• Pixel 4a: A Commodity Smartphone

    About 10 years ago something weird happened with me and computers: I suddenly found myself much less interested in specs and far more interested in value. Instead of stretching my budget to get the latest model with the fastest processor, most RAM and biggest available hard drive I instead found myself content with a computer that was "good enough" for my predetermined price point.

    In other words computers had become commodity items, to be purchased primarily on the basis of price rather than unique features. Cut to 2020 and it seems that with the Pixel 4a I finally have my first commodity smartphone—offering "good enough" features for a great price.

    That price, $479 here in Canada, flips my usual checklist for smartphone expectations on its head; instead of being mildly annoyed at the things it can't do I find myself surprised and delighted by the things it can.

    Here's a quick rundown of the "good enough" Pixel 4a:


    The Snapdragon 730G powers the likes of the Moto G9 and Samsung Galaxy M51. Though the 'G' apparently stands for gaming, the only real issues I've had on my 4a are one or two games that refuse to launch. But the vast majority of software titles run great.


    Coming from years of OnePlus phones, where the accurate capture of an image is a crapshoot about as often as not, what impressed me most about the 4a's single camera (and Google's computational image processing) is how reliable the results have been. Video capture seems fine too, though I personally shoot way more photos than video.

    Google's camera app is very intuitive, and this level that appears when needed is much appreciated.


    My Pixel got a day one upgrade to Android 11, which has been smooth and responsive for me so far.

    I'm personally not a fan of Google's algorithmic newsfeed—plus, app drawers are so 2010—so I'm currently using the more modern Niagara Launcher.

    As for Pixel-specific features, I've only used it once but call screening is already my new best friend.


    My first week or so with the 4a was admittedly filled with battery anxiety. At one point it seemed like I was going to have to do without a hallmark Pixel feature, the always-on display. But then, as if by magic, the battery suddenly "got me" and is now giving me a reliable 26 to 28 hours between charges.

    I suspect that once I start travelling again I'll have to pack a portable charger for all the navigating and picture-taking that I usually do on holiday. For a phone this cheap I'm entirely okay with that.

    To be clear, the Pixel 4a might not be for everyone, and I certainly wouldn't try to steer any Android user away from an expensive Samsung—or even the more expensive Pixels with 5G. I'm just here to let any interested parties know that, in my experience so far, the 4a is definitely good enough for daily use.

    Andrew Currie has been blogging about mobile phones since 2001, smartphones (depending on how you define them) since 2002 and smartwatches since 2014.
    This article was originally published in forum thread: Pixel 4a: A Commodity Smartphone started by acurrie View original post
    Comments 9 Comments
    1. bobdevnul's Avatar
      bobdevnul -
      Thanks for the good sensible review of an adequate mid-price phone. Much of the cellphone press isn't interested much unless it is a $1,200 iPhone or Samsung. When thinking about a cellphone to jam in my pocket I consider, "Would I carry around that much cash in my pocket?" At $200 or more, my answer is: no way, no how, never.

      I am perfectly satisfied with my Moto E5 that I got for $30 on sale - and that came with 1500 units of voice, text, data, and a year of Tracfone service. It does everything I want from a phone without any compromises that I care about. I don't know about the camera. I have not evaluated it critically, but it seems to be at least ok. OTOH, I have owned other $30 phone that were total junk. I did not know not to buy phones with 8 GB storage. Those were life lesions that at least didn't cost much like some horrible cars.

      I'm with you on the computer thing. When my old notebook got too slow to bear, I bought a grade B refurbed Dell with an i5 for $120. That was a major upgrade. As a grade B, it has a few scuffs, but none on the screen or anywhere else that matters. The battery was only about half good so it was another $30 for a third party replacement.
    1. Rojniles's Avatar
      Rojniles -
      I have owned and used cell phones since 1986 (until 1998 they were all company provided). I have never paid more than $200 for a phone. I consider myself an average user: email, info look-ups, Facebook, some photos. Nothing high power or need for a great deal of memory or speed. My first smart phone was a $200 used Moto X. I have had a Moto G and E, a Samsung and currently a Moto G power (a deal at $195) (I like Moto phones for the price, lack of bloatware and battery life).
    1. acurrie's Avatar
      acurrie -
      Thank you both for the kudos and insight. Who knew that you could still be a smartphone enthusiast with a cheap phone?
    1. bobdevnul's Avatar
      bobdevnul -
      Quote Originally Posted by acurrie View Post
      Thank you both for the kudos and insight. Who knew that you could still be a smartphone enthusiast with a cheap phone?
      Yeah, some of us are enthusiasts for value, or downright cheap phones and service. Hence all the traffic in the Tracfone and other prepaid forums. Sorry you guys in Canada don't have many options for value service. That's a crying shame, and I'm not being sarcastic.
    1. hwertz's Avatar
      hwertz -
      Sounds nice! Agreed re: specs; other than playing newer games (no way around needing a newer graphics card...), I can throw Ubuntu onto a 10 year old PC and it's fine, even if I bought something new for gaming (above the casual gaming like bubble pop games that'll run on anything...) my priorities would be a) cost b) some lower-end "gaming" GPU where it's "fast enough" but the heat, power, and price are not out of control yet, currently probably a Ryzen3 for a portable PC.

      Same for phones -- I like a physical keyboard so that limits things a lot. But ignoring that... for me it'd be like low cost, good amount of internal storage (since using an sdcard for more apps seems to vary on Android version..), I suppose it's good to know the camera's not horrendous, for me that's about it. I'm a power user on my phone but anything within the last several years has had plenty of CPU power and RAM, supports the wifi bands fine, fine phone reception, I'm not concerned about some high dpi panel on the phone either (I have no idea how many DPI my phone is).

      Pixel 4a sounds pretty sweet, it's nice that some of them are (while still being brand new) being introed below "flagship phone" pricing and still very nice to use.
    1. acurrie's Avatar
      acurrie -
      Quote Originally Posted by bobdevnul View Post
      Sorry you guys in Canada don't have many options for value service.
      Yup. Despite Ting being based here in Toronto our own MVNO market is virtually non-existent.
    1. acurrie's Avatar
      acurrie -
      Quote Originally Posted by hwertz View Post
      I can throw Ubuntu onto a 10 year old PC
      I was originally going to mention that all my computers run either Ubuntu or Linux Mint but thought it would be a weird flex. Glad to see there are some other freedom beards here!
    1. sampoot's Avatar
      sampoot -
      Interesting. To me a $500 smartphone is a high end smartphone, not a commodity smartphone by any means. A commodity smartphone is the $30 "Moto E4" I used as my main phone for a year or two. Then the $40 Moto E5 Play I had after that. I currently have an LG G6 I paid $135 for "new other" on ebay about a year ago. I did pay $460 for an iPhone XR for the wife and considered that an outrageous price to pay for a smartphone, lol. I'm not cheap...... just thrifty.
    1. DennyCrane's Avatar
      DennyCrane -
      Nice review. I have a Pixel 3a and really like it as well. Always getting compliments on the photo quality. A bit slow at times if I'm doing too much multi-tasking or loading big apps, but it's good enough for my needs. I suspect the 4a would be a nice upgrade over the 3a in this sense.
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