What do you truly need in a modern smartphone in 2020? What are the essential features, components and designs that define good enough? The Pixel 4a sets out to answer that question and perhaps offer a glimpse into a future where the mid-range smartphone becomes the standard.
Pre-2019 and the launch of the Pixel 3a there were often compromises, usually the camera, in mid-tier devices. When Google launched the Pixel 3a (and XL) devices, they redefined what was possible for the mid-tier device.
In 2020 they’re back with a Pixel 4a device, and they haven’t come unprepared. The Pixel 4a brings the same approach to affordable hardware with a genuine generational step forward.
So does the Pixel 4a deliver the no compromised mid-tier device that everyone wants? Should you throw out your €1000+ uber-premium device and enter the affordable phone race? Read on to find out.
Let’s be clear, the Pixel 4a is not trying to be a OnePlus device, pretending to be top tier in every way but at a lower price point. No, the 4a is intentionally an affordable device with decisions made to lower the cost while achieving a high standard of usability.
These sort of devices naturally have compromises, but compromises depend on your reference point. If you compare the €389 Pixel 4a to the €1349 Samsung Galaxy Note20 Ultra, it’s going to fall a long way short; it’s less than third of the price, but far better than a third the phone.
So, with compromises expected, what is in the Pixel 4a? The Pixel 4a comes in only one size: a 5.81″ rounded edge hole punch AMOLED FHD+ flat panel display is embedded, quite seamlessly, into the polycarbonate unibody design.
I have to say I love the very light hand feel and flat display. The 4a includes a rear fingerprint sensor, USB-C charging, a 3.5MM headphone jack (so retro), single pixel sense rear camera. In short, it has everything a phone needs.
Powering the Pixel 4a is the new line of 7 series Snapdragon SOC, the Snapdragon 730G, paired with 6GB of RAM and 128GB of internal storage. All of this is powered by a 3,140mAh battery that deliveries surprisingly long battery life but more on that later.
So, if that is what it’s got, what is it missing? Again that depends on your point of view, and something I honestly struggled with. What do I want to see that it doesn’t have? That’s easy, Qi wireless charging, an ultra-wide-angle lens and a telephoto lens, oh and an XL variant.
With just those “couple of additions” I have likely increased the cost, increased the complexity and probably destroyed the reason the Pixel 4a was created in the first place. I could (and do) argue that withholding Qi charging is an intentional decision to make the more expensive devices more appealing, but everything else would 100% increase the cost, significantly.
Qualcomm set out to develop a new tier of processors that offered the essential elements that a smart device would need without some of the more premium features that OEMs love to push. This culminated in the Snapdragon 700 series of processors.
Having used the original Pixel 3a XL and now the Pixel 4a I can say that while the 3a XL never felt it lacked in performance, I can feel the additional headroom in the Snapdragon 730G.
Did I experience system lag or stutters? Honestly, no. Did I experience slow to open apps? Yep, but these are the same apps that I find painfully slow to load in the first place such as Google Home and Facebook Messenger.
Paired with 6GB of RAM, the Snapdragon 730G is more than adequate for my usage. How the Pixel 4a stands the test of time, how the performance will be in 3 years, I can’t say. However, right now, I honestly just don’t need anything more.
The Pixel line was born of excellent photography skills; in fact, it was the defining character of the Pixel 1, where Google’s latest hardware journey all began. The camera performance in the Pixel 4a draws a direct line to that starting point.
Google has focused all of its energy into computational photography, rather than the cameras on their device. For a mid-tier device like the Pixel 4a, that means you’re getting the same excellent performance of the top tier Pixel because all of the magic is in software, and the 4a has got it all.
Yes, this is the same camera hardware they have been using for ages. I don’t care the Pixel 4a’s single-lens performance holds it’s own against any other single lens. Old doesn’t mean bad; in fact, it can sometimes mean well optimised.
Point and shoot photography with the Pixel 4a is quick, clear, and I like the way Google handles their image processing. With Google’s software, however, there’s more than simple point and shoot on offer.
Google has packed in some genuinely remarkable photography prowess with the Pixel 4a including; ‘Night Sight’ mode which delivers fantastic still images in poor lighting. Astrophotography has made the journey from Pixel 4 and provides enhanced computational photography for taking photos of the stars; unfortunately, I couldn’t get away from light pollution enough to test it properly.
Super Res Zoom is also here and is Google’s mostly successful attempt to provide 7x zoom with only a single lens. Overall the performance is better than the traditional ‘digital zoom’, but in my opinion, it is not as good as a dedicated lens. This is the benefit of computational photography though, the Pixel 4a gets 75% of a zoom lens for free and in a mid-tier device.
The Pixel line set the bar for single-lens photography, and the Pixel 4a continues that legacy. Yes, some of the ultra-premium devices with five cameras provide a better range of focus options, specifically for wide and telephoto needs.
However, the Pixel 4a is not trying to be that kind of device, and at this price point, we’re going to say that’s ok. I defy you to find another smartphone that can match the photography skills of the Pixel 4a at this price point.
Unfortunately, we all know how the smaller Pixels have fared when it comes to battery like but thankfully, that’s not the case anymore with the Pixel 4a.
It really is a true all-day phone, take it off charge at 7am, drop it back at 10pm, and you’ll still have battery to spare. On my heaviest day, I used about 4 hours of screen time, and still had about 20% remaining.
Most days I would go to bed with 50% left, and the battery life gauge indicating it would last until 4pm the following day. We all know that battery life drops off over time, with the performance of the Pixel 4a you can afford to lose some battery longevity and still have a useful device.
So, should you buy the Pixel 4a? If you can afford €389 on a phone, and we know there are some for whom that is still an unjustifiably high price, then the Pixel 4a is one of the best sub-€400 phones you can buy in Ireland right now.
Google seems to have nailed the ‘just enough’ approach when it comes to features most users need with the more expensive bells and whistles left out to keep costs down whilst still offering a respectable device.
You can sign up to the official Google ‘Waiting List’ for the handset with pre-orders starting on September 10th.