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Review: Google's Pixel 5a is the 4a 5G's longer-lasting twin

"Why does this phone exist?" To prove Pixels can actually do battery right.

The Google Pixel line has suffered from fatal flaws in previous generations, but the one that crops up time and time again is short battery life. The Pixel 4 was essentially killed by its own small battery, and the Pixel 3 was barely any better. Last year's Pixel 5 had a good enough battery to get through a good day, and that was a banner achievement for Google after years of battery woes.

Last year's Pixel 4a 5G was in the same boat: it could get through the day with its battery, but it was too expensive to compete with the mid-range phones and too underpowered to fight with some of the best Android phones in the $500-$700 range last year — like the Pixel 5 once it got down to $600. Performance was fine, but it just didn't fit anywhere in the United States market.

This year's Pixel 5a is only available in the United States and Japan, so Google had to ensure that it could properly compete on both features and price. And while it certainly looks like Google just copied last year's phone, the few changes they've made make a huge difference, especially in the current mid-range market.

Google Pixel 5a

Bottom line: Water resistance and much longer battery life help last year's overlooked model turn into the belle of the mid-range ball. Google has finally listened to what users want and given us practical upgrades rather than pretty colors and shiny surfaces.

The Good

  • Two-day battery life
  • Screen is easy to read outdoors
  • Smooth performance from 765G
  • Decent camera for the price
  • IP67 dust and water resistance
  • Still has rear fingerprint reader and headphone jack

The Bad

  • No mmWave model this year
  • Boring design

$449 at Google Store

Google Pixel 5a Price and availability

Google released the Google Pixel 5a on August 26 in only two countries: the United States and Japan. Pricing is standard at $449 and ¥51,700. The unlocked Pixel 5a is compatible with all major American networks, but without mmWave 5G, it will not be able to use Verizon's Ultra Wideband network, only sub6 5G and LTE 4G. The phone is only available domestically at the Google Store, it has not shown up at major retailers nor at carrier stores; if you want the Pixel 5a, you need to buy directly from Google.

If you do not live in these two countries, the Google Pixel 4a 5G will continue to be sold in your market if it's already on sale. We'll talk more about the 4a 5G in the next section, but the cliff notes version for 4a 5G owners and non-Americans is: you're not missing much here.

Google Pixel 5a: Hardware (and how it varies from the 4a 5G)

I'm going to keep this short because the Pixel 5a's design is virtually identical to last year's Pixel 4a 5G, and most of the inside specs are the same, too. The name Google came up with this year is "Mostly Black" as opposed to last year's Just Black, and while it may be a few shades brighter than last year, it's definitely still a black phone, though an argument could be made for deep charcoal.

The power is a lighter gray — no bright colors here like on the 4a 5G, sorry — and it has a wavy texture across it to help distinguish it from the volume rocker. All buttons are nice, firm, and clicky, with no wobble or mushiness. The USB-C port and stereo speakers are still at the bottom while the headphone jack sits up top and the SIM tray slot is on the lower left bumper.

The phone has a pleasant heft without feeling heavy, and while it's a bit big for my small hands, it was easy enough to reach the top left corner (I hold my phone left-handed), but I quickly grabbed a PopSocket to make reaching the right side of the screen easier. I wish that the Pixel 5a was small like the Pixel 4a was, but most of you like bigger screens, so this was built for you. The size here is a teeny bit taller than the Pixel 4a 5G for the screen and a teeny bit thicker for the battery.

Once you move from the outside to the inside, things get even more similar. We have the same Snapdragon 765G that's been in such high demand during this year's chip shortage, and it's paired with the same memory, storage, and cameras. I've bolded the differences between the two generations to help distinguish how little has changed here:

Category Google Pixel 5a Google Pixel 4a 5G
Operating system Android 11 Android 11
Display 6.34-inch 60Hz OLED
2400x1080px (20:9)
HDR, Gorilla Glass 3
6.2-inch 60Hz OLED
2340x1080px (19.5:9)
HDR, Gorilla Glass 3
Chipset Qualcomm Snapdragon 765G
1 x 2.4GHz A76
1 x 2.2GHz A76
6 x 1.8GHz A55
Adreno 620
Qualcomm Snapdragon 765G
1 x 2.4GHz A76
1 x 2.2GHz A76
6 x 1.8GHz A55
Adreno 620
Storage 128GB 128GB
MicroSD slot
Rear camera 1 12.2MP, f/1.7
Optical and electronic image stabilization
Dual pixel phase autofocus
4K at 60fps,1080p at 240fps
12.2MP, f/1.7
Optical and electronic image stabilization
Dual pixel phase autofocus
4K at 60fps,1080p at 240fps
Rear camera 2 16MP, f/2.2
Ultrawide lens
117-degree field-of-view
16MP, f/2.2
Ultrawide lens
117-degree field-of-view
Front camera 8MP, f/2.0
Fixed focus lens
83 degree field of view
8MP, f/2.0
Fixed focus lens
83 degree field of view
Connectivity Wi-Fi 802.11ac, Bluetooth 5.0
Wi-Fi 802.11ac, Bluetooth 5.0
5G Sub-6: N1, 2, 5, 12, 25, 28, 41, 66, 71, 77, 78
mmWave: ❌
Sub-6: N1, 2, 5, 12, 25, 28, 41, 66, 71, 78
mmWave: n260/261 (Verizon model)
Audio 3.5mm jack
Stereo speakers
3.5mm jack
Stereo sound
Battery 4680mAh
18W wired charging
18W wired charging
Water resistance IP67
Security Rear Pixel Imprint
Titan M security module
Rear Pixel Imprint
Titan M security module
Dimensions 156.2x73.1x8.8mm
153.9x74x8.2 mm
Colors Mostly Black Just Black
Clearly White

The 6.34-inch screen is very easy to see outside, and while many were hoping or expecting this to be a 90Hz screen, Google opted to keep it 60Hz for the 5a, and I'm content with that. 120Hz and 90Hz look great but burn more battery, and the Pixel 5a doesn't want to waste it on something most "regular" users won't notice. Heck, I've been on the Galaxy S21 for six months before this phone, and I don't really notice the 120Hz difference unless I am gaming. 60Hz performs just fine for me.

Water resistant at last

Speaking of performance, the Pixel 4a 5G was a decent phone, and Google decided not to break the mold for its successor. Instead, we get the water resistance that Pixel a-owners have spent years begging for and a 20% bigger battery that Google's optimizations and the Snapdragon 765's efficiency can sip for hours, if not days. Case in point, I took the 5a off the charger 21 hours ago, it's now sitting at 41% after 7 hours of screen on time, but we'll get to battery in a bit. First, let's talk about the software that provides that optimized battery and performance.

Google Pixel 5a: Software and performance

There's a lot of things I'd love to dive into with the Pixel 5a's software but can't yet. What it runs right now is Android 11 with all of the Pixel-exclusive features like Duplex-powered call screening and the best spam blocker on the market, and it runs that just fine. Apps are quick to open, I can multitask between 2-4 apps easily with the 6GB of RAM, and 128GB of storage means there's plenty of room for my YouTube Music downloads and loading up on Disney+ before my next trip.

I've seen a few times where the Twitter app becomes unresponsive until I back out and go back in, but I'm on the Twitter Beta and think it has more to do with that. App hangs have been scarce, the Overview menu is smooth and quick to swipe apps out of when I'm done with them, and the Pixel Launcher does okay — though I still opted for Smart Launcher 5 after a day just because it's what I'm used to.

The only problem is that this software will undergo a big change in 4-6 weeks. once Android 12 arrives. The Pixel 5a will be one of the first phones to get it, and its Pixel-exclusive dynamic color theming system in Material You. It'll be one of the first phones to get the new permission dots and timeline views so it can know what apps had access to your location, microphone, or camera and when.

But it doesn't have any of this yet, and I'm not going to review a phone based on the buggiest beta we've seen in four years. I have to judge what's here, not what's coming.

What's here now is the classic, smooth vanilla Android we've grown accustomed to after years of Material Design and Google's subtle sculpting of the Pixel aesthetic. Settings are where they should be, there's very little bloat installed at launch — as opposed to the dozens on my last few Galaxy phones — and everything that's here works well. It's not sexy, but it works well, and there's no nonsense.

We'll come back once Android 12 arrives and see how it handles Material You, the permission overhauls, and new features like scrolling screenshots.

Google Pixel 5a: Battery

The 4680mAh battery is significantly larger than last year's "decent battery" Pixel 4a 5G, and with it powering the same components and a barely bigger 60Hz screen, the Pixel 5a will absolutely get you through the day and then some. As I've said before, if you want to stress test a phone, you take it to a theme park, and not even two trips to the Magic Kingdom with gaming, reading, and camera testing could kill the battery in a single day.

The Pixel 5a's battery is simply unbeatable.

Even with six hours of screen on time — at least three of those at max brightness in the Florida sun — I was still at 21% by the end of the night. In fact, I got over six hours of screen time every day of my week with the Pixel 5a, except for the day of Samsung Unpacked, where I finished the day with 60% battery and three hours of screen time. I'm sitting at 36% with 7.25 hours screen on, and I unplugged the phone from the charger 22 hours ago. At the end of the night, I got 11 hours when I hit 5% and finally plugged it in before bed.

If you forget to charge your phone at night, if you have a chaotic job where your day could end at 5 PM or keep going till 3 AM, the Google Pixel 5a will not leave you stranded. The only disappointment around the battery is that I cannot charge it wirelessly. However, between a lower capacity but wireless charging and higher capacity but no wireless charging, higher capacity will win every time.

While battery-beast phones like the Galaxy A42 5G and Motorola Edge usually ask you to sacrifice camera quality, software quality, or portability, the Google Pixel 5a gives you great battery life alongside speedy software updates and the latest Android features.

Google Pixel 5a: Cameras

If you remember back to the chart at the beginning, you'll recall that the dual-camera setup on the Pixel 5a is the same as the Pixel 4a 5G (and Pixel 5). This means that quality here is pretty much a known quantity, and if you've owned or read our reviews of either device, you already know what I'm about to say and can just skim the photos on your way to our conclusion.

The Pixel a-series is known for bringing amazing camera quality to a lower price point by leveraging the computational photography prowess that Google has perfected over the last few years and using the same lenses as the flagship Pixels. The main sensor takes good shots during daylight hours, even when moving or trying to get a zoom shot of some cute animals on safari, and while motion at night can get a little dicey depending on the light levels, still shots at night look good, even when compared to the $800 Galaxy S21.

Pixel 5a (left) and S21 (right) with main lens

Pixel 5a 2x zoom (left) and S21 3x zoom (right)

Pixel 5a (left) and S21 (right) with main lens

The Pixel 5a wasn't as quick to pick up on subtle colors at night (like the lights on Cinderella Castle), but the Pixel better captured the accurate light level and color strength while Samsung cranked up brightness at night and cranked up colors all the time. Samsung's style appeals to some more than others, and while I'm all for a colorful photo, this style adds too much grain to photos from golden hour till dawn.

The wide-angle lens was great for capturing a larger scope when in front of huge attractions or huge crowds, and I was pleasantly surprised with the 2x zoom shots I got while stationary. Selfies are okay for socials, but this phone wasn't made for TikTokers and vloggers. For $450, this is more than enough.

Google Pixel 5a Competition

The biggest competition the Google Pixel 5a will face, at least in the short term, is the Samsung Galaxy A52 5G, which features a larger, 120Hz screen and more cameras on the back, but that screen isn't as readable outside, and the cameras on the A52 aren't quite as good as the Pixel 5a. The A52 5G is also hard to find right now, sold out at Amazon and more than half of U.S. carriers right now. We might see some competition here from the Samsung A72 5G if/when it launches, but there's no clue when that might be.

Another phone with an unsure arrival date, the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE should arrive sometime in the next two months — any later and it'd be stepping on the Galaxy S22's toes — and it could offer up a brighter, smoother screen and cameras as good as the S21 and Pixel 5a. Pricing will likely put it above the Pixel 5a's $449 price tag, but if it's $550 or below, it could lure away plenty of buyers once carrier subsidies kick in.

The other main competitor for this phone in the U.S., where we don't have the OnePlus Nord 2 to make things interesting, would be the Pixel 5 itself. It'd need to see another price drop to $550 or below, though, and I'm doubtful of that happening given that the Pixel 5 is getting harder and harder to find ahead of the Pixel 6's launch this fall.

Google Pixel 5a Should you buy it?

You should buy this if ...

  • You want the latest Google features and full Material You look
  • You need a phone that will consistently give you 6+ hours on a single charge
  • Water-resistance is an essential feature for your phone
  • You hate in-screen fingerprint sensors

You should not buy this if ...

  • You demand the latest specs and features
  • Wireless charging is important to you
  • You need mmWave coverage in a congested urban area

When my only real complaint about a phone is that it's not launching in enough countries, it's safe to say it's definitely a phone I recommend buying, If you've been hanging onto an aging Pixel 3a (XL), or even if you're on a Pixel 2/3 and know the Pixel 6 is going to be too expensive for you to stomach, the Google Pixel 5a gives you the best of both worlds: you'll get all the new Android and Pixel features for the next three years (or more), and you won't break the bank doing it.

4.5 out of 5

Between a battery that you'll be able to charge less, consistent performance, a bright, easy-to-read screen, and that sweet, sweet Pixel software, the Google Pixel 5a is shaping up to be the best cheap Android phone of 2021 and probably one of the best Android phones of 2021 period. It may not be pretty, but that's what cases are for — and Google brought some beauties this year.

Google Pixel 5a

$449 at Google Store

A no-nonsense knockout for the masses.

Finally sporting water resistance and a big enough battery to withstand even the longest marathon days, the Pixel 5a offers solid performance and the latest Android software for a more-than-reasonable price.

Review Changelog, October 2021

This article was originally published in August 2021. It was updated in October 2021 with the following changes.

  • Updated prince and availability to reflect that the phone is on sale — and still only available online at the Google Store.
  • Added changelog.

Source: androidcentral

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