Google Pixel 4a 5G review: The big, cheap 5G phone

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Instead of going all-in on flagship phones this year, Google decided to introduce two mid-tier 5G phones and a budget option. I’ve reviewed both ends of the company’s 2020 smartphone spectrum (Pixel 4a and Pixel 5) and now I’m moving on to the one in the middle, the Pixel 4a 5G.

At first glance, this device looks like a weird hybrid between the Pixel 4a and 5. It has the same design as the 4a but internals that lean closer to the 5. It has a bigger screen than both phones, but it’s a notch down in quality compared to the more expensive Pixel 5. The battery’s even smaller than the 5, but it’s notably bigger than 4a. And unlike the 4a, it has 5G, but not the same 5G as the 5.

It’s a bit awkward, and it’s hard to pinpoint what kind of consumer would be interested in this phone. But at the end of the day, here’s what it boils down to: if you want a big, cheap phone with 5G, the Pixel 4a 5G is the device to get.

Design

Google’s Pixel 4a 5G looks like a Pixel 4a XL on the outside. It’s quite literally a larger version of the 4a. It comes in the same Just Black color scheme, although Verizon’s offering a special white version if you buy from them. You get a single-color back with a camera module and fingerprint reader along with clicky but cheap feeling buttons on the right side. (The power button is a weird lavender-tinted white, in case you can’t tell from the photo.) There’s also a couple of grilles on the bottom, with one acting like a mic and the other being a speaker.

The 4a 5G doesn’t necessarily feel cheap, but you can tell it’s lower-end thanks to its plastic body. The phone’s also a bit lighter than you might expect which adds to the inexpensive feel in the hand. Overall, though, it’s comfy and inviting. It’s nothing to show off to your friends, but you’ll probably put it in a case anyway.

It also doesn’t feel too much like a surfboard, but it’s definitely big. Those with smaller hands will be forced to use both of them at some point, but it’s definitely not as unwieldly as a Galaxy Note 20 Ultra or iPhone 12 Pro Max. I still prefer the size of the Pixel 5, but if you need a bigger screen than 6 inches, the 4a 5G gives you that plus a perfectly manageable design.

Much like the 4a, the 4a 5G doesn’t have IP68 certification nor does it wirelessly charge. These might be dealbreakers depending on your usage. The lack of IP68 is something I can’t really get over since It’s much more assuring to have it in case you use your phone in the rain. Meanwhile, I know plenty of people who can’t live without wireless charging. You’ll really have to consider what you prioritize in a phone before you buy this one. If those features are must-haves, you’ll need a Pixel 5.

Display

On the front of the Pixel 4a 5G, Google includes a 6.2-inch Full HD+ OLED display. Like the 4a and the 5, the 4a 5G has a very nice screen. Colors are vibrant, contrasts are good, and off-axis viewing is plenty tolerable. I’d appreciate a few extra nits of brightness for bright sunny days, but at $499 I can forgive it.

What I’m struggling to forgive is the lack of a 90Hz or 120Hz display. The Pixel 5 ships with a 90Hz panel and I love it. Meanwhile, the 4a 5G got stuck with a 60Hz refresh rate. Once you use a screen with a refresh rate faster than 60Hz, it’s hard to go back. I had a bit of a hard time adapting to the reduced snappiness of the 4a 5G because of this. It’s a drastic change of pace, one that you don’t see until you use a 90 or 120Hz phone.

Again, the device is $499, so a 60Hz panel is to be expected anyway. I just would’ve like it a bit more if 90Hz made its way to the phone.

It’s also worth pointing out that the screen uses Gorilla Glass 3 instead of Gorilla Glass 5 like on the Pixel 5, while the bezels surrounding the display are slightly thicker and different sizes. Whether this drives you crazy will depend on how much you care about perfection. I don’t think it’s a big deal, and you probably won’t either.

Performance

Google called this phone the Pixel 4a 5G, so that means it can connect to 5G networks. But if the company stuck with the Snapdragon 730G inside the Pixel 4a, that wouldn’t be possible. Instead, the 4a 5G ships with the more powerful Snapdragon 765G. It’s the same processor found in the more expensive Pixel 5 and many other mid-tier Android phones.

I’ve spent plenty of time with the 765G at this point, and I know it’s more than capable of handling my daily tasks. Paired with Google’s light software, the Pixel 4a 5G has offered more than enough performance to suit my needs. Like I said, it does feel a beat slower because of the 60Hz screen, but if you haven’t used anything faster than 60Hz you won’t notice it.

There are some instances where performance struggles slightly, and I blame it on the 6GB of RAM. My Pixel 4 XL suffers from memory problems as well, and it too has 6GB of random access memory. When flipping through apps, you may notice more stutters and longer app launch times compared to other phones. I wish Google just gave the phone 8GB of RAM, but they had to make the divide between the 4a 5G and the 5 large enough to justify a $200 price increase.

Much like the Pixel 5, there are some things the 765G struggles with on the 4a 5G, but they’re more forgivable given the price tag. Photos take longer to process since you don’t have a Pixel Neural Core and the camera is reliant on the 765G. You’ll also notice graphics aren’t the best, leading to a choppier experience on high-end games than some may desire. But again, this is a $500 phone, so all of that is fine. You’re probably not buying this phone to game on anyway.

As a nice bonus, Google gives you 128GB of storage with the Pixel 4a 5G. If you need more than that, you’ll either have to buy a different phone or subscribe to Google One and start using cloud storage. Google just doesn’t offer anything but 128GB. For me, I’ve found it to be perfectly sufficient since all of my apps and music take up about 35-40GB. That leaves me with more than 80GB to take photos and videos. For people buying a $500 phone, I have a feeling your usage may be similar.

5G

While talking about performance, I should mention 5G. It’s in the phone’s name, after all.

The Pixel 4a 5G can connect to sub-6GHz spectrum (a.k.a. low-band 5G that’s slower but covers a ton of ground across the country), but unless you buy the phone from Verizon, you won’t get mmWave (a.k.a. the crazy-fast high-band 5G that’s only available near certain towers across the country).

I’m still a firm believer in buying a 5G phone since it’s good for future-proofing, but don’t buy the 4a 5G just to brag that your phone can connect to it. 5G just isn’t in a good enough state yet. I’m getting speeds that match LTE more often than not, and sometimes it’s even slower. I’ve even searched for ways to disable it because sometimes it wouldn’t drop down to LTE and I’d lose a cell connection.

Other than waiting for 5G to get good, I really don’t have much else to say. Future-proofing is really the only reason to buy a 5G phone at this moment in time. You know you’ll have that phone for two or three years down the road, so you may as well make sure it can connect to the latest network standard. Just don’t buy a 5G device for what 5G can do today. You’ll be pretty disappointed.

Camera

The camera section of any Pixel phone review is always easy. It doesn’t take a lot of thinking to decide whether the photos and videos you capture are any good. Google’s really honed in on a great formula for its phones’ shooters, and the 4a 5G is perfect evidence of this.

The Pixel 4a 5G uses the same cameras as the Pixel 5. That also means you get the same main 12.2MP camera that Google’s been shipping since it introduced the Pixel 3 in 2018. Like the Pixel 5, you can tell that the sensor is beginning to show signs of age since you don’t get the crazy resolution or sharpness as something like a Galaxy Note 20 Ultra. But for what the lens is, Google really pulls of something special thanks to its software.

As you can see, colors are still vibrant, clarity is still great, and contrasts are still very Pixel-y. The 4a 5G will not disappoint when it comes to photography. And since it’s the same camera as the Pixel 5, the 4a 5G manages to punch far above its weight and can hold its own against the $1,000 phones of the world at half the price. It’s truly incredible.

The Pixel 4a 5G has all the same camera features as the Pixel 5 including Night Sight, Astrophotography mode, 4K 60fps video recording, new stabilization modes for recording video, Night Sight with portrait mode, and portrait lighting in Google Photos.

All of that works great, but what’s potentially my favorite new feature is the 16MP ultra-wide lens. Google dropped the telephoto shooter from the Pixel 4 and included a much more useful lens in its place. It has a 107-degree field of view which isn’t the best you can find, but it’s better than nothing. It’s way wider than the standard camera and lets you take much more sweeping photos of buildings, landscapes, and more. I’m super thankful Google finally caved and just gave the Pixel a wide-angle camera. It’s way more fun.

The 8MP selfie shooter on the front of the phone works just fine and offers most of the same qualities as the rear cameras. Video is also good, although it’s not the best on the market. Google’s definitely improved it over the Pixel 4, and that’s nice to see given this phone’s price.

Overall, the Pixel 4a 5G has one of the best cameras you can get in any smartphone, period. It follows the same path as the Pixel 4a by offering way more photography prowess than its price tag would indicate. If you’re shopping on a budget but need a phone with a great camera, I just don’t see how you skip over any of the 2020 Pixel phones. They’re all fantastic in this department.

Software

With post-processing playing a huge role in the Pixel’s camera success, it only feels right to follow up that part of the review with a section dedicated to the phone’s software.

This conversation is incredibly easy. The Pixel 4a 5G ships with Android 11 out of the box, and it provides one of the cleanest and friendliest experiences money can buy. Every time I fire up my Pixel, I feel right at home. That’s something you can’t really say about other phones. Some devices focus on a near-stock experience while others load theirs up with a ton of unnecessary features. Google avoids all of that and just focuses on making a useful, clean, and welcoming software experience, and that’s exactly what you get with the 4a 5G.

All your favorite Pixel features are here like the fantastic Pixel Launcher, Call Screening, Now Playing, Flip to Shhh, and the redesigned Google Assistant. Unfortunately, the company dropped the squeeze gesture to activate the Assistant, but at least you can swipe up from either bottom corner to activate it.

In a way, you kind of have to sacrifice the squeeze-to-activate-Assistant feature for another one: swipe down on the fingerprint scanner to bring down the notification pane. To me, this is a fair tradeoff. I use the swipe-down gesture way more than I did the squeeze.

New with the Pixel 4a 5G and 5 is Hold For Me. When you’re on a phone call and they place you on hold, you can have the Google Assistant stay on the line for you while you go about your day. You can do other things on your phone or place it back in your pocket. When a human returns to your call, the Assistant will ring your device to which you can answer it like an ordinary phone call. I haven’t found myself in a situation where that feature would come into play, but if it’s anything like Call Screening, I’m sure it works well.

Battery

Going into this review, I tried to adjust my expectations when it came to battery life on the Pixel 4a 5G. A lot of people were confused by Google including a smaller battery in this phone when compared to the Pixel 5. A bigger phone usually means a bigger battery, but not this time.

The Pixel 4a 5G has a 3,885mAh battery while the Pixel 5 has a 4,080mAh cell. When comparing specs, I assumed the company did this to give both phones the same endurance. The Pixel 5 has a 90Hz screen which sucks more power than a 60Hz panel, so I assumed that extra 195mAh was added to even out the playing field. According to my own testing, I was right.

The Pixel 4a 5G lasts just as long as my Pixel 5 does on a full charge, which means it gets through at least a full day of normal to heavy usage. I went to bed with about 35-40 percent left in the tank which is fantastic to see from a Pixel phone. After the disappointing endurance from the Pixel 4, the 4a 5G and 5 offer a nice breath of fresh air.

Like I said, you don’t get wireless charging on the 4a 5G so you’re stuck with the 18W fast charger that comes in the box. It’s speedy enough for what it is, but it’s far from impressive, especially since companies like OnePlus are shipping 65W chargers nowadays.

To help make battery life last as long as possible, Google includes an Extreme Battery Saver mode that turns off unnecessary apps in the background. It’s a separate feature from the default battery saver and should help eek out a few extra percentages when a charger is nowhere to be found.

Miscellaneous

Much like in my Pixel 5 review, I have a few random notes about the 4a 5G that are enough to make up a miscellaneous section.

  • With cheaper phones, companies use cheaper parts, and the vibration motor is one of them in the Pixel 4a 5G. It’s not as satisfying as the Pixel 4 by any means. It feels more hollow and sharp than solid and soft. It’s still plenty strong, but definitely not as nice as previous-gen Pixels.
  • The stereo speakers on the Pixel 4a 5G are far better than the Pixel 5. That’s because Google had room at the top of the device to include an actual earpiece speaker, whereas the Pixel 5’s top display area vibrates to act like a speaker. Audio is much richer and offers far more bass on the 4a 5G compared to the 5, so if you’re an audio nut you’ll actually like the cheaper phone. There’s even a headphone jack.
  • When I paired my Pixel 4a 5G to my car’s audio system, I didn’t get any info about what was playing nor could I use my car’s buttons to control playback. I posted the issue to Google’s support forums and learned that the Bluetooth AVRCP version was set to 1.5 by default. Apparently, this causes problems with certain Bluetooth devices such as my 2015 Honda CR-V. I had to revert to version 1.4 inside the developer settings to get it working. I don’t think this is a Pixel-exclusive issue, but I wanted to note it just in case you run into the same problem after buying the device.

Conclusion

Each individual aspect of the Pixel 4a 5G is pretty great. You get a nice screen, good performance, fabulous cameras, all-day battery life, and excellent software. Plus, there’s 5G. All of that adds up to a well-rounded package that’s absolutely worth its $499 asking price.

If that’s what you want, buy a Pixel 4a 5G. It’s big, it’s cheap, and it offers a great experience. But if you absolutely need water resistance, wireless charging, or a 90Hz screen, spend more money and get a Pixel 5. You lose the “big phone” mantra, but you get more premium features.

As for me, I’ll be sticking with my Pixel 5 thanks to those features. But it’s clear that none of them may be necessities for certain people, and that’s the crowd that should consider the 4a 5G. You’ll save a couple hundred dollars and still be getting one of the best phones out there.

Google Pixel 4a 5G

$499
7.6

Design

7.0/10

Display

7.0/10

Performance

7.5/10

Camera

8.5/10

Battery

8.0/10

Pros

  • Fantastic camera
  • All-day battery
  • Nice screen
  • Pixel software experience
  • Simple, clean design

Cons

  • 60Hz screen
  • No IP68 certification
  • No wireless charging
  • 5G isn't ready just yet
  • If you use more than 128GB of storage, you're out of luck



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