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Google Pixel 5a 5G Review: A modest upgrade to the camera powerhouse

Google Pixel 5a with screen on.
Google Pixel 5a 5G
MSRP $449.00
“The Pixel 5a continues to live up to its camera expectations, offering smooth performance, punchy photos, and lowlight capabilities on a budget.”
  • Excellent camera performance
  • Smooth, clean software
  • IP67 water and dust resistance
  • Affordable price for its capabilities
  • Standard, somewhat boring design
  • No high-refresh display

Google’s Pixel 5a 5G has been the subject of so many leaks at this point that there are no surprises here — but there never needed to be. The Pixel A-Series has always represented more affordable, pared-down versions of Google’s mainstay phones, while still bringing the same high-quality camera hardware and software performance to the table. None of that has changed with the Google Pixel 5a.

In terms of hardware, it’s a step above the Google Pixel 4a 5G, with a bigger battery and IP67 water and dust resistance. Conversely, it omits some of the premium features you get on the Pixel 5, like the bumped-up RAM and high-refresh 90Hz display. Overall, it continues to deliver exactly what Google Pixel A-Series users want: Clean software, a strong camera, and no major downsides.

Google Pixel 5a from the back.
Ajay Kumar/Digital Trends

Design and display

The design of the Pixel 5a 5G is largely unchanged from its predecessor, the 4a 5G, and verges on boring. It’s a standard candy-bar design covered in smooth black plastic, with rounded sides and a screen with narrow bezels. The hole-punch selfie camera is on the top right, and you get a responsive fingerprint sensor on the back. There’s a 3.5mm audio jack up top, just like on the 4a 5G.

The big change from the previous model isn’t visible, but it’s a significant one. You now have IP67 water and dust resistance, meaning the Pixel 5a can withstand a complete dunking in water, splashes, and rain, along with a day at the beach. That was missing from previous generations and it’s uncommon to find even midrange phones that don’t have waterproofing these days, so it’s nice to see this durability issue rectified.

The screen is largely unchanged. It’s a 6.34-inch, 2400 x 1080 resolution OLED screen. That’s a slight change from the 4a 5G’s 6.2-inch screen, giving you a 20:9 aspect ratio while the resolution and pixel density remain the same at 413 pixels per inch (ppi). Viewing angles are great both indoors and outdoors, with high maximum brightness. Videos, games, and text look crisp, and I didn’t notice any pixelation during use.

The only thing I missed was the high-refresh screen 90Hz screen the Pixel 5 has, which allows for smoother scrolling, animations, and transitions. After getting used to the higher-refresh 90Hz screen on the Pixel 5 and 120Hz Samsung Galaxy S20 FE, it’s hard to go back to a regular 60Hz refresh rate.

Google Pixel 5a showing apps.
Ajay Kumar/Digital Trends

Performance and battery

The Pixel 5a 5G is powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 765G processor with 6GB of RAM and 128GB of internal storage. This is the same configuration as the Pixel 4a 5G, and the same chipset as the Google Pixel 5, so I won’t dwell on the performance too much. Everything is smooth enough for day-to-day use, with no significant app slowdowns.

It also handled demanding games like Asphalt 9 and Genshin Impact without chugging, though the lack of the higher-refresh panel is noticeable. Nonetheless, it will still get the job done without major issues. There isn’t much more to say about it.

Battery life is a big step up over the Pixel 4a 5G. With a 4,680mAh cell, it’s one of the beefier batteries I’ve seen on a midrange phone and significantly longer-lasting than the 3,885mAh cell on the Pixel 4a 5G. I averaged around one-and-a-half to two days of regular use before needing to top up, with standard daily usage consisting of some browsing, checking Twitter, playing games, and snapping photos. There’s no wireless charging, but you do get 18 watts of fast wired charging with the included adapter.

It’ll get the job done without major issues.

Over time, the phone also learns your app usage and habits with its Adaptive Battery feature. That means it’ll figure out what apps you use most frequently and at what times you use them (for me, it’s Twitter and Reddit at all hours), and it’ll make sure apps that you don’t commonly use aren’t wasting power in the background. Over a longer period of time, this feature should be able to learn your habits and better optimize performance to eke out more juice.

A powerhouse camera

Camera capabilities are why you’re here for the Pixel 5a 5G, and in that regard, the phone doesn’t disappoint. On paper, the hardware is identical to the Pixel 4a 5G. The primary sensor is a 12.2-megapixel (MP) camera with a 16MP ultrawide camera that has a 117-degree field of view. The 8MP front camera functions perfectly passably for selfies and video. But it’s Google’s software chops that really make the sensors shine.

In good lighting, the main sensor takes excellent shots with plenty of detail, no noise or blur. Despite a brutally bright and sunny day that can often throw off the auto exposure of lesser phones, all the shots I snapped on my walk in the park came out beautifully. Colors were accurate, vivid without being oversaturated, and the greens came across particularly well in the contrast between areas of sunlight and shade.

Shooting with the ultrawide 16MP camera gives you a much wider field of view of 117 degrees. It’s tagged as 0.6x in your camera app and it lets you capture much more of your surroundings and background. It’s useful for landscape shots, and I enjoyed using it to capture the entire scope of the fountain and pond in the park.

But it’s Google’s software chops that really make the sensors shine.

There are some trade-offs with the ultrawide camera. While barrel distortion isn’t significant, some of the finer details get lost in the shot. Zooming in on leaves and branches results in seeing more artifacts and muddiness than you would if you were just shooting with the standard 12.2MP sensor. And it’s also worth noting that there’s no telephoto sensor. So while there is a 2x zoom option in the camera app, it’s digital zoom, not optical, so there’s a corresponding loss of quality there as well.

Unsurprisingly, lowlight photography is another strong suit for the Pixel 5a. In my kitchen on a cloudy day, the phone automatically enabled Night Sight to capture the colors of the slowly ripening banana and the patterns of the granite tabletop behind it wonderfully. You can also enable Night Sight in Portrait mode, giving you access to a wide array of powerful onboard editing options to control things like background blur and color pop, as well as enable black-and-white shots.

Among the other features packed in, you also get astrophotography, letting you capture vivid shots of the night sky just like the Pixel 5. For video recording, the phone can handle 1080p and 4K at 60 frames per second. Recording people kayaking in the lake was smooth, with minimal judder or autofocus issues when panning around. I was even able to keep track of a plane flying overhead and snap several clear shots.

Software and connectivity

Out of the box, the Pixel 5a comes running the latest version of Android 11. It’s Google’s clean version of Android that most people are likely familiar with. The 5a will get a guaranteed three years of OS and security updates, meaning you’re sure to receive the upcoming Android 12.

In terms of unique features, there are various Google Assistant smarts and integrations. You can identify songs, you can have Google Assistant hold on the line for a phone call with the “Hold for Me” feature on your phone app, screen calls, and identify songs. It also features a built-in recorder that can automatically generate transcripts, which I found particularly useful for recording interviews and referring to quotes.

In terms of connectivity, the Pixel 5a 5G supports Sub-6 5G, dual-band Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 5.0, and NFC. I tested mine on T-Mobile, but it’s compatible with all the major U.S. carriers, Japanese carrier SoftBank, and Google’s Project Fi.

Price and availability

The Google Pixel 5a 5G will only be available in the U.S. and Japan. In the U.S., it will be available on the Google Store and Google Fi at $449 or via a $15-per-month subscription program. In Japan, it will also be available on the Google Store for 51,700 yen.

Our take

The Google Pixel 5a doesn’t promise anything it can’t deliver. It’s not a generational leap from the Pixel 4a 5G – the differences are pretty minor at best — but it does improve in key places like waterproofing and battery life. Camera performance continues to live up to expectations, the software is clean, and the performance is smooth, giving you a great midrange phone for a reasonable price.

Is there a better alternative?

If you already own the Google Pixel 4a 5G, the differences come down to IP67 waterproofing and the improved battery life, which isn’t worth the upgrade. If you have an older Pixel 4a, on the other hand, you’ll also benefit from the faster processor, 5G connectivity, bigger screen, and dual rear cameras, making it a much more worthwhile investment.

On the higher end, the Samsung Galaxy S20 FE averages about $100 to 150 more, but it gets you a sharp 120Hz screen, triple rear camera array, wireless charging, and much more powerful processor and specs. The U.S. has a paucity of other compelling midrange phone options at the moment aside from the non-5G iPhone SE, but the international market has no shortage of competitive options like the OnePlus Nord 2 5G.

One last thing to keep in mind is that Google has already announced the existence of the Google Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro, taking advantage of the new Tensor processor. So if you’re willing to wait for another year, we’d expect a future, unconfirmed Pixel 6a to have a version of the same new chipset.

How long will it last?

The Google Pixel 5a 5G comes with a standard one-year warranty, but you can expect it to last much longer. While it has the same Snapdragon 765G processor, it’s guaranteed to get three years of OS and security updates to keep it feeling new. It also has IP67 water and dust resistance, giving it more durability than previous generations.

Should you buy one?

Yes. As a midrange phone with a great camera, clean software, long-lasting battery, and waterproofing, it the Pixel 5a doesn’t have many similarly priced competitors. However, if you already own a Pixel 4a 5G, it’s not a big enough difference to be worth the upgrade.

Editors' Recommendations

Ajay Kumar
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Ajay Kumar is the Section Editor, Mobile overseeing Digital Trend's coverage of phones, tablets, wearables, and other mobile…
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