Google Pixel 5a Review: The New King of Mid-Range

Google Pixel 5a Review: The New King of Mid-Range
Photo: Sam Rutherford

Ever since Google got into the mid-range phone game with the Pixel 3a, Google’s most affordable handsets have just been getting better and better. And when you combine all of Google’s Pixel-only software features with an even bigger screen, improved durability, and new support for water resistance on the new Pixel 5a, it really feels like Google — not Motorola or OnePlus — is the new king of mid-range handsets. And better yet, with a price tag of $US450 ($614), the Pixel 5a might be Google’s best value ever.

Editor’s Note: Stay tuned for local Australian pricing and availability.

Design: Basic, but in a good way

Like previous Pixel A-series phones, the Pixel 5a couldn’t be any simpler. You get a beautiful 2400 x 1080 OLED display, stereo speakers, a punch-hole selfie shooter, two rear cameras, USB-C port, and a rear-mounted fingerprint sensor — basically all the standard features you’d expect on a modern smartphone. And once again, the Pixel 5a still has a 3.5mm jack for wired audio (but no microSD card slot).

Pixel 5a

WHAT IS IT?

Google's affordable mid-range smartphone for 2021

PRICE

$US450 ($614)

LIKE

Great price, ridiculously good battery life, strong camera quality, now comes with water resistance, simple, straightforward design, Google's Pixel-only software, still has a headphone jack

DON'T LIKE

No wireless charging, no smaller model this year, no mmWave 5G support

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t upgrades, and on the Pixel 5a, Google has been quite clever in its strategy — especially considering the ongoing global chip crunch. Standing at 6.34-inches diagonally, the Pixel 5a’s screen is the biggest on any Pixel A-series phone yet, while also boasting excellent brightness that hit upwards of 800 nits during our testing. So even though fans of small may be disappointed that there isn’t a pint-sized Pixel A this year, giving everyone else more screen for the money is a valuable addition.

Photo: Sam Rutherford Photo: Sam Rutherford

Meanwhile, on the inside, Google has switched over to a new metal chassis that’s covered with a matte black plastic shell, combining improved strength with a soft-touch finish that’s quite nice to hold. And for the first time ever on a Pixel A phone, the Pixel 5a features IP-67 water resistance, so you don’t have to worry about an errant splash or a drop in the toilet ruining your day (it’s OK, it happens to everyone). Finally, in back, the Pixel 5a features two rear cameras that Google says are exactly the same as what came on last year’s mainline Pixel 5 (more on those later). It’s practically everything you could really want or need on a mid-range phone aside from wireless charging (which would be nice, but is an understandable omission).

Oh, and one important note about the Pixel 5a is that while it does come with a power brick included in the box, this may be the last time Google does that. Like a lot of other smartphone makers, Google has been planning to stop bundling power bricks with phones to help cut down on e-waste; according to the company, the number of people who don’t already have a USB-C is getting to the point where shipping phones with power bricks is becoming redundant. Look, I don’t make the rules, but that’s how it is.

Performance: When a 1-year-old chip is still more than enough

Photo: Sam Rutherford Photo: Sam Rutherford

One of the aspects affected most by the global chip crunch is the availability of processors, so instead of upgrading to a brand new SoC, Google stuck with Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 765G — the same chip Google used in the regular Pixel 5. And you know what, it still holds up. Sure, it’s not a powerhouse by any means, but the 765G (along with 6GB of RAM and 128GB of built-in storage) more than held its own in benchmarks compared to other mid-range phones like the TCL 20 Pro 5G (review on that coming soon). It was also enough to keep apps and games feeling smooth and stutter-free (unless you’re playing intense FPS titles), which is all I’m really looking for in a mid-range handset.

The one strange wrinkle is that while the Pixel 5 has support for both mmWave and sub-6 Ghz 5G — despite having the same chip, the Pixel 5a only supports sub-6GHz 5G connectivity. This means you’ll be able to tap into the wider coverage areas that you get with sub-6Ghz, but you won’t get those super-fast 1000 Mbps+ download speeds that mmWave 5G often provides.

Cameras: Punching way above their price bracket

Photo: Sam Rutherford Photo: Sam Rutherford

One of the biggest advantages Google’s Pixel A-series phones have over other mid-range devices are their cameras, and by going with the same setup it used on the standard Pixel 5, the Pixel 5a can easily hang with more expensive rivals. And while I’d really love to see Google add support for a dedicated zoom lens, Google’s Super-Res Zoom still gives you a little extra reach without huge drawbacks in image quality.

In typical bright light situations, the Pixel 5a’s 12-MP wide and 16-MP ultra-wide angle cameras consistently captured rich, properly exposed images, even beating Samsung’s Galaxy S21 in a number of head-to-head comparisons. When I snapped test shots at a new local restaurant, both the Pixel 5a and S21 snapped vibrant photos with great colours. But if you zoom in, you’ll notice that the Pixel 5a’s shot captured sharper details, especially on those fries below (and yes, they tasted as good as they look). But to me, the most impressive comparison was a side-by-side of a challenging shot of a flower in direct sunlight. While the S21’s shot was good, Samsung’s over-saturated colours wasn’t able to capture the finer textures you see in the Pixel 5a’s pic.

Photo: Sam Rutherford, In-House Art

Photo: Sam Rutherford, In-House Art

Here are a bunch of photos comparisons between the Pixel 5a and Galaxy S21, click through to see more.

Photo: Sam Rutherford, In-House Art

Photo: Sam Rutherford, In-House Art

Photo: Sam Rutherford, In-House Art

Photo: Sam Rutherford, In-House Art

Photo: Sam Rutherford, In-House Art

Photo: Sam Rutherford, In-House Art

Photo: Sam Rutherford, In-House Art

Photo: Sam Rutherford, In-House Art

Photo: Sam Rutherford, In-House Art

Photo: Sam Rutherford, In-House Art

Photo: Sam Rutherford, In-House Art

Photo: Sam Rutherford, In-House Art

Photo: Sam Rutherford, In-House Art

Photo: Sam Rutherford, In-House Art

Photo: Sam Rutherford, In-House Art

Photo: Sam Rutherford, In-House Art

And when it gets dark, the Pixel 5a can fall back on Google’s Night Sight processing, which is still one of the best in the business, especially in really low-light conditions. When I snapped a nighttime cityscape, the Pixel 5a and S21’s photos were incredibly close — no small feat for a phone that costs hundreds less. But by far the most impressive low-light shot was at a nearby community garden. Even though I could barely make out any details with my own eyes, the Pixel 5a produced a pic that was sharp, detailed, and surprisingly colourful, while also doing a better job of eliminating the yellowish orange tint you see in the S21’s shot.

The Pixel software experience

The Pixel 5a's USB-C port is on the bottom, while its headphone jack is up top.  (Photo: Sam Rutherford) The Pixel 5a’s USB-C port is on the bottom, while its headphone jack is up top. (Photo: Sam Rutherford)

Now, I don’t always talk about the software on Android phones because nowadays device makers have gotten pretty good at nailing the basics. But when you take into account all of Google’s Pixel-specific features like its Personal Safety app, Call Screener, Live Captions, and more, it really feels like Pixels make the most out of today’s AI-powered capabilities. And with three full years of OS and security updates, you’re getting longer support than rival phones from companies like Motorola, which often stops sending out updates after a year or two.

Battery Life: Simply divine

Frankly, the Pixel 5a’s battery life is so long, I thought our video rundown test was broken. But then I tested it three more times just to be sure, and the results are simply fantastic. With an average battery life of 18 hours and 18 minutes, the Pixel 5a has some of the best longevity we’ve ever seen, beating out every phone I’ve tested this year by at least an hour. So while not everyone loves a huge screen, going larger on its display also meant Google had more room for a bigger battery, and on the Pixel 5a, that tactic truly paid off.

For $US450 ($614), why buy anything else?

I will admit that there is one comparison I have been conveniently ignoring up until now, which is how the Pixel 5a stacks up against Chinese phones with big specs from companies like Xiaomi, Oppo, and others. But my reasoning is simple: They’re not really in the same category.

While the Pixel 5a is only available in black, Google is making some fun cases including this one, which Google calls Likely Lime.  (Photo: Sam Rutherford) While the Pixel 5a is only available in black, Google is making some fun cases including this one, which Google calls Likely Lime. (Photo: Sam Rutherford)

Because of the ongoing chip crunch, the Pixel 5a will only be available in two markets for now — the U.S. (unlocked only) and Japan (via Softbank) — which means the Pixel 5a isn’t really competing with the Vivos or Realmes of the world. But most importantly, while a lot of mid-range Chinese phones place a much heavier emphasis on processors and RAM, with the Pixel 5a, Google is focused on simplicity and usability more than anything else.

The Pixel 5a has all of a phone’s most important bases covered. It’s got a great screen, a straightforward design (now with water resistance), thoughtful software, and better battery life than anything I’ve seen in recent history (and it’s not even close). And if it was my money, I’d be struggling to come up with reasons to buy anything else.