Google has finally struck gold with the Pixel 4a. This is our Pixel 4a review.
As I unboxed my Pixel 4a review unit, I already had some preconceived notion of what the phone would be. I knew, from the moment of its announcement, that I was going to love this phone. There was something about its combination of design, specs, and price that instantly sold me.
And so, aware of my prejudice, I was concerned about writing this review. I was afraid that donning rose-tinted glasses, I would give this phone more praise than it deserves. But several weeks later, try as I might, I have yet to find any major flaws with the device. Instead, my time spent with the 4a has only served to reaffirm my prejudices. This truly is an excellent, damn-near perfect phone, and I wouldn’t think twice before recommending it to someone.
So without further ado, let me tell you why.
Pixel 4a specs
- 144 x 69.4 x 8.2mm, 143g
- 5.81″ 1080 x 2340 HDR OLED display (443 ppi), Gorilla Glass 3
- Qualcomm Snapdragon 730G Octa-core, Adreno 618 GPU
- 128GB UFS 2.1 storage, 6GB RAM
- 12.2MP f/1.7 27mm main camera, max video resolution [email protected]
- 8MP, f/2.0, 24mm selfie camera
- 3140mAh battery, 18W fast charging (USB PD 2.0)
- Misc: stereo speakers, headphone jack, NFC
Design & Build
Let’s start with the design and build. The Pixel 4a comes in a unibody polycarbonate material, which has an excellent matte texture. The use of polycarbonate over glass has allowed the phone to weigh a refreshingly light 143g.
The phone is also refreshingly compact. It is just slightly larger than an iPhone SE (2020), but encompasses a much larger 5.81″ display. One-handed operation feels natural save for when tapping the occasional button at the top left hand corner of the screen. Going back to my daily driver OnePlus 6T, I found it to be much more cumbersome and unwieldy compared to the Pixel.
Despite being plastic, the build on the Pixel feels far from cheap. The construction is solid with no perceptible creaking; the buttons are extremely tactile and satisfying to press (something which multiple people have noted when holding my 4a unit). I very much prefer this design to the glass sandwich design of my OnePlus 6T and most other modern-day phones. Compared to those phones, polycarbonate phones have the advantage of being much lighter while also not shattering upon impact. Glass is glass, and glass breaks, as Zack from JerryRigEverything would say.
The design of the phone itself is just as spartan as the build materials. There is an understated look to the device: on the front, a full-screen display with only a minimal hole punch cutout at the top left corner; on the back, a single camera, fingerprint reader, and Google logo. There are no fancy curved edges, no unnecessary quad-camera arrays, no finicky under-display fingerprint reader. And there is just one colour option available: Just Black. No psychedelic glossy multi-colour mirror finishes.
In short, the exterior of this phone is minimalist, practical, and feels great in the hand. I absolutely adore it.
The display takes up the entire front of the phone, giving it a much more modern look than say, the iPhone SE (2020). The only disruption to this full-screen display is the hole punch front-facing camera on the top left hand corner. The chin is also ever-so-slightly thicker than the rest of the bezels around the display, but you wouldn’t notice it.
The single hole punch is perhaps my favourite implementation of a camera on a full-screen display, save for motorized pop-up cameras (which seem to be dead and gone now). It takes up very little space and is tucked in a corner so your brain naturally ignores it. It remains hidden in traditional 16:9 video, though half of it does cut into 18:9 video. I think it’s fine though. A hole punch beats a notch any day of the week, and until they figure out under-display cameras, I’m happy with hole punches.
The display itself is a 1080p OLED panel with good colour accuracy and vibrancy. You can choose from Natural, Boosted and Adaptive colour profiles. Natural is tuned to the sRGB colour space, while Adaptive is tuned to DCI-P3, yielding more vibrant and pleasing colours. Boosted is a slightly saturated version of Natural. Adaptive is on by default, and I personally found this to be the best option.
Besides this, the display gets extremely bright outdoors with automatic brightness, has excellent viewing angles, and 1080p is plenty sharp at this screen size (443 ppi).
Yes, it’s 60Hz. And I know you can get 90Hz or even 120Hz displays at this price point with options from the likes of Realme, Oppo and Xiaomi. But those are usually lower quality LCD panels, and in my opinion, high refresh rate isn’t a necessity at this price.
Overall, I have no issues with this display.
Performance is perhaps the main concern that people have when considering purchasing the Pixel 4a. Is the Snapdragon 730G fast enough? Does it feel slow? And while I have seen many YouTubers commenting that the 4a feels “sluggish”, I can confirm that this is certainly not the case.
I’m not too sure why said YouTubers made such comments; perhaps they are spoilt by high refresh displays. But coming from a 60Hz OnePlus 6T, I’m not. And I’m happy to report that this phone performs admirably. Apps launch and load near instantly, and stay in memory too thanks to that 6GB of RAM (more than even the Pixel 3XL, the previous-generation flagship).
There are no stutters in animation or scrolling, or lag to be seen anywhere. Side by side with my Snapdragon 845-running OnePlus 6T, I’m hard pressed to feel a difference in speed. In fact, someone did a comparison with the iPhone SE (2020), which has supposedly the fastest mobile chip currently on the planet, and the Pixel 4a held its own, even beating the iPhone in some tasks.
Where you’ll notice a difference in performance will be in graphics. In the real world, this would mean demanding 3D games. Sky Children of Light can only run at a maximum of 30fps and at what appears to be a lower resolution than 1080p. The same goes for Fortnite. Asphalt 9 also appeared to suffer from frequent dips in frame rates, and even crashed several times, though I’m not sure if this was due to incompatibility with Android 11 or poor optimisation for the chipset.
Note that you can certainly play 2D titles just fine; Dead Cells, for example, ran flawlessly for me. But if you’re into 3D games, while those games can still run on the 4a, expect lower resolutions and textures if you want these games to run properly.
The results of synthetic benchmarks confirm what I found in real-world testing.
The charts show that the Pixel 4a has similar performance to the Realme 6 (S$399) and Realme 6 Pro (S$499) which I recently reviewed. In short, the 4a offers good CPU performance but mediocre graphics performance, which is what you’d expect from phones in this price range. So long as you don’t play demanding 3D games on your phone, you’ll be more than happy with the Pixel’s performance.
Refreshingly, there are only 2 cameras to talk about on the Pixel: one front and one rear. Let’s start with the front.
The field-of-view on the selfie shooter is rather wide at 24mm, so you’ll have no problems taking group selfies. Contrast and dynamic range are excellent. You also get the option to light up the screen to illuminate your face, and 3 settings for face-retouching: off, natural and smooth.
The rear camera is where the magic lies. Google’s Pixels have established themselves at the top of smartphone photography, and the 4a is the cheapest entry point into this camera system. As with all previous Pixels, the Pixel 4a delivers excellent performance from its rear shooter. Images have great colours and contrast, good dynamic range, and plenty of detail, even in challenging lighting conditions.
If lighting conditions get too challenging, there’s the Pixel’s trademark Night Sight mode, which is still one of the best night modes in the market. In comparison, the S$649 iPhone SE (2020) doesn’t even have a night mode in its camera, and can’t produce images anywhere close to what the Pixel 4a offers in low light. Just check out the comparison shots below.
Battery life & software
Battery life on this device is good but not fantastic. I’ve been getting 4-6 hours of screen on time from the 3140mAh battery with the always-on display (AOD) enabled. The device does last till the end of the day, but no longer. If you do push the phone hard, you can expect to plug it in at the middle of the day.
The Pixel comes with a 18W charger in the box, which is technically a “fast” charger but by today’s 30-50W standards is more like a regular ol’ charger. Half an hour brought the battery up from 8% to 47%, which isn’t very fast. A full charge takes roughly 1.5 hours.
Being a Pixel phone, the software naturally shines. Google’s version of Android is clean yet feature-rich. There’s options for customising the style of the device (icon shapes, fonts, accent colours), though these are more limited than say, OnePlus devices, and you can’t change the icon pack on the default launcher.
There’s an AOD that shows the time, weather, current song, notifications, and battery remaining. If there is a song playing in your environment, the Pixel will automatically identify it and display the song title on the AOD.
There are of course a bunch more nice little Google features available (such as offline live captions for any audio playing on the device) which I won’t get into in this review. More than once, I found myself pleasantly surprised by some small feature that I didn’t know Pixels had prior to this review. Overall, the software experience is excellent.
Being a Google phone you’ll also get software updates directly from Google as soon as they go live. This means monthly security updates and 3 years of major Android OS updates (that’s 4 versions of Android). A couple of days into reviewing the phone, the Android 11 update went live and was instantly available to install. And presumably, the 4a will be updated all the way till Android 13 at least.
If you care about software and timely software updates, this may be a huge selling point over other Android devices.
There are other subtle things that make overall experience of using the Pixel 4a shine for me.
Take audio for instance. Despite its mid-range price tag, the Pixel offers stereo speakers, a rarity in this price range. The stereo separation is good and balanced, and the speakers get plenty loud.
The audio itself is good but isn’t anything spectacular. It’s a very mid-forward sound signature, meaning that vocals are more prominent than the highs, and bass is almost non-existent. That’s fair enough though, given that most people will be listening to these speakers while watching YouTube. Casual music listening is fine too, but don’t expect to be blown away like you used to by the BoomSound speakers of yore (RIP HTC).
Oh, the Pixel 4a also has a headphone jack.
Other little things include the 4a’s vibration motor which provides excellent haptic feedback. It’s so much more tactile and subtle than the garbage vibration motor that I have in my OnePlus 6T. Typing, highlighting text, and navigating the interface all provide satisfying clicks that actually serve as useful physical feedback. The haptic motor genuinely makes using this phone so much more satisfying than other phones with cheap buzzy motors. I typically turn off vibration on my phones because of how trash the vibration feels, but I left the 4a’s on.
Pricing & Conclusion
- Excellent build quality, comfortable to hold
- Bright, clean, colour accurate hole punch OLED display
- Class-leading camera
- Wonderful software with robust software support
- Fast, snappy performance in everyday tasks
- NFC, stereo speakers at low price point
- Headphone jack
- Good battery life
- Top-notch haptics
- Mediocre graphics performance
- No high refresh display
- Battery life and charging speed could be better
- Single rear camera (no ultrawide)
At S$499 (US$349), I think the Pixel 4a is a marvelous deal. Yes, you can get similarly-spec’d phones in Singapore from the likes of Oppo, Xiaomi and Realme at potentially cheaper prices. The recently launched Poco X3 NFC for instance, offers a 120Hz display (albeit LCD instead of OLED), a much larger battery and faster charging, and a quad-camera array for S$399 at the same storage configuration, which is S$100 less.
But there is still value to be had in the Pixel 4a. As an overall package, I prefer the Pixel 4a to the Poco X3, and I would gladly pay the S$100 premium. I prefer the Pixel’s size and weight, and its 60Hz OLED over a 120Hz LCD. I also vastly prefer its software experience. And simply in principle, I prefer one excellent camera to four mediocre-at-best and useless-at-worst cameras.
The charm about the 4a, at least to me, is that it gives you exactly what you need. There’s an endearing simplicity to it, from the design to the build to the software. You aren’t paying for nonsense features that you don’t need and won’t use, such as crappy quad-camera arrays. (If you can’t tell already, I really hate useless 2MP cameras on the back of my “budget” phones.) Instead, you pay exactly for what matters: an excellent camera, excellent screen, excellent build, and excellent software.
I wholeheartedly recommend the Pixel 4a. If you’re like me and you appreciate what the Pixel has to offer, you will love this phone. The one caveat is that if you play a lot of 3D games, you may want to consider a phone with more graphics power. That’s not to say that you can’t play those games; you’ll just have to accept lower graphical settings and resolutions.
To me, the Pixel 4a is damn near perfect. Perhaps I would wish for a bigger battery and faster charging, a 90Hz display, or maybe a wide angle camera. But those are more premium features that I can live without, and considering the S$499 asking price, I can’t really complain.
Interestingly, the leaked Pixel 5 specs appear to include those features. So if you’re interested in those, hold out for the Pixel 5, which should be available within a month.
I can’t wait to see what next year’s Pixel 5a will bring to the table. I can only hope that they keep the price point and continue delivering this great value. After a string of mediocre Pixel launches, I think Google has finally caught on to something good.
If I were in the market for a new phone, the Pixel 4a would be high on my list. On a personal note, this is the first time in a long while that I feel reluctant to put a review unit back into its box and return to my OnePlus 6T. And coming from someone who uses tens of phones a year, that’s saying something.
You can purchase the Pixel 4a for S$499 from the Google Store. As always, when purchasing online, you can potentially get additional cashback on your purchase with ShopBack. You can also check out our deals page for more Singapore deals.
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