Sheldon PintoOct 26, 2020 11:37:26 IST
Google’s Pixel range in India seems to grow smaller in India with every passing year. But with every new update, there are a couple of improvements.
Compared to the Pixel 3a, the Pixel 4a offers a better design (no chunky bezels), a slightly bigger battery, more RAM and a new chipset.
However, it does not sound impressive when it’s standing by itself.
The 4a is available in “Just Black”, in just one 6 GB RAM + 128 GB storage variant, looks more budget than mid-range, and comes with no bells and whistles whatsoever.
It also skips 5G, goes with the bare-minimum when it comes to cameras, offers a budget chipset and has a smaller than usual display that does not support a high refresh rate.
To make the choice even more limited for Pixel fans (or what’s left of them), Google only announced one Pixel smartphone in India this year, as both the bigger 4a 5G and the premium Pixel 5 will not make it to India, for reasons best known to Google.
But after using it for a week as my daily driver, I can conclude that there’s a lot to love about Pixel 4a. And around the same time, I also realised that there are a couple of things I don’t enjoy doing on it anymore, and these may turn out to be deal breakers for many.
It’s 2020, and even a budget smartphone these days offers a 6-inch+ display. Brands like Poco, around the Rs 16,000 mark, also slap on a higher-than-usual 120 Hz refresh rate on theirs, which makes the devices better for gamers. But this also makes most smartphones quite large and with their 5,000 mAh batteries, quite bulky.
Bigger batteries are as good a reason as any for a larger display. Of late, this is a must, as we use our phones much more and have many more reasons to pull them out of our pockets than we did 5 years ago. The pandemic has exacerbated this, since even entry-level smartphones are now used for entertainment, education and video calls quite frequently.
With this background, it is strange that Google went with a smaller than usual form factor, using a 5.8-inch OLED display on a mid-ranger. Because it's a small smartphone, there’s a smaller battery, and that makes delivering decent battery life a software game. But that also prevents Google from adding some 2020 features like a high-refresh rate display and more cameras.
But small does not necessarily mean bad. The small form factor makes for an excellent one-handed smartphone experience. Try doing that with an OnePlus Nord!
Still, the 4a’s OLED display is quite good, and a contrast to what you got in a 3a or a 3a XL. It runs at the usual 60 Hz, but offers good colour reproduction with deep blacks, natural-looking colour tones and whites that are spot-on. It’s just not very bright. With most smartphones, I usually end up keeping the brightness slider between 30-45 percent. But with the Pixel, I had to crank it up to 70-80 percent, because it just does not appear bright enough. Oddly, it did not pose any problems while using the phone outdoors.
That small display also makes it annoyingly small for gaming and for streaming movies, even though it’s quite sharp, with a pixel density of 443 ppi. There’s a dual-stereo speaker setup to soften that blow, but it sounds just about okay, with a severe lack of bass. You will be happy to see the 3.5 mm headphone jack at the top edge of the smartphone, because you will need it.
The design of the phone is also quite budget. It does not look or feel premium, nor does it even attempt to go in that direction. You would probably miss it on a showroom shelf just because it looks like a basic, budget smartphone.
The unibody polycarbonate back has a matte finish that may feel cheap for some, but it’s good at rejecting fingerprints and smudges, and is also quite grippy compared to other smartphones that go with a glass or a matte-finished glass back. It seems quite resistant to scratches as well, and should hold up well when it drops to the ground compared to any Gorilla Glass back out there.
It’s not exactly fast
Even with a mid-range 8 nm Qualcomm Snapdragon 730G chipset inside, it’s not exactly fast. But it gets the job done.
You’re unlikely to experience any lack of speed, except while gaming.
The software runs buttery-smooth in day-to-day use, and you may forget that you are using a smartphone with a regular 60 Hz display. This is all down to Google’s optimisations and the basically untouched Android 11 experience, that was a pleasure to use.
It’s the gaming experience that falls a bit short of the competition. Both the 732G inside the Poco X3 and the 765G in the Nord feel a lot more fluid in general, and you can crank up the graphics settings in games and run them smoothly without any hiccups.
The Pixel 4a is good for casual gaming, and you can run graphics-intensive 3D games as well, just not at their highest visual settings. Call of Duty: Mobile ran best at ‘High’ graphics and ‘High’ frame rate, but the phone starts warming up after a single Frontline tournament. Asphalt 9: Legends too had to be run at ‘low’ or ‘default’ graphics settings. In short, this is not really the phone to go for if you play a lot of 3D games, or have gaming on your mind. And the smaller display means that the screen will be near your face (a foot away, in my case) when you take down an opponent in COD, as you really have to peek into it.
There’s a whole lot of Pixel in it
...and it’s also the reason why most people will find the Pixel 4a an attractive choice
The software experience is very smooth and as always, updated to the latest version of Android 11. There are the usual Pixel customisations baked-in, and they make overall experience of using this phone excellent.
A new addition to the usual set of apps is the ‘Recorder’ app. It’s smart, and apart from doing a great job of recording your voice or an interview, can also give you a transcript. One that you can just copy and paste elsewhere immediately after the recording is done. The cool bit is that both the audio and the transcript are synced, so you can just tap on the cut icon (top right corner) and just delete the words or lines to make adjustments in the audio clip, or even find out where that word was spoken in the clip. The recorder will even mark out areas that have no spoken words in them. Indeed, this is a great tool for interviews.
The new Google Assistant glows from the bottom of the display and will not take up half of your screen unless it needs to. And since this is a Pixel, it works better compared to smartphones from other manufacturers, as the mics are more sensitive.
Notifications now get divided into priority, and everything else. You won’t be bothered by those notifications from shopping apps, but just the important text message that comes from your friend. This works rather nicely, and is a feature I would hope to see on more Android smartphones. The notifications tray is usually a mess where you have to sift through the garbage to get to the stuff that matters. Google even lets you set up any notification you want to hear from as ‘Priority’, mark the very important stuff as ‘Alerting’ (with vibration and ringtone) and the irrelevant stuff as ‘Silent’.
The ‘Power’ menu, accessed by pressing the power/unlock button, is now a lot more useful. You can now add smart home controls that let you do anything from adjusting the lighting of your room to playing music from the right Google Home speaker. Sadly, I did not notice any GPay integration in this menu, which is advertised on the site could come quite handy.
Then there are some tiny additions:
- A new recents menu with the added ability to take a screenshot or select text from an app
- Smart app suggestions that will suggest the best apps for your app dock, once you’ve removed or replaced an icon or app. These do work quite nicely
- Back gesture sensitivity can now be adjusted individually for both left and right sides
- Dark mode scheduling finally comes to Pixel
- Media controls now show up in a nice card, and you can swap to play or pause audio from different apps by swiping on the card. The card also gets you a shortcut to switch the media audio output to another audio device.
It shoots fantastic photos
The Pixel software experience also flows into the camera app. And boy does it click some impressive photos!
Still photos have always been a strong point of Pixel smartphones, and the Pixel 4a does not disappoint. It hits the sweet spot not just when it comes to the mid-range, but amid premium smartphones as well.
The photos are indeed quite jaw-dropping, considering that they come from a smartphone that’s meant to be a mid-ranger in markets such as India, and a budget device in markets such as the US and Europe.
The 12.2 MP sensor primary camera packs in OIS and PDAF, ensuring some crazy-looking photos with plenty of detail. Indeed, Google’s machine learning algorithms are hard at work here, and they do a fantastic job at edge detection, delivering some really contrasty photos that will need little-to-no editing before hitting Instagram.
Low light is where things take a bit of a hit. Still, these low light shots are far better than the noisy mess that the competition delivers. You can always switch to the ‘Night Sight’ mode to get some mind-blowingly clear and detailed photos, whether you are shooting landscapes, objects or people in low light.
I also love how you can adjust the exposure of the foreground (subject) and the background individually when shooting portraits or landscape photos in odd lighting scenarios (like against a sunset).
Things are not “pixel perfect”, however.
Recording video results in lovely, stabilised footage, but gets really noisy after the sun sets. I admire Google’s ability to get the job done with one rear camera, but it’s high time it slaps on a few more (like an ultra-wide or a telephoto with optical zoom). Most other smartphones in this range offer them and give you extra flexibility while shooting. Moreover, the Pixel’s portrait mode needs some help, as the edge detection does slip up occasionally. Low light photos using the front facing camera come out quite flat in low light, and the bokeh in Portrait mode sometimes appears overdone. Indeed, there’s only so much software tweaking can do.
It’s got good battery life… for a small phone
The battery in the Pixel 4a has grown by 150 mAh. That’s neither going to make Pixel 3a upgraders, nor Pixel 3 upgraders too happy. But the roughly equivalent battery is now paired with an 8 nm chipset that delivers better efficiency than the previous 3a.
With about an hour of gaming, about 20-30 photos and two hours of video streaming, you can expect the Pixel to last an entire day with about 10-15 percent left before you plug it in. If you don’t play a lot of games, the Pixel 4a should easily have about 30 percent left, which is good for a small smartphone.
The handset comes with an 18W charger in the box, that takes about 1 hour and 35 minutes to go from 0-100 percent. This is pretty slow compared to the competition.
Who exactly is a Pixel fan these days?
Pixel fans or followers may need a bit of therapy these days, given the rough ride Google has taken them on for years. It’s more “I used to be a Pixel fan” than “I am a Pixel fan” now, as Google seems to have left fans of the brand high and dry by skipping on its premium Pixel 4, and now the 5.
Google’s smartphone foray did not start with the Pixel range. They dipped their toes in with the Nexus line, starting off at what is today the mid-range smartphone segment. These are the fans that have been the faithful. The ones who loved Google’s stock Android experience, and later transitioned to the premium Pixel range with crazy-good camera performance. Sadly, these fans have been stuck with a premium Pixel 2XL or a Pixel 3XL for about 2-3 years.
Hearts may have broken when these fans got whiff that Pixel 4 and 4XL were not coming to India last year.
Google, instead was more interested in the budget-friendly 3a and 3a XL, which offered similar camera performance with watered-down hardware. And this year’s absence of Pixel 5 kind cements the idea that the Pixel is no longer a premium segment smartphone in India anymore.
It’s not been a smooth ride and today, it’s honestly hard to tell who remains a Pixel fan, as many may have already transitioned to an iPhone (it’s as stock as things can get) or a high-end premium Android phone from another brand.
Should you buy one?
For Pixel fans that have been waiting years for a premium Pixel to arrive, the 4a just won’t cut it, as the performance is clearly not flagship-grade. They might as well look at getting a clean-ish Android experience from OnePlus, even though those devices may not match the Pixel when it comes to camera performance or software updates.
Pixel fans who are not fixated on the latest chipset, but just want a great camera with quick software updates, can still have a long, hard look at this budget Pixel. It still packs in the essentials and will get the job done. But you will have to settle for a one-day battery backup, an older Snapdragon 730G chipset, a phone that does not look premium (or even mid-range for that matter) and comes in a not-so-future-proof RAM and storage combination -- 6+128GB. It also does not feature 5G.
At Rs 29,999 you can get the OnePlus Nord that packs in a better Snapdragon 765G chipset with 12 GB RAM and 256 GB of storage. And 5G. It also comes with stock Android apps (dialer, messages, calendar etc.) and the flexibility of 3 cameras (primary, ultra-wide, macro), 30W Warp charging and that 6.44-inch, 90 Hz refresh rate OLED display. It’s a smartphone with no compromises, and it also looks good too!
Also at Rs 29,999 is Samsung’s Galaxy A71 with similar core hardware, 8GB RAM and 128GB of storage. It also packs in a massive 6.7-inch OLED display along with a quad camera setup.
And if you are willing to spend an additional Rs 4000, there’s also the recently announced Mi 10T. It packs in a Snapdragon 865 chipset, gets you 5G, a 144 Hz LCD display with 6 GB RAM and 128 GB of internal storage.
As you can tell, there are a lot of smartphones out there that are available in this price range. They may not get you a Pixel-grade camera and instant software updates, but they do get you better displays along with better-performing hardware. They will also let you game at high settings, enjoy movies (or office Zoom calls) on a bigger display and let you sidestep your Pixel battery anxiety.
At Rs 31,999, the Pixel 4a is a good mid-range smartphone. But it appeals more to the casual user, who plans to do nothing else apart from running apps and clicking some photos with it, as its smaller than usual size and performance just isn’t for everyone.
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