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Andrew Hayward / Lifewire
Great OLED screen
The Pixel 4a is the best phone you can buy for less than $400, delivering enough power and capabilities for just about anyone.
Google provided us with a review unit for our writer to test, which they sent back after their thorough evaluation. Read on for their full take.
Google’s experiment with pricey, full-blooded flagship phones has come to a seeming end as the company realizes its true strength: capable, affordable smartphones that emphasize Google’s smooth Android software rather than flashy hardware. We first got a glimpse of that with 2019’s Pixel 3a, a $399 mid-range phone that proved more compelling than the twice-as-pricey main Pixel 3, pairing modest specs with an excellent camera for a seriously brilliant package.
The Pixel 4a is even better—and it’s cheaper, too. At $349, you get a phone that packs in more power than its predecessor, a smarter design, and better screen, while still featuring a camera that easily beats anything else in this price class. It’s just enough phone for nearly anyone, and if you don’t want to spend $700+ on a new handset, the Pixel 4a is a near-perfect budget option.
Like the Pixel 3a before it, the Pixel 4a picks plastic to cut down on material costs, with a plastic backing shell rather than a glass back and metal frame. Luckily, the Pixel 4a cuts down on the extraneous bezel that was seen above and below the Pixel 3a’s screen, opting instead for a small punch-hole camera cutout in the upper left corner to deliver a nearly all-screen face with its 5.8-inch display.
While an upgrade over the previous model, the Pixel 4a looks a bit anonymous in the current phone landscape, particularly in the lone Just Black model that first launched (as seen here). The recent Barely Blue variant has a much more distinctive hue, at least. In any case, while a bland design is a potentially noteworthy flaw for a pricier phone, it didn’t bother me at all here. This is an entirely solid look and feel for a $349 phone.
Given the plastic build and relatively small screen, the Pixel 4a is lightweight at 143g and better suited as a one-handed device than most of today’s major smartphones. Apple’s new iPhone 12 Mini is smaller still, but is also twice the price of the Pixel 4a. In any case, the Pixel 4a is an easy phone to handle. It also has a 3.5mm headphone port on the top, along with a USB-C charging port at the bottom. Meanwhile, the rear fingerprint sensor is fast and responsive, more so than the in-display sensors found on some of today’s pricier phones.
Unfortunately, there aren’t any options when it comes to storage: the Pixel 4a comes with 128GB of internal storage, with no higher-capacity models available nor the ability to pop in a microSD card for additional memory. Granted, 128GB is a solid amount that the average user should be able to work within, but heavier users may think twice if they like to carry a lot of offline media or apps and games. There’s also no water or dust resistance certification (IP rating) on the Pixel 4a, which is common with budget-friendly phones, so avoid puddles and pools with it.
The 5.8-inch screen here is very nice at this price. It’s an OLED panel, so the contrast is on point and the black levels are inky, plus it’s pretty crisp at a 1080p resolution, packing in 443 pixels per inch. It doesn’t have the smoother, faster-than-normal 90hz refresh rate of the Pixel 5, but that’s to be expected for a $349 phone. What’s here looks and works great, and it’s a better screen than that of the Pixel 3a, which looked slightly oversaturated.
The Pixel 4a is lightweight and better suited as a one-handed device than most of today’s major smartphones.
Like other modern Android phones, the Pixel 4a setup process is very easy to understand and simply requires you to follow the on-screen prompts to get the phone up and running. After holding down the power button on the right side of the phone, the Pixel 4a will walk you through the setup process, which includes selecting a Wi-Fi network (if available), accepting the terms and conditions, logging into a Google account, and choosing whether or not to copy data from another phone or cloud backup. It doesn’t take very long.
The Pixel 4a packs a Qualcomm Snapdragon 730 processor, which is a mid-range chip. It’s slightly less powerful than the Snapdragon 765G chip in the pricier Pixel 4a 5G and Pixel 5, but not significantly so—and with 6GB RAM alongside, the Pixel 4a runs pretty smoothly almost across the board. I’d notice little snags here and there when an app or process took an extra beat to execute compared to faster, pricier phones, but it was never a deterrent. At this price, this kind of performance is impressive.
Benchmark tests show a solid improvement over the Pixel 3a before it, and barely any difference between it and the Pixel 4a 5G. The Pixel 4a delivered a score of 8,210 on PCMark’s Work 2.0 benchmark test, which is a boost over the 7,413 recorded when I tested the Pixel 3a. Surprisingly, the Pixel 4a’s result is barely less than the 8,378 that the Pixel 4a 5G showed, suggesting that there isn’t a significant difference between the two processors in play.
Games run solidly on the Pixel 4a, but not completely smoothly. Racing game Asphalt 9: Legends is totally playable and decently detailed, but does have tiny bursts of slowdown here and there. Using GFXBench, the Pixel 4a reported results of 16 frames per second on the demanding Car Chase demo and 50 frames per second on the T-Rex demo. Both beat the Pixel 4a 5G on the same tests, plus the Pixel 4a put up a 60 percent smoother result on the Car Chase benchmark than the Pixel 3a before it.
This single 12-megapixel lens is an excellent point-and-shoot camera, delivering routinely great results in strong lighting and good-or-better shots in lower-light scenarios.
If the name and price point didn’t already convince you otherwise, the Google Pixel 4a does not feature 5G support. We’re starting to see $400-or-less phones with at least support for the basic sub-6Ghz flavor of 5G connectivity, but the Pixel 4a isn’t one of them. That said, 5G support is still in its early rollout stages with all the major carriers, and if price is a key consideration in your phone choice, I wouldn’t prioritize 5G functionality right now.
The difference between 4G LTE and sub-6Ghz 5G isn’t that huge, either, at least right now in my testing. I tested the Pixel 4a on Verizon’s LTE network just north of Chicago and registered a peak download speed of 73Mbps. On Verizon’s sub-6Ghz 5G Nationwide network using other 5G-capable phones, I’ve typically seen peak speeds around 130Mbps. It’s a difference, no doubt, but it’s not enormous.
The Pixel 4a doesn’t skimp on speaker quality, despite its low price. Between the earpiece and the bottom-firing speaker, it pumps out stellar, clear sound whether you’re playing music, watching videos, or using speakerphone. And as mentioned, it still has a 3.5mm headphone port for wired headphones.
At $349, there is no better value in smartphones today.
What made the Pixel 3a such a standout wasn’t the fact that Google released a cheap phone—it was that Google released a cheap phone with a flagship-quality camera. Budget phone cameras are typically hit-or-miss in quality, and even if they take very good daytime photos, low-light shots usually aren’t great.
Luckily, the Pixel 4a continues the trend from its predecessor and does more with a single back camera than some competing phones do with a larger array. This single 12-megapixel lens is an excellent point-and-shoot camera, delivering routinely great results in strong lighting and good-or-better shots in lower-light scenarios. Google’s software algorithms work some magic here, rarely misfiring as it serves up well-judged photos with plenty of detail.
The Night Sight mode is one of the best around for grabbing illuminated nighttime shots that look natural and maintain surprising detail in the process. You can even snap shots of the stars thanks to the Pixel 4a’s astrophotography mode, which combines several long-exposure shots over the course of a few minutes. Be sure to grab a tripod for that one.
The downside here, however, is that you don’t have additional rear cameras alongside for optical zoom telephoto shots or ultra-wide landscapes. The Pixel 4a has a 2x digital zoom preset that doesn’t lose much detail in the process, thankfully, but anything past 2x will quickly show degradation. Even so, the one camera here is so consistent that I’d take it over the multi-camera modules of much more expensive phones with underwhelming cameras, such as the OnePlus 8T and Motorola Edge+.
The 3,140mAh battery pack here isn’t huge, but given the modest processing power and smaller-than-average 5.8-inch screen, it consistently delivers a solid full day of usage. After most days of using the phone at full brightness for emails, chatting in Slack, texting, reading the web, streaming music, and playing a little bit of games, I’d end the day with around 30-40 percent remaining on the charge. That’s comparable to the standard iPhone 12, although both the Pixel 4a 5G and Pixel 5 are even more resilient if you’re a heavier user. The Pixel 4a does not offer wireless charging.
Google’s flavor of Android is my favorite: it’s stock Android 11 with a smattering of extra perks—such as a Call Screen feature that’ll answer calls for you automatically, and then let you decide whether to jump in or not. It also has a large selection of fun, whimsical wallpapers, which I appreciate.
While other Android phone makers tend to “skin” Android for phones and add their own flourishes—which aren’t always improvements—Google keeps things clean, simple, and efficient. I suspect that’s a big part of how Android runs so solidly here despite modest hardware, at least compared to your average top-dollar flagship phone. You’re also promised three yearly upgrades. It shipped with Android 10 and has already been bumped up to Android 11, which means it should continue to be upgraded until Android 13 comes along.
While there are pricier phones with more intriguing designs, faster processors, 5G capabilities, and camera perks, the Pixel 4a represents an incredible bargain at just $349.
At $349, there is no better value in smartphones today. The Pixel 4a gives you a fully capable phone with enough speed to handle varying demands, good battery life, a great screen, and a top-tier camera. My personal everyday phone, the iPhone 12 Pro Max, costs three times as much and packs in a bunch of additional perks, including a flashier design, a more versatile camera array, and full 5G support. But after switching to the Pixel 4a for this review, I realized I really wasn’t missing anything. I still felt fully equipped with this little guy in my pocket.
Released a couple months later, the Google Pixel 4a 5G is a larger and slightly more powerful phone that sells for $499. It has a 6.2-inch display and a marginally faster processor, as previously mentioned, plus it adds an ultrawide back camera alongside the main sensor. And as the name suggests, it also has support for the sub-6Ghz version of 5G connectivity that is most prevalent among US carriers as of this writing. If money is not a primary consideration, the Pixel 4a 5G offers more perks for a fairly small amount of extra cash. But the Pixel 4a doesn’t feel under-equipped by comparison.
Still need some more time before making a decision? See our guide to the best android smartphones.
On a budget? Pick this Pixel.
While there are pricier phones with more intriguing designs, faster processors, 5G capabilities, and camera perks, the Pixel 4a represents an incredible bargain at just $349. It lacks some of those aforementioned bonuses, but doesn’t have any major weaknesses or feel like it’s missing anything essential. The Pixel 4a has everything that an average user needs from a smartphone right now and little more. I’d recommend it to just about anyone.
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