Pixel 4a Review: Unremarkable Excellence
As I sit down to write this review, I'm struck with two opposing viewpoints that I'm having trouble reconciling in my head. The first is that I love this phone. The Google Pixel 4a is a remarkable little phone that I think has a great chance of being my daily driver for quite some time. The second is, there's nothing about it that I can hold up and show everyone, "You see? This is why I like this phone."
There's something I need to get off my chest right from the start. This is a $350 phone. There is nothing, absolutely nothing that this phone does that at least one phone out there that exists can do as well or in most cases better. But, this is arguably my favorite phone that I've used this year thus far which includes in no particular order the LG Velvet, the iPhone SE, the LG V60, the TCL 10 Pro, and whatever the hell I was using before I launched this podcast.
So what is it about this phone that makes it so good? Honestly, I think a little bit of it is expectation. I haven't used a Pixel phone since the Pixel 2, and even that was a brief stint that only lasted about a month. Since then Google has done a lot to the Pixel to make it a better phone and better experience. Plus, I hang out with nerds, so when nerds all nerd out about Google's phone, I get a little jelly. So I admit, right of the bat, that's probably part of it.
But there has to be more to the story, so let's start with the hardware. This is a Snapdragon 730G processor with 6GB of RAM and 128GB of storage that you can get in any color you want as long as it's black. There's a 12.2 MP rear camera which (oh yes) we will talk about later. There's also a front facing 8MP selfie camera. That's it.
All this is powered by a microscopic (by today's standards) 3,140 mAh battery which we will also talk more about later, and it all lies below a 5.8" FHD+ OLED display. The display is quite pretty, and just about the right size for my sausage fingers. There are stereo speakers on the top and bottom, and a headphone jack.
On the side, there are three buttons, volume down, volume up and power in that order. That's the wrong order. I ran an informal poll on twitter and "opposite side of the volume rocker" won 50% of the vote, and 32.5 percent voted for below the volume rocker. So from a hardware perspective, that's my one major annoyance.
The other is the camera bump on the back which holds a solitary camera. It's a camera bump, which is gross. I also get a kick out of the two bottom firing speaker grills, only one of which actually has a speaker behind it. Uniformity in design for the win.
The fingerprint sensor on the back is baller, of course, because it's not under the screen. But the divot in which the sensor resides is very shallow, making it hard to find the sensor by feel. Of course, since the entire world puts cases on their phones, that's not that big of an issue.
The power button has a greenish-white accent color which is a nice touch. The entire back plate has a really great feeling soft touch coating on it which I really loved. I loved it for about six second before I put that Zagg case on it because I am an amazing klutz.
I need to mention that there's no IP rating nor wireless charging on this phone. I would have also liked to see more colorways for this phone. Even the iPhone came in red. With the great designs and colorways i've seen coming from Pixels and Nexus phones in the past, black is just boring. But alas, We move on.
The software is the part I was genuinely the most excited to write about. But, there is a huge caveat here. I should note that Android 11 dropped two days before I wrote this review, so I haven't had a chance to test it out most of the features in Android 11. I may refer to a neat thing here or there, but for the most part, when i'm talking about software, it's going to be android 10.
Which is good because I've had a couple of intermittent hiccups with the software since installing Android 11, which I'm not positive are because of the phone or the software.
So what's it like using Android the way Google intended? It's pretty great. Right off the bat I should mention that up until now I had fought the gesture trend. I always went back to the utility belt of back, forward and multitasking. But with this phone, I figured this is google's game, may as well play by its rules. And overall, gestures are just ok. Back is intuitive. Swipe up to go home is not bad, even if it is frustrating on other more laggy phones. The multitasking swipe up and hold is garbage and needs to be something else. The swipe up from the corner thing to access Google assistant is nice too.
I love the always on display, and the double tap to wake. And i love the date, calendar, weather widget-that-isn't-a-widget at the top of the home screen. I do not like the google search bar at the bottom. I really want to be able to move that around. Don't get me wrong. I have a google search bar on every phone, but I put it at the top and that's where I like it. Now get off my lawn!
Google feed is off to the left where it belongs. The settings are nicely organized and notifications have gotten even nicer in Android 11. I'm particularly digging the media player option and the ability to reroute the audio to a specific device.
I started using the bedtime feature which basically turns your phone greyscale at a certain time. Mine's at midnight. I don't know if this is an Android 11 feature, but i only found this in the past couple of days, but the ability to snooze the bedtime was a nice addition. Admittedly, I'm old, so I wasn't really up past midnight often, so I didn't really go looking for a way to snooze it before. In the last couple of days I found it, so i wasn't sure if it was already there. Let's face it, any time i went looking for it, it was after midnight and i was freaking exhausted anyway. Regardless it's there with Android 11, so we'll go with it.
Other software highlights are those that are particular to the Pixel line. Call screening is one that has both a good side and a bad side. On the one hand it has saved me from picking up dozens of likely spam phone calls. This is despite the fact that I'm on T-Mobile's fancy new no spam network. The voice transcription on the call screening is not great. The experience of being call screened is also not great as my aunt learned when she called me from a number i didn't recognize while I was in the middle of a bike ride. The call screener prompts for a name, and then basically just waits. For as long as your party will wait. Which in the case of my aunt was a really long time because she's a sweetie and we was chatting with other people in the room. But right off the bat, Google got the transcription wrong, because she said her name, and Google did not show me her name so I could stop and answer the call. So Google, you have some work to do there.
Live transcribe is also really solid with good accuracy, but also a little floopy when you start reading names that aren't Kanye West or Donald...you know...Sutherland. And Google's processing is also really fast, which makes it very useful. I didn't use it a whole hell of a lot, but when I did, it worked pretty well.
Plus, let's talk about the ultimate in software - updates. Geeks loves them some updates. I just got this phone two weeks ago and already it has Android 11. That's pretty sweet. But not only that, but this phone will get three years of software updates. That's pretty huge, though thankfully it's becoming less and less rare. Honestly in the world of Android, it's a mixed bag as to what kind of software you'll get. With this phone, it'll last you a good three years. That's pretty awesome. That's like $115 per year. Of course, will this phone's hardware be useful for three years? That is an entirely different conversation. But the fact remains, if you want Android 13 on a phone you buy in 2020, Google really is the only guaranteed game in town.
Again this is hard to gauge because the day I installed Android 11, the Pixel kinda freaked out on me a few times when I was trying to get things done and get them done in a hurry. The performance issues have been very intermittent. Even before the Android 11 upgrade, the main times i had trouble and hiccups and stutters was in the phone app. Often while trying to handle two calls at once. For example, If I call my wife and go to voicemail and she calls me back right away the phone has trouble.
Everything else was pretty rock solid. Even playing games like Call of Duty Mobile performed decently. I'm not saying i want to make this a gaming phone, definitely not, but I could manage a more hefty game like that on occasion if i needed to.
As for numbers, Geekbench comes in at 494 on the single core test, and 1478 on multicore. It's not amazing of course, but it's not supposed to be. This is not going to be a champ at this price point. But that's ok, because what this phone does, it does really well.
But, I'm hanging an asterisk on this one because again with Android 11, this phone hiccuped a time or two since the update, so i'll address that in the coming weeks. What I can say, is that aside from the phone foibles, which are intermittent as hell this phone runs like a champ at anything I ask it to do. So, even if Android 11 did degrade the performance any, I can't imagine it will sour my opinion much if at all. Aren't intermittent issues just the best?
Now we need to talk about the camera, and what is there to say except, it's pretty damn great. Now I will start this off by saying, when I was taking some product photos the other day, I actually leaned more toward what the LG V60 was capturing as opposed to the Pixel. The LG V60 has cooler tones which was what I was kinda going for with those photos. That being said, I could have done very well with what the Pixel was giving me. Especially when it comes to Night Sight and Astrophotography mode. So let's talk about those first.
They are both part of the same Night Sight mode. If you're aiming at the sky and if you're not moving, the phone will auto switch to astrophotography mode. I don't like that. There are times that you're doing exactly that and it just doesn't come on. There are other times when I'm trying to take a Night Sight shot, and the phone just says, "Oh ok, this is gonig to take 3 minutes. Hope you brought a beer, punk."
I get what Google's going for here. Most of the time, Google is going to know what's going to get really good results - night sight or astrophotography mode. If you're trying to hand hold astro mode, that's not going to end well and you're going to dislike the experience. But, when you have a good idea of what's going on, and you want to make the decision to try and take an astro photo, it's annoying. It's slightly more annoying when you want to not take an astro photo, and Google's saying, "Nah, you gotta wait."
But the results are pretty great. Unfortunately, anywhere within 200 miles of Chicago is going to give you a great deal of light pollution, as I discovered on a late night trip out to the boonies. Not to mention when you get there, and you're standing there waiting three minutes to take a photo on the side of a road by a corn field, you get a little nervous wondering when the banjo toting natives are going to show up.
Are the results worth it? Absolutely. I was able to snag a few good shots before my paranoia got the better of me. One of my most proud shots came without astrophotography mode at all. I grabbed a gorgeous Night Sight shot of the clouds with Jupiter and Saturn peeking out from behind the clouds and that was hand held. Hell yeah, it took about 20 seconds to grab the night shot and even hand held, this is a great shot. I'm a little in love with it, and i'm a little sad that Neowise made its exit before I got this phone. Cest la vie.
What's weird about the Pixel 4a - there's no manual or pro camera mode. You have no control over the aperture exposure, etc. Which honestly feels really weird. As much as Pixel phones are known for photography, this just seems like a missed opportunity. But then again, maybe Google figures it'll be better at photography than you are anyway. Fair. Harsh, but fair.
So the core experience here is just point, shoot, and love the results. And that's what you get. You get good color representation, though maybe a tad on the warmer side. Google is not a fan of shadows, so if you're looking to keep those around, you're going to be disappointed. This is especially true considering the lack of pro mode. Google basically just wants you to point and shoot and not worry about silly little details like that. For the most part, the photos come out really great. Colors are vibrant, earth tones are maybe a bit greener than they were in real life. But it doesn't go full Samsung and I think we can all be pretty happy with that.
As for video, the stabilization is pretty awesome. I'm not taking GoPro awesome or even gimbal awesome, but you can get steady shots in situations like walk and talks and and hand held walking shots. You're not going to be doing manual pans or anything, but the stabilization is quite good. The phone is capable of shooting 4K video at 30 FPS and 1080p at 30/60/and 120 FPS with electronic stabilization.
As for the rest of the photo modes, they're great. I was excited to find out you can do photospheres with the Pixel. Those are honestly underrated so kudos to Google for keeping them alive. Portrait mode is solid. This is one of the best phones I've seen catching outlines in portrait mode. There are still some foibles (#HairIsHard) but overall it's really solid. Basically the camera story of this phone is it's good to great and google says you should love it, so love it!
And finally, battery life, and i'm happy to say this phone is a battery pro. In the 2 weeks of use, I never had to top off the phone prior to bedtime anywhere between 10pm and midnight. And that's after waking up at 7:30am. Of course, my use case will vary from yours and that's not really a good indicator of battery life. Honestly, very little is a good indicator of battery life. If you want some numbers, I'll tell you that I peaked at five hours of screen time, with an average hovering just over four. When I hit that sack at midnight, the phone had anywhere between 15-25% left in the tank. And this was my primary phone for emails, slack, browsing, videos, and more. This is all highly subjective. Will you be able to game all day on this phone? No. But you can get through a productive day and not worry about getting to your charger at night.
I know, that's some hard science there. Leave me alone.
Qusetion from Chaim - Would you buy this or a used flagship from last year like the OP 7 pro/T and lg g8 at the same price?
First of all, we're assuming that a flagship from last year will be $350, and that's allowable. It's your question after all. So given those factors, It's a close duel to be honest. If you are most interested in the camera, then the Pixel, absolutely. Wouldn't question it. If you are into something more like gaming, it's a toss up, but i think the Snapdragon 855 will power most games better than the 730G in this guy. But if you're not a gamer, or at least not a Call of Duty or Fortnite gamer, I'd grab this phone. With the three years of updates, this phone will be up to date for a long time, and you're not going to see that form most other OEMs And by the way, the camera is amazing.
Question from Dumbusername - Is it worth buying the 4a and keeping your current phone or trading in your current phone and getting a regular Note 20 for $350?
I'm not sure anyone should buy the Regular Note 20. Maybe for $350, but that kinda depends on the phone you're giving up. What I will say is the best reason to buy a Samsung flagship, in this humble reviewer's opinion is to get a great camera, and the Pixel has a great camera. You won't get Samsung's party tricks like optical zoom, which can be handy and is certainly less gimmicky than the s20. But if you get the Pixel, you also have your other phone as a backup. It also depends on what that other phone is. It's gotta be pretty great if you're getting the note 20 for $350. So maybe just keep that one.
Qusetion from Meister: How does it perform? Are you noticing any slowdowns?
Well, I covered that in the review. But generally performance on everyday tasks is great. I need to play with it a bit on Android 11 to make the final call, so i'll just say to tune in in the next three weeks or so.
Qusetion from Anonymous: Do you miss Soli and the squeeze gesture from the Pixel 4?
First of all, I should fess up that i never had the Pixel 4. Having said that, no. Well, no and a half. I don't miss Soli at all, and in fact on this platform I have openly mocked Soli. It was a half baked gesture thing that was a gimmick at best, and at worst was partially responsible for the Pixel 4's crappy battery life. As for squeezing, not really. Squeezing your phone to perform an action is not something i generally do, so it's hard to miss what i've never had. Realistically, I can't say I really don't miss soli, because I never had it. But I heard it was crap, so i'm going with that. The squeeze would be nice, for sure, but not enough to deal with that crap battery, and a price tag $450 or more higher.
So that's our You Review. I loved those questions and I hope I get even more. Our next phone up for review is a gaming phone from Blu - the Blu G90 Pro. So start sending in those questions. This is a gaming phone with 4 gigs of RAM and if you can't think of five questions off the top of your head, then you're not even trying.
And that's also going to do it for our official review of the Pixel 4a. This is my favorite phone of the year so far, and I still really haven't figured out why. I've laid out a lot of great reasons, but none of them are stand out features that will sell this phone. It's a collection of basics and no compromises, and that's really the thing here. This is a really good phone for a great price and this is my recommendation for anyone looking for a cheap Android phone. End of list.
But I really can't tell you why. It just does everything well, but there's little flash here, and that's ok. At $350, you don't need a folding screen, or a second screen, of 50X zoom. You just need to know that the phone can do everything, and this one can. You need to know that there are few if any compromises, and that's this phone too. They say the hardest reviews to write are for your favorite phones and this review was indeed very hard to write.