After Google’s fall hardware event yesterday, I spent some time comparing the Pixel 5 to the Pixel 4a 5G and was surprised to find few noteworthy differences between the two phones. They share the same processor, cameras, fingerprint unlock sensor and have nearly identical screens. That covers probably the most important parts of a smartphone experience; the main differences are wireless charging; a metal, water resistant body; a 90Hz screen refresh rate; a slightly bigger battery; and 8GB of RAM (compared to 6GB on the 4a).
That’s not to say these features are meaningless, but they are fairly minor in the grand scheme of most people’s smartphones. Given that the Pixel 4a 5G only costs $499 here in the US, a full $200 less than the 5, Google’s flagship felt like a bit of a tough sell. But that was before Verizon announced it was selling its own version of the 4a 5G, one that supported the carrier’s mmWave-based 5G network. The awkwardly-named Pixel 4a 5G UW is priced at $599, only $100 less than the Pixel 5, a phone that also works on Verizon’s mmWave network.
That pricing feels more appropriate given the differences between the phones -- but the downside is that the US is paying a premium for the Pixel 5 compared to the rest of the world. As some have noticed, Google also built a less expensive Pixel 5 without mmWave support, but you can’t get it in the US. That means that even if you buy the phone unlocked here, you’re paying for the mmWave technology inside if, regardless of whether you’re going to use it.
Fortunately, our friends around the world can pick up the Pixel 5 without mmWave and save some money doing so. Obviously, comparing prices between the US and other countries isn’t a direct science, but Canada makes for a good example. As Dan Bader at Android Central noted on Twitter, the Pixel 5 is $799 in Canada, and it’s not just Google being kind on the exchange rate ($700 USD equals about $931 Canadian dollars as of this writing) -- it’s because the Pixel 5 without mmWave simply costs less. The same is true in the UK, where the Pixel 4a 5G costs £499, and the Pixel 5 costs £599.
The Pixel 5 is $699 in the US and $799 in Canada. This isn't Google being kind on the exchange rate. It's because US buyers are spending an extra $100 for mmWave 5G and Canadians aren't, simple as that.
Every phone with mmWave costs more, whether you use it or not. pic.twitter.com/V7LXAtP31P
— Daniel Bader (@journeydan) October 1, 2020
On the one hand, I’d prefer to see a cheaper Pixel 5 here in the US for the many people in the country who don’t have access to mmWave-based 5G. Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile are all building it out, but the latter two carriers rely mostly on a 5G standard that’s much more widely available. That network isn’t nearly as fast as mmWave, but it does have the huge advantage of being available all around the country with a much greater range and ability to work indoors, unlike mmWave right now.
If you’re on Verizon, though, mmWave is the only 5G the carrier currently provides. Verizon and Google have had a close, sometimes exclusive relationship for all the prior Pixel phones, so it’s not surprising to see Google only offer a Pixel 5 that’ll give the best experience on its network. It’s also not a huge leap to suggest Verizon didn’t want Google selling a Pixel 5 at the same $599 price as its Pixel 4a.
And given that people are holding on to their phones longer than ever these days, it’s not a bad thing that these phones will work with more 5G networks going forward. But at the same time, people considering less expensive phones like the Pixel lineup are probably not worried about having the fastest possible 5G speeds they can get. In fact, I’d probably opt for a cheaper Pixel 5 without mmWave if I had the choice. But given the fact that the Pixel 4a and 5 are so similar, I’d probably just save myself $200 and go with the true budget option.