Google Pixel 4a 5G Hands-on: Big Pixel experience on a budget

Despite a lack of high-end features, the 4a 5G feels like a remarkably good phone

If you find yourself confused by Google’s 2020 Pixel lineup, you’re not alone.

Thanks to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and some behind-the-scenes decisions made by Google, three Pixel phones launched in late summer and fall, covering several product tiers. There’s the budget Pixel 4a, which offers almost the full Pixel experience without a large price tag. There’s the Pixel 5, the company’s flagship phone that isn’t quite a flagship thanks to some arguably mid-range parts.

Then, there’s the Pixel 4a 5G, which splits the difference between the lowest- and highest-priced Pixel phones available this year. At $679 in Canada, the 4a 5G is $200 more than the 4a and $120 less than the 5.

From my initial time with the phone, I’ve felt the 4a 5G leans closer to the Pixel 5 in specs and features than to the 4a, so I’d argue the pricing makes sense. The real question is whether the Pixel 5 justifies the extra $120, or if most people can pick up the 4a 5G and not miss out on anything — something I hope to answer in the full review in the coming weeks.

Specs

The Pixel 5 XL that wasn’t

When I first pulled the 4a 5G out of the box, I had two thoughts. I was coming from using the Pixel 4a, so my first thought was that the 4a 5G was big. Pictures and spec sheets likely won’t do the size justice. At 5.8-inches, the Pixel 4a doesn’t seem like it’d be that small. Likewise, the 6.2-inch screen on the Pixel 4a 5G doesn’t seem like it’d be significantly bigger, but the phone feels massive in my hand.

I’ve always been a fan of smaller phones, although not necessarily smaller screens. The move towards low-bezel displays over the last few years produced what I consider to be perfectly sized phones offering screens around six inches big without making the whole phone unwieldy. The two biggest Google phones I’ve owned were the Nexus 6P with a 5.7-inch screen and the Pixel 2 XL with a 6-inch display. The Pixel 4a 5G feels a lot like the 2 XL in my hands, but sports a larger display in an ever-so-slightly smaller body.

The other thing that struck me was that the Pixel 4a 5G felt incredibly sturdy. Part of that is weight — the 4a weighed in at 143g compared to the 4a 5G’s 168g. I praised the 4a for being light and comfortable to hold, and I don’t think the 4a 5G is significantly heavier, but it does feel more substantial in my hand. The 4a 5G also has a polycarbonate body like the 4a, albeit with a soft-touch finish that feels slightly nicer than the 4a but really isn’t much different.

I bring these things up because these little things work together to make the 4a 5G feel decidedly more premium than the Pixel 4a. I imagine the Pixel 5 is even a step above the 4a 5G thanks to its aluminum chassis and bio-resin finish.

The difference is a pleasant surprise since I had expected the 4a 5G to simply be a 4a with a 5G modem and nothing more. However, the larger, more premium 4a 5G feels like a Pixel 5 XL with some extras removed to keep costs down rather than a budget Pixel with an amped-up modem.

Snappy quick with the classic Pixel feel

The more premium feel extends to the 4a 5G’s internals as well. The smartphone has so far handled everything I’ve tossed at it without issue, whether that’s some light gaming, browsing social media or navigating while I’m driving. I haven’t spent enough time with the 4a 5G to make a concrete judgment on performance, but initial impressions suggest the device is plenty capable.

That said, I also haven’t noticed a huge improvement over the Pixel 4a, which includes a Snapdragon 730G processor. Benchmarks may show greater performance, but in day-to-day use, the 4a 5G didn’t seem to open apps or load content significantly faster. Granted, I felt the same way about the Pixel 4a compared to the more powerful 800-series processor in the Pixel 4, so it’s possible I haven’t done anything on the phones to really test the capabilities of the processors.

One area the Pixel 4a 5G does show some promise is battery life. The 4a 5G sport a 3,885mAh battery, the largest since the Pixel 2 XL’s 3,520mAh cell (and second-biggest compared to the Pixel 5’s 4,080mAh battery). Again, I’ve not yet had enough time with the 4a 5G to really put it through its paces, but combined with a 1080 x 2340 pixel resolution display, the 4a 5G has some of the best battery life in a Pixel I’ve ever seen. It gives me high hopes for the Pixel 4a 5G and alone could be reason enough for some to upgrade.

A good first impression

While there’s a lot more to dig into with the 4a 5G — camera tweaks, new software and more — the 4a 5G has left me with a good first impression. It’s a great-looking phone, feels fantastic in my hand and offers a large display and reliable performance for a very reasonable price. Plus, for those who don’t want to upgrade their phone often, it should be fairly future proof thanks to its 5G support (assuming Canadian carriers can get 5G more widely available in the next few years).

Although this year’s Pixel lineup may seem confusing at first, I think Google’s new phones offer several practical benefits, if not many reasons to justify an upgrade. By that, I mean the Pixel 4a 5G strikes me as not doing anything particularly new or exciting. The phone lacks arguably ‘staple’ high-end features like wireless charging, a telephoto lens, a high refresh rate screen and face unlock. And yet, despite not offering these things, the 4a 5G remains a remarkably good phone at a very excellent price.

I’ll have much more to say in the full review, so stay tuned to MobileSyrup for more on the Pixel 4a 5G in the coming weeks. The 4a 5G will cost $679 outright in Canada when it becomes available on November 19th. For now, those interested in the 4a 5G can join a waiting list on Google’s website.

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