Google Pixel 5a review: The best of Pixel for less

google-pixel-5a.jpg
  • Editors' rating
    8.0 Excellent
  • $449.00

Pros

  • Long battery life
  • IP67 rating
  • Reliable cameras

Cons

  • Recycled design
  • No 5G mmWave support

Surprise! Google on Tuesday announced the Pixel 5A, a more affordable but nearly as capable version of the Pixel 5, is available to pre-order in the US and Japan starting today and will launch on August 26. 

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There have been some rumors and leaks about a Pixel 5a in the last few weeks, but for the most part, Google kept a pretty tight lid on the mid-range phone. I've been using a Pixel 5A for roughly a week now and have to admit; it's a compelling device. 

At $450, the Pixel 5A offers a mix of high-end features with mid-range components at a more affordable price than the $699 Pixel 5 or last year's $499 Pixel 4A with 5G. It's hard to make the case that the Pixel 5A isn't the Pixel to get right now as we await the full Pixel 6 announcement later this year

In fact, soon the Pixel 5A may be the only Pixel you can get. Google has told ZDNet that the company plans to continue to sell the Pixel 5 and Pixel 4A with 5G until inventory runs out, which should happen in the coming weeks. Once that happens, Google will only sell the Pixel 5A until the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro are released later this year. 

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The Pixel 5A with 5G looks a lot like the Pixel 4A. 

Jason Cipriani/ZDNet

Design

As far as the overall look of the Pixel 5A is concerned, not a whole lot has changed when you compare it to the Pixel 4A or Pixel 5. The 5A will come in a single "mostly" black color, that to my eyes, has a slight grayish-green tint to it. 

There's a USB-C port on the bottom of the phone, with a volume rocker and power button on the right side of the housing. The power button has a textured surface, while the volume button uses the same finish as the rest of the plastic housing. On top of the phone is a 3.5mm headphone jack -- something the Pixel 5 lacks -- with the left side of the housing bare, save for the SIM card tray. 

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The camera array, a fingerprint sensor, and a "G" Google logo are on the back of the phone. The front of the phone is an edge-to-edge display with a hole-punch cutout for the front-facing camera. 

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The Pixel 4A (5G) is on the left, the Pixel 5A on the right. It's slightly thicker and heavier. 

Jason Cipriani/ZDNet

Holding the Pixel 5A and Pixel 4A (5G), it's quickly apparent that the 5A is slightly thicker than the 4A (5G), likely to make room for the larger battery. Officially, the 5A measures 156.2mm x 73.2mm x 8.8mm, while the 4A (5G) measures 156.2mm x 73.2mm x 8.2mm. 

Other than the new shade of black and the minimally thicker and heavier design, there are only two other changes that Google made to the design of the 5A. One is the lack of wireless charging (a feature the Pixel 5 has, but the 4A (5G) does not) and the addition of IP67 water and dust resistance. It's the first time Google has given an A-series device extra protection from accidental drops in a pool or spilt drink, and it's a welcome addition all around. 

Again, there's nothing game-changing about the design of the Pixel 5A. We've seen it from Google before. If you're looking for a Pixel with a completely new look, you're better off waiting for the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro. 

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Performance

Inside the Pixel 5A with 5G is a Qualcomm Snapdragon 765G, 6GB of memory, 128GB of storage and a 4,680 milliamp-hour battery. That's the same processor and amount of storage as the Pixel 5, which has 8GB of memory. The 5a's battery is larger than last year's Pixel 4a (5G) by a significant amount -- at 4,680mAh VS 3885mAh, respectively. 

All of that powers the 6.34-inch Full HD OLED display, which is slightly larger than the Pixel 5's 6-inch display and larger than last year's Pixel 4A (5G) with 5G's 6.2-inch screen. 

Battery life on the 5A has been phenomenal. Google claims two days of use between charges, and in my testing, that's a close estimate. I've had to charge the Pixel 5A roughly every 36 hours. 

When it comes to 5G connectivity, the Pixel 5a drops support for mmWave, opting instead for just Sub-6 support. That's likely to disappoint some potential owners, but the fact is the mmWave rollout is still early days and somewhat sporadic. I can understand why it was left out of the Pixel 5A just from a cost-cutting perspective. 

On the back of the phone is Google's Pixel Imprint fingerprint sensor and a two-camera array. As for the rear cameras, they are identical to what's in the Pixel 5 and the Pixel 4A (5G). More specifically, you'll get a 12.2-megapixel main camera with autofocus, dual pixel phase detection, optical and electronic image stabilization and an f/1.7 aperture. The other camera is 16-megapixels, ultra-wide, f/2.2 aperture, 117-degree field of view. Of course, the software running on the 5A takes advantage of Google's computational photography features found on almost all Pixel phones. Features like Night Sight for dark environments, Live HDR+, Portrait Light and Cinematic Pan. 

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The Pixel 5A has a larger screen than the Pixel 4A (5G).

Jason Cipriani/ZDNet

I've taken a handful of photos on the Pixel 5A, and they look on par with the Pixel 5's photo capabilities. That is to say, while still impressive, Google's Pixel camera is no longer good enough to keep up with the advancements of Samsung and Apple. I said as much in my review of the Pixel 5 when it launched last year. 

To be clear, there's nothing wrong with the camera setup on the Pixel 5A. If you end up with this phone, you'll be happy with its photography and video prowess. But Google hasn't given the Pixel camera offering a meaningful update in a couple of years now. 

Performance has been a mixed experience. I use the Pixel 5 -- which has the same processor -- on nearly a daily basis, so I expected a very similar experience on the 5A. However, there have been times when the 5A has felt sluggish or lacked the zippiness the Pixel 5 offers. I can only think that maybe it's due to the 5A having 6GB of memory instead of 8GB? Again, it's nothing that's horrible. By the end of my testing, I either wasn't noticing an occasional stutter or slow opening app, or I became acclimated to the performance, and it was no longer an issue. 

Bottom line

The Pixel 5A isn't just a cheaper version of the Pixel 5. In a lot of ways, it offers more than the Pixel 5, thanks to a larger display and the addition of a 3.5mm headphone jack. Indeed, it lacks wireless charging and mmWave, but that's more or less where the differences end. 

The 5A's camera, performance and battery life are on par, if not better than, the Pixel 5. And the 5A costs $250 less. 

In a lot of ways, it feels as if releasing the Pixel 5A shortly before the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro is about setting the stage for a major update to the Pixel lineup. We already know both phones will use Google's first in-house designed System on a Chip and will feature a completely new design with improved cameras. And, based on that, one can assume that both phones are going to have high-end pricing to match the high-end features. 

The Pixel 5A with 5G is an alternative to those presumably flagship-caliber models. And a fine one at that.