The Morning After: Google Pixel 5a with 5G

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.

Photo taken with the Pixel 5a

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.

Photo taken with the Pixel 5a

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.)

Photo taken with the Pixel 5a

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.

Photo taken with the Pixel 5a

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.

Photo taken with the Pixel 5a

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.

Photo taken with the Pixel 5a

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.

Ultrawide photo taken with the Pixel 5a

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.

Photo taken with the Pixel 5a

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.

More soon.

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Conversation 16 comments

  • JacobTheDev

    Premium Member
    27 August, 2021 - 2:11 pm

    <p>"and it’s quite different from the horrible recycle material cases that Google provided for previous Pixel models"</p><p><br></p><p>Funny, I actually prefer the recycled fabric cases! I was disappointed that they’re not offering one for the Pixel 5a, and I’m hoping they’ll still make one for the Pixel 6.</p>

    • Paul Thurrott

      Premium Member
      27 August, 2021 - 3:55 pm

      <p>They actually hurt my hands when I hold them. I like the way they look. </p>

  • rmlounsbury

    Premium Member
    27 August, 2021 - 2:22 pm

    <p>I had the same experience with the case. I put it on after realizing I didn’t swap my SIM and the new cases hold on with quite the death grip. </p><p><br></p><p>My time with the Pixel 5a was all but about 15 minutes though. After getting halfway through the setup I stopped and started the RMA process. The bigger issue which I had some concerns about was the size and heft of the 5a. I wanted a larger screen than the 5.7" of Pixel 4 but the 5a ended up being too big and bulky. The second issue being the relatively small field of view on the OLED panel which really bothered me.</p><p><br></p><p>The Pixel 4 wasn’t a long term option and after some deliberation I ended up with the Pixel 5. Slightly smaller and lighter that the Pixel 4, keeps the 90hz refresh, and doubles the battery. The only downside is the channel for Pixel 5 is already gone so I had to go the used market. Either way, important lesson learned for me on device size. The 6" screen is the sweet spot. </p>

  • sherlockholmes

    Premium Member
    27 August, 2021 - 2:22 pm

    <p>The morning after? Did you sleep with your Pixel, Paul? 😉 </p>

  • ghostrider

    28 August, 2021 - 6:09 am

    <p>So, the only things he can moan about really in this case is the 3rd party case he bought and the name – I take it everything else is ok then? This mid-range Pixel line seems to be maturing very well, and are now perfectly functional/nothing really bad phones that are <em>good enough</em> for the majority at a sensible price. I think Google have finally found their new Nexus!</p>

    • Paul Thurrott

      Premium Member
      28 August, 2021 - 10:45 am

      <p>Moan about? Let’s be a bit nicer than that, please.</p>

  • winner

    28 August, 2021 - 12:49 pm

    <p>Paul, do you notice the size difference between the 4a5g and the 5a5g very much?</p>

    • Paul Thurrott

      Premium Member
      30 August, 2021 - 8:40 am

      <p>Yeah, but that’s partly because the case I’m using is so much heftier. The 5a is taller and thinner (side to side) but thicker and heavier. I do notice the weight difference without the case, but not so much the general size.</p>

  • phxmark

    28 August, 2021 - 1:00 pm

    <p>I am expecting mine today and so glad I read this. Switching from a 3XL using the 12 beta so I will not do the transfer thing and manually install my apps instead. And I do have the case from Google in my checkout from the Google store but will cancel that and look for a thinner third party case. Thanks for posting this. It was a huge help !</p>

  • troughley

    Premium Member
    28 August, 2021 - 2:38 pm

    <p>I do enjoy these usability updates Paul, keep them coming! My Pixel 5a just showed up this morning and so far the size is definitely an improvement from the Pixel 4a [4G].</p>

  • Michael Rivers

    28 August, 2021 - 11:55 pm

    <p>Huh. My case isn’t particularly tight. I have the grey one with the orange accents. There must be some variability in size.</p>

    • yoshi

      30 August, 2021 - 9:33 am

      <p>I saw a few reviews that complained about the case as well. One person couldn’t even get the case to go on the phone. </p><p><br></p><p>Myself though, it’s nice and snug but I haven’t had difficulty taking the case on and off. I purchased the same color as you – Maybe Moon.</p>

  • jlmerrill

    29 August, 2021 - 11:27 pm

    <p>I’ve heard that the 5A overheats when recording 4K video and will quit.</p>

    • Paul Thurrott

      Premium Member
      30 August, 2021 - 8:39 am

      <p>Yeah, that’s not unique to this phone. The 4a with 5G had/has the same issue.</p>

  • bats

    30 August, 2021 - 10:43 am

    <p>Every time Thurrott writes these "Morning After" posts, i can’t help but laugh. I picture Thurrott, in bed, naked under the sheets smoking a cigarette, with whatever phone, resting on a pillow, laying next to him. </p><p><br></p><p>I am happy with 3 XL, and the 5a with 5G doesn’t seem like it’s going to change my life for the better. Perhaps I’ll just wait for the PT to flirt with the Pixel 6 (XL). </p>

  • crunchyfrog

    Premium Member
    30 August, 2021 - 4:27 pm

    <p>I cancelled my order for this phone. The 4a I have is good enough for now and the Pixel 6 is about the size of a carton of milk so I’m passing on that too.</p>


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