The Pixel 4a is a return to form for Google’s smartphone efforts: a lower-cost, mid-range phone that is high quality, long-lasting and fairly small, with a great camera.
The GBP349 Pixel 4a is very much an attempt to boil down a smartphone to only the essentials and then make them all work really well.
It slots under the higher-priced GBP669-and-up Pixel 4 series, replacing last year’s Pixel 3a and 3a XL with only one size of phone, taking the design of the 3a and expanding the screen to fill the front of the device.
A 5G version is coming later in the year but for now the Pixel 4a is 4G only.
The body is high-quality, soft-touch polycarbonate and feels surprisingly nice. The 5.8in FHD+ OLED screen looks great: it is bright, crisp enough and has reasonably slim bezels all the way around. There is a fairly large hole in the top left of the screen for the selfie camera and the display does not have the 90Hz refresh rate of some slightly more expensive competitors but it does have HDR certification for watching movies.
The Pixel 4a has a 4.5% bigger screen than its predecessor but its body is 5.8% smaller overall. At only 144mm in length, 69.4mm in width, 8.8mm in thickness and weighing 143g, the Pixel 4a is one of the smallest phones you can buy in 2020. It feels really great in the hand. It may disappoint super-phone aficionados but for those longing for a big-enough screen in a small and light device that doesn’t break the bank, the Pixel 4a is a breath of fresh air.
The back of the device has a traditional fingerprint scanner that just works, and does so in all apps. Google’s face unlock on the Pixel 4 worked brilliantly for unlocking the phone but even nine months later, only a handful of third-party apps support it.
The top features the lesser-spotted headphone socket. The bottom a universal USB-C socket for power. The phone has stereo speakers that are very good. There’s no wireless charging, nor official water-resistance rating.
Google has been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic to a greater extent than other smartphone companies, which has delayed the release of the Pixel 4a by several months and means there is a long lead time between its announcement and open sale in October. It also means the phone will only available in black to start with.
Screen: 5.8in FHD+ OLED (443ppi)
Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 730G
RAM: 6GB of RAM
Operating system: Android 10
Camera: 12.2MP rear, 8MP selfie-camera
Connectivity: LTE, eSIM, wifi 5, NFC, Bluetooth 5.1, headphones and GPS
Dimensions: 144 x 69.4 x 8.2mm
Snappy and long lasting
The Pixel 4a uses the upper-middle range Snapdragon 730G chip from Qualcomm, which is one of the last remaining new processors not to feature 5G and a significant step up from Snapdragon 670 used in the Pixel 3a last year. It comes in a single version with 6GB of RAM and 128GB of storage.
Day-to-day performance was really good, matching the sort of smooth operation you would expect of top-spec phones from the last few years. Switching between apps, loading images, unlocking the phone and other bits was snappy; even games such as Real Racing 3 performed well.
Battery life was also good for a relatively small and light phone. The Pixel 4a lasts 31 hours between charges, which is significantly longer than the larger Pixel 3a XL and iPhone SE (both 27 hours), consistently going from 7am on day one until 2pm on day two.
That was after spending three hours on 4G, the rest on wifi. And with the always-on display active, the screen on for up to five hours for the usual deluge of email, messages and push notifications, browsing and using apps, five hours of Spotify via Bluetooth headphones and about 20 photos. Turning off the always-on display added about two hours of battery life.
The Pixel 4a ships with an 18W fast charger that takes 90 minutes to fully charge the phone, hitting 50% in half an hour.
Google does not provide an estimate for the expected number of full charge cycles from the Pixel 4a batteries. However, the typical lifespan of a smartphone battery is at least 500 cycles while maintaining at least 80% capacity. The Pixel 4a is generally repairable. Out of warranty repairs cost GBP110 for the screen or GBP60 for the battery through one of Google’s repair partners iSmash or via the Google Store.
The Pixel 4a contains about 45% of post-consumer recycled material in its plastic mechanical parts, part of Google’s commitment to include recycled materials in all its products launching from 2022. The company publishes environmental impact reports for some of its products. Google will recycle all Pixel devices free of charge.
Android 10, Google’s way
The Pixel 4a ships with Google’s version of Android 10 and buyers can expect a minimum of three years of operating system and security updates, which is good for a phone of this price but is still some way behind Apple’s five-year support for iPhones (including the GBP419 iPhone SE).
The Pixel’s version of Android is slick and well-optimised, here matching that running on the Pixel 4 series from October last year. Generally speaking, it is attractive and simple, and works like most other versions of Android, with full adoption of the gesture controls, theme support and other additions made to standard Android 10.
But on top are a few Google-exclusives, first introduced with the Pixel 4, that revolve around using artificial intelligence run locally on the phone, rather than on a remote Google server as used to be required.
The new Google Assistant experience is most noticeable. It uses an advanced local voice-recognition system to dramatically accelerate the whole experience, allowing Assistant to understand and respond immediately, with no lag at all. You can rattle off commands at breakneck speed, from launching apps, finding things and performing tasks. It’s a night and day improvement and is better at preserving your privacy as the process is done locally, on your device.
The Pixel 4a also has Google’s Now Playing system that recognises songs playing around you, and the impressive Google Recorder app that can transcribe speech in real time. The Live Caption system that transcribes videos in real time using on-device AI can now be used for voice and video calls, too.
The Pixel 4a has Google’s excellent single-camera system. It lacks the second camera for optical zoom from the Pixel 4 but keeps most of its software features including Google’s industry-leading Night Sight for super low-light photography, an astrophotography mode to shoot the stars, live HDR+ allowing you to tweak the light and dark areas in real time, plus portrait mode for people and pets.
It is arguably the best point-and-shoot camera you can get for under GBP600, producing crisp, well-balanced and highly detailed shots in most environments. But the Pixel 4a isn’t quite as versatile as some rivals of a similar price that come equipped with ultra-wide and zoom cameras as well. Video captured at up to 4K at 30 frames per second is pretty good for the price, too, although I often accidentally blocked the mic with my hand.
The selfie camera is very good, capturing good images in most lighting conditions, but it struggles a little with fine detail when expanded to full-size.
The phone has really powerful and good vibration for alerts and haptics.
There is no way to schedule the always-on display to turn on or off, such as at night.
The Pixel 4a costs GBP349 and is only available in black to start with.
It will be available to pre-order from 10 September and go on sale on 1 October.
The Pixel 4a is Google’s best smartphone in years.
It is small, light and feels great. It has an OLED screen that is colourful, crisp and big enough for most things. Performance is good, the battery lasts a solid 31 hours between charges and the camera is leagues better than the price may suggest. It even has a headphone socket, with is a true rarity in 2020.
You get monthly security updates, at least three years of software updates and Google-exclusive features, some of which are genuinely impressive. The speed of the new Google Assistant is a game-changer but whether you actually want to routinely talk to your phone is another matter.
It’s not perfect, of course. There is no 5G on offer (yet). The body is plastic and doesn’t feel as premium as metal and glass competitors, and there’s no water-resistance rating. The mid-range smartphone market is increasingly competitive, too, meaning the Pixel 4a faces stiff competition from some household names, including Apple’s GBP419 iPhone SE and the new OnePlus Nord, which has 5G, more cameras and a bigger, better screen for GBP30 more.
But at GBP349 for a smaller, lighter phone that works really, really well from the actual maker of Android, the Google Pixel 4a is simply great.
Pros: great camera, good screen, good software and update support, good battery life, headphone socket, relatively small, fairly inexpensive
Cons: no 5G, only single camera, no wireless charging, no water resistance, no expandable storage