Review: The Google Pixel 4a 5G is great, but prices itself into a corner

How much do you really want 5G?

Ever since the Pixel 3a was first announced for $399, Google has held a prominent position in the low-cost market for its affordable phones with outsized camera performance. The A series has consistently made the appropriate sacrifices necessary to bring prices down and even improved upon the shortcomings of the company's higher-end lineup — most notably, in its battery life.

After considerable delays, the subsequent Pixel 4a repeated the 3a's success with even better camera performance, a larger screen signifying Google's move over to hole punch camera cutouts, and an even better value at just $350. Those looking for a decidedly higher-end phone can turn to the Pixel 5 for double the price, while the upcoming Pixel 4a 5G splits the difference, both in terms of price and hardware accoutrements.

It isn't that there isn't a lot to say about the Pixel 4a 5G; it's more that most of it has already been said in our reviews of the Pixel 4a and Pixel 5. Despite a three month gap between releases, the 4a 5G doesn't really add much to the experience of the already-excellent Pixel 4a, save for compatibility with its namesake network.

That's hardly a bad thing; the Pixel 4a is an outstanding phone at a shockingly low price. But in bringing 5G to its budget line, Google deprecated the very value proposition that makes that line so great.

Bottom line: The Pixel 4a 5G continues Google's legacy of outstanding camera performance and timely software updates while offering the largest screen in its 2020 lineup and introducing 5G support. It's priced a bit awkwardly between Google's best and cheapest phones, but it's still an excellent option.

The Good

  • Indistinguishable performance from pricier Pixel 5
  • Same fantastic cameras
  • Large, good-looking display
  • Outstanding battery life
  • Three years of monthly updates guaranteed

The Bad

  • No water resistance or wireless charging
  • 5G still isn't worth paying extra for
  • Only available in one configuration

$499 at Amazon

Google Pixel 4a 5G Price & release date

The Pixel 4a 5G officially launched on November 19, 2020 for $499 in the U.S., though Verizon customers will need to pay an additional $100 for the Ultra Wideband-compatible model, raising the price to $599.99. That Pixel 4a 5G UW variant is available in an exclusive Clearly White finish, though most other models are limited to Just Black.

Regardless of color, the Pixel 4a 5G is available in a single configuration with 128GB of storage and 6GB of RAM, with no microSD expandability. This review was written after ten days with a U.S. unlocked model provided on loan by Google and tested using a personal Google Fi SIM on a combination of 5G and LTE networks in the greater Indianapolis metropolitan area.

Google Pixel 4a 5G What I like

After spending neearly two weeks bouncing back and forth between the Pixel 4a 5G and the Pixel 5, what's had the most lasting impression on me is just how similar these two phones feel. Sure, the design language is nearly identical, save for a plastic body and larger dimensions on the 4a 5G, but it isn't just the hardware.

The Pixel 4a 5G feels exactly as fast as the Pixel 5 (though it lacks the 90Hz display that gives the Pixel 5 its extra layer of polish). The software is snappy and responsive, and there's rarely ever a moment where I feel like I'm using a "cheap" phone. That's largely because the two phones share the same Snapdragon 765G processor, an "upper midrange" chip with comparable performance to last year's Snapdragon 855.

Category Google Pixel 4a 5G
Operating System Android 11
Display 6.2 inches, 19.5:9 aspect ratio, 2340x1080 (413 ppi) resolution, OLED
Processor Snapdragon 765G
Memory 6GB RAM
Storage 128GB
Rear Camera 12.2MP, ƒ/1.7, 1.4µm (wide)
16MP, ƒ/2.2, 1.0µm (ultra-wide)
Front Camera 8MP, ƒ/2.0, 1.12µm
Battery 3885mAh
Dimensions 153.9 x 7.4 x 8.2mm
Weight 168g

The 765G isn't the highest-end chip around (though it's an improvement over the Pixel 4a's 730G), but it's perfectly capable of running Android 11, which comes pre-installed on the 4a 5G. Just as we've seen on other Pixel devices, Android 11 feels mature, refined, and familiar. I still love the categorized notifications, revamped media controls, and power menu smart home toggles.

You'll also find the same rear fingerprint sensor as on the Pixel 4a and Pixel 5, which remains my favorite method of authentication to date. Especially amidst the pandemic era when every responsible citizen is wearing a mask, a fingerprint sensor just makes more sense than facial recognition (though I do miss the Pixel 4's Face Unlock), and you can swipe down on the sensor to quickly access your notifications.

Oh, and did I mention there's still a headphone jack? That's not necessarily a surprise; the 3.5mm port has remained a staple of the Pixel A series. But considering how few phones these days support traditional wired audio, it's worth noting.

This is the first year we've seen a Pixel launch without a larger "XL" variant, but the Pixel 4a 5G fills that gap to some extent with its 6.2-inch 1080p display. It's a great-looking OLED panel with HDR support and decent contrast levels; it's almost as bright as the Pixel 5's display (though that isn't saying much) and nearly as vibrant. This isn't the highest-end display around, but it's perfectly good for watching videos and editing photos on.

There's also a 3885mAh battery powering the Pixel 4a 5G. It isn't quite as large as the Pixel 5's 4080mAh cell, but battery life has been just as great; I've had no problems reaching upwards of 8 hours of screen-on time, ending most days with 20-30% battery remaining. Especially after spending considerable time with last year's Pixel 4, it's a huge relief to say that this Pixel has not just good but great endurance.

Google Pixel 4a 5G The cameras

Of course, the biggest reason to buy a Pixel phone of any kind (aside from the timely updates) is for the cameras, and for the first time, the Pixel 4a 5G brings dual rear cameras to the A series with a 0.6X ultra-wide sensor. In fact, the 4a 5G's camera spec sheet is identical to that of the Pixel 5 — which also means the 12.2MP main sensor is the same one we've seen in every generation since the Pixel 2.

Google's starting to lose some of the lead it's enjoyed for the last few years, with other manufacturers touting massive sensors and extreme zooms, but that doesn't mean the Pixel 4a 5G doesn't still take outstanding photos. Just like the Pixel 5, it shoots a bit warmer than previous models while retaining the same balanced yet moderately high contrast look.

There's a fair amount of natural depth when shooting up-close subjects, though the smaller sensor doesn't match the likes of phones like the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra without flipping over into portrait mode. Still, I far prefer Google's handling of exposure, saturation, and other factors over other manufacturers.

What I'm not so confident in is the change in secondary lenses. We've been clamoring for Google to add an ultra-wide lens to its phones for years, but now that it's here, it's ... well, it's perfectly average. At 107 degrees, it doesn't enter into the realm of fisheye, but the upside is that there's very little barrel distortion present in the corners of each shot.

Most of this has already been summed up in Daniel Bader's review of the Pixel 5, but one thing I'm particularly intrigued by is the new Pixel line's focus on video features.

No, you don't get manual video controls or 8K recording. Still, the Pixel 4a 5G comes with three new stabilization modes in addition to the standard fare, allowing you to shoot locked off shots, cinematic slow-mo pans, or extreme stabilized shots with just a few taps. I like all of the modes, save for Active mode, which uses the ultra-wide lens rather than the main sensor and provides a far softer image.

Of course, one of the Pixel's strongest camera features is its Night Sight mode, allowing you to take shockingly good photos in near-complete darkness. It works as well on the 4a 5G as it does on any other Pixel — I'm still wildly impressed with every shot I take, though Night Sight and other camera effects take longer than usual to process due to the lack of a dedicated Neural Core. You can even use Night Sight on the ultra-wide lens, with similarly impressive results.

Google Pixel 4a 5G What I don't like

I've been mostly positive on the Pixel 4a 5G, but of course, it isn't without its compromises. Being a part of the A series, you won't find all of the same concessions here as you would on the Pixel 5 — namely wireless charging, IP-certified water resistance, and a 90Hz refresh rate. The 4a 5G also trades the upgrade pick's metal chassis for plastic and has a larger display, both of which could be considered either a pro or con, depending on your perspective.

Just as with the Pixel 5, the Snapdragon 765G also leaves a bit to be desired when playing graphics-intensive games, though I think that's perfectly acceptable on a phone that makes no claims of offering a top-of-the-line experience.

Too expensive for the budget market, too basic as a flagship.

This year's confusing lineup puts the 4a 5G in a bit of a strange predicament; with a nearly identical spec sheet, these are the factors that separate it from the Pixel 5, rather than general performance or cameras prowess.

Well, that and $200. At $500, it's a more affordable alternative to the Pixel 5, with perfectly acceptable tradeoffs for most users, but it's also $150 more expensive than the $350 Pixel 4a.

For that money, you're getting a slightly newer processor, an ultra-wide camera, and support for a 5G network that still isn't ready for general consumers. That's not a massive value proposition if you're searching for a good deal first and foremost. If you're a Verizon customer, that price gap widens even further, with the Pixel 4a 5G UW set to launch at $600 — just a Benjamin less than the Pixel 5 — for access to an even less accessible Ultra Wideband flavor of 5G.

It isn't that the Pixel 4a 5G is a bad phone by any means — on the contrary, I think it's one of the better phones you can buy for $500, with a flagship-tier camera, modern Android 11 software, and excellent battery life. But if you're looking to save money, as is often the case when you're considering a Pixel A device, the Pixel 4a seems like a better fit. If, on the other hand, you want all the flagship amenities you can get from Google, you should spend the extra $100-200 on the Pixel 5.

Google Pixel 4a 5G Frequently asked questions

How does the Snapdragon 765G compare to the 4a's 730G?

Both the Pixel 4a 5G's Snapdragon 765G processor and the 730G found in the baseline Pixel 4a are octa-core ARM-based processors from Qualcomm. Each features the same combination of Cortex-A76 and Cortex-A55 cores, with the 765G edging slightly ahead in single core clock speeds.

Performance-wise, there's very little different between the two. Each processor places a focus on gaming (hence the G suffix), though the 765G's main advantage is its 5G integration, making use of the Snapdragon X52 modem. The X52 is considerably slower than the X55 modem used in higher-end SoCs, though it still supports a theoretical maximum download speed of 3.7Gbps and a peak upload speed of 1.6Gbps.

Is this just a Pixel 4a XL?

Yes. Sort of ... not exactly. The Pixel 4a 5G does have a larger screen than the Pixel 4a (6.2 inches compared to 5.8 inches, respectively), but it's more than just a bigger version of the same phone. In addition to the larger screen and battery, you gain a secondary ultra-wide camera — the same one found on the Pixel 5.

Of course, you also get 5G support, with access to both sub-6 and mmWave networks depending on your particular model, and the aforementioned Snapdragon 765G processor. Otherwise ... yeah, this is basically a Pixel 4a XL.

How are the speakers?

The Pixel 4a 5G features stereo speakers, combining the bottom-firing speaker grill with the narrow earpiece speaker above the display. The output volume is impressively loud, and the speakers remain relatively clear even at max volume. I've been perfectly happy with the sound quality from the 4a 5G's speakers when watching videos, but it sounds a bit too thin for me to think about replacing even my Nest Mini speaker for music any time soon. There just isn't much bass response with these small speakers.

What are the sacrifices compared to the Pixel 5?

It isn't easy to quantify on a spec sheet, but durability is a factor that I don't think should be overlooked. The Pixel 5 may not be cold to the touch like most metal phones, but it still sports an aluminum frame, which should help it maintain a certain level of resilience. The Pixel 4a's plastic frame isn't nearly as rigid — at least, not in theory. Materials aside, the Pixel 4a 5G also lacks the Pixel 5's IP68 water- and dust-resistance, meaning you'll want to keep it out of heavy rain.

You're also giving up a high refresh rate display with the Pixel 4a 5G, as well as bilateral wireless charging, which comes in handy when charging small accessories like true wireless earbuds. On the other hand, neither phone has microSD expandability, but only the cheaper 4a 5G has a headphone jack, which will certainly appeal to fans of wired audio. If the Pixel 5's amenities aren't a big deal to you, you'll enjoy the same core experience with the 4a 5G.

The competition

I think Google has priced the Pixel 4a 5G into a corner with the rest of its 2020 lineup; as mentioned above, the Pixel 5 gets you a more premium-feeling phone with protection from factors like water and dust, and wireless charging is a great option to have available — especially if you use true wireless earbuds, since you can reverse wireless charge them from the back of the Pixel 5.

But the other Pixels are far from the 4a 5G's only competition in the mid-to premium Android phone landscape. The Galaxy S20 FE is often seen as an aggressive competitor to the Pixel 5, but I think that holds just as true against the Pixel 4a 5G. At $700, it's a bit pricier than the 4a 5G. Still, retailers have already offered it at a $100 discount ahead of its retail launch, bringing it closer to pricing parity — especially for Verizon customers.

Samsung also offers strong trade-in values with its phones, meaning you could easily get the S20 FE for considerably less than the 4a 5G. With it, you get a tertiary telephoto camera, a 120Hz refresh rate, and the same promise of three years of software updates — though, of course, not at the same rate as the Pixel.

Outside of the States, there's also the OnePlus Nord to consider. Its cameras aren't nearly as competitive, but you get a faster refresh rate as well as OnePlus's excellent OxygenOS interface and faster charging for €499.

Google Pixel 4a 5G Should you buy it?

You should buy this if ...

You want a large-screened phone with rapid updates

The Pixel 4a 5G has the largest display of Google's 2020 lineup at 6.2 inches. At 60Hz, it isn't quite as fast and smooth as the 90Hz panel on the Pixel 5, but it's a great display nonetheless. The 4a 5G is also guaranteed to receive at least three years of software support, including major platform updates.

You take a lot of photos

One of the main perks of Google's Pixel line is its incredible camera system. You can take great photos, day or night, with all sorts of different camera modes like Night Sight, Astrophotography, and various video stabilization modes.

You should not buy this if ...

You're a Verizon customer

Given the higher price of the Pixel 4a 5G UW at $599, you're better off either spending the extra $100 on the higher-end Pixel 5 or saving $120 and getting the baseline Pixel 4a without 5G support.

You're buying strictly for 5G

Despite being the phone's namesake, for the vast majority of consumers, 5G simply isn't worthwhile yet. In many markets, sub-6 5G is actually slower than LTE, while Verizon's mmWave service is dramatically faster but less consistent in coverage. Between the added cost of the phone itself and the service plan that goes with it, 5G shouldn't be your sole motivator for buying the Pixel 4a 5G.

The Pixel 4a 5G is just as good of a phone for average consumers as for enthusiasts. It nails all of the fundamentals, from great cameras and battery life to long-term software support, all while making the necessary compromises to bring costs as low as reasonably possible. But that's the same story as the Pixel 4a, which costs 30% less while offering the same core experience, minus the 5G network that regularly drives prices up.

Unless you're sold on the idea of a bigger screen and an ultra-wide lens, I think you're better off saving some money and buying the Pixel 4a instead — or spending a bit of extra money to get the full experience of the Pixel 5, if you value the bonus hardware features it offers.

In any case, you shouldn't make a buying decision solely based on the promise of 5G. It's generally a safer bet to buy based on today's tech rather than the promises of tomorrow. But even as 5G slowly works its way into everyday life, the Pixel 4a 5G is a worthwhile upgrade if you're just looking for a good, affordable phone with a big screen.

Bottom line: The Pixel 4a 5G is priced a bit awkwardly between Google's best and cheapest phones, but it's still an excellent option with fantastic cameras and years of guaranteed software support.

$499 at Amazon


Source: androidcentral

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