Google Pixel 4a 5G review: A lot of phone for $499
A big, 6.2-inch screen, 5G and the exact same camera as the Pixel 5 — All for $499
The Pixel 4a 5G is not simply a 5G upgrade for the Pixel 4a. Instead it is an all-new phone that is designed to sit alongside the equally new Pixel 5 as a larger but more affordable alternative.
To reach its $499 price point, Google has of course had to cut a few corners and the Pixel 4a 5G misses out on some of the Pixel 5's features. But for many buyers the fewer features will be well worth the $200 saving over a Pixel 5 – not least because the cheaper phone retains its sibling's camera, software and general design.
Google Pixel 4a 5G review: Hardware and design
The Pixel 4a 5G obviously comes from the same family as the Pixel 5 (and all previous Pixels, come to mention it.) Google has formed a house style over the years and is sticking to it with the latest handset.
And that's fine. The Pixels don't have a design as interesting or eye-catching as a Samsung; instead the thin-enough bezels and simple body make the Pixels unremarkable but by no means ugly.
The Pixel 4a 5G is only available in blackGearBrain
A major difference between the hardware of Pixel 5 and 4a 5G (other than their size) is the latter's plastic body. The Pixel 5 also feels a bit like plastic, but it's really metal underneath the more interesting finish (especially in the new 'Sorta Sage' green color). Whereas the Pixel 4a 5G is just plain old matte black plastic.
It's a shame there are no color options for the 4a 5G, especially since the colors Google has produced for its Pixel phones over the years have helped form a style of their own. But no, it's a Henry Ford-esque case of the Pixel 4a 5G being available in any color you like, so long as it's black.
The Pixel 4a 5G feels good in the hand despite featuring no metal in its body, and the plastic provides just enough grip to be held securely.
The phone has a white power/screen lock button on the right, above a volume rocker, nothing on the left, a USB-C port on the bottom edge, and a headphone jack on the top.
White power/screen lock button of the Pixel 4a 5GGearBrain
Turn the phone around and you'll see the exact same square camera unit as found on the Pixel 5 (more on that later), above a circular fingerprint reader, also the same as the pricier Pixel's. The reader is incredibly quick, waking and unlocking the phone in an instant, but it isn't recessed all that far into the body so can be tricky to locate with an outstretched index finger until you get used to it.
A major point against the Pixel 4a 5G is a lack of any water and dust protection. I admittedly can't remember the last time I dropped a smartphone into water, but the reassurance an IP65 rating gives can't be overlooked, and if I owned the Pixel 4a 5G its weakness to water would always be in the back of my mind.
Google Pixel 4a 5G: Display
The Pixel 4a 5G has a hole punch-style front cameraGearBrain
The Pixel 4a 5G has a 6.24-inch display that is larger than the 6.0-inch Pixel 5 but shares the same 1080 x 2340 resolution. Both can also support HDR video, have 24-bit color, and offer an always-on feature for constantly showing the time, date and notifications, if you so wish.
The difference is how the Pixel 4a 5G has a less premium (but still OLED) display panel, meaning a contrast ratio of 100,000:1, compared to the Pixel 5's >1,000,000:1 ratio. The cheaper phone also misses out on the Pixel 5'a higher 90Hz refresh rate, but these shortcomings are to be expected from a cheaper handset.
Stepping away from the spec sheet, the Pixel 4a 5G still has a very good screen that is bright, sharp and produces strong colors and deep blacks. The regular 60Hz refresh rate, as used by the iPhone 12 family, consumes less power than the 90Hz panel of the Pixel 5 and others, so battery life for the 4a 5G is good; it'll see you through a full day without breaking sweat, and might even provide two days of power for lighter users.
Google Pixel 4a 5G review: Software and performance
The Pixel 4a 5G runs exactly the same Android operating system as the Pixel 5. It also benefits from the same Google guarantee that it will receive software updates for at least the next three years, which in itself is a strong reason to buy a Pixel over other models of Android phone.
That Android system runs on a Qualcomm Snapdragon 765G processor. This is more powerful than the chip fitted to the older Pixel 4a and is the same as that inside the Pixel 5, but it falls short of the Snapdragon 865 used by flagships like the Samsung Galaxy S20.
Most users are unlikely to notice the Pixel's lack of performance, as everyday tasks work just fine. But the Pixel 4a 5G isn't going to play high-end games as smoothly as other (admittedly more expensive) handsets, and moments of lag can occasionally be felt when viewing image-heavy websites.
The Pixel 4a 5G has a USB-C port (pictured) and a headphone jackGearBrain
The most notable pause is when taking a photo (especially in portrait mode) then immediately viewing it in the gallery. The photo takes a couple of seconds to finish processing before it can be seen in its full glory, reminding you that the processor isn't quite what it could be. But this is a $499 smartphone so you should set your expectations accordingly, and wait two extra seconds for that photo.
To be clear, in the majority of use cases it feels plenty fast enough. And speaking of speed, the phone of course has 5G which means incredibly fast download speeds (if you can find some 5G coverage) but sustained 5G use will cause the battery life to fall more quickly. Like the Pixel 5, the 4a supports sub-6GHz and mmWave versions of 5G, the latter being much faster but also rarer, and not available at all in some countries, like the UK.
The Pixel 4a 5G has 6GB of RAM, which is down on the 8GB of the Pixel 5 and despite it being a slightly larger phone than the Pixel 5, the 4a 5G's battery is smaller, at 3,800mAh compared to 4,000mAh.
But as I said earlier, battery life from the Pixel 4a 5G is really good, in some cases stretching to the end of a second day of light to moderate use. Unfortunately, another victim to Google's tight budgeting of the Pixel 4a 5G is wireless charging, which is only offered on the Pixel 5.
Storage is the same as the Pixel 5, at 128GB, and cannot be expanded.
Google Pixel 4a 5G review: Camera system
The Pixel 4a 5G has exactly the same camera system as the Pixel 4 and Pixel 5GearBrain
Where Google hasn't held back is with the camera system, which is exactly the same as that of the Pixel 5. Some may complain that this is also the same as the Pixel 4 and even the two-year-old Pixel 3 but, while Google isn't in a class of one anymore, its cameras are still very good – especially for a $499 handset.
On the back there is a dual camera system with a 12.2-megapixel wide lens and a 16-megapixel ultrawide lens. The former has larger 1.4 μm pixels for capturing more light, auto-focus, optical and electronic image stabilization, an f/1.7 aperture and a 77-degree field of view.
This sits next to an ultrawide lens with regular 1.0μm pixels, a narrower f/2.2 aperture and a wide 107-degree field of view.
It may be starting to show its age, and the competition from Samsung and Apple have caught up on Google's early lead, but the Pixel family's computational photography skills are still very good. As ever, the portrait and nighttime images taken by the Pixel are to be seen to be believed, and new for this generation is how night mode is automatically enabled when the phone thinks it is needed.
Video shooting is also impressive, with up to 4K resolution at 60 frames per second, and a smart locking mode that uses software to imitate the stabilization of a tripod or gimbal.
Camera app of the Pixel 4a 5GGearBrain
The hole punch-style front camera is also the same here as on the Pixel 5, which means an 8-megapixel sensor and f/2.0 aperture. It takes excellent portrait photos, as has always been a strong suit for all Pixel phones, and can shoot 4K video at 60 frames per second.
I go into more detail on the camera system in my Pixel 5 review here, but safe to say this is a great camera for a $499 phone.
Google Pixel 4a 5G review: Price
The Pixel 4a 5G is priced at $499 directly from Google. There is only one model available worldwide, with no color or storage options.
Google Pixel 4a 5G review: Verdict
At $499, I think the Pixel 4a 5G represents great value. Picking this phone over the Pixel 5 means you get to save $200 while still getting 5G, exactly the same camera system, the same processor and storage space, a similar design, a larger screen, and the same Android with three years of guaranteed updates from Google. It's a great package.
But some key features are missing, including waterproofing, wireless charging, a 90Hz screen refresh rate, and the more premium metal design of the Pixel 5. You'll have to determine which features you need — and which you may decide you can do without.