Google Pixel 4a review: the budget Pixel strikes back

The Google Pixel 4a puts a great Android experience and an excellent camera inside a very affordable package

Google Pixel 4a review
(Image credit: Future)
T3 Verdict

The Pixel 4a looks to have hit the sweet spot in terms of price and performance, offering a very capable phone and an excellent camera at a bargain price. There are some compromises along the way though, so be sure to weigh up the competition as well.

Reasons to buy
  • +

    Another great camera

  • +

    Really appealing price

  • +

    Pure Google experience

Reasons to avoid
  • -

    No 5G

  • -

    Relatively small screen

  • -

    No telephoto zoom

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The Google Pixel 4a is here, a little later than planned, and it follows the playbook of the much admired Pixel 3a – a cut-down, more affordable Pixel for those who don't want the big screen, multiple cameras, and premium-quality materials of the Pixel 4 flagships.

Perhaps the most important detail about the Pixel 4a is its price: it's a smidge cheaper than the OnePlus Nord and quite a bit cheaper than the iPhone SE 2020, and that helps it stand out in what is a crowded part of the smartphone market at the moment.

Everyone is making more affordable versions of their flagships now – Apple, Samsung, OnePlus – and that's before you get to phones from the likes of Xiaomi, Oppo, Nokia, Motorola and others that have been offering great value at this price point for years.

What Google did brilliantly with the Pixel 3a was choosing the right bits to keep and the right bits to cut in order to get the price down. Has it managed to pull off the same trick with the Pixel 4a? Read on for our full review of the latest Google Pixel to find out.

Google Pixel 4a review: price & release date

The Google Pixel 4a is available to pre-order now in the US, with a release date of August 20th 2020, for $349.

In the UK October, the Pixel 4a will cost £349 and has a much later release date: October 1st 2020, with pre-orders open from September 10th.

Google has also confirmed that a 5G version of the Pixel 4a (called the Pixel 4a 5G, appropriately enough) will be released towards the end of the year alongside the Pixel 5, and will start from $499. 

Google Pixel 4a review: design and screen

With a 5.81-inch, 1080x2340-pixel resolution OLED screen, this phone has a display a little bigger than the Pixel 4 (5.7 inches) and somewhat smaller than the Pixel 4 XL (6.3 inches). While the general trend is for ever-bigger phone screens, the Pixel 4a is relatively compact – which may or may not be to your tastes. It's the same size as the smaller iPhone 11 Pro.

The bezels around the sides of the screen are pleasingly thin, and there's a single punch hole notch in the top left of the display for the selfie camera. Around the back there's matte plastic rather than the glass of the Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL, and honestly we prefer the matte look.

As with the Pixel 3a, there's no doubt when you hold the phone in your hand that it's a cheaper phone – but it doesn't feel too cheap. It's lightweight and plasticky, but it's also comfortable to hold, and it feels sturdy. You get the feeling that this is a phone that could take some punishment with or without a case, though we should point out that the phone isn't rated as waterproof or dustproof. There's a fingerprint sensor on the back, dual speakers at the bottom, a USB-C port, and – we're happy to say – a 3.5 mm headphone jack up at the top (there are wired earbuds in the box too).

We kind of liked the dual-tone backing that the Pixels had before the Pixel 4 arrived, and even though that has fallen by the wayside, these Google phones still have a certain understated elegance to them. Having the power button a slightly different colour is a small but effective trick that's been done on previous Pixels, and it's back again here – the power button is a sort of green-ish white, as far as we can tell. Black is your only colour choice when it comes to the Pixel 4a.

If it's not already obvious, there's no Pixel 4a XL – though there are rumours that the upcoming Pixel 4a 5G later in the year will have a larger screen. Overall, Google has done a decent job with the design of the Pixel 4a: phones like the OnePlus Nord and Apple SE 2020 feel a bit more premium to hold, whereas the Pixel 4a feels more ordinary and everyday, but that's okay. It's rather happy in its mid-range skin.

Google Pixel 4a review: camera and battery

Google Pixel 4a review

(Image credit: Future)

Like the Pixel 3a, the Pixel 4a sticks with a single 12.2MP rear camera, though we're assuming it's the slightly updated lens found in the Pixel 4 phones – phones which also add a second telephoto lens. In other words, it's half the camera you get with the Pixel 4, but again Google's algorithms are working their magic to produce some really great shots considering the handset only has a single camera lens to work with.

Shutter speed is responsive and snappy, colours are sharp and bright, dark and light areas are well balanced, and details are well retained even when photos are viewed up close. Once again, Night Sight is the star of the show, producing some almost unbelievable shots in low light if you can hold the camera steady for a couple of seconds – if anything they almost brighten the scene too much in some situations, leaving you with an eerie mix of daylight and nighttime in the same shot.

As with the Pixel 3, Pixel 3a and Pixel 4 phones before it, the Pixel 4a can take shots of the night sky too. You can read more about the feature here. Through a combination of local lockdown rules, cloud cover and light pollution, we haven't been able to test the feature out so far – but we have previously tested it with the Pixel 4 XL and found it to work well. For astrophotography however, you need a tripod or some other prop to keep the phone steady for between two and four minutes.

Speaking of the Pixel 4 XL, we were able to compare it directly with the Pixel 4a in some shots. We found the dual-lens rear camera on the Pixel 4 XL came out on top, as you would expect – but only some of the time, and not by a huge distance. The Pixel 4a actually comes very close to the flagship in the photography stakes, even in zooming: the software-based zoom gets close to the Pixel 4 XL optical zoom in terms of quality.

If you want the very best Pixel camera, get the Pixel 4 or the Pixel 4 XL, but the Pixel 4a gets very close to the same quality for a fraction of the price. It looks as though camera quality is once again going to be a big reason to pick this Google mid-ranger, and it's definitely one of the best smartphone cameras we've seen at this price point – especially if you're shooting in low light situations.

Given the time constraints on our phone reviews – and the fact that brand new phones boast brand new batteries that haven't started to degrade – it's always hard to give a definitive verdict on battery life at this early stage. What we can say is that the Pixel 4a seems to hold its charge very well, with the 3,140mAh battery still having around half its charge left at the end of each day. In our two-hour video streaming test, the battery dropped from 100 percent to 85 percent, which is above average (and equates to more than 12 hours of streaming between charges).

Google Pixel 4a review: other specs and features

Google Pixel 4a review

(Image credit: Future)

If rumours are to be believed, the Pixel 5 will opt for the slightly-less-than-flagship Snapdragon 765G processor later this year, and the Pixel 4a goes a notch below that with the Snapdragon 730G. It's still a decent processor, especially with 6GB of RAM and 128GB of (non-expandable) internal storage alongside it – we didn't notice any kind of slowdown in performance when moving through apps and browser tabs, and the phone can cope with some heavy duty mobile games too (though you might be waiting a few seconds longer on the loading screens).

Keeping the price down has meant some sacrifices – we've mentioned the lack of waterproofing, and there's no 5G here or support for wireless charging. With 5G now available in most of the big cities in the UK, the Pixel 4a isn't the most future-proofed phone on the market right now (the Moto G 5G Plus costs even less, and has 5G on board), but 4G should be enough to keep you going for the next two or three years until it's time to upgrade your phone again.

More than ever, what you're buying with a Pixel phone is the Google experience: Google Assistant close at hand, instant access to Google apps, and the very latest versions of stock Android as they appear. The Pixel 4a comes running Android 10, but it's guaranteed to be one of the first phones in line when Android 11 rolls out later this year. It even has the cool Now Playing feature of other Pixels, which works like an always-on Shazam, identifying songs as they play in the background.

Google Photos continues to get better and better, and will store all your photos and videos in the cloud for free if you don't mind them being downsized a little. To keep them at their original sizes, you can pay for more Google One storage once your free 15GB allocation has been used up – every Pixel 4a purchase actual comes with three months of 100GB storage for free, though presumably if you use that up within the allotted time period you then don't have much choice but to start paying up.

Google Pixel 4a review: verdict

Google Pixel 4a review

(Image credit: Google)

The Pixel 4a is almost exactly what we expected – a modest upgrade on the Pixel 3a, and a more affordable alternative to the Google Pixel 4. The Pixel 4 starts at the significantly higher price of £669/$799 at the time of writing, which is a lot more to ask for a bit of a performance bump, a few camera upgrades (including telephoto zoom) and the ability to charge up your phone wirelessly.

The Pixel 4a really is one for the Google fans. Android is clean and bloat-free, Assistant is easier to access (and more capable than ever) and you get Pixel exclusives like Night Sight for the camera, and the Recorder app that can use Google's artificial intelligence skills to convert spoken audio to text in real time. It's Google's mobile operating system, its apps, and its services in their purest form – something you can't really say about the other Android phones on the market.

If screen size and quality, processor speed or 5G connectivity are more important priorities for you, then there are better phones around at this price point right now. It's a segment of the market that's getting more and more competitive with every passing month, and there are plenty more phones to come in 2020 yet. The Pixel 4a is up against some very strong rivals, so don't spend any more on this new Google phone until you've had a good look around at what else is out.

The strengths of the Pixel 4a are the same as they always have been for the Pixel range: an excellent camera and arguably the best version of Android around (as well as the fastest system updates). Add to that respectable performance and battery life, and a phone that's well designed in an ordinary and unflashy kind of way, and the Pixel 4a is an interesting new proposition in the 2020 smartphone market.

David Nield

Dave has over 20 years' experience in the tech journalism industry, covering hardware and software across mobile, computing, smart home, home entertainment, wearables, gaming and the web – you can find his writing online, in print, and even in the occasional scientific paper, across major tech titles like T3, TechRadar, Gizmodo and Wired. Outside of work, he enjoys long walks in the countryside, skiing down mountains, watching football matches (as long as his team is winning) and keeping up with the latest movies.