October 3, 2020

Google Pixel 4a: Initial Impressions

Yesterday I got a fresh new Pixel 4a, to replace my dying OnePlus 6. The OnePlus had developed some faults over time: It repeatedly loses connection to the AP and the network, and it got a bunch of scratches and scuffs from falling on various surfaces without any protection over the past year.

Why get a Pixel?

Camera: OnePlus focuses on stuffing as many sensors as it can into a phone, rather than a good main sensor, resulting in pictures that are mediocre blurry messes - the dreaded oil painting effect. Pixel have some of the best camera in the smartphone world. Sure, other hardware is far more capable, but the Pixels manage consistent results, so you need to take less pictures because they don’t come out blurry half the time, and the post processing is so good that the pictures you get are just great. Other phones can shoot better pictures, sure - on a tripod.

Security updates: Pixels provide 3 years of monthly updates, with security updates being published on the 5th of each month. OnePlus only provides updates every 2 months, and then the updates they do release are almost a month out of date, not counting that they are only 1st-of-month patches, meaning vendor blob updates included in the 5th-of-month updates are even a month older. Given that all my banking runs on the phone, I don’t want it to be constantly behind.

Feature updates: Of course, Pixels also get Beta Android releases and the newest Android release faster than any other phone, which is advantageous for Android development and being nerdy.

Size and weight: OnePlus phones keep getting bigger and bigger. By today’s standards, the OnePlus 6 at 6.18" and 177g is a small an lightweight device. Their latest phone, the Nord, has 6.44" and weighs 184g, the OnePlus 8 comes in at 180g with a 6.55" display. This is becoming unwieldy. Eschewing glass and aluminium for plastic, the Pixel 4a comes in at 144g.

First impressions

Accessories

The Pixel 4a comes in a small box with a charger, USB-C to USB-C cable, a USB-OTG adapter, sim tray ejector. No pre-installed screen protector or bumper are provided, as we’ve grown accustomed to from Chinese manufacturers like OnePlus or Xiaomi. The sim tray ejector has a circular end instead of the standard oval one - I assume so it looks like the ‘o’ in Google?

Google sells you fabric cases for 45€. That seems a bit excessive, although I like that a lot of it is recycled.

Haptics

Coming from a 6.18" phablet, the Pixel 4a with its 5.81" feels tiny. In fact, it’s so tiny my thumb and my index finger can touch while holding it. Cute! Bezels are a bit bigger, resulting in slightly less screen to body. The bottom chin is probably impracticably small, this was already a problem on the OnePlus 6, but this one is even smaller. Oh well, form over function.

The buttons on the side are very loud and clicky. As is the vibration motor. I wonder if this Pixel thinks it’s a Model M. It just feels great.

The plastic back feels really good, it’s that sort of high quality smooth plastic you used to see on those high-end Nokia devices.

The finger print reader, is super fast. Setup just takes a few seconds per finger, and it works reliably. Other phones (OnePlus 6, Mi A1/A2) take like half a minute or a minute to set up.

Software

The software - stock Android 11 - is fairly similar to OnePlus' OxygenOS. It’s a clean experience, without a ton of added bloatware (even OnePlus now ships Facebook out of box, eww). It’s cleaner than OxygenOS in some way - there are no duplicate photos apps, for example. On the other hand, it also has quite a bunch of Google stuff I could not care less about like YT Music. To be fair, those are minor noise once all 130 apps were transferred from the old phone.

There are various things I miss coming from OnePlus such as off-screen gestures, network transfer rate indicator in quick settings, or a circular battery icon. But the Pixel has an always on display, which is kind of nice. Most of the cool Pixel features, like call screening or live transcriptions are unfortunately not available in Germany.

The display is set to display the same amount of content as my 6.18" OnePlus 6 did, so everything is a bit tinier. This usually takes me a week or two to adjust too, and then when I look at the OnePlus again I’ll be like “Oh the font is huge”, but right now, it feels a bit small on the Pixel.

You can configure three colour profiles for the Pixel 4a: Natural, Boosted, and Adaptive. I have mine set to adaptive. I’d love to see stock Android learn what OnePlus has here: the ability to adjust the colour temperature manually, as I prefer to keep my devices closer to 5500K than 6500K, as I feel it’s a bit easier on the eyes. Or well, just give me the ability to load a ICM profile (though, I’d need to calibrate the screen then - work!).

Migration experience

Restoring the apps from my old phone only restore settings for a few handful out of 130, which is disappointing. I had to spent an hour or two logging in to all the other apps, and I had to fiddle far too long with openScale to get it to take its data over. It’s a mystery to me why people do not allow their apps to be backed up, especially something innocent like a weight tracking app. One of my banking apps restored its logins, which I did not really like. KeePass2Android settings were restored as well, but at least the key file was not restored.

I did not opt in to restoring my device settings, as I feel that restoring device settings when changing manufactures is bound to mess up some things. For example, I remember people migrating to OnePlus phones and getting their old DND schedule without any way to change it, because OnePlus had hidden the DND stuff. I assume that’s the reason some accounts, like my work GSuite account were not migrated (it said it would migrate accounts during setup).

I’ve setup Bitwarden as my auto-fill service, so I could login into most of my apps and websites using the stored credentials. I found that often that did not work. Like Chrome does autofill fine once, but if I then want to autofill again, I have to kill and restart it, otherwise I don’t get the auto-fill menu. Other apps did not allow any auto-fill at all, and only gave me the option to copy and paste. Yikes - auto-fill on Android still needs a lot of work.

Performance

It hangs a bit sometimes, but this was likely due to me having set 2 million iterations on my Bitwarden KDF and using Bitwarden a lot, and then opening up all 130 apps to log into them which overwhelmed the phone a bit. Apart from that, it does not feel worse than the OnePlus 6 which was to be expected, given that the benchmarks only show a slight loss in performance.

Photos do take a few seconds to process after taking them, which is annoying, but understandable given how much Google relies on computation to provide decent pictures.

Audio

The Pixel has dual speakers, with the earpiece delivering a tiny sound and the bottom firing speaker doing most of the work. Still, it’s better than just having the bottom firing speaker, as it does provide a more immersive experience. Bass makes this thing vibrate a lot. It does not feel like a resonance sort of thing, but you can feel the bass in your hands. I’ve never had this before, and it will take some time getting used to.

Final thoughts

This is a boring phone. There’s no wow factor at all. It’s neither huge, nor does it have high-res 48 or 64 MP cameras, nor does it have a ton of sensors. But everything it does, it does well. It does not pretend to be a flagship like its competition, it doesn’t want to wow you, it just wants to be the perfect phone for you. The build is solid, the buttons make you think of a Model M, the camera is one of the best in any smartphone, and you of course get the latest updates before anyone else. It does not feel like a “only 350€” phone, but yet it is. 128GB storage is plenty, 1080p resolution is plenty, 12.2MP is … you guessed it, plenty.

The same applies to the other two Pixel phones - the 4a 5G and 5. Neither are particularly exciting phones, and I personally find it hard to justify spending 620€ on the Pixel 5 when the Pixel 4a does job for me, but the 4a 5G might appeal to users looking for larger phones. As to 5G, I wouldn’t get much use out of it, seeing as its not available anywhere I am. Because I’m on Vodafone. If you have a Telekom contract or live outside of Germany, you might just have good 5G coverage already and it might make sense to get a 5G phone rather than sticking to the budget choice.

Outlook

The big question for me is whether I’ll be able to adjust to the smaller display. I now have a tablet, so I’m less often using the phone (which my hands thank me for), which means that a smaller phone is probably a good call.

Oh while we’re talking about calls - I only have a data-only SIM in it, so I could not test calling. I’m transferring to a new phone contract this month, and I’ll give it a go then. This will be the first time I get VoLTE and WiFi calling, although it is Vodafone, so quality might just be worse than Telekom on 2G, who knows. A big shoutout to congstar for letting me cancel with a simple button click, and to @vodafoneservice on twitter for quickly setting up my benefits of additional 5GB per month and 10€ discount for being an existing cable customer.

I’m also looking forward to playing around with the camera (especially night sight), and eSIM. And I’m getting a case from China, which was handed over to the Airline on Sep 17 according to Aliexpress, so I guess it should arrive in the next weeks. Oh, and screen protector is not here yet, so I can’t really judge the screen quality much, as I still have the factory protection film on it, and that’s just a blurry mess - but good enough for setting it up. Please Google, pre-apply a screen protector on future phones and include a simple bumper case.

I might report back in two weeks when I have spent some more time with the device.

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