Google Pixel 4a 5G review: living in the Pixel 5's shadow
Google does seem to have issues in keeping in its online store this year: the well-known home speakers are suddenly known as "Nest" while underneath the hood of the recently released smartphones, the Pixel 5 and Pixel 4a 5G, both of them carry more or less the same innards. This begs the question: Why should customers pick the old generation handset when purchasing a new smartphone? In my review, I gave the Pixel 4a 5G the chance to prove itself in everyday life for an entire week. Is the new old Pixel smartphone convincing enough to make the cut?
- Camera quality
- Look and feel
- Vibration motor and speaker
- Android 11
- No IP certification
- 60 Hz refresh rate
- A Pixel 5 clone
Classification: somewhere between Pixel 4a and Pixel 5
If you don't have a bird's eye view of the numerous releases in the technology sector in the month of October, you might be surprised by the appearance of the Pixel 4a 5G. After all, with the Pixel 4a released earlier this year, Google rolled out a more affordable version of the Google Pixel 4 which hit the market at the end of 2019. The Pixel 4a 5G (£499) now sports a 5G-capable Snapdragon 765 SoC and a larger display with 6.2-inches instead of 5.8-inches. In addition, Google has thrown in a wide-angle sensor to the well-known 12.2-megapixel main camera, instead of a telephoto lens as found in the Pixel 4. The plastic back and the availability of a 3.5 mm headphone jack ensures a semblance of continuity.
Then there is Google Pixel 5, which David has already reviewed extensively for you. The new Google flagship handset was released almost simultaneously with the Pixel 4a 5G. For an additional premium of close to £100, it comes with 2GB of additional RAM, a metal case, wireless charging capability, and a 90 Hz display. Compared to the Pixel 4a 5G, the Pixel 5 is also a wee bit smaller in its dimensions. The OLED display measures exactly 6-inches and thanks to the larger battery, the charging times should also be a bit longer than the Pixel 4a 5G - although one would expect improved battery life.
If I read these two paragraphs again myself, I have a rather obvious question: Why? Why does Google make its Pixel 4 and the brand new Pixel 4a 5G obsolete upon release without any chance of making it out of the stable doors? Maybe we will find the answer to this pressing question in this review!
What I like about the Google Pixel 4a 5G...
The look and feel
As a long-time user of a Google Pixel 3 XL, the Pixel 4a 5G has a familiar feel right out of the box. Google is a company that, like Apple, values a certain image, and this can be easily recognized in the form of the Pixel 4a 5G. Because there are some special features and focal points that make the plastic-heavy case desirable, with the presence of a 'lite' version offering another interesting proposition to those who want a stock Android experience. This is a reaction to a purchase decision that does not boil down to simply an omission of features.
Google's has a love of detail in its own hardware that other manufacturers tend to forget, and this makes it easier for one to switch from a previous generation model. The location of the fingerprint sensor on the back, for example, works extremely well and fast, and can also be used as a remote control for the notification bar if desired. The deliberately different coloured power button and the volume rocker located beneath are also wonderfully responsive and have very good pressure points.
Together with what I deem is the best vibration motor I've ever felt in an Android handset, the Pixel 4a 5G conveys its own form of high quality. The unibody plastic housing and the low weight of close to 170 grams take away the worry of carrying a fragile glass element in your pocket, one where you are responsible for keeping it safe and sound. Rather, the lightweight smartphone only stands out when you need it. This marks a return to what a smartphone ought to be: a tool and not a fashion statement.
The battery life
This handset benefits from having a good battery life. Because the 3,885 mAh battery working in tandem with the energy-saving 60 Hz display ensures battery life extends beyond 24 hours. With a mixture of e-mails, WhatsApp messages, surfing sessions, calls, and photoshoot sessions, I was able to charge the Pixel 4a 5G every other evening throughout the review week without running out of juice unexpectedly halfway through the work day.
When it comes to recharging, Google also provides a moderately quick charger. Nothing as impressive as the OnePlus 8T's 65W fast charge, but the included 18-watt adapter is sufficient for short charging sessions. Wireless charging or the possibility to charge accessories like headphones have been eliminated by Google, as opposed to the Pixel 5.
The power and performance
However, the performance is comparable to the more expensive Pixel flagship. A Snapdragon 765 keeps things running in the Pixel 4a 5G, which is currently found in many mid-range to cheap higher-end smartphones. However, the Pixel 4a 5G comes with 6 GB of RAM - which ought to be more than sufficient for today. The Pixel 5 shines with a generous 8 GB of RAM though. The hardware found here is wholly sufficient to power the factory-installed Android 11 operating system and current slew of mobile games.
It is fun to adjust the graphics settings for games like Call of Duty: Mobile and PUBG: Mobile to the maximum level. If you can do without a few animations while enjoying the game, you can clearly see that waiting times in the operating system are reduced. The whole package seems as responsive as the three buttons on the right. However, there are waiting times if you want to look at photos right away after snapping them.
The camera quality
Unfortunately, as with the Pixel 5, Google does without the visual core that the company introduced in the Pixel 2. This is an additional chip that speeds up the image processing process. In the latest batch of Pixel smartphones, this task is now performed by the main processor, which sometimes causes bottlenecks when snapping a bunch of photos in quick succession. Thankfully, the wait is bearable, simply because the results are well worth the waiting time.
Every new Pixel smartphone is eagerly awaited by amateur smartphone photographers. This is because Google's formula of using intelligent image processing instead of additional camera lenses has worked out fantastically for the company in the past. In the 2020 lineup, however, the (very) old 12.2-megapixel main sensor is accompanied by a wide-angle camera with 16-megapixels and a field of view of 107 degrees. In my opinion, this is a better solution compared to Pixel 4 that has a telephoto lens. After all, you can always zoom into pictures digitally, but never zoom out.
The dual camera on the back delivers very good to excellent results in practice, and Google manages to maintain the performance level of its predecessors. This is especially true with the cheaper Pixel 4a 5G, making it an exciting proposition because, for an extremely competitive price point, you can obtain many beautiful and crisp digital memories. Snapshots are usually beautiful even when taken by an amateur, and for more serious shutterbugs, Google's camera app provides a powerful tool for image creation with its "Dual-Exposure" feature.
There are two separate controls for the brightness and contrast levels of your images. With these controls, you control the illumination of the images as well as the strength of the HDR effect. Instead of just telling the phone to optimise the dynamic range, you control the efficiency of the dynamic range and bring out dark areas according to your preference. It's a useful tool for creating images that almost makes you overlook the lack of a professional mode, including the control of exposure time. Oh yes, here is another example:
Finally a useful wide-angle lens
Besides well-known Pixel features like Harry Potter-inspired moving images, Top Shot, and the still very good night mode, I want to talk briefly about the wide-angle camera. It looks less impressive on paper with just a 107-degree field-of-view. Here, many cheaper smartphones offer already more than 120 degrees and deliver great looking wide-angled shots. I welcome Google's decision to keep the wide-angle field-of-view moderate. This is because shorter focal lengths are always accompanied by a stronger distortion at the edges of the pictures.
This is especially annoying with images that people normally capture in wide-angle: composed mainly of buildings or groups of people. Here, the Pixel 4a 5G produces results that show straight lines despite a wide field of view. The smartphone does perform a little bit of correction to the image, but I couldn't find any artifacts or distortions when looking at my pictures. In the picture gallery below, you will come across numerous examples. Feel free to argue about the picture quality in the comments!
Last but not least, a short paragraph about Google's contradictory selfie quality: As David already noted in the Pixel 5 test, the quality of the front camera is not always optimal, with faces taken at night being rather noisy. But even under good lighting conditions, selfies look different from previous generation Pixels. On the one hand, Google announced at the handset's launch that they had minimized the beautification process of portrait pictures. This decision was made with regard to having a healthier self-image of shots snapped using the front-facing cameras in Google's smartphone.
In addition, Google has implemented a new feature: portrait lighting, which offers a lot of creative freedom. Using your finger, you can control a virtual light source around the face when taking portraits and thus obtain optimal illumination. You can see how this works in the screenshots shown above this paragraph, where dynamically adjustable shadows and highlights change around the face. The handling is intuitive and proves that Google has improved its camera app tremendously, with Google Photos being updated before the release of the new Pixel devices.
Useful video functions
Before I come to a brief conclusion concerning the camera, here are a few words about the video mode. Here, Google has come up with three additional video modes apart from slow motion and fast motion, which make a lot of sense in practice. By default, the Pixel 4a 5G has standard stabilization selected and with just two clicks you can switch to "locked", "active" and "cinema effect". Locked allows you to record smooth videos with 2x and 3x magnification. The smartphone is smart enough to compensate any kind of movement digitally in an effective manner. Even with more pronounced movements, the zoomed in subject will remain in the center. The "Active" mode is far less restrictive, with image stabilizing working extremely well.
For pans and transitions using the smartphone camera, use the Movie mode. In this mode, the Pixel 4a 5G captures the movement at half speed to ensure smooth movement. However, the smartphone does not record any sound, and of course, both people and cars also are also very slow when panning. The function can be activated when performing video editing, too.
Camera quality (for now)
All in all, the Pixel 4a 5G is an attractive proposition, especially with regard to the camera. The possibility to zoom out of the action is very valuable in everyday life, and the resulting images are on par with the quality of the main camera. It's nice to see that Google doesn't overdo it with the field-of-view. Even with what some might deem to be insufficient, I often had a finger on the edge of the picture when taking pictures.
However, Google's Pixel smartphones tend to go down the line of having basic camera functionality. Detailed setting options are only available via an additional app and the software advantages that ultimately make the camera's strong points disappear. Numerous test photos can be found in the picture gallery, all pictures were taken with the Pixel 4a 5G and were cut to 16:9 on the PC and reduced in resolution.
The speaker and voice quality
Google uses stereo loudspeakers in the Pixel 4a 5G, which allow sounds and music to emanate from the device when using it horizontally. This particular arrangement makes plenty of sense and shines through when you are watching movies and listening to music. This is because when it lies in a horizontal position, a light stereo effect results. Although this is a rare sight these days, such an arrangement has another advantage. On many smartphones with a mono speaker on the underside, you tend to cover the speaker when playing games or simply holding it with your hand - hence muting most of the audio. This also happens with the Pixel, but the effect is minimized due to the presence of a second speaker. In addition, the speakers also sound really clear, are loud, and offer sufficient bass.
What was not a strong point of the Pixel handset in the past proved otherwise in this review where speech quality is concerned. Seldom did I get so much praise for the quality of my calls in one week as I did with the Pixel 4a 5G. And it was extremely rare could I understand the person on the other line this well with the review unit. It should be mentioned that Google uses a "real" speaker that is located above the display with the cheaper 4a 5G. This is of course, beneficial for good voice quality.
I wouldn't have mentioned this short "Fun Fact" if Google didn't leave out the good speaker found in the Pixel 5. Here, you can hear the other person on the line using a technique where the glass pane vibrates and the audio signals are carried to your ear when you make a phone call. With this technique, the position of the smartphone on your ear determines how well you can understand the other side. Rather, the Pixel comes with fewer display edges, which makes this the perfect transition to the Pixel 4a 5G's weakness!
What I don't like about the Google Pixel 4a 5G...
The 60 Hertz display
Because when it comes to the display of the Pixel 4a 5G, I have a bone to pick. This is October 2020, where there were a lot of complaints going around concerning the 60 Hz displays found in Apple's new iPhone 12, we also have to complain about the lame panel found in the Pixel 4a 5G. Even though the Pixel smartphone is a little bit cheaper, 90 Hz or 120 Hz happens to be the industry standard for upper mid-range to flagship smartphones. As in the Oppo Reno4 5G review, this omission was rather glaring.
The standard version of the Reno4 5G also has a 60 Hz panel, while the more expensive Pro version offering 90 Hz. It is deja vu all over again with the Pixel 4a 5G and the Pixel 5! Again, it seems as if a manufacturer wants to create an artificial distance between two devices, so that customers can decide in favor of the more expensive device when it comes down to the crunch. This is definitely a problem with the Pixel 4a 5G.
The close resemblance to the Pixel 5
Because why would you buy a brand new smartphone that already has some kind of successor ? Especially if it is not even that much more expensive. The Pixel 5 is in comparison, the more futuristic piece of hardware and looks more modern in addition to having a high-quality look with its smaller display edges and aluminum back. In addition, the phone offers more power and can even be charged wirelessly if desired. Not to mention the 90 Hz panel.
Furthermore, it remains to be seen how Google will classify its smartphones in the future. Is the Pixel 4a 5G associated with Pixel 4 or is it on the same level as with the Pixel 5 due to the closeness of both release dates? This becomes even more relevant when it concerns future software and operating system updates. Although Pixel smartphones tend to receive updates for quite a while after release, this issue will crop up at some point in time. If you have a Pixel 4a 5G in your pocket that belongs to the fourth generation of Pixels, you might end up on the short end of the stick when it comes to having the latest updates.
The missing IP certification
What makes it lose out to the Pixel 5 is not having an IP certification, and this omission certainly deserves a special mention. You will find that the Pixel 4a 5G is not protected against water splashes or accidental submersion in water. In order to not beat around the bush, I'll keep it short: In the year 2020, you should not be worried when carrying out a conversation on your smartphone and it starts to pour cats and dogs. Boo, Google! Boo!
If Google did not release the Pixel 5, I would have given you a clear recommendation to buy the Pixel 4a 5G. But this is not a fault of the Pixel 4a 5G, which is not only convincing as a smartphone, but as an overall concept. Google pares down its upper mid-range offering to the bare essentials, making the most of what 95 percent of smartphone usage deems as important: Good system performance, impeccable feedback to the user thanks to very good speakers and a world-class vibration motor, a very good camera system, and a robust exterior thanks to its plastic housing that might make you think as though this is a Nintendo product.
Only the 60 Hz refresh rate and the missing IP certification are on my imaginary list of criticisms. Apart from that, there lies the Pixel 5 that is grinning away with a Google logo - where both points of criticism are eliminated for a wee bit more spare change. Looks like Google's formula works! Touché, Google, touché!
However, Google Pixel 5 is not the only alternative to Pixel 4a 5G! After all, the throne of the mid-range smartphone market will continue to be fiercely contested in 2020. Candidates for the price-performance king are the OnePlus 8T, the OnePlus Nord, and the Oppo Reno4 5G. If you only look at the specifications, you won't get past the OnePlus 8T, anything else and one ought to give the Google handset a look!
Why they did the 4g version bigger than 5