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Google Pixel 5 vs. Pixel 4a: How Google's 2020 phones stand apart

Pixel 5 vs. Pixel 4a
(Image credit: Tom's Guide/Google)

With the Pixel 5 appearing a little less than two months after the Pixel 4a debuted, Google’s smartphone lineup has finally come into focus. And it's clear that the message Google wants to send is that the best phones don't always need to cost a lot of money

That's long been the rallying cry for Google's budget phones, currently headed by the Pixel 4a. Since Google released its first low-cost phone more than a year ago, the company has tried to bring its photography features to more users at a compelling price. The Pixel 4a continues that tradition.

But in many ways, so does the Pixel 5. It's available at a lower cost than last year's Google flagship, and while that's meant some compromises, the top-performing cameras remain. 

Google's newfound focus on keeping costs down has blurred the lines between the Pixel 4a and Pixel 5, to the point where it may not be immediately apparent how these two devices compare. Here’s how the Pixel 5 vs. Pixel 4a match-up stacks up now that we've gotten a good look at both phones.

Google Pixel 5 vs. Pixel 4a: Specs

Pixel 5Pixel 4a
Starting price$699$349
Screen size6-inch OLED (90Hz)5.81-inch OLED (60Hz)
CPUSnapdragon 765GSnapdragon 730G
RAM8GB6GB
Storage128GB128GB
Rear cameras12.2MP (f/1.7) main; 16MP (f/2.2) ultra wide12.2MP (f/1.7)
Front camera8MP (f/2.0)8MP (f/2.0)
Battery size4,080 mAh3,140 mAh
Size5.7 x 2.8 x 0.3 inches5.7 x 2.7 x 0.3 inches
Weight5.3 ounces5.04 ounces

Google Pixel 5 vs. Pixel 4a: Price and availability

Here’s an exciting proposition: We're looking at some of the least expensive Pixel phones ever in these two devices. Rumors about the Pixel 5's price have proven accurate, as Google is selling the Pixel 5 for $699. That's $100 less than what the Pixel 4 cost when it debuted.

As cheap as the Pixel 5 is relative to phones like the Galaxy Note 20 and iPhone 11 Pro, it's still $350 more than the rock-bottom price Google charges for the Pixel 4a. That phone costs $349, making the Pixel 4a one of the better bargains in the smartphone world.

Both Google and Amazon sell the Pixel 4a unlocked, and you can get a carrier-tied version at Project Fi, Verizon and US Cellular. The Pixel 5 is available for pre-order. You can buy it unlocked or via Project Fi, Verizon and US Cellular; AT&T says it also will offer the Pixel 5.

Google Pixel 5 vs. Pixel 4a: Design and display

The Pixel 4a’s major design changes revolve around its 5.8-inch OLED screen, which extends from edge-to-edge while incorporating a hole-punch front-facing camera more similar to Samsung’s Infinity-O-toting Galaxy devices. Don’t expect 90Hz animations like you’ll find in the pricier Pixel flagships, though. The Pixel 4a has a standard 60Hz refresh rate.

Pixel 5 vs. Pixel 4a

Pixel 4a (Image credit: Tom's Guide)

On the back, the Pixel 4a features a square camera patch, even though the 4a has just one lens. A traditional rear-facing capacitive fingerprint sensor handles authentication. Once again, the Pixel 4a’s body is made entirely from polycarbonate, and a headphone jack is along for the ride.

Google Pixel 5 hold for me

(Image credit: Google )

The Pixel 5 looks a lot like the Pixel 4a, only with a slightly larger 6-inch display. (That screen does feature the 90Hz refresh rate, by the way, which means smoother scrolling than what you see with the Pixel 4a phones.) That's quite a change from previous Pixel flagships, which have featured chunky bezels, particularly on the top of the phone. Of course, on the Pixel 4, that bezel housed the sensors needed for Google's Motion Sense gesture controls, and the thinner bezels on  the Pixel 5 means that feature has been removed from this new phone.

You won't find a headphone jack on the Pixel 5 like you don on the Pixel 4a. But the Pixel 5 does come with an IPX8 water resistance rating, which the Pixel 4a lacks.

Google Pixel 5 vs. Pixel 4a: Camera

The Pixel 4a uses the same 12.2-megapixel sensor as before, with no other lenses along for the ride. However, this being a Google phone, the optics and sensor hardware will only matter so much — the camera system’s true capabilities are enabled by software.

Pixel 5 vs. Pixel 4a

Pixel 4a (Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Armed with computational photography tricks like Super Res Zoom and Night Sight, the Pixel 3a’s camera was a revelation among $399 devices last year. Even the new iPhone SE 2020 — another one of the best camera phones — has no answer for those features.

As for the Pixel 5, it's retaining the two camera approach Google adopted for the Pixel 4, but the telephoto lens on that older phone is no more. Instead, the Pixel 5 features a 16MP ultra wide angle lens to supplement the 12.2MP main camera that's a mainstay of Google devices.

Google Pixel 5 vs. Pixel 4a

Pixel 5 (Image credit: Google)

As for new camera features, the Pixel 5 supports Night Sight in Portrait Mode, meaning you'll be able to do artistic blurs even in low-light. A Portrait Light feature lets you adjust lighting in a portrait shot, which can help improve backlit photos. (In fact, you'll even be able to adjust lighting on older shots in the Photos app.) And there are three stabilization modes for shooting video, highlighted by Cinematic Pan.

Given Google’s focus on camera quality with both these handsets, we expect the Pixel 4a to deliver pictures comparable with those of the Pixel 5’s primary shooter. However, if you want to capture more expansive landscape scenes, you’ll likely need to turn to the Pixel 5.

Google Pixel 5 vs. Pixel 4a: Performance

Here’s where things get interesting. As part of its effort to lower the cost of its flagship phone, Google has equipped the Pixel 5 with a Snapdragon 765G. That's a capable system-on-chip, but it lacks the processing power found in Qualcomm's top-of-the-line Snapdragon 865 chipset.

More to the point, the Snapdragon 765G is from the same Series 7 Qualcomm family that powers the Pixel 4a. Google's budget phone uses a Snapdragon 730G. We'd expect the Pixel 5 to outperform the Pixel 4a, though the speed advantage won't be a huge one. When we've benchmarked other phones powered by a Snapdragon 765G chipset such as the LG Velvet, they've posted better numbers than the Pixel 4a.

Pixel 5 vs. Pixel 4a

(Image credit: Google)

One big difference between the two Pixel phones will be their ability to connect to 5G networks. The Snapdragon 765G includes a built-in 5G modem so the Pixel 5 will pick up 5G signals where available. The Pixel 4a is limited to LTE. If you want a low-cost 5G-capable phone from Google, you'll have to turn to the Pixel 4a 5G, which Google announced alongside the Pixel 5.

The Pixel 5 will be a little better at multitasking than the Pixel 4a, as it has 8GB of RAM to the cheaper phone's 6GB. Both devices come with 128GB of storage, though.

Google Pixel 5 vs. Pixel 4a: Battery and charging

Google addresses one of our major complaints about the Pixel 4 by boosting the size of the battery in the Pixel 5. The Pixel 4’s longevity on a charge was laughable when we tested it last year, and the 2,800-mAh battery powering that phone didn’t help. That was actually smaller than the 2,915-mAh unit inside 2018’s Pixel 3.

The Pixel 5 turns to a 4,000 mAh battery. That, plus the energy efficiency of the Snapdragon 765G, should make the new flagship last longer on a charge.

Pixel 5 vs. Pixel 4a

Pixel 4a (Image credit: Tom's Guide)

The Pixel 5 should certainly outperform the Pixel 4a in that respect. You’ll find a 3,140 mAh battery in the Pixel 4a. That allowed the phone to last a little less than 9 hours on our battery test, which is about an hour behind the average smartphone. Suffice it to say, you won’t find the Pixel 4a on our list of the best phone battery life.

The Pixel 4a charges quickly enough with its 18-watt charger, as we got a drained phone up to 50% after 30 minutes of charging. You can only charge with a wired connection, though. The Pixel 5 supports wireless charging — you can even use a reverse-charging feature to power up other Qi-compatible devices. Like the Pixel 4a, though, the Pixel 5 supports 18W wired charging.

Google Pixel 5 vs. Pixel 4a: Software and special features

The Pixel 4 was distinguished by a few noteworthy special features not found on other Android phones, like its three-dimensional Face Unlock, Motion Sense air gestures and Active Edge squeezable sides, which served as a shortcut for the Google Assistant. All of those features are gone from the Pixel 5, though. That follows Active Edge getting the axe on the Pixel 4a, too.

Pixel 5 vs. Pixel 4a

(Image credit: Google/Android)

So we’ve covered everything these phones won’t do — what about what they will do? Well, you can obviously expect Android 11 to represent a major part of the feature set in both handsets, though the Pixel 4a launched with Android 10. With Android 11 out now, you can update to the new OS, though, which comes pre-installed on the Pixel 5.

The Pixel 5 boasts a few other special features, highlighted by Hold for Me. In this feature, you can have the Google Assistant manage things when you're on hold, so you don't have to listen to all that canned music; instead, the assistant notifies you when someone live is on the line.

Google Duo supports screen sharing in HD, so that watch videos and read articles with the person on the other end of the call. The stellar Recorder app now lets you edit audio files by highlighting passages of text in the live transcript and deleting the selected section of your recording.

Google Pixel 5 vs. Pixel 4a: Outlook

The Pixel 5 and Pixel 4a are shaping up be the most important smartphones Google has ever shipped, as their success or failure will determine the future of the company’s phone business. We’ already know that the Pixel 4a has outdone Pixel 3a by providing one of the best camera phones at a low price. What's less predictable is whether Google’s semi-premium bet with the Pixel 5 will pay off — at least until we try out the new phone.

Could a phone with a first-rate camera and design but an inferior processor compared to the competition succeed at $699? It’s hardly a surefire bet, especially considering Apple, OnePlus and now Samsung already offer extremely compelling devices at that same price that are certain to outperform a 765-powered Pixel 5.

The Pixel 5's success hinges on whether Google has optimized the new phone to close the gap with those pricier alternatives as much as possible. If the company can do that and shore up the Pixel 4’s dismal battery life, it may finally achieve smartphone supremacy at last with its new phone lineup.