There doesn’t appear to be a Google Pixel middle ground. Since its inception, it has been a rollercoaster of good and evil. Fortunately, anyone who, like me, jumped on board the hype train from the start and stuck to a biannual upgrade cycle has only heard the high notes. The original Pixel and Pixel 3 were simple, solid phones that “just worked” and felt great while doing so. What about the Pixel 2 and 4? Not at all. Google somehow oscillates between totally nailing it and forgetting what makes Pixel (and, by implication, Android itself) so wonderful in the first place, whether they’re playing it too safe or going a bit too crazy.
Heck, I still miss some aspects of the original Pixel, which served as a spur for this unique upgrading path. Pixel 3 XL has been my phone for the last two years. The Pixel 5 is coming soon. So why would I buy a low-cost phone that appears to be a step down from what I already have?
While it may appear that I’m just a tech nerd defending my purchases, this is my blog, so I’m going to tell you.
The price-to-comfort ratio is out of this chart
To begin, we must acknowledge that the Pixel 3 XL was never an ideal phone for me due to a variety of personal factors. To put it simply, it’s too huge and hefty for my hands. When you can’t fully handle the phone, the all-glass body is a little too slippery. At the time, I couldn’t justify the expense of 128GB of storage, so I settled for 64GB, which now feels inadequate. Of course, I could have gotten a Pixel 3 non-XL and used the difference to get more storage. I didn’t, and that’s my fault. I adored the original Pixel XL, and the Pixel 3 XL looked like the logical next step. Lessons were learned.
Right away, the Pixel 4a corrects that error for me. It has a balanced display size and 128GB of storage at a very reasonable price of $349. After deducting a $180 trade-in for my Pixel 3 XL (through Google Fi), I’m down to $169.
Sure, the Pixel 5 is on the way, but there’s no way in Mountain View that it’ll be that cheap. And now for the actual kicker:
When the Pixel 5 is released, the trade-in value of the Pixel 3 will plunge
What exactly is it, you ask? Should you wait for a Black Friday sale? While this would be beneficial (it’s how I obtained my Pixel 3 XL), it wouldn’t be enough to let the Pixel 5 compete with the price of a 4a. Last November, Google sold the Pixel 3a for $299, and there’s no way Google will sell the 4a for less. If the value of my trade-in drops by more than $50, I’ll actually lose money!
For example, a Pixel 2 XL trade-in is presently valued at about $57. Ouch. It’s better to get trading while the going’s good. Which gets us directly to my next reasoning for the switch:
The Pixel 5 will not be significantly better than the Pixel 4a
Friends, the benchmarks have already been released. Google has learned from its mistakes in the past and is placing a large bet on value for money this year. In comparison to the Pixel 4a’s Snapdragon 730G processor and 6GB of RAM, the Pixel 5’s Snapdragon 765G processor and 8GB of RAM. The CPU performance will be essentially the same, but graphics will be about 30% faster on the latter. On paper, that may appear to be a lot, but consider this: if you’re stuck playing a game at 25 frames per second on the Pixel 4a, the Pixel 5 will barely make it to 30. That’s pretty much the only circumstance in which that delta matters.
That’s without premium materials, a high-refresh display, an improved camera array, wireless charging, or 5G support, However, if you can live without any of those features, the 4a will still be a good choice when the 5 comes out. It’s difficult to imagine Google aiming for even crazier hardware features while maintaining a lower price point than last year—which is perfectly fine.
The Snapdragon 730G is a decent processor!
Naming a great product after a low-end SKU is a psychological disadvantage. This generation, Qualcomm has taken an interesting approach to their 700-series chips, pairing high-performance CPUs with low-performance GPUs. However, “high” and “low” are relative terms in this context. Sure, the current flagship Snapdragon 865 will annihilate a 730G. But, really, do you need that much power in a phone? I don’t, and chances are you don’t either.
It’s time to get technical now. According to Geekbench, the Pixel 4a is approximately 8% faster than the Pixel 3 XL in single-core operations and 18% slower in multi-core operations. That’s not a difference you’re likely to notice in real-world situations. That is, the Pixel 4a has flagship-level performance—just one generation removed, which is acceptable.
On the GPU side, the gap is a little wider. In 3DMark Mobile, the Adreno 630 in the Pixel 3 XL outperforms the Adreno 618 in the Pixel 4a by roughly 40%. Isn’t that a noticeable difference? Is that correct? Remember that the Pixel 3 XL has a 1440p display, whereas the Pixel 4a only has a 1080p display. That’s a 25% decrease in resolution, which will automatically restore some of the lost performance. Synthetic benchmarks such as 3DMark always render the same amount of pixels—as they should—but in real-world settings, you’re unlikely to render games at a higher resolution than is strictly necessary. And the lower the resolution you can get away with before you notice the downgrade, the smaller the screen.
The Pixel 4a and the original Pixel can be directly compared in terms of graphics performance. In the same test, that phone’s Adreno 530 GPU performs only 4% better (within margin of error, really). I remember playing a variety of games at 1440p on the original Pixel and never being dissatisfied with the results—even in emulators. Since then, the Play Store has seen the addition of console-level games such as Fortnite, Call of Duty, PUBG, and others. They are, however, all designed to work on as many devices as possible, and there is a compelling case to be made that an Adreno 730G provides all the graphics performance that the majority of smartphone users would ever want. It moves all of my favourite games flawlessly, and it appears that even the upcoming Genshin Impact will run smoothly on processors as low as the Snapdragon 710, so what more could you ask for?
Android will require more RAM
It’s a little frustrating to me because I recall my original Pixel XL having no trouble keeping numerous apps in memory despite only having 3GB of RAM. My Pixel 3 XL now has 4GB of RAM and is effectively a one-task gadget. I don’t like that Android as an operating system has become more bloated since the advent of AI-everything, but that’s the world we live in, and that means 6GB or more is required. Crazy.
You might be wondering if 6GB in the Pixel 4a is really that much of an upgrade. However, I can attest that this is true. Suddenly, I can keep all of my daily applications open at the same time, and then some. This isn’t just for the sake of instant gratification. To be honest, apps don’t take long to reload on the Pixel 3 XL to begin with. Load times are only half the problem. The other half consists of lost progress on any tasks I intended to save for later—even if only for a moment!—only to discover that when “later” arrived, the apps were simply not open.
It’s a minor form of anxiety to believe you can’t rely on your phone to remember anything when you turn it off. In comparison, the Pixel 4a makes me feel almost anxious because I don’t know where the limit is. Open the new app or three, and the old one is likely to remain. Of course, you can exhaust its RAM supply, but it will leave you impressed rather than frustrated. Time will tell whether 6GB is still sufficient after Google’s promised three rounds of updates, but for now, it’s a godsend.
I’m done with the notch
What else causes mild anxiety? That’s right, the Pixel 3 XL’s “bathtub notch.” It might not bother you as much as a splinter at first. You may even believe that you can ignore it. Moreover, the longer you live with it, the worse it gets until you can’t help but pluck it out. There’s simply no way to win here: either the content is framed strangely to avoid the notch, or it is intruded upon to embrace it.
The Pixel 4a’s hole-punch camera, while not perfect, is much less intrusive. Google was wise to place it on the left side of the screen, where your thumb will most likely cover it in landscape mode. The camera itself is oddly out of focus for selfies, but I’ll take it over a more intrusive implementation any day. After all, this is a smartphone, and the face is what you’ll be looking at the majority of the time, so it had better be easy on the eyes.
It is the journey, not the destination
At $169, I’m not going to be tied to the Pixel 4a for the rest of my life just to get my money’s worth. It doesn’t have to be the best phone in every category; it just has to be good enough until something better comes along. Despite my defence of the Pixel 4a’s perceived flaws, I can clearly see where it could be improved, whether by a successor or a completely different brand of phone.
As a former DSLR photographer, I like the idea of having multiple cameras, especially one with a periscope lens for proper optical zoom. 5G would be a bonus as well. But, for the time being, neither technology is quite ready for prime time. When the photo processing is so good, even crazy 108MP cameras can’t compete with Google’s 12MP. That, and the alternatives are massive. I’d prefer a slightly larger display than 5.8″, but 6″ is my sweet spot, not the 6.7″ we’re seeing on the bleeding edge.
Once these issues are resolved, I’ll be all over it like a fish to water. Until then, the Pixel 4a is just what I needed to refresh my phone experience. It’s a trade of things I don’t need for things I do, which just makes sense. That, in fact, describes my entire experience. Google calls it the “helpful” phone, but I think it should be called the “sensible” phone.