The Pixel 4a Is Actually New and Interesting, Once You Open It

What’s new and surprising about a phone we all knew was coming for months? Google’s Pixel 4a doesn’t have exciting specs or unexpected features, but it does have some smart ideas inside. There’s a clever new design for battery removal, a new board-holding midframe—even a almost-but-not-quite revolution in common repair access.

But, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. First, X-rays.

X-rays of the Pixel 4a

A scan of the phone yields one peculiarity, while confirming a couple things we already expected. In the not-too-surprising-at-this-price-point category, we find no evidence of wireless charging—when present, the copper coils form an unmistakable Aerobie shape that dominates the image, like on the Pixel 4 XL. There’s also no sign of Google’s Active Edge squeezy sensors, a hallmark of the Pixel line. And that camera bump, which seems sized for about two and a half cameras, really houses just one optically-stabilized module plus flash.

Earpiece speakers come in all shapes and sizes, including this one now.

What leaves us scratching our heads is the vertical orientation on that earpiece speaker driver, with an enclosure that also doesn’t quite line up with the speaker grille—instead it’s snuggled up directly alongside the headphone jack. In the game of high-stakes Tetris that is smartphone hardware design, there are always quirks. As always, thanks to Creative Electron for this excellent preview.

With that, tools come out and the poking and prying commences—starting with the display. Beneath its bezels, the Pixel 4a keeps the friendly, foamy adhesive from the Pixel 3a, seemingly implying a trend from Google wherein cheap phones are easy to open and expensive ones aren’t. It’s likely the difference in adhesive exists for IP certification reasons, but we wish there could be a middle ground. (Well, there kind of is.)

Google is also trending toward full-time use of Samsung displays, after sourcing panels from LG for some of its earlier phones. Every model since the Pixel 3 (non-XL) including our Pixel 4a here boasts a Samsung OLED panel.

Past the display, the trends end. The Pixel 4a has a brand-new construction with some very interesting quirks and features. Every Pixel prior to the 4a (and most modern smartphones, really) are built one of two ways:

  1. With all the internals crammed into the back of the phone, so the display comes off first (think iPhone)
  2. With all the internals crammed into the front of the phone, so the back cover comes off first (think Samsung phones). 

As shown above, the Pixel 4a’s display comes off first. But after the customary midframe screw removal, the plastic back cover also comes off, leaving a slender midframe holding nearly all the guts. In terms of repair, it’s a whole new set of pros and cons. One can now theoretically replace the screen or the back cover (both common replacements) in a few steps without having to deal with a sticky battery, or dislodge a motherboard. That’s … actually kind of amazing.

Removing the rear case of the Google Pixel 4a.

Unfortunately, that back cover doesn’t come off cleanly. It’s tethered by two short cables stuck under a long metal shield held down by screws, requiring some careful, slightly awkward unscrewing. Our first attempt resulted in a torn fingerprint sensor cable, but if you learn from our mistake, you should be able to navigate safely. Forewarned is forearmed in this case.

Despite a few challenges, this weird new construction brings the Pixel 4a tantalizingly close to a repair revolution: a smartphone that lets you choose your own opening procedure. Need a screen replacement? Start and end with the screen. Battery? Head in through the back. That hasn’t been achieved yet, and it’s a tough problem to crack, but the 4a comes about as close as we’ve seen.

Now for our favorite part of the Pixel 4a. If you watched our Very Quiet Pixel 4a Disassembly, you probably noticed there were stretch-release adhesive strips under the battery—but without any pull tabs in the usual spots, we didn’t see them until it was too late. After some off-camera investigation, we found the pull tabs hiding in little windows cut through the midframe!

These clever window cut-outs allow for optimal, shallow pulling of the stretch-release adhesive on the Pixel 4a’s battery.

This clever design allows for unobstructed pulling of the tabs at optimal angles. That’s something we’ve never seen before, and it’s the reason why otherwise repair-friendly stretch-release strips can sometimes be such a headache on other phones—trying to extract them at a sufficiently shallow angle, without snagging on any nearby components, can be nail-bitingly tricky. The Pixel 4a does a literal end-run around that whole problem.

The actual adhesive strips used here aren’t the best we’ve seen in terms of material—they’re thin, and finicky, and fragile if not stretched with extreme patience. Nitpicks aside, it’s leagues better than adhesive tar pits seen in many other manufacturers’ phones.

Stickied on top is the battery, weighing in at 12.15 Wh, which beats the Pixel 3a’s 11.55 Wh and absolutely crushes the new iPhone SE’s 6.96 Wh spec. (The iPhone SE is equipped with a significantly more efficient processor though, so the difference in actual battery life won’t necessarily match the difference in battery specs.)

The Pixel 4a’s battery has … very battery-inspired styling.

Several other things cling to the midframe. The headphone jack makes a triumphant return. The vibration motor appears to be the same circular linear resonant actuator that buzzed inside the Pixel 3a, though maybe with some tuning adjustments: some reviewers have called out this phone’s improved haptics

The Pixel 4a is only equipped with two cameras: one 8 megapixel f/2.0 selfie shooter in the hole-punch under the screen, and a rear-facing 12.2 megapixel f/1.7 module—reportedly the same one from the Pixel 4. (That same sensor is also rumored to be in the upcoming Pixel 5.) 12 MP is a far cry from the high-MP shenanigans that Samsung and others are up to, but at this point Google could probably stick a small potato where the camera goes and it would still pump out class-leading images, thanks to their ever-improving AI computational photography skills. 

The Pixel 4a’s circuit guts. Click the links below to get a closer look at what’s onboard.

On the single circuit board lives the Qualcomm Snapdragon 730G processor, along with 6 GB of RAM and 128 GB of storage. If you’re curious what other ICs power the Pixel 4a, you can do some sleuthing with these two images. Just let us know in the comments if you find anything interesting!

A few steps forward and a couple backwards earns the Pixel 4a a 6 out of 10 on our repairability scale:

➕ Most components are modular and independently replaceable.

➕ Repair-friendly stretch-release adhesive secures the battery, and is easier than ever to release successfully.

➕ All screws are standard T3 Torx fasteners

/ ➖ The display comes off first, but is thin and poorly protected. Foam adhesive makes the opening process relatively easy.

➖ The thin ribbon cables connecting the flash and fingerprint sensor to the main board are tedious to work around and easy to accidentally tear while removing the back cover.