This phone craves Android 12
This story was originally published and last updated .
For years, a certain type of smartphone enthusiast has cried, “Why are camera bumps a thing? Just make the phones thicker and use the extra space for a bigger battery!” With the Pixel 5a, Google invites every single one of you to put your money where your mouth is. The Pixel 5a is a great phone at a great value, but the utterly insane battery life is the big highlight.
Design, hardware, what’s in the box
It might look black in a few of these photos, but it’s pretty green.
The Pixel 5a is proof that small phones are toast. (Note that Google technically calls this the “Pixel 5a with 5G,” or “Pixel 5a (5G),” but since it doesn’t seem like we’re getting a non-5G Pixel 5a, the end is superfluous, and I’m not gonna do it.) With a 6.34″ display, it’s even a bit bigger than the 4a 5G and a whole lot larger than last year’s diminutive (and $100 cheaper) Pixel 4a. Paired with its overall physical dimensions, new bio-resin-coated metal body, and 183g weight, the phone has a flagship-like quality and heft to it. In short: It’s a big boy.
Nearly one mm thicker makes for a smaller camera bump and a bigger battery
Like prior recent Pixels, the edges are all rounded to be nearly circular, fitting into your palm without any hard edges or corners. The rear-mounted fingerprint sensor is set into the coated unibody at the top of the back, next to the camera bump. And compared to the Pixel 4a 5G, that bump is barely there. Google plumped up the back of the phone by 0.8mm, reducing the gap between the phone’s back and the camera, giving a good chunk of that freed-up space to a 20% larger battery.
Like many prior models, I find the Pixel design to be “fun,” and I really like the new ribbed power button, which is both sort of entertaining and a boon to accessibility. I actually do have some intermittent neuropathy in the tips of my fingers, and while it’s hardly at the point where it interferes with day-to-day life, there’s always the possibility that it might someday, and changes like these can mitigate that by making it easier to feel. On top of that, plenty of people have varying degrees of vision disability, from farsightedness to blindness. This simple tweak lets anyone immediately tell which button is which by touch, and I’d like it if more companies did things like this.
As someone who is immensely picky, the screen in the Pixel 5a is just okay. It’s 60Hz, reasonably sharp at 1080p/409ppi, and Google tells us it can reach 700 nits of brightness. It’s not the most uniform display I’ve seen with dark gray colors at low brightness. That’s going to be a bummer with Android 12 at night and its hatred of true blacks in dark mode — a software design decision that may have good intentions, but it’s simply going to accentuate the flaws in Google’s own hardware over the coming years. Other than that, it gets bright enough outside and dim enough inside for normal use, with seemingly well-calibrated color (when the display profile is set to “natural”). On exceptionally bright and sunny days, the screen might be a little harder to see than some other phones, though.
Google’s gone with a so-called “hole-punch” camera again, but the hole itself is smaller than it’s been on prior Pixels. It’s smaller even than the more expensive Pixel 5’s cutout, though software still results in a huge status bar forehead, so I’m not sure if there’s a whole lot of benefit from that engineering improvement.
It took a quick dunk without issue.
The Pixel 5a is Google’s first IP-rated A-series Pixel, but prior models were also slightly (if informally) water-resistant. Re-familiarizing myself with the Pixel 4a 5G before our review, I took it with me on an ocean fishing trip, and that phone survived being absolutely drenched in seawater just fine. Anecdotes are hardly evidence, but teardowns did observe a handful of gaskets in the prior models, and I’ve personally found they can take a tiny bit of abuse (or a phone call in some light rain). Either way, Google has stepped up its mid-range effort with an actual IP rating in the Pixel 5a — headphone jack and all.
It might have one, but that jack is a bit quiet compared to some other devices. If you wire it through to a stereo or your car, you may notice you need to crank the volume a little, and it may not work great with especially high resistance (read: fancier) headphones.
Stereo sound is piped via the earpiece and bottom-firing speaker, and it’s tuned a little bit differently than the Pixel 4a 5G — slightly more shrill but noticeably louder. This still won’t replace even a cheap Bluetooth speaker at the beach, but it can make noise when necessary. Call quality was good, though maximum volume might be a little on the quiet side for some.
Haptics were so-so, and about the same as the Pixel 4a 5G. I don’t think Google opted for an especially high-end solution, though most mid-range smartphone haptics are pretty awful, so it’s a wash. If that’s a huge priority for you over everything else, just get an iPhone. Even the $400 2020 iPhone SE beats the very best Android flagships at haptic performance soundly.
Internally, the phone has a Snapdragon 765G: the same chip as the Pixel 4a 5G and Pixel 5. That’s paired with 6GB of RAM, which I’d argue is the minimum for a frustration-free experience in 2021 unless smartphone makers mess with how apps work in the background. (Google doesn’t.) That’s paired with 128GB of storage UFS 2.1 space — again, a good minimum for 95% of folk. However, we can confirm that Google isn’t allowing unlimited high-quality Google Photos backups for the Pixel 5a. Folks that don’t want to pony up for Google One storage will either hit their account cap or have to keep photos on-device.
Google’s phones just keep getting bigger. Left to right: Pixel 4a, Pixel 5, Pixel 4a 5G, Pixel 5a.
The Pixel 5a only comes in one mmWave-less flavor: All the 5G you love, none of the window-blocking hype you can’t use where you probably live. Because it was a small point of contention for some folks with the Pixel 4a 5G, I should point out specifically: The Pixel 5a supports Band 77 for 5G. Of course, you’ll need to double-check band support for your carrier, but Google tells us the phone will work unlocked on Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, US Cellular, Google Fi, Charter, C-Spire, Visible, and what have you. (I used it in our review on T-Mobile.)
In both design and specification, the Pixel 5a is a curious mix of the 4a 5G with the Pixel 5, resembling each but ultimately doing its own thing — and doing a good job of it. Apart from the mediocre screen, I have just one complaint: If you go caseless, the fingerprint sensor is still hard to hit, as it has barely any indent surrounding it. Since almost everyone will use a case, it’s not a very big problem, but after using my Pixel 5 caseless for the last year, I can attest to the durability of Google’s bio-resin coating. Mine doesn’t have a single scratch on it, though the corners might be slightly shinier than the rest of the phone.
Sadly, Google isn’t making fabric cases for the Pixel 5a; the company has switched to a new two-part hybrid design, with an inner frame that’s up to 75% recycled plastic. They feel a little chunkier and they’re less fun-looking, but they’ll probably be more durable and get dirty less quickly. One of the two they sent me didn’t fit the device correctly, (Google says that shouldn’t happen, and if it does, they’ll exchange it for you), but I’m also just not as big a fan as I was of the older fabric designs.
Software, performance, and battery
It’s a truism that might change this fall with the Pixel 6, but: You don’t buy a Pixel for the hardware, you buy it for the software. Every smartphone maker thinks its hastily made gallery app, crappy launcher, or half-baked digital assistant is some hugely marketable value-add on top of the basic Android smartphone experience. Almost universally, they are wrong, but Google is one of the exceptions. The Pixel software experience isn’t just appealing to stock-loving Android enthusiasts, the extra features customers get with things like the Assistant, exclusive apps, and regular Feature Drop updates are all worth paying more money for.
If you’ve never used a Pixel and you’re looking at the 5a for your first, then you are in for a treat. Certain aspects of Google’s design sensibilities might seem overly friendly, but it’s a delightfully clean experience, with a bubbly look, easily recognized UI elements, and a generally consistent organizational schema. In short: You should know what everything does at a glance, and it’s not that hard to find what you’re looking for, even if you don’t know exactly where it is ahead of time.
I’ve said this easily two dozen times in different places, but I love the Pixel’s automatic call screening feature. Pixels are the only phone you can buy where the awful, obnoxious, and sadly all-too-regular interruption of spam calls isn’t a problem anymore, and I’d happily pay Google a monthly fee to bring the feature to all my other phones. Sadly, the only easy way to get it is by having a Pixel. The same goes for other Feature Drop features like Hold for Me, which is super handy these days with customer support lines always tied up for actual hours, the faster on-device Google Assistant that supports the (not always useful) Continued Conversation feature, and Google’s easy transcribing Recorder app — admittedly, a little more useful for me than average given my job on this end of what you’re reading.
… only Pixels come with a regular drip of Feature Drop sprinkles.
On top of that, Google rolls out new features regularly as part of its every-three-month Feature Drop updates. Some months are lighter, others are heavier, but you get new additions like Night Sight video recording, extreme battery saver, and even weird niche things like enhanced underwater camera performance, among other stuff. Pixels also have a lot of additions to help keep you safe, like car crash detection and a “safety check” feature that can work as a dead man’s switch for things like going on a hike or walking home at night, alerting folks if you don’t check in. Every Android manufacturer thinks their software skin and weird features are the whipped cream and cherry on top of Android, but only Pixels come with a regular drip of Feature Drop sprinkles.
Admittedly, the Pixel experience is an experience that’s going to change drastically and quite suddenly when Android 12 lands later this year, and that demonstrates one issue prospective Pixel owners should be aware of, as Google’s showing less and less willingness to maintain UI consistency and features over time. The introduction and sudden removal of the power menu smart home features across two Android versions is a good example of that, and leaves me quite comfortable saying that Google doesn’t much care if it confuses customers or breaks things they rely on.
I did run into one notable bug: Once in a while, the Always-on Display will hang out on full brightness, and that was apparently able to drain the battery pretty dang fast overnight. However, our review unit was running on a dated June software patch, there’s a decent chance that kind of issue will be ironed out with an update before it ends up in your hands.
Pixel software is clearly a highlight here, but performance isn’t. That’s not to say it’s bad, merely okay.
Left: Benchmarks aren’t reality, but that’s closer to a Pixel 3 than a Galaxy S21. Right: You’ll see that “processing” indicator on photos a lot.
The Pixel 5a anecdotally was about as fast for me as what I experienced with the Pixel 4a 5G and Pixel 5 over the last year following the speed-improving update for those older phones. That is to say, the phone doesn’t scream, but it’s more than adequate for normal use. One of the bigger annoyances is how long photos can sometimes take to process and the perceptible lag you can feel while that’s happening, but the Pixel 5 and 4a 5G had the same issue.
The 5a can play Fortnite okayish. It’s not super smooth, but it’s fine enough for Max to carry me.
Unless you’re downgrading from a recent flagship, the Pixel 5a should be fast enough for you, but there is an awkward spot in the upgrade lineage here. If you’re coming from something like a Pixel 2 or Pixel 3 (or a high-end phone from that 2017-2018 era), the Pixel 5a may not feel much different.
Ultimately, this is a mid-range phone, and it has a mid-range processor — that makes sense here, unlike the Pixel 5. I think only those who are big into mobile gaming or have especially demanding workflows will run into trouble. For everyone else, it’s fine. But, as an older chipset, “fine” now may not be fine in a few years. Part of me would have liked to see a slightly newer or slightly faster chipset.
There is one significant advantage to accepting that middling performance, though, and that’s the outright incredible if not category-leading battery life.
At its core, this phone is basically a Pixel 4a 5G with a few improvements, and one of those changes is a 20% bump to battery capacity. To cut to the chase, I got ten and a half hours of screen-on time in my initial testing over two days. I plan to stress test things quite a lot more over the next month or two, but that’s a fantastic number. For most people, that probably equates to two or three days of battery life on a charge, and longer if you don’t use it much — for some folks that are especially easy on their phones, the Pixel 5a could last almost a whole week on a single charge. The Pixel 5a’s longevity is truly incredible.
However, because Google’s Pixels still only charge at a paltry 18W maximum, you can bet this will take a little longer to top up. (I’m still measuring how long it takes to charge from dead to full, so keep an eye out for a later update.) There’s also no wireless charging — sad trombone noises. I’m not a huge fan of the feature, which usually generates heat, diminishes battery life over time, and charges most devices too slowly to be of any real use, but some folks find the convenience worth it.
Usually, we love to wax about how great a given Pixel camera is, but that’s not especially necessary here. We’re told this phone has the same camera configuration that last year’s Pixel 5 and Pixel 4a 5G have, and that means it should take about the same photos — though Google has told us before that it does switch up processing slightly each year (paired with a slightly pretentious Italian painter theme when it does) and that could have a small effect.
Still, we have a handful of samples that show how Google’s now quite familiar (and quite old) primary sensor performs, paired with the new ultra-wide that debuted last year. But you should also check over our samples from the Pixel 5 and 4a 5G — they should take similar photos.
I like Pixel camera processing quite a lot, but it has a few characteristic aspects you come to notice (and sometimes dislike). In some lighting, Google underexposes just slightly in a way that you might want to edit and artificially brighten later — looking at a histogram, things tend just a bit to the left. In the same vein, the Pixel 5a doesn’t usually blow out a scene, preserving details and texture surprisingly well. And outside the worst possible lighting, it doesn’t process things into mud, though it can still get a little confused with color balance in specific scenes, especially with reddish hues. (It hates the red stained coffered ceiling in my TV room.)
Night Sight and astrophotography rock.
And when lighting is an issue, Google’s Night Sight remains phenomenal. Other companies have tried to implement their own systems to mimic it, but for whatever reason, none of them can quite duplicate its effectiveness. You probably won’t have many opportunities to use it (and I didn’t have any yet during the course of our review between my back and the weather), but the astrophotography mode is also stellar.
Left: Ultra-wide. Right: Primary.
It might not be the sort of hyper-edited overly contrasty unreality you see on Instagram (which some smartphone companies seem to actually target), but it’s usually, surprisingly, and some times upsettingly realistic. In short: I like it, even when it doesn’t make my life or the things around me seem more glamorous than they are.
Left to right: Ultra-wide, Primary, 2x “Super Res” digital zoom.
However, one thing Google did last year which I didn’t enjoy was swap its decent telephoto for an ultra-wide camera. This might vary from person to person and photo to photo, but I find ultra-wide cameras to be of pretty limited utility. From a photography perspective, the primary camera is already pretty dang wide, it’s not often I need to capture more. But I do find myself wanting to capture a smaller, tighter area without losing detail all the time, and now I can’t. Google’s Super Res Zoom is better than most digital zoom solutions (short of maybe Samsung now), but I’d rather have a spare telephoto than an ultra-wide any day.
Should you buy it?
The Pixel 5a is a great phone, but it’s also a shift in Google’s smartphone strategy that makes comparison across generations a little awkward. As much as we loved the absolute crap out of last year’s Pixel 4a, between the Pixel 6 leaks and the Pixel 5a’s much larger footprint, Google is seemingly done with smaller phones. In my mind, that means the Pixel 5a is more of a successor to the Pixel 4a 5G than the Pixel 4a, and it does a great job at replacing it — great, but not fantastic.
While the Snapdragon 765G is still a decent chipset and roughly comparable to other options like the Snapdragon 750 in Samsung’s Galaxy A52, it’s also a little on the older side now. I’d rather Google had gone with a newer model like the 778G we are starting to see land in products. With an eye fixed on the future, “good enough for now” may not be sufficient at the end of that three-year update window come 2024 — and that’s another issue in itself. Samsung’s promising up to four years of security updates now even for mid-range devices. Google, the very gatekeeper to Android itself, sets a poor example promising a lackluster three years for the Pixel 5a. If you hold onto phones for the long haul, you’re better off buying one of Samsung’s mid-range phones on that basis.
I’m not crestfallen that Google stuck with a mediocre 60Hz display, either, but it is a bit behind the competition — even OnePlus is managing high refresh rates in cheaper devices. If Google had given this a 90+ Hz display, I’d probably be calling this the Pixel 5 XL, regardless of the name Google chose. As it stands, I think it’s a label you could use anyway, although the comparison besmirches the 5a. It’s a better phone at a better price.
Ultimately, that’s what I think this all comes down to: the $450 price tag. Sure, outside the US and Japan, you can buy a phone with much better hardware for that much money — and you can bet that our comment section below is already loaded with folks screaming about random Xiaomi or Realme phones that you can’t get here. But right now, in the US, the Pixel 5a is a very attractive option. Last year’s 4a 5G was already tough to beat and my favorite phone of 2020. While I’d have liked to see a slightly better screen, a more recent chipset, longer software support, and wireless charging, the Pixel 5a is a damn nice phone with just the right features to make that $450 price tag worth every cent. And that’s why we’re giving it our Android Police Most Wanted award.
When I buy a phone for my mom every few years, I’m pretty picky about what I get her. But right now, the Pixel 5a tops the list if that happens this year. (But bring back the fabric cases, Google!)
Buy it if…
- You want amazing battery life.
- You’re upgrading from an older Pixel.
- You want a great mid-range $450 phone.
Don’t buy it if…
- You value gaming or high performance.
- You can spend more money — there are better phones.
Where to buy
The Pixel 5a will be sold in the US and Japan:
One month later, with Android 12
Easily the biggest benefit of owning a Pixel right now is the software, but the Pixel 5a launched at an unfortunate time, so late in the year that it was a mere couple of months ahead of Android 12’s launch. So, when the Release Candidate version of the update landed with support for the new phone, I had to see what the future might be like for the 5a. After all, it will spend more time running Android 12 than Android 11. And, in short: It’s pretty rad.
I usually adopt the “review it as it is now” mindset, but Android 12 is likely just weeks (if not days) away at this point. Even though the release candidate is still slightly incomplete and a bit buggy, it does show what the experience should be like in broad strokes — and, frankly, I just couldn’t resist the urge. But do take my impressions with at least a modicum of salt.
The biggest change you’ll notice in Android 12 is probably the new look. It’s been a long time since Google has substantially changed Android’s design language, and I’d argue Android 12 constitutes the most extensive visual redesign since Holo became Material with Android 5.0 Lollipop — though it’s a little less drastically different than that transition was. But, this is also the first time that Google’s hardware design has felt to me like it matched its corresponding software sensibilities. Material You is the most “fun” look Android’s probably ever had, and the shapes and textures of the Pixel 5a fit into that mindset just right. If Material You had a hardware look to go with it, it would definitely include things like the textured power button, super-rounded angles, and subtle color accents.
Of course, there’s Material You itself and how well Android 12’s Monet dynamic theming system adds to the experience. Apple may have invented widgets just last year, but Google’s decided it’s finally time to update its own. Some apps that haven’t seen theirs touched for years are getting a much-needed new look. And, whether we care to admit it to ourselves or not, we probably do owe Apple for forcing Google to care about them again.
I don’t want to rehash everything Android 12 does; we’ve covered that in detail over the last half-year. But there are a few other important highlights worth touching on. It’s impossible to make privacy as a subject sexy or generally appealing, but it is vitally important in the modern era even if customers don’t pay enough attention to it, and Android 12 makes some notable improvements. Now you have a better idea of when apps are recording you courtesy of the new privacy indicators, and there’s the new Privacy Dashboard that helps you better understand what apps have access to, what permissions they’re using, and when they’re using them.
The new search is rad, even if the new scrolling screenshots aren’t (sorry the top is cut off).
On top of that, there’s the Pixel Launcher’s powerful new on-device search, that can pull not just apps, but contacts, app shortcuts, and all sorts of wonderful things. I habitually under-used the search feature before, but now it’s so good you’d be foolish not to.
Not everything in Android 12 is great, though. The new scrolling screenshot feature we’ve been waiting years for and which Google claimed would be much better than other implementations is actually a whole lot worse. And however much you disliked the Quick Settings panel changes in Android 11, now you can see even less at once (though accessibility is much improved by the change). The relocated “Devices” smart home controls may also feel like an arbitrary change, though Google did at least add a lockscreen shortcut.
Ultimately, When the Pixel 5 gets Android 12 in a few days, you will have a few things to re-learn coming from Android 11, but that acclimation will be well worth it, especially on the Pixel 5a.
The camera isn’t perfect, but I’d still rather have a Pixel in my pocket on vacation than anything else.
Using Android 12 on the phone for the last couple of weeks hasn’t been free of issues. A few times, I’ve run into problems with apps that haven’t yet been updated to play nice with Android 12, and the At A Glance widget remains broken ahead of its Live Space revamp (a similar thing happened with the Pixel Launcher’s search before we got the snazzy new version). Again, we’re still in pre-release days, but even after launch, Pixel owners will have to wait on developers to fix some things in their apps if they weren’t sufficiently on the ball.
Whether those problems persist until the end or not, Android 12 feels right at home on the Pixel 5a — which is probably good since you shouldn’t avoid the update, either. Even separately from security issues that come from hanging onto an old software release, I ran into a few other problems with the Pixel 5a over time that will necessitate a software fix, like issues with touch input at the bottom of my screen that can interfere with typing. A handful of folk have reached out to me with similar complaints, so it isn’t isolated to my unit. These sorts of launch problems aren’t uncommon, but they should be fixed. (I’ve asked Google when that might be twice, but so far, they haven’t told me.)
Usually, when I do these review updates, I’ve been using the phone continuously for a good chunk of time, but that’s not true with the Pixel 5a. I’ve actually been switching between and alternately enjoying both the Pixel 5a and the new Galaxy Z Fold3. While they’re very, very different phones, even I have to acknowledge there are some noteworthy ways that Google’s sub-$500 phone actually beats Samsung’s $1,800 monster, like battery life and camera performance. The longer I use it, the more I think the Pixel 5a is one of the best phones of the year.