Pixel 4a review: I’d pick this phone over the OnePlus Nord

The Pixel 4a is the perfectly-sized smartphone that makes an impression with its excellent photography capabilities.

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Small phones are a rarity these days. And therefore, when the Pixel 4a arrived at my doorstep I was lowkey excited. This is the only Pixel phone that Google is launching in India this year. And yes, I am slightly disappointed that we aren’t getting the Pixel 5. However, Google has improved many aspects of the Pixel 4a from its previous generation offerings and I absolutely found it a delight to use. No wonder then, the stocks were sold out in the first Big Billion Day sales. 

In fact, I like it more than the OnePlus Nord. Intrigued? Well, let’s head straight into my full review.

Pixel 4a design – perfect phone for one-handed usage but boring design

Like I mentioned, the Pixel 4a is a comparatively smaller phone compared to most phones launching in 2020. I sincerely think it is a perfectly-sized smartphone. The dimensions are nearly identical to the iPhone 11 Pro when you look at the length and the width. However, the Pixel 4a is definitely thinner and lighter. Ergonomically, the Pixel 4a is unmatched. It is made for one-handed usage. 

To add to that, you get a 3.5mm headphone jack, and a supremely tactile power button and volume rocker. The clicky sound you hear when you press these buttons is super duper satisfying. Also, the power button is mint coloured that adds a touch of whimsy to the otherwise plain and boring Black colour of the back panel.

The back panel is made entirely of plastic and doesn’t feel as premium or strong as the glass back OnePlus Nord. But the soft matte finish of the plastic feels very nice to touch. The feel of the phone feels premium even if it doesn’t look the part, if that makes any sense. Also on the back is the fingerprint scanner, which is at the ideal position and is super fast to unlock the phone. The square camera module for the single camera and flash does look better than a vertical strip if you ask me. 

By the way, you get a Type-C port at the bottom with USB 3.1 gen standard. What this means is you can use it to stream gameplay using an HDMI out cable. 

Overall, I absolutely love how the Pixel 4a feels and that’s enough for me to look past the drab design of the back panel. In any case, you can put it in a nice case and you are good to go. But yes, it may not be as premium as the glass back on the OnePlus Nord. 

Pixel 4a display – pretty good HDR panel

While the design doesn’t look premium from the back, it looks modern and clean from the front for sure. You get a 5.8-inch AMOLED screen with a small bezel running around it. The best part is the bezel is almost uniform on all four sides except for the bottom one, which is slightly fatter. Regardless, I really like the almost full screen experience you get with this display. The only distraction, if you consider it one, is the punch-hole camera on the top left. I did feel the black ring around was larger than usual and therefore on a small screen the hole does stand out. 

Also read: OnePlus 8T review – polished to a T but missing the X factor

This display has extremely punchy colours and can get adequately bright. It can go up to a max brightness of over 600 nits in adaptive brightness mode outside in sunlight. Yes, this is not the best but it is not bad either. The display’s colours can be tuned to your liking from the settings page. And, the Natural setting offers a more accurate colour palette. Also, the Gorilla Glass 3 protection used on the Pixel 4a’s display is a cost cutting measure but not worth worrying too much about because it is still pretty scratch resistant. 

Furthermore, you get Widevine L1 support along with HDR10 certification. It plays back HDR videos on Netflix just fine. I didn’t notice any other issues with the display either.

Pixel 4a display – vibration feedback is phenomenal

By the way, you know why you are going to love the phone? Because the haptic feedback is just so damn good. It is the same precise haptic motor inside more expensive Pixel phones.

The vibration feedback is absolutely sublime when you are typing or simply swiping across the screen to go back a page. It is undoubtedly leagues better than any other phone in and around the Rs 30,000 price range. Not many realise this but such small changes add to the whole premium experience of using a phone. 

But yes, you do not get a high refresh rate setting like you do on the OnePlus Nord. So, that could be a bit of a letdown. 

Pixel 4a camera – best in class but not feature rich

The Pixel 4a has a single 12MP camera on the rear and 8MP camera on the front. Many might think this is blasphemous in 2020. But wait…the picture quality will blow your socks away. Let’s compare it with the OnePlus Nord actually:

  1. In the first shot, we compared the detail retention ability and the colours of the 12MP and 48MP sensors inside the Pixel 4a and the OnePlus Nord, respectively. The Pixel 4a captured a more accurate colour temperature and colours, in general. The Nord tends to over-saturate the whole colour palette here. If you look carefully around the area underneath the pillow on the loungers, the shadows are definitely crushed. But yes, the Nord’s 48MP IMX 586 sensor definitely captures slightly sharper details at close crop. Overall though, most folks – including me – would pick the Pixel 4a here.

  2. When it comes to dynamic range correction, both the phones tend to do slightly different take on HDR. Pixel’s goal is to capture an accurate representation of the dynamic range of the scene. For example, in the histogram, I noticed that it picked up the mids and controlled any peaks in shadows and highlights, therefore creating a more balanced image. This is the kind of dynamic range correction that is done by flagship phones. The OnePlus Nord looks contrast heavy and the colours around the setting Sun are smeared across the sky. When it comes to HDR, my choice has to be the Pixel because it is more accurate.


  3. Moving on to portraits, the Pixel 4a goes close to a subject to get a closer frame of the face. From the edge detection to the faux blur, it is extremely well done on the Pixel 4a’s portrait shot. Also, the facial tone is more natural and pleasing. The OnePlus Nord tends to pick up the bright points or the highlights to make the face glow plus the contrast is high too.


  4. In selfies, the Nord definitely has a more resolving sensor but you can see how the colour temperature has gone for a toss completely. Undoubtedly, the Pixel 4a’s selfie looks better even if it is not as crisp as the Nord. But, when you look at the portraits taken by the individual front cameras, the edge cutout is cleaner on the Nord as Pixel 4a misses a spot. However, I am still slightly miffed about the colour accuracy of the Nord’s selfie.


  5. Pixel 4a’s low light performance is just exemplary, especially with Night Sight on. In the first sample, you can see there’s only a single source of light coming from the right. The colour temperature is clearly accurate on the Pixel 4a’s sample. But what matters is the night mode in such a scenario and that is where the Pixel 4a just kills the OnePlus Nord. Not only is it brighter, it is also sharper. You can see the Pixel 4a doesn’t do any aggressive noise correction or smoothening in and around the books and the text is fairly legible too. In the next sample, jumping directly to the Night Sight and Nightscape comparisons, the colours and the details are absolutely spot on on the Pixel 4a. The Nord tends to add an unsightly green tint.

     

     

  6. Finally, both the phones can do up to 4K 30fps video recording from the rear camera. The sound quality and stabilisation is of similar quality but when it comes to colours and details the Pixel 4a just sucker punches the Nord into oblivion. In selfie videos, the Nord definitely has an edge with up to 4K 60fps video recording. The Pixel 4a tops out at 1080p 30fps and therefore, in my testing, I tested it against Nord’s 1080p 30fps. The 4a has natural colours but the Nord offers more details. I guess the Nord would be a better option for vlogging, that’s for sure. 

Essentially, Google’s philosophy is simple – pack in a great sensor and add the best of Google’s machine learning tech into a single camera setup and produce jaw dropping results. Google doesn’t believe in extra shenanigans with additional macro, depth, or mono sensors. And, to be honest, it works for me. If you ask me, the Pixel 4a has the best camera on phones in this price range. 

Pixel 4a software – stock Android for enthusiasts

A big reason why the Pixel 4a feels great to use is Android 11. Interestingly, my unit came with Android 10 out-of-the-box and I got a prompt for an upgrade to Android 11 immediately after I’ve switched in on. Does this mean we will only get upgrades up till Android 13 and not 14? Well, we’ll have to wait and watch. 

In any case, Android 11 is a very mature operating system that is super slick. I absolutely adore the new features in the software. Let me list them out for you:

  1. The Power menu now takes up the full page, and gives you access to your connected ecosystem devices and control them quickly. Yes, the design of this page could’ve been better but the functionality is undoubtedly incredible. 
  2. The new widget card for the Music player within the quick settings pane of the Notifications shade has to be the most visually attractive new element in Android 11. 
  3. Copying and sharing text from any image on your screen is a genius new feature that comes in handy so many times. 
  4. App suggestions in the home screen or app drawer are actually pretty good. For example, at home, from morning to evening, the app suggestions showed me Slack, Twitter, Whatsapp most of the time because those are my most used apps. And, when I went out in the evening for a walk with my dog, it threw up Apple Music because I generally do that. 

I mean, there are many more such tiny changes in Android 11 that makes the whole experience enjoyable. Plus, security updates are fast too. Yes, for many folks, the stock experience could be limiting but I like the freedom to customise. However it is not like Android 11 has no issues:

  1. Firstly, why did Google think it was a smart idea to push the Clear all button to the extreme end of the multitasking carousel?
  2. And secondly, the persistent date and weather widget is limiting. I like playing around with the Overdrop widget app but I couldn’t do so with the Pixel 4a.

Pixel 4a performance – not blazing fast but good nonetheless

The Pixel 4a has a Snapdragon 730G processor and 6 gigs of RAM. You also get 128GB of UFS 2.1 storage with no expandable memory. Now, UFS 2.1 storage means read/write speeds are going to be lower and there were definitely times when loading certain intensive games would take longer. 

Now, if you are going to just use it for non-intensive workload such as phone calls, camera, or social media apps, the 730G is pretty good. In my benchmark testing though, the Pixel 4a’s numbers were lower than other 720G and 730G phones I’ve tested in the recent past for some reason. I made a quick comparison chart to show you guys the difference in scores. 

I tried Call of Duty on the phone and it does play at High and Max settings but you don’t get anti-aliasing, water reflections, or any such effects. Regardless, the gameplay was smooth enough. Overall, the Pixel 4a is not a performance monster or anything but it works. If you want a phone purely for performance, there are better options out there such as the Realme X3, Redmi K20 Pro, or even the OnePlus Nord.

The Pixel 4a is also great for watching videos thanks to the stereo speaker setup. Yes, the second speaker is actually the earpiece and the levels don’t actually match. In my testing, I noticed the Nord was louder than the Pixel 4a, for what it is worth. The headphone jack performance is great but you don’t get any Hi-res certification or anything. 

Pixel 4a battery life and network quality –  surprisingly good

I used the Pixel 4a on an Airtel 4G network in Delhi NCR. It was rock solid throughout my review period and the network stability was pretty good. The sound quality through the earpiece is just exceptional. I haven’t heard anything like this in all of 2020. There’s also carrier aggregation if you care about it. Plus, you can use the phone with an E-SIM card allowing you for a Dual SIM option as well. So yeah, network performance-wise the Pixel 4a is a champ. 

I am also very happy to report that the small 3140mAh battery life is actually great for a small battery. Consistently, I got around 5 hours to 5 hours and 30 minutes of screen on time. In fact, my battery life readings and real life usage scenario was actually better than that of the OnePlus 8T. Google has done some great optimisation to the battery performance, really. 

As for charging speeds, you can charge the Pixel 4a from 0 to 100 in 1 hour and 26 minutes. 

Should you buy the Pixel 4a?

At the discounted price of Rs 29,999 during Flipkart’s Big Billion Day sale, the Pixel 4a is actually a great buy. I was expecting the phone to struggle in certain areas but it was pretty solid during my usage. Great display, reliable performance, excellent cameras, good battery life, clean software, and premium feel is what you get with the Pixel 4a. What more could one want? 

Between the Nord and the Pixel 4a, in my opinion, the Nord is definitely the phone for you if you can’t live without a high refresh rate display, better performance, more cameras, or better video recording capabilities. But, for everything else, and especially capturing better photos, the Pixel 4a is my choice. In fact, usage experience-wise the Pixel 4a trumps quite a few phones out there. And, I am glad it isn’t an overpriced phone at a launch. Which was, up until recently, a persistent problem with Google’s India strategy. 

What do you guys think of the Pixel 4a and what kind of comparisons would you like to see? Let us know in the comments below. 

Pixel 4aa

Rs 29,999
8.4

Design and build quality

8.0/10

Display quality

8.5/10

Camera quality

8.5/10

Software

10.0/10

Performance

8.0/10

Battery performance

7.5/10

Value for money

8.0/10

What Is Good?

  • Excellent single camera
  • Compact size
  • Good display
  • Super haptic feedback
  • Headphone jack

What Is Bad?

  • Boring looks
  • Not the best performance
  • Cheaper alternatives with SD730G available

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When Ershad is not killing dinosaur-sized mosquitoes with a vengeance using a make-believe shotgun, he writes/edits for Gear by MySmartPrice. He is also our resident karaoke star. Don't encourage him to sing.