Google Pixel 4a review: Great phone, questionable timing

Originally rumoured for a reveal at the abandoned Google I/O developers conference in May, the Pixel 4a has finally made its debut.

The ‘a’ variants of Pixel phones have always been about value for money. You get Google’s top-flight camera tech and first dibs on updates and new features at a wallet-friendly price.

That’s certainly the case this time around. The Pixel 4a launches with a £349 price tag and has plenty of camera appeal. But the mid-range market has become a lot more competitive in 2020 and Google has already said it has more phones on the horizon.

The tech giant says it’s bringing out a 5G version of the Pixel 4a in the autumn and will charge $499 – which you can bet will translate to £499 here in the UK. What’s more, this standard version of the Pixel 4a won’t even ship to customers until October 1 – although pre-orders open on September 10.

So, while the Pixel 4a is a great phone for the money, I have to caveat that a better version may be available by the time you can actually buy it.

Then again, the Pixel ‘a’ variants aren’t necessarily for those who want the most technologically advanced phones – they’re for people who want a clean Android experience with a great camera for a good price.

The Pixel 4a accomplishes that in spades, so if that’s the context for buying one, it shouldn’t matter what else is going on in Google’s ecosystem when you finally do get your hands on it.

The Pixel 4a feels like a massive course-correct from the divisive Pixel 4 that launched towards the end of last year. It reinstates both the fingerprint scanner and the 3.5mm headphone jack which many (myself included) will appreciate.

Google also appears to be dealing directly with one of the top criticisms of the Pixel 4 which was battery life. The Pixel 4a houses a 3140mAh battery that Google says ‘lasts all day’. The Pixel 4a ships with an 18W charger in the box and features something called Adaptive Battery switched on as standard.

This uses Machine Learning to determine which apps are infrequently used and limits their background battery usage in an effort to conserve power. It also now predicts if a user will run out of battery before their next charge and reduces background activity further to keep the phone alive for longer.

At the same time, it keeps the Pixel 4’s impressive camera features. The Pixel 4a has the same 12.2-megapixel main camera but drops the second 16-megapixel telephoto lens from the 4. Despite the lack of a telephoto it keeps all the software features which include HDR+ with dual exposure controls, Portrait Mode, Top Shot, Night Sight with astrophotography capabilities and fused video stabilisation.

Inside the phone is a Qualcomm Snapdragon 730G processor and a Titan M Security Module, along with 6GB of RAM and 128GB of storage. The Pixel 4 base model only offered 64GB of storage, so the bump up will certainly be appreciated by fans.

Design-wise, the Pixel 4a has a 5.8-inch OLED screen with a hole-punch for the front-facing camera. It’s markedly different from the large forehead of the Pixel 4 and gives you the same amount of screen in a smaller body.

The back of the Pixel 4a is a matte black finish (it’s only available in one colour: Just Black) which looks good. There’s still a square camera bump, albeit smaller than the Pixel 4’s because there’s only one lens in there. Google has rounded off the design by giving the power button a distinctive light green finish.

The 4a is a good looking phone but when you hold it you’re instantly aware it’s not a flagship device. The casing is plastic and doesn’t have the allure of a glass finish because there’s no need – the Pixel 4a doesn’t support wireless charging. And chances are, many people may just put it in a case anyway.

I found the day-to-day performance of the Pixel 4a to be really solid. Not least because it runs on the stock Android OS and there are a myriad of ways to tweak it to your tastes. You can use Android 10’s default (iOS-like) gesture navigation or switch back to the old-school button layout. You can enable options like tapping the phone to wake it up or flipping it over to silence it.

It would be nice to have the 90Hz screen refresh rate that Google added to the Pixel 4 but instead the Pixel 4a is limited to 60Hz. It makes sense – bumping the phone to 90Hz would impact battery life and may push the price up. Although I will point out the £379 OnePlus Nord managed to include it.

Besides, if you use the phone in the way Google wants you to, you’d barely need to look at the screen. The Google Assistant voice control is baked all the way through the device meaning if you want to set a reminder, open an app, write out a message or adjust the settings you just talk to it rather than scrolling and tapping.

There’s a lot to like about the Pixel 4a and I’d have no hesitation in recommending it to those who want an attractive, capable device with a good camera but aren’t interested in iPhones. If you wanted a bit more performance and a few extra features, you could look at the comparable OnePlus Nord or the slightly more expensive Samsung Galaxy S10 lite. But because this is a Pixel device, it’ll get software and security updates before either OnePlus or Samsung.

The bottom line is that this is an exceptional phone for the price and offers most of the features a regular user could want. The larger question is one of timing – you can’t get this phone until October and by then we’ll know more about the 5G variant which would probably be a better option for those wanting a device for the next several years.

But in the here and now, the Pixel 4a is a great little phone that’s well worth the investment.

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