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Lifewire / Andrew Hayward
Smooth Android OS
Great, big screen
Generic looking design
No water resistance
Lacks mmWave 5G
It’s not the most exciting-looking phone, but with 5G, excellent cameras, and plenty more in the mix for $499, the Google Pixel 4a 5G is a smart and sensible pickup.
Google’s Pixel 4a 5G is releasing around the same time as the more expensive Pixel 5, and both phones feature the same processor, the same cameras, and similar screens. Confused? Yeah, we bet. Google’s branding has become muddled in creating a half-step between August’s smaller, budget-friendlier, non-5G Pixel 4a model and the slightly more premium-feeling Pixel 5.
It may not seem obvious given all of that, but the Pixel 4a 5G is ultimately the better pick of the pair for most people, giving you a very similar feature set and a larger screen with only a couple of notable feature omissions—but a $200 price savings in the process. It’s a very compelling mid-range phone with a sharp screen, excellent camera skills, and Google’s own appealing take on Android.
The Pixel 4a 5G’s design is arguably a step up from the standard Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL, which were overly large thanks to a big “forehead” of bezel above the screen to accommodate Google’s now-scrapped Motion Sense gimmick. That said, the Pixel 4a 5G looks pretty anonymous amidst the current crop of Android phones, lacking any significant design flourishes.
Gone is the two-tone backing design that used to define the Pixel aesthetic: it’s just plain black plastic all around, with a gray “G” logo near the bottom, an imprint for the responsive fingerprint sensor near the top, and a rounded square camera module. The light gray power button on the right side of the frame is really the only distinctive accent. There are no alternative color options for this base model of the Pixel 4a 5G, although the Verizon-exclusive Pixel 4a 5G UW model that supports its mmWave network comes in white with a green button and costs $100 extra.
The Pixel 4a 5G looks pretty anonymous amidst the current crop of Android phones, lacking any significant design flourishes.
Ultimately, the Pixel 4a 5G looks pretty generic, but at least it doesn’t have that awkward, behind-the-times look of the Pixel 4. Thankfully, the front is almost all screen now due to the punch-hole camera cutout in the upper left corner, which means modest bezels all around (but a bit larger at the bottom). The Pixel 4a 5G is slim at 0.3 inches and I found it easy to grip at 2.9 inches wide, but the sizable 6.2-inch screen means it can be tricky to use with one hand.
The Pixel 4a 5G has a 3.5mm headphone port, which the Pixel 5 lacks, but it sadly omits any sort of water resistance rating or guarantee. And while 128GB is a solid-sized internal storage cache that most users can probably live within, there’s no option to input microSD cards to expand that tally, nor does Google sell a higher-capacity model.
There’s nothing challenging about setting up this Android 11 phone. Simply hold the power button on the right side of the phone until it powers on and then follow the prompts that appear on the screen. You will need to input (or create) a Google account and agree to terms and conditions, plus you can choose to copy data from another phone or download a backup from the cloud, if available and desired. Otherwise, it’s a straightforward and brief process.
The Qualcomm Snapdragon 765G processor is a capable octa-core chip that makes sense for a phone at this price. It’s not the best of the best; the Snapdragon 865+ is the latest flagship chip seen in top-end Android phones. Still, the 765G provides consistently smooth performance here on the Pixel 4a 5G, with Google’s software optimizations no doubt helping a fair bit.
I never ran into any significant bottlenecks while using the Pixel 4a 5G, although I did encounter a couple of brief, sluggish hitches while switching between apps. Still, it’s nothing worth stressing over, and assuming that you’re not coming from a more expensive, flagship-level phone released within the last two years, then you’ll probably find the Pixel 4a 5G to be plenty swift. In benchmark testing, PCMark’s Work 2.0 performance test recorded a score of 8,378—a solid improvement over last year’s Pixel 3a at 7,413.
Meanwhile, GFXBench’s GPU benchmark tests recorded 13 frames per second in the Car Chase demo and 44fps in the T-Rex demo. The former is an improvement over the Pixel 3a, while the latter is curiously a downgrade. In any case, 3D games like Call of Duty Mobile and Asphalt 9: Legends actually run smoothly on the Pixel 4a 5G on the default settings, and there really isn’t a huge visual difference from playing at max settings on a more powerful phone.
The one downgrade from the Pixel 5 is that you don’t get the super-smooth 90Hz refresh rate here: Google stuck with the standard 60Hz on the Pixel 4a 5G.
As mentioned, the unlocked Pixel 4a 5G can connect to the sub-6Ghz flavor of 5G that is currently most popular, although you won’t be able to access Verizon’s mmWave-powered UltraWide 5G unless you pay extra for the carrier’s exclusive white version of the phone.
I tested the Pixel 4a 5G on T-Mobile’s 5G network just north of Chicago and recorded a maximum speed of 125Mbps download and 68Mbps upload. Typically, the download speed registered in the 50-80Mbps range on the 5G network, but even so, that’s 2-3x the speed I’ve seen testing T-Mobile’s 4G LTE network in my area in the past. In any case, that’s more than enough speed for streaming video and other on-the-go connectivity needs.
You’ll get a sizable 6.2-inch OLED screen here with the aforementioned punch-hole cutout in the upper left corner. It’s a fine 1080p display: plenty crisp and clear at 413 pixels per inch and better than the screens on last year’s Pixel 3a models, lacking the oversaturation that those displays showed. The one downgrade from the Pixel 5 is that you don’t get the super-smooth 90Hz refresh rate here: Google stuck with the standard 60Hz on the Pixel 4a 5G. Still, it’s hard to complain about a screen this solid on a modestly-priced phone.
Between the dedicated speaker on the bottom frame and the earpiece above the screen, the Pixel 4a 5G outputs solid-quality stereo sound for listening to music, videos, and more. Pairing to an external speaker via Bluetooth or the 3.5mm headphone port is always preferred for the best-quality output, but for audio in a pinch, the Pixel 4a 5G sounds just fine.
Like the Pixel 3a before it, the Pixel 4a 5G doesn’t skimp on camera quality to save on costs. The Pixel 4a 5G’s dual-camera system is the same as you’ll find in the Pixel 5, and it matches up well against the cameras seen in even more expensive flagship phones thanks to Google’s brilliant photo processing algorithms.
It’s possible to take bad photos with the Pixel 4a 5G, sure, but you’ll really have to try to do so. This is a fantastic point-and-shoot camera, delivering well-judged lighting and coloring while packing in loads of detail. The 12-megapixel main sensor is a reliable snapper, and while I’d rather have a telephoto camera in place of the 16-megapixel ultrawide camera, the Pixel 4a 5G still delivers good-quality short-range digital zooming.
Google’s Night Sight mode continues to raise the bar for low-light shooting, too, plus you can do long-exposure astrophotography on the Pixel 4a 5G. The Pixel 4a 5G’s video shooting impresses, too, with crisp 4K resolution footage at 60 frames per second and smooth video stabilization options in the mix.
You get a pretty beefy 3,885mAh battery in the Pixel 4a 5G, and with a mid-range processor onboard, it’s no surprise to find that this phone is a strong all-day warrior. Most days, I finished with 40 percent or more of a charge still remaining, and using 5G service didn’t annihilate the battery charge. After testing last year’s Pixel 4 XL and often struggling to get through a day of heavy usage, it’s a welcome surprise to see such a big cushion of extra uptime here.
The Pixel 5 has an even more resilient battery, believe it or not—but even so, the Pixel 4a 5G did not disappoint on this front. You don’t get wireless charging on this phone, however, but it has 18W fast-charging using the supplied wired adapter.
The Pixel 4a 5G is one of the first phones to ship with the latest Android 11 operating system update, which brings even more incremental enhancements to the world’s most popular mobile OS. On top of that, you’re guaranteed at least three years of operating system and security upgrades, so you don’t have to worry about Google flaking out on the Pixel 4a in a year or two.
Given the choice, I’d take Google’s flavor of Android over the skinned versions seen on other makers’ phones. Google’s focus on design simplicity and using predictive features to put apps and services in reach when you need them makes the Pixel 4a 5G a joy to use, plus you get perks like Google’s Call Screen feature and a whole lot of colorful, whimsical wallpaper to boot.
The price feels right for the Pixel 4a 5G. At $499, you get a 5G-capable phone with a great screen, excellent cameras, and strong battery life, and enough processing power to get the job done. The bland plastic build and lack of perks like wireless charging are necessary trade-offs to land at that price point, and anyone eager for those bonus elements might consider the Pixel 5 instead.
At $499, you get a 5G-capable phone with a great screen, excellent cameras, and strong battery life, and enough processing power to get the job done.
As hinted above, it’s slightly more premium components that make the Pixel 5 a $699 phone, despite being very similar to the Pixel 4a 5G overall. You’ll get recycled aluminum backing instead of plastic, wireless charging capabilities, and added support for the faster (but currently scarce) mmWave 5G technology. It has a smaller 6-inch screen, however, but lasts even longer than the Pixel 4a 5G.
Admittedly, the Pixel 5 value proposition is a bit muddled by the fact that it’s priced like a flagship phone but has the power of a mid-ranger. That’s not a problem with the Pixel 4a 5G, which has the same chip and costs $200 less.
There’s a lot to love about the Pixel 4a 5G, which nails most of the fundamentals while delivering 5G connectivity at a reasonable price. It’s a better value than the Pixel 5, and while the generic design underwhelms, this is a great pick for anyone eager to nab a capable, modern phone that doesn’t break the bank.
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