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Google Pixel 5a vs. Samsung Galaxy S21: Which Android phone wins?

pixel 5a vs galaxy s21
(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Google’s affordable Pixel 5a is here, but you might be left wondering how it compares to the Samsung Galaxy S21. We’ve got you covered in this Pixel 5a vs. Galaxy S21 face-off.

It might seem a bit silly to compare these two phones given the gap in price. But thanks to Google’s photography prowess, the Pixel 5a punches well above its weight. When you use both phones side-by-side, Google’s phone feels very similar to Samsung’s device in several areas.

The winner in some of the following categories might be obvious — the Galaxy S21 has a much better processor, for example — but we wanted to give the Pixel 5a a fair shot. You might actually be surprised at how well Google’s phone holds up, even if you’ve already guessed the end result.

Google Pixel 5a vs. Samsung Galaxy S21: Specs

Pixel 5aGalaxy S21
Starting price$449$799
Screen size6.43-inch OLED (2400 x 1080)6.2-inch Super AMOLED (2400 x 1080)
Refresh rate60Hz48-120Hz
CPUSnapdragon 765GSnapdragon 888
RAM6GB8GB
Storage128GB128GB, 256GB
Rear cameras12.2MP (f/1.7), 16MP (f/2.2) ultrawide12MP (f/1.8) wide; 12MP (f/2.2) ultrawide; 64MP (f/2.0) telephoto 3x optical
Front camera8MP (f/2.0)10MP (f/2.2)
Battery size4,680mAh4,000 mAh
Battery life (Hrs:Mins)9:4509:53 (60Hz) / 06:31 (adaptive)
Size6.1 x 2.9 x 0.3 inches5.97 x 2.8 x 0.31 inches
Weight6.5 ounces5.96 ounces

Google Pixel 5a vs. Samsung Galaxy S21: Price and availability

The Pixel 5a costs almost half of what Samsung charges for the Galaxy S21. Google set the price at $449 ($100 more than the Pixel 4a) for a phone with a 6.43-inch OLED display, 128GB of storage, 6GB of RAM, and two cameras. 

The Galaxy S21 starts at $799, which nets you a 6.2-inch Super AMOLED display (with a 120Hz refresh rate), 128GB of storage, 8GB of RAM, and three cameras (including a telephoto). You also get a much better Snapdragon 888 processor.

The S21 has the added benefit of being available almost anywhere. Practically every carrier has one for sale, plus the major retailers and Samsung itself. The Pixel 5a is limited to the Google Store and the Google Fi wireless service.

On the one hand, the Pixel 5a is a better deal, but it’s more difficult to get one (especially on a payment plan through your preferred carrier). On the other, the Galaxy S21 is several hundred dollars more, but you can often find trade-in deals and other discounts. It’s hard to call a winner in this section because both phones are meant for separate markets, but the Pixel 5a’s incredibly attractive price point earns it the victory here.

Winner: Pixel 5a

Google Pixel 5a vs. Samsung Galaxy S21: Design

The Google Pixel 5a and Samsung Galaxy S21 couldn’t look more different. The 5a offers a minimalistic, very safe design. It doesn’t stand out, make any statements, or draw attention to itself. It’s just there to be a phone with its polycarbonate body and big display. Google has kept its design language very low-key for years now, and the Pixel 5a is no different.

pixel 5a vs galaxy s21

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

The Galaxy S21, meanwhile, is a very pretty phone, especially the lavender colorway I’ve been using. The golden frame shines brilliantly, as long as it’s not covered in fingerprints. The camera hump, a notoriously ugly thing on most phones, blends seamlessly with the frame on the S21. The polycarbonate back is smooth to the touch, made with a special material that helps it stand out from the very plastic-y feel of the Pixel 5a.

Both phones feature an IP water resistance rating — a first for the Pixel A-series — but the Galaxy S21 has a slightly stronger designation with IP68. The 5a has IP67, so it’ll still survive a dunk in the water. 

pixel 5a vs galaxy s21

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Considering the $350 price difference between the two, I expected the Galaxy S21 to feel more premium in comparison to the Pixel 5a. They’re not on the same level, but it’s interesting how close the 5a comes to challenging Samsung’s phone. Even so, the Galaxy S21 wins for its better water resistance rating, prettier design, and nicer construction. It also has better color options compared to the 5a’s single not-quite-black colorway.

Winner: Galaxy S21

Google Pixel 5a vs. Samsung Galaxy S21: Display

The Pixel 5a has the largest display since Google started releasing all-screen phones with the Pixel 4a. At 6.43 inches, the 1080p OLED screen is pretty good, offering nice colors, true blacks, and improved viewing angles over its predecessor. 

But the Galaxy S21’s screen is just better. It’s a smaller 6.2-inch Super AMOLED, also at 1080p, with a 120Hz refresh rate — the Pixel 5a is stuck at 60Hz, unfortunately. Colors are more vibrant on the S21 panel, and the screen gets brighter.

pixel 5a vs galaxy s21

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Videos and games look better on the Galaxy S21, but this should surprise no one. Whether it’s the saturated, anime-esque vibe of Genshin Impact or the gritty visuals of Call of Duty: Mobile, the S21 is the more pleasant viewing experience. That’s not to say that the Pixel 5a is bad, but I never expected a $449 phone to match the best display tech from Samsung.

In our testing, the Pixel 5a managed 119.3% of the sRGB spectrum with a Delta-E color accuracy score of 0.32 (where 0 is best). In the Galaxy S21’s Natural mode, it produced 109.2% of the sRGB color gamut with a better Delta-E of 0.29. While Google’s phone has slightly more saturation, the S21 had better color accuracy. The Galaxy S21 also gets bright at 703 nits, versus the Pixel 5a’s 501-nit max.

Winner: Galaxy S21

Google Pixel 5a vs. Samsung Galaxy S21: Cameras

pixel 5a vs galaxy s21

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Though our Google Pixel 5a vs. Samsung Galaxy S21 face-off  hasn’t looked too good for the Pixel 5a thus far, photography is where Google’s phone can make its stand. Google has worked hard to make the Pixel phones into the best camera phones, and it delivers each year. Even the $349 Pixel 4a last year landed in our top picks for camera phones.

This year, Google added a second camera to the Pixel 5a: a 16MP sensor behind an ultrawide lens joins the same 12.2MP main shooter we had last year. With the Galaxy S21, Samsung packed in three cameras: a 12MP main, a 12MP ultrawide, and a 64MP telephoto with 3x optical zoom. 

In this photo of flowers on a tree, you can immediately see two very different approaches to the final product. The Pixel 5a kept a natural tone, still showing off how vibrant the flowers and greenery are while keeping the photo more realistic. The Galaxy S21 went the opposite way by cranking up the saturation to the point where the picture doesn’t resemble the real-life scene much at all. I strongly prefer the Pixel’s image.

Inside, things are a bit more equal, though not by much. The Pixel 5a’s shot is a naturally cool tone that still captures all of the colors in the scene. It’s a fairly calm image. The Galaxy S21’s shot is significantly warmer, as if the phone was over-compensating for the yellow candle on the right. Once again, I prefer the Pixel’s photo.

Both phones once again differ in portrait mode. The Pixel 5a zoomed out a bit more, but kept a really strong blur radius around my likeness. The Galaxy S21 zoomed in, but I think the bokeh effect is softer. I really don’t have a preference on this comparison, so I’ll call it a draw.

Next up is a night shot, with both phones performing very well. The smoker is quite clear in either image, though the Pixel 5a’s picture is cooler in contrast to the Galaxy S21’s warmer one. It’s hard to call a clear winner here, but to see a phone that costs nearly half what the S21 does put out a night mode image this good is impressive. Then again, Google’s Night Sight is itself quite good. That makes this one a draw.

I was surprised by how both phones handled selfies. Normally, I don’t like Samsung’s selfies and prefer Google’s, but in all of the shots I took, the Galaxy S21 came out on top. That phone’s image is just brighter with better colors — the Pixel 5a is dimmer. I will say that the Galaxy S21 applied too much face smoothing, but it’s all around a better selfie. The S21 wins this one.

The Pixel had better photos altogether, but the Galaxy S21 has that extra telephoto lens that gives it a leg up over the Pixel 5a. Considering the Pixel 5a’s camera prowess, it ultimately wins in this section. It’s downright incredible that a phone of this price can match or even beat the $799 Galaxy S21 (and the $999 Galaxy S21 Plus) in some photography situations.

Winner: Pixel 5a

Google Pixel 5a vs. Samsung Galaxy S21: Performance

In terms of raw performance, the Pixel 5a and Galaxy S21 are radically different. The Pixel 5a uses the older Snapdragon 765G, the same one we saw in the Pixel 4a 5G and Pixel 5 last year. The S21, meanwhile, uses the Snapdragon 888, which is the best you can get in an Android phone.

The proof is in the pudding, with the Galaxy S21 knocking the Pixel 5a for a loop in our benchmark tests. In day-to-day use, however, both phones feel pretty similar. Simple things like web browsing, messaging, and scrolling through social media don’t stress either phone.

Samsung Galaxy S21 review

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

But gaming is where the Galaxy S21 surges ahead. Not only does it play intensive titles like Genshin Impact, Asphalt 9, and Call of Duty: Mobile with better graphics at higher frame rates, but it also performs well in synthetic graphics benchmarks. In 3DMark’s Wild Life Unlimited, for example, the S21 averaged 34.8 frames per second. The Pixel 5a barely managed 10 fps.

In Geekbench 5, which measures the CPU’s performance, the Pixel 5a received a multicore average of 1,345. Compare that to the Galaxy S21’s 3,302. That’s a huge difference, even if we initially found the Pixel 5a’s score to be low for a Snapdragon 765G device. 

Google Pixel 5a review

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

As far as 5G goes, both the Pixel 5a and Galaxy S21 support mmWave and sub-6Ghz networks. That means you can take either phone to any US carrier and it’ll work. That’s to be expected for a flagship like the Galaxy S21, but it’s more impressive to see the Pixel 5a support mmWave (which is usually a premium thing) at its $449 price point.

Winner: Galaxy S21

Google Pixel 5a vs. Samsung Galaxy S21: Battery life and charging

Google equipped the Pixel 5a with the biggest battery we’ve ever seen in a Pixel device at 4,680 mAh. The Galaxy S21, being a smaller phone, uses a 4,000 mAh power pack. You’d expect the 5a to have stronger battery life, then, but that’s really the case.

In the Tom’s Guide battery life test, phones are tasked with endlessly reloading web pages on a cellular connection at 150 nits of brightness. Pixels have historically struggled with battery life and the Pixel 5a is a step in the right direction. With a time of 9 hours and 45 minutes in our test, the new affordable Google phone gets through the day just fine.

pixel 5a vs galaxy s21

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

But the Galaxy S21 is one very small step ahead at 9 hours and 53 minutes with its display locked to 60Hz. In its adaptive mode, the phone falls far to 6 hours and 31 minutes. 

As for charging, the Pixel 5a tops out at 18W, while the Galaxy S21 goes up to 25W. This leads to faster charging times with the Samsung phone, with it going from empty to 55% in 30 minutes. The Pixel 5a got to 43% in the same amount of time. The S21 also has wireless charging; the Pixel 5a does not.

The Pixel 5a is an improvement over last year’s Pixels for battery life, but the Galaxy S21 can match it, given you lock the display to 60Hz. It also can charge faster and wirelessly.

Winner: Galaxy S21

Google Pixel 5a vs. Samsung Galaxy S21: Software and special features

Both the Pixel 5a and Galaxy S21 ship with Android 11 out of the box, but they each take separate approaches to the look and feel of the software. In Google’s case, Android 11 is a spartan affair with few customizations. It’s the stock Android vibe, where the OS stays out of the way and focuses on doing things well. It works, most of the time.

Google Pixel 5a review

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

With the Galaxy S21, you get One UI 3.1, Samsung’s own take on what Android should look like. Basically everything is different, even in the notification shade and Settings menu. One UI is not to everyone’s liking, but it is certainly leagues better than Samsung software of the past. Once you get used to it and dig in, you’ll find there’s a lot to discover.

Of course, with a Google phone, you get access to updates and new versions of Android on day one. So when Android 12 launches with its huge swath of changes (notably to visual customization), the Pixel 5a will be first in the line to get it. The Galaxy S21 can’t say that, and it will take a few months before that phone gets Android 12.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Plus

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Both phones are set to receive three years of platform updates, with the Galaxy S21 also getting a guaranteed four years of security patches. The Pixel 5a has a minimum of three years of patches, with Google often going longer.

Samsung has a lot going on in One UI, with the Edge panel, a dedicated game launcher, a one-handed mode, and a lot more. While the Pixel 5a will get some of these once Android 12 lands, it doesn’t have them right now at time of writing.

Winner: Galaxy S21

Google Pixel 5a vs. Samsung Galaxy S21: Overall winner

Pixel 5aGalaxy S21
Price (10 points)97
Design (10 points)87
Display (15 points)1214
Cameras (20 points)1816
Performance (20 points)1418
Battery and charging (15 points)1213
Software (10 points)910
Overall (100 points)8285

It should come as no surprise that the Galaxy S21 won practically across the board in this face-off. The Pixel 5a put up a great fight, but the extra hardware chops worked in the S21’s favor. The Pixel 5a exceeded the S21's camera, but that’s about it.

Still, a $449 phone going against a $799 one as well it did is impressive. Both phones are really good, but the Galaxy S21 has the added benefit of packing in more powerful specs. Samsung also did a better job with battery life (if only slightly) and the S21’s display is better. And the Pixel 5a simply offers less raw performance.

pixel 5a vs galaxy s21

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Even though the Galaxy S21 came out on top in this face-off, the Pixel 5a is still a wonderful phone and an excellent value. At $449, you’re getting very capable cameras and a phone that does most tasks very well. You’ll even have that’ll get most people through a day of use.

Which phone you choose will depend entirely on your budget. The best bang for buck is the Pixel 5a, but the Galaxy S21 has added features to keep in mind. $350 makes a huge difference in this case.

Jordan Palmer

Jordan is the Phones Editor for Tom's Guide, covering all things phone-related. He loves nothing more than relaxing in his home with a book, game, or his latest personal writing project. It's hard to nail down one thing that Jordan is passionate about, since his attention span for a single given topic or activity doesn't last long. Jordan tends to lurk on social media, but you can best reach him on Twitter.