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Pixel 5a review: Pixel 4a 5G remastered

Google's Pixel 5a is the most impressive A-series yet on paper, but there are flaws

Pixel 5a review
Editor's Choice
(Image: © Laptop Mag/Sean Riley)

Our Verdict

The Pixel 5a is a solid replacement for last year’s Pixel 4a 5G, but a couple of missteps undercut its upgrades.

For

  • Strong battery life
  • Bundled fast charger
  • Excellent camera performance
  • 3.5mm headphone jack
  • Water-resistant

Against

  • Disappointing performance
  • Outdated design
  • 60Hz display
Pixel 5a

Price: $449
OS: Android 11
Display: 6.34-inch FHD+ OLED (2,400 x 1080)
CPU: Qualcomm Snapdragon 765G
RAM: 6GB
Rear cameras: 12.2MP wide (ƒ/1.7); 16MP ultra-wide (f/2.2)
Front camera: 8MP (f/2.0)
Storage: 128GB
Battery: 9:45
Size: 6.3 x 2.9 x 0.35 inches
Weight: 6.46 ounces  

Google’s Pixel 5a will trigger a strong sense of déjà vu for Pixel fans. Startlingly similar to last year’s models, the Pixel 5a serves as something of a remastered greatest hits album using tracks from the Pixel 4a 5G and the Pixel 5.

While that may sound critical, I’d hasten to remind you that the Pixel 4a 5G was our favorite budget phone last year, and the Pixel 5a includes some notable upgrades, including water resistance and a much larger battery. The Pixel 5a has the challenging role of being a budget version of a phone that was less beloved than previous Pixels, and it, for better or worse, delivers on that premise.

Is this Pixel 5 in Pixel 4a 5G clothing good enough to remain the best budget phone on the market? Let's find out. 

Pixel 5a price and configurations 

For $449, the Pixel 5a comes in just a single configuration with a Snapdragon 765G, 6GB of RAM, 128GB of storage, and 5G support. Pixel 5a drops the mmWave 5G support available on the Pixel 4a 5G in the U.S.; it now only supports sub-6Ghz. This is likely part of the price reduction, and it’s a worthwhile tradeoff as mmWave remains irrelevant for the vast majority of users.

As Google indicated back in April, the Pixel 5a will only be available in the U.S. and Japan, so if you are outside of those regions, you are going to have a hard time tracking one down. Like previous A-Series Pixel phones, there is only a single color option: Mostly Black.

Pixel 5a review

(Image credit: Laptop Mag/Sean Riley)

Pixel 5a design 

The Pixel 5a design looks dated in 2021, even in its affordable price bracket. The phone is virtually identical to the Pixel 4a 5G, which was, in some ways, a throwback to the Pixel 3 and earlier Pixels due to the reintroduction of the rear fingerprint sensor. 

With that said, not everyone loved the move to facial recognition or in-display fingerprint sensors; if you never adjusted to those things, the rear fingerprint sensor works as fast and flawlessly as ever. The rear camera array of the Pixel 5a features the same square design in the upper-left corner; it’s slightly raised, but not so much that it interferes with laying the phone flat. 

You have a 3.5mm headphone jack on the top of the phone, which is a bit like finding a unicorn these days. Going clockwise around the phone, you’ll find a textured and rubberized olive green power button on the right with a black volume rocker below it. On the bottom of the phone is the USB-C port and on the left is the only other port on the phone, the SIM card slot. 

The Mostly Black finish on the Pixel 5a looks gray next to the true black of the Pixel 4a 5G. However, in a well-lit environment, the Pixel 5a is a much more interesting shade that reminds me of British racing green. It’s a fickle finish and shifts depending on the lighting, but it’s always staid and neutral.

Pixel 5a review

(Image credit: Laptop Mag/Sean Riley)

Regardless of the color, the feel of the Pixel 5a chassis is excellent. It has a soft and pleasant texture that is grippier than most phones. Google sent me a couple of its new Pixel 5a cases, and while I like the look (especially of the lime one), grip and added protection, putting on these accessories made me miss the feel of the phone itself. 

On the subject of protection, the Pixel 5a has one crucial durability upgrade: IP67 water and dust resistance. The phone will handle submersion in water of up to about five feet for up to 30 minutes. This matches the Pixel 5 but is a first for Google’s A-Series.

Pixel 5a in lime case

(Image credit: Laptop Mag/Sean Riley)

With its 6.34-inch display, the Pixel 5a isn’t compact, but it isn’t massive either. At 6.1 x 2.9 x 0.3-inches and 6.5 ounces, its dimensions are identical to the Pixel 4a 5G (6.3 x 2.91 x 0.3 inches, 6 ounces) until you get a little more granular. The added weight is due to its larger battery, making it slightly thicker at 0.35 inches compared to 0.33 inches on the Pixel 4a 5G. The TCL 20 Pro 5G (6.5 x 2.87 x 0.35 inches, 6.7 ounces) eclipses them both, as you would expect with its 6.7-inch display. Samsung’s Galaxy A52 (6.3 x 2.96 x 0.33 inches, 6.67 ounces) is only slightly larger, but this is due to its larger 6.5-inch display.

The Pixel 5a design is pleasant to use, and the Mostly Black finish ultimately won me over, but there’s just no denying that the phone feels outdated by at least a few years. 

Pixel 5a review

(Image credit: Laptop Mag/Sean Riley)

Pixel 5a display

The Pixel 5a features a 6.34-inch FHD+ (2400 x 1080) OLED display. It’s a slight size bump from the 6.2-inch display on the Pixel 4a 5G and just a hair larger than even the Pixel 4XL (6.3-inches), making it the largest screen on a Pixel to date. 

Unfortunately, Google didn’t give the Pixel 5a the 90Hz refresh rate from the Pixel 5. Even at this price point, higher refresh rates are becoming increasingly common; the OnePlus Nord N200 packs a 90Hz display into a $240 phone. The Pixel's panel isn’t terrible, but it cements the Pixel 5a in the budget realm.

I watched the trailer for “Dune” on YouTube, and the Pixel 5a is solid, but not remarkable. Details like the blue eyes of the Fremen come through, and it handled the dramatic shifts between the darkness of the interior shots on Caladan and the bright exterior shots of Arrakis well. Still, it lacks the punch of some of the better displays, even at this price range. 

Pixel 5a review

(Image credit: Laptop Mag/Sean Riley)

Our lab testing backed my findings with the Pixel 5a showing some weaknesses compared to the Pixel 4a 5G, and it was nowhere near this year’s crop of sub-$500 contenders. The Pixel 5a reproduced 84.5% of the DCI-P3 color gamut. That’s behind the Pixel 4a 5G (91.3%); the Samsung Galaxy A52 (142.6%), and TCL 20 Pro 5G (130.4%) left them both in a vibrant cloud of dust. 

The Delta-E color accuracy test (lower is better) wasn’t as embarrassing, with the Pixel 5a scoring a 0.32. That still is only good for last place but is not as far behind the pack. The Pixel 4a 5G and Samsung Galaxy A52 both received a 0.3, and the TCL 20 Pro 5G is the winner among this group at 0.28. 

Pixel 5a fared a bit better in brightness at a peak of 501 nits. This eclipsed the Pixel 4a 5G (411 nits) but again is nowhere near the TCL 20 Pro 5G (622 nits) or the Samsung Galaxy A52 5G (704 nits). 

Pixel 5a in grey case

(Image credit: Laptop Mag/Sean Riley)

Pixel 5a performance

One of the many shared specs between the Pixel 5a and the Pixel 4a 5G is the Qualcomm Snapdragon 765G processor. Paired with 6GB of RAM, the chip is more than equal to general tasks and even capable of some gaming, but think more puzzle games and less action or FPS. The 128GB of storage should be plenty for most users, but you may need an online photo storage solution if you capture many photos and videos with your phone.

I’m not thrilled that Google went back to the well with the Snapdragon 765G for the Pixel 5a. A software update to the Pixel 4a 5G and Pixel 5 enhanced the GPU performance several months after launch, but even so, neither was a speed demon. Standard tasks are just fine; I loaded up a couple of dozen Google Chrome tabs and ran a YouTube video in the background without the phone bogging down. But trying to juggle between tabs or scroll too quickly caused perceptible stuttering. I could never make it crash completely, but a YouTube video running while using the camera almost did it, however odd a use case that might be.  

Pixel 5a review

(Image credit: Laptop Mag/Sean Riley)

My normal gaming torture test of PUBG Mobile did not go well for the Pixel 5a. I bottomed out all the settings and still could not get the game to a reasonably playable state. Both the character movement and aiming were far too jittery to make playing a fast-paced game like PUBG viable. 

The Geekbench 5 multi-core score was even worse than I had anticipated at just 1,345. That’s considerably worse than the Pixel 4a 5G (1,614) and distantly behind the Snapdragon 720G-powered Samsung Galaxy A52 (1,903) and the Snapdragon 750G-powered TCL 20 Pro 5G (1,922).

Graphics benchmarks surprisingly were markedly better for the Pixel 5a. It managed ten frames per second in the Wild Life Unlimited 3DMark test. That was decisively ahead of the TCL 20 Pro 5G (6.7 fps) and the Samsung Galaxy A52 (6.6 fps). 

For basic browsing, watching videos, capturing photos, social media, etc., the Pixel 5a will be just fine, but don’t get too ambitious with it. Performance is the biggest disappointment for the phone as there were better chip options available, like the Snapdragon 750G. Even after choosing the Snapdragon 765G, I’m confused by how Google managed to backslide on performance compared to its previous phones with the same chip.

Pixel 5a audio 

The Pixel 5a has stereo speakers and two microphones with noise suppression. The listening experience with the built-in speakers is better than most in this price range, which is no surprise as recent Pixels have all offered a solid stereo speaker setup.

I listened to One Republic and Collins’ “Run,” and was immediately impressed by the loudness and clarity of the speakers in the Pixel 5a. It easily filled my 12 x 18-foot listening space and avoided vibration and distortion even with the volume maxed out. The vocals and orchestral backing all remained crisp and clear, with the soft percussion as the one letdown as the speakers lacked the bass punch.

With the 3.5mm headphone jack on the Pixel 5a, you can turn to wired or wireless headphones if you want the best possible mobile audio experience.

Pixel 5a review

(Image credit: Laptop Mag/Sean Riley)

Pixel 5a battery life and charging 

The Pixel 5a packs the largest battery ever for a Pixel phone at 4,680mAh. That’s about 800mAh more than what the Pixel 4a 5G offered. Last year’s Pixels broke the chain of years of complaints regarding Pixel battery life, so seeing this massive battery in the underpowered Pixel 5a was encouraging.

Our Laptop Mag battery test, which involves constant web browsing over cellular at 150 nits, was a bit shocking as the Pixel 5a came in at 9 hours and 45 minutes. That’s a solid result and markedly better than the Pixel 4a 5G (8:13) and the TCL 20 Pro 5G (8:48), but nowhere near the Samsung Galaxy A52 (12:20 (60Hz); 10:19 (120Hz) with its screen set to 60Hz and still behind it at its highest refresh rate.  

Pixel 5a review

(Image credit: Laptop Mag/Sean Riley)

My personal experience of using the phone was quite different. I never came close to killing the phone in a single day. When I took the phone off the charger at around 7:30 a.m. and put it back on at around 10:30 p.m., I had anywhere from 25-35% remaining. During a typical day with a review device, I’m running Netflix and YouTube streaming for 90 minutes to two hours, web browsing, using social media, gaming, and capturing some photos and videos. I covered why I didn’t do much gaming with the Pixel 5a, but everything else was in play.

Battery life is a “your mileage may vary” situation depending on what you do with your phone, but I would be shocked if most users can’t make it well into a second day on a single charge with the Pixel 5a.

The Pixel 5a doesn’t offer outstanding fast charging, but it supports 18W wired fast charging, and best of all, you still get that charger in the box. In our testing, the Pixel 5a hit 23% after 15 minutes and reached 43% in 30 minutes with its included charger. While faster charging is always better, these slower speeds aren't a problem considering the long battery life. Google also omitted wireless charging, something I was really hoping to see it inherit from the Pixel 5, but in this price range that isn't a dealbreaker.

Pixel 5a review

(Image credit: Laptop Mag/Sean Riley)

Pixel 5a cameras 

Pixel 5a uses the same cameras as the Pixel 4a 5G and Pixel 5. You have a 12.2MP (f/1.7) wide-angle and 16MP (f/2.2) ultra-wide on the back and an 8MP hole-punch selfie camera at f/2.0 in front. Google rightly drew a lot of heat for this camera array on the Pixel 5 as its $699 price point had it facing off against much stronger competition, but at $449, I’m OK with this arrangement for the Pixel 5a.

The primary wide-angle with its excellent f/1.7 aperture is markedly better than what you get from most manufacturers in this price range. The lack of a telephoto still isn’t a crushing blow here either; most 3-to-4 lens phones in this range are just padding their spec sheet with a macro or monochrome lens. We know the Pixel 6 is about to finally break the chain for Pixel cameras, but for a lower mid-range device like the Pixel 5a, the results you get from this familiar setup remain excellent.

This is likely the final ride for this camera setup from Google, and the farewell tour is as good as it has ever been. This set of shots from the primary wide-angle lens show excellent details in the 12MP images, and the colors struck me. The cluster of raspberries shows off what the Pixel 5a is capable of with the excellent bokeh sans portrait mode. My traditional test shot of the mural at a nearby restaurant shows its gorgeous color reproduction with a subtle boost to saturation that is just the right amount of heightened reality to my eye. 

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Pixel 5a camera samples

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Pixel 5a wide-angle

The ultra-wide camera is a step down from the primary, but it does a fantastic job of matching the color and exposure of the primary. There is some distortion on the edges — it’s particularly noticeable in the shot with the old tractor in a bed of flowers — but only OnePlus is close to cracking this problem so far. More natural ultra-wide photos like the one of the mural show that distortion isn’t a severe problem 

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Pixel 5a camera samples

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Pixel 5a ultra-wide

The 8MP front-facing camera captures fantastic detail and delivers exposure that is on a par with the rear cameras, which is particularly rare in the sub-$500 market. I took several shots both with and without portrait mode and it showed improvement over the Pixel 4a 5G, but still struggled with my hair at times in portrait mode. Unless you desperately need the bokeh look or have less unruly hair than mine, you should consider avoiding portrait mode for selfies. 

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Pixel 5a camera samples

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TCL 20 Pro 5G front-facing

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TCL 20 Pro 5G front-facing portrait mode

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The photos from the Pixel 5a are still the best from any sub-$500 phone on the market. What it lacks in versatility, it makes up for with its consistently superb output. I suspect this will be the last year Google uses this dual-lens setup in its A-Series phones; it has wrung every bit of performance out of these sensors, and for now, that is good enough.

Pixel 5a software 

The Pixel 5a runs relatively stock Android 11 with Google’s enhancements and a few Pixel-specific features on top of it. This includes things like Call Screen, which will try to get more information from unknown callers before putting them through to you, and the similar Hold for Me, which lets you know when a person is back on the line if you are on hold. Recorder is another handy tool that gives you transcriptions for any audio you record and will even attempt to keyword the transcriptions for you; this can be fantastic for work or for capturing the ridiculous things your kids say.

The Pixel 5a will get the same three years of major OS and security updates as previous Pixels. It’s second to Samsung, which gives you four years of security updates, and easily the best in this price range. Many sub-$500 Android phones give you at most a year or two of software updates, and they can be a long time coming. With the Pixel 5a, you will be among the first to get each new Android update through August 2024.

Pixel 5a review

(Image credit: Laptop Mag/Sean Riley)

Bottom line

The Pixel 5a is a solid replacement for both the Pixel 4a 5G and the Pixel 5 in the Pixel lineup; it doesn’t oust the latter just yet (that will be the job of the Pixel 6 later this year), but I can no longer recommend the Pixel 5 with the Pixel 5a now being available.

I am disappointed by the performance of the Pixel 5a. While the Snapdragon 765G isn’t a stellar processor, it can deliver more than what we're seeing from the Pixel 5a. I am hopeful that Google will find a way to improve the 5a's speeds with a future software update, and I’ll update this review if that happens. Until that happens, the Pixel 5a is inexplicably slower than the Pixel 4a 5G despite using identical internals. 

The remarkable battery life helps alleviate the frustration regarding the Snapdragon performance, and the addition of water resistance is much appreciated. Both are quality-of-life upgrades and peace of mind for an affordable mid-range device costing $449.

With its limited availability in the U.S. and Japan, and the massively upgraded Pixel 6 stealing all of the oxygen from the room, it is hard to get too excited about the Pixel 5a. It’s still among the best budget phones on the market when factoring in the cameras, software support, price reduction, and increased battery life. However, depending on your priorities, options like the TCL 20 Pro 5G or Samsung Galaxy A52 offer some clear advantages with superior displays, performance, and more modern designs. 

Sean Riley

Sean Riley has been covering tech professionally for over a decade now. Most of that time was as a freelancer covering varied topics including phones, wearables, tablets, smart home devices, laptops, AR, VR, mobile payments, fintech, and more.  Sean is the resident mobile expert at Laptop Mag, specializing in phones and wearables, you'll find plenty of news, reviews, how-to, and opinion pieces on these subjects from him here. But Laptop Mag has also proven a perfect fit for that broad range of interests with reviews and news on the latest laptops, VR games, and computer accessories along with coverage on everything from NFTs to cybersecurity and more.