Tech

Google's new $350 phone packs a killer camera

Key Points
  • Google on Monday announced the Pixel 4a, a $350 Android phone that will be available on Aug. 30.
  • It's an affordable phone, at least compared with the $1,000-plus smartphones out there, but competes directly with Apple's iPhone SE, which launched in April and starts at $399.
  • I think you get the most bang for your buck out of the iPhone SE, since it has a processor that's going to be powerful for years to come and features I like, such as wireless charging and water resistance.
Google Pixel 4a
Todd Haselton | CNBC

Google on Monday announced the Pixel 4a, a $350 Android phone that will be available on Aug. 30. It's an affordable phone, at least compared with the $1,000-plus smartphones out there, but competes directly with Apple's iPhone SE, which launched in April and starts at $399.

Google's Android phones aren't nearly as popular as Apple or Samsung's Android phones in the U.S. But last year's Pixel 3a helped it pick up some momentum. "With the launch of Pixel 3a in May, overall Pixel unit sales in Q2 grew more than two times year over year," Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google parent Alphabet, said in July 2019 during Alphabet's second-quarter 2019 earnings call, without saying how many were sold.

The Pixel 4a follows the same principles of the Pixel 3a. Google includes a great camera in a good phone at an excellent price. Google originally planned to release it earlier, but the coronavirus outbreak made it difficult to visit factories and keep track of hundreds of components, so it's launching later than Google anticipated. (For what it's worth, a 5G version is also launching in the fall with Google's high-end Pixel 5, but will cost $499.)

If you're shopping for a new phone right now and don't want to spend more than $400, I think you should either pick the Pixel 4a or the iPhone SE. But they're totally different phones, so here's what you need to know.

What's good

Google Pixel 4a: The screen covers the whole front of the phone.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

Like the iPhone SE, the Pixel 4a is small. It's easy to hold with one hand. But it has a nicer screen than the iPhone SE and last year's Pixel 3a. It's more colorful and the display extends to the top and bottom of the phone. The fingerprint reader is on the back of the Pixel 4a, instead of on the front like the iPhone SE, which allows the screen to take up as much space as possible.

The Pixel 4a doesn't look flashy, but I kind of like that. It's just a black phone with a small mint green power button on the side. It has stereo speakers so you hear music and movies or TV shows out of the top/bottom of the phone, or the left/right if you're watching in landscape mode. Most budget phones usually cut this feature first, so I'm glad it's here.

Google Pixel 4a
Todd Haselton | CNBC

The front and back cameras are great. Google basically kept the primary Pixel 4 camera, but it cut the secondary wide-angle lens. It's generally considered to be one of the best smartphone cameras. Pictures came out great, and I like that it was able to focus faster and clearer than my $1,300 Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra phone.

My dog Mabel as shot with the Google Pixel 4a.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

The iPhone SE isn't able to take pet portrait pictures — the sort that blur the background but keep your subject in focus —  but the Pixel 4a still does this really well. It even includes Google's astrophotography night mode, which lets you take pictures of the stars at night, which is kind of fun.

The Pixel 4a can capture stars at night.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

I like Google's bonus software features that it includes on Pixel phones. The voice recorder app is able to transcribe text, for example, and accurately transcribed about 90% of my interview with Google during a Pixel 4a briefing. It just saves me a ton of time that I'd otherwise spend trying to jot everything down. Other unique software features include crash detection, which can automatically call 911 if you get in a car accident. Fortunately, I didn't have to try this.

Google includes a few other niceties. Yes, it still has a 3.5 mm standard headphone jack, and it includes a fast 18W charger in the box. It also ships with 128 GB of storage, which is twice what you get in the $399 iPhone SE. (Though you can pay more for additional storage in the iPhone SE.)

Google Pixel 4a
Todd Haselton | CNBC

Finally, the battery life is pretty good. Google added a slightly larger battery in the Pixel 4a compared with last year's 3a, and it uses a bunch of software to optimize the phone so that it lasts all day. I generally found I was able to get from about 7 a.m. until I went to bed around 10 p.m., but it died on days when I spent more time watching movies or flipping through Twitter. The fast charger will come in handy if you need to top off during the day.

What's bad

Google Pixel 4a
Todd Haselton | CNBC

Google cuts some corners to keep the price down.

The Pixel 4a has a mid-range Qualcomm Snapdragon processor. It's fine and fast enough to keep the phone running smoothly. There are a few hiccups at times, though. I noticed it would stutter while scrolling through long lists, like in Twitter, but that problem generally resolved itself after a few days. Google was aware of this, too, and it may just be that it takes some time for things to store inside the phone's memory.

The processor is fast enough for playing games, streaming movies, watching TV shows and more. Generally, you should have a pretty good experience. The difference, however, is that the iPhone SE has a much faster and much more capable processor. It's the same processor Apple includes in the iPhone 11, and is an example of where Apple has a leg up by designing its own chips.

Google Pixel 4a
Todd Haselton | CNBC

The Pixel 4a doesn't have wireless charging or certified water resistance. So, you can't just drop it on a wireless charger on your desk, if you're into that like I am, and you probably shouldn't drop it in the pool. But Google says it should be OK if you accidentally spill a little water on it. Conversely, the iPhone SE is fully water resistant and includes wireless charging.

So, the Pixel 4a has two things the iPhone SE doesn't: a display that takes over the front of the whole phone and twice the storage. But, the Pixel 4a also costs $50 less than the iPhone SE.

Should you buy the Google Pixel 4a?

There's just a small cut-out for the front-facing camera.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

You should expect to make some sacrifices if you're shopping for a sub-$400 phone. So, it depends which features are most important to you. I think you get the most bang for your buck out of the iPhone SE since it has a processor that's going to be powerful for years to come and features I like, such as wireless charging and water resistance. If you don't care about that, or don't need an iPhone, then you should definitely check out the Pixel 4a.

The Pixel 4a has a nice crisp and colorful screen, a great camera, stereo speakers, a 3.5 mm headphone jack and a simple but clean design. It's just not the fastest phone on the block.

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