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

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

Now that the Pixel 4a has arrived, Google’s smartphone lineup for the year is starting to come into focus. And that means attention is turning to Google’s next big release, the flagship Pixel 5 due out in the fall.

The Pixel 5 isn’t just a rumor — Google has already confirmed that the phone is on its way, though it’s keeping details about the release close to the vest at this time. No matter, as smartphone rumor mongers are happy to fill in the details about the Pixel 5, which is expected to feature 5G compatibility and possibly an extra phone lens.

But once the Pixel 5 arrives, it has a tough act to follow with the Pixel 4a. Google’s budget phone enjoys a modest performance bump from a new processor, but the real highlight here is an excellent camera — yes, just one — and a display that shrinks the formerly chunky bezels on Google’s phones.

The Pixel 5 won’t arrive for a few months. Here’s how the Pixel 5 vs. Pixel 4a match-up is stacking up now that we’ve seen Google’s budget phone in the flesh.

Google 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 the survey happened to nail the $349 price Google is charging for the Pixel 3a.

Best camera phones: Google Pixel 4

Google Pixel 4 (Image credit: Future)

That survey from back in May described a  “Google Pixel phone” with a “durable plastic body” and headphone jack, for $349, which turned out to be the Pixel 4a. It also mentioned 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. We’ll assume that’s the Pixel 5.

If the Pixel 5’s price here is as accurate as the Pixel 4a’s was, that means the Pixel 4a and Pixel 5 will start at $50 and $100 less than their predecessors, respectively. Best of all, Google has doubled the amount of storage with the Pixel 4a to 128GB so maybe 64GB phones are a thing of the past at Google.

We aren’t expecting the Pixel 5 until the fall — most likely in October. As for the Pixel 4a, you can pre-order that device now, with the phone arriving on August 20. Both Google and Amazon will sell the Pixel 4a unlocked, and you can get a carrier-tied version at Project Fi, Verizon and US Cellular.

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, while we’d expect the Pixel 5 to adopt the Pixel 4’s 90HZ display.

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.

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. A new Pixel 5 concept design based on rumors has a much more traditional camera square in addition to vastly reduced bezels

Pixel 5 vs. Pixel 4a

Pixel 5 render (Image credit: Incosive Labs/YouTube)

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. Be aware that there’s unlikely to be an XL version of the Pixel 5, just as there’s only one Pixel 4a size. 

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, 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.

Google Pixel 5 vs Pixel 4a

Pixel 5 render (Image credit: Sarang Sheth)

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.

A Camera app update found in the Android 11 beta hints at new features coming to Google’s Pixel phones, the Pixel 4a and Pixel 5 included. These features include Motion Blur, which will allow you to keep a person in focus even when they’re moving around — think sharper action shots — and an audio zoom feature that focuses on whatever person you’re zooming in on.

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.

Google 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.

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.

Pixel 5 vs. Pixel 4a

(Image credit: Google)

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.

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.

Pixel 5 vs. Pixel 4a

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

The Pixel 4a released will be constrained to 4G networks, as it runs on Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 730 silicon and 6GB of RAM. That bumps  performance compared with the Pixel 3a, though the Pixel 4a should remain 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.

One other thing about the Pixel 4a and 5G — there is a version of the phone coming that will be able to connect to faster wireless networks. When it confirmed the Pixel 5, Google also teased the Pixel 4a 5G, which will cost $499. We haven’t heard any other details about the Pixel 4a 5G, though we expect that to change as we get closer to the phone’s launch in the fall.

Google 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.

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.

Pixel 5 vs. Pixel 4a

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

Turning to the budget Pixel, 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. Wireless charging remains tied to Google’s flagship phones, which we assume will go for the Pixel 5 as well. 

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. 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 has been axed on the Pixel 4a. 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.

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 launches with Android 10. Expect an update will in the fall, potentially weeks ahead of the Pixel 5’s release. 

Google 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. We’re pleased to see 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.

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 price 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 new phone lineup.