Google Pixel 5a Review

Posted on September 6, 2021 by Paul Thurrott in Android with 19 Comments

The Google Pixel 5a is a worthy successor to the underrated Pixel 4a with 5G, and thanks to its lower price and additional features, it’s an even better value.

Design

The Pixel 5a is the fourth Pixel to utilize this utilitarian unibody design, following the Pixel 4a, Pixel 4a with 5G, and the Pixel 5 (which I did not review because it was too expensive, and had a terrible earpiece “speaker” and a too-easily-scratched bio-resin coating). And while some may find it bland-looking, Google’s only real crime here is in offering just a single color option in a cost-saving move. Fortunately for me, that color—“Mostly Black”—is fantastic; it’s really a dark green color that I’m particularly happy with.

Google has learned a lot as it’s evolved this design, and there are some nice improvements when compared to the 5a’s predecessors. Like the Pixel 5, the Pixel 5a utilizes an aluminum unibody, which provides better structural rigidity than polycarbonate. But unlike the Pixel 5, the Pixel 5a has a polycarbonate-like plastic coating that matches the look and feel of the Pixel 4a with 5G without any of the downsides of the Pixel 5’s terrible bio-resin coating.

Like its predecessors, the Pixel 5a offers a subtle bit of whimsy in its colored power button, a trademark of recent Pixels, but even that’s been improved: now, the power button is ridged so that you can easily press it instead of one of the volume buttons in the dark. Smart.

I’d like to use the Pixel 5a without a case, but the plastic coating could obviously scratch, and almost certainly will over time. So you’re probably going to want to invest in a case. Fortunately, Google completely overhauled its first-party cases for the 5a, and the new versions match the look and feel of the phone itself and no longer use the scratchy recycled fabrics from previous versions. These cases are only $29, and while they add a bit of bulk, there’s some subtle utility there, too: the rear-mounted fingerprint reader is now much easier to find without looking.

(That said, the new case design is super-tight on the Pixel 5a. So much so that I feared damaging the phone by removing it, so the photos in this review are all with the case on.)

Display

The Pixel 5a is a hair bigger (and quite a bit heavier) than its predecessor, but its larger display—6.34 inches vs. 6.2 inches for the 4a with 5G—doesn’t make any difference in real-world use. It’s still a Full HD+ OLED panel that packs in 413 pixels per inch (PPI), but thanks to its slightly taller size and slightly different 19:5:9 aspect ratio, it has a slightly different 2340 x 1080 resolution. It has HDR and always-on capabilities, like its predecessor, and it offers only a 60 Hz refresh rate, which makes sense in this price class.

Overall, the display is adequate, with good brightness in all conditions: outdoors and under the harsh lights at my gym represent two extremes of sorts, and it performs well in both places. And I haven’t experienced any noticeable issues with adaptive brightness, which was a problem with the 4a with 5G.

As before, the transmissive hole for the front-facing selfie camera can be found in the upper-left corner of the display. I don’t find this to be distracting in any way, even when viewing video content. And it’s certainly preferable to a notch.

On a somewhat troubling note, however, I’ve seen some quick display glitches related to the always-on display and the transition to and from different power states. For example, when the phone is sitting idle, the screen will eventually dim as it prepares to sleep. But if the always-on display is enabled, the screen will flash briefly as its moves between these modes. It’s something I notice peripherally a lot.

It’s also worth pointing out that the Pixel 5a display is only protected by older Gorilla Glass 3 cover glass, which is generations old. It’s better than nothing, as we say. But not much: you may want to add a screen protector to your shopping cart too.

Hardware and specs

As with the 4a with 5G, the Pixel 5a is powered by the same Qualcomm Snapdragon 765G with Adreno 620 graphics, 6 GB of RAM, and 128 GB of non-expandable UFS 2.1 storage. This is a little concerning given that this hardware was mid-level at best one year ago, so I’m not sure what to say about it now. I assume Google had a bunch of these parts stockpiled.

In day-to-day use, the performance is acceptable for the most part, but I’m worried more about the long term. Hopefully, Google will keep optimizing new Android versions for these middling components during its support lifecycle.

But even still, there are some noticeable performance problems, most obviously when using the camera. Because the Pixel 5a doesn’t include dedicated hardware for photo and video processing, the underpowered processor and GPU have to step up to the plate, and each photo you take requires some number of seconds before it’s fully processed. Worse, if you take more than a single photo at a time and want to view the camera roll, it will glitch and not show you all of the photos, most likely because it’s struggling to process them all. You have to exit the camera roll, wait a few seconds, and then try again.

Connectivity

The Pixel 5a’s radios are previous-generation, too, so you get dual-band Wi-Fi 5 instead of the more modern Wi-Fi 6, plus Bluetooth 5.0 and NFC. It has 5G capabilities, which is nice at this price level, but it’s not as capable as that in certain Pixel 4a with 5G models because it doesn’t support mmWave, which is Verizon-specific in the U.S. (and, to be fair, balky and rarely available anyway).

I access 5G via T-Mobile (through the Mint Mobile MVNO) and have never been particularly impressed by the speeds. Granted, I live in rural Pennsylvania, so this is perhaps as expected.

Audio-video

There’s nothing new here when compared to the 4a with 5G: the Pixel 5a features surprisingly decent stereo speakers, and as noted, the display works well for watching videos on the elliptical at the gym. It’s no Samsung Note Ultra, of course, but it gets the job done.

The Pixel 5a also comes with a headphone jack, a feature I’ve not needed for a few years. Until this past week, that is, when the balky Bluetooth connection in my wife’s car finally crapped out, leaving me scrambling for the AV cable in the glove box. That works great, so score one point for legacy technology.

Cameras

There is no need to beat this one to death: the Pixel 5a includes exactly the same rear and front-facing camera lenses as its predecessors and it delivers exactly the same camera experience. For better and for worse.

On the front, you’ll find an 8 MP fixed focus lens with an f/2.0 aperture and an 83-degree field of view. I still miss the ultra-wide option from the Pixel 3 XL, but like so much else in this phone, it’s adequate.

On the rear are the overly-familiar 12.2 MP wide-angle (main) lens and 16 MP ultra-wide lens. The main lens has been around in some form since the Pixel 2 lineup, and it features optical and electronic image stabilization capabilities and is the better of the two by far. The ultra-wide lens provides a 118.7-degree field of view with the expected edge distortions that are all-too-common with these lenses.

And … I just don’t have much to say here. It desperately needs better lenses and a telephoto lens with optical zoom, advances we won’t get until the much more expensive Pixel 6 Pro debuts later this year. Shots are generally very good, especially outdoors. But the system’s slow performance can lead to noisy if not blurry shots in less than ideal light, and night mode has fallen behind the competition. My wife’s Samsung routinely outperforms the Pixel from a photographic standpoint.

Thanks to all the reports about the Pixel 5a overheating while recording 4K videos, I did look into this issue and discovered a few things. First, it’s not new: the Pixel 4a with 5G has the same problem, as do other smartphones. And second, it’s only a problem when recording 4K at 60 fps; if you leave it on the default 1080p at 30 fps or record 1080p at 60 fps or 4K at 30 fps, there are no issues. Google should just disable that one mode.

I don’t take a lot of videos, but it’s pretty clear that Apple has little to worry about here: The Pixel is better at photos than videos. There are some nice video stabilization choices, however, and you can choose between normal, slow motion, and time-lapse video choices too.

Security

Like its 2020 predecessors, the Pixel 5a features a fast and accurate rear-mounted fingerprint reader for biometric security, and I think it’s wonderful. That said, the fingerprint reader indent is quite subtle and can be hard to find unless you use a case. Which I do.

The Pixel 5a is also protected by Google’s Titan M security module, which is arguably the only custom silicon in the entire device. Among other things, the Titan M protects on-device data the OS while in use, and it provides boot loader security to protect against malicious bootloader unlocking attempts.

Battery

The Pixel 4a with 5G included a 3885 mAh battery that delivered a solid day and a half of battery life, so I was curious to see what the Pixel 5a’s much bigger 4620 mAh battery could do. Perhaps predictably, there are two differences. First, the Pixel 5a can easily run for two solid days on a single charge, perhaps more if one were to enable Battery Saver or Extreme Battery Saver. And second, the Pixel 5a is significantly heavier (183 grams) than its predecessor (168 grams). It’s also thicker, and the combination yields a noticeable heftiness. Overall, I’m OK with it. But when I switch back to the 4a with 5G, its lighter weight and bulk are preferable.

Pixel 5a (left) and Pixel 4a with 5G (right)

Unfortunately, the Pixel 5a’s battery life prowess is not matched by any form of fast charging or wireless charging. Instead, it’s limited to just 18-watts of charging power, leading to very long charge times, even when using the bundled power adapter. The lack of wireless charging is perhaps more understandable at this price point, and I don’t miss it at all.

Unique hardware features

The Pixel 5a comes with several unique hardware features that are worth quickly calling out. This includes the aforementioned headphone jack and rear-mounted fingerprint reader, but also IP67 water and dust resistance, which is new. I was deathly afraid of using my Pixel 4a with 5G in the rain, and I figured it would be a goner if it ever fell in a sink or toilet. But there’s some nice peace of mind with the Pixel 5a.

Software

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read that Pixels come with “stock” Android, when in fact nothing could be further from the truth. Instead, Google does exactly what OnePlus has done to date by taking stock Android and heavily modifying it to be more efficient and to offer numerous exclusive features that you won’t see elsewhere. The result is, I think, the single best version of Android you’ll find anywhere, one that is well optimized for the mid-level hardware components in the Pixel 5a to offer the best possible experience. This is inarguably the Pixel’s killer feature.

The list of Pixel-unique features is so long, in fact, that I’m going to document some of the better options in a new series soon. I started documenting it for this review, but it got too long. So please stay tuned.

In the meantime, here’s another advantage that’s shared by other Pixels: Pixel 5a owners will get new Android versions—for at least three major revisions—and other updates before anyone else. And they can participate in future Android betas, too.

Pixel 5a with Android 11 (left) and Pixel 4a with 5G with Android 12 (right)

Speaking of which, the only software downside I’ve experienced with the Pixel 5a is also related to Android: I’d been testing Android 12 on the Pixel 4a with 5G, but this coming system isn’t available for testing on the Pixel 5a, so I’ve been stuck using Android 11. And I really miss some Android 12 features, especially its new Material You design with auto-colorized UI elements.

Pricing and availability

Pixel 5a pricing is simple enough: For $450, you can choose from one model, with one configuration, and in one color. I hope you like Mostly Black—I do—though the lack of a polycarbonate body means you’ll want to cover it up with a case as its plastic-coated aluminum body is sure to scratch.

Availability is a concern, unfortunately, as the Pixel 5a is only available in the U.S. and Japan. Hopefully, that changes over time.

Recommendations and conclusions

While I remain excited about the coming Pixel 6 series of premium smartphones, Google has clearly found its niche in the smartphone market with the value-oriented A-series. And as was the case last year with its predecessor, the Pixel 4a with 5G, the Pixel 5a is this year’s best value in smartphones. It features epic battery life, a clean Android image with numerous Pixel-only exclusive features, IP67 water and dust resistance, and an aging but still very capable two-lens camera system. But the Pixel 5a is an even better value than its predecessor, with an even lower $450 price tag.

There will always be compromises and trade-offs at this price level, but I think that Google made the right decisions overall. My only major concern is the Snapdragon 765G, which offered middling performance when it debuted in the Pixel 4a with 5G one year ago and is even less enticing today. Yes, Google does its best with software optimizations to minimize the slowdowns, but I question its long-term viability. And while the lack of wireless charging may bother some potential customers, I’m more concerned with its slow, 18-watt wired charging.

No matter. The pros greatly outweigh the cons here, and I’m even happier using the Pixel 5a than I was using its predecessor. Google really understands this part of the market and it serves this audience well. The Pixel 5a is highly recommended.

At-a-glance

Pros

  • Best value in the smartphone market
  • Incredible two-day battery life
  • Clean Android image with powerful Pixel-only features
  • Water and dust resistance
  • Aging camera system still delivers great photos in most conditions

Cons

  • 18-watts is not fast charging
  • Last year’s mid-level components are even less future proof
  • Some performance issues
  • No telephoto lens/optical zoom
  • Available only in the U.S. and Japan

Tagged with ,

Join the discussion!

BECOME A THURROTT MEMBER:

Don't have a login but want to join the conversation? Become a Thurrott Premium or Basic User to participate

Register
Comments (19)

19 responses to “Google Pixel 5a Review”

  1. navarac

    I was getting interested in this phone until I read the last line - "Available only in the US and Japan" - this needs putting at the top. The majority of the world would then be able to skip the article, as it becomes irrelevant, unfortunately.

    • solomonrex

      There was clearly a SoC supply issue this year, which is also why it's an older chipset, and a single size as well. But considering the alternatives - the frankly inflated prices of most flagships these days - I think it's preferable to have a year old chipset with the same update guarantee.


      I'm curious what Apple's lineup looks like, since they have more money than God and so will have SoCs aplenty, but also have a 'mini' that flopped on the low end and a weird SE with a dated design.


      Unfortunately in America, despite the Pixel sticking around this year, it's pretty limited choices, fading fast and if you want to stick with carrier financing, then it's really getting thin out there. There are more Samsung and Apple's than ever, but less real choice. Apple is looking more and more like a monopoly in the making, in govt and now broadly in the business community.

  2. dallasnorth40

    No wireless charging is my deal breaker.

  3. chump2010

    "Best value in the smartphone market"


    You should try a cheap Motorola. You can get them for under £100 and their battery lasts for 3 days easily. Can run most applications fine. Sure Camera is not great and there may not be fast charging. But who needs fast charging when your phone lasts for 3 days straight. The screen is alright - nothing special. But then for someone who has a tablet, a laptop and a desktop, I imagine the screen is not that important as you wont be spending hours on it a day. Maybe 45 minutes top.


    Then use that £250 saving to save for a new tablet/laptop or some such.


    • Paul Thurrott

      Value isn't just about cost. Obviously, there are even cheaper phones. But they don't provide the same value as Pixel. Between the camera quality, the unique software, and the updating policy, there's no comparison.

      • peterbell

        I could not agree more. My wife's phone (3a) took an unexpected tumble last year at work and we decided to get a Moto G Power (2020) to replace it. Fi finally pushed out the Android 11 update last month, which is likely the last the phone will get, after not being updated since January. I've come to believe that there are 2 phone lines worth having; the iPhone and the Pixel due to the security updates and support. With how much of our lives end up on our mobile devices, having regular updates is no longer a luxury. It's a basic requirement.

    • navarac

      Best value in the US and Japanese market ONLY :-(

  4. Chris_Kez

    Do carriers still slow down the Android updating process?

    • Paul Thurrott

      This is sold unlocked directly from Google, so no.

      • Chris_Kez

        Sorry, I forgot it is just the Pixel 6 that is getting carrier distribution. It is interesting that Google is trying to get carriers on board with the 6 when it is probably the 5a that would be the bigger seller (by a lot) if both phones had equal access.

  5. dftf

    As for the Pixel 5a itself: it looks nice, sure, and the bigger-battery, official waterproof-certification, increase of 128GB storage (versus 64GB in my current phone) and the fact it retains a headphone jack/socket are all plusses in my-book... but it's too-dang tall!


    My current Pixel 3a is 15.1cm tall; the 5a rounds-to 15.5cm! The Pixel 4a (the non-5G model) is 14.4cm tall. Here's hoping the 6a will be closer-to the 4a -- even if it means a slightly-smaller battery.

  6. dftf

    I find it a little odd sometimes how-often you find commentators here (and on other tech sites) decry how-lacking manufacturer support-periods are for Android devices, especially when compared to iOS... but then openly-admit that they currently own a Pixel 3a (supported until: May 2022); Pixel 4 (Oct 2022); Pixel 4a (Aug 2023); Pixel 4a with 5G (Nov 2023) or Pixel 5 (Oct 2023) and yet "cannot wait to get their hands on a Pixel 5a".


    If you're openly-admitting publicly that, despite your existing phone still being under-support, you can't wait to get a newer-one just-because, then where is the incentive for the manufacturers to commit to longer-support?


    Unless my existing 3a were to develop a hardware-issue that would be non-sensical to consider a repair for, versus the cost of a new device (e.g. motherboard-failure), then I'll consider a new device only after the support for it has ended. Isn't that the point of buying a device with a good support-period to begin with?

  7. SvenJ

    Surprised to hear the 5a isn't eligible for the Android 12 betas. I got a great deal on a 3XL from Woot, just to experience 12. While we are an iPhone family, I enjoy playing with Android and have always liked Pixels for that. At $450 the 5a would have been withing my fun fund, but not supporting the beta would have been a bummer. Glad I did what I did. A side note on getting a 3XL recently was the reminder of how much stuff used to come in the box.

  8. djross95

    Had they stepped up the processor even a notch (or added a 90mHz display), I would have been tempted to upgrade from my Pixel 4a 5G for the superior battery life. As it is, I'll wait for the Pixel 6.

  9. mcerdas

    Dear Mr. Thurrot: Have you tried using the Your Phone app to connect the phone to a PC? I was wondering if you could make calls from the PC with this phone


  10. winner

    I have the predecessor, the Pixel 4a 5g, and I've found no performance issues other than the small delay after taking a photo. But I don't run really demanding (games) apps. Been very pleased with this line of phones. My wife is waiting for the Pixel 6.

Leave a Reply