There really seems to be no middle ground for the Google Pixel. It's been a rollercoaster of good and bad since its inception. Fortunately, anyone like me who boarded the hype train on day one and stuck to a biannual upgrade cycle has hit only the high notes. The OG Pixel and Pixel 3 were straightforward, solid phones that "just worked" and felt great doing so. The Pixel 2 and 4? Not so much. Whether they're playing it too safe or going a little too crazy, Google somehow oscillates between absolutely nailing it and forgetting what makes Pixel (and by extension, Android itself) so great in the first place.
Heck, I still miss some things about the original Pixel, which is sort of the catalyst for the unusual upgrade path I've taken this time. I've been using a Pixel 3 XL for two years now, and the Pixel 5 is just around the corner. So why pull the trigger on a budget phone that's seemingly a step down from what I already have?
Well, while it may come across as a tech nerd merely justifying his purchasing decisions, this is my blog, so I'm going to tell you.
The price-to-comfort ratio is off the charts
First off, we need to establish that the Pixel 3 XL was never a perfect phone for me for some very personal reasons. Simply put, it's too big and heavy for my hands. The all-glass body is a mite too slippery when you can't fully grip the phone. I couldn't justify the cost of 128GB of storage at the time, so I went with 64GB, which now feels cramped. Of course, I could have gone with a Pixel 3 non-XL and spent the difference on larger storage capacity. I didn't, and that's on me. I really, really loved the OG Pixel XL and the Pixel 3 XL seemed like the logical upgrade path. Lessons learned.
Right off the bat, the Pixel 4a rights that wrong for me. It offers a balanced display size and 128GB of storage for the very justifiable cost of $349. Deduct a trade-in of $180 for my Pixel 3 XL (through Google Fi), and that leaves me at just $169.
Sure, the Pixel 5 may be coming soon, but there's no way in Mountain View it'll be that wallet-friendly. And here's the real kicker:
As soon as Pixel 5 releases, the trade-in value of Pixel 3 will plummet
What's that, you say? Wait for a Black Friday sale? While that would certainly help (it's how I got my Pixel 3 XL) it still wouldn't make the Pixel 5 compete with the price of a 4a. Last year, the Pixel 3a went on sale for $299 in November, and there's no way Google's going to pawn off the 4a for any less. If the value of my trade-in decreases more than $50, it'd actually constitute a loss!
Case in point: a Pixel 2 XL trade-in is currently valued at just $57. Ouch. Better to get tradin' while the tradin's good. Which brings us straight into my next
justification reason for the switch:
The Pixel 5 won't be that much better than the Pixel 4a
The benchmarks are already out, friends. Google has learned from past mistakes and is going all-in on value-for-money this year. Contrasted with the Pixel 4a's Snapdragon 730G processor and 6GB of RAM, the Pixel 5 will only have a Snapdragon 765G and 8GB of RAM. CPU performance will be tangibly the same, while graphics will run about 30% faster on the latter. It might sound like a lot on paper, but think about it: if you're stuck running a game at 25 FPS on the Pixel 4a, the Pixel 5 will just barely cross the 30 FPS threshold. That's about the only scenario where that delta matters.
Now, that's to say nothing of premium build materials, a high-refresh display, better camera array, wireless charging, or 5G support, but if you can live without those things, the 4a will still be a compelling option once the 5 releases. It's hard to imagine Google will target any hardware features much crazier than that while still hitting a lower price point than last year--which is perfectly OK.
Speaking of which…
The Snapdragon 730G is not a bad processor!
It's a psychological detriment to name a great product after a low-end SKU. Qualcomm has taken a really interesting approach to their 700-series chips this generation, pairing high-performance CPUs with low-performance GPUs. But "high" and "low" are relative, here. Sure, the current flagship Snapdragon 865 will crush a 730G. But do you really need that much power in a phone? I don't, and chances are, neither do you.
Ok, it's time to get technical. According to Geekbench, the Pixel 4a is roughly 8% faster than the Pixel 3 XL in single-core operations, and 18% slower in multi-core. That's not a difference you're likely to feel in any real-world scenarios. Which means that, for all intents and purposes, the Pixel 4a has flagship performance--just one generation removed, which is perfectly fine.
On the GPU side, the divide is a little greater. In 3DMark Mobile, The Adreno 630 found in the Pixel 3 XL scores roughly 40% higher than the Adreno 618 in the Pixel 4a. That's a tangible difference, right? Or is it? Remember, the Pixel 3 XL has a 1440p display, while the Pixel 4a is just 1080p. That's a 25% reduction in resolution, which will automatically regain some of that lost performance. Synthetic benchmarks like 3DMark always render the same number of pixels--as they should--but in real-world scenarios, you're unlikely to render games any higher than necessary. And the smaller the screen, the lower the resolution you can get away with before you start to notice the downgrade.
A more direct comparison can be made between the graphics performance of the Pixel 4a and the OG Pixel. That phone's Adreno 530 GPU scores just 4% higher in the same test (within margin of error, really). I recall playing all sorts of games at 1440p on the OG Pixel and never feeling dissatisfied with the results--including in emulators. Standards have risen substantially since then, with the likes of Fortnite, Call of Duty, PUBG, and other console-level games gracing the Play store. But they're all designed to run on as many devices as possible, and there's a strong argument to be made that an Adreno 730G is all the graphics performance most smartphone users will ever need. It works a treat with all my preferred games, and from the looks of it, even the upcoming Genshin Impact will run just fine on processors as low as the Snapdragon 710, so what more could you want, really?
In 2020, Android needs more RAM
It's a little frustrating to me that I distinctly recall my OG Pixel XL having no issue keeping multiple apps in memory despite packing only 3GB of RAM. Now my Pixel 3 XL has 4GB and is essentially a one-task device. I may not like the fact that Android as an operating system has gotten more bloated since the addition of AI-everything, but it's the reality we live in, and that means 6GB or more is a necessity. Crazy.
You might be inclined to question whether 6GB in the Pixel 4a is that big a step up. But oh, trust me: it is. Suddenly I can keep all my daily applications open at once, and then some. That's not merely to satisfy instant gratification, either. To be honest, apps don't take that long to reload on the Pixel 3 XL to begin with. Oh no, load times are only half the inconvenience. The other half is lost progress on any tasks I meant to save for later--even momentarily!--only to find that, when "later" came, the apps simply weren't open anymore.
It's a minor form of anxiety to feel like you can't trust your phone to remember anything when you hit the "off" switch. By contrast, the Pixel 4a leaves me feeling almost anxious from not knowing where the limit is. Open a new app or three, and chances are very good that the old app is just… still there. You can exhaust its RAM supply, of course, but it'll leave you feeling impressed far more than frustrated. Time will tell whether or not 6GB remains sufficient after Google's promised 3 rounds of updates, but for now, it's a godsend.
I'm done with the notch.
You know what else induces a mild form of anxiety? Yep, that lovingly-christened "bathtub notch" on the Pixel 3 XL. Like a splinter, it might not bother you all that much at first. You might even think you can ignore it. But the longer you live with it, the longer it festers until you can't resist plucking it out. There's just no way to win here: either content is framed oddly to avoid the notch, or intruded upon to embrace it.
The hole-punch camera on the Pixel 4a, though not perfect, is far less intrusive. Google was clever to plant it on the left side of the display where your thumb is most likely to cover it in landscape mode. The camera itself is bizarrely out of focus for selfies, but I'll still take it over a more intrusive implementation. This is a smartphone, after all: the face is what you'll spend most of your time looking at, so it better be easy on the eyes.
It's the journey, not the destination
At $169, I'm not married to the Pixel 4a forever to get my money's worth out of it. It doesn't need to be the ultimate phone in every category; just good enough until something even better comes along. Despite my defense of its perceived weaknesses, I can clearly see where the Pixel 4a could be improved upon, whether by a successor or an entirely different brand of phone.
As a former DSLR photographer, I love the idea of having multiple cameras at my disposal, especially one with a periscope lens for proper optical zoom. 5G would also be a treat. But for now, neither technology is really ready for prime time. Even crazy 108MP cameras can't compete with Google's 12MP when the photo processing is just so spot-on. That, and the alternatives are HUGE. I'd be keen on a display a touch larger than 5.8", but 6" really is the sweet spot for me, not the 6.7" we're seeing on the cutting-edge end of the spectrum.
Once these problems are solved, I'll be on it like a fish to water. Until then, the Pixel 4a is exactly the sort of refresh my phone experience needed. It's a trade of some things I don't need for some things I do, which… just makes sense, really. And indeed, that pretty much sums up my experience as a whole. Google is calling it the "helpful" phone, but in my opinion, it should be called the "sensible" phone instead.
I mean, after all, it even has a headphone jack. Need I say more?