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Four things we like about the Pixel 4a 5G in 2021 and 1 we don’t

Google’s Pixel 4a 5G is the unnoticed middle child.

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Google’s Pixels are some of the most anticipated releases of the smartphone market year after year. Even if they do not move the needle in terms of market share, they have helped drive the smartphone conversation, and do somewhat distinguish themselves from other smartphones with interesting design decisions and spec choices. Whether that is good or bad is another matter entirely. I’ve been using one of Google’s latest Pixels — the Pixel 4a 5G — since early December, picking it up as a Christmas present to myself, and I’ve used it for a couple of months after coming off a Pixel 3a XL and Pixel 4a as primary phones. Today, I’ll be highlighting the things I most enjoy about this phone, and the one thing that still bugs me.

The Pixel 4a 5G has a nice big screen

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With all previous generations of Pixels up to the 3a, Google also had an XL model to go with it. I had just moved from a Pixel 2 XL to a Pixel 3a XL for a year, so the comfortably smaller Pixel 4a just wasn’t my thing. Upgrading to the Pixel 4a 5G was a much better experience. Larger screens provide a bigger canvas for interacting with the world, whether you’re doing so through the Kindle app or the YouTube app.

As someone who’s always leaned towards getting larger versions of phones since they became more commonplace, Google giving the Pixel 4a 5G a lovely 6.2-inch FHD+ OLED display rather than making it a carbon copy of the Pixel 4a was a good decision that shone through here. The screen could be better, mind you. Google giving users 60Hz when other similarly priced phones offered 90Hz or even 120 Hz is a little disappointing, but I didn’t see a difference after a while.

The Pixel 4a 5G has a good camera

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Yes, every Pixel has a good camera, but I appreciate the Pixel 4a 5G’s wide-angle camera a lot. With much of England being in lockdown for well, the entirety of the time I’ve had the phone, going out on walks and taking photos of places solo was a highlight for me. I’ve found the wide-angle lens of the Pixel 4a 5G to be pretty appealing. It takes fun and dramatic shots, and Google’s Pixel magic makes everything look good. All I need to do is to pull out my camera, point, and it works. It also helps that Google doesn’t do what lesser smartphone makers do and splash two useless cameras just to get the coveted quad-camera branding, and instead, it put two quite decent lenses in this mid-range model.

I’m wary of reported flaws in the longevity of Pixel cameras. Android Police has another piece focusing on reports of the long-term usability (or lack thereof) of the Pixel’s camera. I’ll keep an eye out for those, but I have no complaints at this time.

The Pixel 4a 5G has pretty good battery life

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I’ve always thought of battery life as one of the strongest defining features of a phone. Whether the iPhone Mini, S10e, or Pixel 4, many phones have debuted with poor battery life, casting a pall over otherwise good products. It’s the one feature that’s hard to negotiate because you can edit bad photos or your vision can be so poor a bad screen doesn’t affect you, but everyone notices when their phone goes dead.

Unsurprisingly, I use my phone a lot. When I’m not on my computer, I’m checking social media, scrolling through endless social media feeds, reading on Kindle or Comixology, trying to get around the endless supply of gacha games, etc. The phone rarely dies on me despite all that; it’s a beast. Of course, when the battery inevitably runs low, it’s pretty easy to charge. The Pixel 4a 5G comes with a fast charger in the box. It’s not a super-fast charger, but you can get to 50% in the time it takes to have a shower, so in practice — who cares?

The Pixel 4a 5G is basically a Pixel 5

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The best thing about the Pixel 4a 5G is its overall similarity to the Pixel 5. From the point of view of a Pixel 5 owner, it’s a bad thing. For those buying a Pixel 4a 5G, it’s a good thing. You’re getting the same processor, albeit with a little less RAM.

You are swapping out the aluminum for plastic, but that doesn’t matter much because you’re more than likely to throw a case on it. Hold that thought, I’ll come back to that later.

What matters here is that — unlike the 3a or regular 4a — Google’s ‘cheap’ phone is genuinely a phone that competes with other similarly priced phones. Whether it’s the OnePlus Nord, or one of Xiaomi’s many phones, or the Nokia 8.3 5G or Motorola Edge, the Pixel 4a 5G can genuinely trade blows with them, pound for pound. It’s like the Galaxy S20 FE of the mid-range: there are things you’d be missing out on, but nothing that’s going to be a deal-breaker.

I don’t like the Pixel 4a 5G’s lack of options

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If there’s one thing Google got right with Pixels, it’s the funky and weird colors. Every Pixel has shipped with a playful color tone, from Really Blue to Barely Blue, from Oh So Orange to Not Pink. And yet, the Pixel 4a 5G only comes in Just Black, and Clearly White.

Sure, you could slap a case on it and this complaint goes away — but Google’s Pixels don’t command the kind of market power that Samsung Galaxies or iPhones do. I can’t buy an interesting case design, and all mainstream options are boring. I’m currently using a blue Anccer case at the moment, but I wouldn’t terribly mind if Google shipped a blue Pixel 4a 5G the way it did a Barely Blue Pixel 4a. It’s subjective and people may say this doesn’t matter, but when other OEMs offer 101 color combinations and Google quite literally serves you Just Black, it’s not a good look.

It goes beyond color as well. You can’t pick your storage tiers, you can’t pick a higher RAM model; you’re just stuck with whatever Google has to offer. And yes, there are arguments to be made that this saves Google money. That’s great for Google, not so much for people who want to use and like Pixels, and end up having to settle.

Looking towards the future

Google is going to release a Pixel 5a in the next few months. It may be a Pixel 4a 5G warmed over, but I’m hoping it does fix some of these issues. Offering more color options, revitalizing the display, and even subtle tweaks to eke out more battery life are things that can be done with the mid-generation refresh the 5a seems to be. The Pixel 4a 5G is pretty close to the 5 as it stands. If the 5a improves on this already solid foundation and prices it right, it could be one of the best cheap Android phones to come out this year. More importantly, it could free Google up to make a Pixel 6 that’s actually competitive, and wouldn’t that be a dream?

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