Google’s done it again. For the third year in a row, it has made the best smartphone that does everything most people need. The new Pixel 5A 5G is nearly identical to the $499 Pixel 4A 5G that arrived late in 2020, but at $449, this new handset is now the best deal in Androidland. For well under $500, you get an unrivaled camera system, a large OLED screen, smooth performance, smart software, and nearly two days of battery life between charges.
The pandemic has stymied Google’s budget Pixel in many ways. The 5A is only launching in the US and Japan and comes in just one color—Mostly Black—due to supply chain woes. (There are some fun colored cases to make up for it.) This is also partly why Google is reusing the same Qualcomm Snapdragon 765G that was in the 5A’s predecessor, as well as only loading the new phone with 6 gigabytes of RAM. You should not expect a leap in performance.
What’s more disheartening is that it only comes in one size. Typically, the affordable A-series Pixels come in standard and XL sizes. First came the Pixel 3A and Pixel 3A XL. Last year’s Pixel 4A was one of the smallest Android phones around and was later joined by the larger Pixel 4A 5G. In 2021, there’s no luxury of choice. You’re stuck with a big 6.3-inch screen. Small-phone lovers, take some solace in this: Google still hopes to sell the compact Pixel 4A as long as it can secure the components to manufacture it. That’s great news, as it remains a killer deal at $349.
None of this matters if you just want a good phone that won’t drain your wallet. The Pixel 5A is the best phone for most people, and while the competition is stiffer than ever, it still leads the scene.
If It Ain’t Broke
The guts of the Pixel 5A 5G are nearly identical to those in the Pixel 4A 5G—they share the aforementioned processor and RAM, have 128 gigabytes of storage, the same exact 12-megapixel main camera, 16-megapixel ultrawide, and 8-megapixel selfie shooter, plus the usual accouterments like NFC for contactless Google Pay, a rear fingerprint sensor, a headphone jack, and stereo speakers.
However, the housing around all of these components has changed. The plastic unibody has been ditched in favor of aluminum, making the phone more durable. The power button still has an accent color, but it’s now ridged, making it easier for your finger to distinguish between the power button and the volume rocker while the device is in your pocket. The phone’s rated as IP67 water-resistant as well, which means a quick dip in the pool won’t fry it.
The OLED screen is bright and colorful with inky blacks—many sub-$500 phones use LCD panels, so this is most definitely a visual treat. The display is slightly bigger than the one on the 4A 5G, and the resolution (2,400 by 1,080 pixels) and aspect ratio (20:9) have been bumped to match. It makes the 5A a smidge narrower and taller. Don’t worry, it’s nowhere near as gigantic as phones like the iPhone 12 Pro Max or Samsung’s Galaxy S21 Ultra, but you still might struggle to reach parts of the screen with your thumb when using the phone with one hand. I did, and I have big paws.
The phone is thicker too, but for good reason. Google has stuffed a 4,680-mAh battery inside, the biggest in a Pixel phone yet. That translates to nearly two-day battery life with average use. I had to plug in around 7 pm on the second day. That’s not as impressive as phones like the Moto G Stylus 5G ($400), but it’s still excellent. I’m all for not having to plug in a phone every night. Sadly, you won’t find any wireless charging here, which is rarely included on budget and mid-range phones like this one.
As the name implies, there’s sub-6 5G connectivity again. I’ve yet to see any major benefits from being on a 5G network over 4G LTE, so it’s not a reason to upgrade. One quirk: There’s no C-band 5G support. It’s a group of frequencies that carriers like AT&T and Verizon are going to utilize by the end of the year to (supposedly) deliver better 5G availability and speeds. Phones like Samsung’s Galaxy A52 5G ($500) include C-band 5G support, so it would have been nice to see it here on the Pixel for some future-proofing.
Regardless, one of the biggest reasons I can recommend you buy this phone is the performance. Like previous A-series Pixels, you can comfortably run pretty much any app or game, and you’ll rarely encounter any slowdowns. I was able to play one of the most graphically demanding mobile games, Genshin Impact, and it was hardly frustratingly slow. (Granted, I had to play it with the Low graphics option, but the game still looked fantastic.)
Then there’s the software. As is standard with Pixel phones of every stripe, Google has included some genuinely smart and helpful features that you won’t find on any other line of phones. Call Screen is my favorite; I can screen calls from unknown numbers so I never have to answer a pesky robocall. The voice recorder app is another saving grace—it automatically (and accurately!) transcribes spoken-voice recordings and backs them up online. But my all-time favorite remains Now Playing, which automatically detects music in your surroundings and lets you know the artist and song name, even if you’re offline. I’ve discovered so many artists through this feature that it’s the first thing I turn on in every Pixel I use. I’ve rounded up all the smart features here in our Pixel guide if you want to hear about the others.
The Pixel 5A comes with three years of security updates and three Android OS upgrades, which is more than most of the budget competition. Samsung’s the only Android manufacturer that recently began outpacing Google here, promising four years of security updates. Hopefully, Google plans on matching or exceeding that, but at the very least, you will get additional software features every quarter as part of Google’s “Feature Drops,” which might even include new tricks from the upcoming Google Pixel 6.
The cameras on the 5A aren’t any different from what’s on the Pixel 5 and Pixel 4A 5G, but Google’s photo processing software continues to improve. That means you’re getting flagship-quality photos without spending a fortune. (That includes some of the new video features Google introduced last year too.) Seriously, I’ve been testing the Pixel 5A alongside Samsung’s Galaxy Z Flip3, a $1,000 phone, and I frequently prefer Google’s results.
Thanks to Night Sight, a dedicated nighttime mode in the camera app that stitches multiple images together taken at different exposures, you can capture detailed low-light photos that beat images from phones that sell for twice the price. Put this thing on a tripod and point it at the sky in a dark enough area, and you can even snap the stars with the Pixel’s Astrophotography mode. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a better ultrawide camera at this price range too. Most ultrawide cameras on budget and mid-range phones fail spectacularly when night falls, but not the Pixel’s.
I also compared the camera to the $400 Moto G Stylus 5G, and while Motorola’s phone did surprisingly well, the Pixel exceeded it in almost every test. This remains the best camera under $500, and that’s another cornerstone of what makes the 5A such a mass-appeal phone.
As I mentioned earlier, there are a few features you’ll find on other phones that are absent here. One of them is a high screen refresh rate. Most phones have 60 Hz screens, meaning the display refreshes images 60 times per second. The current trend is to bump this up to 90 or 120 Hz so that the display shows you 90 or 120 frames per second, which makes the screen look and feel more responsive. It’s a small but nice perk, and one that’s becoming common even on sub-$300 phones. Considering that Google introduced a 90-Hz screen to last year’s Pixel 5, I expected to see it here. Alas.
There wasn’t much else I missed. For the third year in a row, Google proves you don’t need to drop anything close to $1,000 for a great smartphone. Sure, the Pixel 5A isn’t exciting. It doesn’t fold, there are no flashy colors, and it doesn’t bring anything new to the table. I’d have liked to see the company push the bar. But if what you get is an exceptionally reliable phone that still leads the pack, then that’s priceless.
Pixel 5A preorders open today, and the phone fully arrives on the market on August 26. It works on all major US carriers, even if it’s not directly sold by them. You do get a charger in the box, but just know that this will be the last Pixel to include one. Google’s going the way of Apple and Samsung and nixing the power adapter on its phones in the interest of curbing electronic waste.