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Review: Pixel 4A officially has the best camera for the money

The Pixel 4A raises the bar for how good a budget phone's camera can be.

Updated Aug. 30, 2020 3:00 a.m. PT

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Written by  Lynn La
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Lynn La Senior Editor / Reviews - Phones
Lynn La covers mobile reviews and news. She previously wrote for The Sacramento Bee, Macworld and The Global Post.
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Google Pixel 4A
8.4/10 CNET Score
$259 at Amazon
8.4/ 10
SCORE

Google Pixel 4A

$259 at Amazon

Pros

  • Affordable
  • Excellent camera
  • Has a headphone jack
  • Great battery life so far

Cons

  • No wireless charging
  • Not water-resistant

Update, Aug. 17, 2021: Google has unveiled the Pixel 5A with 5G, which we have reviewed. Original story follows.


Google revealed the Pixel 4A earlier this month, a new budget phone that will sit alongside the Pixel 4A 5G and the Pixel 5. Though the latter two will be available at a later date, you can already preorder the Pixel 4A for $349, £349 and AU$599. Unlike in previous years, the phone only comes in one color (black) and one size (there's no Pixel 4A XL). Only a few days after the Pixel 4A unveiling, Google discontinued the Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL phones, only nine months after their release. For its price, the Pixel 4A has one of the best cameras you can get on a phone.

(For more, see how the Pixel 4A compares to the Pixel 3A, Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL. And here's how it stacks up to affordable rivals like the iPhone SE and Galaxy A51.)

Amid the abundance of $400 phones that are out now, which include the iPhone SE (2020) and the Galaxy A51 , the Pixel 4A's two standout features are hard to dismiss. The fact that it has the same excellent main camera as the Pixel 4 (unfortunately, it doesn't have the Pixel 4's second telephoto lens) makes it the ideal phone for someone who wants to take great photos without much effort. Especially if that person doesn't care about having a sleek design or a huge screen, both of which the Pixel 4A doesn't have.

The Pixel 4A is about $50 cheaper than its closest competitors and has 128GB of storage, instead of 64GB like years past, so it really is a solid value. And these days, any amount of money that can be saved is crucial.

So does the Pixel 4A have the best camera on any phone? Which is to say does the Pixel 4 still have the best camera? Not necessarily, not like previous years. When the Pixel 2 came out in 2017, the delta between Google's camera and other Android phones at the time felt pretty wide. And when the Pixel 3 introduced Night Sight, it was witchcraft-levels of impressive. But rivals such as Apple , Samsung and OnePlus have shrunk the gap when it comes to important camera features like low-light photos and zoom. 

The better question to ask then, is: Is this the phone with the best camera you can get for $350? Considering that the Pixel 4A also receives prompt software updates from Google, has a long-lasting battery life (so far) and has a headphone jack -- all on top of its stellar camera -- I'd venture to say the answer is yes.

Pixel 4A: Plain looks, but a great price and camera

See all photos

Comparison of Google Pixel 4A and Pixel 4


Pixel 4APixel 4
Rear cameras The Pixel 4A doesn't have a second rear telephoto camera2 rear cameras make for better portrait shots
Headphone jack It has a 3.5mm headphone jackThe Pixel 4 doesn't have a headphone jack
Design Larger, 5.81-inch screen and hole-punch front-facing cameraSmaller, 5.7-inch screen and prominent camera bump
Display refresh rate 60Hz display90Hz display
Charging No wireless chargingDoes charge wirelessly
Water resistance Not water resistantRated IP68 for water resistance
Soli motion-sensing Doesn't have Soli motion-sensing, which enables touchless gesturesPixel 4 does feature Soli motion-sensing and touchless gestures
Battery 3,140-mAh battery2,800-mAh battery
Processor Less powerful Snapdragon 730G chipsetMore powerful Snapdragon 855
Storage options It has one 128GB storage optionTwo options: 64GB and 128GB
google-pixel-4a-4621

The Pixel 4A has a single 12.2-megapixel camera

Angela Lang/CNET

The Pixel 4A has the best camera for the money

The Pixel 4A's main selling point is that it has the Pixel 4's stellar main camera in a less expensive package. While at times the Pixel 4A's handling of HDR effects and contrast can look unrealistic at times, the cinematic quality of its photos makes it one of the more intuitive cameras to use. And though it doesn't have multiple rear cameras like, say, the Galaxy A51 or the original Pixel 4, it takes very little effort to get the Pixel 4A to spit out a good photo. This is what makes it fun and hassle-free to use.

Below are a few general photos in clear, outdoor light taken in the afternoon and evening. Notice the crisp, fine details and contrast.

Pixel 4A lake-chabot-trees
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Pixel 4A lake-chabot-trees
Lynn La/CNET
Pixel 4A outdoor library
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Pixel 4A outdoor library
Lynn La/CNET
Pixel 4A outdoor
Enlarge Image
Pixel 4A outdoor
Lynn La/CNET

The photo below was challenging because the camera faces directly toward the sun. And in the picture after that, I was standing in the dim shade and taking an image of the bright sun-drenched lake. Both are tricky lighting situations, but the photos came out well exposed.

Pixel 4A lake-chabot-sun
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Pixel 4A lake-chabot-sun
Lynn La/CNET
Pixel 4A lake-merritt-shade
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Pixel 4A lake-merritt-shade
Lynn La/CNET

Below is an example of the phone's 7x zoom, branded by Google as "Super Res Zoom." While the person sitting in the lawn looks muddled, the fact that I can still make them out even though they were sitting about 400 feet away is impressive.

Pixel 4A no-zoom
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Pixel 4A no-zoom

A view of the lake without zoom.

Lynn La/CNET
Pixel 4A super-res-zoom
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Pixel 4A super-res-zoom

This image was captured using the Pixel 4A's 7x zoom.

Lynn La/CNET

Like previous Pixel phones, the Pixel 4A can take pictures in very low light thanks to its Night Sight feature. It also has a mode specifically for astrophotography.

Pixel 4A nightsight
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Pixel 4A nightsight

Taking a Night Sight photo of the lake in the dark evening.

Lynn La/CNET
img-20200723-013852
Enlarge Image
img-20200723-013852

Though this photo is blurry, it was taken in near darkness and you can still see the palm trees and stars in the sky.

John Kim/CNET

The Pixel 4A takes portrait pictures with only one camera. Though these photos came out fine, there were a few others where the bokeh effect was patchy or inaccurate.

Pixel 4A cat-portrait
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Pixel 4A cat-portrait

In this portrait photo, you can see that on the right side of the cat's face the blur drops off abruptly.

Lynn La/CNET
Pixel 4A portrait
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Pixel 4A portrait

Another portrait image taken with the Pixel 4A.

John Kim/CNET

Shooting video was also great. The Pixel 4A uses a combination of optical image stabilization and software to stabilize footage. When I recorded my surroundings while walking on the sidewalk and while riding a bicycle on a paved trail, the videos were stable and smooth. 

It looks like a 'budget' phone 

While the Pixel 3A and Pixel 3 look nearly identical, the Pixel 4A is clearly a budget version of the Pixel 4. While I like the thin bezels, the hole-punch camera and the baby blue accent on the power button -- all of which keep the phone looking modern -- the Pixel 4A looks and feels cheap. Its plain polycarbonate body lacks the glossiness of the Galaxy A51, the elegance of the iPhone SE and the fun Pop Art aesthetic of its Pixel 4 brother. And unlike the Pixel 4, it doesn't have that higher refresh-rate display. This isn't a deal-breaker as most phones have the same 60Hz screen, but it would have been a nice carryover that would have elevated the Pixel 4A's appeal.

As someone with a small grip, I find the phone's small size makes it comfortable to navigate -- and it fits in my back pocket. I prefer a more one-handed experience, which is one of the reasons why I don't usually opt for the "XL" versions of Pixels. So I'm glad that when Google picked one size for the Pixel 4A, it went with the smaller option.

Because the phone doesn't have the Pixel 4's Google Soli sensor chip for facial scanning, I used the fingerprint sensor on the back to unlock the screen, which works quickly and consistently. 

google-pixel-4a-4656

The Pixel 4A only comes in black and has a plain, polycarbonate body.

Angela Lang/CNET

Pixel 4A software: Incremental but welcome improvements

Because the Pixel 4A is a budget phone and Google is launching its main Pixel 5 in the fall, it's not surprising that the 4A doesn't have Android 11 out of the box. Nor is it brimming with radical changes to Android 10. Instead, Google added small improvements to Android features that were already useful to begin with.

Live captioning a call on FB Messenger.

Lynn La/CNET

That includes expanding the phone's live-captioning abilities, which was introduced on the Pixel 4. You can now live transcribe phone and video calls, including ones made on non-native apps such as Facebook Messenger. When I tried it on Messenger, there was a lag between the speech and the captioning, and not every word was transcribed 100% accurately. But other than that it worked pretty well, and I can imagine it coming in handy when I have to take a call in a noisy, loud environment. If you ever used Google's Screen Call when it transcribes an incoming call, it works similar to that.

Real-time transcription for audio recordings, which also debuted on the Pixel 4 and is for English only, can now be prompted by voice via Google Assistant. The phrase to begin recording that Google suggests is, "Hey Google, start recording my meeting." It's a very specific phrase and oddly, it's the only one that'll work. I tried others: "Begin audio recording," "Record audio," and "Start audio recording," but those only opened the Recorder app. I was able to stop recording by telling Assistant to stop and fortunately I didn't have to add, "my meeting" to the command. I also found it useful that I can now save the text of these transcriptions directly into a Google Doc. As a reporter, this streamlines my own workflow

Other Pixel 4A software tidbits

  • Like all Google phones, the Pixel 4A will be one of the first phones in line to receive OS and software updates when they're ready to roll out from Google.
  • Google Assistant on the phone can be activated by voice, by tapping the Assistant icon on the screen or by swiping your finger upwards from either corners. The Pixel 4A doesn't have Active Edge, which was on past Pixel phones and called up the Assistant by squeezing the phone's sides.
  • The Pixel 4A does have Call Screen, which natively screens robocalls and is one of my favorite Android features. (So much time saved not listening to random Chinese-language spam recordings that I can't even understand!)
  • Google's Personal Safety app is preloaded on the Pixel 4A and is available for Android phones to download as well. In addition to crash detection and setting up emergency contacts, you can schedule a safety check. It's a newish feature (my Pixel 3 received this update a few weeks ago) and it gave me some peace of mind when I was walking alone from my car to my apartment one day. I set a 15-minute timer on the app and if I failed to check in with the app within 15 minutes, it would have notified my emergency contacts. Fortunately, nothing happened and I arrived home safely. 
  • Google has stopped offering new Pixel users unlimited Photo storage at original resolution. If you want that you'll have to sign up and pay for Google's cloud service, One. Pixel 4A owners still get unlimited storage at "high quality," however, which isn't as big as original, but should satisfy most needs.
google-pixel-4a-4649

The Pixel 4A runs Android 10 out of the box.

Angela Lang/CNET

Pixel 4A's performance and battery

The Pixel 4A features a Snapdragon 730G chipset and 6GB of RAM. On benchmark tests the Pixel 4A consistently outperformed the Galaxy A51. But, as expected, it fell behind the Pixel 4 flagship, which has a superior Snapdragon 855 processor. The iPhone SE, with its proprietary A13 Bionic processor from Apple, beat all the phones comfortably.

Anecdotally, the phone works quickly with most tasks. Unlocking the screen with my fingerprint, launching Assistant and opening apps went off without a hitch. But the Pixel 4A isn't the smoothest phone I handled. After I downloaded Call of Duty and PUBG, I had to restart the phone because both apps stalled while loading. And every once in a while, say, an app would unexpectedly quit or I had to relaunch the camera because the on-screen shutter button wouldn't register. Overall though, the phone works reliably, and after restarting I was able to play both of the aforementioned games without any further issues.

3DMark Slingshot Unlimited

Google Pixel 4A 3,567Apple iPhone SE (2020) 10,405Samsung Galaxy A51 (4G) 2,036Google Pixel 4 7,714
Note: Longer bars indicate better performance

3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited

Google Pixel 4A 37,229Apple iPhone SE (2020) 97,415Samsung Galaxy A51 (4G) N/AGoogle Pixel 4 74,684
Note: Longer bars indicate better performance

Geekbench v.5.0 single-core

Google Pixel 4A 527Apple iPhone SE (2020) 1,326Samsung Galaxy A51 (4G) 342Google Pixel 4 713
Note: Longer bars indicate better performance

Geekbench v.5.0 multicore

Google Pixel 4A 1,555Apple iPhone SE (2020) 2,638Samsung Galaxy A51 (4G) 1,318Google Pixel 4 2,462
Note: Longer bars indicate better performance

As for battery life, the Pixel 4A has a notably better battery life than the Pixel 4. When I used it to watch video, take lots of photos, browse the internet and similar activities, the phone lasted all day without a charge without any concerning moments of low power at any point in the day. Tests for continuous video playback on Airplane mode showed similar results. With Google's Adaptive Battery feature turned off, the Pixel 4A averaged 18 hours, 45 minutes, which is an excellent time. 

For comparison, the iPhone SE lasted about 15 hours, 45 minutes and the Galaxy A51 clocked in 16 hours, 10 minutes. The Pixel 4, which had a disappointing battery life for its caliber, powered off after 10 hours. We're going to conduct more battery tests on the Pixel 4A with streaming video. When the results are in, I'll update this review and its final rating. 

Pixel 4A spec comparison


Google Pixel 4AApple iPhone SE (2020)Samsung Galaxy A51 (4G)Google Pixel 4
Display size, resolution 5.81-inch OLED; 2,340x1,080 pixels4.7-inch LCD; 1,334x750 pixels6.5-inch FHD AMOLED; 2,400x1,080 pixels5.7-inch OLED; 1,080x2,280 pixels
Pixel density 443ppi326ppi405ppi444ppi
Dimensions (Inches) 5.7x2.7x0.3 inches5.45x2.65x0.29 inches6.24x2.90x0.31 inches2.7x5.7x0.3 inches
Dimensions (Millimeters) 144x69.4x8.2 mm138.4x67.3x7.3 mm158.5x73.6x7.9 mm68.8x147.1x8.2 mm
Weight (Ounces, Grams) 5.04 oz; 143g5.22 oz; 148g6.07 oz; 172g5.7 oz; 162g
Mobile software Android 10iOS 13Android 10Android 10
Camera 12.2-megapixel (standard)12-megapixel (wide-angle)48-megapixel (standard), 12-megapixel (wide-angle), 5-megapixel (macro), 5-megapixel (depth sensing)12.2-megapixel (standard), 16-megapixel (telephoto)
Front-facing camera 8-megapixel7-megapixel32-megapixel8-megapixel
Video capture 4K4K4K4K
Processor Qualcomm Snapdragon 730GApple A13 Bionic2.3GHz octa-core processor2.84GHz octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 855
Storage 128GB64GB, 128GB, 256GB128GB64GB, 128GB
RAM 6GBNot disclosed6GB6GB
Expandable storage NoNoUp to 512GBNo
Battery 3,140 mAhNot disclosed, but Apple claims it has the same battery life as iPhone 84,000 mAh2,800 mAh
Fingerprint sensor BackHome buttonIn-screenNo
Connector USB-CLightningUSB-CUSB-C
Headphone jack YesNoYesNo
Special features Dual-SIM capabilities (nano-SIM and e-SIM)Water resistant (IP67); dual-SIM capabilities (nano-SIM and e-SIM); wireless chargingN/ASoli motion sensing and touchless gestures; 90Hz display; water resistant (IP68); dual-SIM capabilities (nano-SIM and e-SIM); wireless charging
Price off-contract (USD) $349$399 (64GB), $449 (128GB), $549 (256GB)$400$799 (64GB), $899 (128GB)
Price (GBP) £349£419 (64GB), £469 (128GB), £569 (256GB)£329£669 (64GB), £769 (128GB)
Price (AUD) AU$599AU$749 (64GB), AU$829 (128GB), AU$999 (256GB)AU$599AU$1,049 (64GB), AU$1,199 (128GB)

First published Aug. 3.