Nexus 4 was probably the best smartphone I’ve ever encountered over the years: In contrast to what we are being sold today, it was reasonably sized and thus could still be held and controlled single-handed, it had good third-party firmware support and it had an LCD where you would never have to fear any OLED “burn in” effects. It wasn’t without faults though: For example it was well known for overheating and it had a very buggy main camera (e.g. on old firmware versions it would randomly lock up and require a reboot). Unfortunately (and not surprising regarding its age) it started to fail recently and I finally had to replace it.
The death of a smartphone
My phone had clearly exceeded its maximum planned life span: In the past few years it would often randomly lag or crash and eventually completely lock up (especially annoying over night). Lock-ups became more and more frequent. A workaround was to turn it off and restart it after a few moments every night before I went to bed but in the last weeks before I finally replaced it that happened not only once or twice every few weeks but sometimes even 3 or 4 times per day. I suspect memory (either RAM or flash) went too unreliable after almost 9 years – I tried to have a look at the logs via USB debugging and always saw horrendous amounts of weird inexplicable error messages scrolling by very fast. In the last weeks before I replaced it, sometimes it wasn’t even possible to shut it down properly as the power button menu often disappeared (probably some app responsible for the menu crashed and didn’t restart) so I had to force it off.
Apart from reliability issues it also suffered from an incredible battery drain. I originally suspected an aging battery and replaced it a few years ago (LG has a store where you can easily order original parts directly from the manufacturer, thank you very much! :) ). Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to observe much of an improvement afterwards, so I guess the drain is more likely to be caused by today’s power-hungry apps and system services. Battery age had an effect nevertheless; for example when using the phone outdoors (e.g. to record GPS tracks) it would often only last a few hours in its last year.
The camera also got useless as it would often either miss focus or loose it just before you could take the photo.
As if that wasn’t enough, the power button finally started to develop a “double click” contact failure and UMTS/3G networks were shut down in Germany. As the Nexus 4 predated LTE/4G (the initial baseband firmware supported only a single US LTE band and even that support got removed within a few months after launch) that meant it would now always connect only via GSM/2G. This quickly turned out to be much more annoying than originally thought: Internet via 2G in Berlin is unusable slow (much slower than it should be on the paper) and often isn’t available at all (especially not underground). It also increased battery usage by approximately 15 to 20% per day even when the phone was just idle at home. At home I also got quickly reminded of the interference in amplifiers when a phone with bad reception tries to communicate over 2G (which happened surprisingly often although the Nexus should have been connected via WiFi the whole time).
Looking for a replacement
Some of those issues were not new, so I already searched for a replacement for several years but – apart from the Samsung S10e which disappeared from the market as soon as I heard about it – no phone ever seemed like a good replacement, so I held to the Nexus 4 as long as I could (or would finally find some replacement).
My criteria appear to be somewhat unusual as they do not match today’s standards. My ideal phone would have:
- similar size as the Nexus 4 (134 x 69 x 9 mm)
- unlockable bootloader and good chances for long-term third-party firmware support
- support for all 4G LTE bands that can be encountered in Germany
- support for all public GNSS systems
- support for recent Bluetooth standards and audio codecs
- Gorilla glass (the display has not got a single scratch in all the years, it really worked well for me)
- 3.5mm headphone output
- modern video camera resolution (ideally 4k at 60 FPS)
- at most 400€
- ideally no notch/punch-hole or no face camera at all (I practically never used it)
- no OLED display (I don’t want to have to deal with “burn in” effects)
The standard phones today unfortunately do not match those criteria: They are vastly oversized (today’s phones would have been called “phablets” just a few years ago), have weird aspect ratios, notch/punch-hole and OLED, lack headphone connectors, only have locked bootloaders and are very expensive. The few phones I found that had a reasonable size and price unfortunately lacked German LTE bands or third-party firmware support.
The best match still seemed to be a Pixel 4a: The 4G variant is currently one of the smallest phones on market (4a with 5G is larger!) with width and depth similar to the Nexus 4 but increased height (which makes for a slightly but not too weird aspect ratio). It needs a nano SIM (Nexus 4 needed a micro SIM) and unfortunately still has no SD card slot. All LTE bands relevant to the general public in Germany are supported (as of the first half of 2021). While it was originally misadvertised as only supporting 4k video at 30 FPS (which was my main reason to not buy it earlier this year) it actually supports 60 FPS as well. As expected for Google branded phones, the bootloader is easily unlockable (offline!) and there is a good chance to see third-party developers providing alternate firmwares even long after Google drops support for this device. For easier migration, Google includes a USB OTG adapter to connect an earlier Android phone and copy all data over automatically – a function which I didn’t try as I did not want to transfer any possibly corrupted data from my failing Nexus. The price is still reasonable for a modern phone (I paid only 310€ – comparable to the Nexus 4 when it was released) but as it was already released in October 2020 it probably already counts as “outdated” which means it could disappear from market soon.
I used the Pixel 4a for a month now. The battery lasts about 2 to 3 days when left mostly idle but I also experienced some sudden drains from 30% down to 0 within just a few hours (once over night) and don’t know what caused them (I suspect some app running berserk). WiFi connection is good and much more reliable than on the Nexus 4 (which might also have been some issue with the antenna on my phone). I’m really satisfied with the fast and complete GNSS which has a very good reception while supporting all public systems (GPS, GLONASS, Galileo, BeiDou and QZSS).
My Nexus 4 lasted almost 9 years. I don’t really plan on using another smartphone that long but it would sure be good if it would at least live for maybe 5 years before it breaks. Unfortunately I do have some durability concerns with the Pixel 4a.
If you just got it you probably put it “naked” on a table. What you will notice immediately is that you are always hitting the edge of the camera’s glass which has been raised from the phone’s body. If left unprotected, it seems likely that the camera glass could either break or at least chip over time. This is a design flaw which is not unique to the Pixel 4a but found on almost every other current smartphone as well. The only sense I can make of that deliberate design issue is that it will increase sales of either more phones (reduced lifetime) or protective accessories. And in fact, I ordered a “bumper” just to raise the camera from the table immediately after unpacking the phone. I cannot recommend using any phone having that common design quirk without a protective case or bumper.
While it does not feel as slippy as an iPhone (which, without a bumper, reminds me of oiled Teflon) I found the edges still a bit too slippy which was solved by adding the bumper as well.
I am curious about how quickly the cameras will smudge as I find myself often touching the rear camera and also swiping over the punch-hole camera (which, again, I don’t really care about other than that there’s a useless hole in the screen).
Hardware buttons also feel a little bit cheap and according to specifications the Pixel 4a is not certified to be water-proof. I hope that only refers to immersing it in a pool of water (which I don’t plan on doing) and it might still be spray/splash water-proof nevertheless. While I would not get too suspicious about the lack of such a cerification I do get suspicious because the successor (Pixel 5) is being advertised as water-proof which might indicate some deficiency in earlier models.
The “mandatory” bumper increases the device size. While the “naked” phone has practically the same width and depth as a Nexus 4 it can get quite unwieldy depending on the bumper you choose. I went for one of the thinnest I found (“Spigen Thin Fit”) but even that tiny increase is already noticeable. While a bumper will protect the main camera from hitting flat surfaces some bumpers, such as the one I chose, may still have a raised edge around the camera which means the phone will never lay flat on a table.
One-handed use is a bit difficult, even without a bumper: A standard on-screen keyboard will be displayed too low for the phone’s center of gravity, so when trying to type on it one-handed you either risk loosing balance or you cannot reliably reach the lower keys and constantly mistype. If you don’t want to hold the phone with your other hand, you will need a keyboard that can be detached from the standard position (bottom edge of screen) and moved more further up to the center of the screen, when needed. This is actually a standard feature of the factory GBoard keyboard but you may find it impossible to use your favorite alternative keyboard unless it supports that feature as well (e.g. Hacker’s Keyboard doesn’t).
The display has a yellowish tint (“warm” image) noticeable on white/grey colors when compared to another display such as a TFT or the Nexus 4. This may be an issue with OLED in general and it might also be an attempt to prolong the display’s lifetime: From what I could find on the Internet, blue is the least durable color component of today’s OLED displays so it may make sense to reduce the amount of blue in favor of a more yellow-tinted (i.e. red + green) image. What I don’t get is why the default live wallpaper shows a violet/blueish blur then…
I already mentioned that I wished for a phone with a classic LCD? Well, those have vanished from the market so congratulations on buying displays that burn out every time you look at them… (welcome to my little rant on what I don’t like about OLED)
I was unpleasantly surprised to find that Android phones, other than OLED TVs, seem to not have any real “burn-in” mitigation such as displacing images or equalizing color usage. The only features I could find are the default removal of the button bar in favor of gestures and of course practically every app today having a (more or less usable) dark theme. I quickly returned to the normal button bar as I rarely use full screen apps anyway (so for me the bottom bar is probably “safe” to be “burnt in”) and also because I simply got too used to quick application switching by double-tapping the window icon (there seems to be no equally fast gesture for that).
One thing I am very unhappy with are wallpapers: With my other phones I just chose a nice image and stuck with it until I got too bored seeing it (which, with the right wallpaper, almost never happened). Unfortunately, using the same image on home and lock screen with an OLED display increases the chances of “burning in” that image permanently (in fact it’s not really burning in but all lit areas are burning out over time). The “always on” option also sounds like a display killer for me, same as widgets and icons on the home and notification boxes on the lock screen. From a theoretical stand point it may be best to switch wallpapers regularly and mind to vary colors and placements of any gradients (such as horizons on photos) to burn out the display more evenly, reduce the number of icons and don’t use any “static” widgets.
Even if everything else continues to work well years after the average life-span of a smartphone (2 years?) has passed, everyone should be prepared to see “ghost images” on the display which is clearly the least durable component of a modern phone. It also means that the less you use the phone the longer it will live – which feels very odd and wrong when seeing the excessive prices of other modern phones.
Unexpected loss of functionality
Unfortunately there are a few features which were removed from Android (and/or this particular phone) which I started missing as soon as I used the Pixel 4a regularly.
The Pixel 4a (as well as many other recent phones) has no notification LED. This may be a good or a bad design choice but I think it’s the latter: The good intention some product designers probably had when deciding to remove the LED was that it might stop people from constantly checking their phones for updates. However, I feel that the opposite is now true: When properly set up, the RGB LED on the Nexus 4 (and before that, the LED on my 2009 HTC Hero) would only notify about actually “important” events (as decided by the user) and allowed users to easily spot the type of notification by just checking the LED color. Without such an LED, unless you want to use the always-on display option which reduces OLED lifetime and drains the battery, you do not have any indication at all for when you might want to check your phone. What I end up doing is to tap the display in more or less regular intervals to much more frequently check if there’s some new message I was waiting for (and often there isn’t). For messenger services I tend to open the web interfaces on my PC but I already missed a few app and calendar notifications I would have been interested in but didn’t see them a I forgot to check the phone regularly. This is much more annoying (and unhealthy?) than just having a simple notification LED that lights up every now and then when there’s actually something to be checked. If there was a USB-C “plug” to retrofit a notification LED I would definitely buy it instantly.
The Android 11 factory firmware is also lacking some features compared to Android 7, which I used before:
The new “power menu” only shows options for Google Pay and incomplete home automation control (it only displays Chromecast audio controls for me even when TV streaming controls are showing as a notification). The old “power menu” had additional options, for example to easily switch between silent mode, vibration and sound notifications. With more recent Android versions you need to change the volume and cycle through the notification options above the volume slider instead. So far, I found the new “power menu” to be of absolutely no use.
The notification, ring tone and alarm sounds are too unobtrusive, so I ended up copying all sounds from Lineage 14/Android 7 to the Pixel.
Android Beam has been removed for no good reason… although it can be readded by alternative firmware according to Android developer documentation it has been declared deprecated and thus will probably be soon removed permanently in a future Android release. The alternative is called “Nearby Sharing”. According to the little documentation that is available, this is supposed to restrict sharing to nearby people who are recorded as contacts in the phone book. The exact discovery protocol is unfortunately completely undocumented so it is not known what mechanisms are being used for contact sharing/matching. Due to its seemingly proprietary nature I can only guess that it might involve either cloud location sharing/lookup or even broadcast phone numbers or some other IDs as a bluetooth beacon for offline use and at least relying on phone books synced to Google (which most people have disabled). As such it is probably not as secure as Beam which worked completely offline via NFC (so it required physical contact) to initiate a transfer. While some manufacturers unfortunately never enabled Android Beam in their firmwares I found it very useful to quickly exchange practically any kind of data with other devices (whatever it was, you just had to hold two devices together and tap on the sender’s screen to transfer whatever was currently open). I will not use “Nearby Sharing” until it is publicly known how that contact sharing/discovery works, so I feel like Android has lost a great feature without good replacement.
General annoyances with the factory firmware (Android 11)
Google wants you to use cloud services and by default “conveniently” enables lots of options which transmit data to the cloud. Even after several days of using the phone I still found some occasional “hidden” options in default apps (such as GBoard sharing typed words with Google!) which might have been used to collect data I did not knowingly opt-in to share. Unless I accidentally activated those options on my own, I don’t know how the Pixel phones can be legally sold in Germany with such a privacy-violating default configuration.
After booting the phone for the first time I wanted to immediately install all available system updates using the settings menu. This turned out to be a rather confusing and long process using OTA updates as the system updates came in large and slow increments. Due to a lack of feedback between reboots and “retry” I already thought the updates were repeatedly failing until I noticed that the build numbers in fact kept increasing slightly between the many update steps (around 6 system updates plus 4 additional security updates). In the mean time I triggered a large number of app installations remotely through the Google Play website of which only some random apps installed until the system updates were finally complete after several hours.
It could be a side-effect of the many OTA updates but the setup assistant also had to be finished 3 times before it finally disappeared.
While I am happy to finally have a reliable phone again, I feel like I have a lot of issues with the Pixel 4a. However, most of those issues are not unique to the Pixel 4a and indeed common to practically all modern phones, so it’s practically impossible to find another device which has less of the issues I described above without introducing other ones in return. It’s obviously not the ideal replacement for a Nexus 4 but it’s probably still the best replacement fulfilling most of the criteria I was looking for.