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CNN —  

All the major tech companies seem to have a renewed interest in affordable phones. In April, Apple delivered the $399 iPhone SE, a value-packed model on par with the iPhone 11, 11 Pro and 11 Pro Max. Samsung continued the trend with its Galaxy A family. Motorola has several new G devices. And TCL, the brand most known for TVs, entered the smartphone market with the 10L and 10 Pro.

Now it’s Google’s turn, as the company unveils its newest, very affordable Pixel.

The Pixel 4a, which undercuts the iPhone SE by $50 with one model that costs $349, comes packed with a 5.8-inch display and 128GB of internal storage — and, like every other Pixel, it runs a clean version of Android 10.

While it may not mach the flagship-level specs of the iPhone SE, after using the phone for more than a week, it’s clear that Google got a lot of things right with the Pixel 4a.

A lot of screen in a compact build

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Unlike the Pixel 3a, the affordable Google phone in 2019, there is just one SKU of the Pixel 4a. And for the size (5.7 inches by 2.7 inches by 0.3 inches), you get a 5.81-inch Full HD+ OLED panel.

It feels compact but offers an expansive view. It’s similar to the trick that all bezel-less phones have been aiming to hit. You see, as phones have gotten bigger, the screens have been stretched to the edges.

Bezels are essentially the black bars around the display that go to the edge. They’re slim on the Pixel 4a. You also don’t have a notch like on other Android phones or on the iPhone 11 Pro — rather there’s a pinhole cutout in the top-left corner that houses the 8-megapixel selfie camera. All of this leads up to the declaration that, at least on the front, the Pixel 4a feels like a 2020 smartphone.

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On the bottom, there’s a pair of speakers and a USB-C port for charging or data transfers. The top houses a headphone jack — yes, read that again. The top of the Pixel 4a has a headphone jack, a nice treat for a 2020 phone and an even better treat at $349.

You’ll turn the phone on or off and adjust the volume on the right side. You’ll pop in the microSIM on the left. Google includes a SIM popper in the box, and the 4a supports eSIM (embedded SIM) as well.

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The backside has the only branding — a light gray “G” logo centered on the bottom. The top is more crowded, with a tiny square that pops off the back in the top-left corner. This is the camera module, which houses a 12.2-megapixel camera and LED flash, which is the same main lens as on the Pixel 4 or 4 XL. You also get a fingerprint sensor on the back.

You’ll also notice we didn’t mention wireless charging, which is due to the non-glass build on the back. The Pixel 4a opts for a polycarbonate unibody that feels classy and surprisingly nice. It’s a soft finish that retains its grip, and unless your fingerprints are hyper greasy, you won’t see any marks.

We wish the 4a had wireless charging, but we also understand the compromises made with a more affordable device. The included 18-watt charger supports fast charging and should work well for most people. You won’t be able to use this with the Pixel Stand, though.

This polycarbonate build is on the back and all the edges. It morphs into the Corning Gorilla Glass 3 cover on top. This not only looks sleek and subtle, but it provides protection for the 5.81-inch display.

It’s an OLED panel with an FHD+ resolution at 1080x2340 with 443 pixels per inch. That’s in line with most other devices at this price point, if not higher. HDR is also supported. The 4a features a 19.5:9 aspect ratio, which adds length to the display. It’s not as pronounced as the 21:9 on the S20 or Motorola Edge. It’s a sharp display with deep black levels, which you’ll notice with content like “Avengers: Endgame,” “Fast & Furious” and really anything on the display. The preloaded wallpaper ebbs and flows at the top, which showcases the contrast capabilities.

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Like any Pixel before it, the 4a keeps an always-on display, and we still really appreciate this feature. You get a slightly dimmer but still visible clock and date at all times, plus you’ll see notifications right below. It doesn’t travel the line of privacy corners, as it’s just the logo for the app. The battery level is found center at the bottom. An iPhone with an OLED provides an immersive display, but Android and the Pixel 4a with OLED also add features like the always-on display.

Software is pretty zippy

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As we hinted at above, the Pixel 4a is not powered by a class-leading flagship processor. Rather, the 4a is powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 730g with an ample 6GB of RAM. Setup felt like any other Android device, so we didn’t experience any notable slowdowns like we did with Samsung’s Galaxy A01 or the A71 5G.

We’ve been testing the unlocked variant of the Google Pixel 4a and only Google apps are preloaded. It’s a joy after playing with the Verizon-locked Motorola Edge, some carrier-locked variants of Samsung’s Galaxy S20 family and the carrier-locked Galaxy A01. It just feels more fluid with less wasted space, especially when there is no expandable storage option.

Only core Google apps are found here: Docs, Drive, Duo, Files, Gmail, Google One, Google Play, Keep Notes, Maps, Messages, News, Photos, Pixel Tips, Play Store, Podcasts, Recorder, Safety, Settings and YouTube. Better yet, if you don’t want an app, just delete it. And scrolling through that list in the app drawer is swift, the same with navigating the home screens or the Assistant page.

And we didn’t have any noticeable slowdowns using any particular apps. When opening the camera app, you can expect the view to load under a second. Switching between shooting modes (portrait, camera and video) all happen without hesitation. Night Sight, on the other hand, shows a brief moment of hesitation, but it won’t make you get antsy. Given the AI and machine learning that is involved, it takes a second for it to switch into high gear.

Even more high-intensity applications like “Real Racing 3,” “Call of Duty: Mobile” and “Fortnite” felt quick. Same goes with core applications that we used in everyday scenarios: Slack, Twitter, Outlook, Gmail, Trello, Instagram, YouTube and Apple Music, among others, performed well. Also, the 4a didn’t get overly hot during heavy use or while charging.

And if you’re switching to Android from an iOS device, or just moving from another Android smartphone to a Pixel, it’s a clean experience. The focus is, of course, on Android itself and highlighting Google features, but it’s quite approachable. The Play Store offers an array of apps, and chances are, you can find what you want. It might be less curated than the App Store on iOS, but you can find the main ones here.

The deep integration with Google is quite nice, and photos or videos captured using the camera app will sync with your Google Photos library. It has smart features that will remind you of your memories and even suggest edits to improve a shot. If you have a Nest Hub or Nest Hub Max, you can use those as smart picture frames to showcase your shots.

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The Google Assistant is fully integrated with the Pixel 4a. You can simply say “OK Google” or “Hey Google” to get its attention and speak your request or question. The Assistant is just as smart on the 4a as on any other Pixel or smart speaker. The farmost-left home screen is the Assistant Discover page, which will showcase curated news for you and is customizable. Google Search and the Assistant are just a tap, type or voice call away on the 4a.

With every device that we review here at CNN Underscored, we perform an array of benchmarks. Notably, GeekBench 5 provides us with a way to map performance across devices and to match a quantitative number with our qualitative experience. We haven’t been able to run the Google Pixel 4a through GeekBench 5, but we will update this article once the tests have been completed.

But from our wide range of tests and real-world usage, the Pixel 4a can hold its own. Unlike the similarly priced Galaxy A51, we didn’t experience sudden speedups and abrupt slowdowns. The Pixel 4a feels balanced and doesn’t carry the weight of a heavy custom user interface on top of Android. We think that tips the scale in Google’s favor, along with picking a solid processor that can ramp up for intensive tasks.

And since this is the Google phone, it has nifty Google features. Now Playing is probably our favorite feature in a smartphone, but it’s only found on Pixels. Essentially, with this turned on, the Pixel 4a listens for music and will automatically identify songs. You’ll see the name of the song appear on the bottom of the always-on display, and within the 4a, you can find a history of the songs it has identified.

This is super cool and super practical.

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It also confirms our wide range in music tests. In over a week of testing, we logged tracks from Diana Ross, Donna Summer, Andrea Bocelli, Kool & the Gang, Heatwave, Bryan Adams, Guns N’ Roses, John Mellencamp, Bruce Springsteen, Queen and many others. It’s great for music discovery and just a super functional feature of the Pixel 4a.

The preloaded Safety app allows you to designate emergency contacts and even share your location with those you trust. It can also alert you to emergencies in your area. And you can even schedule a check-in to make sure you’re back by a certain time or a reminder to check your phone if you’ve been off-screen.

As we wrote in our Pixel 4 review, Recorder is a journalist’s dream. It’s like a high-tech take on a tape recorder, as it will automatically transcribe the conversation being recorded in real time. You can easily message or email the transcription to someone, and tapping on a specific word or sentence jumps the recording to that point. It’s terrific and is perfect for logging meetings or even recording classes. If you’re a fan of Google Docs, you can even export it into one.

The subject of battery life is a touchy one for the Pixel. The 4 and 4 XL simply didn’t have a large enough battery, even with fast wired charging and support for wireless charging.

Google knows this and focused on the battery life with the 4a. It has a 3140mAh battery (it’s nonremovable) that’s 10% larger than the Pixel 4 and is the largest battery in the main Pixel.

And the Pixel 4a’s battery life has been good. It’s gotten us through a full day several times, and we don’t have any major qualms with it. And that’s an excellent margin for a Pixel, one that phones need to hit.

Similar to our benchmarks, we have a battery test that we run on all devices. We run a video on loop until the battery dies with airplane mode engaged (connectivity is turned off) and with the brightness set to 50%. In our battery test, the Pixel 4a ran for 9 hours and 15 minutes.

As a whole, performance shouldn’t be a concern for anyone thinking about the $349 Pixel 4a. The processor is capable, and the RAM gives it ample runway. We had no noticeable or prominent slowdowns, and the 4a swiftly handled any task we threw at it. That’s a good testament for a midrange phone, and especially good for an Android variant.

Let’s talk the camera

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The Pixel team does a standout job with photography. There’s a focus on machine learning and artificial intelligence that makes an image pop. We still remember the first time we used Night Sight during a late-evening snowstorm. It blew us away for the amount of light and detail it brought into the shot.

The Pixel 4 was impressive; fortunately, the 4a retains the main camera on the rear.

Like the iPhone SE, it’s a single lens setup: a 12.2-megapixel dual-pixel lens with an LED flash, optical image stabilization and electronic image stabilization. It’s a standard lens — no ultra wide here — and like the Pixel 4, we found ourselves sometimes craving a wider shot.

But, also like the Pixel 4, the 4a can capture a great shot with a single tap. You might find yourself adjusting focus — it tends to not always focus in on the right spot — but you’re photo will have an ample amount of details and accurate colors.

Take this vertical shot of a white hydrangea. The main petals and stems are in a sharp focus that retains details even as you zoom. You can tell that some of the petals on the upper back are tinged and the browning remains intact.

This is the Pixel’s Super Res Zoom in action, which doesn’t end up deteriorating or losing image quality when you look at the details. This shot, as with most shots on the Pixels, creates a bokeh effect as the focus singles in. You have a nice blur for the background.

A more wide-ranging shot with ruby hydrangeas in the center showcases how the Pixel 4a can capture the forefront and the large trees in the back and the surrounding green shrubbery. It’s a detail-filled picture, and we made some HDR adjustments in real time.

Notice the use of real time. On the 4a, you can adjust exposure and other HDR properties in real time. Essentially any adjustments you make occur right in the view, which is the image you’ll capture. This way, the shot you’re looking at is what you receive when you check the gallery in Photos. It’s the same feature that stole the show on the Pixel 4 — a phone that costs $799 — and is now on the 4a for $349.

Night Sight is equally as impressive on the 4a and can even capture the stars, although you need a clear night. It’s still wild that a phone can capture stars, shooting stars and more extraterrestrial activity. Portrait shots perform well here and look better than on the Pixel 3a, so you’ll see more attention to the edges of what you’re shooting. With a human, it’s the hairline, and with dogs, it’s the fur line. It’s quick to find the object and make the popular bokeh effect happen. It’s also not just limited to humans, like the single lens on the iPhone SE.

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Quality with the front-facing camera is solid. It’s an 8-megapixel lens with fixed focus and 84-degree field of view. That means you can shoot selfies with multiple people, but portrait shots look much better with the main camera. It performs well for selfies, quick shots and video calls, though.

You can see a full gallery of photos shot with the Pixel 4a below as well as a camera test with the rear camera, which records up to 4K at 30 frames per second.

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Jacob Krol/CNN
Jacob Krol/CNN

Bottom line

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The price is right with the Pixel 4a. For $349, this midrange handset is solid. Our big qualm is that it took so long to release. Heck, we’re close to Techtober and the smartphone launch season is upon us. Team Pixel is even teasing two more Pixels, the expected Pixel 5 and the Pixel 4a 5G, which will cost just $499. We don’t know exact specs or features on these, but these will be 5G-capable Pixels. It depends how much you weigh 5G, so we hope that Google continues to price these right.

And $349 for the Pixel 4a is spot on. It’s a compact device that feels like a 2020 flagship with a vibrant OLED display, a processor that zips through clean Android, nifty Google features like Now Playing and a dependable camera. It’s $50 cheaper than the iPhone SE, but we still think Apple’s offering will last longer and is undoubtedly faster.

Ultimately, you’ll lay out your cards and need to pick Android or iOS — but as far as Androids go, the Pixel 4a is the best midrange smartphone. Camera, processing power, display and a sleek design make this a winner.

Google’s Pixel 4a comes in Just Black and 128GB of storage for $349. There’s just one SKU and it’s up for preorder: Pixel 4a will ship on August 20, and it supports nearly every carrier, big and small, in the US.

Note: The prices above reflect the retailer’s listed prices at the time of publication.