Pixel 4a 5G Review: Everything you need, nothing you don’t

Google distilled the core Pixel experience into an affordable device with no distractions

The Pros

  • Fantastic value
  • Solid photography chops
  • Excellent battery life

The Cons

  • Telephoto camera would be better than ultra-wide
  • Display isn't the brightest
  • Benefits of 5G still a long way off

I’m convinced that Google’s Pixel strategy this year was the right move for the company despite all the drawbacks that it brought to the smartphone line.

Coming off Apple’s iPhone 12 event, where it launched four new premium devices, I find myself wondering why. Yes, it’s an apples-to-oranges comparison, but I don’t think the iPhone 12 does enough to justify its price tag. In fact, most 2020 flagship phones don’t.

Looking at the specs, I’d say the iPhone 12 (not the Pro models or the mini) is very comparable to Google’s new Pixel 4a 5G. 6.1-inch display to the Pixel’s 6.2-inch, two rear cameras, one a regular shooter and the other an ultra-wide. And of course, one runs iOS and the other Android.

There are minor differences in the numbers, sure, and the iPhone 12’s A14 crushes the 4a 5G’s Snapdragon 765G in benchmarks. Despite all the differences, I think these two devices are more similar than they are different, and the differences aren’t enough to justify the extra $450 you’d pay for the iPhone 12.

Further, my colleague Dean Daley and I wrote a piece examining the Pixel 5’s shortcomings and whether they’d matter in the long run. The comments on that article indicate that many people are excited for the Pixel 5, even if it may not be their phone of choice because the value is excellent. Several of the arguments Dean and I made in that article apply to the Pixel 4a 5G as well.

In short, Google’s 2020 Pixels ‘trim the fat.’ The company managed to distill everything Pixel into less expensive but still incredibly capable devices. The Pixel 4a 5G is all most people will ever need from their smartphone, and at $679, it’s more affordable than just about anything else out there.

Specs

Don’t let the numbers fool you

I want to pause here for a moment to say that most people who follow tech closely will read the specs and find themselves disappointed. I’m also a little disappointed.

However, these numbers don’t come close to the experience of actually using the Pixel 4a 5G. Google wanted to make Pixel devices that focused on the essential features that would allow the phones to both be affordable and also helpful to their owners.

That’s why expensive functionality like the Soli sensor and face unlock didn’t return on any Pixel this year. Google chose to use its tried-and-true Pixel Imprint rear-mounted fingerprint scanner instead to balance cost and value. Having used the 4a 5G for over a week now, I’d say that these trade-offs are worth it for most people.

“I think the $200 jump from the 4a to the 4a 5G is much more reasonable than the $120 from the 4a 5G to the Pixel 5…”

The other important thing to note here is that in the areas that matter, the 4a 5G has almost feature parity with the Pixel 5 despite being $120 cheaper than Google’s flagship. I mention this because I think the 4a 5G offers the best of the three 2020 Pixels. It has a bigger display and battery and a better camera and processor than the budget 4a.

But it doesn’t have as big a battery as the Pixel 5, and lacks some other minor upgrades like wireless charging and a high refresh rate display. In the grand scheme of things, I think the $200 jump from the 4a to the 4a 5G is much more reasonable than the $120 from the 4a 5G to the Pixel 5 based solely on what you actually get for the money you pay.

Benchmark smenchmark

When it comes to performance, the Snapdragon 765G and 6GB of RAM will be more than enough for most people, with a few exceptions. Sure, the 8GB in the Pixel 5 will be better, but I doubt most people will notice the extra 2GB.

I didn’t encounter any hiccups throughout my daily use, which involves scrolling social media and websites, texting friends, checking emails, listening to music or podcasts, and watching videos on Netflix or YouTube. In fact, the 4a 5G was never noticeably slower than the Pixel 4, despite the Pixel 4 scoring higher in benchmarks.

From left to right: Pixel 4a 5G, Pixel 5, Pixel 4a, Pixel 4, Pixel 3

Both myself and others at MobileSyrup often say that we don’t put much stock in benchmarks and, in the case of the 2020 Pixels, that’s even more true. I ran the Geekbench CPU benchmark on the Pixel 4a 5G, 5, 4a, 4 and Pixel 3. The Pixel 4’s Snapdragon 855 scored the best both in single-core and multi-core — a hypothetical Pixel (a Pixel Ultra, if you will) with this year’s 865 would score even higher. The Pixel 3 came in second for multi-core, but last for single-core. The 4a 5G was second best in single-core and third in multi-core while the 4a was the worst in multi-core and not too far behind the 4a 5G in single-core.

And yet, in day-to-day use, they all felt about the same with the most noticeable difference to me being the Pixel 4’s 90Hz display making animations look smoother.

I briefly addressed this in my Pixel 4a review and I’ll reiterate now that for the tasks most people do on their smartphone, high-end chipsets just aren’t necessary. Think about the apps you use most on your phone right now. Chances are, those are social media apps, maybe a messaging app or two, an email app and something to watch videos. Perhaps you play a couple of games as well. The 765G handles all of that without issue.

Completely capable

When it comes to gaming, some higher-end titles will no doubt benefit from the extra power of the Snapdragon 800-series chipsets. Honestly though, when it comes to smartphone gaming, higher frame rates or better visuals probably won’t make a huge difference because on a screen that small, you won’t even notice.

As a test, I tried out a relatively new game called Genshin Impact (yes, I know what you’re thinking. It’s actually a fun casual game if you don’t get wrapped up in the micro-transaction nonsense, but my thoughts on the game are for another time).

“Suffice it to say that the hardware in the Pixel 4a 5G will likely handle almost everything you throw at it well..”

What struck me about Genshin was that it looked great and was available on both PC — where I normally game — and mobile. I’ve tried it out on a couple devices and while I think the visual fidelity was better when tested on an iPhone, the game is more than playable on the Pixel 4a 5G. Plus, it still looks great.

Playing on mobile pales compared to how the game looks on PC, but it’s still fun to hop on and plink away at different quests or daily goals from any device.

Suffice it to say that the hardware in the Pixel 4a 5G will likely handle almost everything you throw at it well and unless you’re a hardcore gamer looking for the ultimate performance on your phone, the 765G won’t matter.

Solid display could use a brightness boost

Google equipped the Pixel 4a 5G with what I would argue is an almost perfect display. Some will bemoan the lack of a high-res panel — the 4a 5G measures in at 1080 x 2340 pixels, or 413 PPI. While the 4a 5G has the lowest PPI of the three 2020 Pixels — each phone has the same resolution, but a different display size — it’s still high enough that at a regular viewing distance, you can’t see the individual pixels.

While higher resolutions are nice, at a certain point, it becomes more about the number than the actual benefit to consumers. There are Full HD (FHD) and FHD+ groups, which refer to resolutions of 1080p or, in the case of FHD+, screens with greater than 1920 x 1080 pixel resolutions like the Pixel 4a 5G but that don’t extend into Quad HD (QHD), or 2560 x 1440 pixel territory. For most people, FHD and FHD+ will look fine, and many can’t tell the difference with higher resolutions unless they hold the phone closer to their face than they would in typical use.

For example, when I reviewed the Pixel 4a I pointed out that the screen had almost as many pixels as my 25-inch computer monitor (2340 x 1080 on the phone to 2560 x 1080 on the monitor). The same is true with the 4a 5G, and while I can make out the Pixels on my monitor if I lean in a bit, the same isn’t true on the much smaller smartphone.

Resolution aside, the only real issues with the display are fairly minor. On the one hand, I really would have liked to see the Pixel 4’s 90Hz display return on the 4a 5G. Its absence is understandable considering the 4a 5G is meant to be a more affordable option and in most cases, I don’t think anyone will miss it — especially if you come from an older 60Hz device.

Despite wanting to see 90Hz on the phone, I don’t think that feature justifies the extra cost of jumping to the Pixel 5. The 4a 5G strikes me as an ideal middle-ground option, but the extras on offer with the more expensive Pixel 5 don’t do enough to convince me that it’s worth getting over the 4a 5G.

My other gripe with the 4a 5G display is it seems pretty dim when used outside. Most phones struggle in sunlight, but the 4a 5G seemed to handle direct lighting worse than other Pixel phones I’ve tried. This is hardly a deal-breaker, but worth considering if you use your phone outdoors a lot.

No zoom is a tragedy

When it comes to smartphone cameras, my main measure of success is how much effort I have to put in to take a decent photo. For me, the ultimate phone camera requires little or no effort from the user to capture a decent image. I want to be able to reliably take a phone out of my pocket, point it at the subject, tap the button, and put the phone away without having to worry if it worked.

For years, the Pixel cameras have done that. The 4a 5G still does that, albeit a bit less consistently in my experience. From that metric alone, I’d call the 4a 5G camera a success. Those who like to use smartphone cameras the same way will likely be satisfied with the 4a 5G’s capabilities.

However, I think Google’s photography efforts are really starting to show their age with the 4a 5G — as well as the Pixel 5, which has the same array as the 4a 5G. If you want to learn more specifically about the Pixel 5 camera, check out our Pixel 5 review here.

The ultra-wide camera doesn’t keep small details as sharp. This is particularly visible around the sign and the tip of the clock tower.

First up, lets deal with the ultra-wide elephant in the room. As far as I’m concerned, replacing the zoom lens on the Pixel 4 with an ultra-wide lens on the 4a 5G was a bad choice. When I take a picture on my phone, I rarely want to take wide shots. I have never found myself wanting a wider angle. If it weren’t for needing to test the ultra-wide camera for this review, I don’t think I would ever have used it.

Zoom? I used that all the time.

The Pixel 4 camera allows for slightly more zoom and you can see the crisper detail on the statue compared to the 4a 5G zoom shot.

It’s no secret that digital zoom isn’t as effective as hardware zoom. While Google’s software zoom technology is good, it just doesn’t compare to the mix of hardware and software available with the Pixel 4 telephoto camera.

Google has argued that it can do zoom with software but can’t do ultra-wide with software, which is a fair point. Unfortunately, it doesn’t address the fact that ultra-wide isn’t nearly as useful as optical zoom. Hopefully, the next Pixel gives users both, or at least brings back the zoom lens.

Picture quality is just like before

Despite my issues with the choice of secondary camera hardware, it’s important to note that it still takes decent photos. In my testing, the ultra-wide lens performed almost as well as the 4a 5G’s primary shooter, but the finer details of some photos just weren’t as sharp, especially when you zoomed in. Beyond that, the ultra-wide lens worked well.

As for the primary shooter, you’ve seen this before. On paper, the Pixel 4a 5G, Pixel 5 and last year’s Pixel 4 all have the same primary shooter. In short, it still produces excellent images, but at this point, the camera hardware is starting to show its age, and I’m not sure Google’s software can continue propping it up.

These shots are nearly identical, even down to the shutter speed and ISO — slight differences seem to come from how Google’s camera software processes the image.

In most side-by-side shots I tried with the Pixel 4a 5G and Pixel 4, there’s little to no noticeable difference in quality. However, I did notice that the 4a 5G was less consistent than the Pixel 4. In my time with the Pixel 4, it was exceedingly rare for the camera software to mess up an image, say by over-exposing or under-saturating the subject.

However, several pictures I took on the 4a 5G did end up wrong. For a camera that’s been so consistent, it’s really a shame that it’s lost that reliability now.

There are a few other neat software upgrades in the camera worth considering, but likely none of them will be the break-out feature that draws people to upgrade. There’s Portrait Light, which lets users add or adjust the lighting in portrait shots. Interestingly, the feature can be applied retroactively even on photos taken with older Pixels. Google suggests it can be helpful either in enhancing existing light in a photo or for using as a fill light to brighten shadows on someone’s face.

In testing, the feature worked well, although I only really noticed a difference in dimmer images. Overall, Portrait Light is a fun addition to the Pixel camera, but it isn’t a reason to upgrade — Google rolled the feature out to older Pixel devices as well.

Google also made some improvements on the video side as well with 4K 60fps recording. It’s a welcome improvement, especially after the outcry over the lack of 4K/60 recording on the Pixel 4. Unfortunately, the addition of 4K 60fps doesn’t save video from being the low-point of the Pixel camera experience, as it has been for the last few years.

The new Cinematic Pan feature is a little more interesting, enabling users to capture short clips that are surprisingly stable. There’s no audio with Cinematic Pan clips, but depending on what you’re shooting, you may not need it. I found the feature worked best for taking short clips of stuff for social media — for example, vistas, or someone moving around. Unfortunately, I’m not sure how useful Cinematic Pan will be in the long run. Some people may love it, but I struggled to find a reason to use it.

Finally, a Pixel I can use without a power outlet nearby

Google did do right by potential Pixel customers in one area this year: battery. The 4a 5G is the longest-lasting Pixel I’ve ever used, and the Pixel 5 is even better in this regard. I reliably got two days off a single charge on the 4a 5G, although heavy use such as gaming or watching lots of streaming video could certainly reduce that.

Still, I haven’t been able to charge a Pixel less than once a day in years. Coming from the Pixel 4, which often found itself on a charger twice each day, the 4a 5G was refreshing.

On average, I got between six and seven hours of screen-on time between charges, and that’s without using Battery Saver or Google’s new Extreme Battery Saver, which can push the phone even further.

The Pixel 4a 5G battery is so good, I willingly left my house at 30 percent battery, knowing I’d be back long before it died — on the Pixel 4, 30 percent without a charger nearby was a death sentence.

If nothing else, the battery life alone makes the Pixel 4a 5G worth the purchase. You may be hard-pressed to find any device at this price point, or from Google in general, that lasts as long on a charge. This excludes, of course, the Pixel 5, which has an even larger battery.

5G is a nice bonus, but shouldn’t be the reason you buy this phone

To start, I must say that I haven’t been able to personally test 5G on the Pixel 4a 5G. Through an unfortunate combination of not being able to spend time in any 5G coverage zones due to the pandemic, plus my carrier not offering 5G coverage at all, my Pixel 4a 5G remained on LTE and LTE+ throughout my time with it.

And judging by what my colleagues have shared, I haven’t missed much. MobileSyrup managing editor Patrick O’Rourke tested 5G on the new iPhone 12 Pro out in Burlington, Ontario and found it to be rather lacking. At a blistering 24.3Mbps down, 5G hardly compares to the 431Mbps I got on Koodo’s LTE+ in Pickering, Ontario.

“Ultimately, 5G in Canada is still lacking — it doesn’t have as wide-spread coverage and doesn’t offer a significant benefit over 4G or LTE”

Of course, there are several cautions to make here. First, LTE speed can vary wildly from place to place and even from hour to hour thanks to changes in network congestion and other factors. In Burlington, O’Rourke only saw 61.7Mbps down on the Telus/Koodo LTE network. Frankly, the 400+Mbps speeds I saw were higher than I’ve seen before with Koodo in this area, although past tests I’ve done have seen speeds in the 200-300Mbps area.

It’s also worth considering that O’Rourke saw better 5G speeds in Toronto, but across the board didn’t notice more than a 10 to 15 percent increase over 4G/LTE speeds.

Out of curiosity, I also ran speed tests on some other phones, including an iPhone XS and Pixel 4 with my Koodo SIM. The iPhone got the more standard 215Mbps down and 21.1Mbps up. Likewise, I ran a test on a Pixel 4 with my Koodo SIM and got 355Mbps down with a slightly faster 41.3Mbps upload speed compared to the 4a 5G’s 36.4Mbps.

It’s possible that Qualcomm’s updated 5G modems also bring some enhancements to LTE speeds on the Pixel 4a 5G, but even so, I don’t think the difference will be enough to warrant an upgrade. Eventually, I hope to do a more thorough test of 5G capabilities in Canada, but as it stands, I’m not interested in changing carriers and increasing my monthly bill just to get — in a best-case scenario — slightly better speeds.

Ultimately, 5G in Canada is still lacking — it doesn’t have as wide-spread coverage and doesn’t offer a significant benefit over 4G or LTE. For now, it’s not worth it to upgrade just for 5G capabilities unless you live in a big city with decent 5G coverage, or you don’t mind paying a premium to use network tech that’s largely still in its infancy.

If you plan to buy a 4a 5G and hold on to it for several years, the 5G might prove beneficial down the line. For now, it’s hardly a reason to get this phone.

A solid upgrade for some, a downgrade for others

The Pixel 4a 5G reminds me a lot of Google’s Pixel 2 XL, which arguably was the last big — and last truly excellent — Pixel device I used. I remember showing off the Pixel 2 XL camera to people and blowing their minds at how good it was. Some of my favourite pictures to date were taken on that phone.

If I weren’t reviewing phones for my job, I likely would be in the market to upgrade that 2 XL now. I think the 4a 5G would likely be the go-to option for me, considering both price, size and performance. I imagine there are several people out there in the same boat.

Those with an ageing Pixel would do well to get a 4a 5G or, if you have the money and want the extra battery life, perhaps even the Pixel 5. People who have a Pixel 3 or Pixel 4, however, likely won’t see much benefit in the 4a 5G. In many ways, it’d be a downgrade — you’d get similar or worse performance, lose out on features like Active Edge, face unlock or 90Hz refresh rate and more. It’s a tough sell, and honestly, if you can squeeze another year or two out of your Pixel 3 or 4, you’re probably better off doing that than switching to the 4a 5G.

Do you really need to spend over $1,000 to get what the 4a 5G offers for less than $700?

On the flip side, if you’re tired of forking over hundreds of dollars for high-end flagship phones and you’re looking to get a new device without spending a ton of money, I don’t think you can get much better bang for your buck than the Pixel 4a 5G.

It’s not a perfect phone. It’s certainly not the best phone this year. But as far as smartphones go, the Pixel 4a 5G does everything it needs to do to be great, and doesn’t do a bit more. For most people, that’s all you need.

The Pixel 4a 5G will be available in Canada starting November 19th at $679 outright. If you’re interested in the Pixel 4a 5G, you can join a waiting list for updates about the phone on the Google Store.

"The Pixel 4a 5G does everything it needs to do to be great, and doesn’t do a bit more"

8.5

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