There’s something about Google’s new Pixel 4A that has me reaching for it far more than most smartphones I’ve tested this year.
Maybe it’s the wonderfully compact size, allowing me to completely wrap my fingers around the phone. Or the matte, chalkboard-like polycarbonate back that’s grippy and attracts no fingerprints, unlike its glass counterparts. Perhaps it’s the camera that impresses all day, every day, or the various software smarts like Call Screen, which puts pesky spam and robocalls out of sight, out of mind.
I think a large part of it is the value of this phone that keeps swirling in my head—you get all of this and more for $349. That’s a $50 price drop from last year’s excellent Pixel 3A, yet the components in the newer model have improved in every way; it’s rare to see a product get better and cheaper than its predecessor. There’s no such thing as the perfect phone, but the Pixel 4A comes very, very close this year.
Two things that might worry you when buying a cheap phone are lackluster performance and a poor camera. Well, you can put those concerns to bed.
Inside the Pixel 4A is Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 730G chip with 6 gigabytes of RAM, a sizable step up from the Snapdragon 670 in the Pixel 3A. Performance has been very smooth. I didn’t experience any noticeable stutters or lag even after playing games like Dead Cells and Alto’s Odyssey for a good deal of time. It feels worlds apart compared to phones like the Moto G Stylus ($300) and the Samsung Galaxy A51 ($400), where some sluggishness is an everyday occurrence. Instead, performance is much closer to the more powerful OnePlus Nord.
The 5.8-inch screen makes it all look great, too. It’s sharp (2,340 x 1,080 pixels) and colorful, with slim bezels and a floating selfie camera for modern flair. I can stare at this OLED screen all day—in fact, I have. I’ve been watching my favorite shows more often than usual—at the dog park and on the couch—because the 4A is so lightweight and compact I can easily wrap my palm around it.
Everything about holding this phone and pressing its clicky buttons feels uniquely relaxing. It’s never unwieldy, which means I don’t need to worry about shattering any glass as much as on other phones. (If you want a case as a precaution, I like this one from Moment.)
Did I mention you get a headphone jack, NFC, and a rear fingerprint sensor? Lately, I’ve had to quickly plug in headphones for meetings after forgetting to charge my Bluetooth buds. The 4A reminds me how helpful the 3.5-mm port is to have as an option. The same goes for NFC, which lets you make contactless payments with services like Google Pay. It’s not always present on affordably priced phones (looking at you, Motorola), so it’s great to see here. And everyone may have their opinion on the various kinds of fingerprint unlocking. I much prefer capacitive fingerprint sensors on the back of phones over sensors under the display; they’re often faster and far more natural to access. This one works great.
More good news: The battery has been bumped up a bit. The 3,140-mAh cell hit five hours of screen-on time on a day when I took a short trip starting at 7:30 am. With plenty of social media and web browsing, gaming, and snapping photos and videos, I only had to plug in around 11 pm. Power users, this phone isn’t going to last more than a day, but with light to average use, it can run until the morning of a second day before it needs a recharge.
Pixel phones are known for their excellent cameras. Last year’s Pixel 3A made waves largely because the cameras on most $200–$400 phones aren’t very good, especially when it comes to night scenes. The Pixel 4A shows off Google’s camera leadership even more. There’s only one camera on the rear—the same main 12.2-megapixel sensor you’ll find on the 2019 flagship Pixel 4—and honestly, it’s all you need. I much prefer to have one really good camera instead of several average ones. On the front, you’re treated to a nearly-identical 8-megapixel selfie camera as the one on the flagship.
Google also brought many of the new Pixel 4 camera features down to the Pixel 4A, like Astrophotography mode and Live HDR+. You can put this phone on a tripod, point it at the sky, and get a surprisingly great photo of the stars above. This will naturally depend on where you live, but I managed to capture some stars in heavily light-polluted New York City. (I didn’t see any UFOs, though.)
Live HDR+, on the other hand, shows what your photo will look like in real time before you snap it, so you don’t have to wait for the image processing to finish. The dual-exposure controls from the Pixel 4 are also here, allowing you to dial in the precise level of exposure and shadows to your liking.
What does all this mean? I can’t stop taking photos with this phone. Daylight shots don’t look over-sharpened or over-saturated, and the camera manages high-contrast scenes incredibly well. Portrait mode still isn’t perfect, but it manages to snap some great photos of my dog. And at night, the camera maintains good detail and saturation, and the improved white balance keeps the color temperature in check.
Heck, photos captured with Night Sight, a mode that takes several photos at different exposures and stitches the best together, even beat out results from the Samsung Galaxy S20 Plus ($1,200) sometimes, adding much more accurate colors and greater detail. This is one of the best camera phones available today, and it costs half the price of the iPhone 11.
Room to Grow
My two weeks with the Pixel 4A has been overwhelmingly positive. Google’s Android experience adds another rung to its excellence—the ever-accessible Google Assistant is still the best voice assistant, and there are so many small smart features like Now Playing, which automatically tells me what song is playing in my surroundings on the lock screen (even offline!). Still, there are some areas where the phone could improve.
First, it’s missing any kind of IP-rated water resistance, so you should be wary of using it near pools. There’s also no MicroSD slot so you’ll have to pay more for Google cloud storage if you run out of space. That said, 128 gigabytes is what you’ll find on most phones in this price bracket.
The dual speakers are sufficient if you’re in a quiet room, but introduce some ambient noise and you’ll quickly be reaching for your headphones. Watching a video in the noisy outdoors of New York, I had to crank the volume up to the max, and it still wasn’t too easy to discern dialog. Similarly, the screen is just bright enough to see in sunny conditions, but I sometimes had to squint, and video performance of the camera isn’t great.
My last two gripes are small. Wireless charging is missing, and considering it’s available in the iPhone SE ($400) it would’ve been nice to see it here. (I say this selfishly, with wireless chargers littered around my apartment.)
The phone also comes in just one color: black. Google cites “complexity in the supply chain” as the reason for this (also why there’s no larger Pixel 4A XL this year), which is understandable but still disappointing . (There’s a hole in my heart for the rumored “Barely Blue” model.) At least the power button is accented white, which is always a nice touch and makes this phone a little more distinguishable from the spate of gray and black phones. A case can add some color.
All the Phone You Need
The best part about all Pixel phones is that you get security updates and Android version upgrades straight from Google (the company that makes Android) for three years. That length of support can’t compete with Apple, which supports its iPhones for five years or more, but it’s much longer than most other Android phones (especially cheap ones).
You should also know that a 5G version of the Pixel 4A is set to arrive alongside the Pixel 5 later this year (likely around October). Considering 5G is still a nascent network technology that’s only available in select areas of several US cities, don’t feel like you need to wait for the Pixel 4A 5G. It’ll probably cost a bit more and the extra speed doesn’t add much, yet.
The Pixel 4A comes unlocked, so you can use it on any major US wireless carrier. It’s available for preorders now and goes on sale August 20. It’s the best phone Google has made, and it’s the phone I’d recommend to anyone right now. It’s $349!
At a time when millions of people are out of a job, this phone is a third the price of many high-end models, yet it will do everything you need. If you need a new phone, save some money and get on with more important things in your life.