• 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:

    Processor

    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.

    Camera

    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.

    Software

    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.

    Battery



    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.

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    Andrew Currie has been blogging about mobile phones since 2001, smartphones (depending on how you define them) since 2002 and smartwatches since 2014.
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    This article was originally published in forum thread: Pixel 4a: A Commodity Smartphone started by acurrie View original post
    Comments 18 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.
    1. QPhone's Avatar
      QPhone -
      Couldn't wait for Onward Mobility's offering next year for their upcoming Blackberry 5G so... I took the plunge as well for my family and joined 4a Pixel line....4a 5G to be more specific.

      Spending $1000+ on a smartphone was too much as my last purchase prior to our 4a 5Gs was $799 and even then was bit hard to swallow.

      With that said...not bad specs with decent onboard memory (128GB), ram (6GB) along with an awesome camera and 5G, all housed very simply in a non flashy body (Phones are pretty much always in a case of some sort...)

      Nope not water proof or wireless charging but still has 3.5mm headphone jack.

      Roughly $150 less than our previous phones 3 and a half years ago...

      Yep "commodity" phone it is! [emoji106]Attachment 167522Attachment 167523

      Sent from my Pixel 4a (5G) using HoFo mobile app
    1. zapjb's Avatar
      zapjb -
      I believe the Moto G series are much better values at 1/4 to 2/3 the price of pixels.
    1. sampoot's Avatar
      sampoot -
      Quote Originally Posted by zapjb View Post
      I believe the Moto G series are much better values at 1/4 to 2/3 the price of pixels.
      Have to agree. I stopped buying flagship phones years ago and have been using Moto G and E phones ever since. My niece has the Pixel 4a and while the camera is better than my Moto G Fast, it's not that much better. Her phone can take some very drab pictures in artificial lighting too. I would say the camera on the 4a is more consistent, but the Moto G Fast can take some very nice pictures, no doubt. In fact not too long ago we were going through Google Cloud storage looking at pictures and going by the dates figured out that some of the nicest ones were taken with my wife's old Moto G4 Plus. Even compared to pics taken with her iPhone XR. I think the Pixel 4a should be at least $100 cheaper.
    1. DennyCrane's Avatar
      DennyCrane -
      Thank you both. I was just doing a bit of reading about the G series. Impressive sounding devices, especially considering the price. And they're on sale now too. One thing that stood out to me is that there is no NFC though. I don't use it for a lot of functions, but I do frequently use Google Pay in stores, and I think I would miss that too much.

      Overall I'm really happen when Pixel's A models, so I'll probably stick with that for my next phone purchase. The G series sound like great options though.
    1. bobdevnul's Avatar
      bobdevnul -
      Quote Originally Posted by DennyCrane View Post
      Thank you both. I was just doing a bit of reading about the G series. Impressive sounding devices, especially considering the price. And they're on sale now too. One thing that stood out to me is that there is no NFC though. I don't use it for a lot of functions, but I do frequently use Google Pay in stores, and I think I would miss that too much.

      Overall I'm really happen when Pixel's A models, so I'll probably stick with that for my next phone purchase. The G series sound like great options though.
      I like the Motos a lot, but they are in a different class than the next higher price tier. They don't have NFC, wireless charging, eSIM, carrier aggregation is only 2x, some don't have fingerprint sensors, and their screen resolutions are lower than the next step up.

      I don't care about any of those things. All I want is a phone that works without being irritatingly slow for calls, texts, and a few apps. My most recent Moto E6 for $65 fits that bill nicely. For the $65 it came with a year of Tracfone service on Verizon.

      I could afford a $1200 phone if I wanted to. I just don't see the point for something I jam in my pocket with keys and coins.

      They all look about the same in a case.
    1. DennyCrane's Avatar
      DennyCrane -
      The lack of a biometric sensor would be a deal breaker for me. But other than that and the nfc, the rest of that stuff doesn't bother me.
    1. sampoot's Avatar
      sampoot -
      Quote Originally Posted by DennyCrane View Post
      The lack of a biometric sensor would be a deal breaker for me. But other than that and the nfc, the rest of that stuff doesn't bother me.
      If by biometric sensor you mean fingerprint sensor than the Moto G's and most of the Moto E's have had them for years. I think the Moto E5 Play from two and a half years ago was the last and only Moto Phone not to have one. BTW, I think the Pixel 4a is a great phone just think it's overpriced a bit for what you get.
    1. bobdevnul's Avatar
      bobdevnul -
      Quote Originally Posted by DennyCrane View Post
      The lack of a biometric sensor would be a deal breaker for me. But other than that and the nfc, the rest of that stuff doesn't bother me.
      Most of the newer Motos have a fingerprint sensor. Oddly, the E5 does, but the E6 does not.
    1. DennyCrane's Avatar
      DennyCrane -
      Ah okay. That would have been odd to not have that in 2020/2021.
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