Saturday 17 October 2020

Google Pixel 4a 5G

Everyone out there in tech-reviewland is understandably comparing the three new Pixel devices with each other. The 2020 Trio of Pixels 4a, 4a 5G and 5. They all have their pros and cons, price-points and user-emphasis. But you've probably heard enough of that by now, so I'm going to do my Pixel 4a 5G review as a comparison with my daily in-use phone, a Pixel flagship of yesteryear, the Pixel 3 (128GB) and see how it stacks up.

The Pixel 3 was released in autumn 2018 at a cost of £769 (for the 128GB version). The Pixel 4a 5G here is pitched at £499 and has the same 128GB or storage. Two years is a long time in tech, as we know, and the 3 can now be picked up new or used at much less than the release-price. In fact, significantly less than the 4a 5G price now. So for me personally, it's a decision based on usability - and the question I pose myself is, is it worth another £499. A good starting point here before reading on might be to watch Steve Litchfield's video review in The Phones Show 407 in which he pitches the Pixel 4a 5G more specifically up against the Pixel 5.

One of the very poor aspects of the Pixel 3, as I reported time and again, is the battery performance - so I'll be looking at that with hawk-eyes - and the other issue for me is the size. I have found that Pixel 3 is just a tad too small for me these days and wonder if the slightly bigger size of the newcomer will suit better. The XL Pixels are usually too big for me and I've been crying out for a 'Pixel L' in the middle for some time now! This could be it. Lastly, the output from the speakers. If it's as good or better than the Pixel 4a which I recently reviewed, it'll get a pass, depending on the other two elements here. Three aspects then, amongst many, to drill down into here.

Android 11
 does bring some changes over previous versions, which I'll address in another feature sometime soon. For now, I'll paraphrase what I said in my Pixel 4a review about the software experience's the pure Android experience. Vanilla flavour as Google intended. This is reassuring, especially with the promise of two OS updates and three years of Security ones. You know what to expect and it delivers. No bloat, no apps to uninstall (for those who are happy with the Google ones) and everything working as it should between them all and with Google services. Android is Android and you can add pretty much whatever apps you want to on top. The strength of Android, choice. Don't like GMail, don't use it. Install another email client. Homescreen elements are stuck. At A Glance is up the top there and Google Search at the foot. Don't like it? Install Nova Launcher - or any one of another hundred launchers.

Firstly then, to the box and what's in it. As usual with Pixels, you get the standard set of stuff! A power charger, USB-C to USB-C cable, USB-C to USB-A adapter, pokey-hole tool, a few papers and the phone. The days of earphones are gone and (with Google) cases - a simple TPU in the five hundred quid would have been nice. Mean.

The design is very much the same as the 4a. Plastic ‘moulded’ around the edges to the front, buttons, ports and camera island in the same place as is the rear capacitive fingerprint scanner (same as the Pixel 3). The volume rocker and power button are not as ‘solid’ as the 4a. There seems to be a little 'play' back/forward, but they are certainly similarly ‘clicky’ in use. It's a pleasing design, the plastic will make sure it takes a lot more abuse before it breaks, like the Pixel 3's glass could well do if dropped. Some will think that at this price-point it should have been 'more premium' glass. What you don't get here that the Pixel 3 has, is any official IP-rating for environmental protection. Take your own risks with that, then, but I think it should survive a rain shower or quick dunk into clean water - just don't try orange juice for a half-hour!

The OLED screen is not as bright as the Pixel 3's. It just 'feels' a little 'duller' and less colourful. I'm sure that the screen must have been made by someone else. For the same point on the brightness slider, it's just not as bright. Wind the brightness up manually to 100%, and there the difference can be seen. It's a warmer white and not so cleanly bright as the 3. The difference is worst at angles and closest to each other when viewed face-on. The viewing angle is not as good either (by a very small margin to be fair) and as you turn the phone round the 4a 5G casts blue eventually at a very tight angle and the 3's screen never does. But then who's going to look at their screen like that! I'd much rather have battery improvements than test-bench slight deficiency, if that's what's at stake! (Image credit

The screen is a 6.2" 1080p OLED with a ratio of 19.5:9 returning 413ppi covered with Gorilla Glass 3. It looks perfectly sharp enough for me and I agree with Steve about the refresh-rate being 60Hz - I really can't tell the difference with 90/120Hz - and the Pixel 3 is 60 as well anyway, long before all this became trendy! The difference is that the screen goes out to the edges, pretty much. The 3 has a large chin and forehead, so not only do you get more screen because it is bigger, but also because it exploits the whole frontage. The benefits of this are obvious. As for Gorilla Glass 3 instead of 5/6, well, I've personally had more reliable results with v3 in terms of scratch-resistance so am happy with that. I'll come to the overall size a bit further down.

A word on 5G cellular connectivity. The most interesting thing about 5G is the fact that I can't get it and don't think I need it! I'm hoping that with it turned off, I will enjoy battery benefits making the most of the significantly bigger cell than was placed into the Pixel 4a (with no 5G). I shall test that now with 5G on and then off. The battery is 3,885mAh, so much more capacity than the Pixel 3 here as well. It is, of course, driving a bigger OLED panel but also should benefit from the closer-to-mid-range chipset, the SnapDragon 765G over the Pixel 3's more flagship-level of the day SD845. The SIM Card tray is the same simple one, incidentally, which can take a nanoSIM only and the phone is eSIM-ready too.

Let's consider the size first, then. The 4a 5G is taller, wider and fatter than the 3. It's also about 20g heavier. Hunting round to find a phone to compare it with, the closest I have here are the Moto G8 Plus and Motorola One - remember that super little AndroidOne smartphone I was recently raving about? When I started setting up the 4a 5G my first reaction was that this is too big for me. However, I think that part of that was because I had immediately come from my Pixel 3 and it was a bit of a shock. After 24 hours, my brain settled down and my hands were finding ways to wrap around it which acknowledged the bigger size, but somehow made it manageable - even just about for one-handed use. There's a small balancing act there, but I do have big hands. So in Day 2, I've convinced myself that I can do this! It's clearly not as dinky in the pocket, but the screen-size benefits offset that. The Pixel L? Maybe. So far, so good.

Speakers are next. Steve was right about the speakers. They’re about the same as the little 4a and neither of them have quite the quality or volume output of the Pixel 3. It’s not hugely far off, but it’s there. An equaliser is needed on both 4a models (reducing volume in the process) but not on the 3. Spoken word is very clear when moving from music/video/film to podcasts. When watching music videos with the screen about 2ft in front of me on the desk, the stereo separation and left/right is just fine. If you block the speakers in turn you can indeed hear that most of the ‘body’ comes from the bottom one - but 2ft in front of me, it mixes it well enough. The more I use it, the more I think the speakers are good enough for me, even though not quite 3 level. Note that the speakers don’t switch stereo around when phone is spun round, but then neither do they on the 3. So far, so good still!

3.5mm Audio-Out I think that with my AKG K701 Reference headphones here, the 4a 5G has better output than the 4a. Different components for the greater cost maybe? It’s louder and has more body than the 4a. On this one, I went from ‘nobody will complain’ to ‘this is actually very good’. Steve points out that the DAC is different, since it’s part of a different chipset, so maybe different - and for some of us at least, better, but not up the wired leaders. Switch to Bluetooth and as we so often say now, the sound output really is quite stunning - but then it often is on a phone costing half the price of this one too.

How about battery, then? Initial response is that the battery is excellent. I have done my usual 10% Screen-on reading test and was staggered by the result, being 3 hours and 20 minutes! This overtakes my current leader, Motorola G8 Power with its 5,000mAh cell by 10 minutes! As I said, it's a 3,885mAh unit and during these initial tests, I do have 5G turned off, but when I run the same tests with 5G on, it really doesn't seem to make much difference. I wonder if that's because I am not in a 5G zone, or that I don't have a 5G Tariff. Maybe it would be different if I was and did. I can't test that.

The average day (for me) results are also very, very good. Not quite up to the days-on-end of the Samsung Galaxy M51 with its 7,000mAh battery, but no problem at all getting to the end of a day, even with heavy use - and with light/medium use, through the second day too. As always with battery tests, your mileage will vary. I test with Adaptive battery and brightness on the whole time, but of course there will be different results as users vary the settings. So, back to the Pixel 3 and of course, the newer phone is embarrassingly better on the SoT test! That 3hrs 20 minutes for the 4a 5G turns into 45 minutes maximum on the Pixel 3. More powerful chipset, smaller battery - OK, but I still maintain that there's something bizarre about the 3's screen-on drain. And I have two here, both the same. So, no contest! There's a 'Fast charging' 18W charger in the box which charges from flat to 50% in about 45 minutes and to full in about 90.

What is missing, however, is the Wireless Qi Charging. This is an annoyance and certainly a tick-in-the-box for the Pixel 3. Set up with Qi chargers all over the place at home and suddenly having to rearrange things. A Qi Receiver can be used and I have a couple here which I have tried, but they also annoy as, however thin they are, they still seem to make the phone 'rock' on a flat surface. Still, the way things are going with power, as described above, I think I can live with this irritation!

A quick word on the Google Assistant before I go on. The 4a 5G does not have the squeeze-to-activate the Google Assistant. Gone. Will it be a miss? Well, for me, I forget it's there on the Pixel 3, never use it - and am more likely to say "OK Google" for the required action if I were to talk to a machine! The rest of the time I can type, thank you! The usual swipe-up from the bottom corners invokes immediate attention ready for the user's command or request. But yes, for those who liked and used that feature, this year it's a miss. There is, of course, the same excellent Always on Display with options to be on/off or sensor-controlled. There's the (virtually) unique Now Playing, which is used here much of the day - and all the other Assistant stuff we've come to expect with Pixel models.

The SnapDragon 765G is powering the 4a 5G as I said earlier, is a step-down from the Pixel 3's 845, but you really wouldn't know it. The newer phone flies around any tasks thrown its way with gusto. I guess hard-core gamers might complain, but even many of them have been impressed with the 'G' of the 765. There's 6GB RAM which is two more than the Pixel 3 but, again, I have noticed no slow-down switching between running apps nor stuff being shut down that I was hoping would still be open. The 4GB of the 3 was good enough, so I guess these 6GB are better!

Storage is, at last, becoming 128GB as a base-line and that's great. I've been bangin' on about demolishing 64GB for years now, especially as with Pixels, there's no microSD Card slot for extra data. This was also true of the Pixel 3, however, though a 64GB version was available at release for £100 less for those who (thought) they didn't need more! As usual with Pixels, there's no HDMI-Out so cabling up to a TV is out, but that's no surprise. Would have been a nice bonus! Tests with the storage are positive. Reads/writes from my various test SSD/adapters via the USB-C port are very quick as it copies data both ways or processes it on the fly.

Connectivity is really strong in my tests here. Using Vodafone in the UK I am able to make and receive cellular calls with no breakup even in a known cold-spot of poor reception and the same is true for WiFi tested here with two different broadband routers. GPS locks on fast and changes reflected instantly in various mapping and weather apps, for example. NFC is present and although in the current world-climate I can't test Google Pay, others are reporting that it's working well and certainly the NFC works fine for data communication.

I'm going to do my usual wriggle here on cameras, report the basics and point you again to Steve's review in which he explains things better than I can. We have a very familiar Pixel setup here with a bonus over the Pixel 3 of an extra wide-angle shooter. So the main one is pretty much the same 12.2MP f/1.7 with OIS, similarly 8MP f/2 Selfie and with the added 16MP f/2.2 wide-angle lens. The interface of the camera is again very familiar, everything simple, logically laid-out with nothing to confuse and an emphasis on letting Google work stuff out for you! This is no Sony Xperia 1 for sure. As we know, most of the clever stuff is computational and the results, consistently excellent. Anyway, yes, do watch Steve's take.

The questions for me have been answered here during my time with the Pixel 4a 5G. I have concluded that the phone is just about acceptable for me in terms of size. Not too big, not too small. The speakers, though not quite as good as the Pixel 3's, are good enough for my purposes. The missing Qi Charging probably remains the biggest annoyance in actual fact. I'm not really concerned about lack of (official) IP-rating and the build and construction of the phone is perfectly fine for everyday use as a workhorse, if not terribly pretty with glass. The bigger screen, though not as bright, is again good enough for me with lots more space for content and the engine-room arrangements make it a perfectly good win. The camera is, well, a Google Pixel camera, so no complaints, the battery knocks spots off the Pixel 3 in every way and the pure, clean, non-bloated and Vanilla software experience can't be found on any other device than a Pixel.

So, as the current owner and user of a Pixel 3 (128GB), would I cough up £499 of my own money for this newer device. That's the question. It's a tough one, which I'm trying to answer with honest to myself - and I think the answer is probably yes. I could see this as my go-to phone for the coming months and maybe years, taking over from the 3. I'm an absolute sucker for the pure experience on a phone - and only a Pixel really delivers that in the Android world - and enjoy updates and new features first. So I can look at whatever else anyone else is doing, enjoy the more feature-rich hardware coming along, play around with it, safe in the knowledge that my SIM Card is nicely snug and tucked away in the phone that I actually want in my pocket. As for the pick of the current crop of 2020 options from Google, and bearing in mind that I haven't seen the Pixel 5 yet, this is the one for me. For the similarly-minded Google nut, this is the life!

If you're going to buy a Pixel 4a 5G from AmazonUK when released in November, please use this link - it costs you no more and they move a few quid my way for the referral. Many thanks.

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