If you’re seeking a smaller and affordable handset with stock Android 12, rapid updates, 5G connectivity, and a camera that can punch way above its weight, the Pixel 5a might be for you. However, since the Pixel 6 arrived, the 5a is already looking past it.
- New low price now under $400
- Camera over-performs
- Android 12 and guaranteed updates
- Vibrant display
- Feels old hat now Pixel 6 is here
- Only 60z display
- Snapdragon 765G The mid-range chipset is from 2020. No Google Tensor silicon here
- Dual CameraSame rear camera array as the Pixel 5 and Pixel 4a 5G
- Android 12 available nowFresh update available out of the box with at least 2 more major and timely operating system guaranteed
The Google Pixel 5a remains elusive for UK smartphone lovers, with Google opting for a US-only release for its 2021 mid-range Android phone. It sits as an Android equivalent to the iPhone SE 2 and an alternative to this year’s phones like the Moto G200 5G and the Samsung A52 5G.
The differences between the Pixel 5a and the Pixel 4a 5G are modest, to be honest. They have the same processor and camera as the 2020 model and the design is extremely similar. However, you do get a slightly larger screen and battery, while this is the first A-Series phone to benefit from an IP rating.
However, with the Pixel 6 making such a giant leap forward for the range and costing from just $200 more (after the recent price cut), the gap between the flagship and A-Series phones is larger than ever. Is it even possible to justify a Pixel 5a purchase even with the price being trimmed to $399? Let’s take a closer look.
Design and screen
- Vibrant FHD+ OLED 6.34-inch panel
- Only 60Hz refresh rate
- First Pixel with IP67 water resistance
This design will be familiar to Pixel 4a users and will be familiar to Anyone who has used a mid-range Android phone in the last, ooh, five years. Decent screen to body ratio, single punch hole camera in the top left corner, USB-C charging, dual camera on the back and a fingerprint sensor on the back of the phone.
However, the build feels reassuringly solid despite its plastic exterior and lacks that cheap featherlight feel you may associate with some low-to-mid-range Android handsets. It’s 183g overall. Missing a glass or aluminium frame doesn’t feel like too big a miss, aside from the way the polycarbonate matte finish can look a little greasy from time to time, like you’ve been scoffing fish and chips and picked up your phone.
Overall, the design is quite minimal with the fingerprint sensor and unobtrusive indent in the upper centre below the rear camera. It’s fast and effective and satisfying to use, provided you take a little care over where you place your finger.
The dual camera bump protrudes only modestly from the top left corner. Elsewhere the ribbed power button and volume rockers are placed handily for the right thumb, while the retained 3.5mm audio out is on the top of the phone, slightly left of centre.
However, there is one big build upgrade. The presence of an IP67 waterproof rating, which enables the phone to be submerged in 1.5m of water for up to 30 minutes without sustaining damage. It’s slightly lower than the IP68 rating on the Pixel 6 though.
The display is a real highlight for this phone. It’s slightly larger than 2020’s Pixel 4a and Pixel 4a 5G, which were 5.8 and 6.2-inches respectively.
Here there’s a 6.34-inch FHD+ (2400 x 1080) OLED panel with a pixel density of 413ppi. It’s bright and vivid and responsive. While there is support for HDR content, it’s not the best option for gaming. Google has once again opted for a 60Hz refresh rate, despite hopes it would join other mid-range Android phones at 90Hz. It’s not a deal breaker and it’s unlikely those serious about mobile gaming are considering this phone in the first place. You may, however, notice scrolling through webpages isn’t as smooth if you’re used to a handset with a higher refresh rate. In saying that the new Android 12 Material You design language looks great on this screen and it was a joy to use throughout our testing.
The handset does a good job in sunlight, which I greatly appreciated here in The Sunshine State. Viewing angles are good too, making it possible to see content on the display quite easily even if you’re not looking right at it.
- Camera specs match 5a: 2 x 12.2-megapixel main and ultra-wide
- Excellent HDR and low light performance
The Pixel phones have always overperformed the specs, thanks to Google’s excellent computational photography tools, and the Pixel 5a is no different. There are dual cameras on the back of the phone including a 12.2-megapixel (1.4um pixel width, f1.7 aperture, OIS) and a 16-megapixel ultrawide (1.0um pixel width, f2.2 aperture). These specs match the Pixel 4a 5G and the Pixel 5.
Google has long prioritised its camera software over packing its phones with the most advanced sensors and that continues here with the Pixel 5a. Colours are bright and vivid in most situations with excellent dynamic range performance in outdoor settings. Google’s automatically enabled Night Sight behind-the-scenes tech pioneered improved low light photography in smartphones and it performs excellently again on the Pixel 5a. Dusky and dark images have greater clarity and colour range than you’d expect from a phone at this price point, all without the grainy texture you see from some
Colours pop without necessarily brightening the entire low-light scene to the point you lose sight of the fact it was taken at night. The train station and the Christmas reindeer shots below look particularly impressive. They were taken in late November at 6pm.
Images taken of the autumn foliage on a gloomy day did lack the same pop though, with the overall greyness dominating the scene. It’s a difficult balance to strike, because you risk images looking cartoonish and artificial if those orange and red leaves pop too much amidst the glum skies, but colours didn’t match those observed with the naked eye.
The Portraits are excellent. The bokeh effect doesn’t feel quite as pronounced as it is on the iPhone 13, say, but overall it feels easier to execute on Google’s phones. Because there’s no telephoto lens in play here, the tech is completely software based and works well. When enabled, the Color Pop edit looks particularly good.
Zooming is handled by software too. There’s no optical zoom here but the main camera offers up to 7x digital zoom. That isn’t unusual for a phone at this price point, but something that is missed. Go much beyond 2x zoom and things start to get very noisy.
The front-facing selfie 9-megapixel (1,2um pixel width, f/2.0 aperture) camera benefits and leans upon much of the same software advancements, like Portrait and Night Sight. The portrait selfies certainly brighten the image and add more colour and vivacity to your face, while blurring out the background. I tested Portrait selfies having just returned all stubbly, red and blotchy from a yoga class and much preferred the post-production in portrait mode, for example.
- Dated, but still capable Snapdragon 765G chipset
- 6GB of RAM manages multitasking well
If you’re stuck between a Pixel 5a and splashing the extra couple of hundred bucks on a Pixel 6, the processor could be the deciding factor. Not only does the handset have last year’s Snapdragon 765 chip (that sat within the Pixel 4a 5G and Pixel 5), but it also lacks the new Tensor processor that is a headline feature in the Pixel 6 range.
In all fairness, though, the Snapdragon 765 still holds up pretty well. It’s a capable chipset and is backed with a respectable 6GB of RAM. Thanks to the lighter-weight stock version of Android there’s no manufacturer/network bloatware or custom user interface to hold the chipset back when performing day to day activities like browsing the web, watching videos on YouTube, taking photos, downloading apps via the Play Store and accessing the Google Assistant.
After using this phone as my main handset recently, it hasn’t balked at anything I’ve asked it to accomplish. As with most of the best Android phones we review these days, it is fast enough for all but power users.
Compared to my everyday phone, gaming and scrolling isn’t as smooth. The Adreno 620GP is fine for moderate mobile gaming, but that higher refresh rate would have helped matters.
That’s not to say we shouldn’t be expecting a little more. In our benchmarking tests the Pixel 5a scored 564 for single core performance and 1556 for multicore performance. That’s roughly right where it was at for the Pixel 4a with 5G and Pixel 5. We’re not sure whether Google has pulled back on the reins a bit, but performance is actually a little bit underneath what the chipset is capable of. At Geekbench, the OnePlus Nord scored a single core score of 595 and a multicore score of 1,825.
- Decent-sized 4680mAh battery
- 18W USB-C charging
The Pixel 5a has a 4680mAh battery, which is quite sizeable and is capable of charging at 18W thanks to the bundled USB-C charger, while a nice little USB-A adapter is also included. Other than the new Pixel 6 Pro, this is the largest battery Google has ever placed in a Pixel phone, and it shows.
An hour of streaming YouTube Music via a Bluetooth speaker only diminished battery by 2%. An hour of YouTube videos showcasing gaming content, at full brightness, with Bluetooth audio took 11% from the battery. That’s pretty good going on both fronts.
Gaming was a little more strenuous. I played Crash On The Run – not the most resource-taxing game, but likely par with the demands of this phone’s customer base – for an hour on high display brightness. I lost 12% of battery and it was the only time I felt the Pixel 5a run hot.
Through regular use, it’s easy enough to make it through a standard day, but on heavy usage days, I found myself opting for the battery saver mode, just to be on the safe side. Standby use saw around 1-2% loss over a 24 hour period, so no worries there.
In terms of recharging, it took 39 minutes to go from 0-50%. There’s no Fast Charge mode here for a quick turbo boost. It took 1 hour 56 minutes to complete the charge via the included charging block and USB-C to USB-C cable. If you want wireless charging you’re going to have to stump up for the Pixel 6.
Should you buy it?
If you value stock Android and fast updates over blazing performance and umpteen cameras and value affordability. The Pixel 5a won’t let you down.
This phone feels very dated compared to the Pixel 6. If you game, the 60Hz display and muzzled Snapdragon 765 is lacking, the vibrant OLED panel.
If you love the simplicity of stock Android and don’t want to overspend on a phone, then it’s hard to look past the Pixel 5a, in much the same way as the iPhone SE 2022. Here, for $399, you’re getting 3 years of guaranteed Android updates, meaning you’re sorted for at least Android 13 and Android 14. And there’s an Android 12 update waiting for you right out of the box. Plus you’ll get those updates very shortly after release.
The cameras also overachieve the moderate specs, thanks to Google’s advances in machine learning and computational photography (housing all those Google Photos libraries has paid off).
However, the Pixel 6 just took the biggest leap forward in the history of the range in terms of design, processing, display, and cameras. The 5a feels a lot less attractive than it just a couple of months ago. The Pixel 5a feels like the Google phone of the past, which makes the purchase less exciting and harder to recommend.
If you’re hard capped at $400 for a phone, you’ll find none better. If you can spring the extra couple of hundred dollars, you’re unlikely to regret it.
How we test
We test every mobile phone we review thoroughly. We use industry standard tests to compare features properly and we use the phone as our main device over the review period. We’ll always tell you what we find and we never, ever, accept money to review a product.
Used as our main handset during test period
Camera tested in variety of situations with all modes
Tested with synthetic benchmarks and real world use
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