When it comes to Google’s Pixel phones, it’s always best to just wait a year.
That’s not to say its Pixel flagships are bad phones, because they certainly aren’t. It’s just that you can always hold off a bit and get an only slightly compromised version for way cheaper thanks to Google’s A-Series product line. Hell, in the case of the new $449.99 Pixel 5a, you actually get a couple of major upgrades!
Thanks to a slightly larger 6.3-inch screen and a big, beefy battery (to go along with the same excellent cameras), it’s easy to argue that the Pixel 5a is an upgrade over its flagship big brother, the Pixel 5, despite a $250 price drop.
Credit: molly flores / mashable
Let’s get this out of the way quickly: Aside from being a tad bigger, the Pixel 5a is remarkably similar to the Pixel 5 in terms of looks, feel, and specs. It comes in a single color (Mostly Black), has a fingerprint sensor on the back, and packs the front camera into a small hole-punch lens in the upper left corner of the display.
Here’s what you can expect with the single $449 SKU Google is selling, and how it compares to the Pixel 5:
- 6.34-inch full HD display with a 60Hz refresh rate vs. 6.0-inch with 90Hz on Pixel 5
6GB RAM and 128GB storage vs. 8GB RAM and 128GB storage on Pixel 5
4,680mAh battery vs. 4,080mAh on Pixel 5
A 3.5mm headphone jack on top vs. USB-C only on Pixel 5
IP67 dust and water resistance, making it the first water-resistant Pixel A-Series phone
The same Qualcomm Snapdragon 765G processor in both phones
The same dual-camera setup with portrait mode, Night Sight, and an ultrawide lens on both phones
In other words, Pixel 5a owners can boast about their headphone jacks, significantly larger batteries, and bigger screens, while Pixel 5 owners just have a little bit more RAM, a better refresh rate, and the possibility of faster 5G to brag about. Those things aren’t unimportant by any means — more RAM is always welcome for speedier performance and I’m a sucker for the smooth 90Hz scrolling. But in my mind, there’s really no disputing that the Pixel 5a is, pound-for-pound, a better phone than the Pixel 5 when taking price into consideration.
I’d like to really zero in on the battery size. The 4,680mAh battery powering the Pixel 5a is the biggest Pixel battery to date. In fact, it’s a good deal mightier than even the 3,687mAh battery in Apple’s most expensive flagship to date, the iPhone 12 Pro Max. It’s a truly all-day battery, giving me roughly 24 hours of solid use on a full charge before feeling the need to plug in via the USB-C port on the bottom.
Credit: molly flores / mashable
To give you a more specific idea of how that applies to real-world usage, let me walk you through the paces I’ve put the Pixel 5a through since the last time I fully charged it. This Pixel 5a has gone through the ringer: A healthy dose of Spotify and YouTube over WiFi and 5G, constant scrolling through Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, and plenty of web browsing, too. (I’m binge-watching Better Call Saul right now and occasionally need to look up Breaking Bad plot points on the Pixel 5a because I haven’t seen the latter show in years and have forgotten some things.)
All in all, that’s more than four hours of screen usage, often with the brightness jacked up and battery-draining apps like YouTube open. After about 15 hours had elapsed, its charge dropped from 100 percent to 37 percent. And that’s after a lazy Sunday where all I did was look at the phone all day. The Pixel 5a would almost certainly preserve even more battery on a typical weekday.
Google has been steadily improving the batteries in its Pixel phones ever since the disappointing Pixel 4 a couple of years ago, and the Pixel 5a is easily the apotheosis of those efforts so far. When it came to performance, however, Google took a different, “don’t fix what ain’t broke” approach.
Still a solid performer
Credit: molly flores / mashable
There isn’t much to say about general everyday performance on the Pixel 5a because it’s so similar to both the Pixel 5 and Pixel 4a 5G. As I mentioned above, the Pixel 5 comes with a little more RAM, while the Pixel 4a 5G has both the exact same processor, and the same amount of RAM.
And to be clear, I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Both of those phones were snappy and responsive, with apps loading quickly and nary a hitch or stutter to be found during normal daily activities. The Pixel 5a recreates that level of performance, giving the phone more of a premium feel than its price might let on. The only very tiny complaint I have is that sometimes opening push notifications from the lock screen can take a few seconds. I mostly noticed this with Twitter, so it might be a problem with that company’s Android app and not the phone itself.
I’d be remiss not to talk about the 5G support, as well. Google decided to stick with just sub-6Ghz 5G for the Pixel 5a, which is actually a downgrade from before. The Pixel 5 and 4a 5G could access faster mmWave bands in the U.S. Google provided a free trial of its Google Fi 5G network for testing purposes and it’s still 5G, for better and worse. That means high speeds and high volatility.
Credit: Molly flores / mashable
I ran some tests around my neighborhood using Speedtest (Note: Both Mashable and Speedtest are owned by the same parent company, J2 Global) and never found a pocket of 5G that dropped below 250Mbps in terms of download speed, which is great. That’s faster than a lot of folks’ home WiFi connections. At times, it went up into the 500s and 600s, though this was inconsistent and difficult to recreate. I’m not going to complain about mobile download speeds that range between 250Mbps and 700Mbps, but I’d love more consistency and I also can’t vouch for how Google Fi works outside of one part of Brooklyn.
Oh, and I have one final gripe about the Pixel 5a’s usability: Fingerprint sensors on the backs of phones suck. This particular one works well enough, always recognizing my fingerprints on the first or second try, but positioning the hand to touch it just to unlock the phone is always a bit awkward. I’d be more fine with it if Google would bring back face unlocking, but just like the Pixel 5, that’s not present here. Oh well.
Same cameras, but that’s fine
You can pretty much copy and paste my sentiments about the processing power to any analysis of the Pixel 5a’s cameras. They’re exactly the same as the ones found on the Pixel 5: Two rear cameras (12MP and 16MP) with Google’s suite of software-based image enhancements that allow the hardware to punch above its weight.
Portrait mode still looks nice. The bokeh effect doesn’t look too fake or intense, as you can see in this shot I took of a traffic light that had been dislodged from its perch and was dangling from its cables in my neighborhood.
Credit: alex perry / mashable
Once again, Google’s Night Sight delivers the goods for photos in dark spaces. The water feature in our backyard is impossible to see with the naked eye at night, but Night Sight illuminated it just enough without making it look like someone shone studio lights on it. That nighttime feel is still present, even with Google’s software juicing up the image.
None of this is remarkable because we’ve seen it all before. But these cameras were more than adequate a year ago and that’s still true today, especially for a $449 phone with so much else going for it.
The Pixel to get right now
This is the best Google Pixel phone you can buy right now, with an emphasis on “right now” because we know the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro are on the way. Google’s compromises are so marginal as to be almost invisible. Yes, it would’ve been great to have a refresh rate higher than 60Hz. I would also point out that Apple charges more than $1,000 for its high-end phones and doesn’t offer high refresh rates on any of them yet, so Google isn’t committing some horrible sin relative to its peers here. The extra RAM from the Pixel 5 would also be welcome, but again, I have almost no complaints about daily performance as is.
Credit: mOLLY FLORES / mashable
The Pixel 5a bursts in front of its brethren thanks to a seriously impressive battery, a large screen, simple but effective cameras, and the fact that it has a headphone jack. The presence of 5G support also future-proofs it to a degree, as major network carriers continue to expand their 5G networks across the U.S. Simply put, it’s tough to find anything to dislike about the Pixel 5a, perhaps aside from the fact that it doesn’t really do anything new.
If you’re rocking one of last year’s Pixel phones, it’s probably not worth upgrading for the battery alone, as enticing as it is. But for those who are hanging onto an older Android phone or would like to switch over from iOS for whatever reason, the Pixel 5a is an affordable, jack-of-all-trades 5G handset with one of the best batteries around.