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Google Pixel 4a revisited: The good and bad six months later
Although the Google Pixel 4a arrived very late to the party last year, it was still a massive critical success. Across the board, critics and buyers loved the phone for delivering a solid set of basic specs for an extremely reasonable price of just $349. In our original Google Pixel 4a review, we called it Google’s best phone in years and it came third in our Editor’s Choice award for the best smartphone of 2020.
Check it out: The original Android Authority review of the Pixel 4a
All that happened back in August. Six months later, the smartphone landscape looks a bit different. Since then, we’ve seen a whole swath of new iPhones, the launch of the unexpectedly-less-expensive Samsung Galaxy S21 series, and plenty of announcements and rumors of phones coming down the pipeline soon. With all that in mind, is the Pixel 4a still worth considering?
That’s what this “revisited” series is all about. Over the span of four days this month, I used the Pixel 4a as my daily driver. Below, you’ll find the things I loved about the phone — as well as the things I wished were different. This is the Google Pixel 4a review revisited.
Because the Pixel 4a is a Pixel, there are certain things about it that need to be great. The two big boys are the software and the rear camera. Because this is an “a” series phone, it also needs to be priced to move. Unsurprisingly, those are the three aspects of this phone that shine brightest. However, what’s notable is just how brightly those aspects shine with the Pixel 4a.
With few minor exceptions, the software experience on the Google Pixel 4a is the same as you’d get on a more premium Pixel. That includes the Google Pixel 5, which is twice as expensive. While this doesn’t sound too notable, I constantly said, “oh wow, that feature is here,” to myself during my time with this phone.
As an example, Google’s absolutely incredible Call Screen feature is available with the Pixel 4a (in the US, at least). This Google Assistant-powered perk handles any call for you that comes from an unknown number. It answers the call and provides a transcript of what’s said so you can then call back or mark the call as spam. I get a lot of spam calls about car warranties (even though I don’t own a car!), so this was amazing. I have 2020 phones in my arsenal that cost over $1,200 and have nothing that comes close to the convenience of this feature.
Related: Google Pixel phones: A history of every phone launched so far
Likewise, other Pixel-exclusive staples are here, such as Smart Reply, Live Caption, Overview Selection, etc. There’s also no bloatware to speak of and you can easily chat directly with a Google support rep through Settings if you ever have any questions or issues.
Obviously, since this is a Pixel it also gets the latest security patches and Android upgrades on day one. This is especially notable because there are many 2020 flagship phones from multiple brands still on Android 10. It’ll also be supported with patches and upgrades until 2023, which gets you to Android 14. Once again, this is something that everyone knows Pixel phones do — but this phone is only $349. It’s totally amazing that its software experience surpasses $1,000+ flagships, and I think it’s important that we not treat that as a minor thing.
There was a time when the rear camera even on the Google Pixel 3a could go up against most flagships. Even though the Pixel 4a’s camera hardware is anemic compared to other phones, Google’s unbelievable software does most of the heavy lifting. That’s kept Pixel phones at the top for years.
However, that’s changing. Sensors in competitor phones are getting bigger and bigger, while Google’s are pretty much the same. What’s more, other companies — especially Samsung — are catching up to Google in the software department. This is a real problem for Google.
Opinion: It’s time Google updated Pixel camera hardware to match its stellar software
That all being said, the Google Pixel 4a can still hold its own. Check out this shot comparing the same image from a Pixel 4a with a Samsung Galaxy S21.
Now, in my eyes, the Galaxy S21 image is aesthetically better. I like Samsung’s color saturation, even if it’s a bit pushed. That being said, the Pixel 4a image is more realistic and still looks great. The level of detail on my cat Luther’s fur is notable for this camera.
These two images are very close in quality. Once again, the Samsung color profile makes the image pop a whole lot more than Google’s more neutral tone, but both look great with plenty of detail.
This one shows how Google is struggling, though:
The Pixel 4a image looks grayer with a weird haze, while the Galaxy S21 image looks stunning. Google’s software is incredible, no doubt about it, but it can only take the mediocre hardware of the Pixel 4a so far. The bottom line here, though, is that the Pixel 4a’s rear camera can stand up just fine against the Galaxy S21’s — and the Pixel 4a costs half as much.
I’ve already hammered home how cheap this phone is. At $349, some of its competitors are unremarkable budget devices that land on second-tier carriers at dirt-cheap prices. The Google Pixel 4a trounces them in every regard.
I really want to emphasize, though, that during my time working on this revisited Google Pixel 4a review, it never felt like I was using a cheap phone. Sure, the Pixel 4a doesn’t look or feel like a $1,200 flagship, but it certainly isn’t as bad as some other phones I’ve used in this price category. Design-wise, there are only a few subtle differences between this phone and the Pixel 5. They are nearly the same size with a similar design aesthetic. Sure, the Pixel 5 has a much cooler back panel, a better display, an IP rating, etc., but it’s not like these phones don’t share the same DNA.
See also: How the prices of Pixel phones changed over the years
For everything you get, $349 isn’t just a great price — it’s a steal. Obviously, you’ll need to make some sacrifices for it (see the next section for more on this), but there aren’t many phones out there that can compete with this one when it comes to value, especially in the US where budget phones are mostly uninspiring fare.
Dollar-for-dollar, the Pixel 4a is the absolute king of practicality — even in 2021.
The not so good
The “a” series from Google has a very specific purpose: to offer the essentials of the Pixel experience while eliminating all the frills to keep the price as low as possible. In that sense, it’s very difficult to complain about features missing from the phone. As such, I’m going to focus on the things that are here but should be better.
On the front of the Pixel 4a you’ll find an 8MP selfie shooter. Just like with the rear camera, the sensor underneath is basically the same as the one on the Pixel 3a from 2019. Once again, Google is relying on software to make selfie images look good.
However, the hardware limitations of the selfie camera force Google’s software to do more heavy lifting than usual. Even under the best of circumstances, it can buckle under pressure.
Above, you can see a selfie I took in front of a window on a cloudy afternoon. With the Pixel 4a, Google’s algorithms bend over backward to make the colors more vibrant. It also works hard to drop the bright window lights to avoid the photo getting overexposed. The result is a great-looking image.
However, when you compare that to the same image from a Galaxy S21, you quickly see the limitations of the selfie camera hardware. The Pixel 4a’s image is lacking when it comes to detail — pay attention to how different my lips look in both photos. Also, look at how my heathered sweater becomes globulous in certain areas, while each strand is clear in the Samsung image.
What’s crazy is that the Pixel 4a selfie would probably look better than the Galaxy S21’s to the average person. But once you point out the deficiencies, it’s hard to unsee them.
Here’s a video example. I noticed Google’s destruction of details when I was doing my daily Story for the Android Authority Instagram page (view fullscreen for best effect):
Once again, Google’s software does an incredible job of pushing the mediocre camera hardware of the Pixel 4a to the limit. But, in exchange, we get a noisy image that falls apart once you start scrutinizing it.
I will absolutely concede that, for $349, the Pixel 4a’s front camera really delivers. However, the examples above show the sacrifices you’ll make for that low price.
Inside the Google Pixel 4a lives a Qualcomm Snapdragon 730G chipset. Paired with it, you’ll find a very respectable 6GB of RAM and 128GB of UFS 2.1 storage. This is more than enough power to give you reliable performance during your everyday tasks.
Related: What is an SoC? Everything you need to know about the silicon powering your phone
However, during my time with this phone, I could absolutely tell I wasn’t seeing high-end performance. When I first booted up the phone and started sweeping through the Google Play Store downloading my necessary apps, it took a lot longer to do so than other, more powerful phones I’ve used. With a bunch of apps open in the background, the phone started to lag a bit here and there. I don’t do much mobile gaming, but judging from our benchmarks, I am sure I would have seen plenty of issues there, too.
The point is that although the performance you’ll see from this phone will absolutely match the price you pay for it, that doesn’t mean it’s awesome. It’s not. Yes, it will get the job done and your average smartphone tasks will go just fine. But have no illusions: this is not a phone for power users.
Pixel phones have historically been mediocre when it comes to battery life. Considering the Pixel 4a has a pretty small 3,140mAh cell inside, it should be of little surprise that this phone is not a two-day device. Like with our original review period, I saw about six hours of screen-on-time during this revisited Google Pixel 4a review.
Now, that’s not bad. It’s not great, but it’s certainly not bad. If you’re a light-to-moderate user and at home on Wi-Fi a lot, you could probably stretch this to be a two-day phone. However, that would need to be under the most ideal set of circumstances. If you use your phone a lot and live in an area where it’s safe to venture outside, you should anticipate needing to put this phone on a charger at bedtime.
Buyer’s guide: The best portable chargers and power banks
When you do put it on a charger, you’re only going to get 18W of power delivery. It took me about 90 minutes to charge the phone from zero to full. Obviously, you’re not going to be able to wirelessly charge this phone, either.
All of this is perfectly adequate for a $349 phone. The issue is that battery longevity and the ability to quickly charge your phone are fast becoming integral features for the modern buyer. Google can get away with these power deficiencies for now. But if you bought this phone today and planned on keeping it for two years, by this time in 2023, this phone would feel ancient when it comes to the battery. That’s a shame and something you need to keep in mind.
Google Pixel 4a review revisited: The verdict
It would be quite easy to talk about all the things you don’t get with a Google Pixel 4a. The lack of wireless charging is a drag. A 60Hz refresh rate display might be too big of a sacrifice for some when rival devices like the OnePlus Nord hit 90Hz. No IP rating, no wide-angle or telephoto lens, no fast-charging, no 5G connectivity — the list goes on.
To harp on those things, though, is to miss the point. This is a phone that gets the basics done for as low of a price as possible. At that level, it is a true achievement and, in my opinion, absolutely still worth buying.
Is the Google Pixel 4a still a good buy 6 months later?
In fact, the only thing that would cause me to not recommend this phone is the expected Pixel 5a. Although the Pixel 4a didn’t land until August last year, it was supposed to come much earlier than that. It’s possible a Pixel 5a could land in the first half of 2021. And, if Google sticks with its strategy, it will probably best the Pixel 4a in numerous ways while keeping the price mostly the same.
My advice is this: if you need a phone ASAP and the Pixel 4a seems like a good fit, don’t hesitate to buy it. You will be happy. If you don’t need a phone right this second, though, I would wait for the Pixel 5a. If the jump in quality/specs from the Pixel 4a to the Pixel 5a is anything like the jump from the Pixel 3a to the Pixel 4a, the Pixel 5a will be something truly special.
What do you think? Is the Google Pixel 4a still worth it in 2021? Would you rather wait for the expected Pixel 5a? Answer our poll above!