First Look: The Pixel 4a is a perfect phone for uncertain times

Credit: Google

This week, two of the biggest names in consumer tech announced two very different smartphones. 

On one side, you’ve got Samsung’s gaudy and gilded Galaxy Note 20 Ultra. Armed with powerful specs, a redesigned camera system and a display to die for, the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra makes last year’s Note 10+ seem almost restrained and affordable

Then, you’ve got the Google Pixel 4a. In some ways a reflection of everything the Note series represents, the follow-up to last year’s popular Pixel 3a promises to pair a camera that’s almost just as good as Google’s flagship with a modest price-tag that places it within the reach of a lot more people. 

Due to land in Australia in the first week of September, the Pixel 4a is available in a single color - Just Black - and built around a 5.8-inch OLED display, a Snapdragon 730G processor, 6GB and 128GB of on-board storage. The device also features dual stereo speakers, a 3.5mm headphone jack, a rear-mounted fingerprint sensor and supports 18W fast-charging via a USB type-C port on the bottom of the device. 

To hold and to handle, there’s a real sense of craftsmanship and bespoke design here. Despite being priced at around half of what the Pixel 4 retails at, the Pixel 4a manages to look and feel almost just as premium. 

google_pixel_4a_4-100853470-orig.jpgCredit: Chris Martin/IDG

That being said, there are a few compromises to be noted here. Unlike the Pixel 4, the Pixel 4a doesn’t have any form of water resistance and doesn’t support wireless charging. It also doesn’t incorporate any of Google’s Motion Sense tech - which means it doesn’t offer face unlock. Given that the biggest competitor for this device - Apple’s new iPhone SE - touts two of those three things, I’d have like to have seen a little more from Google here. 

Still, there’s a cuteness here to the form-factor that you can’t get out of the mainline Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL. A stark contrast to the largess of modern flagship design, the Pixel 4a delightfully cute to cradle. 

What’s more, this time around,  Google has actually gone and dropped the XL variant outright. Obviously, if you prefer larger screens, that’s not ideal. However, it makes the choice to keep things compact here come across foundational to what the Pixel 4a is. It’s a phone that speaks to the ageless notion of quality over quantity. 

The Pixel 4a brings the phrase ‘doing more with less’ to life with way less corpocratic idealism than you’d expect. Straightforward as it might sound, that simple desire to take a familiar form-factor and do better things with it resonates much more potently than the brute force solutions seen elsewhere. Where stuff like the Galaxy Note 20 or Galaxy Z Fold2 is trying to push boundaries while still being exceptional at everything all at once, the Pixel 4a is smart enough to save a few bucks. It’s just trying to be a good phone with strong fundamentals and it strives towards that goal with seemingly-effortless confidence and Google’s usual sense of 'geeky chic' style. 

Credit: Google

The Pixel 4a sees Google make the case that the future can be better than the past without being more expensive or only available to those who can afford premium prices.

Of course, practically, the real draw card here is the camera. Google’s reputation in the smartphone industry is built on the notion that software matters more than hardware and they have one of the smartest bets in the game. 

It should be said of course that there is a more meaningful difference between the optics on the Pixel 4 and Pixel 4a than there was on the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3a. The latter pair shared a single-lens setup, the former are differentiated by their rear camera configurations. Rather than adopt the same dual-lens setup introduced by the Pixel 4, the Pixel 4a winds back the clock and drops the second lens from the equation. 

The rear-side of the Pixel 4a features a single 12.2-megapixel lens. Then, the front-facing half of the device is armed with an 8-megapixel selfie camera. Both are enhanced by Google’s house-brand Camera app and support basically every new feature introduced by the Pixel 4, including astrophotography. For more on what that dedicated night photography setting here can do, click here

I’ve only had a few days to mess with the camera on this but safe to say it’s easily impressive. My first impressions aren’t a huge surprise here: images taken using the Pixel 4a are crisp, colorful, accurate and augmented - portrait shots especially so.

Are you gonna find the versatility of photography-centered flagships like the S20 Ultra or iPhone 11 Pro? Not quite. Are the cash-strapped consumers this thing is looking to target going to miss that? I doubt it. 

Even as someone who loves tech and can probably stretch myself the extra mile towards mentally justifying dropping the cash on a premium flagship product, the anxieties and realities of 2020 make that possibility more difficult than usual.

Thankfully, moment to moment, the Pixel 4a seems to do a great job of making it feel like you aren’t missing out by spending less on a new phone. Like its predecessor, it makes being this good of a smartphone look easy and makes flagship fandoms look foolish. 

In Australia, the Google Pixel 4a will launch on September 10 at AU$599 via the Google Store, JB Hi-Fi, Vodafone and Harvey-Norman.

Credit: Google

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Fergus Halliday
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