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Google Pixel 4a 5G review (hands-on)

Google's Pixel 4a 5G offers more luxury, but doesn't solve all the 4a's problems

Google Pixel 4a 5G review (hands-on)
(Image: © Tom's Guide)

Our Verdict

There's a lot of the Pixel 4a 5G that you'll fall in love with quickly. But we'll need to spend more time to decide if it's a good enough deal to beat the Pixel 4a or Pixel 5 overall.

For

  • Large and high quality display
  • Competitive pricing; 5G compatible
  • Strong camera potential

Against

  • Poor battery life
  • Below average performance
Pixel 4a 5G: Specs

Price: $499/£499
Screen size: 6.2-inch FHD OLED (1080 x 2340) with 60Hz refresh rate
CPU: Snapdragon 765G
RAM: 6GB
Storage: 128GB
Rear cameras: 12MP main (ƒ/1.7 ); 16MP ultra-wide (ƒ/2.2)
Front camera: 8MP (ƒ/2.0)
Battery size: 3,885 mAh
Charging: 18W wired
Size: 6.1 x 2.9 x 0.3 inches(153.9 x 74 x 8.2 mm)
Weight: 5.9 ounces (168 grams)

The Pixel 4a 5G tells us a lot about Google's new approach to making phones.

Instead of giving us a small and large version of the same mid-range phone, this year Google has added additional features and upgrades to the basic Google Pixel 4a. This makes enough of a difference that the Pixel 4a 5G sits on its own tier between the Pixel 4a and the flagship Pixel 5.

Google's reworking of its phone line-up means its phones look somewhat out of place next to hardware heavy-hitters like the OnePlus Nord. But with more competitive pricing and Google's best software experience to date along with 5G support, the lack of extra cameras or a higher display refresh rate isn’t a death sentence like you’d expect.

Our full Google Pixel 4a 5G review will be arriving shortly. But our initial take on the Pixel 4a 5G is that it's an outright improvement on the original Pixel 4a, although it doesn't improve on any of the original device's weakest areas including computing power or battery life. All the same, this is still an enjoyable device to use and fulfills the expectations you have from a Google phone more than competently.

Pixel 4a 5G: Price and availability

The single available version of the Pixel 4a 5G will cost you $499/£499. That's $200/$200 cheaper than the Pixel 5 despite sharing many of the same components. It is $150/£150 more than the basic Pixel 4a though, which could be enough of a difference to make you question if you really need the extra features the 4a 5G offers.

You can currently put your name down on Google's waitlist to be notified when the Pixel 4a 5G becomes available to purchase this November. For now though, there's nowhere you can actually go and buy the phone, either online or in-person.

Pixel 4a 5G: Design

The Pixel 4a 5G is a handsome phone, even though it's got a plastic back. And while  you don't get a fancy glass or metal frame to enjoy, it still feels nice and soft. It's also fairly lightweight for a phone of its size at just 5.9 ounces (168 grams). If you struggle to find a phone with a big display that is still light in your hand, the Pixel 4a 5G might be the phone you're looking for.

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

The edges are fairly plain, with the power button (in a contrasting white on this model) and volume rocker on the right side. The top contains a headphone jack, which is good news for people still using wired headphones and earphones.

Google Pixel 4a 5G review (hands-on)

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

You only have one color option in the U.K. — Just Black — but in the U.S. you also get the option of Just White. While it's a small selection, Google does sell some more colorful cases for the 4a 5G if you're willing to spend another $40/£35.

Pixel 4a 5G: Display

Like the other Pixels, the Pixel 4a 5G uses an AMOLED display with an FHD resolution, and a punch-hole notch for the front camera in the top left corner. At 6.2 inches across, the Pixel 4a 5G is the largest of the 2020 Pixel line-up, beating the 5.8-inch Pixel 4a and 6-inch Pixel 5. While it's a straight-up size increase compared to the basic 4a, it lacks the Pixel 5's 90Hz maximum refresh rate, presumably to keep Google's costs down. That's unfortunate since the OnePlus Nord still has a 90Hz display despite being the company's cheapest handset.

Google Pixel 4a 5G review (hands-on)

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

With a Delta-E score of 0.3, the Pixel 4a 5G has similarly accurate colors to the Pixel 4a, which scored 0.29. However the iPhone SE is more accurate than both with a score of 0.2.

There seems to have been some improvement in making Pixel 4a's display larger for this phone. The 4a 5G manages 128.3 percent of the sRGB color gamut, quite a bit more than the Pixel 4a (105.8%) and iPhone SE (111.2%).

However in return there's been a hit to total brightness. The Pixel 4a 5G manages an average of 411 nits max brightness, with the option of 638 nits if you turn on Adaptive Brightness and head out into the sunlight. That's not quite as good as the Pixel 4a's 433 nits and 681 nits respectively.

Either way, that's another similar score to the iPhone SE's maximum brightness of 653 nits. But unlike the Pixel, you can set the iPhone to that brightness no matter the external light level.

Google Pixel 4a 5G review (hands-on)

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Trying out the screen for myself with the newest YouTube trailer for Guilty Gear: Strive, the 4a 5G's display performed well. All the dramatic shadows and intense special effects of this 2D fighting game showed up just as clearly as I hoped.

Pixel 4a 5G: Software

Since the Pixel 4a 5G is a new Pixel phone, it automatically comes with Android 11. As a regular iPhone user, I am convinced that iOS is superior to Android. But using the clean, smartly designed interface of stock Android 11 on the Pixel 4a 5G does a good job of making me question that idea. The snap of changing apps and swiping between home screens feels particularly nice, let alone the useful application of things like convenient media controls, more granular permissions and notification grouping.

That is all very well and good, but Google does offer some more special features that it didn't give the basic Android 11. Auto-select apps are an interesting idea. It's similar to what Apple promises to do with its iOS 14 Smart Stack widgets. You have to give up your home row of apps to use it, but in my limited use of the phone with a fairly small number of apps, I had no complaints to make.

Google Pixel 4a 5G review (hands-on)

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Like Google's previous phones, you also have call screening to fend off robocallers and the excellent Recorder app with its genius automatic transcription.

I am particularly impressed by how nice the Pixel 4a 5G feels to type on. Google has done a stellar job with the haptics in general, but writing notes for this hands-on and getting little pops of feedback from each virtual key-press felt particularly good.

Pixel 4a 5G: Cameras

The Pixel 4a 5G gets the same set of sensors as the Pixel 5. Given one is a flagship and the other a mid-range phone, you might be raising an eyebrow. Is the Pixel 4a 5G amazing value for money, or is the Pixel 5 trying to rip you off?

Google Pixel 4a 5G review (hands-on)

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

To be specific, those cameras consist of a 12MP main and 16MP ultrawide sensor on the back, and an 8MP selfie camera in the display's punch-hole notch. While that's one more camera than the iPhone SE has, the Pixel 4a 5G seems underpowered on paper compared to other cheap Android phones like the six-camera Nord. But Google has always relied on its excellent post-processing software to make your photos look better after you hit the shutter button. 

The low-light Night Sight mode has returned, promising to make nighttime shots look just as good as they did on the Pixel 4. Also here is adjustable portrait lighting for tweaking shadows and highlights on portrait mode shots in Google Photos, and smooth video panning for videographers seeking greater stability in their shots.

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

We'll have full camera comparisons when we publish our full review, but for the time being, the Pixel looks like a fantastic contender for the best photo crown at this price point.

Google Pixel 4a 5G: Performance

We find more similarities between the Pixel 5 and 4a 5G in their processors. Both use a Snapdragon 765G, which isn't the most powerful chip you'll find in 2020 Android phones, but still offers plenty of performance and 5G. Since the Pixel 4a uses a weaker Snapdragon 730 chip, and the Pixel 5 gets more RAM, we'd expect to see the 4a 5G score somewhere between the two in benchmark tests.

That didn't turn out to be the case. In the Geekbench 5 benchmark, the Pixel 4a 5G managed scores of 598 single core and 1,614 multi-core. Weirdly, that's lower than the standard Pixel 4a's 1,647 multi-core result.

The OnePlus Nord does slightly better with 602 and 1,948 respectively, likely helped by having 12GB RAM to the Pixel's 6GB. Of course, the A13-powered iPhone 13 crushes both phones, with its 1,337 single core result and 3,226 multi-core result.

On a less abstract benchmark like SlingShot OpenGL, the Pixel 4a again pales in comparison to the Nord, scoring 2,885 to the OnePlus phone's 4,521. Google's clearly not focused on making the 4a 5G a performance device like the rest of its phones this year. This won't bother everyone, but it's worth pointing out to people who like to play graphics-intensive mobile games or edit photos and video on the phone itself.

Pixel 4a 5G: Battery life

You get 3,855 mAh of battery capacity with the pixel 4a 5G, which is quite a lot more than the Pixel 4a, and a little less than the Pixel 5. Like its siblings, it powers up at up to 18W fast charging, which is conveniently available to you with the included power brick in the phone's box.

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

In 15 minutes, you can charge the phone up to 23%, and 46% in half an hour. The standard Pixel 4a makes it to 50% in 30 minutes, but it does have a smaller battery. The OnePlus Nord got to 68% in the same time despite having a larger cell, while the iPhone SE's 5W basic charger is a long way behind.

To help with longevity, Google uses adaptive battery software to analyze how best to manage the apps and processes going on in the Pixel 4a’s circuitry. It promises to prioritize powering the features you’re actually using and reduce the drain from your lesser-used apps, therefore eking out the most from the battery.

Google also boasts that the Pixel 4a 5G can use its Extreme Battery Saver mode to last up to two days before needing to charge again. You're unlikely to need this most of the time, but it could certainly be handy if you need to stretch out the power you have left.

Using our custom battery test, the Pixel 4a 5G lasted 8 hours and 12 minutes of constant web browsing on an LTE connection before powering down. This is quite far below average, doing worse than the already disappointing 9 hours and 18 minutes of the iPhone SE. This is another area where the original Pixel 4a beats the 5G model, getting to 8 hours and 55 minutes in the rundown test.

Pixel 4a 5G: Connectivity

The name of the Pixel 4a 5G should answer your first question about if it works with the newest connectivity standard. But there's more good news on this front.

For U.S. customers, you can buy either a sub6GHz version of the Pixel 4a 5G, or a sub6GHz and mmWave version. The latter version is a little thicker and heavier to make up for the extra antennas, but is otherwise the same. In the U.K., Google is only selling a sub6GHz version, which makes sense since it's the only kind of 5G available in the country.

Google boasts of 5G's advantage when it comes to streaming content and gaming. It also claims the Pixel 4a can be used as a 5G hotspot to give your friends a taste of your speedy data.

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Google Pixel 4a 5G review: Early verdict

The Pixel 4a 5G has left me with some very warm first impressions. Google has seemingly tried to walk the line between the hardware focus of other Android phone makers and the software-led approach of Apple, and the result is a phone with some great potential. You don't get the raw power or all of the bells and whistles that the OnePlus Nord offers, but you get more screen space and more versatile camera options than the iPhone SE. 

When the comparisons are all done, I expect the Pixel 4a 5G to be one of our new favorite Android phones. But my biggest question is whether it's any better than its siblings. The Pixel 5 is more expensive, but is able to command that price with some more flagship features that may tempt you to spend the extra $200. But if budgets are non-negotiable, then I have to wonder whether the $150 between Pixel 4a and Pixel 4a 5G is worth spending, given how complete a package Google's cheapest phone already offers.