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The Pixel 4a 5G Is Hands Down the Best $500 Phone

Illustration for article titled The Pixel 4a 5G Is Hands Down the Best $500 Phone
Photo: Sam Rutherford

The Pixel 4a 5G is an interesting phone, because on the outside it’s as plain as can be. But just like the Millennium Falcon, she’s got it where it counts. The Pixel 4a 5G is also somewhat awkwardly named, having more in common with the Pixel 5 than its smaller sibling, the standard Pixel 4a. So even though I want to call it the Pixel 5 Lite with its largish 6.2-inch OLED screen, that’s not quite right either. However, titles and names aside, I can tell you that on the Pixel 4a 5G, Google has smartly allocated resources toward the features and components that really matter, and the result is a nearly ideal $500 phone.

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Clad in black plastic with a white power button as its only major distinguishing characteristic, the Pixel 4a 5G is an exceedingly simple device. There’s no configurations to choose, nor are there alternate colors like the Pixel 5's Sorta Sage, which is a bit sad, but ultimately logical when you remember most people are just going to throw this thing in a case. Around the edge of the phone there’s a thinnish black bezel, with a hole-punch cut-out for an 8-MP selfie cam, a tiny earpiece speaker embedded in the top bezel, a USB-C port on bottom (next to another speaker), and square camera module in back above a good ‘ole fingerprint reader. Oh yeah, and there’s a headphone jack. It’s nothing fancy, but Google covered all the bases and everything works as expected, and that’s what matters.

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The Pixel 4a 5G differs from the standard Pixel 4a in three main areas. First, it’s got a larger 2340 x 1080 6.2-inch OLED display, up from 5.8 inches, which is important for anyone who wants more room to watch movies or play games. Meanwhile, with a peak brightness of over 700 nits and the deep, saturated colors that make OLED screens so pleasing, the Pixel 4a 5G feels like a great balance between delivering more content without making the phone too big or unwieldy.

Second, it’s got a faster Qualcomm Snapdragon 765G processor, which is not only the same as what you get in the Pixel 5, it also brings 5G support, so even if you don’t have 5G in your area right now, the phone will be ready to deliver faster mobile speeds when you do. On a mid-range phone in 2020, the 765G offers an excellent sweet spot for price and performance, and in my experience, the Pixel 4a 5G almost never suffered from stutter or lag. Google even doubled the base storage to 128GB, which really should be the starting point for most phones today (cough iPhone 12), and is a very much appreciated move to keep pace with the times.

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One interesting thing to note is that despite the Pixel 4a 5G’s larger 3,800 mAh battery, its longevity is almost exactly the same as its smaller sibling, lasting 13 hours and 57 minutes on a charge (compared to 13:55 for the Pixel 4a). That’s not a bad time at all, besting the OnePlus 8T (13:49), but I was sort of expecting a bit more.

Third, and more importantly, the Pixel 4a 5G gets two rear cameras instead of one: a 12.2-MP main cam and a 16-MP ultra-wide. Compared to the $700 Pixel 5, I’m much less bothered about Google not including a zoom cam, and when you factor in Google’s Super Res Zoom (which uses software to improve typical digital zoom shots), the addition of an ultra-wide cam makes a ton of sense. But the real win for the Pixel 4a 5G is that by giving a $500 phone essentially the same image quality you get on the Pixel 5, no other phones in this price range can really compete. It’s basically cheating.

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When I tested the Pixel 4a 5G against the Moto One, the Pixel swept the board in every scenario—both bright light and low light. Colors were bright, dynamic range was better, and small details like the texture on flowers and skin on the pumpkin were sharper. And in low light, while all of the Moto One’s pics sported slightly washed out colors, the Pixel 4a 5G’s were richer without being overbearing.

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The main things missing from the Pixel 4a 5G compared to the Pixel 5 are wireless charging and an IP68 rating for water resistance, both of which would be nice, but they’re not dealbreakers. Technically, the Pixel 4a 5G also lacks the aluminum frame used in the Pixel 5, though because the 4a 5G still feels quite sturdy and the Pixel 5's chassis is hidden beneath Google’s special “bio-resin,” you can’t really tell either way.

Illustration for article titled The Pixel 4a 5G Is Hands Down the Best $500 Phone
Photo: Sam Rutherford
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The Pixel 4a 5G’s most important components are some of the best you can get for the money. It’s got a big OLED screen when almost every other phone in the price range is using LCD. It offers strong performance and full 5G support. And its cameras are straight up unmatched. And then there’s the Pixel experience, which ensures you get day one Android updates, three years of support, and nifty software tricks like Call Screener, Duplex, the Pixel Recorder, and more. The Pixel 4a 5G might not be a looker or have the rugged charm of a scruffy nerf herder, but if you need a smartphone you can depend on, the Pixel 4a 5G is what you (and your wallet) needs.

README

  • The Pixel 4a 5G is closer to the Pixel 5 than the standard Pixel 4a, it has a bigger screen, a faster processor, 5G support, and two rear cams instead of one.
  • While it’s a very simple and straightforward phone, it’s got everything you really need for $500.
  • The Pixel 4a 5G is only available in one color: black
  • No IP-68 water resistance or wireless charging are small dings, but not dealbreakers.
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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

One thing I’d love for Google to get back to is offering alternate colors on their lower-end phones. When I’m using a cheaper phone it’s a bit easier for me to justify not having a case on it. While I’d never go without a case on a $1,200 phone, when you can get a 4a for only $350 it’s a viable option.

So please, Google, for those of us who like “naked” phones give us options for alternate colors!