Google Pixel 5a Review: A solid mid-range phone with sensible compromises
If you read the first part of this review, you saw my thoughts mostly on the design and the display of the Google Pixel 5a. I lost the ‘Mostly Black’ color, which is actually green. The OLED display is nice, although obviously the omission of the 90Hz refresh rate is a bit disappointing, yet it’s acceptable at this price point. That was day one, and now it’s time to look at some of the things that actually take time with the device to figure out.
We’re going to start with the camera, since this is really a day two thing. The fact is that there’s really not a lot that’s new with the Pixel 5a when compared with the Pixel 5, or even when compared with the Pixel 4a. There’s a 12MP f/1.7 main sensor and a 16MP f/2.2 ultra-wide sensor on the back, so they’re the same as you’d find on either of those handsets. There’s still no telephoto lens, ever since Google backtracked from the Pixel 4, which notably had a telephoto lens and no ultra-wide sensor.
Let’s take a look at some samples from the main, ultra-wide, and front-facing cameras.
Obviously, there are no surprises here. Google’s camera lives up to its name, as always. There are a lot of tricky lighting situations that the Pixel 5a handles well, such as the bright lights that line the edge of Yankee Stadium, or taking pictures of the bright field from the dim indoor area. You’ll notice that the lights are a little bit more blown out in the ultra-wide shots, but it’s not particularly noticeable.
I also took a bunch of pictures at up to 7x zoom, which is the highest that it goes.
For the most part, the pictures didn’t come out very good. It’s a real shame when lossless zoom is becoming a trend across the industry. I realize that this is a mid-range smartphone, but I expected more from Google. It really made me think back to the Pixel 4 era, when Google talked up its lossless zoom using a combination of the telephoto lens and computational photography to get the best shot possible. That device only went up to 8x zoom, but even at max, it still did a pretty decent job. That doesn’t seem to be the case anymore.
While I was there, I recorded some 4K 60fps video. You might have heard by now that when recording 4K 60fps video, the Pixel 5a gets hot and shuts off your video recording. I ran a test indoors in the air conditioning and it got to nine minutes and 32 seconds. That’s not great.
But what you might not have heard is that it’s even worse than that. In my day at Yankee Stadium, I was just shooting pictures and got hit with multiple overheating warnings. When taking pictures, it just tells you that it’s going to turn the flash off, even if you’re not using it. Naturally though, when the device gets hot, performance starts to degrade on the entire device. I started to try and take a picture, and there would be seconds between when I pressed the shutter button and when the device captured what it was looking at, if it did at all.
While I can wish for better lossless zoom, overheating is a more serious issue. Look at it this way. There are different levels of a product. One is base level stuff, like the basics that you need to make it what it is. The second is the features that you’d expect, and the third is extras. The camera would be in that second level, so it’s something that has to work when you need it to work. If it doesn’t work when you need it to, then all of the computational photography in the world won’t save your picture.
It’s still worth noting that this is the same camera as the Pixel 5, except that it’s missing the spectral and flicker sensor, which helps banding. That’s a bit surprising, since that was on the Pixel 5 and Pixel 4a 5G. There are no surprises with this camera though. I do hope that Google can manage a firmware update that helps with overheating issues.
For the next part of this review, we’ll be talking about performance and battery life.