Google Pixel 5a Review: A solid mid-range phone with sensible compromises

Google Pixel 5a Review: A solid mid-range phone with sensible compromises

When Google announced the Pixel 5a last week, there wasn’t anything that really shocked me. After all, that’s not what the a-series is for. It’s meant to bring flagship features to a lower price point. Indeed, it really delivers, offering the same chipset and camera that you’d find in the Google Pixel 5.

Since then, I wrote up my initial impressions, tested the camera, and then wrote up my impressions of the performance and battery life. Now, here we are.

Pixel 5a, compared to the Pixel 5

Perhaps the story shouldn’t be how similar to the Pixel 5 this device is. It seems like it’s more of a matter that this handset is so similar to the Pixel 5, but it still costs $250 less. Here’s a key list of differences between the two handsets:

Google Pixel 5 and Pixel 5a side by side

  • The Pixel 5a is bigger, with a bigger battery
  • The Pixel 5a has a 3.5mm audio jack
  • The Pixel 5a has 6GB of RAM, instead of 8GB
  • The Pixel 5a has a 60Hz screen, instead of 90Hz
  • The Pixel 5a does not have wireless charging
  • The Pixel 5a is IP67 rated instead of IP68

Here’s a key list of similarities:

  • They both have the Snapdragon 765G chipset
  • They both have 128GB of storage
  • They both support 5G
  • They both have 12MP + 16MP ultra-wide rear cameras
  • They both have 8MP f/2.0 front cameras

Personally, I kind of prefer the Pixel 5a, if those are the two devices that you’re choosing between. For $250 less, the biggest compromise seems to be the display refresh rate. When I wrote about how great the battery life is, I said that I didn’t even miss wireless charging.

Pixel 5a, compared to the Pixel 4a

I’m not really here to talk about the Pixel 4a with 5G, since that’s yet another similar device. Let’s put this simply. If you’ve got a Pixel 4a 5G, it’s not worth it to upgrade to the Pixel 5a.

Google Pixel 4a next to Pixel 5a on wooden table

When comparing the Pixel 5a to the regular Pixel 4a, there are some big differences. Here’s what’s different:

  • The FHD 60Hz OLED screen is smaller on the Pixel 4a at 5.8 inches
  • The Pixel 4a is smaller at 3,140mAh
  • The Pixel 4a has a Snapdragon 730G instead of the more powerful Snapdragon 765G
  • The Pixel 4a does not have a secondary ultra-wide camera
  • The Pixel 5a supports sub-6GHz 5G

Here are the similarities:

  • They both have 6GB RAM and 128GB of storage
  • They both have 12.2MP f/1.7 main cameras
  • They both have 8MP f/2.0 front cameras

Obviously, it’s a bigger upgrade from the Pixel 4a to the Pixel 5a. The obvious thing you get from the Pixel 5a is 5G, but there’s a reason I haven’t talked about 5G in my review. It’s mostly useless, depending on where you live. Most places here in the U.S., it’s no faster than 4G LTE; in many places, it’s actually slower. I’m not going to get started on how useless mmWave is, because the Pixel 5a doesn’t support it anyway.

The two biggest changes will be the ultra-wide camera and the larger battery. If that’s something you need, go for it. If you like the smaller form factor better than a larger battery, you can wait and see what comes next.

Pixel 5a, compared to the Pixel 3a

I’m going to keep this pretty simple, because there’s not too much to compare. If you’re still using the Google Pixel 3a and you’re wondering if the Pixel 5a is a worthy upgrade, it absolutely is. I’m also not going to make a list of bulletpoints, because everything is different at this point. All you actually need to know is that this is a worthy upgrade.

Google Pixel 5a on top of Pixel 3a XL on wooden table

I know I’ve talked about battery life, but the 4,680mAh is bigger than the 3,700mAh on the Pixel 3a XL. Forget about the 3,000mAh battery on the regular Pixel 3a. The Pixel 3a series also has less RAM and storage at 4GB and 64GB, respectively, and it only has a single 12.2MP f/1.8 rear camera.

The big difference is the chipset though. The Snapdragon 670 with 4GB RAM just doesn’t seem to cut it when compared to the Snapdragon 765G and 6GB RAM in the Pixel 5a. In the course of my testing, I was using the Pixel 3 XL, Pixel 3a XL, Pixel 4, Pixel 4 XL, Pixel 4a, and Pixel 5. When running tests on the Pixel 3a XL, it was so clear that this was an immature product. It had a lot of value for its day, but today, it really doesn’t stand up like the rest of those products did.

If you liked your Pixel 3a or 3a XL, you’re probably thinking that it might be time for an upgrade. The Pixel 5a is it.

Who is the Google Pixel 5a for?

If you start to look at that $449 price range, there’s a lot that’s available. And of course, the goal is always to provide value. The most obvious competitor at that range is the iPhone SE, which starts at $399 with 64GB of storage, but costs the same $449 with 128GB of storage.

Google Pixel 5a with grassy background

It’s tough to call one the better product because I have a feeling that most would decide based on their preference in operating system. Still, the Google Pixel 5a has an FHD OLED display, an ultra-wide camera, and 5G, if you’re into that. The iPhone SE has massive bezels, an LCD display, and a single-lens camera, although it does have wireless charging.

So, who should buy the Google Pixel 5a? Let’s take a look.

  • People that are looking for value at a mid-tier price
  • Users that want great battery life at that price
  • Users that want a great camera at that price

Here’s who should not buy the Google Pixel 5a:

  • Customers that record a lot of high-resolution, high frame-rate video
  • People that care about lossless zoom in the camera
  • People that want a proper flagship phone

It’s worth remembering that the Pixel 6 is coming. If you skipped the Pixel 5 because of Google’s choice to not use a flagship chipset, stick around. There’s no need to settle.

Conclusion

There’s a lot that’s good here, as you’d expect. Google continues to deliver value in a way that few can compete with. It brings software features like Now Playing, dual exposure with the camera, and more to the mid-range price point. Of course, that existed with the Pixel 4a as well.

It’s still missing wireless charging, which is a shame, but it’s made up for with a big battery. The biggest problem that I has was that the camera caused the device to overheat on numerous occasions. It’s been widely reported by now that the camera shuts down when recording 4K 60fps video, but there were times it would shut the flash off just when taking pictures. It was a real pain point.

That’s just one thing to get hung up on. If you’re looking to spend under $500 on a phone, I’m not sure what else you’d be looking at, to be honest. It’s got a great OLED display, even if it’s not 90Hz, and it’s got a phenomenal camera that includes Night Sight, astrophotography, and more.

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About author

Rich Woods
Rich Woods

Managing Editor for XDA Computing. I've been covering tech from smartphones to PCs since 2013. If you see me at a trade show, come say hi and let me ask you weird questions about why you use the tech you use.