2020 brought us a lot of great phones, and I myself spent the spring and summer on the Galaxy S20, which was a bit tall for my petite hands. Still, the screen was excellent, the power was great for my summer addiction to Disney Sorcerer's Arena, and the cameras worked well — what little I got to use them once the theme parks closed in March. However, all summer, I waited impatiently for one thing: the Google Pixel 4a.
Ah, the Google Pixel 4a really is both the perfect phone for 2020's purposefully destabilized economy and a perfect summation of 2020 as a year. Despite this unassuming phone being basically finished in the last months of 2019, it was delayed month after month, even after the Pixel 3a was discontinued early in the summer. When the Pixel 4a did launch, it did so with no event, no fanfare, and no color options. The phone seemed small, basic, and boring, but in fact, it was exactly the phone we needed, and ever since mine was contactlessly delivered to my front door, I've been in love with it. Oh, and the pretty pastel color option finally did show up months late and strangely limited in scope, like the mandatory mask orders that should've arrived nationwide in the spring.
My Galaxy S20 has sat abandoned these last three months, aside from taking pictures of my Pixel 4a. While the S20 is prettier, more powerful, and already set up with all my apps and digital distractions, I'm never going back to it full-time unless my Pixel 4a dies. Which I am protecting it from with a nice sturdy case, a stylish PopSockets PopGrip and a tempered glass screen protector like everyone should be doing.
While Samsung makes some great software these days, and their hardware is second to none, I was tired of being stuck with the bug Android 10 should never have been allowed to ship with — being unable to use third-party launchers with Android 10 gesture navigation. That Samsung actively withheld this fix until the One UI 3.0 update that just finally came to the S20 last week, a full eight months after it was fixed on Pixel phones, is a goddamn embarrassment.
Yes, Samsung is getting faster about updates, but the amount of legacy crap in their system that they have to test around and accommodate for is dragging down both the One UI system and the process for updating it. As an example, Samsung Themes are still somehow alive on One UI, but they don't work in dark mode, and they look more dated and janky with each passing release. Google and OnePlus have a simplified theming engine that doesn't cost money and looks great in light mode, dark mode, and reflects better system-wide, but Samsung clings to its old, paid ways like were still in the TouchWiz heyday.
Another grievance I could finally out to bed when I returned to the Pixel was having duplicate apps for all basic utilities and having to deal with Samsung being different for different's sake when it comes to details like how Settings are laid out. Again, Samsung has a lot of extra features it has to include settings for, but I write about phones for a living, and even I get lost in Samsung's Settings app at times.
Giving up a 120Hz screen and the ultra-wide camera for Pixel's instant access to Android 11 and blissfully streamlined software was the easiest trade-off ever. If the Pixel 4a had wireless charging, I wouldn't even be giving the Pixel 5 longing side-glances from time to time.
While the Pixel 4a "only" has a flat, 5.8-inch 1080p 60Hz screen, it's a screen I'm more than happy to spend 4-8 hours a day on, and the only time it ever disappoints me is being unable to get as dim as I'd like when it's late at night, and my eye strain headache is pounding. (And to be fair, I think the last phone to get that dim for me was the OnePlus 6T.) It's still easy to type out this editorial on this screen, and it's easy to read it in full sunshine and on dim nights. This screen still makes me strain to reach the top right corner one-handed, but for the most part, the Pixel 4a is the perfect phone for one-handed use, especially paired with my trusty PopSocket.
Three months in, and I've only filled the 128GB storage halfway, meaning I've got plenty of space for the movies I'll download for the two-day drive home. (I listen to them like podcasts on long drives, quoting along keeps my energy up.) I'm still somewhat irked that the Pixel a-series doesn't do microSD cards, but at least Google learned from the 3a's 64GB mistake and doubled it for the 4a.
Then, of course, there's the price. While the S20's $1000 price is somewhat justified by the beefy specs inside, that was still just too damn high for most folks buying a phone in 2020, which is in part why the S20 FE sold like hotcakes during its $550-$600 Black Friday sales over the last six weeks while the S20 looked absolutely lethargic at $700-$800. Meanwhile, the Pixel 4a has been selling like hotcakes for most of the fall, including quickly selling out of its $300 sale at the Google Store.
After all, the S20 might be about 35% more phone between the extra features and the beefier specs, but it's definitely not worth 135% more money than a Pixel 4a. I said back in April that the only two phones worth caring about in 2020 were the Pixel 4a and the OnePlus Nord because $1000 phones were an absurdity in 2020, and I was right. The $700 "value flagship" space exploded this year with the Pixel 5, the Samsung Galaxy S20 FE, and other phones like the OnePlus 8T.
I'm a huge believer in not wasting money buying more than I need. I have worked full-time from Chromebooks for years, and most of that time, I've spent on $300-$400 Chromebooks because they're all I need, and they're what I'm most likely to recommend to others. I love being able to tell people, "Oh yeah, this is what I use, it's absolutely worth $300, and it does everything I need it to except recording podcasts".
And the same goes for the Pixel 4a: it's what I use all day, every day, it's absolutely worth $350, and it does everything I need it to.
Essential Android experience
Who needs flagships with phones like these?
With a superb camera, compact profile, commendable battery life, and double the storage of its predecessor, the Pixel 4a is not only a phenomenal value; it's the perfect phone for 2020.
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Ara Wagoner was a staff writer at Android Central. She themes phones and pokes YouTube Music with a stick. When she's not writing about cases, Chromebooks, or customization, she's wandering around Walt Disney World. If you see her without headphones, RUN. You can follow her on Twitter at @arawagco.