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A Nexus phone by any other name

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The Pixel 3a wasn’t $400 smartphone perfection, but when it launched at Google I/O last year, it came closer to the mark than any phone in the US had before. That is, until the iPhone SE upstaged it this spring. With the Pixel 4a, Google is fighting an uphill battle against Apple—and I’m not going to try to convince you they’ve won it, either. But after two weeks with the new entry-level Pixel, I’m convinced there is so little left for Google to improve on this phone that it hardly matters. If price is an object, the Pixel 4a is the smartest smartphone you can buy today.

At $350, the 4a is the cheapest phone Google has sold since the Nexus 5 in 2013. While flaws like a pretty terrible camera and middling battery life dogged the Nexus from day one, it was well and truly beloved by many Google fans. Our own Ryne Hager actually used a Nexus 5 as his personal phone for a post two years ago and found it had aged surprisingly well (for a smartphone). In many ways, the Pixel 4a seems a fitting spiritual successor to that phone: it’s understated, it’s shockingly capable for the money, and it dispenses with any feature frivolities. You’d rightly point out that its predecessor, the Pixel 3a, was similarly positioned and equipped. But the Pixel 4a takes the 3’a rough edges and polishes them to a near mirror-smooth finish. Gone is the dated, heavily bezeled display, storage is doubled to 128GB (UFS 2.1, too—not the 3’a eMMC), RAM is upped to 6GB, and a substantially more capable Snapdragon 730G processor is inside. For all of these improvements, Google is asking for fifty dollars less than the 3a. This isn’t just a great phone for $350, it’s a great phone—no asterisk required.

Design, hardware, what’s in the box

The Pixel 4a is Google’s first embrace of the in-display “punch hole” front-facing camera, and it’s probably overdue. This allowed the designers to substantially trim away bezel from the phone and increase the size of the screen, while actually making the phone itself smaller. The Pixel 4a is over 7mm shorter than the Pixel 3a, and slightly narrower, but it has around 3-4% more visible display area. I know that calling this a “small” phone is a bit of a joke to some people when looked at through the lens of smartphone history, but this phone is ergonomically outstanding for all but reaching the very tippy top of the screen. It’s a good size, and quite light at just 143g (for reference, it’s slightly wider but shorter than a standard Pixel 4, and weighs nearly 20g less). It also won’t become unmanageably bulky if you throw a case on it.

The screen itself is a nice, if not amazing, 5.8″ 1080p OLED panel with HDR support. While not as good as the one you’d get on a Pixel 4 XL or Galaxy S20 (the ambient brightness and contrast just aren’t as good), this feels like a substantial upgrade from last year’s phones, especially given there’s a sunlight “overboost” mode to make the screen more legible when outdoors. I’ve been pleasantly surprised that Google apparently didn’t cheap out here, because it’s such an easy place to do it. The one issue I’ve had? Autobrightness. The Pixel 4a’s automatic brightness will randomly fluctuate for no apparent reason on my phone, and even after Google issued an update to remedy it, I’m still experiencing occasional wonk with it that I’ve not really seen on any other phone. When asked for comment about the issue recurring, Google didn’t provide an answer in time for my review. Other reviewers I spoke to have not noted this issue, which leads me to suspect some kind of hardware defect may be in play on my particular unit (on a Pixel, shocking).

As plastic phones go, this is a very nice plastic phone.

The plastic body of the phone is not my favorite. While the build quality does feel quite good for a plastic phone, the matte, soft-touch black finish is an absolute grease magnet the moment you take the 4a out of the box. Buy a case, a skin, or just something. Sadly, I was not provided a case (I know, I know; spoiled journalist complains, more at 11), and my Pixel 4a is basically in a state of perma-grease. It also already has small areas that have been polished smooth by taking it in and out of my pocket all day. As for the rest of the the phone physically, the power and volume buttons are nice and clicky with good travel, as is typical of Pixels, and Google’s even given the 4a Gorilla Glass 3, an upgrade from the 3a’s Dragontrail. All in all, as plastic phones go, this is a very nice plastic phone.

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The 4a’s fingerprint scanner and I have something of a love and less-than-love relationship. On the one hand, it’s very fast and reads reliably. Which is to say, it’s everything that is great about traditional capacitive fingerprint scanners. On the other, the little dimple Google carved out for your finger to “find” the scanner is so shallow and so lacking in textural contrast that it frequently becomes difficult to hit it right. This isn’t a big gripe, you will get (somewhat) used to it. But even after two weeks of using this phone hours a day every day, I still hunt for the scanner dimple all the time.

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On the audio front, you have a 3.5mm headphone jack, and on that note, you might want to use it: the stereo speakers are mediocre at best. The 4a gets reasonably loud, but to hear almost anything you have to crank it to near max volume, at which point it sounds kind of unpleasant, if reasonably clear. The top earpiece speaker in particular is just a bit grating to listen to at such high levels. It’s usable for something like YouTube, but not much else. I’ve had no issues with call quality or the microphones.

If you’re listening, Google, I’d take a $20 hit to get wireless charging. Just saying.

The haptics on Pixel 4a are considerably improved from the 3a, and I think Google is just using a better actuator than it did on the last phone. The investment is worthwhile, as Google’s haptic software design is beaten only by Apple—most Android manufacturers are behind to the point of looking prehistoric when it comes to such things (hi, Samsung).

Finally, there’s what the Pixel 4a doesn’t have; namely, any kind of water resistance rating, wireless charging, expandable storage, color options (there’s just black), 5G, or super fast charging (it’s still 18W). Given the price, I think all of this is basically fine. But if you’re listening, Google, I’d take a $20 hit to get wireless charging. Just saying.

In the box, you’ll find a Pixel 4a (duh), USB C-to-C cable, 18W power adapter, SIM ejection tool, and Google’s Quick Switch adapter to get data from your old phone to your new one.

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Software, performance, battery life

Describing what makes the Pixel software experience pleasant has been a critical bugbear of mine from the first phones. To do it without resorting to the standard smartphones UX cliches—smooth, natural, responsive—is a lot more difficult than you might think. Conversely, relying on things like woefully unrepresentative “speed tests” and benchmarks is something I’ll never submit to; they’re a scientific curiosity (and a totally valid one in their own way), and tell you little about actually using a phone.

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I can imagine the Pixel team citing an academic paper on the psychology of visual space in software design when doing something like designing the thickness of an icon’s drop shadow.

When I use a Pixel phone, I feel like a lot of little things—touch targets, menu layouts, animation speeds, gesture sensitivity, haptics— receive a level of attention to detail most Android phone makers really don’t seem to care to indulge. Google is, after all, a software company, and a successful one. It creates products which have to be used by billions of people; Gmail and Google Docs are the gold standards in cloud email and word processing, respectively, to say nothing of Search or Chrome. I think that software-first philosophy has long bled into Google’s smartphones—since the Nexus days, even—but Pixel has allowed Google to make it a part of a real business initiative with real stakes. This isn’t simply “copying the iPhone” I’m talking about, it’s that Google takes very seriously the processes and sciences of user interface and user experience.

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The Pixel 4a packs the new, on-device Google Assistant

That seriousness doesn’t always translate into real world success stories, of course: Google does screw up… a lot. But I can imagine the Pixel team citing an academic paper on the psychology of visual space in software design when doing something like designing the thickness of an icon’s drop shadow. It is difficult to similarly envision a Huawei or a Samsung going down that road.

If you gave me my choice of the oversped Oxygen OS to the much more easy-going Pixel software experience, I’d take Pixel every day of the week.

What that all means to me is that using Android on a Pixel phone just feels nicer. Gestures, animations*, and all the ways the interface gives me feedback—be it a little haptic “bump” or a screen transition—make for a more pleasant and less jarring experience. No, a Pixel 4a will not feel or be as fast as a OnePlus Nord, and it won’t play as many games. But if you gave me my choice of the oversped Oxygen OS to the much more easy-going Pixel software experience, I’d take Pixel every day of the week. There’s also the fact the the Pixel 4a is completely free of bloatware, and even with my full catalog of apps installed and set up, I still have well over 90GB of free space available on my review unit. Oh, and the Pixel 4a is also set up out of the box with the new, much faster on-device Google Assistant… that apparently finally works when G Suite accounts on your phone. (*BUT. Google drastically upped the software scrolling speed on the Pixel 4a and I really don’t like it. It’s not the end of the world but I much prefer the far gentler scroll speed on phones like the Pixel 4 or 3a.)

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That gets to the next big reason to choose the Pixel experience: updates. The Pixel 4a will get Android 11 within days of the official launch of the OS, because it’s a Pixel phone (barring any unusual delays). The same will be true of Android 12 next year, and Android 13 in 2022, and every month of security updates in between. And, I suspect, of Android 14 in 2023. Google promises 3 years of OS updates for the Pixel 4a, but if those updates stop at Android 13, it’ll effectively amount to a 2-years-and-a-month OS update support period (not counting Android’s quarterly builds), which seems kind of bogus. I’ve asked Google what the deal is on this, and will update the review if and when I hear back. We’ll also be updating this review with the Android 11 experience, once it arrives, likely next month.

Battery life on the Pixel 4a is truly excellent

To close out, battery life on the Pixel 4a is truly excellent. I’m easily getting six hours or more of screen time per day on the Pixel 4a consistently, and I’m hammering the phone hard. If I really, really push it with things like long video calls, tons of max brightness time outdoors, and constant connection to my Bluetooth headphones, I can probably drain it with 4 or 4.5 hours of screen time, but that’s been rare. On most days, though, I have to actively try to kill this phone; my Pixel 4 XL would be begging for mercy by lunchtime the way I use this thing. You’d never guess the Pixel 4a has a 3140mAh battery, it feels at least 10-15% larger than that. The 8nm Snapdragon 730G seems incredibly efficient in this phone—I’m getting battery life I managed on the 3a XL last year, which has a much larger 3700mAh cell. So, no complaints there.

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Camera

There are no surprises lying in wait here: the Pixel 4a’s camera is outstanding. While you won’t be Space Zooming with all the cool kids in the Galaxy S20 Ultra club, your everyday shots will be noticeably better than theirs. Just think about that. Google’s $350 smartphone takes better still images than Samsung’s $1400 one—all through the power of software. That’s wild.

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You’d be hard-pressed to notice the difference between an image taking on a Pixel 4 the same shot on a Pixel 4a. I’ve done side-by-side comparisons, and the only thing I’m convinced I’m seeing regularly is slightly reduced contrast and saturation on the 4a’s camera. You would absolutely not be able to distinguish this without two near-identical images placed next to one another. Likely, the Pixel 4a just has a slightly modified tune for its image processing as the Pixel camera team continues to refine its algorithm. Marc Levoy, former head of the Google Pixel camera team, once told me that with every Pixel release there is also a new camera profile — such that no two generations Pixel phones will take exactly the same photos. I don’t know that that’s what’s happening here, but again, we’re splitting hairs: absolutely no one would question you if you said these photos came out of a Pixel 4. They’re effectively identical. Here’s a gallery.

Will the 4a’s camera become a slow and stuttery mess over the years, as all Pixel cameras seem to? I can’t predict the future, but right now, the camera feels fast and hasn’t let me down.

The camera on this phone can take on an iPhone 11 Pro’s.

The one area you’ll be able to distinguish the 4a’s camera from the Pixel 4’s is zoom performance. Without a dedicated telephoto lens, the 4a’s 7x Super Res Zoom looks nowhere near as sharp or clear as the Pixel 4 at the same zoom factor. Google’s Super Res Zoom is still miles better than most other manufacturers’ digital zoom, though, and at 2x or even sometimes 4x you can get shots that will absolutely pass muster on Instagram. I’ve seen plenty of dedicated 2x telephotos that look worse than the 4a’s digital zoom, and it’s once again all down to Google’s industry-leading processing tech.

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At 7x digital zoom, the 4a’s camera is better than most, but no replacement for proper optical zoom.

The camera on this phone can take on an iPhone 11 Pro’s (well, not for video) — there’s nothing outside true flagship territory that comes even close to challenging the 4a for still imagery.

Should you buy it?

Yes. Google wowed us with the Pixel 3a last year, and I was really getting worried they wouldn’t be able to outdo themselves with its successor. You can rest assured: Google did it. For all of the delays, the lack of color options, and general confusion around this phone’s tortured release, at the beating heart of it all is the best budget smartphone you can buy right now (assuming it’s available where you live).

The battery life is excellent. The display is great. The camera isn’t just class-leading, it’s industry-leading. The size is right for a lot of folks, and the underlying silicon feels ready for the long haul. If the Pixel 3a was a homerun, the Pixel 4a feels like a genuine grand slam. There are nits to pick—and I certainly will pick them in just a moment—but each time I considered those flaws during the course of this review, I was forced again to also consider the price of this phone. For $350, they just don’t feel important.

The speakers are not great, but not terrible, either There is no wireless charging or water resistance (both of which the iPhone SE does have, though at $50 more). The plastic gets greasy and the fingerprint scanner is hard to find, but it feels worth stating a case would fully remedy both issues. You don’t get a bunch of secondary cameras, but the one camera you do get is probably the best you’ll find on a smartphone. Even in its flaws, this phone is almost impossible to criticize without caveat, and that’s not something I often find myself doing.

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There are some other things to consider, though. Google’s customer support remains poor. Getting a replacement phone when you experience a problem can be maddening. Pixels are notorious for bugs and latent defects that aren’t immediately obvious when the phones launch, leading to major frustration down the road. But I can’t tell you this phone is going to have terrible bugs or that some heretofore undiscovered design or manufacturing flaw will probably lead to a lawsuit one day. That’s only possible with hindsight, and it’s unfair to hold the Pixel 4a to account for imaginary failings on the basis of the real ones suffered by its predecessors. I can’t do that in a review as a venue, as much as I hear you all. I can just tell you it’s your choice whether or not to trust Google.

The Pixel 4a is the right phone at the right time; a tall, cool glass of water in our $1000 smartphone hell.

It almost goes without saying, but the Pixel 4a gets our Most Wanted pick, and is already looking like a strong candidate for smartphone of the year in 2020. At a time when many of us are feeling more cost-conscious than ever, the Pixel 4a is the right phone at the right time; a tall, cool glass of water in our $1000 smartphone hell. No frills, no gimmicks: a smartphone that is built to do the things you want a smartphone to do, and to do them unfussily. You won’t turn anyone’s head using a Pixel 4a, but you’ll certainly raise eyebrows when you tell them how little you paid for it.

Buy if

  • You want a great, inexpensive phone with a phenomenal camera.
  • You value fast, frequent, and long-term Android OS and security updates, or a “pure” Android experience.

Don’t buy if

  • Getting the most gigabytes and gigahertz per dollar possible matters more to you than updates.
  • You want your next phone to have 5G.

Where to buy

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