Ever been swayed by a spec list? Faced with a bunch of identikit £400 phones you revert to your laptop-buying tendencies and look for the slightly higher numbers in each category. Chances are you wouldn’t end up with a Pixel. And while Google reportedly had a very good year for Pixel phone sales last year, with IDC putting it at 7.2 million sales, a lot of people who have been swayed by specs would honestly be better off with a Pixel.
Enter the Pixel 4a. With a price drop to £349, it’s a mix of last year’s Pixel 3a and Pixel 4 with the flagship phone’s camera and, considering the minor upgrades, maybe a little too much in common with the previous mid-range option.
Who’s it for
We would say anyone who needs a Pixel right now but the 4a won’t actually go on sale in the UK until October 1. There’s a waiting list from today for pre-orders, which start 10 September.
By October, we may have full details and a release date for the just-teased Pixel 4a 5G ($499) and the Pixel 5 5G – both coming “later this year” – so in reality, this is for anyone who wants a reliably great phone camera in a manageable size and who doesn’t want to pay a £150 premium for faster speeds. Google says blame coronavirus for the launch schedule with Google’s Pixel product manager Sherry Lin saying: “The rollout of 5G has been hit by Covid too.”
Let’s start with the obvious. There’s just one size this year – no Pixel 4a XL to speak of, right now. But it’s a screen size that sits between the two models we got in 2019 so a larger 5.8-inch OLED (compared to the Pixel 3a’s 5.6-inch display). There’s also one colourway, ‘Just Black’, as per coronavirus delays. “We needed to consolidate our resources on one SKU, one colour to get that out of the door,” says Lin. “Covid wreaks havoc in so many ways.”
Now, Google refers to the screen as “bezel-less” and “edge to edge” and you might be disappointed if you’re expecting an all-screen phone akin to a flagship device. But we’ve no complaints with the 2,340 x 1,080 display itself. Just note there’s a punch hole for the 8MP front facing camera in the top left corner and there’s no enhanced 90 or 120Hz refresh rate, as per the Pixel 4 or £379 OnePlus Nord.
At 143g and a similar handprint to the Pixel 3a, with a familiar, pleasing matte finish, the Pixel 4a is better for one-handed use than most, high quality rivals in this price point. It seems only Apple and Google are content to stick to smaller sizes.
Living with it
This is where Pixel phones come into their own: the day-to-day usage. We tested the Pixel 4a running pure Google-focused Android 10, though you can of course sign up for the Android 11 beta to try out new chat, voice access and device control features. If you’re a Google Assistant phone user, there’s a lot to get to grips with here. There’s the same menu of options to quick access it as the Pixel 4 – apart from Active Edge – and the new compact ‘Light Bar’ down the bottom of the screen works really nicely – that’s reported to be coming to other non-Pixel phones.
Google chose not to bring across Face ID from the Pixel 4, what with all the face mask-wearing, so it’s the same snappy fingerprint sensor as the 3a on the back of the 4a. The stereo speakers are fine, nothing special, and the 3.5mm headphone jack is present and correct, now something of a rarity.
One area where we have criticised both the Pixel 3a and the Pixel 4 in the past is battery life. There’s a slightly bigger 3,140mAh unit in the Pixel 4a and Google’s Adaptive Battery is on hand to reduce power to apps you rarely use over time, meaning around 24 hours between charges. But when in use, and we mean proper use, that battery really does drop, about ten per cent an hour on average. Standby performance is good, though, and the bundled 18W fast charger took our Pixel 4a from 19 per cent to 63 per cent in half an hour. Overall? There’s still room for improvement.
The one reason to forego treats like huge days long batteries and high refresh rates elsewhere is the Pixel’s camera. The 4a uses the same 12.2MP main camera of the Pixel 4, with both EIS and OIS plus phase detection AF. There’s just the one lens here, no Pixel 4 telephoto, but it’s fantastic.
Yes, you can now access the astrophotography abilities in Night Sight but in more mainstream scenarios, it’s a quick, supremely reliable smartphone shooter with Live HDR+ to tackle tricky lighting and decent software-based Super Res Zoom up to 8x. What you lose in flexibility as compared to rivals that often a gazillion lenses, you gain in overall quality. Don’t forget, the Pixel 4 came out on top when we asked a pro photographer to rate the flagships last year.
Google’s Recorder app also deserves a shout-out for its brilliant transcription offering. It’s genuinely real time speech-to-text – yes, we sat there and watched – with good accuracy and SPG. It now handily exports to Google Docs with new voice search capabilities too. Live Caption can also now be used during voice or video calls, as well as video and audio messages, and both features process data on-device. This is the kind of stuff that really shows off what Google can do.
Why oh why…
There’s probably no good way to get out multiple phones during a pandemic but we think the launch cycle might end up hurting the Pixel 4a. The two new 5G phones are due in “the fall” so people might wait to see what a more futureproof Pixel 4a 5G has to offer instead of pre-ordering this model. Especially because we assume that extra $150 price points to further hardware additions. It’s not a criticism of Google but it’s also true that rivals like OnePlus and Realme have been able to get their mid-range offerings on sale this summer.
You get double the storage of the Pixel 3a – 128GB here versus 64GB – and an upgraded combination of a Snapdragon 730G processor and 6GB of RAM. There’s no IP rating for waterproofing, as last year, no wireless charging and none of the Pixel 4’s radar based motion sensing for gestures, which, trust us, you can live without. And as usual, there’s three years of OS and security updates guaranteed.
So, should I buy it?
This is a tricky one. Mainly because the Pixel 4a is not the most thrilling upgrade of all time and Google is already teeing up its successor – of sorts – in the form of a more expensive Pixel 4a 5G. But none of that takes away from the fact that this is still terrific value for £349. It’s stylish, puts Google front and centre and avoids the major mid-range trap of scrimping on the camera. In short, it’s the kind of phone that more than seven million people should probably consider.
Sign up for the Google Pixel 4a waitlist on Google. The Pixel 4a will be up for pre-order from 10 September and on sale for £349 from 1 October.
Sophie Charara edits WIRED Recommends. She tweets from @sophiecharara
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