A year ago, our editor Cam declared “I love you, little plastic phone” to the Pixel 3a. It took all the good parts of Google’s Pixel flagships, filtered out the bad (the awful screen notch, battery life, and price), chopped off whatever wasn’t necessary, and became a budget sensation. The Pixel 4a is that, for the Pixel 4 … only more so.
It’s almost shocking how good of a phone the Pixel 4a is for $350, and doubly shocking how it improves on some key points of Google’s erstwhile “main” Pixel line. To make a long review short: if you’re thinking of buying any Android phone in this price range (and maybe even a few way above it!), it should be this one.
The Pixel 4a rocks all day long. Google’s going to sell as many of these as it can make, and I hope they’re paying attention to that: incorporating a few of these design decisions can only help the more expensive Pixel line.
Versus the Other Pixels
As is our wont on Review Geek, let’s get the hard specifications out of the way first:
- Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 730
- RAM: 6GB
- Storage: 128 GB (no microSD)
- Display: 5.8-inch 2340×1080 AMOLED, hole-punch front camera
- Cameras: 12.2 MP main camera, 8MP front-facing camera
- Ports and charging: USB-C
- Headphone Jack: Yes
- Battery: 3140mAh
- Fingerprint Sensor: Rear
- Connectivity: Wi-Fi a/b/g/b/ac, 2.4GHz/5GHz; MIMO; Bluetooth 5.1; NFC; AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile support
- IP Rating: None
- Colors: Black
- Dimensions: 144 x 69.4 x 8.2 mm, 143 grams
- Price: $350
If you looked at the Pixel 3a, then looked at the Pixel 4, and imagined the two of them melted into one phone in a DragonBall Z fusion, then you’d get the Pixel 4a. The only major stylistic departure is that it uses a “hole punch” front-facing camera notch, in place of the more expensive (and more aesthetically pleasing) face-detection sensors. That makes the phone look a lot like the Galaxy S20 or OnePlus Nord, at least from the front.
The Pixel 4a is also the first, and so far only, Pixel to come in just one size: a 5.8-inch screen, halfway between the Pixel 3a and 3a XL. (Google has confirmed an upcoming 5G-packing variant of this phone, which may be bigger.) As someone who prefers bigger phones, and who’s used the 3a XL for the better part of a year, I was a bit bummed by this. But I have to say that after using it for a while, the screen feels barely any smaller than what I’m used to. Of course, that won’t hold true if you’re accustomed to something like a massive Galaxy Note.
And cutting out those top and bottom bezels allows the phone to be surprisingly tiny in a physical sense. Despite the bigger screen, it’s actually slightly shorter and slimmer than the Pixel 3a and Pixel 4. In terms of pure economy of design, I think it’s the best Pixel phone yet. Note the off-green power button, a splash of color that’s been a staple of the line.
Of course, being a mid-range or budget phone (depends on who you ask, and, well, their budget), there are a few metaphorical corners cut. Let’s list the hardware differences compared to the smaller and doubly expensive Pixel 4, in terms of pros and cons:
- Con: Plastic body vs. metal/glass
- Con: Snapdragon 730 vs. Snapdragon 855
- Con: Single rear camera vs. dual rear camera
- Con: Gorilla Glass 3 vs. Gorilla Glass 5
- Con: No wireless charging
- Con: No IP rating
- Con: 60Hz display vs 90Hz
- Pro: Slightly larger screen
- Pro: Slightly larger battery (which lasts much longer on the more efficient SoC)
- Pro: Headphone jack
- Arguable: “Hole punch” front cam vs. larger bezel
- Arguable: Rear fingerprint reader
- Arguable: No face unlock
For myself, I’d say that the lower price versus either of the Pixel 4 models is worth it by a long shot. I’d love to see wireless charging and water resistance on a phone in this price range—and it’s possible, as Apple demonstrates with the iPhone SE. But that doesn’t make this phone any less of a deal, especially if you want Google’s great software and support.
The most dramatic improvement versus my Pixel 3a XL is in the memory. Boosting it from 4GB to 6GB means apps almost never need to reload after switching, at least with my usage pattern. I’ll sometimes spot Pokemon GO—a massive memory hog—still running in the background 12 hours after my first session of the day. I’m glad to see the real Gorilla Glass on this new version, too: The 3a series used Asahi “Dragontail” glass, and it’s showing some fine scratches that I haven’t seen when using Corning’s stuff.
Between that and the massive drop in phone size for a comparatively tiny drop in screen size, I’m also very pleased with how it “fits” in the hand and the pocket. It doesn’t feel quite as nice—the plastic is a little rougher, and the buttons are “sharper” against my fingers. The depression for the fingerprint reader is a little harder to find with my finger, though that problem is solved with a case.
But overall, it’s a considerable step up. That extends to even small details, like the louder stereo speakers. The fact that it’s $50 cheaper than the 3a XL is a nice bonus, too. The only thing I unequivocally don’t like is that in full screen apps, it cuts off the top of the screen (to the point of the camera) instead of allowing it to be truly “full.” I’m hoping someone can tweak that aspect of Android post-launch.
Performance and Battery Life
I was concerned when I read that the Pixel 4a uses only a 3140mAh battery with a 5.8-inch screen. I shouldn’t have been. While it isn’t quite the battery champion that the 3a series was, it has more than enough juice to get through a day of my use, sometimes two. Take that for what it’s worth—I’m on Wi-Fi basically all the time. But I think users will be very pleased, especially compared to the notoriously short-lived Pixel 4.
In terms of performance, I have no complaints. While the phone obviously isn’t as lightning quick as those equipped with the Snapdragon 8 series, like the OnePlus 8 and 8 Pro, I never found it struggling to keep up with my fairly heavy load of apps. It wakes quickly and runs even high-power games without skipping a beat, though you won’t see 120fps on anything. Not that you could, of course.
If you’re scoffing at the rear-mounted fingerprint reader, don’t. It’s faster than any of the newfangled under-screen readers I’ve tried (and much faster than the ones on similarly priced phones like the Galaxy A51). And in the age of public masks for the sake of your health and the health of others, it’s not so much a trade-off for face unlock as a welcome reprieve.
Call quality was steady and reliable, though thanks to the pandemic, I never really traveled outside of the Fort Worth metro area. I didn’t have any issues with LTE reception while using Google Fi with the supported e-SIM system.
The Pixel line shines on its camera. And unlike Samsung and other competitors who have pushed the sensors with dozens of megapixels and increasingly complicated lenses, Google does it all in software post-processing. That means that even without the extra rear sensor, the Pixel 4a’s camera is one of the best on the market, at any price.
The 4a can’t quite beat the dual sensor setup of the more expensive Pixel 4: Its single sensor appears to be the same 12.2MP shooter seen on the Pixel 3 and 3a. Ditto for the 8MP front-facing camera. But with Google’s imaging software, that still makes it among the best cameras on the market, and absolutely unbeatable at this price point.
It shines (pardon the pun) in low-light and mixed-light situations, delivering superior sharpness and contrast with ease. Night shots are excellent—not as good as you can get with a meticulous DSLR setup, but better than any competing smartphone, hands down.
Video recorded on the Pixel 4a isn’t amazing. It can technically do 4K at 30 FPS, or 720p at up to 240. But you’re still going to see the stuttering and occasional pixelation typical of a midrange phone. And like more or less every camera, relying on digital zoom for quality shots is a mistake. But in almost every typical situation, the Pixel 4a’s still shots set the standard for the category.
As a value proposition, the Pixel 4a is outstanding. Aside from its clean Android software (can’t beat that “fresh from the Google coding oven” smell), it doesn’t stand out in any flamboyant way. But its combination of mid-range hardware components and best-in-class camera should put it at the top of any list of its competition in this category.
The only phone that I’d say can beat the Pixel 4a is, perhaps predictably, the iPhone SE. Apple’s cheapest phone has a smaller screen with bigger bezels, and it uses a lower-resolution LCD screen, but that’s about the only thing it lacks in the comparison. Apple managed a full aluminum-glass body, a top-of-the-line A13 processor, wireless charging, and IP67 water resistance for just $50 more. It also has options for greater storage and more color variety, which the Pixel 4a lacks.
But if you’re considering a Pixel at all, odds are that you’ve already chosen Android as your smartphone platform. If that’s the case, and you want a phone that fits into a sub-$400 budget, you can buy it without hesitation.
The Best Pixel Yet
The Pixel 4a would be a pretty good phone at $500. At $350, it’s phenomenal. Its better battery life and screen-to-body ratio might make it a winner versus either of the original Pixel 4 models at more than double the price. It’s a worthy successor to last year’s Pixel 3a series and an incredible competitor to any Android device in its category.
Those who need the extra bells and whistles that a flagship device provides won’t be satisfied with the Pixel 4a, as its selective sacrifices for a lower price do diminish a few of those creature comforts. If wireless charging, face unlock, or water resistance are so important to you that they’re worth several hundred dollars, this phone isn’t for you.
But for anyone whose budget is limited, or who’s just tired of seeing phone prices with four digits, it’s a breath of fresh air. It’s the second year in a row that the cheaper Pixel is the one to get.
Here’s What We Like
- Incredible value
- Best-in-class camera
- Medium screen, but tiny size
- Good battery life
- Clean Google software
And What We Don't
- No wireless charging
- No IP rating