Google Pixel 4a review: Shockingly good for $349

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Google Pixel 4a review: Specs

Price: $349
OS: Android 10
Display: 5.81-inch OLED (2340×1080)
CPU: Snapdragon 730G
Storage: 128GB
Rear camera: 12.2MP (ƒ/1.7)
Front camera: 8MP (ƒ/2.0)
Battery: 3,140 mAh
Battery life: 8:55
Size: 5.7 x 2.7 x 0.3 inches
Weight: 5.04 ounces

The Google Pixel 4a takes everything that made the Pixel 3a great — the flagship-caliber camera, the thoughtful software, the impressive build quality — and improves upon it, while also lowering the price to $349. The result isn’t simply the best cheap phone on the market; it’s one of the best phones, period.

In fact, after testing the Pixel 4a, I personally wouldn’t hesitate to choose it over the iPhone SE. While the iPhone SE is more powerful and has conveniences like wireless charging and water resistance, Google’s midrange offering tops Apple’s in several other areas, including a larger and brighter OLED display, more modern design and double the storage out of the box.

I would prefer more battery life, and the Google Pixel 4a 5G is a better option if you want 5G connectivity and are willing to pay about $100 more. But as our Google Pixel 4a review illustrates, this is one of those rare affordable smartphones that does just about everything well.

Google Pixel 4a review: Price and availability

The Pixel 4a is available unlocked from Google and retailers like Amazon. You can also buy the phone through Verizon, Google Fi, US Cellular and other select carriers. There’s only one configuration of this device with 128GB of storage and it costs $349. Originally available in Just Black, there’s now a Barely Blue color option that’s exclusive to Google’s online store.

As with all Pixel phones, there’s no microSD expandability here, so having all that space available from the get go is certainly useful.

If you want 5G connectivity, you’ll have to pay $100 more for the Pixel 4a 5G, which is now on sale, too. This 5G version of the Pixel 4a actually has more in common with the Pixel 5, right down to the dual rear cameras and Snapdragon 765G processor.

Google Pixel 4a review: Design

If you’ve seen Google’s Pixel phones in recent years, you know they don’t tend to take risks in terms of design. At a time when Mountain View’s competitors began churning out devices with miniscule bezels, massive multi-lens cameras and hole-punch front-facing shooters, the latest Pixels have been rather pedestrian in terms of their appearance, only distinguished by unique materials, finishes and colorways.

(Image credit: Tom’s Guide)

And so it’s hardly surprising that the Google Pixel 4a looks a lot like Pixel 4, but cleaner and lighter, with slimmer bezels and a plastic-clad chassis replacing the pricier phone’s combination of glass and metal. Thankfully the Pixel 4a still manages to feel satisfyingly solid, thanks to a matte texture that’s pleasing to the touch. The square camera patch on the back seems a little silly, especially considering the Pixel 4a only features one lens and the LED flash, though at least the camera array is smaller and dare I say cuter than the one on the back of the flagship Pixel 4.

(Image credit: Tom’s Guide)

Rather than an in-screen fingerprint sensor, the Pixel 4a has the rear-mounted capacitive Pixel Imprint scanner of old, which I actually prefer to newer optical and ultrasonic solutions. It’s cheaper to implement, so it keeps the cost of the phone down, and I also find it to be much snappier to use, with fewer false negative results. Additionally, because it’s on the back, you can effortlessly swipe down on it to reveal quick toggles and notifications, which makes for a handy shortcut.

(Image credit: Tom’s Guide)

There are two things I really appreciate about the Pixel 4a’s design that deserve callouts. First is the headphone jack, the inclusion of which still isn’t lost on me all these years since most phone makers have abandoned it. The second is the presence of stereo speakers, which is especially impressive given that the Pixel 4a lacks the prominent top bezel of the Pixel 4.

Despite the packaging constraints, Google was still able to stuff a speaker within the earpiece, housed in a barely-perceptible slit in the top edge. In conjunction with the bottom-firing speakers, it’s quite powerful — less warm and bassy as my iPhone 11 Pro’s drivers, but still just as loud.

(Image credit: Tom’s Guide)

That said, this phone isn’t flashy, even though you can now pick either a black or blue version (at least if you do your shopping at Google). Blame the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, as Google has told us it originally released one color to “streamline manufacturing and prevent further delays.” It’s disappointing, especially because the Pixel line has always adopted a playful and refreshing approach to colors — though at least Just Black still receives a hint of flavor thanks to its mint power button.

(Image credit: Tom’s Guide)

Unfortunately, there’s two areas in which the Pixel 4a falls to the iPhone SE where design is concerned. This phone isn’t rated for water resistance at all, and it cannot charge wirelessly. Given that those are rare features at this price, I’m not bothered too much by that — after all, the iPhone SE is the exception to the budget phone rule, not the norm. Also, for what it’s worth, the infinitely more modern and attractive design of the Pixel 4a offsets those concessions. Given my penchant for small phones, I love that the 5.8-inch Pixel 4a is just a smidge taller than the 4.7-inch iPhone SE, but packs so much more screen real estate.

Google Pixel 4a review: Display

The Pixel 3a was one of the cheapest handsets on the market with an OLED screen, and the Pixel 4a continues that distinction. The 5.81-inch, full-HD panel in Google’s new midrange phone delivers bold yet realistic color, and gets surprisingly bright as well.

(Image credit: Tom’s Guide)

The deep, inky blacks of the Pixel 4a’s OLED panel lended a suitably dark and grizzly vibe to the trailer for the Train to Busan sequel, Peninsula, while the impressive contrast made the daybreak scenes all the more captivating. And as I watched the trailer for the new science fiction thriller Sputnik, I was drawn toward the flashing CRT monitors and lights illuminating the desolate darkness of a Soviet control room in crisis.

When set to its Natural color profile, the Pixel 4a rendered 105.8% of the sRGB color space, which is actually a bit less saturated than the 111.2% of the LCD-powered iPhone SE. However, if you want more lively hues, you’re free to opt for the Boosted or Adaptive color settings on the Pixel. The iPhone SE has a slight advantage in terms of color accuracy though, notching a Delta-E score of 0.2 compared to the Pixel 4a’s 0.29. (Numbers closer to zero are better in this particular test.)

(Image credit: Tom’s Guide)

When it comes to brightness, the Pixel 4a follows the precedent established by most Android phones, in that you can only access its true peak full-screen brightness setting when Adaptive Brightness is turned on. The maximum manual setting tops out at 433 nits; outdoors in sunlight, with the adaptive setting enabled, the Pixel 4a’s panel can reach 681 nits. By comparison, the iPhone SE can hit 653 nits no matter whether you use auto or manual brightness.

Overall I’m hugely impressed with the Pixel 4a’s panel, save for two nitpicks. First, given that this phone is relatively low-priced compared to others that employ OLED technology, I’m not surprised that the viewing angles on the 4a pale slightly next to more premium OLED-toting models, like Google’s own flagship Pixel 4. There’s a bit of red and blue polarization that creeps in when viewing the

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