Google Pixel 4a 5G: Stuck somewhere in the middle
PCWorld|December 2020
Google has made an easy decision more difficult with the oddly positioned Pixel 4a 5G.
MICHAEL SIMON

The Google Pixel 4a 5G sits in a very awkward place in Google’s 2020 smartphone lineup. As the newest member, the 4a 5G might initially seem like a no-brainer purchase over the Pixel 5 or the Pixel 4a. And for some it will be. But a closer inspection by a discerning buyer will reveal equally compelling arguments to upgrade or downgrade to either of its siblings—unless you definitely want a Pixel with 5G.

Everything’s a trade-off. If display matters, the 4a 5G has a slightly larger display than the Pixel 4a and 5 (6.2 inches versus 6 inches), but a slower refresh rate than the 5 (60Hz vs 90Hz). The 4a 5G has a headphone jack like the 4a, but it doesn’t have wireless charging like the 5. Got all that?

Even that 5G feature has its caveats. If you want Verizon’s speedier mmWave, it’ll cost you an extra $100, bringing the phone’s cost even closer to that of the $699 Pixel 5. 5G connectivity places a higher demand on battery life, too.

Basically, Google has made it so buyers need to check a very specific set of boxes before they decide to buy a 4a 5G. While anyone who opts to buy one probably won’t regret it, the Pixel 4a 5G isn’t as clear-cut of a purchase as the Samsung Galaxy S20 FE or Apple’s iPhone 12.

DESIGN: BIGGER, SOMETIMES BETTER

Based on its design, the Pixel 4a 5G is basically the Pixel 4a XL that we didn’t get in August. It closely resembles the 4a, right down to the plastic back and colored power button, just with a bigger 6.2-inch screen. It’s a touch heavier than the 4a (151 grams versus 143 grams), but it still feels incredibly light compared to other all-glass phones.

Let’s talk about that screen first. While it is bigger than the 4a’s, it has the same Full HD+ resolution as the 4a (versus the Quad HD resolution on previous Pixel XLs). As a result you’re getting a slightly lower pixel density—413ppi, compared to 443ppi for the 4a and 432ppi for the Pixel 5. It’s subtle, but a downgrade nonetheless.

The image quality is typical for a Pixel, with relatively muted colors and brightness, even after my usual switch to “Boosted” mode. It’s good, but compared to the iPhone 12 or OnePlus 8T, it’s a bit dull and underwhelming. I wish Google would change its display calibration to amp up the colors and the vibrance, but after five generations, that seems unlikely.

For cameras, the front of the 4a 5G has the same hole-punch selfie cam and bit of chin as the 4a. The square camera array on the back differs—the 4a has just one lens, while the 4a 5G adds an extra ultrawide lens. fits two lenses. We’ll talk about camera image quality later on.

Working our way around the phone, the design offers a number of features that could either make it feel old-school or retro-cool, depending on your perspective. The headphone jack (on the top edge of the phone) is never a bad thing. While the fingerprint sensor may seem quaint, it's in some ways an upgrade over the finicky in-display sensors that are all the rage on newer Android phones. The “Purple-ish” power button is a nice throwback to the Pixel 3, and the only bit of color you’ll find anywhere on the phone until you turn on the screen. The button is a little stiffer than the 5’s delectable chrome-wrapped version, but still more satisfying to press than the 4a’s.

A GOOD-ENOUGH PERFORMER THAT LASTS

The Pixel 4a 5G uses the same Snapdragon 765G chip as the Pixel 5. It isn’t the fastest chip by any stretch—benchmarks scores were closest to the Snapdragon 845 in the Pixel 3—and the 4a 5G still doesn’t feel quite as fast as the Pixel 5, because it has less RAM (6GB vs 8GB) and the slower display (60Hz vs 90Hz). However, it’s faster than the Snapdragon 730G in the Pixel 4a. In my time with it, I only experienced the slightest lag and jitteriness when launching and switching apps.

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