Now that we have $1,800 luxury foldable smartphones, people are unsurprisingly taking stock of what they really need in a smartphone. Google knows this, and it’s precisely why it’s been focusing on the mid-range and upper mid-range smartphone markets in recent years.
The Pixel 3a, Pixel 4a, and Pixel 4a 5G impressed us with their solid cameras, excellent software, and — most importantly — their affordable price tags. It seemed Google struck the right balance between features and price. That sentiment resonated with our readers, too.
Google is set to impress again with its latest release. The Pixel 5a offers more features for less money — who can argue with that? Read Android Authority’s Google Pixel 5a review to learn more.
What you need to know about the Google Pixel 5a
- Google Pixel 5a: $449
Don’t think of the Pixel 5a as the direct successor to the Pixel 4a. The Google Pixel 5a is an upper mid-range smartphone that builds on 2020’s Pixel 4a 5G, which itself shared a lot of DNA with the Pixel 5. The two devices are nearly the same, save for a few hardware upgrades. The Pixel 5a adds a metal unibody design, a slightly bigger display, a much larger battery, and an IP67 rating for dust and water resistance — a first for the A-series lineup. The SoC, memory, and camera setups are identical, though.
It comes in one color option, Mostly Black, and is now available for pre-order from the Google Store. This device will see a much more limited launch compared to the 4a 5G, at least initially. You can buy it from the Google Store or Google Fi in the US and SoftBank in Japan (retailing for 51,700 Japanese yen). It’ll officially go on sale Thursday, August 26, for $449.
As per usual, Google throws in free trials to YouTube Premium, Google Play Pass, and Google One with each purchase.
How’s the improved design?
The hardware is the most “upgraded” part of the Google Pixel 5a. While all other A-series devices have had plastic chassis, the Pixel 5a has a metal unibody design. It feels really nice to use without a case. It has a slightly soft-touch coating to make it grippier than other phones.
I like that Google is using metal in its phones again. (It’s the entire reason I purchased the Pixel 5 last year.) However, the added weight is noticeable. The Pixel 5a weighs 183g compared to the Pixel 4a 5G’s 168g, even though the two are nearly the same size. That might not seem like much, but it’s noticeable when you’re holding the phone for a few minutes at a time.
The Google Pixel 5a is also the first A-series device to offer an IP67 rating for dust and water resistance. Somehow a common omission on phones in this price range, your Pixel 5a can now take a dip in the pool or get caught in the rain without you having to soak it in a bag of rice afterward.
The metal unibody design and IP67 rating help make a good phone great.
The Pixel 5a has a nice OLED display. It’s slightly bigger and taller this time around, measuring 6.34 inches compared to the Pixel 4a 5G’s 6.2-inch screen. It has nearly the same resolution and pixel density, too. It also has the same Gorilla Glass 3 coating as before.
The only issue I have with the display is that there’s no option to bump it up to 90Hz — a common feature at this price point. Perhaps that would make production costs more expensive, but I think it’s one of those features that will eventually make its way to all mid-range phones and is already common for mid-tier smartphones sold in Europe and India. Still, even at 60Hz, the display is fine.
A few other design niceties:
- Mostly Black: The Pixel 5a comes in one color, Mostly Black. It’s actually more of a dark grey with olive undertones, which matches nicely with the light grey-olive power button. The power button has a wavy texture to it, so you know you’ve found it. Random reference, but think bottom-of-the-Pixelbook-Go wavy.
- New cases: Google is forgoing the fabric cases with the Pixel 5a release, instead launching a new series of plastic cases made from recycled materials. I love this case. It’s grippy and protective, and the Maybe Moon colorway goes well with the phone’s color. Google easily could’ve charged $49 for this case, but it’s selling them for just $29.
- Headphone jack: There is one, right on the top of the phone.
- Fingerprint sensor: The rear-mounted fingerprint sensor operates just as it usually does on Pixel phones. It’s fast, and you can use it to pull down the notification shade if you don’t want to reach your thumb to the top of this very tall phone.
- Haptics: The Pixel 5a’s haptics are great — surprisingly great for a phone that costs this much.
- Punch-hole camera: The Pixel 5a has a smaller punch-hole selfie camera than the Pixel 5. To me, it’s less noticeable in day-to-day use.
Does the battery ever quit?
No, it doesn’t. Well, I couldn’t get it to quit. I think if you’re a normal human — or even a power user who games more than anything else — you’ll have trouble killing this phone in a day.
I tested the phone for an entire week, and I only needed to charge it a few times. The first day I had it, I ran speed tests, downloaded apps, scrolled social media, shot photos and videos, streamed ~45 minutes of YouTube and around an hour of podcasts, and left it off the charger overnight, and I was still able to get around eight hours of screen-on time. That’s a full day of use while almost never putting the phone down.
The Pixel 5a's battery doesn't quit.
On more normal days of use, I was going to bed with ~60-65% battery left in the tank.
Since this is a Pixel phone, you not only get your standard battery saver mode, there’s also extreme battery saver mode if you want to eke out as much juice as possible.
Notably, Google increased the Pixel 5a’s battery size to 4,680mAh, up from the Pixel 4a 5G’s 3,885mAh cell. There’s no Pixel 5 wireless charging trickery here — the Pixel 5a does not support wireless charging. Not uncommon for this price range, but still worth mentioning.
The phone takes a little over two full hours to charge from zero to 100% using the supplied 18W charging cable through the USB Power Delivery standard. That’s slow, but considering this is a huge battery that you’ll only have to charge every few days, I’d say it’s a fine trade-off.
Related: The best phone charging accessories
How are the Pixel 5a cameras holding up?
I’ll try not to rehash too much of what my colleague Ollie mentioned in his Pixel 4a 5G review. The Pixel 5a’s camera setup is identical to the Pixel 5 and Pixel 4a 5G’s. It has the same ol’ 12.2MP main camera sensor that Google has been using for ages. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Right?
Yes and no. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the Pixel 5a’s main camera sensor. It still provides one of the best point-and-shoot experiences you can get on a smartphone in this price range. The main camera produces photos with accurate colors, above-average exposure levels, and wide dynamic range.
Photos are sharp enough for social media use, but don’t zoom in — there’s a reason the company is moving to a much higher-resolution sensor in the Pixel 6. The 12MP sensor just doesn’t provide as much detail as larger sensors, even with Google’s computational photography prowess improving things every year.
Daytime photos are almost always spot-on, and low-light snaps are made even better with Night Sight. Google recently tweaked the (excellent) Pixel Camera app to make the Night Sight mode kick in by default without switching to it manually. This makes capturing night shots much easier and quicker.
The main sensor is coupled with a 16MP ultra-wide lens with a 107-degree field of view. This effectively gives you three zoom ranges — easily accessible in the camera app — at .6x, 1x, and 2x using Google’s Super Res Zoom feature. The latter won’t replace a true telephoto lens, but it does a serviceable job in this price range where dedicated zoom cameras aren’t all that common.
Google’s machine learning algorithms prevent distortion around the edges of wide shots, which is often a pitfall of many mid-range smartphone cameras. Color accuracy between the two lenses is solid as well. But when you really dig into the ultra-wide shots, you’ll see colors are a bit more muted compared to the main lens, and there’s a small but noticeable loss in sharpness when zooming into the 16MP shots. This does not make or break the camera experience by any means, but those after the best-looking wide-angle shots should look elsewhere.
The Pixel 5a is equipped with an 8MP front-facing sensor — again, the same one we’ve seen in previous Pixel devices. It’s a single lens, though Google’s software allows for 1.4x software zoom. Night Sight can also be used with the front-facing camera, which could be your saving grace for late-night bar shots. Selfies come out looking natural, and details on faces are clear.
Portrait mode shots with the front-facing camera usually come out somewhere between acceptable and very good. Google’s software can struggle with blurring out hair or the edges of glasses at times, but that’s usually the case for portrait shots.
Some additional camera features:
- Video capture: Last year, Google made the leap into 4K video capture at 60fps. I’ve had no issues with video quality overall, and Google provides excellent software stabilization. You can choose between standard stabilization, locked (for faraway shots), active (for heavy movement), and cinematic pan (for smoother panning shots). These are all fun, but I expect most people will leave it on standard mode.
- Portrait Light: If the lighting of your selfies isn’t quite right, you can use Portrait Light to readjust it by adding a software-based light source. It’s fascinating to use and can really help improve the overall quality of your images.
The photo samples in this review have been compressed. You can check out the full-resolution camera samples in this Google Drive folder.
I should also note that throughout the review process, the Pixel 5a gave me a “Device is too hot” notice when shooting photos outside. This happened four times in the week I tested the phone, and it usually showed up in the first few minutes of shooting photos. As far as I know, this has not affected performance in any noticeable way. Regardless, we’ve notified Google of this potential issue and will update when we hear back.
- All-around good performance: The Pixel 5a has the same internal specs as the Pixel 5 and Pixel 4a 5G, so it runs quite smoothly. The Snapdragon 765G backed by 6GB of RAM has been able to handle almost every task I’ve thrown at it, and I rarely ran into performance hiccups. The Adreno 620 GPU may not hold up well for 3D gaming, however. While I’ve had few issues with the performance overall, the 765G is over a year old at this point and there are other Snapdragon 700-series chips Google could’ve used instead to future-proof the device a bit more. Just know there’s a chance the chip may not hold up as well in a year or two.
- Be sure to check out our dedicated article on the Snapdragon 765G for more of an idea of how the chipset has aged over time.
- Android 11 now, Android 12 soon: The Pixel 5a ships with Android 11 — the current stable version of the software — out of the box. It’s the same version of Android you get on the Pixel 4a 5G, Pixel 5, and 4a. In just a few weeks, though, Google is expected to roll out Android 12 — a major upgrade to the OS that includes aesthetic and usability changes galore. Luckily, the Pixel 5a will be among the first to receive the upgrade. You can read all about Android 12 right here.
- Software promises and nice Google add-ons: The Google Pixel 5a will receive a minimum of three years of major OS upgrades and security updates. That’s great news for those who care about the longevity and security of their phone over time. The 5a also comes with Pixel-exclusive features like the Google Recorder app, Call Screening for spam calls, and regular Pixel Feature Drops which bring new software features to the phone.
- 5G capable, with limitations: The Google Pixel 5a is 5G-capable, though only for sub-6GHz networks — no mmWave support here. As you may recall, the Pixel 4a 5G saw a wider (and slightly delayed) launch on Verizon, likely due to its finicky mmWave network. So, you’re still getting 5G, just not all the 5G capabilities you could want. Really though, it doesn’t sound like mmWave support is all that important to have in 2021 anyway. It also misses out on Wi-Fi 6 support, which is a shame.
- Booming speakers: The Pixel 5a’s stereo speakers get very loud. Too loud, in some cases. They’re significantly louder than the Pixel 5’s speakers, though audio quality gets noticeably muddy when cranked up to full volume.
Google Pixel 5a specs
|Google Pixel 5a|
|Display||6.34-inch OLED display|
2,400 x 1,080 resolution
20:9 aspect ratio
60Hz refresh rate
Corning Gorilla Glass 3
|SoC||Qualcomm Snapdragon 765G|
2.4GHz + 2.2GHz + 1.8GHz
Titan M Security Module
|RAM||6GB of RAM (LPDDR4x)|
No expandable storage
1.4μm pixel width
Autofocus with dual pixel phase detection
Optical + electronic image stabilization
77° field of view
1.0μm pixel width
117° field of view (107° after distortion correction)
1.12μm pixel width
ƒ/2.0 aperture (fixed focus)
83° field of view
Ambient light sensor
|Buttons and ports||USB-C 3.1 Gen 1|
3.5mm headphone jack
18W fast charging
USB-C 18W adapter with USB-PD 2.0
|Connectivity||Wi-Fi 2.4GHz + 5GHz|
802.11a/b/g/n/ac 2x2 MIMO
Bluetooth v5.0 + LE, A2DP7
HD codecs: AptX, AptX HD, LDAC, AAC
US: GPS, GLONASS, Galileo, QZSS
ROW: GPS, GLONASS, Galileo, QZSS, BeiDou
Minimum 3 years of OS and security updates
|Dimensions and weight||156.2 x 73.2 x 8.8mm|
Value and competition
At $449, the Google Pixel 5a has some decent competition in the United States, though it’s really the only option to consider at its exact price point.
Let’s get this out of the way first: the Pixel 5a is set to replace the Pixel 4a 5G ($499), so don’t expect the two to be sold on the Google Store in tandem. And even if you do find the older phone on sale, I’d still recommend opting for the Pixel 5a instead. It’s a really nice upgrade over what was an already great phone.
You can also still find the Pixel 5 ($700) on sale at some retailers, but Google has discontinued the phone in preparation for the Pixel 6 line. The Pixel 5 is still an upgrade pick over the Pixel 5a, though we wouldn’t recommend spending full price on it.
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Google and Samsung are in a race to debut their upper mid-range 2021 phones. Samsung is rumored to launch the Galaxy S21 FE this month, which could pose a threat to potential Pixel 5a buyers who are looking for something a little more powerful. However, the phone is not out yet, so we’ll need to wait to compare the two phones. Samsung’s device is also expected to cost a few hundred dollars more than the Pixel 5a.
For those wanting a Pixel 5a alternative right now, the Samsung Galaxy S20 FE ($550) is a great, albeit pricier alternative. It’s faster, supports 5G, and has a better display and a more versatile camera setup. The Samsung Galaxy A52 5G ($499) is also a good alternative with a higher refresh rate display, though you’ll take a hit on performance when dialed up to 120Hz.
And for an out-there pick, Motorola’s Moto G Stylus ($400) is a decent, cheaper option with 5G support. It comes with a stylus (duh), though its performance and cameras don’t quite stack up to the Pixel 5a’s.
Google Pixel 5a review: The verdict
Google has subtly proved a point over the last few years: it is very good at making basic smartphones that work well. The Google Pixel 5a is no exception, and it’s made even better thanks to the IP67 rating and gigantic battery. No, it’s not the most exciting phone you’ll see in 2021, but it works, and that’s exactly what it’s supposed to do.
Google made a great phone even greater, and called it the Pixel 5a. This is one of the easiest phones to recommend in 2021.
I, and many others, would have loved to see a more powerful processor and a 90Hz display on this year’s model, but that likely would’ve bumped the price up to $500 or so — then we’d be having a different conversation. And let’s be honest, asking Google to add notable camera hardware improvements to a mid-range phone is pretty much out of the question.
While the phone is all-around good, it’s that $449 price tag that really makes the Pixel 5a stand out. I’ve enjoyed using it, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to anyone looking for a sub-$1,000 phone that “just works.”
At this point, Google has this down to a science.