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How does Google's mid-ranking phone score?
A 5G phone with a fantastic camera that keeps up with the likes of the Samsung Galaxy S21.
The Pixel 4a 5G is the middle-ranking Google phone. It costs more than the Google Pixel 4a but has 5G and a larger screen.
It also costs £100 less than the Pixel 5, and all you miss out on of note is an aluminium casing and a 90Hz refresh rate. This makes the Pixel 4a 5G a fair deal.
Battery life is the main reason to pause. While the Pixel 4a 5G lasts longer than we’d expect, given it has a small-for-2021 3885mAh battery, it will be left running on fumes by the evening for some of you.
Still, this is a great phone for those who don’t hit video streaming services and social networks too much during the day and want a killer camera.
Want a more recent Google Android handset? Read our in-depth thoughts of the latest flagship smartphone in our Google Pixel 6 Pro review.
Be sure to follow our coverage of the Google IO 2022 showcase on 11th May, which may be used to unveil the new mid-range Google Pixel 6a smartphone.
The Pixel 4a 5G is a good alternative to something like the Samsung Galaxy S21. It takes excellent photos, is powerful enough for most people, isn’t too large or heavy and has a bigger screen than the Pixel 5 or Pixel 4a. You do lose a few nice-to-have techy extras compared to some rivals, though, like a high refresh rate screen and ultra-fast charging.
The Pixel 4a 5G is a Google phone. It’s one of only three current-generation mobiles from the company that makes the software used in Android phones.
It sits above the Pixel 4a, below the Pixel 5. And for many, it’s Goldilocks-style ‘just right’ choice. You get 5G and Google’s class-leading photo quality at a lower cost than the Pixel 5 commands.
Pixel phones aren’t made to shove a sense of ultra-high value per pound in your face like some alternatives from Chinese companies such as Realme, Xiaomi and OnePlus. It doesn’t have stacks of extra features like loads of rear cameras, a huge screen or hugely aggressive pricing.
However, it remains solid value because of the quality of the overall experience and that most of the core features are still roughly on-par with phones at £600-800. Do consider the standard Pixel 4a if you are not fussed about 5G, though. It loses a few other features apart from 5G but is available for £150 less.
The camera is arguably the primary reason to buy a Pixel 4a 5G, but we’ll cover that in its own section. Other key draws are less about features in the usual sense and more about how Pixel phones work.
Buy a Pixel, and you’ll get Android updates before any other manufacturers' phones. Google also guarantees three years of key system updates, although that three years started when the Pixel 4a 5G went on sale in November 2020, not when you choose to buy one.
The Pixel 4a 5G also has Android in its purest form. There’s no custom manufacturer skin to complicate the phone’s look or feel, although, at this point, we think almost all third-party Android skins are perfectly sound.
Periphery hardware features that get more attention are those you’re likely to appreciate often. There’s no fat on the Pixel 4a 5G.
It has stereo speakers, for example. And while they are not the loudest in the known universe, they are calibrated to sound surprisingly bassy at lower volumes. We’ve streamed hours of podcasts and radio on the Pixel 4a 5G and were pretty impressed — until it had to compete with the sound of a shower or boiling kettle anyway when it just fared OK.
The screen is the largest of all the Pixel phones at 6.2 inches. A 60Hz refresh rate means it won’t scroll as smoothly as the 90Hz Pixel 5, but it is an OLED display that excels in other areas of image quality.
Colours look bold but natural, while brightness is high enough to compete with bright sunlight and contrast is impeccable. The Pixel 4a 5G may not be the most expensive Pixel phone, but it’s our top pick for gaming.
The phone has the same Snapdragon 765G processor as the Pixel 5. This is a mid-range chipset that can handle all games well, from casual titles to demanding ones like Fortnite.
However, if you care far more about gaming than anything else, check out something like the Motorola Moto G100 too. It sells at the same price but has a far more powerful Snapdragon 870 processor and a much taller 6.7-inch screen that provides more space for virtual gamepad controls.
Any Android phone with under 4000mAh battery capacity sets off alarm bells these days. The Pixel 4a 5G has a 3885mAh battery.
There’s good news and bad news. The Pixel 4a 5G does not have bad battery life. In our days of testing, it always made it ’til bedtime. It didn’t threaten to give up at 7pm.
This is likely because there are careful restrictions on what is allowed to go on in the background while you do not actively use the phone. And, like the best of these measures, you don’t actually notice these battery-saving techniques in use.
However, there are plenty of significantly longer-lasting phones available at £400 or less. Most mid-range Motorola, Xiaomi and Realme Androids have better stamina. If you really want a phone that will last two days between charges, the Pixel 4a 5G isn’t it, unless you use the thing very little.
Still, we were not annoyed by the Pixel 4a 5G’s stamina, something that seemed quite likely before we used the phone.
Charging speed is fine, but nothing special. A full charge takes around 90 minutes because the Pixel 4a 5G supports 18W charging, not the super-powered speeds seen today from some of the Chinese phone-makers. You do get a charger in the box, which is good.
The Pixel 4a 5G has a superb camera, one that matches the Pixel 5. There’s a 12-megapixel primary camera and a 16-megapixel ultra-wide.
Its main camera is the best you can get at £499 by our estimation. Benefits aren’t to do with detail so much as dynamic range, contrast, colour and performance in low light.
The Pixel 4a 5G has a good-quality camera sensor, but the magic here is all about the software, the processing that happens behind the scenes. It uses stacks of the stuff to optimise your photos, but shots never look processed.
Colours are natural, and contrast doesn’t appear obviously manipulated. Even in low light, where the most processing is needed, the Pixel 4a 5G’s images have a realistic look to them.
We got the measure of the phone after going out shooting in a nature reserve, capturing images shooting directly into the sun, with a grassy, tree-filled foreground. The Pixel 4a 5G is a pro at keeping a darker foreground looking lifelike and yet bright even when competing with a much, much brighter sky overhead. This stuff isn’t easy, but the Pixel makes it look effortless.
The ultra-wide camera benefits from the same style of processing, but its hardware isn’t quite as good, so you will see a little more noise in tricky scenes.
Astrophotography is the Pixel series’ neat little extra. This lets you take pictures of stars in the night sky if you can keep the phone still for a few minutes. However, the standard NightSight mode is more important. You can use it handheld, and it takes night photos comparable with those of an iPhone 12 or Samsung Galaxy S21 – better ones in plenty of cases.
Zoom is the Pixel 4a 5G’s slight weak point. It doesn’t have a zoom camera, and while Google uses clever photo-merging tricks to make your 2x zoom pics look better, it’s no replacement for a dedicated zoom.
Video quality is good, and you can shoot at up to 4K resolution. The Pixel 4a 5G’s front camera is only OK, though. It has a great background-blur mode for professional or dramatic looking selfies, but older Pixels actually capture sharper detail.
The most striking thing about the Pixel 4a 5G design is a white power button. Google aims for styled ultra-plain minimalism and hits the bullseye.
This isn’t the phone to get if you like the look of colour gradients and light-reactive finishes. And it doesn’t have the aluminium casing of the Pixel 5 either. The Pixel 4a 5G is a plastic phone, aside from the tough Gorilla Glass on its front.
Here’s the strange thing: most phones are such try-hards that the Pixel 4a 5G’s reserved look is more refreshing than boring. And despite the plastic build, it does not feel cheap. It’s dense and solid, despite being light at 168g.
Still, if you want a small phone, you are better off with the non-5G Pixel 4a or the Pixel 5. This phone is wider than both of those phones, and the Galaxy S21, which has the same 6.2-inch display count. Why? The screen’s aspect ratio is less ‘tall’ than most.
It’s a mid-size phone, though, not a giant. But some of you may see the screen size and assume it’s notably small-feeling.
Like other Pixel phones, the Pixel 4a 5G’s setup is even quicker than most other Androids because there are no services to log into other than your Google account. The start-up process lets you start installing apps you had on your last phone if you log in (if it was an Android), and it should only take a couple of minutes.
If you want a fairly simple phone that gets software updates quickly, has 5G and a fantastic camera, the Pixel 4a 5G is a solid bet. Don’t care about 5G? The standard Pixel 4a is also worth a look as it is significantly cheaper. Its screen is smaller, the processor less powerful, but this won’t matter to some people.
Those who use their phone an awful lot each day may not be too impressed with its battery life. There are longer-lasting phones at the same price or less. Still, the Pixel 4a 5G can keep up with plenty of high rollers, including the Samsung Galaxy S21.
Design and set-up: 4/5
Overall rating: 4/5
Interested in reading more about Google devices? Check out our in-depth reviews of the Pixel 5 and the current Pixel Buds. Still not sure which Pixel to buy? Read our full Pixel 5 vs 4a 5G vs 4a comparison guide.