Google Pixel 4a review: A picture-perfect package
Google serves up another slice of budget brilliance
We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again; in this day and age, there’s simply no reason to spend more than £500 on a smartphone. While dropping the best part of a grand on the latest Samsung Galaxy may get you an array of flashy bells and whistles, the midrange market offers all the core functionality you could ever wish for - and in the case of the Google Pixel 4a, even more besides.
The Pixel 4a is the latest iteration of Google’s budget-friendly line, taking the mainstream Pixel 4 and trimming a bit of extra fat to make it easier on the wallet. What you’re left with at the end is a phone that has all of the Pixel 4’s most impressive features, with almost no drawbacks, and a much lower cost.
Google Pixel 4a review: Design
Unlike its higher-end progenitor, the 4a doesn’t opt for a glass-based design. Instead, it features a rounded shell constructed from polycarbonate. While this does have some drawbacks (which we’ll explore later) it’s undeniably attractive to look at, and sits pleasingly in the hand.
Unlike previous generations, the 4a is only available in the ‘Just Black’ colour scheme - with previous white and lilac options having been unceremoniously dumped - but fortunately, the classy and understated matte-black finish has always been our favourite option anyway. The rounded finish does make it slightly slipperier than the Pixel 4, but not so much as to be a dealbreaker. However, despite having the same 8.2mm thickness, it feels a little thinner than the Pixel 4, and weighs in at 143g, making it just a tad lighter.
In short, despite the price drop, this phone looks and feels every inch as premium as its bigger brother. Be warned, though - while the 4 uses Corning’s Gorilla Glass 5 to protect the screen, this only includes Gorilla Glass 3, so you may wish to invest in a screen protector for extra safety.
Google Pixel 4a review: Display
Another area where the 4a goes one better than the 4 is its display, which has been expanded into an edge-to-edge panel, complete with hole-punch camera cut-out. This pouches the screen size from 5.7in to 5.81in, and the effect is surprisingly striking. It’s reminiscent of much more expensive phones, like Samsung’s recently-released Galaxy Note 20.
The display itself is only 1080p, but that’s not much of a hindrance on a screen this size, and it’s fully capable from a technical standpoint. The AMOLED panel delivers perfect contrast, and a 93.7% coverage of the sRGB gamut is outstanding for a phone this cheap - as is its average Delta E rating of 1.05. The 437cd/m2 brightness is similarly good; not topping any charts, but certainly respectable.
It also supports the HDR standard, although the actual results when watching HDR content aren’t quite as impressive as we’d hoped.
Google Pixel 4a review: Specs and performance
As you’d expect from a more affordable phone, the 4a isn’t packing the Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 chip that you’d expect to find in a premium flagship device. Instead, it uses the cheaper and less powerful Snapdragon 730G. This doesn’t hold it back as much as you might think, though.
Looking at its Geekbench 5 scores (552 and 1,591 for single- and multi-core operations, respectively), you may be tempted to assume that it’s a bit weedy. However, although it’s lagging a fair bit behind the likes of the Samsung Galaxy S20 and the original Pixel 4, the 4a doesn’t feel remotely sluggish in practice. There’s nothing the average business user will be doing with it that’s likely to cause any serious struggles in terms of speed or performance.
One handy benefit of using a lower-powered processor is that it’s much less taxing on the battery, which results in a massive improvement in usability. While the Pixel 4 managed a rather dire 12hrs 7mins in our standard battery tests, the 4a racked up a comparatively whopping time of 18hrs 43mins - an improvement of more than six hours.
It’s still not quite as impressive as some of the most efficient devices we’ve seen, but this result puts it on even footing with the vast majority of modern flagships. It also ran rings around this year’s iPhone SE. On top of that, it’s also compatible with Google’s Quick Charge technology for rapid fill-ups - although the polycarbonate shell means it lacks the Pixel 4’s wireless charging.
Google Pixel 4a review: Camera
Another Pixel 4 feature that its cheaper cousin lacks is a second rear camera lens, despite having a similar-looking square module. Like the first three generations, the 4a sports a single snapper, but don’t be discouraged; thanks to Google’s software wizardry, it’s just as good as twin-lensed devices. Portrait mode and Night Sight are particular highlights, with the former producing crisp, evenly-lit and expertly bokeh-ed pictures, and the latter serving up clear and noise-free low-light shots.
The lack of a zoom lens also doesn’t prove as much of an issue as you might think, thanks once again to Google magic - this time in the form of the Super Res Zoom feature, which pulls off digital zoom better than most other examples we’ve seen. It’s easily a match for any other smartphone at this price point, and can comfortably compete with the likes of Apple’s iPhone 11 range.
Google Pixel 4a review: Features
As you’d expect from a device more aimed towards the budget end of the spectrum, there’s a distinct lack of additional bells and whistles with the 4a. That means no official water resistance rating and no microSD card slot for memory expansion. This current version also lacks any 5G support, although a 5G-enabled model will be launching later in the year alongside the Pixel 5.
What it lacks in hardware capabilities, however, is more than made up for by Google’s excellent software. This is where the Pixel series really shines, and it’s as impressive here as it is on the main-line devices. The highlight is the customised Pixel launcher, which puts a slicker and more appealing skin over the standard Android 10 experience.
By default, it uses a gesture-based navigation system; we find this to be a little confusing and unintuitive to operate, but thankfully you can switch it back to the more familiar and comfortable three-button navigation in the settings. Here you’ll also find options to measure screen time and set app usage limits, control power management, and more.
Various Google Assistant integrations are built directly into the device too, such as Gmail’s Smart Compose feature, an AI-powered suggested apps shelf and a host of other clever tweaks.
One significant difference between this device and the Pixel 4 is that the 4a uses a rear-mounted fingerprint sensor (like the 3a before it) rather than the newer facial recognition unlocking seen in the Pixel 4. Whether this is a positive or a negative likely depends on your own preferences, but for what it’s worth, the fingerprint reader ever-so-slightly edges it in our view.
Google Pixel 4a review: Verdict
As soon as Google introduced its cheaper a-series variants with the Pixel 3a, it immediately became one of our favourite options - not just for those seeking an affordable mid-range handset, but overall. While technically not as powerful or as feature-packed as flashier handsets boasting £1,000-plus price tags, the a-series does pack a punch. In particular, what the a-series delivers is the best of Google’s industry-leading software engineering and image processing technology at a much more attractive price than the mainstream Pixel series - and with a better battery life, to boot.
We’re happy to report that the Pixel 4a continues this tradition, offering not just one of the best-value smartphone experiences around, but one of the most pleasant overall. There are one or two minor niggles - the lack of wireless charging is occasionally frustrating, the display’s HDR support is underwhelming and this version has no 5G support - but these qualms pale into insignificance when you consider the sub-£300 price.
The Pixel 4a is the perfect package; a smart shell containing a quality camera, intuitive user interfaces and a belter of a battery, all offered at a preposterously penny-saving price.
Google Pixel 4a specifications
Octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 730 (2x2.2Ghz, 6x1.8GHz)
2,340 x 1,080
Dust and water resistance
3.5mm headphone jack
USB connection type
Memory card slot (supplied)
144 x 69 x 8.2 mm