Affordable smartphones are a dime-a-dozen in 2021, and while the Pixel 5a may not do anything to dramatically push the market forward, it makes up for that by being one of the most refined handsets Google‘s ever created. Ever since Google first started making Pixel-a phones in 2019, they’ve stood out as gems in the budget landscape. The Pixel 3a and 3a XL redefined camera expectations for sub-$400 smartphones, the Pixel 4a iterated on that winning formula with improved specs and a lower price, and the Pixel 4a 5G ramped things up with an ultra-wide camera and — of course — 5G connectivity.
For its 2021 hardware strategy, Google’s making some of its biggest moves yet with the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro. It’s ushering in an all-new design, custom-made Google Tensor processor, and the first camera hardware upgrade in years. Last year’s Pixel 5 had some folks worried that Google was ready to throw in the towel with its hardware division, but with what’s been shown of the Pixel 6 series so far, it appears the exact opposite is happening. With so much R&D clearly going into the Pixel 6, surely that same attention was spent on this year’s budget Pixel too — right?
Well, not exactly. The Pixel 5a (technically the ‘Pixel 5a with 5G’) was announced on August 17, 2021, with little more than a press release from Google. And at first glance, it looks almost identical to last year’s Pixel 4a 5G. It has an eerily similar design, the same camera system, and even the same processor. After spending about a week with the Pixel 5a, however, none of those things really mattered. Google kept what worked about last year’s handsets, upgraded a couple of key features, and lowered the price to just $449. The end result? A phone that should be at the top of most people’s shopping lists.
For anyone who’s seen a Pixel before, the Google Pixel 5a will be immediately familiar. It has a square camera housing on the top-left of the backside, a simple Google ‘G’ logo below that, two speaker grilles on the bottom frame, and a hole-punch cutout at the top of the display. It’s an extremely familiar package, but it’s also one that works incredibly well. This is especially true thanks to the fit-and-finish, which is far better than the $449 price suggests. The soft-touch back feels phenomenal to hold, all of the buttons are wonderfully clicky, and the power button features a distinctly ribbed texture this year — making it that much easier to discern from the volume rocker. Having just one color to choose from is less than ideal, but at least this year’s ‘Mostly Black’ style is a good one. It’s actually a dark green rather than straight-up black, hence the ‘Mostly’ naming. It’s a very subtle green that’s not always visible in certain lighting, but it’s colorful enough to be more interesting than the Just Black choice from last year. Combine that with a light green accent for the power button, and the Pixel 5a ends up being a fairly stylish gadget.
The most impressive design change is one that’s invisible but should prove extremely useful for a lot of people. The Pixel 5a is the first Pixel-a device to have an official dust/water resistance rating — specifically, IP67. Along with full protection against dust, dirt, and sand, the Pixel 5a can also survive up to 1 meter of water submersion for up to 30 minutes at a time. While we didn’t put that to the test during the review period, the Pixel 5a has also proven to be surprisingly durable against accidental drops. There were a couple of times over the past week where the 5a fell face-first onto a tiled floor, and both times, it came away unscathed. This is likely thanks to the aluminum unibody and Gorilla Glass 6, both of which are an upgrade over the Pixel 4a 5G’s polycarbonate construction and Gorilla Glass 3.
Then there are some of the smaller design elements. The rear-mounted fingerprint sensor returns for another year, and similar to all previous Pixel-a handsets, it’s excellent. The sensor is fast, accurate, and being able to swipe down to access the notification shade will never not be useful. Speaking of useful, the Pixel 5a still has a 3.5mmm headphone jack. This isn’t something of great personal use, but for folks who still prefer wired headphones, the 5a supports those accessories with no dongle required. If there’s one design element to complain about, it’s that the stereo speakers don’t sound the best. They get plenty loud, but the quality of the audio quickly distorts at those higher volumes. That’s a pretty small nitpick for a $449 phone, but given how strong the rest of the 5a’s hardware is, it’s the one weaker point that sticks out.
As for the Pixel 5a’s display, it’s a quality panel that should leave most folks satisfied. Colors are vibrant thanks to the OLED screen technology, the 2400 x 1080 resolution is plenty sharp, and smaller aspects like brightness and viewing angles also manage to hold their own. All of that’s present on a 6.34-inch canvas, which is the largest display on a Pixel to date. The Pixel 5a is a big phone, but the slim display bezels and excellent design keep it from feeling too unwieldy. It’s comfortable to hold, one-handed use isn’t impossible, and the large screen has been a treat for watching Twitch streams or binging YouTube videos. It would have been nice to have a 90Hz refresh rate instead of the standard 60Hz one that’s present here, but it never made the Pixel 5a any less enjoyable to use.
If the Pixel 5a’s hardware wasn’t creating enough déjà vu, its internals certainly will. Powering the phone is a Qualcomm Snapdragon 765G — the exact same chip used in the Pixel 4a 5G and Pixel 5. A processor upgrade is one of the most fundamental things that’s expected with any new smartphone generation. Year-over-year upgrades with performance and efficiency aren’t always substantial, but it’s still something that a succeeding phone is supposed to come with. Google apparently didn’t think so, and while that looks like a terrible decision on paper, the Snapdragon 765G has yet to disappoint. The Pixel 5a opens apps quickly, navigates menus and settings without a hitch, and has never felt like a slow smartphone. It’d probably do those things even better with a Snapdragon 780 or 778, but if using the 765G for another year helped Google reach that $449 asking price, it seems to have been a smart compromise. Pair that CPU horsepower with 6GB of RAM and a generous 128GB of storage, and it’s difficult to be disappointed with what the Pixel 5a delivers on this front.
In addition to its snappy performance, the Snapdragon 765G also means the Pixel 5a is equipped with 5G connectivity. It connects to sub-6 5G networks just fine, but similar to the Pixel 4a 5G, there is no mmWave support. That’s another spec that doesn’t look great on paper, but likely doesn’t mean much of anything for most people. mmWave 5G is still extremely limited throughout the U.S. Unless someone lives in a major city or frequents a large stadium, there’s no real upside to mmWave 5G (and likely won’t be for a while longer). What’s perhaps more disappointing is that the Pixel 5a still uses the older Wi-Fi 802.11a/b/g/n/ac standard instead of Wi-Fi 6 or 6E. That could potentially result in slower Wi-Fi speeds than phones that do have the newer standards — especially on networks with a lot of connected devices.
Thankfully, things look up for the Pixel 5a when the conversation shifts to software. It ships with the same Android 11 interface available on all other Pixels today, which is to say it’s exceptional. The UI is easy to navigate, features like Hold for Me and Now Playing continue to set it apart from all other Android handsets, and the Pixel 5a will be first-in-line for the Android 12 update when it arrives later this fall. On the note of updates, the Pixel 5a is guaranteed to receive major OS updates and monthly security patches for at least 3 years. That might pale in comparison to the 6+ years of updates seen with the iPhone, but it continues to be among the best available in the Android world.
Just as important to the Pixel experience (if not more so) is camera quality. The Pixel 5a has a 12.2MP primary camera, 16MP ultra-wide camera, and video recording up to 4K/60FPS. This is the exact setup used on the Pixel 4a 5G and Pixel 5, and similar to Google reusing the processor from those phones, this camera system is one that remains top-notch. The hardware itself may not be very impressive, but Google’s image processing consistently churns out gorgeous photos. They’re nicely detailed, full of lifelike colors, and it doesn’t matter if someone’s shooting in broad daylight or in the middle of the night. Take out the phone, press the shutter button, and chances are the end result will be one worth sharing. The one complaint here is that the 16MP ultra-wide camera has a fairly narrow field of view at just 117-degrees. The upside is that photos taken with this sensor have minimal distortion and similar overall quality to the primary camera, but a slightly wider view would have been more than welcome.
And then there’s the Pixel 5a’s crème de la crème: battery life. Inside the Google Pixel 5a is a 4,680 mAh battery — the largest yet of any Pixel to date. Last year’s Pixels already had long endurance, but the Pixel 5a is on a whole other level of greatness. During the phone’s first full day of use — one that involved installing dozens of apps and updating just as many — the Pixel 5a squeezed out 4 hours and 53 minutes of screen-on time with 17 percent left in the tank. The next couple of days saw the phone clocking in 6 hours and 42 minutes of screentime with 15-percent battery remaining. That involved over 3 and a half hours of watching a Twitch stream, over an hour of scrolling through Twitter, and watching YouTube for a little over 20 minutes. On a day with lots of Google Chrome usage, an hour of YouTube binging, a 28-minute phone call, and 40 minutes of Google Maps navigation, the Pixel 5a ended the day with 5 hours and 14 minutes of screentime with 25 percent battery to go. It’s possible to kill the Pixel 5a in a single day with hours of Twitch streaming or graphically intense games. With more moderate usage, however, this is easily a two-day phone.
Charging the Pixel 5a, unfortunately, isn’t quite as magical. It’s great that Google still includes a fast charger in the box, but the max 18W charge speeds leave a lot to the imagination. It’s also disappointing that Qi wireless charging isn’t supported on the 5a. It’s not surprising given the phone’s price, but this feels like an area where Google could have made a meaningful difference over the 4a and 4a 5G.
It’s easy to look at the Pixel 5a and dismiss it as a quick cash grab from Google. The design isn’t breaking new ground, the chipset is a generation old, and the camera setup is one that was literally recycled from last year’s phones. It’s fair to criticize Google for such an uninventive handset. However, even with all of that in mind, none of it resulted in the Pixel 5a providing a bad user experience. That old design? It’s minimalistic and highly practical. The aging Snapdragon 765G processor? It continues to hold its own with surprisingly good speed. The familiar camera system? It still captures some of the very best pictures in this price range.
All of the things that Google reused don’t tarnish the Pixel 5a. And for the small improvements that were added, they provide further refinement to an already fantastic recipe. The IP67 rating is a literal game-changer for some people, the larger battery is an absolute treat, and even something as small as the textured power button makes the Pixel 5a that much more fun throughout daily use. And at $449, it’s a little bit cheaper than the Pixel 4a 5G. The Pixel 5a isn’t a phone that immediately appears as a must-buy, but after getting to know it over the past week, it’s clear that Google’s budget strategy is still a winning one — even if it is feeling a bit long in the tooth.