Although Google Alt+F4’d India out of the Pixel 4 and the recently launched Pixel 5 launches, they’ve made some amends to woo the stock Android nerds with the Pixel 4a.
Launching at a cool thirty grand, the Pixel 4a is hot on heels of our favourite OnePlus Nord. Whether it smacks the budget champion off its throne is an argument best left for the end of this review. For now, though, I cannot shake the feeling that the Pixel 4a resembles, and is quite possibly here to replace the Nexus 5 void that I have had over the years. It has the purest form of the stock Android experience, with camera smarts enough to give the iPhone 11 a run for its money.
Its minuscule form factor is quite possibly the biggest surprise. Stretching at just 5.8inches with narrow bezels running around the screen, the Pixel 4a is trying to squeeze that OLED display for smaller mitts. We’re so used to seeing smartphones stretching further than news channel TRPs that we forgot how well a small smartphone feels. One hand use is easy. Apple’s ‘budget’ iPhone SE did the same and much like Apple’s approach for giving users a smaller and pocket-friendly device, the size, price and the specs of the Pixel 4a are here to wrestle the same thoughts.
The unibody design with matte finish feels just right. It’s not the glass wizardry that we’re used to seeing from flagship devices but we’ll take it. No glass also means no wireless charging. You get an 18W fast charger in the box to juice up that 3140mAh battery. The soft matte back also feels really sturdy and not at all cheap. Google also gave the same treatment to the fingerprint sensor at the back and it works well.
Google relocated the mint-coloured power button above the volume rocker. I have no complaints as such because the phone is small enough for all to reach the buttons but most smartphones do it the other way. So I guess it’ll take some getting used to, or maybe it’s a reviewer-only problem. Although, I must say that the buttons are tactile and are of top quality. Every interaction with the button is audible and satisfying.
The camera is where the Pixel 4a shines the brightest or should I say, controls the bright shining in your photos (that was an exposure joke, I am sorry). As expected, the single-camera at the back blows the socks off any and all smartphone cameras. It’s probably the only thing going for it, other than the software too. Which is what makes the Google Pixel devices so special. Every photo is a flex about Google’s computational prowess. Starting with Portrait shots, you get the detail richness and life-like sharpness on subjects. Portrait shots compared to iPhone 11’s show that the Pixel 4a’s camera captures more detail on the face and even controls the exposure unlike anything else. The iPhone's soft blur is still a personal favourite but the Pixel 4a portrait shots are close. Just as we saw on the Pixel 4, the slider to control blacks and brightness before taking a shot adds a new level of playfulness to taking and framing a shot. It’s not your arithmetic vomit, just two simple sliders for anyone to adjust and understand. There’s even a slider for zoom to make things easy but in the Portrait mode, Pixel 4a adds 2x digital zoom by default which I am not a fan of. There’s no static numbering on the viewfinder to quickly jump zoom levels which would’ve been handy.
It’s also one of the only phones that do the software tricks before you even take the shot. So what you see in the viewfinder is what you get in the actual photo. It’s definitely one of my favourite features because not only will it let me play around with the exposure and blacks before shooting, I also know how much Pixel pixie dust is going to be thrown in the final shot before even pressing the capture button.
Google’s clever software tricks come into play when you take indoor shots with light bouncing off and filtering through windows and curtains. My curtains are beige which plaster the interiors with a brown tint. The Pixel 4a however, sees through the nonsense my curtains cook up and fixes the colour balance. In the shot where my cat is sleeping, the Pixel captures her white fur and my white bed covers brilliantly, whereas the iPhone 11 leaves the tint that is naturally present in the room. This difference in processing between the two smartphones is potentially going to spark a heavy debate in Stuff HQ. Our Editor thinks the iPhone preserves what the eye is seeing and hence it’s a better camera. I think that the Pixel is flexing its AI smarts so hard that it needs a separate article of its own. What do you think?
However, the colour balance is not all-conquering. It does tend to slip and plaster an undesired colour balance even when it’s not required. I had to auto-correct it in the Lightroom app. Google’s not given us much versatility with the camera too. You get a single lens at the back as opposed to multi-lens offering from the competition around, especially Nord.
Night shots are less desirable than I thought. In simple point-and-shoot, the expensive iPhone 11 does a better job. There’s a way to tighten the blacks by adjusting the aforementioned slider but that level of fiddling is up to your patience.
The front camera is fantastic as well. The detail and exposure correction is nearly indistinguishable from the rear camera. Needless to say, the Pixel 4a camera is best in class and we’re comparing its ₹29,999 cameras to Apple’s ₹64,900 iPhone. Even coming close to it is a big deal. One that Pixel fans have been waiting so patiently for.
The whereabouts of the Pixel 5 is not available for Indian consumers at the time of writing this, which means if you want to make use of Google’s brilliant camera and clever UI, you’ll have to push into the budget territory or source one from outside. This also means you’ll not be rocking the faster innards, albeit, the Snapdragon 730G is no sloucher. The Nord definitely has the upper hand in terms of raw power and performance by spec sheet jargon alone. You won’t get more than 8GBs of RAM too because the 730G tops out at 8GB. 128GB of storage is enough and Google promises to give you free storage for your photos and videos which normally take up a chunk of space over the years. You also get three months of free trial for Google One subscription which gives you storage across GDrive, Gmail and Google Photos and even three months of YouTube Premium subscription. You can also store unlimited amounts of photos and videos on Google Photos in High settings. To keep original size, you’ll have the 15GB of free storage and anything above might have you cough up extra dosh.
We don’t recommend this going for hardcore gaming with this one. If you’re shuffling between Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp and some corporate work-related apps then it’s fine. It won’t ruin your enthusiasm and dipping into a few arcade games is also great. But nothing beyond that, the battery will give up on your eager demands if you push this.
Google says with its all-knowing computer wizardry the UI should be able to read through your use and adjust and extend battery life as you use it. In our use, we got through the entire day of social media babble and regular texting. It’s a great battery in that sense but the pocketable size comes at a cost, right?
Even the OLED is mischievous for its battery. We haven’t spent hours watching content on Netflix like we used to before the pandemic in our smartphone reviews. But if you happen to bag this one for the display, spoiler alert, it’s fantastic.
Even on the natural setting in the display menu, the content is reproduced with punchy and deep colours. Reds and Greens are lush and fuller, and even the whites are superbly controlled. It’s not the brightest around but we had no issues using it under the sun.
It tends to favour warmer tones but that’s almost negligible. The quality and colour of the screen are definitely up to premium standards. Pretty much everything the Pixel 4a does, it does so with great quality for the price.
It’s not unusual to find a step down in audio quality in the budget segment so we’ll give the Pixel 4a a free pass. It’s decently loud and clear for your Instagram videos and YouTube streaming and works in stereo too. You do get a headphone jack here which is nice but no bundled earphones.
The UI is also Google’s way of showing off the best way of doing things on an Android device. You get a quick share toggle in the camera UI itself and UI navigation and Nearby Share feature are straight robbed from iOS. Nearby Share is Apple Airdrop for Android devices.
If you’re into transcribing and jotting down interview voice notes, it doesn’t get better than this. The Recorder app on the Pixel 4a lets you record and transcribe the whole thing to text instantaneously. You can even search for specific words and phrases in the voice note. It’s a very good feature for us journalists, students and even forever screaming television news anchors.
Recorder app test:
“Okay, so I am testing the recorder app on the Google pixel 4 a and this what you are reading right here on stuff dot TV slash in is my voice recorded and then transcribed by the app itself. I haven't edited it one bit, so this should tell you how I speak and how well the app can transcribe my voice.”
Even if the Google Pixel is just perfect for one-hand use, we think some might find the dinky 5.81in a bit too small for their use. Things like Google Sheets and Adobe Lightroom feel cramped if you’re coming from a larger display. Make sure you’re comfortable with its size for the apps you want to use before going for the Pixel 4a.
Pixel 4a is here for the camera and the budget buyers. Too bad the Nord is here too and for the same reasons, with faster performance, to say the least. The camera on the Pixel definitely crushes the Nord and in places the much expensive iPhone 11. Alas, that camera might just be the talking point but the phone needs to do other things and do so with gusto. And we’re happy to report the Pixel 4a does its fair share of multitasking with speed. Just don’t expect it to dip into heavy gaming or editing Adobe Rush videos. Those things might drain the battery, or worse, take longer than expected.
So far the Pixel 4a is looking to champion the Nexus 5 believers and if you’ve missed that train, fret not, this thing is here to fix the Pixel 3a’s mistakes. Price and performance on the Pixel 4a is bang on and you’ll get your money’s worth. It still doesn’t shake the Nord in terms of multitasking performance and battery but whatever it does, it does so with 100% quality. Heck, even the vibration motor feels like it is good quality.
The Pixel 4a focuses on camera, display and pocketable size. All of which are delivered in spades. Just know what you’re getting into before picking it up, otherwise, the OnePlus Nord might be your calling.