How does Google follow up the success of the Pixel 4a with a 5G model? Very carefully.
The Pixel 4a was already a best-seller on Amazon, and other retailers. Now with the Pixel 4a 5G, Google is looking to replicate that success with a 5G smartphone that costs less than $500. And we think they've done it. During the review period of the Pixel 4a 5G, we have found almost zero issues with this phone. And considering the price point, that is actually pretty impressive.
Google's 2020 Pixel lineup is pretty strange. There are three models: Pixel 4a, Pixel 4a 5G, and Pixel 5. And strangely enough the Pixel 5 is the middle one, in relation to screen size. But the Pixel 4a 5G is the middle one, in relation to price. Not to mention the fact that the Pixel 4a 5G and Pixel 5 have almost the same internals. But I think Google has done a good job here of giving us decent devices at pretty low prices.
The only real issue I had with the Pixel 4a, was that it would slow down after a couple of months, forcing me to factory reset it. The Pixel 4a 5G likely fixes that with its newer chipset – the Snapdragon 765G. Of course, we have not had the Pixel 4a 5G for a couple months yet, to see if it really has. And the slightly larger screen size is really nice to have too.
Let's get the 5G elephant out of the room
Before we jump into the meat of the review, let's talk about 5G.
The Pixel 4a 5G is a 5G device, as you can tell by the name. But it's not as simple as buying a Pixel 4a 5G and putting in your SIM card. There are two SKUs of the Pixel 4a 5G. There's a Pixel 4a 5G with Sub-6, and a second one with mmWave. The mmWave model is really only available from Verizon, as they are the only carrier using mmWave right now. But that is also why the unlocked Pixel 4a 5G is not listed as compatible with Verizon. It is technically compatible – I've been using the Sub-6 model on Verizon – you just won't get 5G service. Which is fine, it's not like Verizon's 5G coverage is nationwide, or even available inside yet.
5G is still in its very early stages. We would not recommend getting the Pixel 4a 5G for 5G, but there are a few other reasons to get it. Like the bigger display and battery, as well as the new ultra-wide camera.
The biggest display on a Pixel this year, is still fairly small
This year, it seems like Google made the Pixel series for people that wanted a smaller phone – like myself. I fell in love with the Pixel 4a when it was announced and in my hands. But still found it to be a little small. The less than half an inch difference between the Pixel 4a and Pixel 4a 5G is enough to make me prefer the Pixel 4a 5G though.
It is nice having a small display that can fit in one hand comfortably, but there are people that prefer a larger display. And unfortunately, this year, it doesn't look like Google has an option for those that want a bigger display.
This display is quite nice though. It's a 6.2-inch FHD+ OLED display. It's also flat, so you won't need to worry about accidental touches with this one. The display gets very bright, I was shocked at how well I could see it outside, in direct sunlight. Considering the Pixel 4 XL was nowhere near that level. The colors look incredible on this display.
Hands-down, this is likely the best display you'll get on a smartphone for $500.
Don't worry about performance on the Snapdragon 765G
One of the biggest complaints we have seen about the Pixel 4a 5G and even the Pixel 5, is about the chipset. The Snapdragon 765G, which is a lower-end model compared to the Snapdragon 865 chipset. But it is not a trash component. It's actually very capable. And Google went with this to keep the price down, and still offer 5G. But one of the other important features of this chipset is the increased battery efficiency, so you can really keep this thing going all day long.
This is an octa-core processor with a 2.4GHz core, a 2.2GHz core and then six 1.8GHz cores. That's a bit slower than the Snapdragon 865, but unless you are doing anything crazy like playing AAA games on the Pixel 4a 5G, you won't notice the difference. I've used a few other Snapdragon 765G smartphones this year, and the Pixel 4a 5G feels a lot snappier, likely due to the software optimization there.
The Snapdragon 765G is paired with 6GB of RAM, which yeah it's on the low-end. But we haven't had any issues with it pushing apps out of memory, or really slowing down. So it's good, for now. It would have been nice to see it pushed to 8GB so that it is future-proofed for a couple of years (or longer). But for 2020, it's good enough.
Performance is pretty good on the Pixel 4a 5G, don't be worried about the Snapdragon 765G holding anything back. And with 128GB of storage on-board, there's plenty of room for pictures, as well as apps and such to store on your phone.
Goodbye face unlock
With the Pixel 4 series, Google tried to make Face Unlock a thing. It likely would have succeeded if it weren't for two issues. One, many apps did not update to support face unlock, like banking apps. Which meant that you had to put in your entire password each time, instead of just using your face or your fingerprint to unlock it. The second issue was the global pandemic. We're all wearing face masks now, which means that if we are out in public, we can't simply look at our phone to unlock it. That is the biggest reason I moved away from using the Pixel 4 XL earlier this year. I could deal with the terrible battery life, but face unlock was a major issue.
Face unlock was pretty good, it was fairly accurate and worked well at night. But removing the fingerprint sensor was a major mistake on Google's part. Thankfully, it returned on the Pixel 4a earlier this year and is now on the Pixel 4a 5G and Pixel 5.
The fingerprint sensor on the Pixel 4a 5G is pretty good. It's on the back, so we have a return to capacitive fingerprint sensors again. It is almost flush with the back though, which means you may hit it by mistake. And I have done that many times. But it's easy to find, and it's super reliable. Unlike in-display sensors that are either slow or not accurate (sometimes both). This was the right move by Google, and likely helped them bring the price down across the board on its Pixel devices.
I do kind of miss face unlock from the Pixel 4 series, but this was the right move by Google. The Soli chip found in the Pixel 4 was cool, but it never really materialized to anything more than a gimmick. So to see it disappear in the Pixel 4a and Pixel 5, is not a big surprise.
Speakers aren't the best
The speakers on the Pixel 4a 5G are not the best. There's a downward firing speaker and then the earpiece is used as the second speaker. The same setup we've seen on many smartphones over the past few years. But the quality from these speakers just aren't great. If you're not an audiophile, you won't notice the difference, to be honest. I thought the speakers sounded okay on the Pixel 4a 5G, but then I put it side-by-side the Galaxy S20 FE and even the Pixel 4 XL from last year, and it couldn't hold a candle to those. Though, those phones are also quite a bit more expensive.
The phrase "you get what you pay for" comes to mind, when it comes to the speakers here.
But thankfully, the Pixel 4a 5G did keep the headphone jack. This seems to be a feature on the Pixel 4a series only, these days. So you can plug in your favorite pair of headphones to the Pixel 4a 5G and get better sounding audio from these. And the best part is, you won't need a dongle. That is very important.
So audio quality is okay, it's not the best part of the Pixel 4a 5G. But there is a headphone jack, so Google gets points for that.
Battery life is impressive
Just looking at the spec sheet, it was clear that Google finally got the message about battery life. And that we want bigger batteries and our phone to last all day, not until lunch time. But the results I got on the Pixel 4a 5G were even better than I expected.
It sports a 3885mAh capacity battery, which is still somewhat small in 2020, but with the other battery savings Google has achieved with specs, it's pretty incredible.
There's a smaller 6.2-inch FHD+ display here, and the Snapdragon 765G which is very battery efficient. I was able to get seven hours of on-screen time pretty easily on this phone. Which has me excited to start using the Pixel 5, honestly.
That's far more than the Pixel 4 XL got me last year, we're talking about four, maybe five hours of on-screen time. The Pixel 4a could hit five hours easily, but not much more.
Pixel 4a 5G gave me more screen on-time than every other phone I've used this year. That includes all of the Samsung flagship phones that you are paying at least twice as much for. Even better than the Galaxy S20 FE. As mentioned, this is because of the Snapdragon 765G inside, which is very battery efficient.
The only downside to the battery life here is the charging. Google is still doing 18W USB-C PD charging on the Pixels. Which is the safest way to do fast charging, but I would prefer Google to offer up some faster charging, like 25W. Samsung is able to do it, so Google can also do it. They just refuse. Having said that, 18W is still plenty fast to charge the Pixel 4a 5G, remember the battery is below 4000mAh anyways.
Unlike the Pixel 5, the Pixel 4a 5G does not have wireless charging. That might be a disadvantage for some, but I personally don't care about wireless charging. It's still quite slow and cumbersome, in my opinion.
Finally an ultra-wide camera!
There's usually not to many complaints when it comes to the Pixel camera, but there were a handful with the Pixel 4 last year. And Google seems to have addressed every single one.
The biggest complaint was Google adding a telephoto instead of an ultra-wide. Claiming that a telephoto was more useful. Well it looks like Google went back on those words. As there is an ultra-wide on the Pixel 4a 5G and the Pixel 5 this year.
It's a 16-megapixel sensor with a 107-degree field-of-view. Which is going to get a whole lot of stuff in the shot. It's great having an ultra-wide sensor on the Pixel 4a 5G now, as you can get an entire building in the shot, without needing to back up.
Other complaints that Google fixed included adding 4K60 for video, as well as the ability to do some cinematic pans. Google really focused on video with the Pixel 4a 5G and Pixel 5 this year, and it is about time.
The cinematic pans feature is really useful if you're a YouTuber or a vlogger. Being able to make these pans without using a gimbal is very useful. And the results that the Pixel 4a 5G spits out when doing a cinematic pan is incredible. It's crazy that you can do that with a handheld smartphone camera.
Another feature that is new this year, is that the camera will automatically take a Night Sight photo if there's not much light. Previously, it would pop up in the viewfinder to use "Night Sight" and you could quickly switch over to Night Sight. But now it is done automatically, which is a brilliant change. It will show the moon in the shutter button when it needs to take the photo as a Night Sight photo. This likely also ties into the Night Sight Portrait Mode feature.
There are some changes to the camera app this year too. This is mostly due to the new features and the addition of a second lens you can actually use. Just above the shutter button now, you will see buttons for .6x, 1x and 2x. So you can switch from ultra-wide to the main sensor and then to 2x zoom. The shutter button is also smaller, inside of a larger white ring.
Overall, the camera on the Pixel 4a 5G is still rather impressive. Not just for a $500 smartphone, but for any smartphone. While other smartphones are adding more and more camera sensors to the back of the phone, Google is sticking with the same sensor (literally) and improving it with optimizations and new software features. Giving us better pictures, instead of a bunch of features we won't use.
The Pixel 4a 5G comes with Android 11 pre-installed, as you might expect. It also launches with the October 5, 2020 security patch. It'll get at least two years of OS updates and at least three years of security updates too.
Android 11 with the Pixel Experience is really refined now, on the Pixel 4a 5G. So it runs really well on this hardware. Of course, Google has been working to get Android to run better on lower-specced hardware for a few years now, so that's no surprise.
There's not a lot of changes here versus Android 11 on a Pixel 4a, but one change we did notice was in the "Styles & Wallpaper" settings. The wallpapers are now smaller squares, making it easier to scroll through the long list. And the Styles tab shows the entire home screen, with a better live preview. Instead of swiping to see each element, it shows it all on the same screenshot. And finally, there is a new tab for the app grid. So you can opt for much larger icons, or smaller ones.
Android 11 is super smooth here, and with the new bubbles feature for messages, you can really stay in contact with everyone a lot easier.
No more Pixel gimmicks
Google doesn't add a lot of gimmicks to its smartphones, compared to some of its partners. But with the 2020 Pixel devices, Google has decided to get rid of all the gimmicks. Which also likely drove the price down.
Google got rid of the Active Edge, where you could squeeze to bring up the Assistant. This was a feature some people used, but many of us did not. And normally triggered it by mistake. I, for one, am glad to see it gone. That's one less thing I need to disable in setup.
As already mentioned, Google also got rid of the Soli sensor for Motion Sense and Face Unlock. Sure the Motion Sense gestures were pretty cool, but they were more of a gimmick than anything else.
Another thing Google got rid of, and I didn't mind, was wireless charging. As I've already mentioned, the Pixel 4a series does not have wireless charging. Not because it isn't capable of it, these are plastic phones so it is possible. But that's another area where Google cut corners to hit this price point. Adding in the coils cost more money and space – that was likely used for a larger battery. And where wireless charging is a lot faster and doesn't heat up the phone as much, it's a better way to charge, in my opinion. It may not be the most convenient, but I'll take speed over wireless charging.
One thing that Google didn't add to the Pixel 4a and 4a 5G was an IP Rating, and that is a big deal. Now it is still splash proof, but it doesn't have an official IP Rating, which does cost a decent amount of money to have done. Basically, don't worry if it gets wet outside while it's raining, but don't take it into the shower or the pool.
Should I buy the Pixel 4a 5G?
This year, Google's Pixel lineup is pretty confusing. There are three phones that are very similar in specs, and range from $350 to $700. The Pixel 4a 5G is caught in the middle, and to be honest, it'll likely be the best selling of the three.
Not because of 5G support though. Because it has the same specs (minus 2GB of RAM and a smidge smaller battery) as the Pixel 5. And it has a slightly larger display. I have absolutely loved my time with the Pixel 4a 5G, and the battery life is incredible. While it's unfortunate that there is no Snapdragon 865-powered Pixel this year, this is going to be good enough for just about everyone.
At $499, the Pixel 4a 5G is a great device to pick up (just remember, if you're on Verizon, it'll be $599). Because you don't need to spend $1,000 on a new smartphone in 2020.