Google’s Pixel phones are our favorite Android phones here at WIRED, and they have been for a few years. They have industry-leading cameras, get software and security updates directly from Google (like iPhones do from Apple), and are priced competitively. In past years, choosing a Google phone wasn’t hard, but things are different now. The new Pixel 5A isn’t sold everywhere, and the upcoming Pixel 6 range uses an in-house Google-designed chip called Tensor. There are other models too, but their availability is in question. It’s hard to know which one to pick.
Don’t fret—we break down the differences between the current Pixels and sort out the right one for you. We also have Pixel-exclusive tips to get the most out of your new phone, and we recommend some cases we’ve tested and like if you want protection.
Updated August 2021: We’ve added the Pixel 5A, new cases, and mentioned the Pixel 6.
Table of Contents
- The Best Pixel for Most People: Pixel 5A 5G
- Also Great … for a Limited Time: Pixel 4A
- The Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro Arrive This Fall
- Are Last Year’s Pixel Phones Still Good?
- Avoid These Older Pixel Phones
- Cases and Accessories We Like
- Hidden Tricks to Try If You Get a Pixel
- About That Google Photos Storage
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The Best Pixel for Most People
At first glance, the Pixel 5A (9/10, WIRED Recommends) doesn’t add much that’s new over its predecessors, the Pixel 4A and Pixel 4A 5G. Its $449 price falls somewhere in between the two, and it’s almost identical to the latter. It has a slightly larger 6.3-inch OLED screen but uses the same dual-camera system and Qualcomm Snapdragon 765G processor with 6 gigs of RAM. That also includes 5G connectivity (sub-6, the slower kind), though you won’t be able to see a huge difference over 4G LTE.
What is new is IP67 water resistance, meaning this phone can survive being submerged in up to 1 meter of water for 30 minutes. The phone’s unibody is now aluminum instead of plastic, which makes it a little more durable, and Google has stuffed a large 4,680-mAh battery inside. It now delivers nearly two days of juice on a single charge. Hooray!
It’s still one of the best-performing phones you’ll find for the price, and its selfie cam, 12-megapixel main shooter, and ultrawide remain class-leading cameras. That’s especially true in low-light scenarios, thanks to Google’s Night Sight mode, which stacks multiple images to produce brighter and more detailed nighttime photos. Set it on a tripod in a dark enough area and you can even capture the stars by toggling on Astrophotography mode.
OLED screens aren’t too common on sub-$500 phones. It looks fantastic here with deep blacks and rich colors. There are the usual perks too, like NFC for Google Pay, a headphone jack, a rear fingerprint sensor, stereo speakers, and 128 gigabytes of storage (though no MicroSD card slot or wireless charging). You also get three years of software and security updates, which is still not the case on most affordable phones.
The biggest downsides? There’s no high screen refresh rate, an increasingly popular feature you’ll find even on sub-$300 phones (it makes the screen look smoother and feel more responsive). More importantly, due to global supply chain issues, this phone is only being sold in the US and Japan. That also means it comes in one size this year, which is unfortunate if you like the size of last year’s compact Pixel 4A. It’s also only available at the Google Store or Google Fi.
Also Great … for a Limited Time
Usually, Google discontinues its Pixels before or when it launches a new model. But since the new Pixel 5A only comes in one large 6.3-inch size, Google says it’s planning on manufacturing the compact 5.8-inch Pixel 4A (9/10, WIRED Recommends) from 2020 for as long as it can secure components. It’s unclear exactly how long that will be for, but if you see this Pixel available for $349 or less, snag it because it’s still a fantastic phone.
For $100 less than the 5A, you get a lesser Qualcomm Snapdragon 730G processor (with 6 gigs of RAM), yet it manages to run really well. The 3,140-mAh battery comfortably lasts a full day, and the single rear camera is nearly identical to the primary one in the Pixel 5A (there’s no ultrawide sensor here). The camera is the highlight. You’re getting excellent image quality at any time of day, and even after a year on the market, there’s still no other sub-$400 phone that comes close.
The Pixel 4A is no iPhone 12 Mini, but it’s one of the smallest Android phones available. Don’t worry, the 5.8-inch OLED screen still looks great and modern, with slim bezels all around. The body is made of plastic, but it feels nice, and you don’t have to worry about shattering the back as you do with all-glass phones. Did I mention it has a headphone jack, NFC for Google Pay, and a rear fingerprint sensor?
Just know that there’s no 5G, no water resistance, no wireless charging, and no MicroSD card slot, though you get 128 gigabytes of storage. It’ll continue to get software updates until August 2023.
The Pixel 6 and 6 Pro Arrive This Fall
We already know a fair bit about the upcoming Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro. They look completely different from any other Pixel before, with a horizontal camera bump that spans the upper back of the phones. The two phones share the same ultrawide and main camera sensor, while the latter camera is larger so it can gather 150 percent more light than the Pixel 5. That means you’ll see brighter and sharper low-light images. The Pro is the bigger phone, and it also gets an additional 4x optical telephoto lens. Google says these two devices will be more expensive than recent Pixels, so expect to pay a premium.
On the front, there’s a center-mounted hole-punch camera, and an in-display fingerprint sensor (also a first for Google). The biggest change? The processor inside is no longer an off-the-shelf chip from Qualcomm, but a Google-designed one called Tensor. It’s built to dramatically improve the phone’s on-device machine learning and artificial intelligence capabilities.
Google says every existing machine learning feature will improve, and that’s especially true with the camera. Modes like Night Sight and Portrait mode will deliver better results, but you’ll also see new tricks. For example, in low-light scenes with a moving subject, the Pixel may decide to take a photo with both the ultrawide sensor and the main camera—getting the sharpness from the ultrawide but accurate colors and noise from the main camera—and fuse the results. The Tensor chip runs several algorithms, such as face detection and motion correction, to create a photo with better detail.
Features like Live Transcribe, which transcribes videos in real-time offline, will be able to transcribe and translate simultaneously. Voice dictating with Google’s keyboard app, Gboard, will be much faster and more accurate too. Video capture will also improve as the processor can handle the more complicated algorithms.
Google has still kept a good deal under wraps, but it sure seems like the Pixel 6 range will be a huge leap from its predecessor. (You might even see longer software support!) Just know that it won’t come with a charger in the box. For more details, you can read more about Tensor here.
Are Last Year’s Pixel Phones Still Good?
The Pixel 5 (8/10, WIRED Recommends) and Pixel 4A 5G are already out of stock on the Google Store, and Google says you shouldn’t expect to see them come back. You may be able to find the pair at other retailers, so if they are available, are they worth buying? Unless you find the Pixel 4A 5G for less than $300, then no. The Pixel 5A is practically the same phone but with water resistance, a bigger battery, and it’ll get longer software support. Get that one instead.
The Pixel 5, however, has a few extra perks that make it a more worthwhile proposition. First of all, it’s one of the more compact high-end Android phones around, so it’s a great option if you like small phones. It shares many of the same features as the Pixel 5A, including the processor, water resistance, and camera system, but you do get wireless charging and a screen with a 90-Hz refresh rate, meaning the display will look and feel more responsive as you interact with it.
5G support on the Pixel 5 is also better. Depending on your carrier, you’ll be able to access millimeter-wave 5G, which is the super-fast version. It’s not as accessible throughout the country so this may be a moot point. However, the phone does support C-band, which is the upcoming spectrum carriers like AT&T and Verizon plan on implementing by the end of the year to deliver improved sub-6 5G access and speeds. It’s more future-proofed in this area over the Pixel 5A.
Unfortunately, these improvements aren’t worth the $250 bump in price. Worse yet, we’re already having trouble finding the Pixel 5 at other retailers. If you want to buy it used, we don’t recommend spending more than $450 on it.
Avoid These Older Pixel Phones
The Pixel 3 range is too old, and that includes the Pixel 3A. The Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL suffer from poor battery performance. All of these older phones will also stop getting software updates in 2022. You’re better off buying one of the newer models.
Cases and Accessories We Like
The official Pixel 5A case feels like it delivers more protection than previous ones from Google. It comes in several fun colors, has a dual-layer design that helps absorbs shocks when you drop it, and has raised edges on the front to protect the screen. The inner layer is made with 75 percent recycled plastic. My only gripe is that it’s not very svelte, which adds heft to an already large phone.
Of all the Pixel cases I’ve tried, this feels the best. It has a wonderful texture that’s pleasant to touch, and the case keeps a slim profile. The buttons remain clicky, and the ports are well exposed. It’s affordable, but the front edges aren’t raised. There’s a good chance the screen will hit the ground when you drop it.
Pixel phones don’t have a great track record with screen durability—they scratch easily. For the new Pixel 5A, I like Caseology’s tempered glass screen protector. Installation is easy and it includes a squeegee to get rid of air bubbles. You get two screen protectors for the price, including a microfiber cloth, a wipe, and dust removal stickers.
This dual-layer case from Otterbox feels really tough, yet it’s fairly slim. The edges around the camera module and front screen are raised, the buttons are easy to press, and the headphone jack and USB-C port are protected from the elements. This one offers a step up in terms of protection compared to the above picks.
This plastic case is made from 85 percent recycled plastic from salvaged fishing gear. It’s a sturdy and tough case that keeps its shape, and the buttons on the side remain clicky even after extended use. If you buy a case, LifeProof donates a dollar to a water conservation nonprofit of your choice.
The Pixels have great cameras, but you can take them further by using third-party lenses like these from Moment. Slap on a fisheye lens for a fun, distorted photo effect. Use a 58-mm telephoto to get even closer to your subject. Whatever lens you pick, you’ll need a Moment case for the system to work. The company’s cases don’t add much heft to the phone, the buttons are still clicky, and there’s a nice grippy texture on the back. It takes about two seconds to attach or remove a lens with a simple twist. Unfortunately, Moment isn’t making a case for the new Pixel 5A 5G.
This is a good Pixel case with a kickstand. You can prop it up at various angles with the foldable leather flap on the back in a horizontal or vertical orientation. It can even store a credit card or two. It’s chunky, and the cards can be a little tough to remove, but the buttons are easy to press. It also has raised edges on the front to protect the screen.
Here’s another solid (and affordable) kickstand case. It’s thick but offers good protection and the buttons remain very clicky. Unfortunately, the kickstand only props up the phone in landscape orientation. Not so great for binging TikToks hands-free.
Wireless charging is only available on the Pixel 5 (out of the Pixels in this guide). Google’s very own Pixel Stand is one of the best wireless chargers around because it’s simple. The base doesn’t slide around, the phone stays put, and it enables some fun features, like turning the screen into a digital photo frame and quick access to Google Assistant. Our Best Wireless Chargers guide has more options.
Hidden Tricks to Try If You Get a Pixel
There are some key features exclusive to Pixels you won’t find on any other Android phone. Here’s a quick breakdown so you take advantage of them:
Call Screen: When you get a call from an unknown number, Google Assistant will scan and flag it if it’s suspected spam or a robocall. If it’s neither and simply a number you don’t recognize, you can have Assistant take the call. You’ll see a real-time transcription of what’s happening, so you can end the call right away if it’s a telemarketer, or you can pick up if it turns out to be your long-lost high school friend. Tweak these settings by opening up the dialer app and heading to Settings > Spam and Call Screen.
Hold for Me: If you’ve been placed on hold with a 1-800 number, you can ask Google Assistant to take over and it will play a loud chime when the person on the other end is back. No need to listen to hold music! This feature is available on Pixel 3 and newer devices, but it only works in the US.
Super-Res Zoom: If you’re trying to take a photo of something far away, use two fingers to pinch and zoom in, then snap a photo. Google uses software wizardry to upscale the quality of digitally zoomed-in photos, so you see a lot more detail. Remember, it only works if you zoom in before snapping your pic.
Now Playing: Ever hear a song at the coffee shop and wonder who it’s by? We may not be at coffee shops much these days, but this is still one of the more helpful features you didn’t know you wanted. It uses on-device machine learning to figure out what the music is in your background, and it will display the artist and title on the lock screen (or in your notifications). It doesn’t require an internet connection, so there’s no data shared between you and Google. This isn’t turned on by default, so head to Settings > Sound and Vibration > Now Playing and toggle it on. You can even turn on Now Playing History, in case you forgot to write down an artist’s name when you saw it earlier.
Astrophotography Mode: Set your Pixel on a tripod (something like this will work), point it at the sky, open the camera, and go to Night Sight mode. Once the phone detects that it’s completely still and on a tripod, you’ll see Astrophotography Mode kick in. Tap the shutter button, and within three to five minutes, you’ll have a photo of the stars. Ideally, you should be in a dark area with little light pollution, but it’ll work wherever you are. Don’t touch the phone—just let it do its thing until the timer ends.
Portrait Light: You can change up the lighting in your portrait selfies after you take them by opening them up in Google Photos, tapping the edit button, and heading to Adjust > Portrait Light. This adds an artificial light you can place anywhere in the photo to brighten up your face and quell that 5 o’clock shadow. Use the slider at the bottom to tweak the strength of the light. It works on older Portrait mode photos you may have captured and is available on older Pixels too. It only works on faces.
Google Recorder: If you record interviews, meetings, calls, or anything, you’ll love the Google Recorder app. It’s exclusive to Pixels, and it offers real-time transcription so you don’t need to take notes. You can open these notes up in a Google Doc to edit them later, or tap on a word to jump to the point it’s spoken in the recording. Recordings can be shared with anyone, even if they don’t have a Pixel. Better yet, you can automatically back these up to your Google Account to access them anywhere (or find them here).
Heart and Respiratory Rate Measurements: Use Google Fit? Select Pixels can now measure heart rate and respiratory rate without the need for a wearable. You’ll just need to put your fingertip on the phone’s rear camera for the former or prop up the selfie camera for the latter. Just know that the measurements might not be super precise.
Extreme Battery Saver: If you need your Pixel’s battery to last as long as possible, try Extreme Battery Saver mode. It pauses most apps on your phone (this also pauses notifications from them) and restricts other functions, like scanning for Bluetooth and Wi-Fi or reducing the screen time-out time. You can choose which apps you want to work in this mode, in case you want to continue getting texts or messages. Head to Settings > Battery > Battery Saver > Extreme Battery Saver to configure it.
Watch for “Feature Drops”: Google also adds new features over time in a series it calls Pixel Feature Drops. There’s no particular cadence as to when you can expect these software updates, but they tend to happen every few months. This includes features from newer Pixels coming to older models and brand-new features for the latest models. And, of course, Pixels get three years of Android version upgrades and monthly security updates, so make sure to always check for updates to keep your phone secure. You can do this by heading to Settings > System > Advanced > System Update.
About That Google Photos Storage
A key highlight of earlier Pixel phones was the ability to get free, unlimited Google Photos storage in original quality. Of late, Google has made it so you only get free, unlimited photo storage in “high quality.” This setting compresses the image slightly, though the difference in quality isn’t easy to discern. This perk ended with new Pixels starting from June 1, 2021. Now, high-quality photo storage counts toward the limit of 15 free gigabytes of total photo storage. Pixels 1 through 5 are exempt, but for the 5A and upcoming Pixel 6 range, you’ll have to pay for storage if you go over the limit.
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