Google Pixel 4a: The 5 things we need to know right now

Pixel 4a wireless charging
(Image credit: ESR)

The Google Pixel 4a has been rumored for so long — and delayed so often — that it feels like we’ve heard everything there is to know about the rumored budget phone. Like the Pixel 3a before it, this latest Google phone is expected to cost less than $400 while delivering the kind of photographic powers you’d expect from a Pixel phone.

As much as we think we know about the Pixel 4a, though, there are still some blanks that require filling in — including the not-so-insignificant question of whether we’re ever going to lay our hands on the Pixel 4a. And if the Pixel 4a is about to ship as many are saying, then we’re going to need the answers to those questions sooner rather than later.

Here are five Pixel 4a questions no one has answered yet, though we can make some very good guesses.

When is the Google Pixel 4a release date?

Forget all the other questions you might have about the Google Pixel 4a. This is the one that everyone wants to know, but no one seems to have the answer to.

In an alternate universe, the Pixel 4a would already be here. Most people expected the phone to debut at this year’s Google I/O developer conference, just like the Pixel 3a did in 2019. But the coronavirus pandemic caused Google to cancel I/O this year, and that robbed the Pixel 4a of its time in the spotlight. June’s Android 11 beta release came without a Pixel 4a launch as well.

No Google I/O, no Pixel 4a.

No Google I/O, no Pixel 4a. (Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Now a rumor from phone leaker Jon Prosser suggests that the Pixel 4a will finally debut in July, but that Google might not ship the phone right away, with the Pixel 4a’s release happening in August or possibly not until October. 

If that sounds like a strange approach for Google, it reflects the fact that there’s a lot of uncertainty out there in the world right now, and that Google likely would prefer to wait for retail stores to re-open. Most people in the US buy their phone through their wireless carrier, so it would make sense that Google would want to time the Pixel 4a launch to put the phone in front of the largest number of would-be customers.

Still, spending the next few months sitting on a budget phone that’s ready to go — and by all accounts, there’s no production issues delaying the Pixel 4a’s arrival —doesn’t make a lot of sense, especially with rival devices like the iPhone SE already available. We’d expect that July will finally be the month where Google gives us a definitive answer about the Pixel 4a’s fate, or else the company runs the risk of bumping into the big fall flagship releases, including its own Pixel 5 rollout.

Will there be a Google Pixel 4a XL?

Google likes to release phones in pairs. Since the arrival of the first-generation Pixel in 2016, the company has released an XL version to go with a smaller, standard model, with the primary difference being the size of the screen and battery. The Pixel 3a followed that pattern last year, debuting alongside the larger Pixel 3a XL.

Google Pixel 4a XL concept design

A Pixel 4a XL concept design (Image credit: Pigtou)

All signs point to the Pixel 4a being a solo act, however. While there were renders of a Pixel 4a XL floating around, there aren’t many rumors pointing to its features. Given what a detailed picture we have of the Pixel 4a at this point, that would suggest to us that the Pixel 4a XL has been scrapped, reportedly because the larger version of the Pixel 3a XL didn’t sell as well.

That explanation runs counter to what we know about the smartphone market, where the prevailing ethos seems to be that the bigger the screen, the better. But perhaps Google has decided that it makes more sense just to offer one model and to go with the less expensive smaller version since this is a phone for the budget-minded.

The Pixel 4a XL could always make a surprise appearance, but unless we hear something more definitive, we’ll assume the 5.8-inch Pixel 4a is the only model we’re getting.

Pixel 4a vs. Pixel 4: How will they differ?

Whether the Pixel 4a is a success will depend on just how Google differentiates its budget phone from the flagship Pixel 4 models that came out last fall. That’s the challenge with any budget phone — phone makers need to convince shoppers that the lower price is worth the trade-offs they’ll inevitably have to make.

What Google Pixel 4 features will make it to the Pixel 4a?

What Google Pixel 4 features will make it to the Pixel 4a? (Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Until the Pixel 4a becomes official, we can only guess as to the specifics on how it will depart from the Pixel 4. But using last year’s Pixel 3a as a guide, it’s all but certain the new phone won’t have as powerful a processor as the Snapdragon 855 inside the Pixel 4. Rumors suggest a Snapdragon 730 will power the Pixel 4a, which should deliver decent performance but no 5G connectivity.

Google used OLED panels for last year’s Pixel 3a models, and that’s likely to continue with the Pixel 4a, so there’s one trade-off you won’t have to make. You will probably not be able to wireless charge the budget phone, however, and forget about any dual rear cameras like the ones on the Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL.

One area where Pixel 3a shoppers didn’t have to compromise was on longevity as both models landed on our list for best phone battery life. Considering how disappointing the Pixel 4 fared on our battery test, it wouldn’t take much to have the Pixel 4a outlast it, particularly if Google goes with a less power-hungry processor.

We’re also hering that the Pixel 4a won’t have the radar-powered Motion Sense chip in the Pixel 4, which enabled fast face unlocking and various hand gestures. We doubt Pixel 4a shoppers will miss this feature.

What camera features will Google add to the Pixel 4a?

There was more to the Pixel 3a’s success than just a low price tag. Because it tapped into Google’s expertise with computational photography, the budget phone could delivered that were on par with phones that cost twice as much and relied on more lenses. That’s why it’s not particularly a big deal that the Pixel 4a is expected to only have one rear camera at a time when other budget phones are squeezing in extra sensors.

The camera was one of the best features on the Pixel 3a.

The camera was one of the best features on the Pixel 3a. (Image credit: Future)

However, we are interested to see just what capabilities the Pixel 4a can pick up. A couple Pixel 4 features — Dual Exposure and Live HDR — never found their way to the Pixel 3a because they required hardware changes and not just updated software. It’s possible that Google could make changes to the Pixel 4a’s camera setup so that you can manually adjust highlights and shadows or get live previews of HDR photos, but the Pixel 4a could skip those features as well.

Figuring out just what the Pixel 4a can do beyond well-established features like Night Sight and Super Res Zoom will go a long way to determining just how significant an update the Pixel 4a truly is.

How will the Pixel 4a compare to the iPhone SE?

The Pixel 4a will have to do something its predecessor never had to worry about — compete with a low-cost iPhone. Before Google could roll out its new budget Pixel, Apple launched an iPhone SE successor to great acclaim. And not only does the iPhone SE 2020 feature some computational photography skills of its own and a sub-$400 price, it also ships with the same A13 Bionic processor found in the more expensive iPhone 11 models.

The iPhone SE figures to be a formidable rival to the Pixel 4a once Google's phone comes out.

The iPhone SE figures to be a formidable rival to the Pixel 4a once Google's phone comes out. (Image credit: Apple/91Mobiles/OnLeaks)

The Pixel 4a is not going to compete with the iPhone SE on performance, not with a midrange Snapdragon chipset. And we expect Apple’s budget phone to put up quite a fight when we compare the two handsets’ cameras. On paper, the Pixel 4a should have a bigger display (5.8 inches vs 4.7 inches) and longer battery life. But Google could also undercut the iPhone SE on price, as it’s rumored to start at just $349.

Philip Michaels

Philip Michaels is a Managing Editor at Tom's Guide. He's been covering personal technology since 1999 and was in the building when Steve Jobs showed off the iPhone for the first time. He's been evaluating smartphones since that first iPhone debuted in 2007, and he's been following phone carriers and smartphone plans since 2015. He has strong opinions about Apple, the Oakland Athletics, old movies and proper butchery techniques. Follow him at @PhilipMichaels.