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Google Pixel 5 vs. Pixel 4a: The biggest differences to expect

Pixel 5 vs. Pixel 4a
(Image credit: Pigtou and xleaks / Sarang Sheth)

There’s a lot of interest around the upcoming Pixel 5 and the Pixel 4a phones from Google — and for good reason. Energized by the success of the low-cost Pixel 3a last year, the search giant appears to be taking a more practical approach toward this year’s roster of handsets, focusing on what’s essential while ditching polarizing features that have limited appeal.

For the Pixel 4a, everything we’ve heard thus far suggests Google isn’t going to try to fix what isn’t broken. The new device — which should be officially revealed within the next eight weeks, though it seems like the date keeps shifting — will see a performance bump from a new processor, as well as a new OLED display that extends all the way to the edges and a souped-up single-lens camera armed with Google’s latest imaging tech. There probably won’t be an XL-sized counterpart to the Pixel 4a.

The Pixel 5, on the other hand, could be very different from last year’s Pixel 4. Google has been tipped to move from Qualcomm’s flagship Snapdragon 8-series platform to the Snapdragon 765 — a less-powerful chip that still supports 5G connectivity. The Pixel 5 also looks like it may ditch the Soli radar chip introduced with the Pixel 4, meaning Motion Sense air gestures will be out of the question.

The Pixel 5 is still a ways away, but here’s how it looks to stack up against Google’s own Pixel 4a, according to the latest leaks and renders.

Pixel 5 vs. Pixel 4a: Price and availability

Here’s an exciting proposition: We could be looking at some of the least-expensive Pixel phones ever in these two devices. A survey sent to one Reddit user and shared by Android Authority hinted at the prices for the Pixel 4a and Pixel 5, and they sound just right.

Best camera phones: Google Pixel 4

Google Pixel 4 (Image credit: Future)

Google is evidently trying to gain an idea of what customers would stomach paying for both models, and in doing so, proposes two options: a “Google Pixel phone” with a “durable plastic body” and headphone jack, for $349; and a “premium Google Pixel phone” with “first access” to new features, as well as a “best-in-class camera, wireless charging and water resistance” for $699. The first device is, of course, the Pixel 4a, while the latter sure sounds like the Pixel 5.

If both prices come to pass, that means the Pixel 4a and Pixel 5 will start at $50 and $100 less than their predecessors, respectively. Leaks to date have shown the cheapest Pixel 4a variant may carry just 64GB of storage, so perhaps the 128GB configuration will cost $399, if such a version is offered.

As for when you can expect to buy these phones, the Pixel 4a was first supposed to be unveiled in May, then June. But Jon Prosser of Front Page Tech says July 13 is now the date for the forthcoming baby Pixel’s launch. Prossers says the phone seems “ready to ship” and that market strategy is dictating the timing now. The Pixel 5, of course, is expected in the fall. Google launched the Pixel 4 on October 15, 2019, and there’s no reason to think the timing will differ for that phone’s successor.

Pixel 5 vs. Pixel 4a: Design and display

The Pixel 4a has been uncovered in photos and videos multiple times over the last several months, though nothing official so far. Still, these images give us a clear idea of how Google’s next budget handset will ultimately look.

Pixel 4a

(Image credit: 91Mobiles/OnLeaks)

The major design changes are reserved for the Pixel 4a’s 5.8-inch OLED screen, which will extend from edge-to-edge with this generation, and incorporate a hole-punch front-facing camera more similar to Samsung’s Infinity-O-toting Galaxy devices. Don’t expect 90Hz animations, though; Google is evidently saving faster refresh rates for its pricier phones.

On the back, the Pixel 4a will adopt the Pixel 4’s square camera patch, even though the 4a will likely tout just one lens. A traditional rear-facing capacitive fingerprint sensor will handle authentication. Once again, the phone’s body will be made entirely from polycarbonate, and a headphone jack will come along for the ride.

Comparatively, we know a lot less about the Pixel 5’s design. One image that emerged on Slashleaks back in March depicted a device that looked indistinguishable from a Pixel 4, with a thick upper bezel and all. Meanwhile, a render that emerged even earlier on Jon Prosser’s Front Page Tech drew attention to the back of the Pixel 5, showing a trio of lenses arranged in a triangle, packaged inside a half-circle module.

(Image credit: Front Page Tech)

We don’t know precisely how large the Pixel 5’s display will be, though it’s worth pointing out that the Pixel 4’s screen spanned 5.7 inches, while the Pixel 4 XL’s panel was 6.3 inches big. Those sizes probably won’t change by much unless Google is able to trim down the top bezel on those flagship models. However, that’s unlikely to happen unless the company either significantly redesigns its Face Unlock technology, or scraps it entirely.

Pixel 5 vs. Pixel 4a: Camera

Just like the Pixel 3a, Pixel 4 and even the Pixel 3, the Pixel 4a is heavily rumored to use 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 will be enabled by software.

Pixel 4

Pixel 4 (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, renders have hinted at three lenses on the back, likely meaning an ultra wide optic will join the existing primary wide-angle and telephoto lenses that appeared in the Pixel 4. That’s pretty much all we know, though the presence of that third camera is reason enough to be excited.

The Pixel’s deficit in capturing ultra wide shots has remained the series’ one longstanding bugbear. Here’s hoping that oversight will finally be corrected with the forthcoming flagship.

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 sharper, further zoom, or the ability to immortalize expansive landscape scenes, you’ll likely be forced to turn to the Pixel 5.

Pixel 5 vs. Pixel 4a: Performance

Here’s where things get interesting. In an effort to save costs, Google may fit the Pixel 5 with a Snapdragon 765, 765G or 768G chip, as opposed to the faster Snapdragon 865 that most initially expected. This little detail was uncovered inside code for Google’s Camera app by 9to5Google, who have been able to tie the codenames for the Pixel 5 XL — Redfin and Bramble — to the 765 platform.

The Snapdragon 765 and gaming-optimized 765G were initially second only to the Snapdragon 865 in terms of pecking order among Qualcomm silicon. But then the chipmaker recently introduced an overclocked version of the 765G, called the 768G. All three variants tote Adreno 620 GPUs, though the 768G is the most powerful of the bunch by a slight margin.

Ultimately, Google could choose any one of these processors for the Pixel 5. But no matter which it selects, a 7-series chip certainly couldn’t contend with the 865-powered Galaxy S20 or OnePlus 8 Pro in terms of raw speed — and it would be well short of an A14-Bionic-powered iPhone 12 once Apple’s flagship ships in the fall. It’s estimated that the Snapdragon 765 is somewhere between 20% to 30% slower than the 865.

One thing the 765 does provide, however, is 5G connectivity, so at least Pixel 5 owners will still be able to take advantage of faster download speeds from different wireless carriers’ new 5G networks.

The Pixel 4a, on the other hand, will be constrained to 4G networks, and is almost certain to derive power from Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 730 silicon and potentially 6GB of RAM. That should make for a noticeable bump to performance compared with the Pixel 3a, albeit a shade behind the Pixel 5. You probably wouldn’t notice a massive difference between the two except when gaming — though if you want the absolute finest in mobile graphics quality, it’s safe to say you’re going to want to choose a different phone brand entirely.

Pixel 5 vs. Pixel 4a: Battery and charging

We don’t have a solid number on the size of the battery in the Pixel 5 yet, though we really hope Google steps it up this go-around. 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.

Google Pixel 4

Pixel 4 (Image credit: Future)

The move to Qualcomm’s more efficiency-minded Snapdragon 765 platform might help the Pixel 5 last longer, but considering there will be a 5G radio to keep powered on, Google ought to make the Pixel 5’s battery bigger — a lot bigger.

Turning to the imminent budget Pixel, 9to5Google has reported that device will receive a battery sized at 3,080 mAh. It's worth noting that the current Pixel 3a packs a 3,000-mAh battery, which actually kept the 3a running four hours longer than the Pixel 4 in Tom’s Guide’s LTE web-surfing test. It also landed the Pixel 3a on our list of the best phone battery life. The Pixel 4a doesn’t need a larger battery as desperately as the Pixel 5 does, but of course, more juice never hurts.

We anticipate that while both phones should support 18-watt USB PD charging, only the Pixel 5 will be able to top up wirelessly.

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

The Pixel 5 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. But rumor has it only Face Unlock and Active Edge could continue onto the Pixel 5.

That’s right, Motion Sense may be gone after just one year — a stunning about-face, considering Google was heavily pushing the feature many months well ahead of the Pixel 4’s launch. 9to5Google’s Stephen Hall claimed as much on Twitter, stating that the phone “will likely leave behind hobbies like Soli.” The Soli radar chip, of course, is what enables Motion Sense gestures, like waving to skip songs or reaching near to quiet an alarm.

Meanwhile, Active Edge seems to have been axed on the Pixel 4a, again according to a tweet from Hall. That means you'll have to trigger the Google Assistant the old-fashioned way on the 4a, either by saying “Hey Google” or swiping up from the corner.

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 of course won’t launch with that software. Instead, it’s likely that the update will emerge in the fall, potentially weeks ahead of the Pixel 5’s release. We will certainly learn more about Android 11 at Google’s Android preview event, which is taking the place of its usual I/O conference, on June 3.

Pixel 5 vs. Pixel 4a: Outlook

The Pixel 5 and Pixel 4a will be the most important smartphones Google has ever shipped, and their success or failure is all but certain to shape the future of the company’s phone business. There’s no reason to think the Pixel 4a won’t continue down the path of success illuminated by the Pixel 3a; what's less predictable is whether Google’s semi-premium bet with the Pixel 5 will pay off.

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 and OnePlus already offer extremely compelling devices at that same pricet that are certain to outperform a 765-powered Pixel 5.

Google will have to make sure its next range-topping handset is optimized to perfection 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 2020 lineup.