What does $449 of familiarity look like? Well, if you’ve owned a Pixel 4a or a Pixel 4a with 5G—especially the latter—then it looks an awful lot like the Pixel 5a with 5G. And … that’s OK, of course. Google can and should update its affordable A-series handset family each year, since it’s been so successful in the past. And now it has done so, with the Pixel 5a with 5G.
The only real problem here, aside from the goofy product names, is that Google previously previewed the stunning and expensive new Pixel 6 series flagships months ahead of their releases. And so dropping news of a Pixel 5a with 5G—which I’ll now just call the Pixel 5a for expediency’s sake—in the interim seems a bit like bad marketing.
But let’s try to get past that. I previously described the 5a’s predecessor, the Pixel 4a with 5G, as “the best value of 2020,” and having now used it for most of 2021 too, I can again attest to the veracity of that claim. As everyone knows, every hardware product release is a study in compromise, with the device’s maker studying customer needs and wants and trying to deliver the right balance of features at a given price point. So, yes, the Pixel 4a with 5G doesn’t have a high-refresh display, wireless charging, truly-fast wired charging, waterproofing, optical zoom with a telephoto lens, or even configuration and color options. And its internal components are just adequate and possibly not particularly future-proof.
But so what? What the Pixel 4a with 5G did deliver, and what the Pixel 5a now delivers, is a terrific value for the price. It has an incredible dual-lens camera system, a durable and minimalist design, and clean and optimized Android system, a fast and accurate fingerprint reader, 5G compatibility, and a headphone jack. It even comes with a power brick, which Google has admitted it will no longer include with new phones beginning with the Pixel 6 series.
But even with all that familiarity, the Pixel 5a is undeniably an even better value than its predecessor. It features IP67 water and dust proofing. A slightly bigger (and more “XL-class”) display. An even more durable “premium metal”—read “aluminum”—unibody design with a soft-touch coating that nicely mimics what I really liked about its polycarbonate predecessors. And a much larger battery. Yet despite these improvements, the Pixel 5a costs $50 less than its predecessor. Isn’t that the very essence of value?
Coming off of a Pixel 4a with 5G, I of course understand that the Pixel 5a will not be a game-changing, life-affirming upgrade for me. In fact, it would be easy to confuse the two: The Pixel 5a is a tad taller, thicker, and heavier than its predecessor, and its “Mostly Black” exterior has a pleasant (to me) dark greenness to it that the Pixel 4a with 5G’s “Just Black” exterior lacked. But, realistically speaking, most won’t be able to tell the difference. It’s like pointing out how a 1972 VW Super Beetle differed from a 1971 model. (Which is to say, subtly. Yes, I used to be a classic VW expert of sorts.)
Of course, the Pixel 5a isn’t aimed at Pixel 4a with 5G owners. It’s aimed at Pixel 4a, Pixel 4/4 XL, and Pixel 3a series owners who are looking for an upgrade that won’t break the bank. Potential iPhone converts who can’t believe you can get a fully functional and modern smartphone for the price of a pair of Apple headphones. And owners of other mid-range Android smartphones who are tired of the software bloat we see elsewhere.
And to those audiences, the Pixel 5a should look pretty compelling. This is a product that’s about battery life, not performance. Consistently great photos, not overly saturated “fauxtography.” It’s useful, not pretty, something that should appeal to the minimalists (and the pragmatists) in the audience. But there are also subtle touches like the new ridging on the colored power button, a useful update to an ongoing Google design aesthetic that makes it easier to find that button without looking. Nice.
That this is possibly the last Pixel product to use this suddenly well-worn design is a debate for another day, but perhaps Google will resurrect it yet again for a Pixel 6a in 2021. This is one of those “if it ain’t broke” things, and while I routinely lambast Apple and Microsoft Surface for sticking with product designs well past the point of common sense, it is perhaps sobering to realize that the Pixel 5a design is barely a year old: it debuted with the Pixel 4a in August 2020, though the rounded rectangle of the camera bump inarguably dates back to the Pixel 4/4 XL of late 2019. It feels a lot more familiar than that.
Tonight, I’ll spend an hour or so moving over to the Pixel 5a completely, and assuming all goes well—let’s be honest here, with Pixel you never really know—I expect to be using it for some time to come.
You know, until the Pixel 6 Pro debuts, that is. More soon.