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Google Pixel 4a Review: Why Spend $1,000 When You Can Spend $349?

08/03/2020 | 11:15am

By Nicole Nguyen

I'll let you in on a not-so-secret secret: You don't need to spend a thousand dollars on a premium smartphone. You can get the same features by paying half as much, or less.

Yep, there is an entire universe of pocketable, picture-taking app machines in the $200 to $500 range that are perfectly fine for most people. Google's new Pixel 4a, which costs $349 -- $50 cheaper than last year's Pixel 3a -- is the latest example.

The Android phone, announced Monday, is aimed at those who want a device that can do it all, without the price tag of an Apple iPhone 11 or Samsung Galaxy S20. Plus, there is a headphone jack for the anti-Bluetooth crowd.

To bring costs down, Google opted for a low-rent processor and left out trendy features such as wireless charging and water resistance. Instead, the Pixel 4a relies mostly on Google's artificial intelligence to make up for hardware losses.

In fact, the phone has much of the more expensive Pixel 4's software ($799-$899), including a lowlight photography mode and instant audio transcription without an internet connection.

The Pixel 4a is a great value, with a camera, battery and display that feel higher-end than its price suggests. But it isn't the only deal in town: Apple's iPhone SE and Samsung's Galaxy A51 are also closing the gap between budget and luxury phones.

Unlike last year's Pixel model, there is no XL upgrade -- the Pixel 4a comes in only one size. It feels exceptionally good to hold. There is a nice matte plastic encasing, which won't shatter like the glass backs on pricier phones (an added benefit!), and it is lightweight (lighter than the Pixel 4, even). One-handed use is manageable, even for my smaller hands.

The Pixel 4a has a 5.8-inch OLED screen. The selfie camera stands out on the top left of the display, like a hole in a punchcard. There are wallpapers to make it less noticeable, like my favorite, which features kittens playing with a selfie-camera-turned-cat-toy.

On the back, there is a square-shaped camera bump -- the same on the back of the Pixel 4 -- which feels a bit misleading because that design was intended to house two lenses, but this phone only has one.

And that one 12-megapixel camera can do a lot. Sure, the resolution on the Pixel 4's 16-megapixel camera is better, but the photos captured by the 4a are just as vivid.

The digitally added blur in portrait-mode photos is perfectly gauzy and well-placed when the lighting is just right. But it is occasionally heavy-handed, like in this photo where the blur bleeds into my husband Will's cheek and shoulder.

Low light is where things get interesting. The Night Sight camera mode can capture subjects in near-darkness without a flash -- as long as you and the subject hold very, very still. (The iPhone 11's night mode is much better at this.)

There is an astrophotography mode, too -- a good gimmick for capturing highly Instagrammable Milky-Way-while-camping shots, no tripod necessary. I put my phone on the ground and let the camera work its long exposure for four minutes.

The Pixel 4a also has Super Res Zoom, which turns hyper-zoomed-in, low-quality images into clear shots, by capturing multiple shots and using the information to reduce motion blur. It is an example of some of the technological wizardry Android leverages behind the scenes in the absence of high-end hardware.

My favorite features of the Pixel are unique to it. The phone can instantly transcribe any audio to text, complete with punctuation. (Last year, my colleague Joanna Stern challenged the transcription technology with the world's fastest talkers.) Other dictation apps require an internet connection -- Google's happens on device, which is why it is so fast. I recorded an interview and sent the text right to Google Docs. The transcription isn't completely accurate -- it ironically turned "apps" into "Apple" -- but, like a lot of Pixel features, it is incredibly useful.

The battery, which is slightly higher capacity than the 3a, lasted all day with heavy use, including several hours of "Mario Kart" racing, scrolling through Instagram and a couple episodes of "Cheer" on Netflix (you know, for "work"), with some juice left over at 9 p.m. Because during the pandemic most of us are at home, I also tested the phone in airplane mode with Wi-Fi on: It lasted over 44 hours.

Of course, there are trade-offs. The phone can feel sluggish. It took an extra beat to process Night Sight photos and load games compared with the Pixel 4. There is no facial recognition, and the fingerprint sensor is on the back, so I was constantly fiddling with the device when it was face up on a table. (Although, this is arguably more convenient when you are wearing a mask.) You can't drop it in a pool or wirelessly charge it.

Still, the Pixel 4a is a fantastic phone. The strongest case for the 4a is that it runs a pure version of the latest Android 10 without any extra apps gumming up the device that other manufacturers tend to pre-install. And with the Pixel, you get three years of guaranteed support and software updates, as soon as the newest version of Android is available. (Samsung and other phone makers take months to push updates for their devices.)

One thing to note: While preorders begin Monday, the 4a doesn't ship until Aug. 20. Google also said that the Pixel 5 will be released this fall, as well as a 5G version of the Pixel 4a for $499 (but there are several reasons not to buy a 5G phone yet.)

We previously called last year's model, the Pixel 3a, the " best low end phone." While the device is indeed a good midtier pick, it might no longer be the best.

Samsung's A51, available in the U.S. for the first time this year, has a massive battery and 6.5-inch screen, plus three rear cameras, for $399. The new iPhone SE, also $399, has Apple's latest, fastest processor and one-ups the Samsung and Google phones with support for wireless charging and water resistance.

In other words, there are more options for budget phones with not-so-budget features. And that is a good thing.

Send your cheap phone queries to nicole.nguyen@wsj.com. For more WSJ Technology analysis, reviews, advice and headlines, sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Write to Nicole Nguyen at nicole.nguyen@wsj.com

 

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