Starting price: $499/£499
Screen size: 6.2-inch FHD OLED (1080 x 2340); 60Hz refresh rate
CPU: Snapdragon 765G
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)
Whenever you sit down to evaluate a phone, you have to take into consideration what phones it competes against. But for our Pixel 4a 5G review, we found that Google's $499 5G phone doesn't always invite easy comparisons.
Your immediate instinct is to compare it to the $349 Pixel 4a, since after all, the two phones share a name, even if they ultimately serve different audiences. The Pixel 4a is for people who want the best camera phone in the cheapest possible device; the Pixel 4a 5G aims for people who want a top camera phone but also 5G connectivity.
There are a slew of midrange phones that now offer 5G which the Pixel 4a 5G will go toe-to-toe against — an LG Velvet here, a Galaxy A71 5G there. And I think it fares pretty well, as Google's expertise with mobile photography outweighs any concerns about the Pixel's subpar battery.
But in many ways, the real competitor to the Pixel 4a 5G is another Google phone. The Pixel 5 shares in much in common with its cheaper sibling — so much so that ultimately, the Pixel 4a 5G gets the better of any comparison. If you want a 5G phone from Google, the Pixel 4a 5G is the one to get.
Pixel 4a 5G review: Price and availability
There's one version of the Pixel 4a 5G — a 128GB model with 6GB of RAM — and it will cost you $499/£499. That's $200/£200 cheaper than the Pixel 5 despite sharing many of the same components. You will pay $150/£150 more over the basic Pixel 4a though, which may strike some as a steep premium for 5G connectivity.
Google sells the phone unlocked, and you can also buy versions from the Google Store that are tied to Verizon and Google Fi. AT&T is now selling the phone too, with T-Mobile and Verizon adding the Pixel 4a 5G shortly.
One note about the Pixel 4a 5G sold through Verizon — it costs $100 more than the standard $499 version. That's because it's designed to work with Google's high-speed mmWave-based 5G towers that outperform 5G networks built on low- to mid-band spectrum. Verizon 5G features mmWave in 51 cities, while a nationwide network built on lower band spectrum launched in October. (You'll still get 5G with the Pixel 4a 5G without mmWave, but it only be a little bit faster than LTE.)
Pixel 4a 5G review: Design
The Pixel 4a 5G is a handsome phone, and at times, when it was sitting face-up on my desk opposite of a Pixel 4 XL, I had to do a double-take before I knew which phone to grab. That's not the case when the Pixel 4a 5G is flipped over — the back is made from plastic, and it definitely looks it.
You may not get a fancy glass or metal frame to lend your phone a touch of style, but the Pixel 4a 5G is still comfortable to hold. Even with a 6.2-inch screen, it's fairly lightweight at just 5.9 ounces (168 grams). The fancier-looking LG Velvet tips the scales at 6.3 ounces, and if you like easier-to-carry handsets, the Pixel 4a 5G's lighter weight makes a word of difference.
The edges on the Pixel 4a 5G are fairly plain, with the power button (in a contrasting white on the Just Black version of the phone) 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.
On the back of the phone, a little bit southeast of the rear camera array, Google included a fingerprint sensor. The location seems a little high up for my taste, as I sometimes had trouble locating the sensor. Maybe that explains why it occasionally took me a couple tries to unlock the phone, especially when I was holding it with my right hand.
Buy the Pixel 4a 5G from Google, and you can only pick the Just Black option. That's also the only color offered to U.K. buyers. Verizon currently gives you a choice between black and white, which aren't exactly the most vibrant color decisions you'll ever be asked to make.
Pixel 4a 5G review: Display
Like the Pixel 4a and Pixel 5, 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.
The display is one of the biggest trade-offs you'll make when you choose between the Pixel 4a 5G and the Pixel 5. It's not that the more expensive Pixel has a more colorful screen — it covers 128.8% of the sRGB color spectrum, compared to 128.3% by the Pixel 4a 5G. Rather, the Pixel 5 offers a 90Hz refresh rate that can make scrolling smoother and other content more immersive. The Pixel 4a 5G goes with a more conventional 60Hz rate.
Set the two phones side by side and you'll notice a difference. A phone with a faster-refreshing display offers a better experience overall. I'm not sure it's $200 worth of difference, though, and unless you're downgrading from a phone that already offered a fast-refreshing screen, you're not likely to be bothered by its absence on the Pixel 4a 5G.
The Pixel 4a 5G's screen is colorful enough, though the LG Velvet captures more of the sRGB color spectrum at 140.6%. Colors are just as accurate on both phones, though, as they have equal Delta-E rating of 0.3. That's about equal to the Pixel 4a's 0.29 rating, but behind the iPhone SE and its 0.2 score. (Numbers closer to zero are better.)
One of my biggest complaints with last year's Pixel 3a lineup was the dim screen Google used on its budget phone. Things have improved with the Pixel 4a 5G, which can reach a maximum brightness of 638 nits when you've got Adaptive Brightness turned on. That's not as good as the Pixel 4a's 681-nit rating, but in line with the iPhone SE's 625 nits. It's also ahead of mid-tier 5G phones like the LG Velvet (567 nits), Motorola Edge (558 nits) and Galaxy A71 5G (481 nits).
Just make sure you have Adaptive Brightness enabled when you go outside. Otherwise, brightness tops out at 411 nits for the Pixel 4a 5G, and the glossiness of the display can make it very hard to make out details in the bright sun. I had to squint when watching Hail, Caesar! on Netflix or playing PUBG Mobile to get the full picture of what I was looking at when outdoors.
Indoors, I found the Pixel 4a 5G's display nice and colorful, whether it as Channing Tatum's clean dress whites from a Hail, Caesar! musical or the green wallpaper in the bar where he was dancing. The YouTube trailer for Stardust also reflected the muted '70s colors as well as Johnny Flynn's transformation from David Bowie to the magenta-haired Ziggy Stardust.
Pixel 4a 5G review: Cameras
While Pixel 4a owners make do with a single rear camera, the Pixel 4a 5G gets the same set of sensors as the Pixel 5 — a 12MP main lens along with a 16MP ultrawide shooter. Google's superlative computational photography is along for the ride, too.
Those cameras are probably the best thing about the Pixel 5, and the same can be said here. Even better, you're paying $200 less for photos that look just as good as the ones captured by Google's flagship.
The Pixel 4a 5G does a solid job capturing this photo of some breakfast tacos, even with some unforgiving light streaming in from a kitchen window to the right of the shot. The colors are accurate — from the bright red peppers to the dollop of sour cream. I also like how the Pixel kept everything in focus, even the taco in the background.
That same taco doesn't look as sharp in the LG Velvet's photo and the colors seem to have an overly yellow cast to them. The differences are minor but they're enough to separate a decent midtier camera phone like the Velvet from a superior one like the Pixel 4a 5G.
That's not to say the Pixel 4a 5G nails every shot. There's nothing really wrong with this scene of a foggy Santa Cruz cliffside, though I think the LG Velvet does a better job overall depicting the fog in the shot, particularly as it wraps around the trees in the far background. The Velvet's photo shows a more detailed texture for the tree trunk in the left foreground of the shot, while that same tree looks much darker in the Pixel's shot.
That said, the Pixel more successfully handles the sunlight breaking through the fog and backlighting the tree on the right-hand side of the photo. You have a little over-exposure in the LG Velvet's image.
How does the Pixel 4a 5G fare against beefier competition? To find out, I used Google's phone and an iPhone 11 Pro Max to shoot a picture of my favorite surfer. You'd really be hard-pressed to say which photo came from which phone, though if you study the details, the iPhone 11 Pro Max did a better job highlighting the patches of blue in an otherwise foggy sky. Still, you wouldn't look at those two photos and see $600 worth of difference, particularly in the way the Pixel 4a 5G matches the iPhone's ability to capture the surfer's reflection on the water of the tide pool.
Speaking of tide pools, I used last year's Google flagship — the Pixel 4 XL — to shoot a picture of a tide pool to see just how much the Pixel 4a 5G could replicate its more expensive predecessor. And I think these pictures come as close to being a perfect match as possible. Both pick up the details of mussels clinging to the surrounding rocks and you can see a fairly detailed outline of a sea anemone just underneath the surface of the water. If you want a flagship-quality camera without the accompanying price, the Pixel 4a 5G is as close as you're going to get.
I'm also impressed by how the Pixel 4a 5G makes the most of Google's prowess with computation photography. The Night Sight feature on the Pixel 4a 5G produces photos as sharp as any Pixel phone and can go toe-to-toe with the low-light photo mode of handsets like the iPhone 11 Pro Max.
You could argue that the Pixel better captures some of the nuances of the flowers in this picture of Halloween decorations, though I think the iPhone does a better job with the shading on the skull to the right of the flowers, not to mention the background lighting. Still, this Pixel 4a 5G low-light shot is better than anything produced by a sub-$500 phone should be.
I think the Pixel 4a 5G also does a credible job with portrait shots, at least determining where the background ends and the subject begins. The outline of my daughter is very distinct in the Pixel 4a 5G's photo, unlike with the iPhone 11 Pro Max where some of her hair and a little halo around her left should get caught up in the blur.
I also prefer that the Pixel 4a 5G's shot includes more of the background, though that can be a personal preference. Where the iPhone excels is skin tone — you can still see my daughter's freckles, while the Pixel over smoothes her face. (This happens a lot with Google phones.) And I just think the blur on the iPhone's shot looks a little more natural and less computer-generated.
Turning back to a phone in the Pixel 4a 5G's price class, we see how much better its 8MP front camera can handle selfies than the front shooter on the LG Velvet. My face looks hearty and healthy in the Pixel's shot. Perhaps my skin's a little too smooth, but it's a very good shot with balanced colors and lighting. The Velvet makes me look as if I've seen a ghost, draining all the color from my face and making me look slightly over-exposed.
Google Pixel 4a 5G: Performance
We find more similarities between the Pixel 4a 5G and the Pixel 5 when it comes to their processors. Both use a Snapdragon 765G, which isn't the most powerful chip you'll find in this year's best Android phones. But it is a processor favored by phone makers who want to offer 5G-ready devices — the Snapdragon 765G includes a built-in 5G modem — but don't want their phones to cost as much as the priciest flagships. The LG Velvet also uses the Snapdragon 765G, while the Galaxy A71 and Motorola Edge use a slightly lower-powered Snapdragon 765.
On Geekbench 5, which measures overall performance, the Pixel 4a 5G had the worst multicore score of any of those Snapdragon 765/765G-powered phones, posting a result of 1,614. That wasn't far off the Pixel 5's 1,617 result, but the A71 (1,796), Motorola Edge (1,867) and LG Velvet (1,927) finished well ahead of that mark. The Motorola and LG phones have the same amount of RAM as the Pixel 4a 5G, so that doesn't really explain the difference in scores.
In graphics testing, the Pixel 4a 5G also trailed the rest of the field, scoring a 2,885 in 3DMark's SlingShot OpenGL test, compared to 4,644 for the LG Velvet and 4,237 for the Motorola Edge. On a newer 3DMark graphic test, Wild Life Unlimited, the Pixel 4a 5G at least edged the Pixel 5, with a score of 1,199 (7 frames per second) to the Pixel 5's 1,160 (also 7 fps). The LG Velvet outperformed both phones with a score of 1,680 (10 fps).
Ultimately, this probably won't affect users who turn to their phone to run basic apps like social media, email and web browsing. I even found that demanding games like PUBG Mobile run just fine on the Pixel 4a 5G, even if I've seen sharper looking graphics on more powerful phones. It's just a little disappointing that the the Pixel 4a 5G appears to be at the back of the class for Snapdragon 765G-powered devices.
Pixel 4a 5G review: 5G connectivity
That letter and number at the end of the Pixel 4a 5G name tells you all you need to know about what networks this phone connects to. Like the Pixel 5, the Pixel 4a 5G works with the emerging 5G networking standard.
U.S. customers can either connect to sub-6GHz networks like the kind favored by AT&T, T-Mobile and now Verizon for their nationwide coverage. High-speed networks like Verizon's mmWave-based Ultra Wideband network require a different model that's a little thicker and heavier to make up for the extra antennas — and more expensive, as we mentioned. Otherwise, it's the same as the standard Pixel 4a 5G. (In the U.K. Google only sells a sub-6GHz version of the phone, which makes sense since it's the only kind of 5G available in the country.)
You may have heard about 1 Gbps speeds with 5G, but temper your expectations. At this point, the most widespread form of 5G is just a little bit faster than the LTE you're used to. Using a T-Mobile SIM on the Pixel 4a 5G, I can connect to T-Mobile 5G, but I only get 25 Mbps download speeds, which is a hair or two better than T-Mobile LTE in my area.
Such modest speed gains — for sub-6GHz 5G anyhow — may make you wonder if you're better off getting the cheaper Pixel 4a and its LTE-only connectivity. That depends on how long you plan to hold on to your phone. 5G performance is going to improve, and if you've already picked up a 5G phone like the Pixel 4a 5G, you'll benefit from that improvement over time.
Pixel 4a 5G review: Battery life and charging
You get 3,855 mAh of battery capacity with the pixel 4a 5G, which is quite a lot more than the Pixel 4a (3,140 mAh) and a little less than the Pixel 5 (4,080 mAh). That should be enough to keep the Pixel 4a 5G powered up, but 5G can be a demanding connectivity standard.
The Pixel 4a 5G didn't fare very well in our battery test, in which we set the phone's display to 150 nits of brightness and have it surf the web over cellular — in this case, T-Mobile's 5G — until it runs out of power. The Pixel 4a 5G averaged 8 hours and 12 minutes on our test, which is well below the average for smartphones. It's also not in line with similarly priced 5G phones, as the LG Velvet lasted 10:29 and the Galaxy A71 5G fared even better at 10:49.
To be fair, the Pixel 4a 5G held up well in daily use, as I was often able to make it through a day of gaming, video watching and surfing without needing to recharge the battery. We'll continue to investigate why the Pixel 4a 5G fared so poorly on our battery test, though it's worth noting other recent 5G phones did not have the same problem.
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. This isn't something you're likely to notice working the moment you begin using your Pixel, as some time is required to "learn" your habits, though it could extend endurance down the line.
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.
The Pixel 4a 5G charges up somewhat quickly, thanks to 18W charging. In 15 minutes, you can charge the phone up to 23%, and 46% in half an hour. That's well ahead of the iPhone SE, which only got up to 29% after 30 minutes with its 5W charger. The LG Velvet was a slowpoke, too, only reaching 24% in half-an-hour.
One thing you can't do with the Pixel 4a 5G is charge the phone wirelessly. That's a feature that didn't make it over from the more expensive Pixel 5.
Pixel 4a 5G review: Software
Early access to the latest version of Android used to be the Pixel's exclusive calling card, and while you'll find Android 11 on the Pixel 4a 5G, it's not a unique proposition anymore. The OnePlus 8T also ships with Android 11 pre-installed. At least Pixel owners can count on Android updates reaching their phones as soon as they're available.
Android 11 introduces some nice improvements — even long-time iPhone users will appreciate the snap of changing apps and swiping between home screens. Google also offers some special features you won't find in Android 11 on other phones. For instance, suggested apps will now appear just above the search bar based on contextual clues and AI.
Like Google's previous phones, you also have call screening to fend off robocallers and the excellent Recorder app with its genius automatic transcription. Recorder adds handy new editing features that lets you trim an audio file by highlighting text in the transcript and chopping it out. Another Recorder feature lets you share a video of your recording, transcript and all.
Like the Pixel 5, the Pixel 4a adds Google's new Hold for Me feature (though, you do have to enable it by going into the setting of the phone app and turning Hold for Me on). With Hold for Me, when you're placed on hold, you can task the Google Assistant to listen to that horrible hold music on your behalf, alerting you when a human operator is on the line to talk to you.
Google Pixel 4a 5G review: Verdict
The Google Pixel 4a 5G hits the market at a time when other similarly priced 5G phones have become the rule rather than the exception. And while other 5G phones certainly deliver better battery life and a little more processing oomph than the Pixel 4a 5G, Google's phone provides something those phones can't offer — a camera that produces pictures to rival what more expensive flagship phones are capable of.
In fact, after conducting this Pixel 4a 5G review, I can't help but feel that it's not the likes of the LG Velvet or Galaxy A71 5G or any one of a number of midrange handsets that this phone is competing against. Rather, the Pixel 4a 5G's biggest competitor appears to be the Pixel 5.
On that front, the Pixel 4a 5G holds up very well. It doesn't have the 90Hz refresh rate that the Pixel 5 offers nor the IP68 water resistance. But at $200 less, you're getting an excellent camera, 5G connectivity and no real trade-off in terms of overall performance. Google now offers two 5G-ready devices between the Pixel 5 and Pixel 4a 5G. And it's clear to me that the Pixel 4a 5G is the better buy.
Richard Priday contributed to an earlier hands-on with the Pixel 4a 5G.