Google Pixel 4a could be the phone of the year — even with these trade-offs

Google Pixel 4a
(Image credit: Concept Creator/LetsGoDigital)

Every time you buy an inexpensive smartphone — even if it's one of the best cheap phones — you're making a trade-off. Is that low price you're getting worth the extra features and capabilities you'll have to give up? That's a question would-be buyers of the Google Pixel 4a will soon have to ask themselves.

Google hasn't announced the Pixel 4a yet, but based on the rumors surrounding this phone, a follow-up to last year's Pixel 3a, that may be just a formality. The expectation is that Google will announce the new phone next month, most likely during its June 3 online event that will preview Android 11.

When it does arrive, the Pixel 4a is expected to feature a  5.8-inch OLED screen, a solid, if not top-of-the-line, processor and a lone rear camera for snapping photos. Of course, if the Pixel 4a is anything like its predecessor, that'll be good news for bargain hunters. A year after its release, the Pixel 3a remains one of the best camera phones you can buy thanks to Google's mastery of computational photography.

Until Google officially announces the Pixel 4a, we can't definitively say what compromises you’ll be required to make to enjoy its price tag -- which we’ve just learned could be as low as $349. But based on all the leaks surrounding this year's phone, we can make a pretty good guess about Pixel 4a trade-offs. And even with those trade-offs the Pixel 4a could be the phone of the year for most people, especially for those of us on a budget. 

You'll get a less powerful phone with the Pixel 4a

Rumors point to the Pixel 4a running on a Qualcomm Snapdragon 730 system-on-chip. That chip will deliver solid performance and can handle the everyday tasks of most smartphone users. But it won't provide flagship-quality power.

These days, the best Android phones run on the Snapdragon 865; the Pixel 4, which came out late last year, uses the Snapdragon 855, which was the best available Snapdragon chipset at the time. Meanwhile, the latest iPhones run on the pace-setting A13 Bionic chip — including the iPhone SE,  perhaps the Pixel 4a's main rival.

Leaked Pixel 4a benchmarks give us a good idea of the trade-off Pixel 4a owners will make. YouTube channel TechnoLike Plus claims that the Pixel 4a posted a score of 268,973 in the AnTuTu benchmark. That's a better result than last year's Pixel 3a models got, but it's behind the mark posted by the iPhone SE (441,752). 

When we tested the Pixel 3a last year, its Geekbench score was behind the Pixel 3 and even the older Pixel 2. The Pixel 3a's Snapdragon 670 chipset is less powerful than the Snapdragon 730, but we'd still expect Google's new budget phone to lag behind its flagship Pixel 4 for performance.

Does it matter?: Not really. People who use processor-intensive apps or play demanding games will want a more powerful phone than what the Pixel 4a is expected to deliver. For most everyday tasks, though, a slower processor won't make much of a difference.  

You'll get a smaller screen with the Pixel 4a 

Google Pixel 4a concept design

(Image credit: Pigtou and xleaks)

Rumors point to the Pixel 4a featuring a 5.8-inch screen. That's just a bit larger than the 5.6-inch display on the Pixel 3a, though because the Pixel 4a is expected to shrink the top bezel by using a punch-hole cutout for the front camera, the new phone should offer more screen real estate.

Plus, a 5.8-inch display would dwarf the puny 4.7-inch panel on the iPhone SE, which also suffers from big bezels all around its Retina Display.That's the good news. The bad news is that if you prefer larger displays, you're probably not going to have that option with the Pixel 4a.

Last year, Google offered two versions of the Pixel 3a: a standard model, and  a 6-inch XL edition. This time around, rumors suggest that Google likely won't make a Pixel 4a XL as the Pixel 3a XL's had underwhelming sales. If that's true, fans of big-screen phones won't be satisfied with a sub-6-inch display.

Does it matter?: Screen size is a matter of personal taste. Plenty of people still like compact phones that fit easily into pockets, so a 5.8-inch Pixel 4a would be a perfectly acceptable device. Phablet fans may find the lack of a 4a XL to be a deal-breaker, though.

You won't get 5G connectivity with the Pixel 4a 

Some Pixel 4a rumors have Google's budget phone using a Snapdragon 765 chipset. That would be significant and not just because the 765 promises better performance than the Snapdragon 730. The Snapdragon 765 has a built-in 5G modem and any phone using it will be able to connect to emerging 5G networks.

Alas, rumors of a Snapdragon 765-powered Pixel 4a have died down in recent weeks, so we're pretty sure Google's upcoming phone won't connect to the 5G networks AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon are building out. It makes sense that Google would want to save 5G connectivity for its Pixel 5 flagship release this fall, but it's still a trade-off Pixel 4a shoppers should keep in mind.

Does it matter?: It won’t for a while.5G networks are still in the early stages, with only T-Mobile's 5G network providing nationwide reach. That network is built on low-band spectrum so you won't see massive speed boosts at this moment. (AT&T plans to have its own nationwide network by mid-year, but it's using the same low-band technology as T-Mobile to extend its reach.) 5G speeds will improve over time, but you won't miss out on much over the next year or so if you don't buy a 5G phone this year.

You'll get a smaller battery with the Pixel 4a 

Google Pixel 4a

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

The Pixel 3a debuted last year with a 3,000 mAh battery, which is much smaller than the batteries you find in flagship phones. (One notable exception: The Pixel 4 and its 2,800 mAh battery, which probably explains why we found battery life for that phone so disappointing.) Battery size isn't everything, though and the Pixel 3a still managed to land on our best phone battery life list with a runtime close to 12 hours. 

The Pixel 4a is rumored to have a slightly larger 3,080 mAh battery, so it’s very possible that it could match or exceed the endurance of the excellent Pixel 3a.

The bigger compromise may be with how you charge your phone. No one expects the Pixel 4a to add the wireless charging capabilities found in premium phones, and the Pixel 4a is likely to offer only 18-watt charging when faster options are already available.

Does it matter?: Considering how well the Pixel 3a did on our battery test, battery size shouldn't matter, so long as Google avoids the mistakes it made with the Pixel 4's power consumption. Wireless charging may be harder to sacrifice, especially if you've already invested in wireless-charging accessories.

You'll get a plastic phone with the Pixel 4a 

Forget the glass and metal designs you see in premium smartphones. Google used plastic for the Pixel 3a, and those same materials are likely to be on order for the Pixel 4a. Apart from the placement of the front camera, this year's phone will bear a striking resemblance to last year's model.

Does it matter?: If you're shopping for $400 smartphones, you're probably not expecting premium designs, so this is an easy compromise to make. That said, if you want a phone with looks that far exceed its price, consider the TCL 10 Pro, which delivers a premium design for $450. And the iPhone SE offers a glass and metal design that’s water resistant for $399.

You'll just get one camera with the Pixel 4a  

Google Pixel 4a

(Image credit: Concept Creator/LetsGoDigital)

Google has no plans to change its approach to cameras on budget phones, if rumors are accurate. The  Pixel 3a made do with a lone 12.2-megapixel camera and all signs point to the Pixel 4a following suit. 

That means there will be no telephoto lens offering an optical zoom, and no ultra wide angle lens for pulling back to show more surrounding details. (It also means no macro lens like those showing up on many  lower-cost phones, though we're fine with that omission.)

As nice as it would be to have the extra hardware, the Pixel 3a did just fine with its lone shooter, capturing pictures that rivaled those taken by more expensive handsets. The hero here is Google's software, which enables features like Night Sight for great low-light photos and Super Res Zoom for filling in details when you zoom in digitally. 

We'd expect those features to return in the Pixel 4a, along with photographic capabilities Google introduced with the Pixel 4 last fall. (Think AI-powered white-balancing and real-time HDR optimization.)

Does it matter?: Not at all. More than any phone maker out there, Google has figured out that it's not how many cameras your phone has, it's how well those cameras perform. And given the company's track record when it comes to mobile photography, we're confident that the camera is one area where the Pixel 4a won't require any compromises.

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.