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Hands on: Google Pixel 4a 5G review

Not your parents’ Pixel 4a

What is a hands on review?
Google Pixel 4a 5G
Google Pixel 4a 5G
(Image: © Future)

Early Verdict

With the same cameras, chipset and connectivity, and a similar design, the Pixel 4a 5G is very similar to Google’s Pixel 5, but its lower price should give it broad appeal. As an overall package it’s a fine mid-range 5G phone, and the Android experience here is clean and smooth as we’d expect; however, none of its specs are particularly compelling, and it’s too pricey to compete in the ‘affordable 5G phone’ category.

For

  • Clean Android experience
  • 3.5mm headphone jack

Against

  • A touch slow in use
  • Hit-and-miss camera experience

The Google Pixel 4a 5G is essentially a ‘lite’ version of the Pixel 5, as it has much more in common with the company’s newest flagship than the affordable Pixel 4a that it’s purportedly related to.

The Pixel 4a 5G and Pixel 5 have the same rear cameras, chipset, connectivity specs and appearance – in fact, there are very few differences between the two phones, while the Pixel 4a is different in almost all those respects.

We have no idea why Google is mixing up its naming conventions like this, so our only recourse is to roll our eyes, sigh, and say “Oh Google”, in the tone of voice you’d use to gently admonish a misbehaving pet. We found it much easier to review this product when we forgot the Pixel 4a, and we’d encourage you to do the same for the rest of this article.

The Pixel 4a 5G is a fine mid-range phone, although we found it hard to get excited about any particular aspect of it – the chipset is fine, the cameras are fine, the design is fine, and the stock Android experience is clean. So the phone is unexciting, but if you’re looking for a mid-range 5G phone from a proven brand, it could be a solid choice.

Google Pixel 4a 5G price and availability

The Google Pixel 4a 5G price is $499 / £499 / AU$799, for 6GB RAM and 128GB storage, so it’s a little too pricey to compete in the ‘cheap 5G phones’ category, although it’s more affordable than lots of other 5G phones on the market.

(Image credit: Future)

For comparison the Google Pixel 4a costs $349 / £349 / AU$599, while the new Pixel 5 is $699 / £599 / AU$999, so the 4a 5G sits roughly between those devices in terms of price.

The official Google Pixel 4a 5G release date was October 15 2020, although pre-orders started when the phone was announced on September 30, and lots of retailers announced their contract pricing then.

Design and display

The Google Pixel 4a 5G’s two big differences from the Pixel 5 are in the screen department: its display is 6.2 inches across, a touch bigger than the 6-inch Pixel 5, and it only has a ‘standard’ 60Hz refresh rate, not 90Hz like the Pixel 5.

Higher screen refresh rates make motion look smoother, improving the experience when you’re scrolling through your phone or watching content, and while all phones used to be 60Hz, many are now coming with 90Hz or 120Hz displays, with some even going up to 144Hz. Given that plenty of phones at and below the Pixel 4a 5G’s price point have 90Hz or 120Hz displays, don’t pick up this phone if refresh rate is a consideration for you.

The display resolution is 1080 x 2340, which is fairly standard, although since the screen is smaller than those on many other phones the pixel-per-inch count is fairly high. Colors look vibrant, and games and streamed media look nicely high-res, although we found the max brightness a little low.

(Image credit: Future)

As on other Pixel phones there’s an always-on display which you can activate, and this is useful for displaying notifications and telling you what song is playing, among other things, though it does take a toll on the battery life.

The phone has a plastic back and sides, but these surfaces are  textured, so the handset doesn’t feel cheap in the hand as many plastic phones do. It’s not quite the aluminum of the Pixel 5 though.

The rear of the phone houses a fingerprint sensor, which isn’t too high up, so we found it easy to reach. There’s also a square camera bump at the top-left, and it’s not too thick, so you won’t see that annoying ‘rocking’ when you lay the phone flat on a desk.

On the right edge of the phone are the power button and volume rocker, while the top edge houses the 3.5mm headphone jack, and there’s a USB-C port in the usual position on the bottom edge.

(Image credit: Future)

At 168g the Pixel 4a 5G is pretty lightweight, but it’s actually heavier than the Pixel 5 (151g) and Pixel 4a (143g), although the difference isn’t huge. The Pixel 4a 5G is bigger than its Pixel contemporaries, and we found it a little harder to use one-handed as a result, although you shouldn’t find it a problem if you have larger hands.

 Cameras and battery life 

 The Google Pixel 4a 5G has the same two rear cameras as the Pixel 5: a 12.2MP f/1.7 main camera with optical image stabilization, and a 16MP shooter with an ultra-wide f/2.2 lens. Pixel phones have typically held high spots in our list of the best camera phones, but we didn’t find ourselves particularly blown away by the Pixel 4a 5G’s performance – as with most other things on this phone, it’s not bad, but not incredible either.

Pictures we took seemed a little desaturated and dim compared to those from other Pixel phones we’ve tested, and even though the quality and depth was there, we had to take photos into editing apps to make them look great. Google’s real strength cameras-wise lies in its software, so the lack of effective AI optimization here is hard to fathom.

Google Pixel 4a 5G

Google Pixel 4a 5G (Image credit: Future)

A particular issue was with key shooting modes. Portrait mode added nice background blur effects to snaps, but only some of the time, and at other times just didn’t seem to pick up the subject. Similarly, Night mode sometimes worked well to make low-light snaps look bright, but other times made little difference.

We did manage to take some fairly good-looking photos, so we’re not ready to give the Pixel 4a 5G entirely bad marks in the camera department, but our time testing the camera didn’t kindle the same excitement that previous Pixel phones have.

That said, we tested the Google Pixel 4a 5G before its release, and we’ve already been told that a patch is coming out on launch day which should fix many of the issues we encountered, so we’re hoping for greatly improved camera performance when we come to our full review.

The front-facing camera is 8MP and f/2.0, and that’s pretty low-res for such a camera. Selfies looked a little better than pictures taken with the main camera, with more vibrancy, but due to the relatively low resolution, these snaps will only really be suitable for social media.

Image 1 of 5

I thought flowers were meant to be vibrant and bright?

I thought flowers were meant to be vibrant and bright? (Image credit: Future)
Image 2 of 5

A dark shot without Night Mode

A dark shot without Night Mode (Image credit: Future)
Image 3 of 5

A dark shot with Night Mode

A dark shot with Night Mode (Image credit: Future)
Image 4 of 5

This was shot with Portrait mode, though the lack of depth doesn't make that clear

This was shot with Portrait mode, though the lack of depth doesn't make that clear (Image credit: Future)
Image 5 of 5

This Portrait selfie is okay, though if you look closely you can see a plant pot has become part of my face.

This Portrait selfie is okay, though if you look closely you can see a plant pot has become part of my face. (Image credit: Future)

The battery here is 3,885mAh – that’s a little on the small side for a phone, so much so as to raise some red flags for us – especially given Google’s iffy track record when it comes to battery life in its phones. However the Pixel 4a 5G battery life wasn’t that bad.

With medium use we found the phone just about lasted us through a full day – that was if we didn’t play many games, take too many pictures, or incessantly use the phone for social media. If you’re a heavy user you might find the battery life a little lacking, and it’s definitely something we’re going to go into in more depth for our full review.

Charging is 18W, but we haven’t tested this using the in-box charger, so that’s another thing we’ll have to look at for our full review; 18W isn’t particularly fast, although given the lower battery capacity charging might not be too sluggish.

Performance and specs

The Google Pixel 4a 5G uses the same Snapdragon 765G chipset as the Pixel 5, and it’s probably the best mid-range mobile processor used in phones right now.

(Image credit: Future)

We found the phone was snappy enough for gaming, using the photography modes and image editing, but that wasn’t the case for actually scrolling through the phone, as we encountered frequent stutters or slow loads when swiping between menus and through social media. We never found it too unresponsive, but it feels like performance could be better optimized.

The software is Android 11 – along with the Pixel 5, this is the first phone you can buy with Google’s newest operating system pre-installed. Android 11 isn’t the most feature-laden update Google has ever put out but there are a few improvements, like easy access to your Google Pay card.

This is ‘stock’ Android, as Google intended it, so it’s a clean experience with no bloatware. Google typically brings new builds of Android to its own phones first, so if you buy the Pixel 4a 5G you’re likely to be first in line for Android 12.

Early verdict

Google Pixel 4a 5G

Google Pixel 4a 5G (Image credit: Future)

We haven’t experienced many problems with the Google Pixel 4a 5G during our time testing the phone, but we’ve struggled to pick out any particular strong suit or selling point.

For now, the phone is a bundle of mid-ranged specs, with a price that’s roughly what you’d expect for these features. It offers a clean Android experience, it doesn’t feel too bad in the hand, and it plays games, and streams content and music, just fine. The cameras aren't fantastic, and the battery life may end up being sub-par, but neither is terrible.

If the Google Pixel 4a 5G has a USP, we haven’t discovered it yet – but we’ll certainly keep looking for one as we continue to test the phone ahead of our full review.

What is a hands on review?

Hands on reviews' are a journalist's first impressions of a piece of kit based on spending some time with it. It may be just a few moments, or a few hours. The important thing is we have been able to play with it ourselves and can give you some sense of what it's like to use, even if it's only an embryonic view. For more information, see TechRadar's Reviews Guarantee.