For a long time, I tried to figure out what it is about Google’s Pixel 4a that made me want to use it, despite the army of high-powered phones sitting in my review drawer. The plastic body is shrouded in some smartphone magic that I couldn’t quite figure out. Then it hit me: it’s eerily similar to one of my favorite, but flawed, smartphones: The 2012 Google Nexus 4.
Like the Nexus 4, the Pixel 4a hits the price and functionality zone perfectly. It thrives in that pocket. Very few phones at this price range are blessed with a camera that takes still photos that—up until a year ago—rivalled the best phones in the business.
Google's Pixel 4a is the best cheap phone for your kids as they go back to school.Janhoi McGregor
In night time photography, you could make a strong argument it beats current phones that cost three times the price. Yes, the processor could be faster and yes I’d like a 120Hz display (and many other bells and whistles) but this phone does more than you’d expect at this price range. It’s also perfect for your kids.
There are several clear upsides here that make it a smart choice for young people. Firstly the 5.8-inch display is reachable for small hands and at 143g it’s very light. The plastic body has a matte finish, which gives it the illusion of quality, and there's the additional bonus that it also isn't going to smash like a glass chassis will. (I still recommend getting a case.)
There’s also the issue of software support. If you buy the Pixel 4a today, it will be supported with operating system and security updates until August 2023. This is—and should be—an important factor in buying decisions, especially for kids. Security updates keep your phones safe from malware, and OS updates give users the latest bug fixes and features. Because it’s a Pixel phone, that means it’s the first to get these updates over other non-Google smartphones.
Stock Android is also simple enough to use and, for children under the age of 13, it's possible to set up parental controls through Google's Family Link. Parents can then filter certain websites, set screen time limits and block certain apps. These controls are built around consent so it's highly recommended that you discuss this with your kids before monitoring their smartphone activity.
It might be tempting to pick up an even cheaper phone with more dazzling specifications. But it’s worth noting that a lot of cheap Android phones will only provide one year of OS support. That’s not to say the Pixel 4a isn’t well equipped with good specifications. There’s an OLED panel, which means you’ll get deep blacks and excellent color accuracy. That’s backed up by the ability to play HDR content, including Netflix, which lists the Pixel 4a as supporting its HDR content.
The biggest feature is the camera, which features the exact same hardware as Google’s flagship Pixel 5 phone. The only difference is that there’s no wide angle lens here. But in terms of still photography output, the Pixel 4a rivals handsets that cost three times as much.
Google’s advantage in computational photography is what gives it the edge over similarly priced smartphones. The camera’s Live HDR+ means it captures several underexposed images and combines them to produce an image that keeps greater detail across tones. The result is reasonably detailed and color accurate shots with good dynamic range and a rapid, accurate focus. That process also produces good low-light imagery and convincing bokeh photography—even without a second lens to measure depth.
Pictures taken with the Pixel 4a are stored free for life on Google Photos, but only as a compressed version. Google’s free photo storage policy has changed over the years as more people took up the offer, but for Pixel owners there’s still (for now) some form of free cloud storage. Here are some shots I’ve taken with the Pixel 4a. Mind you, Forbes’ internal compression engine is suppressing some of its detail.
Daytime shot showing the phone's HDR skills on the left. Night sight on the right.Janhoi McGregor
After a few months of intermittent use, performance of the Snapdragon 730G chipset hasn’t suffered, with Call of Duty performing perfectly well. But without the higher refresh rate display and mid-range chipset, it’s marginally slower than handsets with the 765G chip. It’s worth noting that moving around the phone doesn’t feel sluggish, but because I review so many different phones I notice these small differences in performance.
The less intensive display and chipset mean battery life should be exceptional, but Google decided to go with a confusingly small power pack at 3140mAh. Battery life isn’t bad—it will last the day—but my Pixel 5 reaches into two-day territory and the new Pixel 5a’s 4680mAh battery looks like it could last even longer.
For your kids, from young to older, this Pixel 4a should meet their needs, particularly in the camera, display and build departments. At this price, it very well could meet yours too.