Pixel 4A 5G is the unusual $500 phone that gives you 5G without skimping on the camera

This phone could actually attract more buyers than the $699 Pixel 5 flagship.

Shara Tibken Former managing editor
Shara Tibken was a managing editor at CNET News, overseeing a team covering tech policy, EU tech, mobile and the digital divide. She previously covered mobile as a senior reporter at CNET and also wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. Shara is a native Midwesterner who still prefers "pop" over "soda."
Shara Tibken
5 min read

The $499 Pixel 4A 5G has the same cameras as its $699 Pixel 5 sibling. 

Screenshot by Sarah Tew/CNET

In a world where nearly every handset maker is selling a 5G phone, Google did something unusual: It made a less expensive 5G device that doesn't compromise on the features consumers care about the most -- especially the camera. The company's new $499 Pixel 4A 5G packs in the same superfast 5G connectivity as Google's new $699 Pixel 5 flagship, as well as the same Qualcomm Snapdragon 765G processor, 128GB of storage and a fingerprint sensor on the back. Importantly, the camera setup is identical, with both phones sporting an 8-megapixel front-facing lens and two rear cameras: a standard 12.2-megapixel sensor and a 16-megapixel ultrawide camera. 

"Some people think that to get all the benefits of 5G at an affordable price, there needs to be a compromise on some of our core features like camera," Soniya Jobanputra, product manager of Pixel, said during Wednesday's press conference. "But that's not true."

When it comes to other specs, the 4A 5G even has a bigger, 6.2-inch screen than the Pixel 5's 6-inch display, and it still comes with a headphone jack. The main advantages of the Pixel 5 over the 4A 5G are IP68 water resistance, a 90Hz refresh rate on the display, reverse wireless charging and a slightly bigger camera, all features that typically don't spur consumers to upgrade. 

The top reasons people generally buy new phones are better screens, batteries and cameras. Waterproofing and wireless charging -- the two most noticeable ways the Pixel 5 differs from the 4A 5G -- don't entice consumers to upgrade. That could cause many would-be buyers to opt for the cheaper of the Pixels.  

Watch this: Pixel 5 and Pixel 4A 5G spec comparison

"Google is doing exactly the right [thing by] not compromising with the imaging quality on the cheaper [Pixel]," Strategy Analytics analyst Ville-Petteri Ukonaho said. "But I have a hard time figuring out how they justify the $200 price difference."

He predicted the Pixel 4A 5G will be the most popular of Google's new phones. "Why would I buy the Pixel 5 when I can have almost identical specs with the 4A?" Ukonaho said. 

Google, long known for its software prowess, has been making its own Pixel handsets since 2016, well after its ill-fated Motorola acquisition and divestiture. But it hasn't had much traction against Apple's iPhones and the companies that use Google's Android operating system in their devices. Last year, Google ranked 14th when it came to the 1.4 billion smartphones shipped around the globe, according to Strategy Analytics. It shipped only about 8.4 million handsets, far below Samsung's approximate 300 million, Huawei's 240 million and Apple's nearly 200 million, the firm said. 

Google just hasn't been able to compete in high-end phones, which led it to design a midtier line last year. The Pixel 3A boosted Google's smartphone operations, but the company discontinued the device in July. While the Pixel 4A 5G could be attractive to buyers who want a 5G phone for under $500, it'll face tough competition from Samsung's A Series and even Apple's $399 4G iPhone SE.

Google's camera prowess

Google has set its Pixels apart from iPhones and other Android devices through its camera technology, something that could make consumers give the Pixel 4A 5G another look. Its Pixels have led the pack in terms of low-light capabilities, and Google's phones are often listed as the devices with the best overall cameras on the market. While Apple, Samsung and others have been adding more lenses to the backs of their devices, Google has opted to make image improvements using software and artificial intelligence.

"Pixel is synonymous with a great camera experience, no matter what price point you have," Creative Strategies analyst Carolina Milanesi said. "They couldn't compromise with that. They had to give you what they do best, what sets them apart from similarly priced 5G phones."

The company pioneered computational photography skills that result in better photos without boosting the device's hardware to higher end specs. Because many Pixel camera improvements come through software, Google is able to extend new features to older phones, making them useful for longer. 

In the Pixel 4A 5G and the Pixel 5, Google dropped the telephoto lens found in its earlier phone in favor of an ultrawide-angle camera that can better capture groups of people, tall buildings or cramped indoor scenes. Apple made the same move with its iPhone 11 , which became the company's top seller. 

Google also combined its low-light Night Sight feature with its portrait mode, which blurs background details. That "allows subjects to stand out even in low light," Jobanputra said.

Cheaper 5G phone prices

The first 5G phones available last year cost significantly more than their 4G counterparts. But the coronavirus pandemic has forced handset makers to reevaluate their launch plans and drop pricing for 5G phones much quicker than many market watchers had expected. Many have introduced mainstream devices alongside or shortly after pricier flagship models. 

"Most of the first wave of 5G phones came out at a really expensive price point," Rick Osterloh, Google's hardware chief, told reporters after Google's Wednesday event. "We wanted to try to hit more of a mainstream market."

Google isn't alone. Samsung earlier this year introduced a lineup of inexpensive Galaxy A phones in the US, with two 5G models coming in under $650. Last week, it unveiled its Galaxy S20 Fan Edition, a $700 5G phone that was tailored for the current environment. TCL also has designed 5G phones at more mainstream pricing, as have Motorola and other Android companies. 

Those devices generally have come with trade-offs compared with the flagship versions. In Samsung's case, the South Korean company has used less expensive materials like plastic and made some concessions on the rear camera setup, such as removing 8K video recording.  

Though the Pixel 4A 5G costs $150 more than the 4G-only version of the device from early August, Google amped up the specs to justify the cost bump. That includes a bigger screen, a second camera lens on the back, a bigger battery and, of course, 5G. At the time the 4A launched, CNET's Lynn La said "for its price, the Pixel 4A has one of the best cameras you can get on a phone."

Now Google will have to hope its camera prowess helps its new Pixel 4A 5G garner the same praise -- even when compared with the Pixel 5. 

CNET's Richard Nieva contributed to this report.