Against my better judgment, I’ve preordered a Google Pixel 5a with 5G. But in my defense, I got a great trade-in offer, and I had some PayPal credit sitting around doing nothing that made up most of the difference. Yes, I’m rationalizing, but I figure this will be an interesting experiment in the downtime between now the release of the Pixel 6 Pro. Which is the handset I’m really looking forward to.
In the meantime, I’m curious about revisiting Google’s latest (and third) stab at the low-end of the market, since these devices, collectively, represent the only real success that the firm has seen with its smartphones.
The first, of course, was the Pixel 3a family from May 2019. The Pixel 3a started at $399, but I opted for the bigger and more expensive Pixel 3a XL, and I described it as the new sweet spot in my review later that month. It had an excellent single-lens camera system and a fun and durable polycarbonate body, and when I revisited it about 18 months later, I still loved it while being more realistic about the middling performance delivered by its lowly Snapdragon 670 processor.
The second consists of the Pixel 4a and the Pixel 4a with 5G, which is sort of an XL variant, though it’s odd that the two handsets were released at different times. The Pixel 4a was delayed from May to August because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the bigger Pixel 4a with 5G shipped in November alongside the Pixel 5. I never purchased that latter handset—I didn’t see the point—but I did buy and use both, and I’ve used the Pixel 4a with 5G extensively. Indeed, as I write this, the Pixel 4a with 5G is still my current phone.
Starting at just $349, the Pixel 4a was positioned as a low-cost upgrade to the non-XL Pixel 3a, and while it was too small and too limited for my own needs, I understood it to be—and described it as—a budget winner, thanks to its great value, still-excellent but non-upgraded single-lens rear camera system, and modern and minimalist polycarbonate body.
What I really wanted was an XL version with multiple lenses, and when Google sort of delivered that handset in the form of the Pixel 4a with 5G, I immediately bought one and then declared it the best value of 2020. With its 6.2-inch OLED display, it’s still a bit smaller than a true XL model, and a bit smaller than I’d like. But the Pixel 4a with 5G delivered terrific value by extending everything right about the 4a and adding a dual-lens camera system (a first for an A-series handset) and 5G compatibility. It’s so good, it fared well head-to-head against the much more expensive OnePlus 9 Pro. Clearly, Google has found its place in this part of the market.
But the Pixel 4a with 5G still suffered from the same issues that dogged its predecessors. The performance was still middling, thanks to the mid-level Snapdragon 730G processor and the lack of a Pixel Visual Core chipset. There was no wireless charging and no truly-fast fast charging. No water or dust protection. Old-fashioned Gorilla Glass 3 screen protection on a display that only hits 60 Hz. No telephoto lens and no optical zoom. And no color options at all: You could get any color you wanted as long as that color was Just Black.
So when we look forward to the Pixel 5a with 5G, I think it’s important to keep those negatives in mind. To understand the compromises that continue forward yet again and decide for yourself whether they’re too problematic to even consider such a device.
But let’s consider the improvements that Google made to the Pixel 5a with 5G when compared to the Pixel 4a with 5G. Some are quite significant.
The biggest change, perhaps, is the battery. Where the Pixel 4a with 5G shipped with a reasonably-sized 3800 mAh battery that delivered more than all-day battery life thanks to its middle-class components, the 5a with 5G provides an unusually large 4620 mAh battery that Google says could last up to two full days, assuming you use its Extreme Battery Save feature. I was already seeing nearly two days of battery with the 4a with 5G, so that’s interesting. (Not surprisingly, the 5a with 5G is also heavier than its predecessor as a result, at 6.5 ounces vs. 5.9 ounces for its predecessor. I suspect that will be noticeable.)
The second big change—and it’s humbling that I never even called out this as a problem in my 4a with 5G review—is that the 5a with 5G, finally, includes IP67 water and dust resistance. That means you can dunk it in a sink or toilet without fear, and use it in the rain with abandon. On more than one occasion this year I’ve been out in the rain with my Pixel 4a with 5G and shielding it from getting wet out of fear that it would come up dead.
The third big change, and I’m very curious about this one given my love of polycarbonate, is that the Pixel 5a with 5G switches to a “premium metal unibody” with a Gorilla Glass 3 protective coating. I may need to break with tradition and read some of the early reviews to see how that changes the experience. But tied to this, perhaps, is a color change of sorts. Where the 4a with 5G came in Just Black, the 5a with 5G comes in a Mostly Black color that Google says, and the photos demonstrate, looks like a dark forest green color. And I really like that color.
This may seem like an odd choice for the big changes column, but it is to me. The optional cases that Google provides for the Pixel 5a with 5G appear to be quite different from those for its predecessors. In the past, Google’s weird recycled fabric cases always looked great, but they’re terrible in use because they hurt your hands when holding them. For the 5a with 5G, however, the cases are smooth and can easily be cleaned, and they’re still made from recycled materials if that’s important to you. This is particularly interesting to me because I always seek out this kind of case from third parties, and I’d much rather get one right from Google. And the colors are fun too: Black Moss, Maybe Moon, Likely Lime, and Partially Pink.
Then there are the more minor improvements.
The display, for example, is slightly bigger—6.34-inches vs. 6.2-inches—and while may not seem like much of a difference, it’s worth pointing out that the last true XL-sized Pixel, the Pixel 4XL from 2019, had a 6.3-inch display. Either way, let’s credit Google with retaining the same 413 ppi pixel density year-over-year, though the 5a with 5G’s aspect ratio, 20:9, is slightly different from the 4a with 5G’s, which was 19.5:9. They did that by providing the new phone with a higher 2400 x 1080 resolution when compared to the 4a with 5G’s 2340 x 1080 resolution. (Beyond those differences, the displays’ tech specs appear to be identical.)
And then there are all the things that didn’t change.
Both phones feature the same middling and now-aging octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 765G SoC with Adreno 620 graphics. The same Google Titan M Security Module. The same 6 GB of LPDDR4x RAM. The same 128 GB of non-expandable storage. The same excellent but aging dual-lens rear camera with a 12.2 MP wide-angle lens and a 16 MP ultrawide lens, with all the same specifications and capabilities. The same 8 MP fixed-focus front-facing camera. The same sensors. The same lame 18-watt wired charging over USB-C, and no wireless charging. (And here’s a little news flash: The Pixel 5a with 5G will be the last Google phone to even include a power brick.) The same dual-SIM setup with one eSIM and one nano-SIM card slot. The same stereo speakers and microphones. The same headphone jack. Even the same minimum of three years of OS updates and the same one-year warranty.
Are there any changes that could be considered negatives? Sadly, yes.
Aside from the move away from polycarbonate, which could be a mistake, the biggest negative is one I already mentioned: The Pixel 5a with 5G is heavier than its predecessor, in part because of its larger battery. (And who knows? The metal body may play a role here too.) For this kind of device, every fraction of an ounce matters.
There are also some differences in the 5G capabilities this time around, though many—like me—won’t notice them, at least not right now. As you may recall, the Pixel 4a with 5G was available in two models, one of which supported the limited 5G mmWave technology that’s only used by Verizon Wireless. The 5a with 5G only comes in one model, and there’s no support for mmWave this time around. There’s also no support for something called C-Band, which is a 5G frequency that’s not used in the U.S. Well, not today, at least. It will be coming to the U.S., and possibly soon, and it could put 5G over the top (finally) in this market. And since the Pixel 5a with 5G’s networking chipsets are identical to its non-Verizon predecessors, that feature, at least, could be enabled in the future too.
Speaking of C-Band, the final negative I can think of is availability. The Pixel 5a with 5G will only be sold in the U.S. and Japan. I’m hoping that’s a temporary condition, but it’s a bummer for cost-conscious Pixel fans in other countries who might otherwise upgrade.
And I think that’s everything.
I ordered an unlocked Google Pixel 5a with 5G in its only available color, Mostly Black, for $449 with a trade-in that knocked a few hundred dollars off that price and opted out of Preferred Care ($4.99 per month or $99 for two years and a one-time payment). I also ordered a Google Pixel 5a with 5G Case for $29. They should both arrive between August 27 and August 30, so possibly late next week or early the following week. Given my preference for smartphone photography and my experiences with its predecessor and several other recent smartphones, I’m not expecting this to be a life-changing experience, of course. But I’m happy to review the phone and use it until the Pixel 6a Pro that I really want arrives towards the end of the year.