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Pixel 5a vs. Pixel 5: Which Google phone should you buy?

Pixel 5a review
(Image credit: Laptop Mag/Sean Riley)

Editor's Note on Aug 23: Google has officially discontinued the Pixel 5, making the Pixel 5a its most premium device until the launch of the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro later this year. Amazon still has the Pixel 5 in stock (as of 8/23) if, after reading this face-off, you've determined it to be the better device for your needs.

Google's Pixel phone lineup consists of the Pixel 4a 5G, Pixel 5, Pixel 5a and the upcoming Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro. That dizzying list may get whittled down soon, but for now, consumers are left with the difficult task of researching each model and deciding which one is best for their needs. 

Don't worry, I'm here to help. If you want a capable smartphone that costs less than flagships from Apple and Samsung, Google's Pixel phones are a great place to start. Of those listed above, the Pixel 5 and Pixel 5a are your best options unless you can score a deal on the outgoing Pixel 4a 5G before it vanishes for good.

In this comparison, we'll break down the differences between the Pixel 5 and Pixel 5a to determine whether the former is really worth the extra cash or if you should save your money and go with the newest member in Google's Pixel family.

Google Pixel 5 vs. Pixel 5a specs 

Pixel 5Pixel 5a
Price$699$449
OSAndroid 11Android 11
Display6.0 inches OLED (2340 x 1080-pixels; 90Hz)6.34-inch FHD+ OLED (2,400 x 1080; 60Hz)
ProcessorQualcomm Snapdragon 765GQualcomm Snapdragon 765G
RAM8GB6GB
Storage128GB128GB
Rear camera12.2MP wide (ƒ/1.7); 16MP ultrawide (f/2.2)12.2MP wide (ƒ/1.7); 16MP ultra-wide (f/2.2)
Front camera8MP (f/2.0)8MP (f/2.0)
Battery life9:29 (90Hz); 9:53 (60Hz)9:45
5GYes; sub-6Ghz and mmWaveYes; sub-6Ghz
Size5.7 x 2.8 x 0.3 inches6.3 x 2.9 x 0.35 inches
Weight5.3 ounces6.46 ounces

Google Pixel 5 vs. Pixel 5a price

For $449, the Pixel 5a comes in a single configuration with a Snapdragon 765G, 6GB of RAM, and 128GB of storage. The Pixel 5a will only be available in the U.S. and Japan.

Starting at $699, the Pixel 5 is the most expensive Pixel phone on the market until the arrival of the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro later this year. It comes with a Snapdragon 765G chip, 8GB of RAM and 128GB of storage. It's hard to find the Pixel 5 in stock at the time of writing; it can, however, be purchased on Amazon with a delayed ship date. 

Pixel 5 and Pixel 5a design 

Insert meme of Spiderman pointing at himself. That is to say, these two phones look very similar in that they are rounded rectangles with a fingerprint sensor on the rear. They even have the same squircle camera module in the top-left corner housing a standard wide-angle lens and secondary ultra-wide angle sensor.

Pixel 5a review

(Image credit: Laptop Mag/Sean Riley)

They may look similar but the sibling rivals don't feel the same. The Pixel 5's 100% recycled aluminum enclosure has a gritty, rough texture that makes it easy to clasp. Contrasting the Pixel 5's rough surface is the smooth, soft finish on the Pixel 5a, which also feels great in the hand and makes the phone grippier than others. It's rough vs. smooth, but in the end, both phones are comfortable to hold.

Also helping with ergonomics are the phones' edge-to-edge displays enabled by a hole-punch front-facing camera located in the top-left corner. This keeps them relatively compact, although the Pixel 5a with its 6.34-inch display is predictably the larger of the two. Looking at size and weight, the Pixel 5a is 6.3 x 2.9 x 0.35 inches and 6.46 ounces whereas the Pixel 5 is 5.7 x 2.8 x 0.3 inches and 5.3 ounces. 

Pixel 5

(Image credit: Laptop Mag)

One clear-cut design win for the Pixel 5 is its IP68 waterproof rating, but even then, the advantage is more narrow than before. That's because the Pixel 5a gained its own IP67 water-resistance rating, meaning it can survive being submerged in 3 meters of water for 30 minutes (whereas the Pixel 5 can swim in 6-meter depths). The Pixel 5a fires back in this round with a 3.5mm jack for those who still listen to wired headphones. 

The last thing I want to mention is color, or lack thereof. Google's brand image is synonymous with fun, colorful hues. And yet, the Pixel 5 comes in Black and Sorta Sage while the Pixel 5a comes in Mostly Black, which has a hint of forest green.

Pixel 5 vs. Pixel 5a display 

You'd think the more expensive phone would have the larger display. That's not the case here. The Pixel 5 has a 6-inch, 2340 x 1080-pixel display while the Pixel 5a has a 6.34-inch, 2,400 x 1080-pixel screen. Both are bright, vivid OLED panels though the Pixel 5 has a few important advantages.

Pixel 5

(Image credit: Laptop Mag)

Perhaps the most significant is the 90Hz refresh rate, which makes animations and fast-motion videos look smoother than they do on the Pixel 5a's 60Hz panel. And the 90Hz refresh rate on the Pixel 5 doesn't hurt endurance much because it can switch between 60Hz and 90Hz depending on what content is displayed. High refresh rates are seen most commonly on flagship phones (iPhones excluded) but some budget models are reaching past the 60Hz refresh rate standard of old — it's a shame the Pixel 5a doesn't.

Pixel 5a review

(Image credit: Laptop Mag/Sean Riley)

The Pixel 5 is also slightly more colorful and brighter than the Pixel 5a. Covering 91% of the DCI-P3 color gamut, the Pixel 5's display edges out the Pixel 5a (84.5%). The Pixel 5's display gets bright with adaptive brightness turned on, clocking 610 nits. By comparison, the Pixel 5a reached 501 nits. 

So yes, the Pixel 5's display is the better of the two, but the Pixel 5a's panel is also excellent and I'd argue the added real estate is more important than the minor brightness and color differences. 

Pixel 5 vs. Pixel 5a performance 

Also shared between the Pixel 5 and Pixel 5a is the engine powering these two phones. That's the Qualcomm Snapdragon 765G, an upper mid-tier processor that delivers solid overall performance.

Pixel 5

(Image credit: Laptop Mag)

Before I go any further, let me read you the fine print: This is not the processor powering most flagship phones in 2021. That honor goes to the Snapdragon 888 or 888 Plus, which you'll find in the Samsung Galaxy S21 and OnePlus 9

Let's return to our face-off with a spoiler: the Pixel 5 wins this round. How could that be? Because the phone comes with 8GB of RAM instead of the 6GB found in the Pixel 5a. As a result, Pixel 5a's Geekbench 5 multi-core score was just 1,345, considerably lower than the Pixel 5's 1,617. 

Pixel 5 vs. Pixel 5a: 5G 

Both phones support 5G but only the Pixel 5 gets mmWave 5G connectivity for the fastest wireless speeds. It's a reasonable trade-off for the Pixel 5a because mmWave coverage remains limited to small corners of certain US cities. What you get with both phones is the sub-6Ghz flavor of 5G, which has wide-reaching coverage albeit, much slower speeds. 

Pixel 5 vs. Pixel 5a battery life and charging 

On paper, the Pixel 5a with its 4,680mAh battery should have a slight endurance advantage over the Pixel 5 and its 4,080mAh cell. In practice, they're about even with both comfortably lasting a full day on a charge.

Pixel 5

(Image credit: Laptop Mag)

Comparing runtimes requires some context. The Pixel 5 with a 90Hz refresh rate enabled lasted for 9 hours and 29 minutes on our battery test. When we turned the variable refresh rate down to 60Hz, the Pixel 5 got a second wind, winding down in 9 hours and 53 minutes. The Pixel 5a clocked out at 9 hours and 45 minutes, falling between those two runtimes. It's worth mentioning that both phones did well during our real-world usage, especially the Pixel 5a, which lasted for about 10 hours of screen-on time across two days. 

On the charging front, both phones get their fuel pumped through a USB-C port and support 18W wired charging. Unlike its pricier sibling, the Pixel 5a does not support wireless charging or reverse wireless charging.

Pixel 5 vs. Pixel 5a cameras 

There's usually a lot of info to parse when talking about phone cameras, but not in this case. That's because the Pixel 5 and Pixel 5a have the exact same camera setup on both the front and rear. 

Pixel 5a review

(Image credit: Laptop Mag/Sean Riley)

The cameras on the Pixel 5 and Pixel 5a include a 12-megapixel (f/1.7) wide-angle lens and a 16MP (f/2.2) on the rear. Flip the phones over and you'll find an 8MP hole-punch selfie camera at f/2.0.

Pixel 5

(Image credit: Laptop Mag)

There's not much to compare here — the cameras are identical. What I do want to stress is that, while the imaging hardware is aging, these two phones take fantastic photos. Shots we grabbed exhibited excellent colors, impressive dynamic range and even white balance. Also, Google's Night Sight remains an industry leader for taking photos in dark environments.

Pixel 5 vs. Pixel 5a software 

Both phones run stock Android 11 with some Pixel-specific features, like Call Screen, which will get more information from unknown callers before putting them through to you, and Hold for Me, which lets you know when a person is back on the line if you are on hold.

Pixel 5

(Image credit: Laptop Mag)

Whichever phone you buy, it will be upgraded to Android 12 when the OS launches later this year. We played with the Android 12 beta and found it to be one of the most significant Android software updates in recent years. Both phones also offer three years of major OS and security updates, but that’s from the launch date of the phone so the Pixel 5a has a 10-month advantage. 

Winner: Google Pixel 5a 

Pixel 5a review

(Image credit: Laptop Mag/Sean Riley)

With the arrival of the Pixel 5a, the Pixel 5 goes from being overpriced to not worth considering unless you need a smaller phone or absolutely can't live with the few advantages it has over its much cheaper relative. Those perks include wireless charging, more RAM, slightly better water resistance, a 90Hz display and mmWave 5G.  

You may read that list and surmise that the Pixel 5 is the more capable phone. You're right, it is! But at $250 (36%) more than the Pixel 5a, it's a much worse value. None of the features I listed above should be deal-breakers unless you've committed to living a wire-free life. Yes, the speed boost is welcome but you won't notice it in day-to-day usage, and the 5G support is a non-factor considering its sluggish rollout across America. 

The Pixel 5a matches the Pixel 5 with the same excellent cameras, decent 765G processor, and long battery life. The icing on the cake — advantages it has over the Pixel 5 — are a headphone jack and a larger display. Oh, and the cherry? That sweet $449 price.

Phillip Tracy

Phillip Tracy is the assistant managing editor at Laptop Mag where he reviews laptops, phones and other gadgets while covering the latest industry news. After graduating with a journalism degree from the University of Texas at Austin, Phillip became a tech reporter at the Daily Dot. There, he wrote reviews for a range of gadgets and covered everything from social media trends to cybersecurity. Prior to that, he wrote for RCR Wireless News covering 5G and IoT. When he's not tinkering with devices, you can find Phillip playing video games, reading, traveling or watching soccer.