Google Pixel 4a review: the best smartphone camera available

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Google Pixel 4a packs a flagship-quality camera into a £349 handset (Image: GOOGLE • GETTY • EXPRESS NEWSPAPERS)

With the Pixel 4a, Google has tried to recreate the magic of its predecessor, the Pixel 3a – the handset that single-handedly doubled Pixel hardware sales when it launched last year. But has lightning struck twice?

Before we address the Pixel 4a, we need to address the launch of this new affordable entry into the Pixel line-up. Google had intended to announce the smartphone during its annual developer conference, which is held in early May, but the plan was scrapped due to the ongoing public health crisis. With large-scale international gatherings out of the window for the foreseeable future, Google unveiled the Pixel 4a with a paltry blog post on August 3. In the UK, you’ll need to wait until September 10 to pre-order the handset and it won’t land on store shelves until October 1, 2020.

By the time you’re able to get your hands on the Pixel 4a in your local high street store, the Pixel 5 will almost be here. And that’s not just an expression – Google itself has confirmed that an improved 5G-enabled Pixel 4a and an all-new Pixel 5 will launch in October around the time pre-orders for the Pixel 4a originally planned for May 12, 2020 start to ship.

That makes reviewing the Pixel 4a a little different to any other smartphone. After all, what might seem wholly impressive now could look very different in October when the Pixel 4a is finally available to buy in stores. In the intervening two months, Apple is expected to unveil its new slate of iPhones, there will be new handsets from Motorola as well as potentially new releases from the likes of OnePlus, Samsung, and Huawei. And how will these late-2020 devices stack up against the Pixel 4a?

Thankfully, there is one group of people for whom none of that matters – if you loved the Pixel 3a, there’s no doubt that you’ll fall head-over-heels for its successor.

Google Pixel 4a Review UK Release Date Price

Gone is the two-tone design of previous Pixels, replaced with a unibody plastic case (Image: GOOGLE)

Google Pixel 4a: Design

There is something really delightful about the Pixel 4a. With its 5.8-inch OLED display, the Pixel 4a is about the same size as the iPhone SE launched earlier this year, but packs a much larger display thanks to the clever edge-to-edge design.

At 443 pixels-per-inch, emails, social media, and games look suitably sharp on the OLED display. Colours are bright and vivid – perfect when watching HDR content on YouTube or Netflix. But while the display looks gorgeous indoors, it can look a little dim when viewed in the bright summer sun. That’s an issue that’s unlikely to rear its head all that often in Britain, but worth pointing out nonetheless.

To ensure Google squeezed the maximum amount of screen real estate possible into this dinky frame, the Pixel 4a houses its selfie camera in a small cut-out in the display. That means there’s no waving hand gesture-detection or facial recognition to be found here, unlike the Pixel 4. For our money, we’d rather lose the Herman Munster forehead needed to house all of those smarts in favour of the Pixel 4a design.

On the rear, the Pixel 4a case is a single, seamless design with no joins or bumps. Unfortunately, it’s made entirely from plastic, which makes it feel much cheaper than other handsets in the same price range, like the stunning OnePlus Nord.

On the back is a fingerprint scanner to unlock the Pixel 4a and authenticate Google Play contactless payments. For our money, front-facing fingerprint scanners are more practical as it means you can reply to a text message without having to pick up the phone from your desk. However, the positioning of the scanner on the Pixel 4a is fine and works at lightning-fast speeds.

ALTERNATIVES TO THE GOOGLE PIXEL 4a:

Like the Pixel 3a series before it, Pixel 4a has a 3.5mm audio port, so you’ll be able to use all of your wired headphones without an adapter. You’ll also be able to use a splitter to share a favourite song with friends without having to delve into the depths of the Bluetooth settings menu.

As with all Pixel smartphones before it, the power button is a contrasting splash of colour. For the Pixel 4a, Google has opted for pastel mint shade. Unfortunately, that’s the only splash of colour you’ll find on the Pixel 4a as Google is only making it available in the aptly-named Just Black finish. Compared to the gorgeous shimmering Blue Marble available on the OnePlus Nord, or the rich Product (RED) option on the new iPhone SE, the Pixel 4a looks remarkably plain. Although, if you own a Pixelbook Go in black, these two Just Black devices look great as a set.

Google has also designed some colourful new fabric cases, which will be available on store shelves when the Pixel 4a launches, that should provide a much-needed splash of colour.

Google Pixel 4a: Features

Pixel 4a is powered by the latest version of Android 10. Unlike smartphones from the likes of LG, Xiaomi, or Samsung, this is Android 10 as Google intended. For our money, this is one of the best Android experiences available – not least because it means you won’t find duplicate calendar, photos, and email apps.

Google guarantees three years of Android updates with the Pixel 4a, which means you’ll definitely benefit from the bump to the forthcoming Android 11 later this year as well as a few more major upgrades down the line.

That’s pretty poor compared to the iPhone – Apple plans to upgrade its five-year-old iPhone 6s to the latest and greatest version of iOS this September, for example. However, three years of guaranteed software updates is phenomenal for an Android device. Especially one that costs £349. All too often, Android flagships costing four-figure sums don’t enjoy an upgrade to the next major operating system release 18-months after launch.

Google Pixel 4a Review UK Release Date Price

The dazzlingly brilliant Recorder app – an exclusive from the costlier Pixel 4 – arrives on the Pixel 4a too (Image: GOOGLE)

Google throws-in a few brilliant exclusive features to its Pixel-branded devices that you can’t find on other Android smartphones. One is the always-helpful Now Playing, which quietly identifies songs in the background and builds a list of tracks that have followed you around. So, rather than launch Shazam and wave your phone around like an aircraft marshaller, you can glance down at the always-on display and see the name of the track and the artists. And if you want to check what was playing in the background at the pub last night, the same information can be found in the Now Playing app.

There’s also the phenomenally clever Recorder app, which can record audio from your next lecture or meeting. Not only that, but Google automatically transcribes and labels what you record so you can easily find the parts that matter to you. Google’s AI is also smart enough to detect and label familiar sounds in your recordings, like “applause” or “music”.

This is easily the best camera you’ll find on a £349 smartphone. It’s also some of the best battery life too – baffling as the Google Pixel 4 was almost unusable as it burned through battery at such a breakneck pace

When you do find the juicy quote you needed from that hour-long meeting, you can export it from Recorder to Google Docs with a number of formatting options.

All of this functionality happens on-device, powered by the Qualcomm Snapdragon 730G and 6GB of RAM, so your recordings never leave your phone. Unless you choose to save them to Google Drive, that is.

As always, Pixel smartphones come with unlimited photo storage via Google Photos. Images will be stored in “High Quality” which involves a small amount of crunching from Google’s algorithms to save space, but photos will still look great on Instagram and printed in the family album. And it means you’ll never lose a shot, even if you lose your phone – without paying exorbitant cloud storage fees each month.

Google’s clever Personal Safety feature, which debuted with the Pixel 4 last year, makes a very welcome return with the Pixel 4a. This leverages the built-in sensors to detect when you may have been in a car accident. If Google thinks you might have suffered a crash, it will send a notification to check-in on you and help you call 999 if you do not respond. Thankfully we haven’t tested that one first-hand, but its a potentially life-saving feature that needs to be built-in to more devices.

Google Pixel 4a Review UK Release Date Price

There’s no doubt about it, the Pixel 4a is the best smartphone camera you can buy for £349 (Image: GOOGLE)

Google Pixel 4a review: Camera

Let’s be honest, this is what it’s really all about. Sure, the display is good and the exclusive Android features are a nice addition, but the Pixel has always been about the camera.

And the Pixel 4a really delivers where it counts.

In a nutshell, the £349 Pixel 4a delivers photos that are almost indistinguishable from the £669 Pixel 4 or £829 Pixel 4 XL. Photos from Pixel-branded phones have a distinct look – everything has a crisp sharpness to it and there’s plenty of deep shadows and dramatic contrast. These cameras aren’t afraid of throwing in some darkness to the shot and things often look all the better for it. However, if you’re not a fan of this aesthetic and prefer the slightly softer image from an iPhone camera, or the tartly saturated colours from Samsung, then there’s nothing that the Pixel 4a does that’ll change your mind.

With only a single 12.2-megapixel camera on the back of the Pixel 4a, there’s no ultra-wide or telephoto shenanigans to be had here. Google does use its AI smarts to improve zoom shots, known as Super Res Zoom, and while the results can be pretty great – this software solution is no substitute for the lossless 10x zoom found on Huawei rivals. But honestly, it’s the missing ultra-wide that left us most distraught. Coupling Google’s jaw-dropping computational photography with a fisheye camera would surely result in creative shots of friends, food and landmarks. Fingers crossed the Pixel 5a gets some dual-camera action.

Thankfully, Google can still manage Portrait Mode images with a single camera. That means you’ll find the effect, which adds bokeh-style blur behind the subject, on the front- and rear-facing cameras. The results are usually pretty convincing – with the Pixel 4a usually picking out every individual strand of hair, something Apple and Samsung can’t come close to achieving.

However, the all-important AI sometimes gets a little confused about the background and will apply less blur to the text on a sign in the distance, which gives the image a strange uneven look. These instances are pretty rare though and almost all Portrait shots will look amazing on your new Linkedin profile.

Pixel devices can also retroactively add its AI-powered Portrait Mode to photos taken on other devices, like old digital cameras. Unfortunately, this only works if Google detects a face in the photo, so pets won’t enjoy the same treatment – sorry Fido.

On the front-facing camera, it’s a crying shame Google hasn’t revived the ultra-wide selfie camera that debuted on the Pixel 3. The feature meant you never had to worry about using timers of, heaven forfend, selfie sticks to fit everyone in – and in the age of social distancing, this feature would’ve been perfect. Nevertheless, the 8-megapixel front-facing camera takes some pretty phenomenal shots with the same crisp quality and contrast seen on the rear-facing camera.

Pixel 4a packs comfortably the best night-mode at this price point, with gloomy shots easily illuminated without the flash, so you won’t need to blind your friends to get a nice shot.

Like the Pixel 4, the Pixel 4a also packs an astrophotography mode to capture images of the night sky, including stars, planets, and even galaxies. It’s incredibly clever, but a real faff to do – you’ll need to keep the device completely still using a tripod and position it away from light pollution. Honestly, you’re better off nabbing one from NASA’s Instagram account.

Google Pixel 4a Review UK Release Date Price

With its 5.8-inch screen, the Pixel 4a can be comfortably used one-handed (a rarity with phones these days) (Image: GOOGLE)

Google Pixel 4a review: Final Verdict

Pixel 4a is a supremely capable smartphone. At £349, it’s much more affordable than the Pixel 4, but it almost matches its pricier sibling when it comes to killer features.

The OLED screen looks great and the edge-to-edge design is actually a step-up from the Pixel 4, the exclusive Android features are genuinely life-saving, and the camera will exceed your (high) expectations. If you’re not looking to shell out the cost of second-hand car on your next smartphone but want a brilliant camera that will get shots that look phenomenal on the wall – the Pixel 4a should be your next phone.

It’s not perfect. The plastic case makes it feel like a budget device, there’s no high refresh-rate screen, like you’ll find on the £379 OnePlus Nord, and you won’t get 5G support to take advantage of the broadband-like mobile speeds rolling out across the UK, unlike the £299 Motorola G 5G Plus.

But this is easily the best camera you’ll find on a £349 smartphone. It’s also some of the best battery life too – baffling as the Google Pixel 4 was almost unusable as it burned through battery at such a breakneck pace.

Whether the Pixel 4a will still hold these accolades when it finally drops through your letterbox on October 1, 2020 is a bit of a risk. With the already-confirmed Pixel 5 and 5G-enabled Pixel 4a looming large on the horizon, you might want to wait to find out for yourself.

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