⚡ Mashable Score
Sometimes downsizing is a good thing. Just look at the Google Pixel 4a.
Last year’s Pixel 4 was a fine enough Android phone in its own right, but Google never did enough to justify the $799 starting price. It didn’t necessarily wow me with some of its flashy new features like Motion Sense gesture controls, and the battery life was deeply mediocre for a flagship phone.
While Google may not always be able to compete with the most expensive heavy hitters in the market, its budget handsets are a different story. The cheaper, leaner Pixel 4a is finally here nearly a year after the Pixel 4’s launch. And, like the Pixel 3a before it, budget-minded buyers will find a lot to like. If you can deal without some features, the $349 Pixel 4a is a nice Android competitor for the $399 iPhone SE.
The good: Bigger battery, smaller bezel, almost the same camera
Before we get to how the Pixel 4a is different on the inside, let’s talk about the small physical changes on the outside. For starters, the Pixel 4a is made with cheaper plastic than last year’s flagship, which makes it feel less expensive. That said, at 143g, it’s almost 20 grams lighter than the Pixel 4. It’s also vertically a bit shorter, so reaching across the screen with one hand is slightly easier than before.
The 5.8-inch display is a tenth of an inch bigger than the Pixel 4, but the size difference feels a bit more pronounced due to the significantly smaller bezel around the screen. Google specifically cut out the more prominent top bezel that previously housed the selfie cam and the Motion Sense technology in favor of a hole-punch camera in the upper left corner. I don’t personally mind the lack of Motion Sense in the Pixel 4a; waving my hands above the Pixel 4 rarely worked properly for me anyway.
But for those who found it legitimately useful for things like silencing alarms or skipping songs, understand that it’s not on the 4a.
The last noticeable alteration is a fingerprint sensor on the back, in the top middle portion of the phone. Pixel 4 didn’t read fingerprints at all, opting instead for Face Unlock. I’ll bemoan the lack of Face Unlock later, but I’ll say that as someone who generally has trouble with biometrics, the Pixel 4a’s fingerprint sensor consistently worked well for me.
By the way, the Pixel 4a has a headphone jack on top. The iPhone SE doesn’t have one. You also get 128GB of storage in the 4a, which is twice as much as what the default iPhone SE offers for $50 more.
Gone is the cutting-edge (at the time) Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 processor that powered the Pixel 4, as Google opted for the less powerful and presumably cheaper Snapdragon 730G processor this time. I was worried the 4a would feel slower than its snappy big brother, but I’m happy to report that’s not really the case. It never got bogged down by basic daily tasks like idly browsing social media when you’re supposed to be working, streaming high-definition videos, or even watching live sports.
A less powerful processor might also contribute to what is probably the best change Google made: the battery.
Last year’s flagship model had a paltry 2,800mAh engine inside, while the 4a bumps that up to 3,140mAh. In less technical terms, I was able to get somewhere between eight and 10 hours of frequent social media and YouTube use before I felt the need to plug into the USB-C charger.
It doesn’t necessarily qualify as “all-day” battery life, but it’s also a $350 phone. It’s tough to ask for much more than you get from the Pixel 4a’s battery.
The same goes for the Pixel 4a’s camera. Google cut the 16MP telephoto zoom lens that was on the back of the Pixel 4, but kept the 12MP rear lens and 8MP front lens.
Google’s computational photography tech works as well as ever, with Night Sight still illuminating photos taken in darkness with something that sort of looks like movie set lighting. Live HDR+ is back, too, so you can still adjust exposure before snapping HDR photos like before.
In practice, the Pixel 4a’s camera is almost identical to the Pixel 4. Losing the second lens will mostly impact your ability to take deep optical zoom shots. That’s a fair compromise for a $350 phone that can still use Night Sight, Live HDR+, and Google’s Portrait Mode.
The most impressive thing about the Pixel 4 is how it manages to emulate its more powerful sibling at less than half the starting price. That said, some cuts hurt more than others.
The bad: No Face Unlock or 90Hz support, 5G coming later
Remember that fingerprint sensor we talked about earlier? The one that works even for me, a person whose fingerprints are so unreadable that he should consider a side gig as a cat burglar? That’s all fine and good, but it comes at the expense of Face Unlock.
This isn’t a massive, deal-breaking exclusion by any means. I don’t love the placement of the fingerprint sensor, but it’s only mildly awkward to place your index finger there to unlock the Pixel 4a. It was faster and more futuristic to use my face on the Pixel 4. On the plus side, Pixel’s pre-existing “Smart Lock” feature turns off the locks on your phone if you’re at home, which it senses using location data. That means if you’re stuck at home during quarantine, you don’t have to use the fingerprint sensor all the time.
The most concerning cut feature involves the display. The Pixel 4 supported a 90Hz refresh rate that made everything from web browsing to watching high framerate videos look smooth as silk. Google downgraded the 4a to a 60Hz OLED screen. It’s more than adequate (Apple still hasn’t made a phone with a higher refresh rate than 60Hz), but it would’ve been nice to have a 90Hz option. If OnePlus can fit that into a sub-$500 phone with the Nord, Google should be able to, as well.
Lastly, there is one potential reason to hold off on the Pixel 4a right now: 5G. Google promised when the 4a was unveiled that a 5G version would be available later this year for $500. That’s kind of a steep price increase for 5G alone, assuming there are no other changes to that version of the phone. But if access to 5G networks in a budget phone is important to you, it’s a little disappointing that it isn’t available right away.
Google didn’t revamp the Pixel 4 with a bunch of snazzy new exclusive features or a radical redesign. Instead, the Pixel 4a is probably what the Pixel 4 should’ve been all along: A good mid-range phone rather than an underpowered and overpriced flagship.
Even with a weaker processor, the Pixel 4a handles daily smartphone activities without any major performance hitches. Google took out the impressive optical zoom of the Pixel 4, but otherwise, the camera is the same as it was on the more expensive model. Your Night Sight images will look just as good as before. And to top it all off, the battery is actually improved from the one in the more expensive model.
Sure, there are a couple of minor flaws if you look hard enough. It would’ve been nice to have a model with the same 90Hz refresh rate as the Pixel 4, for example. Additionally, the lack of Face Unlock and lack of 5G are bummers. None of those are bad enough to stop the Pixel 4a from being a heck of a value, even compared to the excellent iPhone SE.