’t the Pixel 4a’s strong suit. In our 2x zoom photo, you can see a significant loss of detail in test shots. Oddly, 7x zoom seems to be better in terms of clarity, though there’s significant grain. 

Pixel 4a test shot at 7x zoom

The Pixel 4a’s 8MP front-facing camera is great for social media selfies and video calls. In good light, the camera performs well—our test shots are crisp, with excellent depth of field. In portrait mode, however, things fall apart. We consistently noticed depth mapping around shirts and hats when reviewing the images full size.

Selfie in Night Sight mode with artificially bright background

Night Sight Portraits, again, are great for social sharing, but in a few backlit test shots, the camera metered the building instead of the subject, and the photos are artificially bright for the conditions. That said, illumination and contrast were spot-on in nearly all of our test photos.

Indoor selfie showing issues with depth mapping around the shoulders

We’re also nitpicking here, and the Galaxy A71 5G costs $250 more than the Pixel 4a. Simply put, you won’t find a better camera on any other $350 phone out there right now.

Hardware and Performance

The Pixel 4a sports a Qualcomm Snapdragon 730G chipset and 6GB of LPDDR4x RAM. Storage comes in at 128GB, with 111GB available out of the box. There’s no microSD card slot for external storage, but you get 100GB of free Google One storage for three months. 

Overall, performance is solid. There’s some minor lag when opening apps, but not enough to be bothersome. Google Assistant can be slow to respond to requests at times, and images can take a little longer to process than you expect, but it’s nothing that really stands out.

See How We Test Phones

Gaming performance is comparable with other phones in this price range. We spent over an hour playing Alto’s Odyssey and Asphalt 8 on the Pixel 4a without any problems. Games take a little longer to load here than they do on flagships, which is understandable, but we didn’t notice any dropped frames or lag during gameplay. Put short, this is a great option for smartphone gamers on a budget. 

Bottom of Pixel 4a

On PCMark 2.0, a suite of tests that emulate common smartphone tests, the 4a scored 8,364, for a noticeable bump up from the Pixel 3a (7,378)  and the Moto G Power (6,751). That said, benchmarks are simply an objective way to evaluate similar products, and aren’t a reliable way to measure typical use scenarios.

On the battery front, the Pixel 4a is powered by a 3,140mAh cell. In our battery drain test, which streams HD video over Wi-Fi at full brightness, it lasted 8 hours and 58 minutes before shutting down—a solid result, though a far cry from the Moto G Power’s 18 hours and 11 minutes. And while it may seem to fare better than the iPhone SE (5 hours, 57 minutes), it’s worth noting most battery drain tests, including ours, don’t provide an accurate comparison between Android and iOS devices. Apple excels when it comes to power management, so iPhone batteries drain much slower in standby mode compared with Android phones.

When you find the battery running low, there’s an 18W fast charging adapter in the box. There’s no wireless charging option like you get with the iPhone SE, however. 

Software

The Pixel 4a ships with Android 10, though an update to Android 11 is expected in the coming weeks. Since the phone is made by Google, it’s pretty much a stock Android experience with a few nice new perks for Pixel owners. 

Google Assistant gets the same makeover here as on the Pixel 4. That means it’s a little smarter than in the past and responds to contextual suggestions. If you say, “Hey Google, show me PCMag on Twitter,” it takes you to PCMag’s account in the Twitter app. In fact, you can do pretty much anything simply by saying, “Hey Google,” but be warned, Google Assistant appears to have selective hearing. If you say, “Hey Google, tell me the square root of nine,” Google Assistant instead offers the definition of the number nine, although it is otherwise capable of doing simple math and defining the term square root.

Pixel 4a with software drawer open

The Pixel line now offers a more iOS-like messaging experience. You can see response bubbles, send group chats, and message over Wi-Fi.

Live Caption also makes its way to the Pixel 4a and even gets a few improvements. Now, in addition to offering captions for video, podcasts, and other audio, it also works on telephone calls and calls made through popular apps like Facebook Messenger. Right now the feature only works in English, and the caller on the other end hears an automated message stating Live Caption is enabled. 

If you like to record interviews or meetings, the Pixel’s Recorder app is indispensable. It not only records and transcribes conversations, it actually does it well. And unlike almost every other dictation app available, Recorder automatically adds punctuation. It’s not perfect, but it’s definitely the best native transcription app we’ve used on a phone.

Pixel 4a with Google Assistant tips on display

Google also touts the ability to automatically record meetings by saying, “Hey Google, record my meeting,” but this feature only worked about half the time in testing. 

Call Screen is another welcome addition to the Pixel 4a. It uses on-device AI to screen unknown callers and completely filter out spam. When an unknown number pops up on your screen, you can simply let Call Screen ask the caller for more information and either reply with a series of canned responses or pick up the call. 

Google promises three years of OS and security updates for its Pixel phones. It’s also the only Android manufacturer to offer day-one updates, which is one of the biggest selling points for any Pixel phone, though it’s really just par for the course compared with the immediate iOS updates Apple offers for its iPhones.

Conclusions

If you’re an Android fan in the market for a solid midrange phone with a good camera and guaranteed software updates, the Pixel 4a is really your only option. The Moto G Power offers better battery life, and the Galaxy A71 has 5G and surprisingly excellent camera performance, but neither has the Pixel’s home court advantage when it comes to fast software and security updates, and their image processing capabilities still doesn’t match what you get here.

For first-time smartphone buyers and the platform agnostic, however, we think the iPhone SE is a better deal overall. It has a more durable build, supports Wi-Fi 6 and wireless charging, and will likely be a better long-term value thanks to its faster chipset and Apple’s superior software support. For these reasons it remains our Editors’ Choice, though Pixel 4a definitely provides some competition.

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I'm Malkit singh rataul.

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