Google Pixel 4a 5G review
Quick verdict: The design is still a little plain, and there are a few nice features that you only get with the Google Pixel 5, but for the asking price over the regular Google Pixel 4a, there's an awful lot to like about the Google Pixel 4a 5G.
- 5G compatibility
- Larger display than any other 2020 Pixel
- Easy-to-use cameras
- Guaranteed quick Android updates
- 5G is only sub-6 in Australia
- Design still feels plain
- AI bokeh doesn't always get it right
Power, storage and battery
|Launch price (RRP)||$799|
When Google launched the Google Pixel 4a, it also announced the existence of the Google Pixel 4a 5G. What's more, it announced local pricing ($799) for the 5G variant of Google's more affordable Pixel range but nothing else. That's a $200 premium over the low-cost and still very appealing Google Pixel 4a, and on paper that seemed a little excessive just for 5G.
It turns out Google agrees because that $200 buys you a lot more phone and a lot more capability than just access to 5G networks, resulting in one of the very best mid-range phones you can buy. For most people, unless you really need the wireless charging or multi-band capabilities of the Google Pixel 5, it's now the Pixel phone you should opt for.
- Largest display on any 2020 Pixel
- You can have it in Just Black… and that's just it
- Plain design is either uncomplicated or dull
- Headphone jack is still present
Google's 2020 Pixel range encompasses the Google Pixel 4a, the Google Pixel 4a 5G and the Google Pixel 5. Under normal smartphone conventions, you'd expect the most expensive phone, the Google Pixel 5, to have the largest display, but that's not the way Google's positioning its phones.
Instead, that honour falls to the Google Pixel 4a 5G, which features a 6.24-inch FHD+ (1080 x 2340) display. This is larger than the 6-inch Google Pixel 5. You do miss out on the 90Hz display that the fancier Pixel 5 has, but in return, you get that larger display with a small punch hole camera at the top left hand side of the screen.
The Google Pixel 4a 5G is otherwise effectively just a super-sized version of the existing Google Pixel 4a, for better or worse. There's no choice when it comes to colours, with Google only producing it in the "Just Black" colour, with a very slight accent of colour via the white power button.
While the screen refresh rate isn't as high as on the Pixel 5, one feature found on the cheaper Pixel 4a 5G that is not on this year's flagship is a full 3.5mm headphone jack. Around the back, you'll find a square camera bump sitting diagonally above the rear-mounted fingerprint sensor.
That black design is fine, but that's about as enthusiastic as I can get about it. There are plenty of phones to pick from that use the same core chips as the Google Pixel 4a 5G right now, and all but one of them is more aesthetically interesting. That one phone? That would be the Google Pixel 5, which basically looks the same as the Pixel 4a 5G in its Just Black finish, although that phone does also have the greenish "Sorta Sage" finish. Depending on your viewpoint, the overall design of the Google Pixel 4a 5G is either simple and uncomplicated or unadorned and just a little bit boring.
- Dual cameras feels limited for a 2020 mid-range phone
- Google's AI to the rescue for those who want to point and shoot
- Low-light shooting is great
- Low-light portraits can be inconsistent
For the longest time, Google was insistent that the most any phone camera should need are two cameras, one in the back and one in the front with its own AI making up the shortfall in terms of features and post-processing. Google's AI has long been industry leading in terms of what it's been able to pull out of otherwise mediocre hardware, but even Google's had to get with the times in terms of multi-lens camera hardware.
The recipe for the Google Pixel 4a 5G's rear cameras is an interesting one. The primary sensor is a 12.2MP dual-pixel lens, paired with a 16MP 107° ultra-wide lens. What's interesting here is that while that's a step up from the single 12.2MP lens you'd find on the back of the Google Pixel 4a, it's the same array as found on the more pricey Google Pixel 5. Google's effectively saying that this is all the hardware it needs to provide pleasing photo experiences to most smartphone camera users.
It's a recipe that won't entirely appeal to the pro-shooter crowd, what with the lack of dedicated telephoto or macro sensors, but for the everyday shooter, Google might just have a point. Like Pixels before it, the Google Pixel 4a 5G can, of course, handle everyday photos with a lot of ease and plenty of smarts when it comes to adding realistic-looking bokeh to portrait shots. It's less compelling when you're shooting items that aren't faces because it doesn't always get the blur effect quite right around a given subject, sometimes blurring out small sections where they should stay sharp. You can see that below, where it hasn't quite worked out that both unicorn ears are complete loops on this puppet:
Low-light photography is another area where Google has staunchly maintained that machine learning can take the job of larger pixel sensors and produce pleasing results, and for basic low-light work, it compares very well with phones in its price group. There's still a gap between the cheaper Pixel phones and the very best of the flagship phone categories right now in terms of absolute crispness of low-light images – but then the Google Pixel 4a 5G costs half or less of what they do!
As an example, here's a low light shot taken with the ultra-wide lens at a nearby park late one night, taking in both shots with plenty of illumination:
And one with nearly no light, taken with the standard lens
As I've seen with previous Pixel phones, there's a slight tendency for colour over-saturation as the Google Pixel 4a 5G tries to accommodate for low-light shooting, although that's an effect that some photographers might actively enjoy.
What's new with the Google Pixel 4a 5G is the ability to take portrait shots in low light, using the same basic AI algorithms. This can work better than you'd expect, but it is very much a matter of making the most of what light is available to you.
If it's too dark you'll get a shot you couldn't get on similar phones in this price bracket, but the shots may have lots of noise and somewhat odd colouration, as in the shot below:
What all of this adds up to is a camera that is a great fit for those who largely want to point, shoot and let the camera take care of making the nicest shot possible. It's not quite as flexible as the triple- or quad-lens arrays you can find on some mid-range 5G phones right now, and you won't learn as much about camera photography with it. However, for most users, it's highly capable and a fun device for easily capturing great photos.
- Snapdragon 765G continues to impress
- Only sub-6 5G for the Australian model
- Great clean Android UI can be anything you want
- Guaranteed Android updates
Google's Pixel "a" phones don't have a long history – there's only this, the Google Pixel 4a and last year's Google Pixel 3a, after all – but they've been the lower-cost, lower-spec versions of existing Pixel lines to date.
Except for 2020 because, in most important respects, the line between the Google Pixel 4a 5G and the more expensive Google Pixel 5 is very slender indeed. At their heart, they're both relying on the Snapdragon 765G chipset, the same as every single other affordable 5G handset right now. They both feature 128GB of fixed storage because, like Apple, Google wants you to store your data in the cloud, not on your device. The Pixel 5 has 8GB of RAM to the Pixel 4a 5G's 6GB, but you've got to push a fair quantity of multi-tasking apps for that to make a substantial difference in your day-to-day experience.
That's also borne out in benchmarks, where the Pixel 4a 5G and Pixel 5 run neck and neck. Here's how they compare using Geekbench 5's CPU test against a range of the best current mid-range phone options:
And here's how they compare against the same phones using 3DMark's Slingshot Extreme test.
Of course, 5G is part of the mix with the Google Pixel 4a 5G, but there's a technical catch here. If you opt for the Google Pixel 5, that phone supports 5G over both sub-6 and mmWave frequencies, meaning it'll work on most 5G networks worldwide immediately. For the lower-cost Google Pixel 4a 5G, Google is only offering support for one 5G build or the other, not both, relative to what's been rolled out in that country. Here in Australia, we won't see mmWave 5G until at least mid-2021 and maybe even later than that, so the local model supports sub-6 5G only.
Why does that matter? The current sub-6 5Ghz networks tend to peak in real-world testing with speeds not much faster than those of existing 4G LTE networks, and sometimes slower.
In my own testing on the Telstra network with the Google Pixel 4a 5G, I've hit anywhere from 50Mbps down up to 300Mbps down, but no faster than that. In theory, mmWave should be able to hit much higher speeds, but you'll never hit them on this phone.
Now, to be fair and clear, that's true of pretty much every other 5G phone previously sold in Australia as well, and we're more likely to see more true dual-access 5G phones in 2021. However, if you're looking at 5G as a key buying platform, the extra cost of the Pixel 5 might be worth it.
Like every other Pixel phone before it, one of the key reasons why you'd buy a Google phone is for the knowledge that you'll get Android updates as soon as they're ready, including full-feature updates for at least three years. With Google so particularly targeting the mid-range, rather than the premium space that most Pixels have played in previously, it's clearly banking on consumers wanting more bang for their buck and longevity in terms of usability with their phones, and that's something the Pixel 4a 5G should be able to deliver over a longer span of time than many other competing Android handsets.
- 3,885mAh battery provides good battery life
- No wireless charging
Google again subverts expectations with the Google Pixel 4a 5G when it comes to battery capacity. Typically, the largest phone in a series tends to have the largest battery, simply because there's more space behind the frame to pack it in. That's not the case for the Google Pixel 4a 5G, which has a 3,885mAh battery, while the smaller Google Pixel 5 manages to cram in 4,080mAh of battery capacity. It must be awfully cramped in there.
That aside, as always, battery usage can be quite variable depending on usage. To get an indicative feel of the battery performance of the Google Pixel 4a 5G, I ran it through our standard battery test, streaming a Full HD YouTube video at maximum brightness and moderate volume for an hour from 100% battery. What you want here is battery capacity at greater than 90% because anything below it is typically a sign of a phone that might not last out a full day's usage. Here's how the Google Pixel 4a 5G compared:
Actual day-to-day battery life is slightly better even than those figures suggest, thanks no doubt to Google's smart adaptive battery software that does a very good job of maximising battery life. Google's not alone in using that kind of AI-led approach, but on a lot of other phones, I tend to find that it's either ineffective or far too aggressive when it comes to shutting down apps.
Google gives that control back to the user with what it calls Extreme Battery Saver. This lets you specify which apps you most want to keep running even as the battery starts to run down. Specify too many and naturally you'll get less battery life, but with everyone's usage patterns being different, it's quite nice to have that kind of choice.
While Google does some clever engineering with a mix of aluminium and resins to enable wireless charging on the Google Pixel 5, it's notably absent on the Google Pixel 4a 5G, although you do get 18W fast USB-C charging as standard.
Should you buy the Google Pixel 4a 5G?
- Buy it if you want an easy-to-use 5G capable handset.
- Don't buy it if you want more photographic flexibility, wireless charging or water resistance.
Google really muddies the waters when it comes to choosing its "best" Pixel in 2020. In some ways, it's the Pixel 4a because that's a very slick, super-affordable phone. In some ways, it's the Pixel 5 because that's a phone that includes water resistance, wireless charging and dual-band 5G as standard.
The Google Pixel 4a 5G sits between those two extremes, but it does so in a way that cherrypicks the very best parts of both phones. Like the Google Pixel 4a, it's highly affordable at just $799 outright. Like the Pixel 5, you get the speed of the Snapdragon 765G and good dual cameras.
What that adds up to is the best Pixel phone out of Google's 2020 line-up in my opinion, and also one of the best 5G phones available in Australia right now.
Pricing and availability
Where to buy
Power, storage and battery
Images: Alex Kidman