You don’t need to spend close to $1,000 for a smartphone with great cameras and long battery life. Yes, the iPhone 12 and Galaxy S21 deliver a terrific experience, but your money can go pretty far at $500 or less.
Enter the Pixel 5a with 5G — Google’s latest affordable device joins the $349 4a and $499 4a 5G. The 5a with 5G is $449 and up for preorder now, with deliveries starting on Aug. 26. And we’ve spent the last week with the latest affordable Pixel smartphone.
It feels inherently like a Pixel, but it’s essential to know its place in the market. The 5a offers solid — if not great — performance, with a similar processor to the Pixel 4a. Most importantly, the cameras perform well with the expected shooting modes, complete with features that only a Pixel can offer. So does it pay to spend less? Let’s dive in to the Pixel 5a with 5G.
The Pixel 5a with 5G doesn't change much, but exclusive features, great cameras and a massive battery make it a seriously impressive sub-$500 phone.
The who, what and how
Who this is for: The Pixel 5a with 5G is for someone who wants an affordable Android phone that can take great photos, last all day and not get bogged down by a heavy user interface.
What you need to know: As a whole, the 5a with 5G is very similar to the 4a with 5G. It uses the same processor, has a similar build and opts for the same three camera lenses. Things get better with a larger battery and, at times, faster performance. The Pixel 5a with 5G only supports the Sub-6 network standard, though, and not mmWave. This means no super-fast 5G speeds, but rather connecting to a network that provides more room for 5G devices to stay connected. Those who need both network standards should look at the 4a with 5G.
How this compares: In terms of performance and feature set, the 5a with 5G outweighs most of the competition from other Android devices even with the older Snapdragon 765G processor inside. Google’s customizations and choice of clean Android deliver an experience that’s mostly smooth sailing. Camera performance could struggle a bit at times, especially with lower-lighting shots, but the device still managed to deliver a great image nearly every time. For $449.99, Google offers a lot more with less compromise than competing devices like the $239.99 OnePlus Nord N200. The $349.99 iPhone SE still delivers a ton of value and a really unique set of features. The Pixel 5a with 5G is similar to Apple’s affordable option but is more expensive with dual cameras and a larger OLED screen. And if you don’t need 5G, the Pixel 4a is a steal at $349.
A familiar design language
Like the Pixel 4a, 5 and 4a with 5G before it, the 5a with 5G arrives with a modern build that doesn’t aim to draw attention. It only comes in one color — Mostly Black — which makes for a pretty subtle design. A majority of the build is a metal unibody with a matte finish that feels pretty smooth. This material is primarily covering the back and all the edges of the device. There is a humble light gray “G” logo on the bottom of the back.
Our favorite part of the Pixel 5a with 5G’s design? That would be the circular fingerprint sensor located on the upper rear. Our index or pointer finger lined up perfectly to it, and it makes for an effortless way to unlock your device. It’s especially nice when we’re still wearing masks to have a fingerprint sensor versus a Face ID sensor, which doesn’t work in these scenarios.
The 5a features the same main camera array as the Pixel 4a with 5G and Pixel 5 housed in a square on the top left of the back. It’s a 12-megapixel wide and a 16-megapixel ultrawide lens with an LED flash.
One big surprise delivered by the 5a is a USB-C to USB-C cable and a power brick in the box. Google still includes this, while Apple and Samsung have all stopped. And yes, Samsung doesn’t even include one with the $999 Galaxy Z Flip 3 or the $1,799 Galaxy Z Fold 3. Talk about stretching the value here. Google did inform us that they recognize many customers or potential customers already have a brick, and they expect the 5a with 5G to be the last device they ship one with. If you manage to find a Pixel 4a, 4a 5G or 5 n stock, it will still come with a power brick in the box as well.
You’ll charge the 5a via the USB-C port on the bottom of the device. Like the OnePlus Nord N200 and TCL 20 Pro 5G before this, the 5a with 5G has a headphone jack on the top! Audiophiles and those who prefer a wired experience can fully rejoice. The right side of the device features a volume rocker and a colorful green power button. The latter is also ribbed, which makes it easy to find and more tactile than that of similar phones.
We used the 5a with 5G in drizzle and heavy rain without any issue, as it meets the IP68 resistance rating. It can withstand up to 1.5 meters of water for 30 minutes, though we don’t recommend taking a dip with it.
Google’s not changing much with the 5a, and when put next to any recent Pixel, it looks very similar. The fingerprint sensor on the back makes it easy for one-handed operation, but the Pixel 5a’s front is a bit different. Rather than a midsize screen, the 5a opts for a 6.34-inch display — and that’s pretty sizable. That’s bigger than the Pixel 5 and the iPhone 12 for comparison.
A large, vibrant display
Google didn’t snub us on quality or opt for a cheaper front panel for its latest Pixel. The 5a with 5G features a 6.34-inch OLED Full HD+ screen. And in everyday use, it’s a really terrific display that works for all sorts of tasks. The 2400 x 1080 resolution let us take in many details from our photo library or when streaming the latest episode of “Star Wars: The Bad Batch” on Disney+. The OLED screen on the Pixel 5a effortlessly lit the show’s high-contrast scenes and pulled us in as much as a smartphone can.
Like most modern smartphones, there’s a pinhole notch — or as Google names it, a “transmissive hole” — in the top left corner. It contains a familiar 8-megapixel lens cast with an 83-degree field of view. This camera is great for selfies by yourself or with friends, plus it’s the same lens as on previous Pixel phones.
Aside from this tiny notch, the 6.34-inch screen stretches to the edge. The bezels aren’t as minimalist as on $1,000 smartphones, but the 5a does an excellent job of offering an expansive view. The Pixel 5a also only arrives with a 60 Hz display, which doesn’t make for the smoothest screen experience, especially if you’re coming from a device with a faster refresh rate. This term speaks to how many times in a second the screen can refresh itself.
The other great thing is that this display is always on. And by that, we mean that the middle of the screen showcases the date, time and weather along with notification icons for respective applications when the phone is asleep. A majority of Android phones feature this and it’s just a convenient feature. You can quickly glance for the time or the date without having to unlock the phone. It also doesn’t dramatically impact the battery life at all.
Performance is mostly smooth sailing
The Pixel 5a can quickly get by for most tasks, even with the more power-hungry ones. And inside it’s using the same processor as in the 4a with 5G and 5. That’s the Qualcomm Snapdragon 765G with 6GB of RAM. It’s by no means a slouch, but Qualcomm offers newer processors designed for midrange smartphones.
Similarly, Google has the Pixel 6 and 6 Plus on the horizon with a custom-made Tensor Chip inside. We reckon it’s going to deliver a significant boost with speeds, efficiency and battery life since it’s a custom chip designed in-house at Google. It could be similar to the Apple M1 processor’s impact on the Mac line.
The good thing is that Google’s been working with the 765G processor for a bit, and the Pixel runs clean Android — that means no heavy interface weighing it down. Out of the box, the 5a ships with Android 11 and some Pixel customizations. Google is promising three years of operating systems and security updates for the device. You can also expect surprise drops, generally monthly, that squash bugs and introduce new features.
The Pixel 5a 5G retains some of our favorite Pixel-only features, including Google Recorder. Not only does it record the audio and sync it with your Google account, but it will also transcribe the entire conversation in real time. Another neat Pixel-only feature is “Hold My Call,” which lets the phone handle waiting on hold for you. So whether you’re trying to reach a company, tech support or even a doctor’s office, the phone will handle the waiting and ring you back when your turn arrives. These two Pixel-only features perform as well on the 5a as they do on the “flagship” Pixel 5.
Day in and day out, the 5a with 5G has been strong with a myriad of tasks. We could enable work mode and use Outlook to crank out mail or Slack to send messages to team members. Similarly, we could switch gears to social media to binge TikToks or aimlessly scroll through timelines on Twitter or Facebook. You have ample speed for running these apps, and the 5a with 5G can also handle more intense creative tasks (we can’t be the only fans of Afterlight for photo edits, right?) and some gaming.
That’s not to say that we didn’t experience some hiccups and speed bumps. It’s normal for a midrange device and quiets down after about three days. We imagine this was primarily due to indexing when setting up the phone. The 5a with 5G mostly caught up with itself, though, and delivered a smooth experience with more everyday use cases.
We do have some lingering concerns about how future-proof this phone is. The 765G isn’t a slouchy chip, but it will likely show some signs of wear two years from now. We’re confident Google will meet its promise of three years with updates, but more intense tasks might slow down a bit.
One place we saw a slight struggle was with the camera. It’s quick to snap a shot when taking a traditional photo, but using the acclaimed Night Sight mode for low lighting does take a few seconds actually to complete the shot. On average, it took about three seconds after the shutter button for the image to complete. Then once you go into the gallery to view it, it takes a few additional seconds to process. It’s not flagship level, but even at $449, it can be a little frustrating at times.
The camera is more of a good thing
The good news is that these are the same lenses as the Pixel 4a and 5, which means the image quality is nice. So let’s break down the lenses:
- 12-megapixel wide: This is the primary camera of the 5a with 5G and it’s a solid shooter. It captures color correctly and delivers a surprising amount of details for a smartphone. Much of Google’s photography prowess comes from software and AI tuning, which the brand has a lot of experience with. It’s nearly perfected here with the quality of images the 5a can capture.
- 16-megapixel ultrawide: This is one of our favorite ultrawide lenses, and it’s not for the hardware but for how Google works on these wide-reaching shots. Rather than leaving the edges morphed, the 5a works to remove fish-eye from the frame.
Both of these cameras can capture some nice shots that not only let you save the moment but also tell a story. Google’s Cinematic Pan mode is here to offer some dramatic takes on video — when shooting an action shot in this mode, it slows things down, sharpens the focus and mutes the audio.
What’s missing here is a telephoto lens, which isn’t a deal breaker at this price point. The Pixel 5a has a preset for a 2x zoom. You can tell this is a digital 2x zoom due to its noise and fuzziness, but the images look pretty darn good after processing. These do fall behind phones with a physical telephoto lens, though.
Let’s be clear: The image and video quality on the Pixel 5a is really quite good and suprasses other midrange Android phones quite quickly. There’s no gimmicky inclusion of macro or depth lenses that don’t accomplish much, and the image quality with the included lenses offer accurate colors and capture a tremendous amount of detail. We’d also opt for Google’s Night Sight over other manufacturers — save for Apple on the iPhone 12 line — nearly any time.
The biggest battery in a Pixel and some 5G connectivity
One area Google did improve on with the Pixel 5a is the battery, which is the largest ever in a Pixel. Inside is a 4,680mAh battery that in our testing — after a few days post-setup — did deliver all-day battery life. It’s also a significant jump over the 4a with 5G’s 3,885mAh battery.
We didn’t have many issues with battery life on that device, but the 5a with 5G can undoubtedly stretch a bit more. On most days, we used the device for both work and personal tasks ranging from emails to texting and calls with streaming, gaming and lots of content capturing in between. We’d call it a moderate day, and the Pixel managed to last from the early hours of the day into the late evening hours with still about 30% battery remaining.
When you get the battery warning at 20%, you can plug in the 5a with the included brick to fast charge the device. There is no support for wireless charging here, though. Google has two built-in features to extend battery life. Adaptive battery takes a look at the most critical apps (based on your usage) and works to slow performance elsewhere, at times, to keep the device going. A more extreme measure would be the Extreme Battery Saver, which disables some heavier features and lets you select a handful of apps that will still work. It turns off background processing and some other features to keep your battery going.
Both of these worked well in our testing and are an easy way to stretch the battery life. As we do with any device we test, the Pixel 5a with 5G was put through the CNN Underscored battery test. In this, we run a 4K video on a loop with the brightness set to 50% and all connectivity turned off. The Pixel 5a with 5G lasted for over 13 hours. This is remarkable for a midrange Android device and even outlasts some more expensive devices.
The Pixel 5a with 5G supports the latest network standards as its name suggests, but it’s not a complete package. The 5a only supports the Sub-6 standard, which is only one of the two major networks in the United States. We’re missing support for mmWave, which delivers the super-fast 5G speeds but requires direct sight and a close location to the physical cell tower or site.
It’s not the best scenario for this device, but it’s also not the worst. Carriers are still rolling out 5G in the United States — AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon included — and the entire nation isn’t yet fully covered by either standard. Sub-6 is the more accessible standard to get working and provides more bandwidth for 5G devices to connect. Speeds will be closer to 4G LTE, but the next time you’re at a sports game or a concert, there shouldn’t be a wait to upload content. It would have been nice to see mmWave included, especially when you remember the Pixel 4a with 5G packed support for both network standards.
The Pixel 5a with 5G improves on a lot of the aspects of the 4a with 5G that arrived last fall — but last year’s phone is also still a really good device. There’s a lot of similarities here, including the same processor and an identical camera setup. The latter can still capture some great shots (albeit with some processing slowdowns) and for most people, the processor here is A-OK.
Most importantly, it’s a Pixel, and that means three years of updates along with exclusive features that are quite helpful. We also have zero concerns on battery life.
For $449.99 you’re getting a whole lot of phone, and the 5a with 5G does strike a chord with the feature set that Google packed in. We have some worry about how well the phone will run after a few years, especially with the chosen processors. But we do believe it’s a good package that should still push on with solid performance down the line.
We imagine the Pixel 6 will launch this fall with faster performance (after all, that’s what Google has promised), but it will also have a larger price tag. The Pixel 5a is all about value and from that angle, it does impress. You’d also be hard-pressed to find many of these features on other similarly or lower-priced Android phones.
The Google Pixel 5a with 5G is up for preorder at $449.99 and will begin to ship on Aug. 26.