Friday, 9 October 2020

Google Pixel 4a

When I come to start a phone review, I often start with a comparison with the closest likely device from which the unit has been upgraded. The logical route with the Google Pixel 4a is therefore the Pixel 3a - but this time, things are not quite that simple as there seems to be an absolute flood of other Pixels out there, new, old and some just about to arrive!

Likely contenders are the Pixel 3, Pixel 3a, Pixel 4, Pixel 4a 5G and Pixel 5 - and that's laying aside the XL versions! Steve Litchfield has published a video review covering much of this on his YouTube Channel - The Phones Show 406 - which might be a place to start before reading my thoughts here.

One of the two elements which I'm mostly concerned with here is battery performance. The battery performance on my Pixel 3 here is diabolical when the screen is on, but perfectly reasonable when it is off! A strange dilemma there then - it's a good phone as long as you don't use it! The 3a was better, with the lesser chipset, but still not perfect. I found that the 4 was significantly better than both of these when I had it for a short spell last year, but it seemed like nobody else, anywhere, agreed with my findings!

The other one is the stereo speakers. The Pixel lines have always done speakers pretty well and even though often resorting to 'faux' stereo, the resulting sound output has always pleased me enough to consider it very good indeed. So this will be the other area I want to focus on in the coming days. Incidentally, Google PR constantly have by-passed us in loaning units, which means that I have had to use my own money to buy the 4a - so it may be going back if I'm not happy with it - if it's not significantly better than the Pixel 3 I own.

The physical is first, as usual, following a brief report on the box contents, being exactly the same as Pixels from recent years - power-brick, USB-C to USB-C cable, USB-C to USB-A adapter, pokey-hole key and a couple of leaflets. No case, no screen-protector. So, I'm putting this up against my Pixel 3 as that is my currently used daily device and it's really all-but the same size. The 4a is very slightly wider, very slightly less tall and very slightly fatter. As expected, the glass back of the Pixel 3 makes it look and feel more premium, but don't forget that on release that was a £769 phone (128GB) and this 4a is £349! Something has to give. Having said that, there's something very nice about the Just Black covering on the new model as it curves nicely around the edges to meet the front screen.

On the plastic right edge there's a mint-flavoured power-button and just under that, volume-rocker. These buttons are very, very clicky - a really nice touch which injects confidence. Up the top there's a 3.5mm audio-out socket, on the right a SIM Card Tray and at the bottom, the bottom-firing part of the pair of speakers. There's another symmetrical grille the other side of the USB-C socket, which I assume is for looks and houses a microphone. On the front is a flat screen with the other speaker up-top and that's about it.

On the plastic back we have the capacitive fingerprint scanner 75% of the way up, central, a 'G' logo towards the foot and the square camera-island top-left with one lens and a flash visible. It doesn't feel any less substantial in the hand than the 3, it's about the same weight and design is appealing. Maybe even more so than the 3. Anyway, time to fire it up!

The first thing I notice is that the screen of the newer phone extends pretty much out to the edges of the phone on all sides with a very slight 'chin' at the foot. The payoff here is that there's a punch-hole camera top-left which of course is not visible on the 3 as there's a forehead to envelop it. Even though the 4a is slightly less tall, therefore, there's more screen which measures 5.81" over the 5.5" of the 3.

The front panel is protected from scratches by the use of Gorilla Glass 3, which is different to the Pixel 3, which has GG5. We'll see over time what difference this might make, bearing in mind that GG3 has been used broadly elsewhere and for longer. The only problem which I ever had with Gorilla Glass was indeed with the 5 version where a Samsung Galaxy Note9 ended up with horrible micro-scratches. So perhaps GG3 is better for my use-case anyway.

It's a 1080p OLED screen returning 443ppi. Pretty much the same specs as the 3 in actual fact. Both screens also look pretty much the same to me displaying a white screen on full brightness, colours look great in all the OLED glory and very well bright enough to be using outdoors in ordinary levels of daylight. It's just that with the 4a, you get more screen!

The data-copy from the Pixel 3 to 4a was the usual seamless affair using the cable, even protecting homescreen layout, apps and data. It's still not quite Apple-seamless as signing into various 3rd party apps require input, though Auto-fill and SmartLock helps a great deal at least with less repetitive typing of the same data in some cases. Some apps' Notification Settings are remembered, some not. It still feels like a work in progress, but better each time.

The SIM Card Tray is just that - space for a single Nano-SIM with the choice for the user of doubling that up with an eSIM. The tray is also plastic but slides in and out well enough. As Steve pointed out, it has some environment-proofing in evidence so even though there's no official IP-rating here, some measures have been taken to protect the device. There's no microSD Card slot here of course, so you get 128GB or storage and that's it - but that's so much better than 64. You can plug in a card to the USB-C port with an adapter and that works well. The data transfer is fast enough for most people but I have noticed in various scenarios the slight slow-down of data execution. One example being an SMS Backup/Restore using the app I favour. I notice that the speed at which this is executed depends very much on the processing power of the phone in question. Also copying mp3 files from an SSD Drive - the evidence is there, this is not as fast as flagship phones/Pixels. There's no HDMI-Out of course, like all Pixels.

The phone arrived with Android 10 but immediately upgraded to 11. When we come to the software experience, it feels a bit like reporting on an iOS device - we all know what we get. The pure Android experience. Vanilla flavour as Google intended - like Apple for iOS. This is reassuring, especially with the promise of two OS updates and three years of Security ones, but not quite up to the Apple standards which usually seem to press on to 5 years. So, there's not much to say really about the software experience that has not been said by me elsewhere in numerous reviews of Pixel phones and Android OS appraisals. 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. Some anti-Google bods will of course point out that there's no way to uninstall GMail in the process, but the same is true of Apple and iOS too. 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. They do let the user now hide the Google Panel to the left of the Homescreen these days for those who don't want to use the Assistant, Discover and SnapShot etc. Speaking of the Assistant, the 4a does not have the squeeze-to-activate the 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, much as I detest talking to machines!

Always on Display is present of course, along with the staggeringly oft' used Now Playing by yours truly! A killer-feature for me and I don't understand why others (without recourse to a third party app) haven't emulated. The whole show is powered by the SnapDragon 730G which, as I said earlier, seems fast enough in most operations outside of test-bench conditions and most people without a flagship Pixel next to it with a SD8xx chipset won't notice any lag. Similarly the 6GB RAM, up from 4GB, seems insignificant to me. They both process app switching and hold apps and services open long enough for my liking - and when they don't, it really is usually nano-seconds to open them up again.

Connectivity is very good. The Pixel 3 has been a challenge to me with cellular connections for voice calls in some areas but this was not presenting the same. GPS locks onto position quickly whether it be in Maps or Weather or any other application needing it, as tested here. I have not tested NFC with Google Pay (for security reasons with my bank and keep reviewing phones) but the NFC certainly works for connectivity and I understand from others that Google Pay is working fine. Wifi locks on well as tested here with a home broadband setup, another broadband out and about and also my Mifi set-up. Good 4G connection, no blips. The fingerprint scanner on the back works beautifully well as we would expect from a capacitive sensor - first time, every time - and is quick to register.

As usual, I'll point you to Steve's review above for an appraisal of the camera, but the short answer is that it's as good as any other Pixel with excellent images created from the mix of lens and software magic. There's no wide-angle or optical zoom here, but a solid performance all-round. So much so that many people will buy this little phone for that reason alone - a cheap way to get a Google Camera. Check out Steve's video for more.

So now we come to the tricky two questions that I need to pose myself. Is the battery performance good enough over the Pixel 3 and are the speakers as good as the Pixel 3's to justify spending £349 to grab this phone. We'll start with the speakers.

The faux stereo produced here, if not held up against the Pixel 3, is pretty loud, fairly good quality and only suffers a tad by the speakers not both forward-facing. However, for my purposes here against the Pixel 3, sadly I find the comparison raising the significantly more tinny nature of the 4a output, certainly less bass and also volume - though the latter is closer. It seems to me that cheaper components have been used in the 4a which results in a less pleasing output. Having said that, put the 4a up against 101 other phones which don't have anything near the good output of the Pixel 3 - and most people will be happy - probably won't even notice the tinny top-end. I was able to apply the usual equalisation tricks to get rid of some of it, but as always with phones - at the price of volume. It's not great - and this box needed ticking for me. So next is battery.

The Pixel 3's battery life is rubbish. There, I said it! The context of that though is not that it's rubbish getting through a day in a pocket, moderate use, but when the screen is on for extended periods of over an hour. The remaining battery drops like a stone and my 10% Test which I have defined and spoken about many times now, returns me between 35minutes and 45minutes. So the 4a didn't have to do much to win here! And it certainly is much better. The battery is 3140mAh over the 3's 3000 but with the less power-hungry chipset, I assume assisting, the 4a trumps it. The 10% Test result, which I executed a number of times, is returning between 1hr 10mins and 1hr 30mins. Potentially twice as good on that test - and yes, certainly getting the user through the day no problem. So does it tick the box? Is it enough for me to spend £349? No. And the reason is that even though the Pixel 3 has a lousy battery, it does have Qi Charging and I'm set up with Qi Pads all over the place so can just plonk it down whenever I settle somewhere. Now, true enough, I could add a Qi Receiver to the 4a, but it's not a neat solution. I have two or three here and although it works fine, it sticks out the back and makes the phone rock on a desk/table. I don't like it. Built-in Qi is a win.

So, with no tick for speakers and half a tick for battery - sorry, it's not enough. I wanted to love it - and it will be a fabulous device for many, many people - just not me, just now. If I didn't have a Pixel 3, I still think I'd put the £349 towards the forthcoming Pixel 4a 5G or 5. The Pixel 4a 5G and 5 have much bigger batteries and if 5G is turned off (who needs it?!) I can imagine that the performance will be to my liking. As we don't have the units to hand at the moment, I can't possibly say what the speakers will be like but as Steve said in the video, there is a strong possibility that one of the speakers in the 5 is actually under-glass, which will, no doubt screw the sound. I'll have to wait and see. But for now, the cash stays in the bank.

A couple of things to round-up before I end - one is that the 4a does have a 3.5mm audio-out socket which the 3 does not. Handy for those who need it. Can't say that I once have been caught out by the 3 not having it. Bluetooth on all modern phones is staggeringly well implemented and the sound offered is quite stunning, as it is here for both phones. And if I really need it, I can put a USB-C to 3.5mm dongle in my wallet!

The question becomes, therefore, what next? How does the 4a compare with the 4a 5G and the 5 which will be along shortly? Well, I'll leave Steve to consider that question - so once again, check out his video - but for me, I have great hopes for the Pixel 4a 5G. Not only does it have that bigger battery, not only can I turn off the 5G to make the most of it, but also the phone is a tag larger. I think I might prefer that. The Pixel 3 has always been a little small for me, the Pixel 3a was slightly bigger and slightly better in that respect - and the 4a 5G is back in that general framework. That's the one I shall be looking at next, even if it is £499. I think it'll be a better fit for me.

But in the meantime, I can't not recommend the 4a here to most people out there. As much as I nit-pick, most of it is just that. This is a cracking little phone. Good enough battery. All the excellent benefits of ongoing support and fast updates from Google. Super camera results. Good enough sound output. 3.5mm audio-out. And only £349. For most people, what's not to like?

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