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The Pixel 4a Is Perfect Smartphone Simplicity

The Pixel 4a Is Perfect Smartphone Simplicity

As smartphones continue to get more sophisticated and more expensive, there’s a question that becomes increasingly relevant: How much phone do you actually need? Features like a built-in stylus, a foldable screen, and wireless charging are certainly nice to have, especially when they’re built into the same device you use to text, shop, watch videos, or pay your bills. Those features are also luxuries. But on the Pixel 4a, it feels like Google is trying to make a statement about what should be considered essential smartphone tech. You get a single flat screen, a camera in the front, a camera in the back, a fingerprint reader, and a headphone jack for $350. If the Pixel 4a is supposed to be the essence of smartphone simplicity, I think Google nailed it.

Now of course the pursuit of simplicity comes with an obvious trade-off: a lack of options. So unlike Google’s other phones, there’s no XL version of the Pixel 4a. There’s only one model, which features a 5.8-inch 2340 x 1080 OLED display. There aren’t any color options either, just matte black plastic, that’s it. I think the lack of other colors is sad considering hues used on Google’s other gadgets (like Purplish on the Pixel 3a) are some of the most interesting shades on the market, but for the majority of people who throw their phone in a case immediately after getting it, it’s not that big of a deal. Aside from a shadowy gray G on the back of the phone, the only thing that breaks up all the matte black plastic is the phone’s minty power button.

But forget color, by going with a smaller display, Google has made a device that’s wonderfully compact, while relatively thin bezels and a punch-hole selfie cam help preserve as much screen real estate as possible. Look, there’s nothing wrong with a big ‘ole phablet, but after using the Pixel 4a for more than a week, its dimensions feel downright refreshing. Meanwhile, instead of trying to hide the phone’s fingerprint reader beneath its screen, Google opted for a rear fingerprint sensor smack dab in the middle of the phone’s back, located right where your fingers naturally rest when you pick up the phone. It’s a fast and straightforward solution that just works, no high-tech trickery needed.

I also really appreciate that Google included an OLED display, which is something you typically don’t find in phones this cheap. Colors are rich and vibrant, while its peak brightness of 670 nits is also quite impressive for a budget device. The only thing people might take issue with out of the box is that the Pixel 4a’s screen has a slightly warmer color temperature than most phones, but that’s easily adjusted in the phone’s display settings. And while the Pixel 4a doesn’t boast the world’s fastest phone performance, with a score of 231 on WebXPRT 2015, the 4a is more than fast enough for all but the most extreme power users, while still offering more speed than other budget phones like the TCL 10 (174) and Moto G Power (171).

Another perk of the Pixel 4a not normally found on other budget phones is true stereo audio, which combines the phone’s bottom-mounted speaker with its earpiece to produce balanced and rich, but not terribly loud audio. And for people still rocking wired headphones, there’s a handy 3.5mm jack too.

However, the Pixel 4a’s real standout feature is its camera, because even though it only has a single image sensor in back, it has practically the same kind of image quality you get from a standard Pixel 4, along with all of Google’s special photo modes including astrophotography, time-lapse, and most importantly, Night Sight. In short, the Pixel 4a has the best camera you can get on a smartphone for under $800.

Illustration for article titled The Pixel 4a Is Perfect Smartphone Simplicity
Photo: Sam Rutherford/Gizmodo

To test this, I compared shots from the $350 Pixel 4a with photos taken by the $450 OnePlus Nord, which features the same cameras used in the $800 OnePlus 8, and the $700 iPhone 11. Even in well-lit daytime shots that typically don’t pose much of a challenge for a modern smartphone, the Pixel 4a consistently out shot the OP Nord. In a head-to-head comparison between a shot of a some pink flowers, you can see where the OP Nord’s shot suffers from oversaturated colors, resulting in a softer image with funky looking textures. Then later, in a shot of a sunset, the Pixel 4a really flexed its skills by capturing a shot that’s just as rich and colorful as the OnePlus Nord’s, but without completely underexposing the lower half of the photo like the Nord did.

Meanwhile, compared to the iPhone 11, while the Pixel 4a wasn’t nearly as dominant, it routinely kept pace with a phone twice its price, and often coming out ahead. For example, in shots of another flower and a local mural, while the iPhone 11's pics immediately jump out thanks to having slightly more vibrant colors, in both comparisons, if you zoom in a bit, you can see where the Pixel 4a did a better job of preserving details on the flower’s petals or the texture on the mural’s brick wall.

Finally, I moved on to even darker low-light situations, where Google’s Night Sight Mode truly shined. In a shot of some graffiti, the iPhone 11 did an impressive job of producing an image with lots of detail and proper exposure, but the iPhone 11 ultimately missed a bit on white balance compared to the Pixel 4a. However, when I captured a very challenging shot of a plushy lit only by a single candle, the Pixel 4a was nothing short of amazing as it captured the most details out of all three phones while also having a more well-exposed image, less grain, and richer and more accurate colors.

As for the Pixel 4a’s battery life, while it didn’t quite live up to the 15 hour and 44 minute mark the Moto G Power turned in our streaming video rundown test, with a time a 13:55, the Pixel 4a was still firmly above average. Compared to other budget and mid-range phones, the Pixel 4a beat both the TCL 10L (11:52) and TCL 10 Pro (13:00), and also lasted longer than both of its more expensive siblings, the Pixel 4 (10:38) and Pixel 4 XL (12:36).

In the end, my major gripe boils down to one somewhat forgivable omission. That’s because while I’d love to see the Pixel 4a feature a second ultra-wide or telephoto cam—especially when even cheaper like the Moto G Power and TCL 10L both come with dual cams—with Google clearly focusing on simplicity and opting for quality over quantity, the Pixel 4a’s single rear shooter has definitely proven its value.

Instead, I really wish the Pixel 4a had some sort of water resistance because while Google says the phone has limited protection against dust and dirt, the Pixel 4a doesn’t have much to guard against moisture. Having an IP rating for water-resistance doesn’t make a phone impervious to water, but when it comes to normal spills and accidents, it does give you more peace of mind when it comes to the phone’s everyday durability.

Illustration for article titled The Pixel 4a Is Perfect Smartphone Simplicity
Photo: Sam Rutherford/Gizmodo

Still, the Pixel 4a feels like a wonderful example of restraint and while also following the legendary KISS principle: Keep it simple, stupid. The Pixel 4a is simple and elegant, and for just $350, it’s damn near impossible to find a better phone in this price range without turning to one of its spec-heavy Chinese rivals which rarely feature support for U.S. networks. If I had a teenage child who needed a phone, I’d buy them a Pixel 4a. Same goes for a grandparent looking for something new but still easy to use, particularly when you factor in all of the Google Assistant various smart features like Call Screener, Live Captions, and the new Crisis Alert check.

Heck, I’d argue a lot of people running around with flagship devices could happily switch to the Pixel 4a without missing much while also saving a bunch of money in the process. I’m not here to tell you how much phone you need, but if you want a good phone for a reasonable price that covers all the basics, the Pixel 4a is an excellent choice.

README

  • The Pixel 4a doesn’t come in any other colors or configs, this is all you get (at least for now).
  • Google has announced there will be a 5G version of the Pixel 4a due out sometime later this fall.
  • Like other Pixel phones, the Pixel 4a will be first in line to get new Android updates and guaranteed support for at least three years of Android OS updates and monthly security updates.
  • While the Pixel 4a has one less rear camera, it’s image quality is similar to what you get from a standard Pixel 4.

Senior reporter at Gizmodo, formerly Tom's Guide and Laptop Mag. Was an archery instructor and a penguin trainer before that.

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DISCUSSION

JoshTheBat

Let’s see: 6GB of RAM, 128GB of storage, camera that performs comparably or even better than the flagship phones. How much does this phone cost again?

ETA: I’m glad Google seems to return to its Nexus root.