Google Pixel 4a Review: Equal Parts Impressive & Discouraging, Depending On What You Need From It

Google Pixel 4a Review: Equal Parts Impressive & Discouraging, Depending On What You Need From It

The Google Pixel 4a is powered by the Qualcomm Snapdragon 730 processor with 6GB RAM and 128GB storage. With the price tag of Rs 29,999 it is competing most certainly with the OnePlus Nord, which now also has the new Gray Ash colour option.


Vishal Mathur

It is a bittersweet feeling. The newest Google Pixel phone is here. Great! But there doesn’t need to be a devil in the details for you to realize it is just the Google Pixel 4a. As things stand, the Google Pixel 4a 5G and the Google Pixel 5 aren’t coming to India. Second year in a row. Last year, the Pixel 4 and the Pixel 4 XL didn’t arrive on our shores. We still don’t have an official reason for that. But this is what it is, Google Pixel fans. The Google Pixel 4a is very much here, and this is unchartered territory for Google as well. In a way, that is great news for us—because Google has gone the lowest it ever has with the introductory price of a Pixel smartphone in India. Before you counter that, please allow me to point out that last year’s Pixel 3a started out with a price tag of Rs 39,999 and its race was eventually run at Rs 30,999.

That is still more than the Google Pixel 4a which starts out with a price tag of Rs 29,999 at this time. Google has just one variant up for sale in India at this time, with 6GB RAM and 128GB storage. And just one colour too, called Just Black. As far as line-ups go, it really doesn’t get any simpler than that. Before you get all too excited about being able to buy the new Google Pixel 4a claiming “it is a Google phone” and “it is the latest Pixel phone” or some such thing, it must be understood that the Google Pixel 4a sits at the very bottom of the latest line-up of Pixel phones. Temper your expectations accordingly. The Pixel 4a is powered by the Qualcomm Snapdragon 730 processor with 6GB RAM and 128GB storage and has the Titan M security module. At the back, the Pixel 4a gets just a 12-megapixel dual-pixel camera and also has the smallest display in the entire line-up—a 5.8-inch Full HD+ OLED display. The Pixel 4a has a 3,140mAh battery.

It is this price tag of Rs 29,999 that makes the Google Pixel 4a equal quantities impressive and not so much. That, you will notice along the way, will be a recurring theme through this review. More food for thought, than you’d have imagined.

Design: Simplicity Always Works, But Is It Just Too Plain?

Call it simple. Call it boring. The thing is, we generally look down on plastic body phones as some sort of cost-cutting exercise. Samsung bucked that trend with the Samsung Galaxy S20 FE, and Google has really kept things consistent with the Pixel 4a. this has a plastic unibody shell and it looks neat. Gone is the dual colour or dual tone finish we have seen on the back of some Pixel phones till now, and instead, it’s a single finish matte black look. In fact, Just Black is the only colour you’ll get with the Google Pixel 4a at this time. The power button adds a bit of colour, with what looks like a really light shade of green.

Really, there is nothing to complain about the Google Pixel 4a’s build. The bezels are slimmed down, there is Gorilla Glass 3 at the front, and at the back, fingerprints aren’t exactly very noticeable. There’s even a 3.5mm headphone jack, for those are still clinging on to the past. Plus, its compact, really compact, in an era where big phones are becoming a norm. The soft touch finish on the back is great to hold. But I have to say, the Google Pixel 4a isn’t an exciting phone to look at. It is all about understated design and elements that work.

One thing that makes me wonder though, is the fingerprint sensor. It is at the back. That doesn’t really draw any criticisms, but one does wonder did it really need to be added to the cost-cutting measures list at a time when the Coronavirus pandemic has made the face masks an almost integral part of our faces and the fingerprint sensor in phones have gained even more importance. Remember, the Google Pixel 4a doesn’t also have Face Unlock, which one would assume, itself made a case for an in-display fingerprint sensor instead.

Performance: There Are Two Definite Sides To This Coin

How you use your phone and how I use a phone will always be different. No two people wear the same hat in this extremely subjective scenario. That’s the reason why I never hold the choice of hardware, by any phone maker for any phone, against it. Any spec sheet will work for some, and not work for others. It is as simple as that. Google has used the Qualcomm Snapdragon 730G processor in the Pixel 4a and paired that with 6GB RAM and 128GB storage. It’ll most certainly not be a powerhouse or what they call a flagship-killer either. In my usage, there were few complaints. The Google Pixel 4a worked well with multiple apps for the most part. Nothing is really slow, to be honest.

You’ll have to give the Google Pixel 4a, as you should any other phone too, one day post the setup to get the sync and indexing done. Once that happens, this is a pretty cheerful phone to have. If you are comfortable with the 5.81-inch screen size, you wouldn’t mind using this as a daily phone. Yet there are most definitely times when things slow down a bit, momentarily. The transitions show a bit of weight, apps take that little longer to open or transition, Chrome scrolling become a bit jittery on heavier web pages and the Gboard takes a moment longer to show up. You can feel the Google Pixel 4a pulling along as best it can. Make no mistake, you will experience these moments amidst the otherwise smooth Google Pixel 4a usage experience. The question is, how often will these moments come for you?

That leads me to a worrying thought about how well the Google Pixel 4a will age—6 months or 12 months later, with a lot more apps, a lot more app data and storage filled up as well, will the Pixel 4a really be able to cope? A mid-range processor at this time will surely be surpassed by more powerful hardware sooner rather than later. I’m not entirely sure about the headroom that the Snapdragon 730G will offer as time goes by. Apps that you use will probably add even more features, all of which will take up some more resources. It all adds up. Therefore, that’s an answer for you, because you’ll best know what your use case will be.

It just has to be done. The OnePlus Nord gets its power from a more capable Qualcomm Snapdragon 765G processor, that also allows the Nord to be 5G ready as well. And if you are looking to spend around Rs 30,000 on a Google Pixel 4a, the same amount of money will get you the top spec variant of the OnePlus Nord with 12GB RAM and 256GB storage.

Mind you, what will help is the sparkling clean Android 11 (and subsequently Android 12 and so on) that runs on the Google Pixel 4a. There are no resource hogging customizations, no unnecessary preloaded apps eating storage space and running in the background and none of the third-party apps business that you see as friendly adverts in other phones urging you to download an app. This is how Google wants you to use Android, and the Google Pixel 4a is an example of that.

The positive side of the power efficiency of the Qualcomm Snapdragon 730G is that the 3,140mAh battery offers better returns for each charge cycle with about 5 hours of screen time. Sometimes, a smaller display size also helps.

Display: What Doesn’t Need Changing, Remains The Same

Speaking of which, the 5.81-inch display on the Google Pixel 4a is an OLED panel. This tops out at 2340 x 1080 pixels and is HDR ready. It is getting used to the size, which was the highlight initially, but eventually once you do too, you’ll realize this is a compact display but not so small that you can’t type comfortably. This isn’t going to be very immersive for binge watching shows on Netflix either but well, you probably don’t need a compact phone for that anyway. This screen does well as far as the brightness levels are concerned.

Colours look quite okay, and you get the Boosted as well as Adaptive modes as well—for some reason, I often found colours to be more vivid in the Adaptive mode than the Boosted mode. Reflections will get in the way and viewing from an angle isn’t exactly the best. Move slightly off the center and the screen looks washed out. Also, this glass catches a lot of fingerprints, even though Google says there is an oleophobic coating to prevent just that from happening.

What really works are the very thin bezels, which makes the display quite immersive. While also keeping the footprint in check. The hole-punch implementation of the front camera stays out of the way as well.

With the Google Pixel 4a, you get the Gorilla Glass 3 protection for the display. For most times, this will be fine for the most part and it’ll protect the screen from scratches and absent minded dings. But it has to be said that the OnePlus Nord gets Gorilla Glass 5, at the same price point, which should surely offer better protection at the same time.

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Camera: It Is The Year 2020 And You Wonder If Old Is Truly Gold

It really boils down to the party piece of the Google Pixel 4a. it leaves you a bit perplexed at first. We are closing down on the year 2020 and the Pixel 4a still rocks a single 12.2-megapixel camera. Takes me back to 2018 when a lot of people exercised the power of social media, their still-working keyboards and freedom of speech to absolutely castigate the Apple iPhone XR for having a single 2-megapixel camera at the back. Just not enough, the early verdict seemed to be. The eventual blockbuster sales of the iPhone XR proved the irrelevance of opinions on social media. But here we are, a few years later, and Google is keeping things consistent with a 12.2-megapixel single camera on the Google Pixel 4a, with the f/1.7 aperture, complete with dual pixel phase detection autofocus (PDAF) and optical image stabilization (OIS). In a way, Google is still relying heavily on the software to get the job done and assist the photography hardware. But is it really enough?

Since this is the same Sony IMX 363 sensor that Pixel phones have used since the Pixel 3 a few years ago, there really isn’t going to be much difference, as far as photos are largely concerned. They look good, to be honest, with the typical Pixel phone emphasis on dynamic range boosts, crisp look, good details and accurate colours. There is no processing to boost colours, which will really work best for a lot of users.

The Pixel phones have to be credited with redefining the low light photography mode a long time ago, and the Google Pixel 4a still has a bit of an advantage over some rivals with the Night Sight photos. But with time, that advantage isn’t as big as it probably was a couple of years ago, and in some cases, other phones do even better. The Pixel 4a definitely brings out more details, but there is also the habit of overemphasizing a light source in some nighttime photos, which makes for a disconcerting ball of unnaturally bright light looking at you in the photos. That spoils the balance and causes other areas of the photo to light up unnaturally. Interestingly, at other times, the Pixel camera does very clean low light photos.

If you simply need a smartphone camera that you can take out of the trouser pocket and quickly take a photo before the moment is lost, it’s the Google Pixel phones that do it best in the Android ecosystem. The Google Pixel 4a is no different. And that is a strong point in the era where complications with modes and filters and whatnot make the camera apps in phones sometimes feel unnecessarily complicated. Yet, it doesn’t really push forward the the photography experience or the performance, as you’d expect from a Pixel phone. It just works. In the same way as the Pixel phones before.

That being said, you will miss the wide angle and telephoto flexibility after a point. Also, the Google Pixel 4a takes a fraction longer to process photos after you tap the shutter button than you’d expect, that being a combination of the processor power and lack of Pixel Neural Xore processor.

Video is where the Google Pixel 4a shows its biggest shortcomings. Resolution options, quality of zoom, dynamic range and focus are all things that the OnePlus Nord and the likes of the Samsung Galaxy S20FE do significantly better. The OnePlus Nord also shoots up to 4K at 30fps but has more data to work with. What you get, as a result, are more vibrant videos. Then there is the front camera, which is a middling 8-megapixel affair on the Google Pixel 4a. That’s limited to 1080p videos as well. Don’t go by just the megapixel count though, because the image processing does a fairly good job of keeping your Full HD videos clean and crisp. Actually, this isn’t much lesser than the 10-megapixel front camera that the Samsung Galaxy S20 has.

It is the camera app that will leave you a bit perplexed from time to time. Yes, it is appreciated that simplicity is the path Google is firmly sticking with, as far as the camera app goes. Simple shoot it and forget it method works. But from time to time, you may want some extra features. Such as the ability to set the video resolution for the front and the rear cameras. None of that is available. It is perhaps fallacious to assume all consumers need to be handheld for the best possible settings, for they may not know what they want.

I quite like the Motion Photos option, that adds, as the name suggests, a bit of movement to otherwise static images. Quite handy with energetic kids who may not always be at the same place in between the time you opened the camera app and actually tapped the shutter button.

The Last Word: The Most Affordable Pixel Phone Ever, Done Almost Right

The conservative approach to the Google Pixel 4a, with the specs, design, upgrades and the price, may well be borne out of the requirements of the time. It doesn’t a lot of the stuff tat you’d expect but you’d be surprised you actually don’t really need it. Such as an even higher resolution display. The Google Pixel 4a doesn’t have face unlock and instead relies on the good old fingerprint sensor. It has a decidedly mid-range processor. The camera still is the same as before. From the outside, it is clear the mission was to keep costs down. Google may be anticipating limited appeal for an expensive phone in some markets, including India. And that may well be a masterstroke, at Rs 29,999.

I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and I have to note that my favorite Google phones have to be the Nexus 6, the Nexus 5p and indeed the Pixel 3 XL. All phones that played in the big league, all phones that in their time tried to reset the Android experience benchmark and most importantly, showed Google was actually making more than iterative updates to phones every year. The Google Pixel 4a is understandably more restrained, keeping the monetary aspect of things at the forefront. But I do miss those exciting times.

So, should you buy the Google Pixel 4a? It is, like I’ve said before, not a simple answer. This is most definitely a Pixel phone, complete with the clean Android, the simplicity all around and a camera that delivers fantastic photos as before. The ingredients that have been the common ones for Pixel phones all along, very much remain. But remember, there is just one screen size and not everyone may be comfortable with that. It also misses out on face unlock and an in-display fingerprint sensor. Yet chugs along bravely, only to show its possible human side once in a while.

If you aren’t adamant about buying a “Pixel phone” and it is power and future proofing that you are looking for, the OnePlus Nord may just be a better bet. A more powerful processor, more RAM for the same money. You get a very slick Android experience with OnePlus phones, a larger display, more cameras front and back, a larger battery and well, 5G as well as and when that matters. And more colours too.

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