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Google Pixel 4a smartphone review

The latest iteration of Google’s popular Pixel range cuts out all the flagship model fat, resulting in an excellent, mid-range phone.

google_pixel_4a_smartphone_first_look
Last updated: 09 September 2020

CHOICE verdict

It’s not perfect, but the handful of shortcomings are minor and easy to accept when you consider the price tag. Google's Pixel 4a makes flagship phones seem like a frivolous purchase.

Price: $599
Contact: store.google.com/au

Once again, Google has put forward a strong case in favour of the mid-range phone. The Pixel 4a has excellent performance, decent battery life and the fantastic camera that this range is synonymous with. Though it strips out most of the bells and whistles to keep costs down, there's very little here that feels like a compromise. 

Google Pixel 4a specs

Just one version of the Pixel 4a is available. Note, we reviewed it prior to the release of Android 11, using Android 10. Some operating system features may have been added, removed or changed slightly.

  • Screen: 5.81-inch OLED FHD+ (1080 x 2340) 443 pixels per inch (ppi) 60Hz refresh rate with HDR support
  • Battery: 3140 mAh, 18W fast charge
  • Rear (main) camera: max 12.2MP single lens, 7x zoom
  • Selfie camera: max 8MP, 4x zoom
  • Video: Up to 4K, 30 FPS
  • Storage: 128GB
  • Bluetooth and network: dual-band Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac, Bluetooth 5, LE, A2DP (no ax wi-fi)
  • Audio: stereo speaker, 3.5mm headphone jack
  • Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 730G
  • RAM: 6GB LPDDR4x

You also get a pair of wired headphones in the box. An official case is sold separately for $59. Though it has stereo speakers, only the top speaker is forward-facing, unlike other Pixel models. The bottom one is downward firing, presumably to reduce bezel size and expand screen real estate.

A 5G version is coming later in the year at a higher price point. It may be worth considering if you want to futureproof your phone for many years, though 4G isn't going away any time soon.

Camera quality

Almost every version of the Pixel has been lauded for its picture performance, and while the 4a strips it back to the bare essentials, the core camera quality remains. The Pixel 4a has one of the best smartphone cameras you can buy.

On a nice bright day with clear, blue skies (aka optimal conditions), pictures are clear, detailed and vibrant, but the 4a doesn't overdo saturation. It also doesn't try to boost shadows in an attempt to balance exposure, resulting in nice contrast between light and shadow.

HDR+ processing is balanced which is great, and issues like colour banding, purple fringing or overly sharp processing are an extremely rare occurrence. The selfie camera isn't quite as punchy as the rear one, but it still does the job and maintains the impressive colour, contrast and tonal balances.

Of course, the real star here is low-light performance, aka "night sight," and with good reason. As long as you have a good source of artificial light, the 4a can take some stunning photos in these difficult environments. The way it boosts and balances artificial light while upping shadow contrast to add pop as it sharpens, all the while adding just the right amount of noise reduction, is very impressive.

But it can't perform miracles. Very low-light photos are generally soft, blurry and grainy, and you're not going to get stunning astronomy shots. The selfie camera faces similar issues in moderate to low-light environments. So, for example, you may want to ask someone to take a photo of you in a fancy, dimly-lit cocktail bar, rather than using selfie mode.

Fewer flagship features

Some compromises needed to be made to keep costs down. The 4a doesn't have:

  • Wide or telephoto lenses
  • Optical zoom
  • Macro mode (for close-ups)
  • Manual (aka pro) mode that lets you adjust aperture, shutter speed, ISO etc (you can adjust exposure and contrast)
  • A front flash for selfies
  • Burst or "live shooting modes".

You'll probably miss the wide-angle lens, especially when shooting grand vistas or in confined spaces, and clubbers/youth will likely lament the lack of a selfie flash. Also, the digital zoom isn't great, so while it does go up to 7x zoom, anything beyond 2.5x is kind of blurry and blocky. But the 4a's camera is still fantastic even with these slight shortcomings.

Battery life

Apparently the 4a has an "all day battery" which is kind of accurate. You can probably stretch it out to 24 hours, but most people will likely get a bit less. You'll need to charge it up every night in any case.

Ours lasted 13 hours after a day of heavy use – aka constantly checking emails, web browsing, music streaming, photography and watching some videos. "Adaptive battery" mode, which reduces the power consumption of background apps, as well as battery saving mode, can help extend charge time.

At the more extreme end, we streamed high-definition video across a variety of services for eight and a half hours straight before the battery died, which is more than enough entertainment for domestic trips. Amazingly, the temperature barely increased. It was slightly warmer to touch, but that was it.

The 18-watt fast charger can get the battery back up to 30% in about 18 minutes which is damn fast, though it slows down as it charges. It took 29 minutes to get to 50%, and just over one hour and 26 minutes to reach a full charge. The initial charge speed is quite handy when you're getting ready to go out and realise that your phone is almost dead.

Call quality

The 4a's earpiece and speaker both get nice and loud, so you won't have trouble with conversations unless you're quite hard of hearing. That said, the speakers aren't exactly top of the line, so they can get tinny and harsh, particularly in speaker (hands-free) mode.

The microphone is quite good though, particularly at eliminating reverb even in spaces like your kitchen. We propped the phone up on a table and sat 50cm away, chatting in speaker mode, and though it sounded a little distant at the other end, the recipient could clearly hear the conversation. It's also a good option to consider if you use a hearing aid, as the 4a is rated M3/T4 HAC compatible.

Pixel 4a front and back

The front and back of the Pixel 4a. The circle on the back is for fingerprint log-in.

Google has also updated the Live Caption feature which added subtitles to dialogue on the fly for things like videos and podcasts. The 4a adds live captions on video chat for apps such as Google Duo and Facebook Messenger. Unfortunately it didn't work at all during our hands-on time.

Performance

Google has kept costs down by using the more mid-range Snapdragon 730G processor, but frankly "mid-range" is a bit misleading. Granted the 4a can't handle super resource-hungry software like photo/video editing, but it meets the needs of the average user. This is a seriously powerful smartphone.

We recently looked at the Realme X3 SuperZoom which uses the more powerful Snapdragon 855+ processor and the practical differences between it and the 730G were negligible. Not only did day-to-day tasks and entertainment run smoothly on the 4a, it tackled graphic-intensive online gaming with no lag and minimal frame drops. In fact, we even won a few rounds of Call of Duty Mobile. Humble brag. Smart devices and voice commands respond almost immediately as well.

It did seem to struggle with video processing from time to time, leading to some block backgrounds with banding and artefacting. But this didn't happen much and when it did, we barely noticed.

Screen and sound

The 4a's 5.8-inch display may seem small compared to most competitor models, but it's just fine in practice. Some of us don't want giant phones. The only issue is that text can look a little small, but you can adjust that in the settings.

It comes packing some serious screen kit for its asking price. Not only is it a step above high definition at FHD+ (1080 x 2340), it has a proper OLED display that supports high-dynamic range (HDR). This basically increases the difference between the brightest and darkest points in the image, which makes for much brighter, more vibrant colours and rich, inky blacks.

This is fantastic for the most part, as the 4a can deliver a sharp, punchy image that pops without going too heavy on the contrast. That said it can be a bit oversaturated and it's a bit dark across the board, so it can be tough to watch videos in bright light. However, you can tweak and fix saturation in the settings.

Sound quality

Previous Pixel phones had two front-facing speakers for stereo sound. This was awesome. The 4a however, has a forward-facing speaker on top and a downward firing one at the bottom. You still get stereo so the balance isn't off, but it's easy to block when watching content in landscape.

Pixel 4a base speaker

The 4a has a downward facing speaker on the bottom, instead of two forward-facing speakers. This affects sound quality.

Generally, it sounds fine for the price. You can hear everything clearly, there's some stereo separation and even a little bit of warmth and body in the low end, though it's still somewhat tinny for the most part. Louder moments can be harsh especially when it's on full volume, though not quite to the point of distortion (though it's close).

As for connectivity, the 4a supports Casting, Bluetooth and all the high-quality versions – AptX, AptX HD, LDAC and AAC – which is remarkable. Also did we mention that Google has brought the 3.5mm headphone jack back? Oh yes, our cable-clutching friends, no need for a USB-C to 3.5mm converter here. As far as audio compatibility goes, the 4a ticks all the boxes.

User interface (UI) and operating system 

The Pixel 4a ships with stock (aka vanilla) Android which means it's the baseline version of the operating system with no modifications added by the manufacturer. No bloatware. No strange interface. No constant pop-ups encouraging you to try certain features or proprietary apps. You get an interface and the standard Google stuff such as Assistant, Gmail, Home, and YouTube.

That's it. It's brilliant.

It's clean, it's easy to navigate, it takes a load off the processor and it's fast, responsive and stable. Plus, there's the added benefit of getting Android updates as soon as they're released by Google. This includes incremental changes, security updates and new versions of Android.

Pixel 4a unboxed

Everything that comes in the box.

Gestures that encourage you to navigate by swiping and tapping (e.g. swiping left to go back to a webpage instead of tapping the back arrow), rather than using the three buttons at the bottom of the screen, are on by default. Though Google really wants you to use them, you can deactivate Gestures which is handy as they feel like change for the sake of change. Also, the option to activate Google Assistant by squeezing the phone is gone, which is a shame.

Some software updates

Most of the 4a's features can be found in previous iterations of the Pixel, but Google has dropped a few new things into the phone.

  • The Recorder app can now automatically transcribe memos into Google Docs.
  • Personal Safety features released with the original Pixel 4 have been expanded. Now your phone will check in at the end of a pre-determined time (e.g. if you tell it to after a two-hour solo hike) and if you don't say you're OK, it will alert your emergency contacts.
  • Crisis alerts for natural disasters and public emergencies will also appear when in effect.
  • A dedicated space to control all smart devices on your network, so you don't need to open individual apps (Android 11).
  • Screen capture mode (Android 11).
  • "Bubbles," a new multitasking tool that lets you communicate across multiple apps from a central location (Android 11).

Build quality

Google isn't making any grand statements with the 4a. It's a functional phone with a nice, simple design that suits the price tag, so it may not appeal to those that view their phone as a fashion accessory.

The screen is responsive and feels nice to use and the case, while plastic, still feels soft and smooth. Fortunately, Google went with a matte finish so rear fingerprints are rarely an issue. It would take a second glance to realise that the 4a isn't made from premium materials.

It does away with the current obsession over super-slim bezels and endless screens which is not a bad thing. The bezel takes up a very small amount of real estate around the phone which is covered up once you pop a case on. Meanwhile, the selfie camera occupies a small circle in the top left of the screen and it's pretty discrete, as most apps don't stretch into its screen space.

And yes, as mentioned with the screen, it has an overall small build which is great. It easily fits in your jeans, you can comfortably navigate with one hand and it's nice and light. The world needs more small phones.

Pixel 4a in hand

You can comfortably navigate using one hand.

Is the Pixel 4a right for you?

Back in the day, top-of-the-line phones seemed like a must-have item if you wanted any semblance of solid performance. But now, phones like the Pixel 4a are more than suited for general use, and then some. It's a great option if you just want a good phone for day-to-day use that doesn't slow down and feels nice to use.

Granted, it cuts out just about every bell and whistle you can imagine. But this is all fat, and only occasionally does the 4a feel like it's removed some of the meat that you want to hold onto, like the wide-angle lens and smaller battery.

Plus, it doesn't try to shove in half-baked "premium" features that may look good on paper, but wind up being kind of crappy as they're shoehorned into the lower asking price. The kind of things that you get excited about but then stop using because they're so poorly implemented. Instead, it delivers a handful of refined features and functions that make for an overall pleasant experience.

Almost all the compromises feel fair and this really helps you understand what you need in a phone, compared to what you want in a phone. In terms of broad consumer needs, there's not much that the 4a can't do.