Not everyone wants to spend the proverbial arm or leg for a phone. At $599, the mid-range Google Pixel 4a is big where it counts, and hard to look past.
Phones have changed a lot over the years, and not just with regards to technology. While cameras have gotten better, screens are seriously bigger, and the devices have become more feature-packed, prices have skyrocketed, too.
These days, you can spend over two thousand dollars for a phone, a price tag that isn’t at all small. You’ll get a lot of phone for that big price, but it might not succeed at true value, not in any real sense of the word.
However value is an area people search for phones in, and with more happening in the mid-range, it’s easy to understand why: now that mobile devices have largely been democratised, you can find a number of options that bring high-value features at literal value-driven prices.
It’s an area Google has been experimenting in for quite some time, and made headway back when it launched the Nexus 4 mobiles back in 2012. For a while, it seemed as though Google had lost its approach to economical phones, but last year, Google revived it with the Pixel 3a, a return to value for Google’s Android phones, and easily one of the best mobiles of the year.
And this year, Google is back again with another take on the mid-range, arriving in the Pixel 4a, a phone that delivers value even more aggressively than last year. Arriving with a new camera, twice the storage, and a lower price, it could just be the loudest shot for consumers looking for affordable and awesome.
While the Pixel flagship range of phones has been metal and glass since their inception, the Pixel “a” series is a little different again.
Built for a different demographic more keen to save on money, Google has shied away from glass and metal designs to something still solid, just less exy: plastic.
In the Pixel 4a, you’ll find a plastic body in one colour — black — though it’s one that doesn’t stick to the traditional slick and shiny look or feel most plastic phones get. Simply put, the Pixel 4a doesn’t have the glasstick design we’re used to seeing, and its use of plastic feels seems unashamed in that it is quite clearly plastic, even if it’s slightly textured plastic.
The texture is ever-so-slightly coarse and feels like something that was made to be gripped, comfortable in the hands because it’s more of a matte finish rather than the typical gloss look and feel cheaper plastic phones arrive with.
Underneath this plastic exterior, Google has gone with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 730 chip, an eight-core mid-range processor paired with 6GB RAM and 128GB storage, the latter of which is fixed and can’t be changed. Unlike most Android handsets, Pixel phones are locked to the amount you buy them at, and won’t support a microSD card.
However you do get the stock version of Google Android, with Android 10 found in the Pixel 4a, much like on Google’s other Pixel 4 smartphones, the Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL.
Built as a sort of inexpensive take on those phones, the Pixel 4a cuts back on the cameras slightly, offering a single 12 megapixel camera — the same main camera from the Pixel 4 and 4 XL — while the front camera is an 8 megapixel camera.
Connections for the Google Pixel 4a include 802.11a/b/g/n/ac WiFi, Bluetooth 5, GPS, Near-Field Communication (NFC), and Category 12 4G LTE, offering speeds as high as 600Mbps down and 100Mbps up, network dependent, of course. That’s the wireless assortment of connections, while wired is handled over Type C USB and the 3.5mm headset jack, handy for folks who still want or need one of these.
All of this sits below a 5.8 inch AMOLED screen, offering a Full HD+ resolution of 2340×1080 and showing a pixel clarity of 443 pixels per inch (ppi).
Google has equipped this with a fingerprint scanner on the back in a plastic body weighing 143 grams and measuring 8.2mm thick, with a 3140mAh battery. The Google Pixel 4a does not support wireless charging.
Using the Pixel 4a will be a cinch for anyone who has used Android, too, but there’s a little more going on here to make this mid-range Pixel user friendly.
Whether you’re using a control bar at the bottom of the screen or full-screen gestures, Android 10 can be pretty easy to get your head around, plus the fingerprint sensor on the back is handy for security, too. You won’t find a camera-based login here, a bit of a weak point, though not majorly since the rear fingerprint sensor is in a comfortable position for most.
What we liked most of all about the Pixel 4a’s usability, though, was its size: they just don’t make ’em like this anymore.
As it stands, the Apple iPhone SE (2020) and the iPhone 11 Pro are among the smallest phones you can find today, and the Google Pixel 4a is right alongside them. With a 5.8 inch screen, the phone is comparatively tiny to most of the phones we’re seeing, and barely makes an impact on your pants or hands.
That’s something we can seriously get behind, particularly since it doesn’t seem like Google has compromised on anything, beyond not including the features of its high-end flagship sibling in the Pixel 4 XL (or Pixel 4).
Or not compromised on anything serious enough to make too much of a dent, because the performance isn’t quite on par.
With a mid-range Qualcomm Snapdragon 730 at the heart rather than the Snapdragon 855 from the Pixel 4 range, there is a difference in performance, though you may not notice it too often.
We found a spot of lag as we jumped apps, something the 6GB RAM is likely to keep at bay, but we’d be surprised if anyone really complained about how this phone handles the day to day, or even the night to night.
Mobile performance is decent, too, with the 4G connection able to handle high speeds, though not at the gigabit extremes of either 4G or 5G. For the price, we don’t expect a 5G connection in the slightest, though Google has said a 5G Pixel 4a is coming eventually, so that would be handy for those keen on getting even more mobile speeds out of their phone.
All up, it’s not a bad effort, and one that is mostly found from the hardware under the hood. Well, kind of.
A slightly different chip isn’t the only major change Google has made from the Pixel 3a to the Pixel 4a. There’s also a bump in camera technology, as the 4a inherits the main camera from the Pixel 4 XL and Pixel 4, but not the secondary zoom camera found in each.
Much like the Pixel 3a, there is only one camera on the 4a, but it’s a good one.
Google has spent a lot of time finessing and making its cameras at the top of their game, and the Pixel 4a camera is pretty solid and top notch.
You’ll find the same 12 megapixel F1.7 main camera from both the Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL in the Pixel 4a, and while Google has omitted the telephoto lens, you may not need it. As far as standard cameras go, the 12 megapixel camera here is solid and capable, with fantastic colours in day and night, even support for the low-light image quality seen on the properly flagship Pixels.
Essentially, the Pixel 4a’s camera is the best part of the Pixel 4 XL’s camera, but made for less money, and it’s not just a decent camera for stills, but also a decent camera for video, too.
Both Full HD and 4K Ultra HD are supported on the Pixel 4a. Granted, it’s hardly going to rival a proper camera, but between the easy interface and decent imaging technologies, you should find the Pixel 4a handles its own rather nicely on the back.
The front isn’t bad, either, with the 8 megapixel selfie camera in the punch-hole design in the top left providing adequate self-portraits. The credit here really goes to Google’s image processing algorithms, which work in much the same way they do on the back, delivering great portraits thanks to software and one camera. You’ll get two images when shot this way, with both the image completely with a sharp background, and one where the software has worked its magic.
And my, what magic it is. We loved the selfies on the Pixel 4 XL, and the Pixel 4a delivers much the same experience, but for much less.
The battery was better than we expected, too.
While the 3140mAh battery wasn’t as large as other phones we’ve seen, we found a good 24 hours was possible from the phone, though most people will likely need to charge on a nightly basis.
That’s not a bad effort for a phone this size, given there’s no extra big screen to store an extra big battery behind.
And at $599, it’s hard to argue with the Pixel 4a in terms of value.
Google did a pretty solid job of this argument last year with the $649 Pixel 3a, a 64GB phone offering a great camera and a decent battery life, plus Android the way its creators think it should be.
This year, you get twice the storage, a better camera, and it costs $50 less. That’s impossible to argue with.
At $599, the Google Pixel 4a is a bloody steal. You’ll have no complaints here.
What needs work?
That said, there are things we wish Google had included this time around that were also missing last year.
For instance, there was no wireless charging in last year’s Pixel 3a, and there’s still no wireless charging in this year’s Pixel 4a.
Likewise, there was no water-resistance of any kind in last year’s Pixel 3a, and again there’s no water-resistance in the Pixel 4a this year.
Granted, these are typically premium features, and the Pixel “a” series aren’t premium phones. Rather, they’re mid-range mobiles that offer all the phone you need without the price point you don’t, and Google has gotten almost everything else right about them.
Not having these features is a disappointment, and would have utterly nailed everything, but they’re definitely not deal-breakers, and the Pixel 4a still represents tremendous value.
Final thoughts (TLDR)
Value is something we’re seeing a lot more attempts of lately in the phone world, and while many are solid, none have been quite as successful as Google’s Pixel “a” series. Last year’s Pixel 3a was a winner, and this year’s Pixel 4a continues those efforts, achieving a value-driven argument in the best possible way.
At $599, the Google Pixel 4a is an easy argument, delivering a great phone with a great camera for a great price. While the size is small, Google’s Pixel 4a is big where it counts, and that matters more than most other phones in this category. Highly recommended.