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While Google did release a "flagship" Pixel 5 this year, I think the more budget-friendly Pixel 4a 5G has stolen its thunder. The sleeper-hit is basically a bigger Pixel 5 that's missing a few features, but $200 cheaper. That means skipping out on an IP rating, 90Hz display, a bit of RAM, and a metal (ish) build, but you get a bigger screen and a headphone jack, paired with with the same camera, internals, and the Pixel software experience. At just $500, this is my favorite phone of 2020.
|Display||6.2" 1080 x 2340 19.5:9 60Hz OLED|
|Storage||128GB UFS 2.1|
|Rear cameras||12.2MP f/1.7 primary w/ OIS & EIS
16MP f/2.2 wide-angle (107° FoV)
|Front camera||8MP f/2.0|
|Power||3,800 mAh battery, 18W wired PD charging|
|Connectivity||5G support varies by model, 2x2 MIMO dual-band Wi-Fi (up to ac), Bluetooth 5.0, NFC|
|Dimensions||153.9 x 74 x 8.2 mm (8.5mm for mmWave) 168g (171g for mmWave)|
|Misc.||Pixel Imprint capacitive fingerprint sensor, Titan M Security Module, eSIM, stereo speakers (via earpiece)|
|Colors||Just Black, Clearly White|
|Camera||It's a Pixel, and the camera is just what you expect: excellent. This may have the best wide-angle I've ever used on a phone.|
|Battery life||Lasts a long, long time on a charge.|
|Software||The Pixel experience is great, and I'd straight-up pay a subscription to get features like Automatic Call Screen on another phone. You also get prompt monthly security updates, a regular trickle of new features and the fastest Android version updates out there.|
|Screen||It's not 90Hz+, but it's very uniform and gets bright enough and dim enough.|
|Price||$500 is good for the hardware.|
|Materials||It doesn't really matter, but plastic is objectively less premium than metal, the texture gets greasy and picks up wear easily, and this is "only" Gorilla Glass 3.|
|No IP rating||Easier to forgive in the cheaper 4a, at $500, it's more of a bummer there's no IP rating here.|
|Jank||Though it's fast enough, I ran into more stutters and jank than I expected based on experience with other Snapdragon 765 devices.|
|No wireless charging||We like to see more "extras" like this as the price rises.|
The Pixel 4a with 5G comes in two models, with and without mmWave support — we reviewed the latter.
Design, hardware, what's in the box
The Pixel 4a 5G could be confused with the smaller Pixel 4a at a glance. It has the same matte plastic unibody design, rear capacitive fingerprint sensor, hole-punch front-facing camera, and even identically sized bezels. The cutouts for microphones and speakers on the top and bottom, buttons on the right, SIM tray on the left, and ports on the bottom are all in exactly the same positions as the smaller phone. It's impressively consistent. However, there are a few key changes, like the wider camera hump, which houses an extra wide-angle camera module, and the overall larger design.
As with the smaller phone, the Pixel 4a 5G's matte plastic finish is a bit too finely textured and easily picks up oils from your hands. Though the plastic seems durable enough, it does accrue wear more quickly than metal or glass would; mine's already marked up with a handful of barely-visible scratches from normal use in the last week. The fingerprint sensor itself is also too shallow when the phone is naked, though that's probably a non-issue, because you'll use a case. Outside that, it was entirely reliable.
A handful of visible scratches near the bottom right.
The 4a 5G has a good heft to it, with a similar feeling of density in-hand when compared to the smaller Pixel 4a. The curved edges yeild a comfortable and ergonomic shape to hold, even for extended periods, though it's a little less easily gripable than the smaller phone. I'd consider this the upper-limit of easy one-handed use.
Mid-range phones always have to strike a balance when they cut corners, and screens usually get the short end of the stick. Even last year's Pixel 3a and 3a XL had pretty mediocre panels. But this year, Google seriously stepped up the quality of its displays. Like the smaller Pixel 4a, I have no complaints about the screen in the 4a 5G. It gets bright enough outside, dim enough at night, it's visually quite sharp, and it doesn't have any issues with uneven backgrounds or "green tint" in dark themes. Google tells us it hits up to 700 nits of brightness at peak and 2 nits at its dimmest, though there are a lot of ways to measure that which makes it hard to compare numbers with other phones. Sure, I'd prefer if it had a higher refresh rate or greater than 1080p resolution, but at this price, it's hard to get too picky.
Like the Pixel 4a, you don't have any IP-rated water resistance. While there are gaskets in its design, like around the SIM tray, there's no way to know how aggressive the ingress protection is throughout the phone without an actual rating, so better to err on the side of caution and refrain from underwater photography or phone calls in downpours.
The stereo speakers work as usual via the top earpiece and bottom-firing speaker, and they sound slightly different compared to the 4a, just a little less shrill/treble-heavy with a more rounded sound and marginally more bass (though these are smartphone speakers and they'll never thump). Haptics aren't the best that Google's done, and a clear step back compared to the Pixel 4, but they're marginally better and stronger than the 4a. At least, as a non-"flagship," you get an actual headphone jack — score one over the more expensive Pixel 5.
In fact, I think it might make more sense to compare the Pixel 4a 5G to the Pixel 5, even though it shares a name with the Pixel 4a. It's equipped with the same Snapdragon 765G and dual-camera configuration with a new wide-angle secondary. While the outward design and materials resemble the Pixel 4a, inside, this is basically a Pixel 5. Google even has a separate mmWave version of the 4a that will be sold by Verizon, bringing it almost to network parity with the Pixel 5 model sold in the US (minus a handful of Sub-6 bands). From a particular perspective, the phone would be better named the "Pixel 5 Lite."
In more pure hardware terms, you get 6GB of RAM, and 128GB of storage, which is good enough for a mid-range phone to last a few years. I'm glad that Google has stepped up and realized that's the minimum these days, and I hope other manufacturers follow in its footsteps.
In the box, you get an 18W USB PD Type-C charger, a three-foot cable, a Type-C to Type-A adapter, a SIM-ejector tool, and the usual warranty cards and manuals.
Software, performance, battery life
Some disagree, but I consider Google's vision of Android on the Pixels among the best out there, especially on Android 11. With the number of exclusive features Pixels get, we can't quite say it's "stock" anymore, but it's probably the closest you can get with the deep changes most manufacturers implement now. And while it's very, very hard to express why I like Pixel software so much, I'll try.
First: The Google Assistant. I'm not as all-in when it comes to smart home hardware as my fellow Android Police editors — I don't have any Nest cameras (yet) or thermostats — but I still use the Assistant daily on smart speakers, displays, and my phone to control lighting, play music, remotely harass my roommate, and enjoy a remote-free TV life. While I can do all that regardless of the phone in my pocket, Google's extra Pixel-exclusive Assistant features are so useful, I'd probably pay a subscription to get them on other phones.
Automatic call screening is among my favorite features. While some of the folks calling me don't like it too much, spam calls are still a serious issue regardless of whatever progress carriers claim to be making. So the fact that the Assistant can automatically screen calls that come my way and filter out the junk is fantastic, saving me from multiple interruptions a day.
Although I've tried, I haven't contrived a reason to test out the new Hold for Me feature in real life. However, Google put together a test line for us to try, and it works just about as advertised, notifying you when someone is on the line, though you can't listen to music or watch videos while you're on hold. I can see Hold For Me saving me plenty of time in the future, especially with wait times exploding these days.
The Pixels also get Google's snazzy "new" Assistant, with faster on-device recognition and Continued Conversation. That last feature means, once you've triggered the Assistant, you can issue follow-up contextual commands and not have to preface them with the hotword either. I use it quite a lot while driving, and I miss it on other devices; although it's weird Google still doesn't turn it on during setup.
Beyond the Assistant itself, there are other software perks to Pixel ownership. Google's Recorder app, for example, comes in handy for us bloggers when taking notes at an in-person event (if we ever have those again). But if you're the sort that likes dictating notes to yourself, it can just as easily be used for that. The Pixel Launcher is so simple and good I go out of my way to install an improved clone of it on other phones. And, from my perspective, Pixels are mostly free of bloatware; every app they come with is something I'd install myself on another device anyway because I'm so deeply integrated into Google's ecosystem.
While Google's software design can still be a little inconsistent across first-party apps (I can't believe YouTube still refuses to fit in), it's generally more cohesive than most other Android skins, and it meshes better with third-party apps since many follow Google's Material guidelines. In total, that makes for a less jarring or disruptive visual experience when you use a Pixel compared to almost any other phone.
That is one honkin' status bar.
There are only a few things I don't like about the Pixel software experience. For one, Google seems to have re-tuned things like animations to favor higher framerate displays, and something feels just a little bit off on the 60Hz screen on the 4a 5G. (We touched on the same thing in our Pixel 4a review.) I may be alone in this, but I also dislike the effect the hole-punch camera cutout has on software. Google pads it with enough space that its latest Pixels have the largest status bars I've seen in years — it’s even bigger than the Essential PH-1. It doesn't need so much wasted space, and as tall as the screen is already, I don't like giving it up more of it to empty padding.
Performance on the 4a 5G struck me as odd. The phone is clearly faster than the smaller Pixel 4a — side-by-side with last year's Pixel 4, which has a higher-end chipset, it loads most apps in almost the same time — but it's simultaneously more prone to so-called Android "jank" for me, dropping frames more often than the less capable Pixel 4a feels like it does. We know from experience with other phones that the Snapdragon 765G is a capable chipset, and yet something still feels off at times. I have to assume that it's a software issue, and other curiosities like too-small resolutions for the first-party hole-punch wallpapers imply to me that we might see a sweeping bug-fix update land soon (we'll update our coverage if and when that changes).
Not as pretty as on some other phones, but it's serviceable.
But outside that "jank" — imaginary or otherwise — the phone was plenty fast. The GPU may not be the most powerful, but it was strong enough for some light Fortnite as well as more casual titles. Day-to-day performance was also generally good, and I didn't notice any issues with app slowdowns or freezes.
5G remains mostly useless, and I usually get slower speeds on T-Mobile's 5G here in Boston than I do on LTE. If and when 5G becomes truly relevant, the 4a 5G will support it — though there's 5G and then there's 5G. While Verizon will be getting a version of the phone with mmWave, the "standard" unlocked version only supports sub-6Ghz 5G. That's the 5G that actually matters for most of us, but it's also the 5G that will make the least difference to things like speeds. Ultimately, there's really no reason to go out of your way to buy a 5G phone right now unless it happens to come with it, but the 4a 5G does.
The 3,800mAh battery in the 4a 5G may not be the biggest you can get in a phone this size, but Google manages to stretch it out to last all day — and then some. While I look forward to putting it through its paces in more circumstances, the phone managed just over eight hours of screen-on time over two days, and this was in mixed use with a few hours of GPS navigation as a standalone Android Auto screen, browsing, reading, and taking photos across Wi-Fi, LTE, and 5G connections. I even tested this on Google Fi, which is notorious for wrecking battery life. I wouldn't be surprised to hear that the 4a 5G may break 10 hours of screen-on time in a single day in certain use cases. In short: this is an even bigger battery champion than the smaller Pixel 4a was.
That's good, because it's not the most convenient phone to charge. While it can top up at 18W with the universal Power Delivery standard, and that's enough for the majority of us that plug a phone in overnight, it lacks wireless charging for convenient topping-up during the day, and it doesn't have an ultra-fast high-wattage charging mode for emergencies. Personally, I think 18W is still fine at this price, but more powerful specs like OnePlus' Warp Charging have saved my butt in emergencies, and I'd like to see more phones support faster charging speeds.
Google's Pixels are known for having some of the best smartphone cameras you can get. Even with an older sensor, that remains true today — proof that software matters more than hardware in this era of computational photography. While I still prefer the utility of a telephoto, Google did convince me that the wide-angle camera can actually be useful with the Pixel 4a 5G.
The primary camera's performance seems about equivalent to the Pixel 4, 4a, and prior Pixel phones. That makes sense, It's using the same sensor and probably the same lens configuration. But there is one notable difference compared to last year's Pixel 4: Camera processing takes a little longer. I'm told the Pixel 5 suffers the same behavior. It's not a deal-breaker, but it is noticeable. Otherwise, you get the same hyper-real photos with great clarity, sharpness, and a tendency to favor slight underexposure (which makes for attractive contrast). Some super detailed, super high-contrast scenes can look a bit muddy on a very close crop (like the photo looking through the branches of a downed tree in the gallery above), but Google generally does an exceptional job preserving detail.
This, in tandem with the Pixel 5, is the first time Google has done a wide-angle camera in a Pixel, and it delivered. My biggest complaint is that its minimum focus distance is too far out, somewhere around two feet. That's not unexpected, but it does mean I can't use it for quite as many fun shots as I'd hoped. Though I did notice some very slight chromatic aberration (i.e., "purple fringing") with leaves against the sky, it wasn't too noticeable or distracting outside a crop, and I was stunned at the dynamic range.
Usually, the smaller aperture you get on wide-angle cameras means worse performance indoors or in poor lighting, and that isn't the case here. Google's wide-angle camera is equally good indoors our outdoors, and it even does okay in low-light. It's definitely noisier in challenging circumstances than the primary, and even a tiny bit muddy with certain textures, but it does a great job. Although overall results are sharp enough, it's also a little soft on a crop, and more likely to lose fine detail (like the leaves on the forest floor in some of the photos above). While both the primary and wide-angle suffer some unavoidable lens flare if bright lights like the sun are in scene, the long shape of the flare on the wide-angle camera is less pleasing and unexpected. Color balance between lenses in the same scene changed a little more than I hoped, but it was much more consistent than some manufacturers accomplish. For all I know, Google may actually be doing it intentionally to take a better shot.
Thanks: Ryne's roommate Sam.
The Google camera also has a couple new features like portrait light, that lets you dynamically adjust lighting for a portrait photo after the fact. It's technically very cool, but I know I'll never use it.
Most folks won't miss the telephoto (but I will).
While I still lament it, the loss of the telephoto isn't the end of the world. Google's Super Res Zoom is probably the best software zoom solution out there, and it plugs the gap well enough. Paired with the wide-angle, the camera is now objectively more versatile, even if I know I would use a telephoto more often, myself.
Night Sight and Astrophotography are both still great features, but Google later disabled wide-angle astro-mode for both the 4a 5G and Pixel 5 — no great loss, its results were noisy and weirdly streaky.
Astrophotography mode is still great if you have the stars around to use it. Below: It used to work with the wide-angle (though not as well), but Google later disabled that.
In short, Google made another amazing camera here, wide-angle and all. When the day finally comes for Google to switch to a bigger, more modern sensor in Pixels, the results will probably be incredible. But for now, it still takes the Android crown unless you need a sharper telephoto or wider wide-angle.
Should you buy it?
Yes, the Pixel 4a 5G is easy to recommend. Honestly, I think most folks looking at the more expensive Pixel 5 should reflect on what they value in a phone and consider if this can deliver what they want for hundreds less. This isn't really a Pixel 4a 5G, this is the Pixel 5 Lite, and if you can live without an IP rating, wireless charging, and a 90Hz screen, this offers almost the same experience at a much better value.
There aren't a ton of Snapdragon 765-powered phones in the US, but it even compares well against the Samsung Galaxy A71 5G, undercutting it on price with most of the same features. Samsung doesn't offer wireless charging or an IP rating for your extra $100 either, eliminating most of our complaints about the 4a 5G.
The more I ruminated on it over the last few days as I sat down to write this review, the harder I struggled to find things to complain about with this phone, and that's weirdly high praise. When things are great, and nothing is really wrong, that's a neutral state for a tool; it's just doing what it should. It's when things are bad, or something breaks, you can feel bothered or even frustrated. But the Pixel 4a 5G didn't leave me complaining — and that's enough to call it great in my mind.
Buy it if:
- You want a Pixel 5 on a budget — it's basically a bigger, "lite" version.
- Camera performance, battery life, and price are your biggest concerns.
- You're so deeply integrated into Google's services that you honestly can't see a way out please help me.
Don't buy it if:
- You want The Real Flagship Experience™ and need more power, a smoother screen, and an IP rating.
- Budget constraints are either narrower or looser — there are better values at both ends of the spectrum between the baby Pixel 4a and Samsung Galaxy S20 FE.
Where to buy
The Pixel 4a 5G will be available for pre-order on October 29th (and generally available on November 19th) at the retailers below:
Two months later, this is my favorite phone from 2020
While it could just be how close it feels to stock, no other phone feels quite so much like home as a Pixel, and I have loved coming back to the Pixel 4a 5G after our recent iPhone review. There's always space for improvement, but Google's software is just a perfect fit for me when it comes to features, and even just the general visual look of things. There's no other good way to say it: Pixels are just comfortable.
That said, there are a few things about the 4a 5G that have started to frustrate me more with time. For one, the automatic brightness is less consistent for me than it is on other phones, oscillating a little more wildly between brightness levels in dimmer ambient settings than other phones I've used recently, including the OnePlus 8T and iPhone 12 Mini.
I love the Pixel 4a 5G's camera, but I wish it had a telephoto.
The Pixel 4a 5G's camera still remains among my favorites, but the lack of a telephoto camera is an ongoing bummer. Though Google included an ultra-wide camera, it's not often I find myself wishing for that sort of angle. But, I'm constantly seeking a tighter view to get better framing. When it comes to my big-boy interchangeable lens camera, I spend a lot of time in the 50-90mm range. There's a certain look — a sense of compression in the background, the change in perspective distortion, and ease in positioning things at a distance — that I just like. Ultimately, I've found it more annoying with time that the Pixel 4a 5G doesn't have a telephoto camera. And though Google's digital Super Res Zoom is very good, it doesn't match the quality I'd get with a real telephoto.
Battery life has also taken a bit of a nosedive for me. I don't know if it's simply how my use has settled in over time or if another recent change is to blame, but I have seen as little as 5 hours of screen-on time with the phone in the last week. While it has also been better at times, that's a sharp change compared to the stellar and more consistent 8 hour+ battery life I experienced before.
Left: Diminished battery life. Right: But I love the constant drip of new features like this.
It isn't all worse with time, though. Google just delivered a pretty big update this December — one of its so-called Pixel Feature Drops — bringing the phone new features, including some AI-powered charging, connectivity, and sound improvements. I'm pretty sure I can actually hear the Adaptive Sound changes, which dynamically adjusts audio from the phone's speakers to better suit the environment. It's a little subtle, but in certain environments like my bathroom, it seems to make a difference. I bet it would make spoken word content like podcasts easier to understand without cranking the volume in certain environments — but I'm not really a podcast person.
Coming from the 8T, the size of the Pixel 4a 5G feels just right to me for a larger phone, and it's not too tall for one-handed use. I also got to use the first-party fabric case this time around, and though they add a bit more heft to the already larger phone, I will always love them and their fine texture. It just feels nice.
My opinion has settled in, but it hasn't changed. No phone is perfect, but I still think the Pixel 4a 5G is the Google phone to get this year — definitely over the Pixel 5, and maybe over the smaller Pixel 4a if you want a bigger screen, faster chipset, or 5G. Even compared to much more expensive devices with more bells and whistles, this is my favorite phone of 2020.