I never thought I’d be a $350-phone type of girl. I’ve always felt like a midrange phone wouldn’t be powerful enough for my daily needs, or have cameras good enough for my Instagram ambitions. I’ve always sought high-end devices with fancy features. But with a recession raging for the foreseeable future, and a sudden glut of impressive midrange phones, I began to reconsider my stance. Now that Google has launched the Pixel 4a (at last) for just $350, I might actually be convinced: the time for midrange phones to reign is nigh.
Back to basic hardware
When I picked up the Pixel 4a, my first thought was “Wait, does this thing have a case on?” The soft-touch coating on the back felt foreign, since I’m used to phones with glossier finishes. It’s not unpleasant though, nor does it feel cheap. In fact, the Pixel 4a is as sturdy and well-made as the Pixel 4. And at 5.04 ounces it’s significantly lighter than the pricier phone (5.71 ounces), which I’ve come to appreciate a lot more as I’ve been spending more time on my couch reading on my phone.
- Affordable price
- Excellent camera
- Fast performance
- Has a fingerprint sensor and headphone jack
- Useful Google software features
- Only one variant
- Only one rear camera
The Pixel has always been a phone that felt a lot nicer than it looked -- it’s not the most stylish. The Pixel 4a’s design is even more basic than ever, though. It comes in Just Black and… that’s it. There are no other sizes available, either. Keeping to one size and color was part of Google’s strategy to reduce production costs. Other midrange phones like the Galaxy A51, the iPhone SE and even the Oneplus Nord (which isn’t available in the US) also come in just one size, after all. The only design flourish you’ll get on the Pixel 4a is the light blue power button on the right side.
Gallery: Pixel 4a review | 28 Photos
Gallery: Pixel 4a review | 28 Photos
I’m not mad about it; I’m all in favor of trimming the fat for a lower price. Plus, Google was able to keep the fingerprint sensor and the headphone jack on the Pixel 4a. Face Unlock never worked reliably for me on the Pixel 4, and now that wearing masks is a part of daily life, fingerprint authentication is far more convenient. A headphone jack continues to be important for people who have yet to switch to wireless earbuds, especially if they’re on a budget. The camera module on the Pixel 4a’s rear is smaller than the 4’s, and I like that the power button and volume rockers feel a bit “clickier.”
I have a bad habit of leaving my phone on the arm of my couch, and all too often I accidentally nudge the device, causing it to crash to the floor. Thankfully, the Pixel 4a has so far survived two such falls without a scratch -- phew! Compare that to the OnePlus Nord, which has eye-catching colors and a glossy finish, sure, but is already showing scratches after a week. And that’s without being dropped.
Google’s first true all-screen phone
Turning the Pixel 4a on for the first time was a surprise. I wasn’t expecting to see the 5.8-inch screen take up nearly the whole front of the phone. This is Google’s first time using a display with a hole-punch camera, and makes the 4a the most modern-looking phone in the company’s lineup. Yet, Google is also playing catchup -- the OnePlus Nord and Galaxy A51 both offer similar screens with camera cutouts, that measure 6.4 and 6.5 inches respectively. The iPhone SE still sports a tiny 4.7-inch screen with a design from 2016, though.
Aside from the shape, the Pixel 4a’s full HD+ OLED panel is almost the same as the Pixel 4’s. Both support HDR and are bright enough to see in sunlight. I enjoyed watching episodes of Sense8, and scenes from a Pride parade were vibrant and detailed.
I was surprised when I realized I missed one important Pixel 4 feature: its 90Hz refresh rate. The Pixel 4a only refreshes at 60Hz, which made things like scrolling my Instagram or Twitter feeds look slightly sluggish. If you’ve never laid eyes on a 90Hz screen, you won’t miss it. But if you’re considering switching, this will take some adjusting. The Pixel 4a isn’t alone, though. While the OnePlus Nord does offer a faster 90Hz screen, the A51 and iPhone SE are both stuck at 60Hz. And again, you can’t get the Nord in the US anyway.
For the price, though, this is a minor sacrifice. My bigger complaint is about the Pixel 4a’s bottom-firing speakers. It was too easy to block them when I was grabbing the phone in landscape mode, which ended up muffling and distorting the audio. When they weren’t covered, the speakers delivered satisfyingly clear music -- Lauv and Julia Michaels’ There’s No Way sounded crisp, though it could have been a little louder and bassier.