[First cut] Google Pixel 4a: Is the a-rated Pixel an A-grade Pixel?
Pixel lite, Pixel light also
In 2019, Google added a new dimension to its Pixel range by adding the Pixel 3a to it. In the best “lite avatar” tradition, the phone was a lower specced but more affordable version of the Pixel 3 flagship. The low price tag combined with a very good camera and assured Android updates made the phone a Pixel range bestseller, so it was not surprising that this year, Google repeated the move, with a scaled-down version of the Pixel 4 (which was not released in India), with a similar naming system – the Pixel 4a. Unlike last year, however, this a-rated Pixel came with a surprisingly lower price tag in India than expected. The Pixel 3a had been seen as expensive with a price starting in the region of Rs 40,000. The 4a comes – well, initially at least – for Rs 29,999.
And that puts the new Pixel in a battle against what is now called the “upper mid-segment” or the “premium mid-segment,” unlike its predecessors which had to deal with budget flagships. Mind you, given how strong the upper mid-segment of the market has got in these pandemic times, the Pixel 4a has a battle on its hands.
Compact, lightweight and…just black
And its spec sheet and its design are definitely not its biggest weapons in this. The Pixel 4a cuts a reasonably compact and smart figure – no, it is not as “super small” as many will claim it is, as it is actually the same height as the iPhone 11 Pro (144 mm) and at 8.2 mm is just a little thicker than that worthy, although it is less wide. It is, however, much lighter, at 143 grams, and in fact, is even lighter than the iPhone SE (2020) which tipped the scales at 148 grams.
Let us put it this way – if you like the size of the iPhone 11 Pro and the weight of the iPhone SE, the Pixel 4a is perfect for you. In fact, in dimension and weight, it is very reminiscent of the Pixel 3, which was a teeny bit longer and slightly heavier but had the same relatively compact aesthetic about it.
But compactness aside, the Pixel 4a is not one to grab attention with its design. It is very minimalistic with color options that would have delighted Henry Ford – “you can have any color as long as it is black.” Yes, the Pixel 4a is available only in Just Black. We do not think that is particularly unjust, as the phone cuts a smart figure, with a greenish-white power/display button being the only real ensign ornament on it.
The front is all about the 5.81-inch OLED display with a tiny punch hole notch on the top left corner. It is protected by Corning Gorilla Glass 3, which some might consider being a letdown, but we do not think it is a deal-breaker, given the fact that most people will slap a tempered glass screen protector on it anyway. The back is unabashedly simple dark plastic, with a fingerprint scanner on the upper part and a square camera unit that juts out a little on the top left corner.
A first look at the camera unit might make you think that the device has multiple cameras, but there is actually one, with the flash placed diagonally opposite and above it – a rather curious arrangement, we must confess.
Not a spec monster on paper, but a camera hero by reputation
In terms of ports and speakers, the Pixel 4a is well endowed. It is definitely very sound (pun intended) as it comes with stereo speakers as well as a 3.5 mm audio jack. There is also a USB Type-C port for charging at the base. The SIM card slot is rather oddly placed on the lower part of the left side of the phone but is not something that will concern most users. This is a relatively compact and smart-looking device, that says “I am made for function, not flaunting.” It will not function in dust and water, though – there are no IP ratings.
While its design is relatively unobtrusive, it is the spec sheet of the Pixel 4a that is likely to be its greatest challenge. The 5.81-inch display is a Full HD+ one and from what we have seen so far is reasonably bright, but the real point of concern for many is the fact that it is powered by the now slightly old-ish Qualcomm Snapdragon 730G processor, backed with 6 GB RAM and 128 GB storage.
Now, we have seen a number of devices turn in very good performances with this chip – the Poco X2 being a prime example – but at a time when we are seeing phones in and around the same (and sometimes lower) price running the Snapdragon 732G and Snapdragon 765G, Google seems to have taken a slightly dated chip for its Pixel 4a date. It is more than likely to handle most tasks with a degree of ease, but well, there are faster chips out there for the frame rate counting and benchmark busting crowd. And before you ask, there’s no 5G support, although with the network being non-existent in India, we do not see this as a stumbling block at all.
Spec hunters might also feel a twinge of disappointment at the cameras – a single 12.2-megapixel snapper with OIS at the back and an 8-megapixel one in front. But then, this is a Pixel, and Google’s computational photography magic is expected to save the day, as it did in the case of earlier Pixel devices, by blending great sensors with great software optimizations. Indeed, such is the photographic aura of the Pixel that many are looking at the 4a purely as a camera running Android. The 3140 mAh battery might be one of the reasons why the phone is relatively lightweight, and it comes with an 18W fast charger in the box. Again, not the biggest numbers, but Google might be able to coax some magic out of them.
Which perhaps brings us to what originally used to be the greatest selling point of the Nexus and Pixel range, before cameras came along – the software. The Pixel 4a runs Google’s pure version of Android with assured updates for three years. It also becomes one of the first phones in the Indian market to come with Android 11 right out of the box. Users are likely to get a very clean and uncluttered experience with no bloatware – this is Android the way Google wants it. And that is likely to find takers in the geek and developer brigade.
The competition is intense, and even Nord-ic!
But will this combination of (expected to be) great cameras and super clean and smooth software make an impact on the mainstream consumer? Given the fact that users can get devices like the Poxo X3, the Galaxy M51, and the OnePlus Nord which sport newer processors, bigger displays, and more versatile cameras. At one time, Google’s phone could have depended on stock Android and assured updates, but those are no longer the weapons they once were, with many brands having significantly upped their UI and update games. It, therefore, falls on Pixel 4a’s single rear camera to take the phone’s appeal beyond the geeks and hardcore Android fanboys to a wider audience. To what extent it succeeds in doing so will be revealed in our review in the coming days. Stay tuned.