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Pixel 4a 5G review: What the Pixel is meant to be

Pixel 4a 5G delivers the full Pixel experience at an affordable price

Pixel 4a 5G on side table with candle and potpourri
Editor's Choice
(Image: © Laptop Mag)

Our Verdict

Pixel 4a 5G isn’t a flagship phone and it isn’t trying to be; with its excellent cameras and unmatched software support (among Android phones), it is an amazing option at under $500.

For

  • Affordably priced
  • Excellent cameras
  • Reliable software updates
  • Headphone jack

Against

  • No wireless charging
  • Relatively poor battery life
Pixel 4a 5G specs

Price: $499
OS:
Android 11
Display:
6.2-inch FHD OLED (2,340x1,080)
CPU:
Qualcomm Snapdragon 765G
RAM:
6GB
Rear cameras:
12MP wide (ƒ/1.7); 16MP ultrawide (ƒ/2.2)
Front camera:
8MP (f/2.0)
Storage:
128GB
Battery:
8:12
Size:
6.32 x 2.91 x 0.33 inches
Weight:
6.6 ounces 

The Pixel line is predominantly known for its astounding photo capabilities and Google’s ability to do more with hardware that never truly matches up to other flagship smartphones. While the Pixel 5 may be the current “flagship” for Google, the Pixel 4a 5G is a much more perfect representation of the Pixel line.

At $499, the Pixel 4a 5G enjoys a lot of the same hardware found in the $699 Pixel 5, making it a considerably better value for those that aren’t hung up on wireless charging, a 90Hz display or an extra 2GB of RAM. Some of the crucial features, like the cameras and the Qualcomm Snapdragon 765G processor, are identical and you even get a headphone jack (take that Pixel 5 owners!).

Most importantly, the same excellent software support as the more expensive Pixel 5 will see your Pixel 4a 5G receive every major Android update through 2023, which is not bad for a sub-$500 Android phone. While I’ll address some of the limitations of the Pixel 4a 5G in this review, it is an easy recommendation as one of the best smartphones for those who don’t want to spend on a true flagship. 

 Pixel 4a 5G: Price and configurations 

The Pixel 4a 5G keeps it simple with a single configuration that costs $499 and includes 128GB of storage, 6GB of RAM and a Qualcomm Snapdragon 765G processor. The one exception is on Verizon, where it costs $599 due to the added support for mmWave 5G, which makes the Pixel 4a 5G a much harder sell even if you happen to be in one of the limited cities with mmWave.

I reviewed the Just Black model, but the phone is also available in Clearly White.

Pixel 4a 5G: Design 

While the Pixel 4a 5G won't grab attention for its design (take a look at the LG Wing if that’s your goal), it is a very comfortable device to use and there’s nothing glaringly wrong with it. 

Gone is the enormous top bezel of the Pixel 4XL thanks to the hole-punch front-facing camera. And yes, the back is plastic, the material offers a degree of durability that you lose with a glass back. It also helps to bring the phone in at a relatively lightweight 5.9 ounces. That's not bad for a device with a 6.2-inch display. On the durability front, it lacks the water-resistance of the Pixel 5, which is a bit disappointing at this mid-tier price point.

Angled shot of Google logo on the back of Pixel 4a 5G

(Image credit: Laptop Mag)

Taking a quick spin around the rest of the device and you have a square camera array on the upper-left corner of the back along with a fingerprint sensor, which is reliable and fast. On the bottom, you have a USB-Type C port and at the top a 3.5mm port for headphones. How amazing. Finally, along the side, there is a power button conveniently painted white on the otherwise black phone to ensure that you don’t hit the wrong button while reaching for the volume rocker below it.

The Pixel 4a 5G measures 6.1 x 2.9 x 0.3 inches, which feels positively tiny coming from the Pixel 4XL. But unless you are going all the way down to the iPhone 12 mini, it’s a reasonably pocketable size. It is quite a bit smaller than some of the competition in this price range, like the TCL 10 5G UW (7.4 ounces, 6.4 x 3 x 0.37 inches) and the OnePlus Nord 10 5G (6.7 ounces, 6.4 x 2.9 x 0.5), but admittedly, both feature larger displays than the Pixel 4a 5G, so it’s a matter of tradeoffs.

The Pixel 4a 5G won’t be mistaken for a premium flagship smartphone, but its utilitarian design serves it well. After a couple of weeks of carrying it around, it has yet to show a single mark, which is encouraging because my phones tend to pick up a few scratches without a case.

Pixel 4a 5G: Display 

The Pixel 4a 5G features the largest display of the current Pixel lineup at 6.2-inches compared to 5.8 inches and 6 inches of the Pixel 4a and Pixel 5, respectively. It’s an FHD AMOLED panel that is bright and colorful, but it lacks the higher 90Hz refresh rate of the Pixel 5, and it’s a perceptible difference.

If you aren’t coming from a high refresh rate device or don’t have one to look at side-by-side, this isn’t an issue. But with the exception of my time with the iPhone 12 models, I have almost exclusively used smartphones with 90 or 120Hz over the last year and it is hard to go back. Some of this could also be the Snapdragon 765G SoC that we’ll touch on later, but it gives me the feeling that there is a slight lag, which I know is actually the slower refresh rate. 

Raya and the Last Dragon trailer playing on Pixel 4a 5G

(Image credit: Laptop Mag)

That doesn’t matter when watching content on the display, which is bright and vibrant. Watching the latest trailer for Disney’s “Raya and the Last Dragon,” I was impressed with the depth of color, although it doesn’t manage to pop quite as much as some of the top flagships. Still, at this price point, it is a remarkably good display.

Turning to our lab testing for confirmation, from a color standpoint the Pixel 4a 5G is solid at 91.3% of the DCI-P3 color gamut, ahead of its nearest competitors, the TCL 10 5G UW (74.5%) and the OnePlus Nord N10 5G (88.4%). However, it’s well below the smartphone average of 111.5%.

The results of the Delta-E color accuracy test (lower is better) weren’t as glowing for the Pixel 4a 5G which scored 0.3. This was behind both the TCL 10 5G UW (0.23) and the OnePlus Nord N10 5G (0.22). It’s worth noting those two are standouts in that regard though and 0.3 is a pretty common score even for pricier smartphones. The iPhone 12, for example, scored a 0.29.

Sunny days won’t be an issue for the Pixel 4a 5G, which hit a peak of 411 nits of brightness. This easily topped the TCL 10 5G UW (385 nits) and just barely edged the OnePlus Nord N10 5G (406 nits). While it’s behind the smartphone average of 533 nits, it’s bright enough that you shouldn’t be concerned with it.

Angled shot of Pixel 4a 5G headphone jack

(Image credit: Laptop Mag)

Pixel 4a 5G: Audio 

The Pixel 4a 5G features dual stereo speakers that get plenty loud, but I wouldn't recommend cranking up the volume. The distortion gets pretty bad past the 60% to 70% range, but as long as you are in a relatively quiet environment, that’s all the volume you’ll really need.

I listened to The Weeknd’s “Save Your Tears,” and the Pixel 4a 5G’s stereo speakers handled his bright, crisp vocals reasonably well, but the bass was not present at all and takes all the punch out of the instrumentation. This is normally when I would tell you to consider a good pair of wireless headphones rather than getting by on the built-in speakers, but the Pixel 4a 5G amazingly features a headphone jack, so if you have a pair of wired headphones you love, the Pixel 4a 5G will keep them relevant for you. 

Pixel 4a 5G playing The Weeknd's Save Your Tears on YouTube Music

(Image credit: Laptop Mag)

Pixel 4a 5G: Performance 

The Pixel 4a 5G gets the same Snapdragon 765G processor as the much pricier Pixel 5, but that’s more of a criticism of the Pixel 5 than praise for the Pixel 4a 5G. You’ll find the same processor in the $399 TCL 10 5G UW. It’s paired with 6GB of RAM and 128GB of storage, which is hopefully enough for you as there is no microSD expansion and no larger storage option.

While the Snapdragon 765G is a far cry from the new Snapdragon 888 or even last year’s Snapdragon 865, it isn’t a slouch when it comes to day-to-day performance. I fired up two dozen Google Chrome tabs, a couple of games, and a Netflix show playing in picture-in-picture, without seeing a perceptible slowdown in performance. When it comes to these kinds of basic tasks, you only notice the difference with a faster phone side-by-side.

If you are a mobile gamer or are looking for your smartphone to perform more intensive tasks, the Snapdragon 765G probably isn’t for you as you’ll see from our benchmarks. The Pixel 4a 5G got 1,614 in the multi-core Geekbench 5 test. This put it well behind the aforementioned TCL 10 5G UW (1,932, Snapdragon 765G) and even the OnePlus Nord N10 5G (1,843, Snapdragon 690).

Pixel 4a 5G displaying a Laptop Mag article in Chrome

(Image credit: Laptop Mag)

3DMark’s SlingShot Extreme OpenGL 3.1 is a more graphics-focused test and this time, the Pixel 4a 5G managed a more respectable second-place finish at 2,959. The TCL 10 5G UW came out on top again (3,301) and the OnePlus Nord N10 5G was a distant third (2,173).

Our Adobe Premiere Rush video editing test is more of a real-world test and here the Pixel 4a 5G fell short again, taking 2 minutes and 19 seconds to transcode our 4K video to 1080p. The OnePlus Nord N10 5G (2:11) just barely edged it out.

Most variants of the Pixel 4a 5G only support sub-6Ghz 5G; only Verizon customers get support for the faster, but much more limited mmWave 5G. However, they pay an extra $100 for that privilege. Even if you are in one of the few markets that offer mmWave right now, I wouldn’t be worried about this yet as sub-6Ghz will remain more relevant for the next few years.

Pixel 4a 5G Extreme Battery Saver settings menu

(Image credit: Laptop Mag)

Pixel 4a 5G: Battery life and charging 

The Pixel 4a 5G has a reasonable 3,855 mAh battery, a welcome change from Pixels of the past as this has been a pain point for Pixel fans each year. 

It was surprising then that, in our testing, the Pixel 4a 5G didn’t perform well, managing only 8 hours and 12 minutes on our test, which involves web surfing over a cellular connection with the display set at 150 nits of brightness. This was well below its competitors like the TCL 10 5G UW (11:15) and the OnePlus Nord N10 5G (11:48).

However, I will say that in my own usage, I didn’t find the battery life to be an issue. I typically removed the phone from its charger at around 8 a.m. and would return it to its charger by 10:30 p.m. with 12 to 18% battery remaining. During testing, I’m doing a fair amount with the device, including roughly an hour of Netflix and/or YouTube streaming, 3 to 4 hours of YouTube Music streaming, capturing photos and video, 30 minutes of gaming and an hour of Slack, Twitter and general web usage. 

While it isn’t going to make it into a second day without charging up, the Pixel 4a 5G shouldn’t be a problem for most users. Speaking of charging up, it does support fast charging at up to 18W which, in our testing, yielded a 23% charge in 15 minutes and 46% in half an hour. While it doesn’t hold a candle to the Warp Charging of OnePlus, it’s not bad at all for a charger that is included in the box. For fans of wireless charging, the Pixel 4a 5G unfortunately drops that feature; you need to upgrade to the Pixel 5 if that’s a make-or-break feature for you.

Pixel 4a 5G rear camera array

(Image credit: Laptop Mag)

Pixel 4a 5G: Cameras 

The Pixel 4a 5G features the identical rear camera sensors as the Pixel 5 with a 12MP (f/1.7) wide-angle and 16MP (f/2.2) ultra-wide. The same is true around the front with an 8MP selfie camera at f/2.0. 

In this price range, that’s a very respectable array of cameras. While you will frequently see a third lens on mid-range phones, it is almost always a macro lens that I guarantee you will never actually use. The real question is whether the Pixel 4a 5G still has that Pixel magic that has turned relatively mediocre hardware into stellar results using computational photography. For the most part, the answer there is yes. 

One thing you are missing out on with the Pixel 4a 5G (or the Pixel 5 for that matter) is a zoom lens. Google opted to switch from a wide-angle and telephoto pairing to a wide-angle and ultra-wide this year. I personally favor the former, but the industry as a whole seems to be gravitating to the latter as the base option with only high-end flagships adding telephoto to the equation. Here’s a look at the full reach of the Pixel 4a 5G rear cameras.

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Pixel 4a 5G camera samples

(Image credit: Laptop Mag)

Pixel 4a 5G ultra-wide

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Pixel 4a 5G camera sample wide-angle

(Image credit: Laptop Mag)

Pixel 4a 5G wide-angle

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Pixel 4a 5G camera sample wide-angle 2x digital zoom

(Image credit: Laptop Mag)

Pixel 4a 5G wide-angle 2x digital zoom

Wide-angle camera

While it can’t quite match the ridiculous f/1.6 of the iPhone 12 primary lens, the f/1.7 found in the Pixel 4a 5G is still quite fast and allows you to capture excellent shots even in relatively dark environments, and that’s before applying Night Mode. While Night Mode remains amazing (I’ll give some samples below), it has its limitations; it requires a longer exposure that just doesn’t always work, particularly for those that are trying to snap photos of children or pets.

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Pixel 4a 5G camera sample from wide-angle in night mode

(Image credit: Laptop Mag)

Pixel 4a 5G Night Mode wide-angle

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Pixel 4a 5G camera sample portrait mode with wide-angle

(Image credit: Laptop Mag)

Pixel 4a 5G wide-angle portrait mode

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Pixel 4a 5G camera sample closeup with wide-angle

(Image credit: Laptop Mag)

Pixel 4a 5G wide-angle close up shot

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Pixel 4a 5G camera sample outdoor with wide-angle

(Image credit: Laptop Mag)

Pixel 4a 5G wide-angle daylight

I love the color reproduction from the Pixel 4a 5G. It gives a slightly enhanced version of reality. However, it is much closer to the real colors that I’m seeing than most other cameras I’ve tested over the last year. Some of this is certainly personal preference, but most will appreciate not getting images that are pushed either too warm or too cool, which seems to be the tradeoff you usually make when choosing a specific brand.

Ultra-wide camera

The ultra-wide on the Pixel 4a 5G drops to f/2.2, which is still solid, but you’ll be dropping to Night Mode much faster if you want a clean ultra-wide shot in a dim environment. Leaving that aside, I found the results from the ultra-wide to be very similar in quality to the wide-angle; the slightly higher MP count is perhaps if you want to apply some slightly digital zoom after the fact.

I’ve already confessed to being more of a zoom person than an ultra-wide fan, and that's even more the case this year without any group gatherings indoors where I definitely would make use of the feature. As it stands, this is mostly a landscape photography tool for me right now, but for those that are typically fans of ultra-wide photography, you won’t be disappointed by the Pixel 4a 5G. Google does a solid job of handling the edges of the image to avoid distortion and the color science is on point.

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Pixel 4a 5G camera sample ultra-wide night mode

(Image credit: Laptop Mag)

Pixel 4a 5G ultra-wide with night mode

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Pixel 4a 5G camera samples ultra-wide landscape photo

(Image credit: Laptop Mag)

Pixel 4a 5G ultra-wide landscape photo

Front-facing camera

The colors and sharpness of the front-facing camera on the Pixel 4a 5G were excellent as per usual from a Pixel, but I was disappointed with its portrait mode. As you can see in the sample below, it missed pretty badly on applying bokeh at the edges in a few areas, and that’s just not something I’m used to seeing from a Pixel. I took several photos from slightly different angles to see if it made a difference and had the same result each time. This only affected Portrait mode photos from the front-facing camera. The rear-facing was excellent as always, so perhaps we’ll see it addressed in a future update.

Pixel 4a 5G camera sample front-facing camera portrait mode

(Image credit: Laptop Mag)

Video 

The Pixel 4a 5G is capable of capturing 4K footage at up to 60fps and 1080p footage at up to 240fps. With both optical and electronic image stabilization, it is able to do a pretty solid job of eliminating minor hand movements and jitters from slow walking, but it won’t be replacing an action camera anytime soon. Colors and overall video capture performance are solid, but not spectacular, and that’s pretty much par-for-the-course with Pixels.

Pixel 4a 5G playing Trials Frontier

(Image credit: Laptop Mag)

Pixel 4a 5G: Software 

This is another area where the Pixel 4a 5G shines, particularly in this price range as the average mid-range Android phone is lucky to see a year of updates while the Pixel 4a 5G will get a minimum of three major Android updates along with having access to the beta updates if you want to check out the new OS early.

Android 11 arrived just ahead of the Pixel 4a 5G and offers a number of handy new features including conversation grouping for messaging, enhanced media controls, nearby share, bubbles for text threads in messaging apps, expanded picture-in-picture functionality and native screen recording to name a few. 

As per usual, the Pixel has a number of exclusive features as well, including a Hold for Me function that will let Google Assistant listen to the hold music for you on a call and tell you when a person has picked up. Live View with Location Sharing is a handy tool to find friends IRL with not just a map displaying where they are but the Live View with directional arrows and distances. Other new Pixel features include enhanced Smart Reply, AI-based app suggestions, improved copy/paste and screenshots via overview actions and AI suggestions for folder naming.

Much like the Pixel 4a, you aren’t getting short-changed on the Pixel software experience by not opting for the top of the line Pixel, which is an awesome perk in the Android world.

Pixel 4a 5G on dark wood displaying Android 11 easter egg screen

(Image credit: Laptop Mag)

Bottom line

When the rumors regarding the 2020 Pixels kept pointing to Google giving up on the flagship market, it was easy to see what the company was thinking. It simply failed to compete in that area so it refocused on delivering the best mid-range smartphones on the market. The Pixel 5, while a solid smartphone, failed at that task. This was, in part, because Apple and Samsung pulled the rug out from under it with new additions to their lineup; the iPhone 12 mini and Galaxy S20 FE simply outclass the Pixel 5 in every regard at that price point.

The Pixel 4a 5G, however, is the realization of that vision. While it absolutely has its flaws, there’s no phone in this price range that doesn’t. The cameras on the Pixel 4a 5G matches the Pixel 5 and while the Pixel may have lost its mantle as the pinnacle of phone photography, it hasn’t fallen far. 

The Pixel 4a 5G is a stellar option for those who don’t want to spend more than $500 on a smartphone and want to know that it won’t be abandoned and unsupported in a year or two. Factoring in the value proposition there is no question that this is not only one of the best budget phones on the market, but one of the best phones period.