If you’re after a small, affordable Android phone (£349/$349) with a nice screen, future proof software that’ll receive big updates for the next three years and a fantastically reliable camera then you’re not going to be disappointed with the Pixel 4a.
- Great camera
- Refreshingly small size for an Android phone
- The promise of fast updates
- Nice, sharp OLED screen
- You’ll find competition with far larger spec sheets and feature lists
- Some mild performance and touch latency hiccups
- As well as being a Pro, the small screen might put some off
- Review Price: £349
- 5.8-inch OLED FHD display
- Snapdragon 730
- 12MP rear camera
- 8MP front camera
- 3.5mm audio port
If there’s one word that can describe the Pixel 4a it is ‘predictable’. The phone’s a mild upgrade on the Pixel 3a that brings with it some welcome additions and a few missing features that make it feel a little old-school compared to the competing OnePlus Nord and Moto G 5G Plus.
While the Pixel 4a is never going to beat others on a spec-sheets, it does offer itself as a unique Android rival to the iPhone SE 2 that is an absolute pleasure to use.
This is a small phone that hits a sweet spot that’s been untapped in Android for quite some time. It also impresses with its camera – usually the most obvious negative on a phone this price.
Price and release date – How much is the Pixel 4a and when can you buy it?
There’s one model of the Pixel 4a with 6GB RAM and 128GB storage. It’ll retail for £349 in the UK and $349 in the US.
Design and Screen – The small phone Android needed
There is no XL version of the Pixel 4a so it comes in one fixed 5.8-inch size. That makes it one of the smaller best Android phones available and while I know some will bemoan the lack of a larger screen, it’s hard to deny that there’s currently a shortage of small Google phones
This is a phone you could, if you want, use with one hand without feeling like you’re going to drop it. It’s very light too, which is a blessing and meant using it for the past week has been refreshing, especially after coming off the very tall Moto G 5G Plus.
That being said, there have been times I wished I had the option of a bigger XL version. The keyboard can feel incredibly tightly packed at times and it’s not the ideal size for gaming or watching videos.
Pixel phones have never been flashy and I have praised the subtle, well thought out designs Google has used in the past. The Pixel 4a follows this trend, almost to its detriment. This is a very basic looking phone that comes in a single matte black finish.
Its constructed from tough, grippy plastic with rounded edges and very little else of note. There’s a new square camera housing and a capacitive fingerprint sensor on the back, along with a single pop of colour in the form of a minty power button.
It’s a perfectly serviceable design, but one that edges on being boring. There is no bright colour option like we had with the Pixel 4 and a complete lack of flair or small details that could help it stand out.
You also miss out on an IP rating – a feature you’ll find on the iPhone SE 2 and something that could have helped the Pixel 4a offer something other cheaper Androids don’t.
At least there’s a headphone port on the top for all those pairs of 3.5mm headphones you’ve likely still got laying around.
The front of the Pixel 4a is covered in a 5.8-inch OLED display and it’s the first Google phone with a cutout camera perched in the top left corner. This gives it a much more full-screen look when compared to the Pixel 4 and the dual stereo speakers have also managed to stick around.
The display itself is strong, even if it lacks the faster 90Hz refresh rate that gives an extra hit of smoothness to phones like the OnePlus Nord and Realme X50 5G. It retains a 1080p resolution and the OLED panel gives it luscious deep blacks, nice punchy colours and HDR support in apps like Netflix and YouTube.
Performance and Software – The Pixel 4a isn’t a top performer, but it’s not far off
For the £349/$349 price, the Pixel 4a packs a good selection of internals. The main grunt comes from the Snapdragon 730 chipset, and that’s backed up by a good amount of RAM (6GB) and storage (128GB). Google has often skimped on RAM and storage before and it’s good to see the Pixel 4a actually shipping with double the base amount of storage and the same amount of memory as the Pixel 4.
What you do miss here, when compared to phones like the OnePlus Nord and Moto G 5G Plus which run on the Snapdragon 765G, is 5G. Whether or not this will be an issue will come down to your personal situation. I don’t think 5G is widespread enough yet to be a must for a new phone, especially ones that are at this end of the market, but, having it would have made the Pixel 4a more futureproof and, in my opinion, more appealing.
In my week with the phone I have found performance to be good, with the usual caveats that come with a mid-tier chipset. Mostly things are smooth, from opening to apps and scrolling through sites and playing basic games, however there is the odd glitch or hiccup that stands out. I have found the touch response to be a bit off, with it having a generally less responsive feel than I would usually expect from a Pixel.
Apps take a moment or two longer to open than on the Pixel 4 and more-intensive games (Call of Duty, Asphalt 9 etc) aren’t as smooth. Do any of these things make much difference after a few days? For me, no. Interestingly, no benchmarking apps ran properly on the phone so I have left these results out. This will likely change when the phone gets announced and becomes available.
There are lots of other performance highlights too. The front-firing speakers are loud, the vibration motor easily beats out the competition and call quality is excellent.
Google once again sells a Pixel phone with a strong focus on software. The version of Android 10 (which will likely be updated to Android 11 very soon after release, if not by release) mimics the Pixel 4, with its selection of AI-tweaked additions. The voice recorder app, for instance, transcribes text ridiculously accurately and there’s live captioning available across the entire OS. Of course, these features are available elsewhere now, but they came first to Pixel phones and you’ll be first in line for the next load of tweaks and changes.
While I do love the cleanness and overall design of the Pixel Launcher, I do miss some of the features that have become commonplace among other Android phones. You can’t, for instance, stretch video apps out to cover the cutout camera. The battery saver modes are also weak and it just lacks the customisability of Oxygen OS. Another shame is the lack of even a rudimentary form of facial unlocking, forcing you to always use the fingerprint scanner for unlocking.
Still, with Google promising three years of version updates for the Pixel 4a, plus likely access to the betas, this is a great choice if you want the best new Android features.
Camera – Pixel 4a offers the best photos at this price, and then some
The Pixel 4a is the best camera phone you’ll find at this price, and then some. It’s even better than some flagship phones I have reviewed that come close to £/$1000. This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise if you’ve ever used or heard about Pixels before.
The single 12-megapixel f/1.7 sensor on the back of the Pixel 4a lacks the versatility you’ll find on multi-sensor arrays, however it continues the Pixels dominance when it comes to picture processing and low-light shooting.
You’ll find most phones can take great daylight pictures if the lighting is good and there’s nothing ‘getting in the way’. With the Pixel 4a, you can shoot in much more challenging conditions and the Live HDR+ does all the hard work. I took the phone out shooting on a very bright day and it managed to pull great shots out even with the sun getting it in the way. It doesn’t overexpose and the colours it produces are more accurate than anything you’ll find on a competing phone this price.
Once again the trademark contrasty, high dynamic range pictures of the Pixel series are here. I still find the colours the most appealing out of any phone going. It captures the atmosphere of a sunset and the sheen from a car in a way other phones don’t.
Shots are also packed with detail, even when you get up close – see the shots of the flowers.
Low-light performance is another key area where the Pixel 4a’s camera shines. Like the Pixel 4, the 4a has a mode for shooting great snaps of a starry sky and a night mode that brings out far more brightness from low-light shots than you would ever expect.
The night shot mode pulls out brightness from night shots that even I can’t see and it does this with just a few moments of processing. Noise is kept to a minimum (though ever so slightly more obvious than the Pixel 4) and both detail and contrast is kept. See the samples below for an idea.
The video mode and the 8-megapixel front camera are also impressive. Video caps at 4K 30fps, but you benefit from excellent stabilisation and strong colours. Really it’s just impressive all round.
What you do miss when compared to the larger, pricier Pixel 4 is the zoom lens and some of the processing grunt that comes with the faster internals. Having only focal lenses isn’t an issue and after reviewing many phones with poor secondary cameras I would take a stellar main cam over useless backup ones any day.
Battery life – The Pixel 4a is better than the iPhone SE 2
Throughout my week with the Google Pixel 4a I have managed to get a full day from a single charge. I’ve been averaging four hours of screen on time, though often getting up to five and a half and sometimes dipping below three.
I’ve come to expect smaller phones with smaller batteries to struggle when compared to larger devices, but that’s not really the case here. Though I would say this isn’t a two day phone unless you’re a really light user (or not taking any pictures).
There’s no wireless charging, but it does use the USB PD 18w standard so you’ll get a full charge in about 100 minutes. That’s not the fastest around, however you’re not restricted to using a proprietary cable and charging block. 10 minutes of charge will get you 20%, 30 minutes to 40% and 70% in just under an hour.
Should you buy the Pixel 4a?
The Google Pixel 4a isn’t a flashy phone but its one of the best cheap phones around. It doesn’t boast 5G, a fast screen or handy extras like wireless charging and an IP rating. But, it’s still easy to recommend as it’s just a joy to use.
If you’re after a smaller Android phone that’s very affordable (£349/$349), packs a nice screen, top software that’ll receive big updates for three years and a fantastically reliable camera then you’re not going to be disappointed here.