With smartphone manufacturers trying to jam more and more camera sensors into phones at every price point, it's become genuinely difficult to understand just what makes a good smartphone camera. With the Pixel 4a, Google reminds us that more is frequently no substitute for "better." With its single, aging 12.2MP Sony camera sensor used since the original Pixel in 2017, the 4a takes photos that will make an iPhone 11 Pro blush, let along the multi-cam monstrosities many budget brands are pumping out right now. While it's nothing special from a hardware perspective (the 4a itself, though, is quite special—read our review to find out why), the phenomenal Pixel processing bests phones that cost much more. Our first batch of photos taken with the newest Pixel prove that.

The Pixel 4a continues Google's tradition of excellent cameras. It might be nice to have things like a telephoto lens, but the 4a is a mid-range phone, and honestly, the photos are so gorgeous that I have a hard time faulting Google. In situations where other phones might give you noisy, dark garbage, the Pixel 4a comes through with amazing shots. The Pixel brightens dark areas, brings down highlights, and keeps the colors accurate. It's basically everything you could ask of a smartphone camera and then some.

Some phones have elaborate pro camera modes, and the Pixel doesn't. I don't miss having all those options because that's not the kind of photography I want to do on a smartphone. The Pixel 4a just takes great photos when you press the shutter. I'm continually amazed by how effortless it is to take pictures with a Pixel phone. You frame the shot, snap, and it almost always gives you something good. I'm not saying that every photo you take on the Pixel 4a is going to be perfect, but you will get a surprisingly high ratio of good to bad pics.

The 4a is not completely without camera options, though. It gains the dual-exposure sliders from the Pixel 4, which allow you to control lighting in your photos with an accurate preview in the viewfinder. You can also switch over to Night Sight in dark settings. Night Sight is a bit slower to capture, but you can get awesome photos when other phones would produce a blurry mess.

The Pixel 4a also has the same (or at least similar) super-res zoom functionality as the last few Pixel phones. That means you can digitally zoom in to compose your shot, and the phone uses AI magic to sharpen the image. The results are impressive, even compared to the telephoto camera modules on phones that cost more.

The above photos are, from left to right, 1x, 2x, 4x, and 6x. Up through 4x, these photos look entirely good enough to share online—you probably wouldn't even think they were significantly zoomed if you scrolled past them on Twitter or what have you. This gives you a lot of freedom to take the photo you want even from a distance.

The Pixel 4a takes excellent photos, even without a second or third camera module. And you can get this camera experience on a phone that costs $349.