The Pixel 6 is just around the corner. But before Google brings it and its Tensor mobile chip to market, the company is updating its entry level offering with the $449 Pixel 5a. The whole point of the “a” family is to offer the basics at a reasonable price without sacrificing too much of the Pixel experience in the process. That means a relatively clean version of Android with a bunch of AI tricks and a heavy focus on photography.
But apparently Google feels like it more or less nailed that formula with the Pixel 4a 5G because the 5a is basically the same phone. (Note: The Pixel 5a is not a direct successor to the 4a, which was a much smaller device.) There are some differences — notably the addition of IP67 waterproofing — but most of the tweaks are extremely minor. Even the processor and RAM haven’t changed. So, if we said you could do better way back in October of 2020, what does that mean for the 5a in the fall of 2021?
- Epic battery life
- Excellent photo and video features
- IP67 water and dust resistance
- Solid construction
- Middling performance
- Only minor changes from Pixel 4a 5G
- Kind of boring
Well, it makes the Pixel 5a about as unexciting as a phone can be, for one. But look, boring isn’t necessarily bad. Especially when you’re talking about the mid and lower tiers of the smartphone market. For one, keeping things staid allows Google to focus its efforts on battery life and performance optimization. And just like the last generation of Pixels, the 5a feels pretty responsive despite the aging Snapdragon 765G inside. That said, the 765G wasn’t exactly top of the line last year, and it’s starting to show its limits. While scrolling through the UI and doing simple things like reading email and sending text messages, the 5a is indistinguishable from any flagship device. It even handles most mobile games without a hiccup. I spent some time playing The Elder Scrolls: Blades and Wild Castle and the phone barely broke a sweat.
But, I did notice it stutter a few times while navigating YouTube, editing photos and jotting down my thoughts for this review in Evernote. The latter I could easily chalk up to Evernote’s questionable development over the last few years, but the pauses while switching to fullscreen in YouTube and swapping filters in Google Photos are a bit more concerning.
The plus side of going with something a bit older and lower-powered (not to mention with an integrated 5G modem) is power efficiency. The 4a 5G was already something of a beast, lasting over 17 hours in our battery drain test before our reviews editor Cherlynn Low simply gave up and moved on with her life. That device had a 3,885mAh battery. The 5a has a 4,680mAh cell. It took 22 hours and 56 of playing a video on loop at 50-brightness before it finally powered down.
After 24 hour of heavy usage — playing games, repeatedly running 5G speed tests, installing apps, watching videos on YouTube and even letting it play sleep sounds overnight — the battery was still at 40 percent. It didn’t finally crap out until almost 2AM on day two. And if you turn on Extreme Battery Saver, things could get even more absurd. I’m fairly confident that under normal use you could get a full 48 hours out of the Pixel 5a before needing to find an outlet.
Battery life isn’t the only difference between the 5a and 4a 5G: The new phone is also IP67 rated for water and dust resistance. At a time when many smartphones have at least some form of water resistance the Pixel 4a 5G was sort of a disappointment. In fact, the lack of waterproofing was one of the big cons called out in our review. But the Pixel 5a should easily survive getting caught in the rain or if you drop it in a toilet. It can withstand being submerged in water up to one meter deep for 30 minutes, but I wouldn’t push this to its limits. Definitely don’t go swimming with it in your pocket.
The last difference between the Pixel 5a and the 4a 5G is in the size and construction, but it’s subtle. The 5a has a metal unibody as opposed to a polycarbonate one. The texture is still matte and similar to the softtouch of the previous models, though, and the upgrade to Gorilla Glass 6 from Gorilla Glass 3 is notable, but you’ll never notice the difference in daily use. The 5a comes in one finish: Mostly Black. Some might find the look a little dull, and it’s certainly on the utilitarian side, but I quite liked the feel of the phone. The finish is a nice contrast to the seemingly endless sea of smooth glassy surfaces and the heft is just right, too.
The 5a is ever so slightly larger and heavier, but you’re talking about a few millimeters and grams. Even if you had a Pixel 4a 5G in one hand and a Pixel 5a in the other you’d be hard pressed to figure out which is which.