People generally adore Google for bringing useful technology to the masses at an aggressively low price, if not free.
For those who like that, I have happy news: Google is getting really, really good at the price cutting, while still bringing quality, with its smartphones.
The evidence? The Pixel 4A smartphone, which the company introduced Monday.
With this latest device, Google took the best stuff from its $800 high-end Pixel 4 — specifically, an excellent camera system and a large, bright screen — and squeezed it into the body of a $350 device. That’s $50 less than last year’s Pixel 3A, which was Google’s first budget phone.
The Pixel 4A is cheaper than high-end devices largely because it lacks the frills in fancy phones, like wireless charging and a face scanner. But for what you pay, it’s a great value. Its camera quality and bright screen are on a par with many of the best smartphones out there.
Like the $399 iPhone SE, which Apple released in April, the Pixel 4A is a sign that you no longer need to pay through the nose for a great smartphone with a nice camera.
Carolina Milanesi, a consumer technology analyst for Creative Strategies, a consulting firm, said Google’s prowess in software was helping bring down the price of premium smartphone technology.
“It’s been a long time coming for this market, which has always been focused on the high end because of the dominance of Samsung and the iPhone,” she said.
I tested the Pixel 4A for two weeks, including comparing it against the budget iPhone. Here’s what I found.
Focusing on what we care about
Google, which prides itself on being driven by data, surveyed its customers to find out what they wanted in a smartphone. A large screen, long battery life, lots of storage and great camera quality were among the features that people cared most about.
For the most part, that’s what you get with the Pixel 4A. Let’s run through its features:
— The screen measures 5.81 diagonal inches and relies on OLED (organic light-emitting diode) technology, a newer type of display that can be made thinner, lighter and brighter with better color accuracy and contrast than its predecessor, LCD (liquid crystal display). For a device in this price range, this is a very roomy, attractive display, with nice colors and deep shadow detail.
Its colors aren’t as accurate as the screen on Apple’s $999 iPhone 11 Pro, which is nearly identical in size, but at this price, I can’t complain.
— The 4A has a reasonably long battery life, though your mileage may depend on what you do. On a typical workday juggling emails, calls and texts, I had more than 30% battery life left in the evening. But on weekends, when I had downtime, playing games and watching videos with the 4A drained the battery in a few hours. This is typical of smartphones.
— The 4A comes in only one model with a generous amount of storage: 128 gigabytes, which is enough for most casual users to store thousands of photos and lots of apps and games. This was a wise decision by Google. Whenever I talk to people about their tech problems, running out of storage on their phone is a frequent complaint.
— Pixel phones are famous for their camera system, which has software features powered by artificial intelligence and machine learning. The Pixel 4A has Google’s most important camera features, including Portrait mode, also known as the bokeh effect, which puts a picture’s main subject in sharp focus while gently blurring the background. It also offers Night Sight, which makes photos taken in low light look as if they had been shot in normal conditions, without a flash.
The 4A lacks some features that were in the Pixel 4 — such as wireless charging and a face scanner for unlocking the phone. That’s not a deal-breaker for a device this cheap.
But Google left out one big feature that does matter: water resistance. That would save a phone that was accidentally dunked in a toilet or left out in a storm. So it was disappointing not to have it because durability was another feature that people wanted most in their smartphones.
The company left out water resistance because it put priority on other features while reducing the price from last year’s Pixel 3A, a Google spokesman said.
Pixel vs. iPhone
The 4A’s strengths and weaknesses are best illustrated in a side-by-side comparison with Apple’s iPhone SE. Here’s a rundown of where each one came out on top.
Winner: Pixel 4A. Although both phone cameras produced very clear, satisfying photos in bright light, the Pixel’s camera was slightly better than the iPhone’s. That was partly because of the Pixel’s ability to take photos in low light, a feature that is useful in some situations, like a family photo inside a dimly lit restaurant.
Winner: Pixel 4A. The Google phone’s screen is notably larger than the iPhone’s, which measures 4.7 diagonal inches and uses older, dimmer-looking LCD screen technology.
Winner: Pixel 4A. On average, after a day of heavy use, the Pixel 4A had plenty of battery left by the evening. The iPhone SE’s battery was usually almost empty by supper time. (Unlike the Pixel 4A, the iPhone SE does have wireless charging, which is not a must-have feature.)
Winner: iPhone SE. The Apple phone is water and dust resistant. That’s a major benefit for budget-conscious consumers who want their phone to last many years.
Winner: iPhone SE. Gaming and web browsing are noticeably smoother on the budget iPhone. The Apple handset uses the same mobile computing processor as the one found in Apple’s high-end phones, which is the fastest on the market. People who plan to use their phone heavily for work tasks may prefer the iPhone.
Winner: Pixel 4A. The iPhone SE starts at $399 with 64 gigabytes, a modest amount of storage that can be quickly gobbled up if you take lots of photos. To get an iPhone SE that matches the 128 gigabytes in the Pixel 4A, you would have to shell out $449.
The bottom line
Both the budget Pixel and Apple phones are excellent values. Some may prefer the Pixel 4A for its richer set of features, while others may choose the iPhone for its greater longevity.
What’s clear is that the tech giants are now aggressively competing to offer bang-for-the-buck phones. For several years, especially after the introduction of the $999 iPhone X in 2017, it felt as if phone prices were only going up. It’s a relief that the Pixel 4A is not only better than its predecessor but also cheaper.
So why would you spend $800 for the Pixel 4 if the Pixel 4A, for less than half the price, is also very good minus some superfluous features?
The clear answer: Only gadget enthusiasts should have to pay a premium for cutting-edge tech.
The rest of us now have the option to save.