Google Pixel 4a review: Affordable, good camera, useful features
You fancy the latest smartphones as much as the next person, you’re just not keen on surrendering top dollar to purchase them.
Fortunately, there are really good mid-priced alternatives. This past spring Apple brought out the second-generation iPhone SE, a popular $399 throwback of sorts that reintroduced a smaller screen iPhone and revived the home button.
Now there’s a newbie contender for Android loyalists, with the delayed arrival of the Google Pixel 4a that I’ve been using for a couple of weeks. You can preorder it in the Google Play Store.
At $349, the Pixel 4a not only undercuts the iPhone SE by fifty bucks, but its own predecessor, the Pixel 3a, by that much. Either way, it’s an excellent value.
Tradeoffs: For sure, phones in this price class enact inevitable tradeoffs, and in the case of the Pixel 4a it means a device that lacks wireless charging, isn’t waterproof, and cannot be unlocked with your face. The Qualcomm Snapdragon (730G) processor inside the handset isn’t the fastest around. Nor does the Pixel 4a support emerging 5G networks—not that any iPhone does either.
That ought not be so for very long. There’s plenty of speculation we’ll see a 5G iPhone in the fall. And in a blog post announcing the 4a, Google vice president of product management for the Pixel, Brian Rakowski says a 4a (5g) phone is also coming in the fall, starting at $499, with the next Pixel 5 premium flagship turning up then too.
If you can live without 5g, or the sure to be more expensive Pixel 5, the beauty of the Pixel 4a available now is that it lifts many of features found on Google’s current premium smartphone the $799 Pixel 4.
Strong camera: Start with a very good camera, including the impressive Night Sight feature that lets you capture very acceptable pictures in dim light, even without firing up the flash. If you’ve employed the feature on prior Pixels, you understand that the onus is on you the photographer to remain steady for a longer beat when snapping an after-dark picture. Or you can prop it up on a tripod to grab a shot of the night sky.
Other holdover camera goodies include HDR+ with dual exposure controls, and Top Shot, a machine learning driven feature whereby the Pixel attempts to surface the best pics among the bunch you shot.
There’s also portrait mode, though that’s pretty much become table stakes on all phones in this class. If you’re keeping score, the Pixel 3a has a 12.2-megapixel rear camera and 8 MP front camera.
Record calls, stop telemarketers: As a journalist, I especially appreciate the Recorder feature Google has brought over from other recent Pixels. It automatically transcribes interviews or other conversations in real time, after which you can search the contents. Such transcriptions are far from perfect, but they’re good enough where you can easily refer back to a portion of the recording to hear the actual words spoken. Incidentally, you can summon the Google Assistant to start or stop recording a meeting, which is nice.
The “screen call” button meant to thwart telemarketers and scammers is another feature on the 4a that Google has had in place for a while. It lets the caller know by voice that you’re using an automated screening service from Google and that you the person being called will get a copy of whatever they’re telling you in (more or less) real time. They almost always hang up when they hear the message. If they don’t and the call is legit, you can always pick up.
In the name of safety: An important accessibility feature that’s worth flagging is Live Caption, which relies on speech recognition to overlay captions in real time from the audio on the device, a potential boon for the hard of hearing. It works on calls too (English only).
The phone also includes some safety features, including the ability to detect through its sensors a car crash. And if you went out for a run and didn’t make it back safely, the Pixel promises to alert designated emergency contacts while sharing your location via Google Maps.
Yay, a headphone jack: Kudos to Google for keeping the standard 3.5 mm audio jack for wired headphones, a feature approaching extinction elsewhere.
I didn’t run any formal tests on the (3140 mAh) battery but I wasn’t concerned, based on how I employed the phone anyway, about running out of juice. If you are low on power, there is fast charging if you use the adapter that comes in the box. (Battery life wasn't great on the Pixel 4.)
The phone is equipped with 6GB of RAM and 128GB of storage.
Pixel 4a isn’t the most attractive phone I’ve ever used. It has a 5.8-inch OLED display, and a rear matte black finish that is less slippery than the shiny 3a. That’s where you’ll find the fingerprint reader.
On the front, Google is making available a collection of new wallpapers meant to highlight a new hole punch camera design.
If you are looking for a well-rounded Android smartphone with not every new feature you might want but many of them, the Pixel 4a makes a strong case at an affordable price.