Google Pixel 4a review: shoot for the moon - and the stars

The new handset offers Night Sight camera mode and long battery life for just £349


There are obvious downsides when summer finishes and winter begins - and the cold, wet, dark days are now upon us.

But there are some upsides to the winter months too, and one such positive, when it’s not raining or snowing, are the clear skies at night. Cold winter nights bring clearer skies “because chilly air cannot hold as much moisture as warm air can”, writes skywatching expert Joe Rao on NBC News.

Clear skies also means more stars will be visible - and with the Night Sky camera mode on Google’s latest smartphone, you can capture them on this nifty device’s screen at the click of a button.

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‘Astrophotography on’

As someone who’s been fascinated with astronomy from an early age, I’ve spent hours and hours looking at stars and constellations, both here in the UK and when abroad.

This week, I’ve been out stargazing equipped with the Google Pixel 4a, which was released at the start of October.

Using its Night Sight mode, the smartphone can take clear pictures in low light, but the most fun is trying to capture the cosmos.

To take photos of the starry night sky, head to a dark area, away from bright lights, and use a tripod or a flat surface to keep the Pixel 4a still.

When the phone is steady, and when the camera’s Night Sight mode is activated, a message will appear on the display screen saying “astrophotography on”. Press capture and don’t touch or move the phone until it’s finished taking the picture. This may take a few minutes, but the phone’s countdown timer will indicate how long remains to process the image.

Be patient and have a few attempts - once you crack it, you’ll love the results. The Night Sight mode is a nifty feature of the Pixel range and makes this device a must-have accessory for any stargazer.

For the point-and-shoot night images below (no editing, no filters), I just placed the phone flat on a wall, pressed capture and waited for the magic to happen.

Google Pixel 4a Night Sight camera mode

Google Pixel 4a Night Sight camera mode

Other camera modes

The Pixel 4a is also great for everyday photography. The handset features a 12.2 megapixel dual-pixel rear camera and 8 megapixel “selfie” front camera, along with HDR+, which automatically adjusts colour and lighting.

As well as offering modes including portrait, panorama, slow motion and time lapse, the phone can also shoot high-quality 4K video at 30 frames per second (FPS) or 1080p at 30 FPS, 60 FPS or 120 FPS.

Everyday use

Like millions of other people, I am signed up to a wide range of Google products - Gmail and Meet for work, and YouTube and Chrome for downtime. This means I can be on my phone quite a lot throughout the day.

I tested the Pixel 4a for writing emails, attending work video meetings and also for watching videos and listening to music on YouTube, and it did the job really well in every case. With Google suite apps installed via the Android 10 operating system, it’s just a matter of logging in and you’re ready to go.

The 5.8in full-screen display is also a perfect size: not too small for work tasks or to watch video, but not so big that you can’t carry it around in your pocket or use with one hand.

Battery life

Google describes the “all-day” battery in the Pixel 4a as “adaptive”, meaning it “learns which apps are your favourite and reduces power to the ones that you rarely use”.

During my tests, I could easily get a full day’s use out of the phone without needing to recharge, and when I did have to connect it to the mains, the charging was very fast via the USB-C adaptor.

How much does it cost?

Along with the Night Sight mode, long battery life and sleek display, the Pixel 4a’s other major positive is the price.

Google has also recently released a Pixel 4a with 5G (£499) and Pixel 5a with 5G devices (£599), but the standard Pixel 4a is a snip at £349.

Samuel Gibbs, consumer technology editor at The Guardian, says the cut-price device is the “best phone Google has made in years”, while Tech Advisor’s reviews editor Chris Martin agrees that the price tag “represents good value”.

Tech specs

Display: full-screen 5.8in display Memory and storage: 128GB 6GB RAM Operating system: Android 10 Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 730G4 Rear camera: 12.2 MP dual-pixel Front camera: 8 MP Charging: USB-C 18 W adaptor with USB-PD 2.0; 18 W fast charging Colours: available in black only

What other critics are saying

Nathan Spendelow and Jonathan Bray, Expert Reviews

“If you’re after a compact phone that won’t make too much of a bulge in your pocket, then it’s definitely the phone for you. Although it isn’t as fast as the Apple iPhone SE (2020), it is a better all-rounder, with a bigger screen, superior portrait photography and far superior battery life.”

Adam Shepherd, IT Pro

“While technically not as powerful or as feature-packed as flashier handsets boasting £1,000-plus price tags, the a-series does pack a punch. In particular, what the a-series delivers is the best of Google’s industry-leading software engineering and image processing technology at a much more attractive price than the mainstream Pixel series - and with a better battery life, to boot. The Pixel 4a is the perfect package; a smart shell containing a quality camera, intuitive user interfaces and a belter of a battery, all offered at a preposterously penny-saving price.”

John McCann, TechRadar

“The compact size, clean interface and great point-and-shoot camera of the Pixel 4a will appeal to those looking for an affordable, reasonably sized handset with enough grunt to handle the basics, plus the ability to capture some excellent pictures.”

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Mike Starling is the digital features editor at The Week, where he writes content and edits the Arts & Life and Sport website sections and the Food & Drink and Travel newsletters. He started his career in 2001 in Gloucestershire as a sports reporter and sub-editor and has held various roles as a writer and editor at news, travel and B2B publications. He has spoken at a number of sports business conferences and also worked as a consultant creating sports travel content for tourism boards. International experience includes spells living and working in Dubai, UAE; Brisbane, Australia; and Beirut, Lebanon.