As you might expect, I spent a lot of time with the Google Pixel 5a with 5G yesterday, getting it configured the way I want. And as you might likewise expect, I have some more observations.
For those who missed it, Google announced the mid-range Pixel 5a with 5G 10 days ago, and despite being very interested in the premium Pixel 6 Pro that’s coming later this year, I ended up preordering one thanks to a trade-in that made doing so more affordable. It arrived yesterday.
If you’re familiar with the way I typically do things, you know I always perform a clean install on any new device, be it a PC, smartphone, or what have you. But as I started down that first boot experience with the Pixel 5a with 5G, it occurred to me that this was a very minor upgrade over last year’s Pixel 4a with 5G, which I’ve been using since last November, and that I was simply swapping out the phones. So this time, for the first time in I don’t even remember how long, I stepped through the Pixel’s upgrade experience.
The biggest change, when compared to the clean install I normally perform, is the “Copy apps & data” phase during setup. You’re prompted to connect your old phone to the Pixel 5a with 5G using the supplied USB-C cable and then you choose which content—apps, photos and videos, music and other audio, SMS messages, and so on—to copy over. I chose to copy it all.
The copy process took about 15 minutes, I guess, and while I might argue that I could probably manually install most of the apps I need in that amount of time, there are other advantages to undergoing this. In addition to the obvious—important data like text messages and on-devices images—it recreates your home screen layout(s) as well.
That bit is interesting because I’ve been using the Android 12 Beta on my previous phone, and there are some layout capabilities in that new OS that are not available in Android 11, which comes on the Pixel 5a with 5G. And I was using one of them: a 4×5 grid that I’m particularly fond of.
What Google did with the Pixel 5a with 5G was choose a 5×5 grid instead. So the icons were all in the right place, but there was a “hole” in the leftmost column because I had no icons there on the old phone.
That’s understandable, but I can’t upgrade to the Android 12 Beta because the Pixel 5a with 5G is not a supported device. (And perhaps it never will be since Android 12 should be finalized within just a few weeks, so I might have to wait for the final release.) Denied my 4×5 grid, I played around with a few other layouts and settled on a 4×4 grid instead. This leaves me icons where I want them, but it also makes them larger, like I have vision issues, and the result kind of reminds me of iPhone and iPad home screens. It’s temporary, I keep telling myself.
The layout thing is just a personal preference, but there’s one more side-effect of my upgrade experience that I was a little surprised by. I saved time by not having to manually install my apps and by not having to add and remove icons from the home screen, yes. But I still needed to sign in to almost every single app manually, so the overall time savings wasn’t all that great. I spent the better part of an hour stepping through every app in All Apps and signing in or doing whatever else they required (some apps, like Bose Music, required me to manually connected to a peripheral over Bluetooth while others, like Hue, have other requirements).
The other stumbling block, oddly, was the Google Pixel 5a (5G) Case I purchased to protect the phone. It only costs $29, which is sort of reasonable for this kind of thing, and it’s quite different from the horrible recycled material cases that Google provided for previous Pixel models. So I was curious. But this isn’t a minimalist case like the third-party case I’ve been using with the Pixel 4a with 5G. It adds a lot of additional heft to the device, and while I like that its exterior mimics the soft-touch feel of the phone itself, I’ll be looking for a thinner third-party replacement.
And that’s not even the real problem. The real problem is that the case is far too tight and thus far too hard to add and then remove from the phone. I put the phone into the case before I added the Mint Mobile SIM, and I was literally worried I would physically damage the phone while trying to get the case off of it again. I’ve experienced this kind of thing before, of course, but this was the worst I’ve ever seen.
The thing is, the most minimalist look and feel would be to not even use a case. And while this is something I’d considered with previous polycarbonate-based Pixels like the Pixel 3a XL and Pixel 4a with 5G, thanks to their durability, I never did so. And that’s because I’m always thinking down the road to when I’ll inevitably want to use that phone as a trade-in for some future purchase. Keeping the phone as pristine as possible is job one, especially when you’re paying for these devices with your own money, as I do. (Come on, Google. I exist. Seriously.)
With the Pixel 5a with 5G, however, Google went with what it calls a “premium metal” unibody design instead of polycarbonate. I’ve heard that it’s just aluminum, like so many other handsets. But Google also opted to coat the exterior with a soft-touch finish that most likely gives it its Army green color and absolutely could be scratched off. In fact, this was an issue with last year’s Pixel 5, which I never bought for three reasons: it was too small, and too expensive, and its resin coating (I really like the color) was too easy to rub or scratch off. Given the Pixel’s history, it would be naïve to assume that the Pixel 5a with 5G won’t suffer from the same problem. So here we are.
Speaking of problems, let’s digress a bit and discuss branding.
When Google launched the Pixel 4a last year, there were some major differences when compared to the Pixel 3a family from 2019. First, Google delayed the launch from May to August because of the COVID-19 pandemic. And second, Google only provided a single Pixel 4a model, the smaller one. There was no XL model, as with all Pixel releases before then.
Google later released the Pixel 4a with 5G, however, and this sort of fills the role of an XL version of the previous 4a, since it included a larger display, plus some other improvements, like 5G compatibility and a dual-lens camera system. Why Google didn’t just brand this thing as the Pixel 4a XL is unclear. But what is clear is that the phone went by multiple names in Google’s marketing, online store, and websites. Sometimes it’s called Pixel 4a (4G), for example, and sometimes it’s called the Pixel 4a with 5G.
Flash forward to August 2021, and we see the same problem. But this time, the Pixel 5a with 5G identifies itself using three different names depending on where you look: Pixel 5a, Pixel 5a (5G), and Pixel 5a with 5G. Many won’t be bothered by this, and I see that many reviewers simply call it the Pixel 5a, which makes some sense since there are no other 5a derivates this year. But I will admit to a bit of aggravation when I connected the handset to my car this morning so I could listen to an audiobook on the way to the gym, and it identified itself as a Pixel 5a. Sigh.
As far as actually using the device goes, I have little to report. The biggest difference between this handset and its predecessor, at least so far, is the case, which makes it feel bigger and heftier. Well, that and the downgrade to Android 11, which I’m surprised to say is quite noticeable, but is also at least temporary. I have to slowly turn off app notifications as they annoy me—another thing that upgrade process might bring over from the older phone—and the camera experience seems identical, as it should. The photos are excellent, but I wish there was a telephoto/optical zoom functionality. (All of the images in this post, except for those of the phone itself, were taken with the Pixel 5a. As I guess we’re going to call it now.
I can say that the battery life already appears to be excellent. I charged the Pixel 5a before configuring and using it yesterday, and then I used it a lot, including during a lengthy neighborhood block party (which was the source of some of these images). I then used it this morning on a dog walk, and at the gym. It got down to about 64 percent battery life in all that time. Not bad.