Google Pixel 5a Review
The Google Pixel 5a is finally here, coming closer to the launch of the widely leaked Pixel 6 than the Pixel 5, of which it represents the budget-friendly alternative. At $449, the Pixel 5a is a step in the right direction, as it’s actually $50 cheaper than the Pixel 4a 5G that came before it, although the two phones have so many commonalities that it’s hard to comprehend Google’s naming scheme. Still, it’s a 5G smartphone bolstered by the Pixel family name, and it comes in at a middle-of-the-road price, so let’s see how it lives up to the family’s reputation.
Google Pixel 5a – Design and Features
If you’ve seen the Pixel 5 or Pixel 4a 5G, this new phone will be plainly recognizable. It’s a rather bland phone design that doesn’t bring anything new to the table. This time around, Google has actually upgraded the A-series chassis, giving the Pixel 5a a metal unibody, though I would never have guessed because it’s covered in a matte black soft-touch material. There’s also Gorilla Glass 6 protecting the screen.
These are subtle changes, but they’re at least meaningful improvements over the Pixel 4a 5G’s polycarbonate frame and Gorilla Glass 3 screen, and it’s impressive to see them coming at a lower price. Perhaps the more significant upgrade to the build is the water and dust protection, which has made the Pixel 5a the first A-series model with an IP67 rating.
The Pixel 5a also boasts the largest display on a Pixel phone yet, with a 6.34-inch OLED, though the Pixel 6 will soon overtake it. The visuals are crisp at 2,400 x 1,080, though the wide rounded corners of the display sometimes see text get cramped close to the bezels. Aside from being larger, there’s nothing too exciting about the display. It’s plenty bright, but Google isn’t offering a high refresh rate. The punch hole camera is also still present in the corner, a location I’ve found more distracting than central cameras as it renders the corner useless whereas central selfie cameras at least divide the status bar in a practical way.
The phone charges over a USB-C port (sorry, no wireless charging), and Google has a 3.5mm headphone jack on offer – something that’s frequently seen on budget phones but reassuring to find on the Pixel 5a given how non-budget it can sometimes feel. The stereo speakers also have solid, clear volume, and stand out against budget phones that often have a single, mono speaker. Even the rear fingerprint sensor proves more reliable than others I’ve tested on budget phones, like the Moto G Stylus 5G.
Google Pixel 5a – Software
The Pixel 5a comes running Android 11, though it’s likely to make the leap to Android 12 soon as that new OS is right around the corner. It’s a clean version of Android with almost nothing I’d describe as bloatware aside from maybe YouTube Music. Despite the tidiness, it hasn’t proven my favorite implementation of Android. I’ve seen more carefully laid out settings menus, swiping in from the bottom corners is an awkward way to access Google Assistant, and the quick settings display six icons and then expand to… display six icons? That last snafu is a poor use of space and defeats the quickness of quick settings. At least Google didn’t opt for a scrolling marquee to label each quick setting.
Aside from faster OS updates, the Pixel 5a comes with some other special software features. Google’s Extreme Battery Saver Mode provides options to limit background operation to select apps. And Google’s Locked Folder provides a secure place to keep files.
Google Pixel 5a – Gaming and performance
Here’s where the Google Pixel 5a is a little bit surprising. It comes built around the same Snapdragon 765G chipset that powered the Pixel 4a 5G and the Pixel 5, but it’s the cheapest of the three. It also has 128GB of storage and 6GB of RAM. While the Snapdragon 765G isn’t quite the Snapdragon 865 or 888 that has powered the last two generations of top-tier Android flagships, it’s just about the next best thing.
Throughout testing, I never noticed the phone running slow. Navigating the OS, launching apps, browsing Twitter, watching videos – it all stayed smooth and snappy. The camera app could stand to launch faster, and it’d be peachy if the post-capture processing on photos finished before I tried viewing the results, but those are small unfulfilled desires for a $450 phone.
The Google Pixel 5a doesn’t have any special features that make it extra well suited for gaming, like a fast refresh rate or shoulder buttons, but the Snapdragon 765G and large display certainly help it keep up with more mainstream smartphone competitors. The Pixel 5a could handle Call of Duty Mobile with smooth visuals and consistency at high settings, and it only got a little bit warm in the process. The only shortcomings I noticed were in loading, as navigating the menus to customized weapons could be a bit slow pulling up each new item.
A big surprise for this phone is the 4,680mAh battery, which is the biggest battery Google’s ever put in a Pixel phone. Where past Pixel phones have often had battery life woes, that’s not the story of the Pixel 5a. I easily make it to the end of the day with charge left to spare, and that’s even been the case while running a wireless hotspot for several hours and needing the screen at max brightness to combat the summer sun throughout the day. Google suggests that the Extreme Battery Saver Mode can stretch the battery life out to 48 hours, but I’m confident the phone can last that long even without Extreme Battery Saver Mode if its under moderate use. When it’s time to top up, you can use the 18W faster charger that Google included in the box – shots fired at Apple and Samsung.
The 5G on the phone is also capable, though not the most powerful. The Pixel 5a supports Sub-6 only, so it’s not going to get the dazzling Gigabit+ speeds of mmWave, but that will mean little in day-to-day use until mmWave actually sees extensive deployment. Sub-6 can be plenty fast, as I saw one random speed test pull down at 281Mbps on T-Mobile in Chicago, though speeds on 5G are hardly consistent.
Google Pixel 5a – Camera
The cameras have been one of the main draws for Pixel phones since their first generation, and anyone who’d been waiting for a discount on the Pixel 5 is going to be pleased with what they see here.
Here are the cameras the Google Pixel 5a 5G packs:
- 12.2MP Wide, 1.4-micron, f/1.7, 77-degree FOV, dual-pixel, OIS, EIS
- 16MP ultrawide, f/2.2, 1.0-micron, 117-degree FOV
- 8MP Selfie, 1.12-micron, f/2.0 83-degree FOV
These camera specs are the exact same as those on the Pixel 4a 5G and Pixel 5, down to the micron. The system even offers the same video capture resolutions with up to 4K/60 and 1080p/240 slow-mo on the back and 1080p/30 on the front.
There are two ways to look at the cameras on the Pixel 5a. In one way, they’re impressively strong for a $450 phone, majorly benefiting from the tech handed down from the Pixel 5. On the other hand, those expecting a flagship-level experience that can go toe-to-toe with the Galaxy S21, OnePlus 9, or iPhone 12 won’t find that here. The Pixel 5a’s cameras lag behind those flagships’ camera systems generally and also lack the versatility.
For casual photography, the Pixel 5a cameras are great. They capture lifelike shots with clear detail that have just the right balance between sharpness and softness most of the time (extremely busy shots, like those with tons of grass and foliage, can appear over-sharpened). Colors can skew toward over-saturated but just by a hair, not glaringly, and often they appear quite close to what I perceive with my own eyes. This is true of both the primary and ultra-wide cameras. That sets the Pixel 5a as a shoot-and-send sort of camera, as you won’t have to spend too much time tweaking or reshooting.
It’s a slightly different story when it comes to more advanced shooting. Close-ups are solid, but capturing a distant subject won’t get you very far once you push past a 2x digital zoom. You’ll find the shots lacking detail. Shooting in dark settings can also be tricky. Night Sight mode kicks in automatically, but it can be a little aggressive. It may turn on when a subject is lit well enough in a dark environment. If you’re prepared for its long exposure time, it can yield impressive results, but it can just as frequently ruin a shot if you have a moving subject or didn’t expect to hold still for so long.
The Pixel 5a also offers an Astrophotography mode, but I couldn’t properly test it on the Chicago night sky.
Video on the Pixel 5a is a bit fussier. Google hasn’t made the settings simple, as some options are available in the quick settings (such as resolution and framerate), while others are only in the deeper settings menu. So, when a setting like video stabilization disables another setting like 60fps for 4K video, the process of toggling them on and off is like solving a little puzzle. The video stabilization is strong, but requires a tighter crop, and it results in a choppier feed on the phone’s display (though the recorded video isn’t choppy). There’s also a locked stabilization that is impressive in how much hand shake it eliminates, but it requires a 2x or 3x zoom on top of the crop already applied when switching from photo to video mode, kind of guaranteeing noisy footage.
There’s also a special Cinematic Pan in video mode, but it doesn’t capture audio, slows video down to ½ speed and can create this abominable strobing effect that ruins the footage.
All that said, Google has never really been known for its video quality, and the same is true of most budget and mid-range phones. The Pixel 5a still may not offer flagship quality of versatility in its photography and video, but it’s a step ahead of the competition at this price. The phone giving the Pixel 5a perhaps the biggest run for its money feels like it may actually be the Xiaomi Black Shark 4 with it’s seriously souped up hardware and decent cameras at $499, but software support will remain in the Pixel’s favor.
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