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Google Pixel 4a review: Google's best budget phone in years
Google Pixel 4a
What we like
What we don't like
The 2019 Google Pixel 3a was an accessible portal to the Pixel experience. It represented a way for people to try Google’s vision for Android without breaking the bank — something that hasn’t been possible since Google dumped the Nexus line for the more premium Pixel series in 2016.
The Pixel 4a served as an evolution of that vision in 2020. With the Pixel 4a, Google finally figured out how to mix the best aspects of Nexus and Pixel into one device. Its hardware is minimalistic and straightforward, but each component helps make Google’s killer software even better. With great build quality, a fantastic screen, signature cameras, and one of the best software experiences on any Android phone, the Pixel 4a locked down its place as our third-best smartphone of 2020.
But with so much great competition available on the market right now, does the Pixel 4a still stack up? Find out in the Android Authority Google Pixel 4a review.
Update, November 2021: Added references and comparisons to the Google Pixel 5a with 5G. Also added information on Android 12 and Material You.
Design and display: Punching above its weight
- 144 x 69.4 x 8.2mm, 143g
- Polycarbonate design with a matte finish
- Stereo speakers
- Headphone jack
- 5.81-in. OLED with punch-hole
- 2,340 x 1,080
- 19.5:9 aspect ratio
- Rear-mounted fingerprint reader
The design of the Pixel 4a is leaps and bounds better than that of the Pixel 3a. Both phones are plastic, but Google gave the Pixel 4a a matte texture that makes it feel much nicer and less slippery than its predecessor. Google also removed the two-tone design, choosing a uniform polycarbonate shell instead. I’m a huge fan of the new design and finish. They make the phone feel more premium than its decidedly mid-range predecessor.
Google carried over the rear-mounted fingerprint reader of the Pixel 3a. Color me a fan. The 3a had a fairly deep divot with a different finish on the fingerprint reader itself. Google made the Pixel 4a’s fingerprint reader blend in better with the body. Both the reader and the rear shell have the same matte texture and black color, and the back of the phone even curves inward towards the reader to make it feel more cohesive.
Up and to the left from the fingerprint reader, you’ll find the rear camera. The camera design of the Pixel 4a is similar to the Pixel 4 series, using a rounded square that matches its more expensive siblings. Unlike the Pixel 4, though, the Pixel 4a has a single rear camera accompanied by a flash.
The sides of the phone aren’t a separate material as we saw on the Pixel 4. Instead, the polycarbonate back wraps around the edges to make a single shell. The left side houses the SIM card tray, and the right side mounts the volume rockers and a turquoise power button — a fun feature Google tends to add to Pixel phones. The bottom includes the USB-C port and speaker, and on the top, you’ll find a headphone jack.
The screen is a 5.81-inch, Full HD+ OLED panel, and it looks fantastic. Seriously, this is one of the best displays we’ve seen on a budget device. The Gorilla Glass 3-covered screen gets quite bright, maxing out at about 719 nits in our testing. The color balance was among the most accurate we tested in 2020. It’s clear Google learned how to make a good display.
A punch-hole in the top left houses the front-facing camera, which allowed Google to make the Pixel 4a nearly bezel-less — a significant shift from the Pixel 3a’s big-bezel design. This makes the phone more compact to hold and reduces its overall footprint compared to the Pixel 3a. It also helps the phone look quite modern, which is appreciated in a budget phone.
This screen is better than most flagships this year. That's impressive.
Google only made one 4G version of this device, but the Pixel 4a 5G serves as a close XL replacement with a few extras on board. I love small phones, and the Pixel 4a is quite a bit smaller than your average smartphone. Its overall footprint is just slightly larger than the iPhone SE, but the lack of bezels makes its usable screen size much more considerable. I love it.
Overall, the Pixel 4a’s unibody design and fantastic display make it feel like a tiny portal to the Pixel experience. The chassis is simple with purpose. Google is a software company, and the simplicity of the Pixel 4a’s design helps you access that software. Google isn’t worried about flashy colors and designs — something the Pixel 4a showcases quite clearly. That said, there is a Barely Blue colorway that stands out a little more than the basic Just Black model.
Performance and battery: Nearly seamless
- Qualcomm Snapdragon 730G
- Adreno 618
- 6GB RAM
- 128GB storage
- 3,140mAh battery
- 18W Charging
- No wireless charging
- No microSD card expansion
A big reason Google was able to make the Pixel 4a so affordable was the decision to use the Qualcomm Snapdragon 730G processor instead of something more expensive like the Snapdragon 765G, which powers the Pixel 4a 5G and Pixel 5. The 730G is much less powerful than Qualcomm’s flagship chips, so don’t expect it to fly through games. However, in daily use, I experienced zero issues with performance, no hiccups, no stuttering. This is pretty surprising to me personally and — to an extent— supports the idea that mid-range processors are perfectly adequate if you don’t need to do anything intensive on your phone.
The 6GB of RAM likely helped. The Pixel 3a was criticized for its measly 4GB of RAM. It often kicked active apps out of memory to make room for new ones. 6GB of RAM is the ideal minimum for an Android device. It’s nice that Google has been listening and maintained the same amount of RAM as the Pixel 4 series.
The 128GB of storage was also a pleasant surprise. Considering the more expensive Pixel 4 starts at 64GB of storage, it’s striking that Google would give the Pixel 4a more. It’s nice to see, especially since I like to store my entire music library locally alongside a variety of videos.
In benchmarks, the Pixel 4a didn’t perform exceptionally well, but that’s to be expected. For example, the Pixel 4a scored significantly lower than the OnePlus Nord, but this performance difference is due to the lesser chip in the Pixel 4a. In casual use, I didn’t notice a difference.
Battery life on the Pixel 4a was good in daily use, though not incredible. I got an average of 6.5 hours of screen-on time most days, resulting in over a full day of use. This was nice to see, considering the Pixel 4 series had some of the worst battery life we’ve seen in a long time. The lower-powered Snapdragon 730G played a role here, alongside the larger 3,140mAh battery. If you really want exemplary battery life on a Pixel, check out the Pixel 4a 5G.
The Pixel 4a took 87 minutes to charge to full on the included 18W charger. This result is squarely in the middle of the road compared to other budget devices. Unfortunately, Google opted to skip wireless charging in this device, though it’s a fair omission at this price point.
Camera: Classic Pixel
- Main: 12.2MP
- Dual-pixel phase detection
- OIS + EIS, 1.4μm pixel size
- ƒ/1.7 aperture, 77-degree field of view
- Selfie: 8MP
- 84-degree field of view
- ƒ/2.0 aperture
- 1.12μm pixel size
The Pixel 4a uses the same 12.2MP Sony IMX363 rear sensor as the Pixel 4, Pixel 3, and Pixel 3a. Google hasn’t changed camera hardware much, but its software has progressively made image output better. The Pixel 4a adopts features from the Pixel 4 series, such as Astrophotography Mode and the dual exposure sliders.
The Pixel 4a produced images similar to those of the Pixel 4 and Pixel 3a. Images had great color and dynamic range and maintained more contrast than other devices currently on the market. Many smartphone cameras will brighten shadows too much, which leads to a flat image without enough contour. The Pixel 4a adds just enough while maintaining shadow and highlight detail, leading to a very pleasing image.
The Pixel 4a looks fantastic with no zoom or crop, but pinch past 2x zoom, and the image quickly starts getting an unpleasant texture. Ultimately, though, I wouldn’t expect Google to use a larger sensor in a $350 device, and what you get here is extremely impressive for a phone that’s this affordable.
Since the Pixel 4a shares the same sensor with the Pixel 3a and Pixel 4, sharpness and contrast are generally the same, but the processing has changed slightly. The Pixel 4a produces images with better white balance, employing warmer tones and more balanced shadows. The Pixel 3a, in contrast, adds quite a bit of magenta to the shadows and produces greens that skew towards blue.
In comparison, the iPhone SE produced images similar to the Google Pixel 3a, with blue tones in the shadows. The iPhone SE certainly delivered more dynamic range than the Pixel 4a, but as I noted before, that’s not always a good thing. The iPhone seems to have raised the shadows quite a bit without much regard for contrast and contour, which makes the image look a bit washed out in comparison.
Just like on other Pixel devices, portrait mode is very good on the Pixel 4a, though it can get confused by — shall we say — messy hair. The phone will also crop to 2x in portrait mode to get a more pleasing image. This can lead to a slightly wormy image if you then crop the result.
Selfies on the Pixel 4a look pretty fantastic, even from an 8MP sensor. Images have great highlight retention and shadow detail.
Just like the Pixel 4, the Pixel 4a has access to both Night Sight and Astro Mode. It shows plenty of detail in the dark. Unfortunately, I had too much light pollution to test Astro Mode thoroughly, but Night Sight remained solid, bringing out quite a bit of detail in darker scenes. Of course, images aren’t perfectly crisp, but getting a super clear image with longer exposures isn’t easy.
Overall, images from the Pixel 4a are classic Google. That’s to say, they’ll look fantastic straight out of the camera in nearly any situation. Don’t expect any fancy bells and whistles, such as wide-angle or super-telephoto cameras. For a $350 phone, I’m more than happy with the results the Pixel 4a’s single-camera produced. This is easily one of the best budget camera phones you can buy.
Note that all the images above have been compressed to optimize page load times. If you’d like to see the photos in their full resolution, we have them available on Google Drive.
The Pixel 4a can shoot 4K video at up to 30fps and 1080p video at up to 60fps. In the video sample above, 4K video looks quite good with good stabilization, but it did tend to overexpose just a tad on a super bright day. If you’re in a more standard situation, the lighting looks much better.
Software: The best of Android
- Android 11 (updated to Android 12)
- Pixel Launcher
The Pixel 4a delivers some of the best software Android has to offer. Pixel UI is one of the smoothest and most simplistic on Android, with tight animations and UI elements. Maybe most importantly, the Pixel 4a has access to the many valuable features that are exclusive to Pixel devices. It also made an early jump to Android 11, and we always love a prompt update.
The Pixel 4a gives you the best Android experience. That's worth more than $350.
The Pixel 4a includes exclusive features such as the new Google Assistant, Call Screening, Now Playing, Google Recorder, and Google Camera. You can’t get these features on any other phone without rooting or sideloading APKs. Most of the AI features included in Pixel phones are actually helpful. I’m often sad to lose these features when I swap to another phone. That’s what makes the Pixel experience. Plus, you get more every once in a while in Pixel Feature Drops.
Now, the Pixel 4a has received its Android 12 update along with the rest of the Pixel family. It brings Material You customizations into the mix, with heaps of new widgets and color-matching app icons. You’ll also find a few additional features that Google launched with the Pixel 6 series. Read about all this and more in our Android 12 features roundup.
Another essential part of the Pixel software experience is that it guarantees software updates and support for at least three years. That means the Google Pixel 4a will receive Android 13 and will likely end up with Android 14 as well. Some Android smartphones are starting to receive longer support, but few can match this duration. This makes the Pixel devices some of your best options if you want to continuously upgrade to the latest version of Android. Moreover, owning a Pixel means you also have access to Android betas, if you’re into that kind of thing.
Google Pixel 4a specs
|Google Pixel 4a|
2,340 x 1,080 resolution
19.5:9 aspect ratio
Qualcomm Snapdragon 730G
No microSD slot
12.2MP f/1.8 sensor, 1.4µm pixels, 76-degree field-of-view, autofocus with dual-pixel phase detection, optical + electronic image stabilization
8MP sensor, f/2.0 aperture, 1.12µm pixels, fixed focus, 84-degree field-of-view
No wireless charging
No IP rating
Stereo speakers (one downward facing), Active Edge, USB Type-C, single nano-SIM
Dimensions and weight
151.3 x 70.1 x 8.2mm
Value and competition
- Google Pixel 4a: 6GB RAM, 128GB Storage — $350, £349, €349 in France and Ireland, €389 in Italy and Spain
At $350, it’s impossible to deny the value Google’s Pixel 4a brings to the market. Even over a year after its launch, it still offers one of the best experiences on Android in a uniquely compact package. Small phones are a dying breed, and getting a Pixel experience for half or even one-third the price of a modern flagship is an absolute steal. That said, there are a few phones in this price range you should be looking to for direct comparison.
Related: The best budget phones you can buy
The iPhone SE offers metal and glass build quality, wireless charging, and a flagship processor. It’s very difficult to deny the value that the phone brings, but the iPhone SE is missing the super-bright OLED display and headphone jack offered by the Pixel 4a. At $399, the iPhone SE probably represents the biggest toss-up between devices, but you’ll likely pick one over the other based on which ecosystem you prefer.
Pay a bit more in Europe, and you’re in the range of the OnePlus Nord 2. The Nord offers a much faster MediaTek Dimensity 1200 processor, a 90Hz AMOLED display, more RAM and storage, and faster 30W charging. For those in the US, there’s the OnePlus Nord N10 which isn’t anywhere near as impressive but does offer 5G capabilities.
At the same €349, the Poco F3 is one hell of a device for the money. It offers the flagship Qualcomm Snapdragon 870 processor, a big battery, and fast charging. The software will undoubtedly take some getting used to, and we encountered lamentable bugs during our testing, but the hardware experience is truly top-notch.
You might also consider the Pixel 5a ($449) for its extra features, including a faster processor, additional cameras, and an official IP rating. The Pixel 5a also packs a larger display and the largest battery of any A series Pixel device.
For more comparisons, be sure to check out our dedicated Vs posts below.
Google Pixel 4a review: The verdict
The Google Pixel 4a doesn’t have a 120Hz display. It doesn’t have the latest Snapdragon processor or multiple rear cameras, but with the Pixel 4a, none of that matters. The Pixel 4a is an affordable way to access one of the best versions of Android, with support and features that you can only get from Google. That alone is worth more than the sum of its parts. Pair these with Google’s tight optimization that makes general performance on the Pixel 4a sing, and you’ve genuinely got the iPhone SE of Android.
So, should you buy a Pixel 4a? If you’re tired of big, expensive phones and want something compact that works and works well, there is no doubt the Pixel 4a is one of the best phones you can buy. Even over a year after launch, the Pixel 4a is a steal.