Pixel 5a review: The 4a 5G wasn't broken, so Google didn't fix it

The latest midrange Pixel keeps the same processor, RAM and cameras, but does add water resistance.

Terrence O'Brien / Engadget

The Pixel 6 is just around the corner. But before Google brings it and its Tensor mobile chip to market, the company is updating its entry level offering with the $449 Pixel 5a. The whole point of the “a” family is to offer the basics at a reasonable price without sacrificing too much of the Pixel experience in the process. That means a relatively clean version of Android with a bunch of AI tricks and a heavy focus on photography.

But apparently Google feels like it more or less nailed that formula with the Pixel 4a 5G because the 5a is basically the same phone. (Note: The Pixel 5a is not a direct successor to the 4a, which was a much smaller device.) There are some differences — notably the addition of IP67 waterproofing — but most of the tweaks are extremely minor. Even the processor and RAM haven’t changed. So, if we said you could do better way back in October of 2020, what does that mean for the 5a in the fall of 2021?

Well, it makes the Pixel 5a about as unexciting as a phone can be, for one. But look, boring isn’t necessarily bad. Especially when you’re talking about the mid and lower tiers of the smartphone market. For one, keeping things staid allows Google to focus its efforts on battery life and performance optimization. And just like the last generation of Pixels, the 5a feels pretty responsive despite the aging Snapdragon 765G inside. That said, the 765G wasn’t exactly top of the line last year, and it’s starting to show its limits. While scrolling through the UI and doing simple things like reading email and sending text messages, the 5a is indistinguishable from any flagship device. It even handles most mobile games without a hiccup. I spent some time playing The Elder Scrolls: Blades and Wild Castle and the phone barely broke a sweat.

But, I did notice it stutter a few times while navigating YouTube, editing photos and jotting down my thoughts for this review in Evernote. The latter I could easily chalk up to Evernote’s questionable development over the last few years, but the pauses while switching to fullscreen in YouTube and swapping filters in Google Photos are a bit more concerning.

Google Pixel 5a
Google Pixel 5a (Terrence O'Brien / Engadget)

The plus side of going with something a bit older and lower-powered (not to mention with an integrated 5G modem) is power efficiency. The 4a 5G was already something of a beast, lasting over 17 hours in our battery drain test before our reviews editor Cherlynn Low simply gave up and moved on with her life. That device had a 3,885mAh battery. The 5a has a 4,680mAh cell. It took 22 hours and 56 of playing a video on loop at 50-brightness before it finally powered down.

After 24 hour of heavy usage — playing games, repeatedly running 5G speed tests, installing apps, watching videos on YouTube and even letting it play sleep sounds overnight — the battery was still at 40 percent. It didn’t finally crap out until almost 2AM on day two. And if you turn on Extreme Battery Saver, things could get even more absurd. I’m fairly confident that under normal use you could get a full 48 hours out of the Pixel 5a before needing to find an outlet.

Battery life isn’t the only difference between the 5a and 4a 5G: The new phone is also IP67 rated for water and dust resistance. At a time when many smartphones have at least some form of water resistance the Pixel 4a 5G was sort of a disappointment. In fact, the lack of waterproofing was one of the big cons called out in our review. But the Pixel 5a should easily survive getting caught in the rain or if you drop it in a toilet. It can withstand being submerged in water up to one meter deep for 30 minutes, but I wouldn’t push this to its limits. Definitely don’t go swimming with it in your pocket.

Google Pixel 5a
Google Pixel 5a (Terrence O'Brien / Engadget)

The last difference between the Pixel 5a and the 4a 5G is in the size and construction, but it’s subtle. The 5a has a metal unibody as opposed to a polycarbonate one. The texture is still matte and similar to the softtouch of the previous models, though, and the upgrade to Gorilla Glass 6 from Gorilla Glass 3 is notable, but you’ll never notice the difference in daily use. The 5a comes in one finish: Mostly Black. Some might find the look a little dull, and it’s certainly on the utilitarian side, but I quite liked the feel of the phone. The finish is a nice contrast to the seemingly endless sea of smooth glassy surfaces and the heft is just right, too.

The 5a is ever so slightly larger and heavier, but you’re talking about a few millimeters and grams. Even if you had a Pixel 4a 5G in one hand and a Pixel 5a in the other you’d be hard pressed to figure out which is which.

Google Pixel 5a
Google Pixel 5a

The change in size mostly comes down to the slightly larger screen. The OLED panel on the 5a is 6.34 inches, versus 6.2 inches on the 4a 5G. Otherwise, though, the screens are basically the same. The increased resolution of 2,400 x 1,080 makes up for the size difference so they both have a density of 413 ppi. Both also sport a contrast ratio of 100,000:1 and support HDR and are stuck at now outdated 60Hz. And both are just bright enough to use in direct sunlight, though high brightness mode is definitely a necessity if you’re watching a video outdoors.

Even the holepunch for the front-facing camera is in the same place. That said, I appreciated Google’s “for fun” wallpapers that camouflage the hole by incorporating it into the design. My favorite is the record player where the camera becomes the hole at the center of an LP.

That 8-megapixel front-facing camera, by the way, is one of the weak points of the 5a. It does the job in perfect lighting and for video calls. But details can be a bit soft, in low light it gets noisy and portrait mode is hit or miss. Overall, I found Google’s portrait feature to be a bit too aggressive even on the main camera. You can easily adjust the blur and depth after the fact, but the default settings could stand to be more subtle.

The selfie cam, though, is the same one found on the Pixel 4a 5G, so none of this is a surprise. In fact, all of the cameras are the same. The two sensors around the rear, however, are much better than the one on the front. There’s a 12.2-megapixel main shooter with optical image stabilization and a 16-megapixel ultra-wide-angle lens. They have a somewhat “moody” vibe when compared to shots from an iPhone or a Galaxy device, but they’re not obviously inferior. And even though images taken with the wide-angle lens can get a little fuzzy if you start zooming in on details, Google’s processing does an admirable job of minimizing barrel distortion. Google isn’t at the top of the smartphone camera heap anymore, but it’s not far off and photography is still an undeniable strong suit of the Pixel family.

Pixel 5a Camera features
Pixel 5a Camera features (Terrence O'Brien / Engadget)

There’s nothing new to report, though. It’s the same set of excellent photography features that you got last year: Portrait lighting can help clean up and add some contrast to photos of people (but sadly not pets — the option only appears if a human face is detected). Night Sight turns on automatically in dim lighting and at times produces mind-blowing results. And the video stabilization modes are excellent. Cinematic Pan, which combines slow motion with super smooth movement, is especially fun.

Also, just like every other “a” model Pixel, this one has a headphone jack. All I can say is: That’s great, now please bring the headphone jack back to flagship phones. I know I’m not the only person clamoring for it. And it drives me nuts that the only way to get an old-school 3.5mm jack on my phone is to go down market.

Google Pixel 5a
Google Pixel 5a (Terrence O'Brien / Engadget)

One last thing to mention: The actual full name of the phone is the Pixel 5a with 5G. So, guess what, it supports 5G connectivity. That’s not really surprising since the Snapdragon 765G has an integrated 5G modem. Unlike the Pixel 4a 5G, however, there is no mmWave variant of the 5a. And, although technically it’s capable of C-Band support, it’s currently not enabled and Google wouldn’t commit to adding support in the future. That’s not a huge deal at the moment since there are no active C-Band networks in the US yet. But it might irk some when AT&T and Verizon start flipping the switch, likely sometime later this year. That said, full C-Band rollout isn’t expected to happen until at least late 2023.

Those caveats out of the way, 5G still seems stuck in a state of arrested development. I tested the Pixel 5a using Google Fi, which essentially means I was on T-Mobile’s network and speeds were all over the place. In my home, it was often slower than Verizon’s LTE network, averaging around 35mbps down. (Note: Verizon is Engadget’s parent company… for now.) But two and half miles up the road at a local Subaru dealership I was routinely getting over 300mbps down, topping out at 370mbps.

5G speed test
5G speed test (Terrence O'Brien / Engadget)

Of course, 5G and excellent cameras aren’t a rarity at this price any more. Mid-tier phones have come a long way over the last few years. The problem for Google is, it no longer clearly “owns the midrange.” Part of that is down to price. While the 5a is $50 cheaper than the 4a 5G, it’s not the obvious bargain that the 4a was at $350. If it was even just $50 cheaper still, the 5a would be a much easier sell at $399.

The Samsung A52 5G is slightly more expensive at $500 (though regularly on sale for less) and has a slower Snapdragon 750G SoC. But, its Super AMOLED screen clearly outclasses the Pixel’s and has a 120Hz refresh rate. Plus, its camera system is much sharper and feature-packed (but that doesn’t necessarily mean “better”). In addition to a primary camera and ultra-wide shooter, there’s a macro lens and a depth sensor that helps with portrait mode. While both the A52 and 5a ship with 128GB of storage, the Samsung has an advantage in that it has a microSD card slot.

Google Pixel 5a
Google Pixel 5a

Then there’s the OnePlus Nord N2 5G. It has a trio of cameras around the back, including a 50-megapixel primary sensor, an AMOLED screen with a 90Hz refresh rate, and up to 12GB of RAM. Then again, it has a MediaTek processor, which you rarely see in phones in the US and with good reason: They’re not exactly known for their high-end performance. But perhaps more importantly, you’re highly unlikely to be making a choice between the Nord N2 and the Pixel 5a since the former isn’t available in the US, and the later is only available in the US and Japan.

Of course, if you’re more of an iOS fan, the obvious comparison would seem to be the iPhone SE. It’s the same price as the Pixel 5a for a 128GB model, but it does feel quite a bit dated. It still uses the old iPhone 8 form factor with a Touch ID home button instead of Face ID, it's positively miniscule at 4.7 inches and doesn’t support 5G. Frankly, if you’re dead set on iOS, I might suggest saving your pennies and springing for the $699 iPhone 12 mini.

So, no, Google doesn’t “own the midrange” any more. The Pixel 5a is almost aggressively boring, but it’s not bad. If you want the Pixel experience and don’t want to break the bank, this is the way to go. But if you’re just looking for the best bang for your buck, the choice is far less clear.