It's nearly the end of the year, and while many of us are waiting for the expected autumnal/Black Friday sales to upgrade phones, it's time to put that list together and consider just which models you'll be keeping an eye out for. And if you're still on the fence examining the 2020 lineup, we've got a specific recommendation: The Pixel 4a 5G. At $500 bought outright and unlocked, it offers a nearly ideal balance of value to performance.

For the full details, we invite you to peruse our review, but in short: The 4a 5G has the right mix of features to justify its price tag. That means pretty great specs, powered by a not-quite-flagship Snapdragon 765, a large-ish 6.2" display (admittedly, only 1080p and 60Hz), a super-long-lasting 3,800 mAh battery, 128GB of storage, and the usual exquisite Pixel photo experience with a new ultra-wide secondary camera. There is a more expensive $600 version of the phone that packs the mostly-gimmick mmWave 5G tech for Verizon subscribers, but ignore that; the $500 unlocked sub-6 model is the one to get. And that's true not just for Pixel fans, but for anyone.

The 2020 Pixel lineup

I've had time to play with the entire 2020 Pixel lineup (as well as most of the major phones released this year), and the 4a 5G occupies a pretty special place for me. It's the phone that upset me the least while using it over the last 4-5 months. The 4a 5G has enough power to do anything I need, it's got a good-sized and uniform screen that doesn't offend my delicate display sensibilities with blotchiness in dark themes at night, plus the usual fantastic Pixel camera gives me the utmost certainty a quick snap will come out fine. But on top of all those hardware benefits is the Pixel software experience, and in isolation, not having to deal with ever-increasing spam calls thanks to the outright magic of automatic call screening is a perk I'd pay a monthly subscription to get on other devices. In short, while there are phones whose individual features I may have enjoyed more, and while there are objectively higher-end phones out there, the Pixel 4a 5G meshed quickly and quietly into silent satisfaction — like a favorite pair of jeans that fits just right, but with no break-in period.

the Pixel 4a 5G meshed quickly and quietly into silent satisfaction — like a favorite pair of jeans that fits just right

That's not to say it's the best phone you can buy. It lacks plenty of features, like an IP rating, metal body, wireless charging, the very fastest chipset 2020 has to offer, or a super-smooth high refresh rate display — you can absolutely get phones with those benefits, you'll just pay more for the privilege, and that's where value comes in. Sure, you can buy a Pixel 5 for $200 more, or a OnePlus 8T for $750, or even pick up a Note20 Ultra for $1,300. But the 4a 5G delivers an experience that punches well above its paltry $500 weight. The only other phone that I think strikes a similar balance is the Samsung Galaxy S20 FE, and it's MSRP is still $200 higher.

The Note20 Ultra is a great phone, but you don't need to spend $1,300 for a good experience. 

2020 has been quite a year, and that's true when it comes to phones as well. We're witnessing the rise of new "Ultra" flagships that crest and even eclipse an astronomical thousand-dollar price tag. And while consumer spending is on a short-term bump, general public sentiment has folks aiming to save money in the near future. Normally, the $500 price point is something of a no man's land here in the US, where phones are either purchased outright as cheaply as possible or on-contract where the cost is amortized over several years. And in isolation, $500 is still a large amount of money. But if you have cash now, buying unlocked and freeing yourself of that regular payment and the on-contract obligation can be a smart long-term move, reducing ongoing expenses and opening up the opportunity to move to a cheaper MVNO service later if your regular Verizon or T-Mobile bill ends up being too expensive. (Though if you're really hurting for cash, consider the even-cheaper Pixel 4a, or try to stick it out with the phone you've got.)

There are good reasons to spend more than $500 on a phone; not all of our needs are the same, and the right phone for me may not be the right phone for you. But the Pixel 4a 5G hits an almost perfect balance between value and features and the abstract je ne sais quoi of day-to-day phone use. Nestled right between some of the best value phones of 2020, the Pixel 4a 5G has turned the $500 smartphone wasteland into an unexpected sweet spot, and I can't recommend it enough.