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Google Pixel 5a review: All hail the king of affordable camera phones

The Pixel 5a is here, and Google’s $449 phone packs a serious punch

Google Pixel 5a review
Editor's Choice
(Image: © Tom's Guide)

Our Verdict

The Google Pixel 5a delivers the same experience as the Pixel 5 or Pixel 4a 5G, but for only $449. It’s also got the biggest battery ever in a Pixel, and it’s the first A-series Pixel to sport water resistance. The phone’s big OLED display, two rear cameras, and decent amount of power are great for the price.

For

  • Spectacular cameras
  • Big, bright display
  • IP67 water resistance

Against

  • Older chipset
  • Limited to US and Japan
  • No wireless charging
Google Pixel 5a: Specs

Price: $449
OS: Android 11
Display: 6.43-inch OLED (2400 x 1080)
CPU: Snapdragon 765G
RAM: 6GB
Storage / Expandable: 128GB / No
Rear cameras: 12.2MP (f/1.7), 16MP (f/2.2) ultrawide
Front camera: 8MP (f/2.0)
Battery: 4,680mAh
Battery life (Hrs:Mins): 9:45
Charging: 18W
5G: Sub-6Ghz, mmWave (US only)
Size: 6.1 x 2.9 x 0.3 inches
Weight: 6.5 ounces
Colors: Mostly Black

The Google Pixel 5a is a revelation in the most boring sense of the word. After the incredibly good Pixel 4a last year, some of us were left wondering how the Mountain View-based company could one up itself. While we loved the Pixel 4a — with it regularly appearing in many of our best phone lists — it had some flaws. 

But the Pixel 5a wows me more than tha 4a did. Essentially, this new phone is a cheaper Pixel 4a 5G with a bigger battery. Since we liked that phone a lot, too, you won’t hear me complain about getting what’s effectively a tweaked version of that phone with a $50 discount. 

The Pixel 5a costs $449. For that money, you get 5G connectivity (with both mmWave and sub-6Ghz networks) and the largest battery we’ve ever seen in a Pixel. That translates to real-world benefits, too, with the Pixel 5a lasting longer than almost any other Google phone that we’ve tested. It’s also the first water-resistant A-series Pixel, adopting a feature Google has long reserved for its flagship devices.

In fact, I’m hard-pressed to find anything truly wrong with the Pixel 5a. It’s not the most powerful phone, and the display doesn’t wow. While budget-conscious buyers won’t like the price increase over the Pixel 4a, I don’t think these criticisms end up detracting from this phone’s merits.

In this Google Pixel 5a review, I’ll go over everything that makes this one of the best Android phones you can currently buy. 

Google Pixel 5a review: Price and availability

The $449 Pixel 5a features 128GB of storage and 6GB of RAM. It comes in one color option, Mostly Black. You can buy one unlocked from the Google Store and through the Google Fi wireless carrier. Here's our guide on how to pre-order the Pixel 5a.

As with the Pixel 4a, the Pixel 5a’s biggest rival remains last year’s iPhone SE (2020), which starts at $399 but has half the storage of the Pixel 5a (64GB). The cheaper iPhone also makes do with a single camera versus two, and an LCD screen instead of an OLED panel.

The Pixel 5a is only available in the US and Japan, possibly due to the chip shortage that led to rumors of the phone being outright cancelled earlier this year. At this point, we don’t know if Google will expand the Pixel 5a’s availability in the future.

Google Pixel 5a review: Design

With the exception of the upcoming Pixel 6, Google’s design language has been very minimalistic. I daresay it’s downright spartan in many respects, but it’s also pretty functional. The Pixel 5a follows in that vein, looking like an unassuming large plastic handset. Nothing about the phone stands out, except perhaps its mint-colored power button.

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

And maybe that’s just how it should be. I love fancy-looking phones like those from Samsung or OnePlus, but I’m also a fan of function over beauty. The Pixel 5a won’t turn heads, but that’s not what Google was aiming for. Instead, this is a $449 phone that focuses entirely on software. As you’ll see in a bit, that largely translates to extraordinary camera prowess.

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

The build quality of the Pixel 5a feels very solid, and it comes with an IP67 water-resistance rating — a first for A-series Pixel phones. Even though the 5a is a large polycarbonate slab, it has a smooth, soft-touch finish. Unfortunately, that also means it attracts fingerprint oils, which appear prominently on the black plastic. Unlike fingerprints on glass back phones, these oils can be difficult to remove with just your shirt or a microfiber cloth.

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

There’s nothing on the Pixel 5a’s back but a simple square camera module, the fingerprint sensor, and a small Google “G” near the bottom. Around the front, there’s not much more going on, either. The big 6.34-inch display covers nearly the whole face of the phone with impressively slim bezels all around. The new phone looks like a more premium device compared to the Pixel 4a.

Left: Pixel 5a; Right: Pixel 4a (Image credit: Tom's Guide)

The rear-mounted capacitive fingerprint sensor is incredibly accurate. I didn’t once have a false rejection (assuming I placed my index fingers properly) — I think this sensor is as good as the one on the Pixel 5. The placement feels very natural, as I think rear-mounted fingerprint sensors are superior to in-display ones.

Like other A-series Pixels before it, the Pixel 5a still has a 3.5mm headphone jack. I love this decision still, and I think many of you will, too. Even though Bluetooth headphones and earbuds have gotten really good, having a headphone jack is still a must for many people, not to mention cars so that you can plug the phone in with an auxiliary cable.

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Sound quality on the Pixel 5a is very good, thanks to stereo speakers. The top speaker is nestled in the earpiece, which is a barely noticeable slit above the display. Combined with the bottom-firing speaker, the Pixel 5a can get very loud and punchy. While it lacks the bass and warmness you’d find in a pair of headphones (or higher-quality phones), the 5a has better sound than most other phones in this price range.

Google Pixel 5a review: Display

Google is pretty proud of the Pixel 5a’s display, calling it the biggest one ever on a bezel-less Pixel, which covers the Pixel 4a, 4a 5G, and 5. At 6.43 inches, the full-HD OLED screen on the Pixel 5a is vibrant and bright. It’s not the most impressive panel we’ve ever seen, but it’s very good all the same, especially at this price. 

Google Pixel 5a review

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

One thing I really appreciate is how easily I can see what’s on the display when I’m out in direct sunlight. When I was out wandering around to capture photos for this Pixel 5a review, I found myself surprised and impressed because I could see the photos I’d just taken. Normally, I have to find shade to see the photos clearly enough. Not so with the 5a, and not every phone that crosses my desk can claim that.

Like the rest of the phone, the Pixel 5a’s display gets the job done. Neither awful nor amazing, the screen is average in the best kind of way. One area that has definitely improved over the Pixel 4a is the viewing angles. With the 4a, you’d start to notice distortion pretty quickly when viewing the phone from an off angle. I ran into no such problem with the Pixel 5a. In fact, the display has fantastic viewing angles and little visible distortion until you get to closer to 180 degrees, as you do with most phones.

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Once you go with an OLED screen, it’s hard to go back to LCDs on a phone. That comes down to how deep the blacks get, which lends itself to a sense of foreboding and dread in dark games like Limbo or adding stark contrast to the harsh orange scenes in Blade Runner 2049. Even Genshin Impact with its anime-style graphics or Dead Cells’ pixel art look amazing on the Pixel 5a. The resolution is just crisp enough to make nature photos almost look like you’re actually there, too. Even something as mundane as a YouTube video or sports clip looks great on this display.

In its default color profile, the Pixel 5a managed to reproduce 119.3% of the sRGB and 84.5% of the DCI-P3 color gamuts. That’s actually a bit more saturated than the iPhone SE’s 111.2% sRGB rendering. The iPhone has a significant advantage with color accuracy, however, with a Delta-E score of 0.2 compared to the Pixel 5a’s 0.32. (Scores closer to 0 are best in this test.)

The Pixel 5a is like most other Android phones out there, in that you can only achieve maximum brightness with Adaptive Brightness enabled. In our testing, the phone reached a 501-nit max, which is surprisingly lower than the Pixel 4a’s 681 nits and the iPhone SE’s 651-nit average. But like I said above, I had no trouble viewing the display out in direct sunlight.

Adaptive Brightness uses AI to judge how you like your display brightness in certain lighting conditions. that requires you to train the feature, which I doubt most people do — I just let my phones adjust automatically. On some previous Pixels, a few people (including Adam Ismail in his Pixel 4a review) reported a general sense of indecisiveness with Adaptive Brightness. I ran into this problem on my Pixel 4 XL, which would vary wildly while sitting in one spot. I haven’t noticed this frustrating problem with the Pixel 5a.

Google Pixel 5a review: Cameras

The biggest highlight with the Pixel 5a this year is the addition of the 16MP, 117-degree ultrawide camera, which joins the primary 12.2MP shooter. Last year’s Pixel 4a only had the single 12.2MP camera. Up front, the Pixel 5a’s 8MP selfie cam sits nestled in the top left corner of the display in a hole-punch cutout.

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

This is a Pixel, so you’d expect the photography experience to be really good, especially given that the 5a has almost the same hardware as the Pixel 5. As you’ll see below, the Pixel 5a’s cameras meet that expectation and then some — they’re the best you’ll find under $500.

When testing the Pixel 5a against an iPhone SE, you can immediately see the differences in approach between the two phones in this photo of some flowers. The Pixel 5a kept a more natural color profile, while the iPhone SE looks a bit too saturated and fantastical. The iPhone’s image also looks too cool, especially given the daylight’s overall warm tones in this scene. I prefer the Pixel’s shot.

To see how well either phone captured vibrant color, I took a picture of this pickup truck. The blue is very bright, dazzlingly so in direct light. The Pixel once again opted for a more somber look to complement the overcast sky above. The truck’s blue paint is still beautiful in the Pixel’s image. However, with the iPhone SE, Apple’s phone turned up the saturation again. You can also see the evidence of this in the grass behind the truck, and even on the lighter portion of the wooden fence in the background. 

Heading inside, the Pixel 5a and iPhone SE took their own approaches to this statuette of Merida. WIth the 5a, the image is cool, but still captures the vibrant colors of Merida’s dress and hair, plus the yellow candle off to the right. The iPhone took a warmer image, a bit too yellow in my opinion. However, both phones compensated for the light in the room, producing well-lit photos.

The portrait shots were also quite different, and the results surprised me. Apple pioneered the portrait photo mode years ago, but the Pixel 5a offers a much better and more artistic photo in this particular comparison. The iPhone SE zoomed out and had a softer bokeh effect, while the Pixel 5a focused solely on my face. The background is beautifully blurred, too.

The night modes differ greatly between the two phones, mostly because the iPhone SE doesn’t have one. This remains a strange omission on Apple’s part, but the Pixel 5a features Google’s excellent Night Sight. You can see how well the 5a handled the smoker at night, producing a clear image with plenty of detail. The smoker is still visible in the iPhone SE’s photo, but it’s harder to see.

A familiar pattern repeated itself when I tested the front camera. The Pixel 5a kept the colors toned down, giving my face a more natural look. The SE, meanwhile, cranked up the saturation and made my face look splotchy and unhealthily red. If my face isn’t proof enough, look at the pool umbrella in the background. It’s way too green for something that’s sat out in the sun for years.

Google Pixel 5a review: Video

The Pixel 5a can record video up to 4K at 60 frames per second. Google also includes what it calls Cinematic Pan for capturing audio-less video clips. This effectively slows down the panning in your video clip, adding a more artistic, cinematic effect. 

Compared to the iPhone SE, the Pixel 5a’s video is simply better. Colors are more accurate, the mic quality is much better, and Google’s new phone focuses on close objects faster. Even the stabilization on the Pixel 5a is good, right on par with the SE’s. Google has gotten steadily better with video recording lately, and the 5a is definitely one of the best Pixels so far at this task.

Google Pixel 5a review: Performance

The Pixel 5a is a serious step up over its predecessor in terms of hardware. Rocking a Snapdragon 765G (the same system-on-chip as the $699 Pixel 5 and $499 Pixel 4a 5G from last year) and 6GB of RAM, this is a decently powerful phone for many tasks. As far as Android phones go, the Pixel 5a is pretty middle of the road.

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

The 765G isn’t a bad chip and it’s an improvement over the Pixel 4a’s Snapdragon 730G system-on-chip. But the Snapdragon 765G is not going to hold up well against the A13 Bionic in the iPhone SE. Apple’s silicon magic makes the $399 iPhone SE a little powerhouse that even the best Android phones struggle to match. At $449, though, the Pixel 5a is about as powerful as Android devices in this price category get.

Playing games on the Pixel 5a was a fine experience, though some of the more intense titles like Asphalt 9 and Genshin Impact caused the phone to heat up. Lowering the graphics settings can help, especially with dropped frames, but the Pixel 5a isn’t truly proficient at gaming in the way more powerful flagship phones are.

However, in day-to-day tasks, this phone flies. Android 11 on the Pixel 5a feels buttery smooth, even with a display locked at 60Hz. Outside of gaming, I couldn’t get this phone to slow down, whether I was rapidly scrolling on a big web page, switching between several apps and games on the fly, or taking multiple photos in quick succession.

Having the power of the Snapdragon 765G helps the Pixel 5a process photos quickly. Google’s software magic really shines on the Pixel 5a, and it’s thanks in part to the big processor upgrade over the Pixel 4a. 

As far as benchmarks go, we ran into some compatibility issues with Geekbench 5. I couldn’t download the app from the Play Store and the scores we did manage to get in lab testing (from sideloading) were startlingly low, much lower than the ones we saw from the Pixel 4a with its Snapdragon 730G. 

That said, the Pixel 5a did pass through the 3DMark Wild Life Unlimited graphics test, managing a score of 1,678 with an average fps of 10 — this, once again, seems really low for a 765G. Regardless, it’s chump change compared to the iPhone SE’s 47.9 fps average. The A13 Bionic is still an incredibly powerful chip, and it makes the iPhone SE the performance champ in the sub-$500 category.

Still, even if the Pixel 5a’s performance feels middling, that’s not really a bad thing. Google’s phone does most everything a phone ought to without any trouble.

Google Pixel 5a review: Battery life and charging

The Pixel 5a sports the biggest battery we've ever seen in a Google Pixel. And that 4,680 mAh power pack helps the Pixel 5a turn in one of the better times we've seen from a Pixel phone on our battery test. That's not a high bar to clear, though, as Pixels tend to falter on our test involving web surfing over a cellular connection. 

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

To that end, the Pixel 5a was able to remain powered up for 9 hours and 45 minutes, which is around the average for smartphones. That beats the Pixel 4a's time by nearly an hour, and it's roughly 30 minutes longer than the iPhone SE's result. 

Given Google's historical struggles on our test, it's nice to see the phone at least in the neighborhood of average performance. But given the size of the battery, we wish the Pixel 5a had come closer to landing on our best phone battery life list.

Pixel 5a charging is less encouraging. With a max of 18W, the Pixel 5a got from a drained phone to 23% in 15 minutes, and to 43% in 30 minutes. That handily beats the iPhone SE’s charging times, which only reached 29% in 30 minutes in our testing. However, there’s no wireless charging onboard the Pixel 5a, unlike Apple’s budget iPhone.

Google Pixel 5a review: Software

We’re right on the cusp of the final release of Android 12, which the Pixel 5a will see on day one. That’s one of the benefits of owning a Google phone — you get Apple-level access to the latest Android versions on the day they’re released. Now if only the Pixel 5a would be supported for as long as an iPhone.

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

With Google working on its own system-on-chips (called Tensor) in the upcoming Pixel 6, maybe we’ll see future Pixels stay updated as long as iPhones do. Nonetheless, the Pixel 5a will still see three years of platform updates and a minimum of three years of security patches. 

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Out of the box, the Pixel 5a comes standard with stock Android 11. There’s nothing new here, since Android 11 is a fairly spartan affair. There is a section to customize some of the 5a’s gestures, like swiping on the fingerprint sensor to pull down the notification shade. That’s about it. If you’re coming from Samsung or OnePlus — or even Motorola — you might find the lack of customization and features to be a bit of a shell shock. That said, Android 12 is going to change that.

Google Pixel 5a review: Verdict

Although I’m really looking forward to the Pixel 6 later this fall, the Pixel 5a is worth strong consideration if you want the Google software and camera experience for a lower price. Despite $449 being a $100 hike from last year’s phone, the Pixel 5a delivers almost everything that the $699 Pixel 5 managed, minus the 90Hz display, for $250 less.

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

The Pixel 5a’s claim to fame comes down to its cameras, and boy do they deliver. This phone runs laps around anything at this price, even the iPhone SE. Apple’s budget iPhone isn’t a bad camera phone by any means, but the 5a is just better all around. This should come as no surprise to anyone who knows that Pixels regularly feature in our picks for the best camera phones.

Despite the battery life not knocking my socks off, I really like the Pixel 5a. It does everything the Pixel 4a 5G did well for $50 less, and that’s impressive. While people in other countries will feel left out that the Pixel 5a only ships in the U.S. and Japan, you should absolutely consider this phone if you want a top budget handset.

There are better phones that cost upwards of $1,000 or more, but I find it difficult to consider any of them to be as good of a value as the Pixel 5a.

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.

  • JCLiggett
    I'm surprised you did not mention the lack of an SD card reader. Perhaps this is old news by now with Google, but as I am in the market for a new phone, it is top of mind for me. Even with 128 GB of on-device storage, I still want to have the ability to shift items to an SD card if needed. I suppose Google and Apple both want us to store our data in the cloud, but I don't trust that for my photos, downloads, etc. Right now it's a deal-breaker for me.
    Reply
  • ej1
    Thanks for the prompt review, admin, but your score is too high. BTW, I'm not a Google hater or Apple hater, etc. I just think we need to demand more from phone makers. At $449 the Pixel 5a costs a lot! Just because it costs less than crazy expensive flagship phones, that doesn't mean it is inexpensive. Moto budget phones went down in price. I'm not comparing Moto phones and Pixel phones, but my point is that phones (eg Pixel) should be going down in price -- not up! (If Google had to omit 5G in order to offer a much lower price, then so be it. 5G is so overrated!) At least one other Tom's Guide writer (see R Priday's recent article "Pixel 5a price leak makes the phone look like a bad deal") agrees that the 5a is expensive.

    Also, the Pixel 5a should lose points for having such a large battery size but disappointing battery test results! Big phones are a pain to handle, but I guess people put up with them in order to have better battery life. What is the point of having a big phone when the battery life is disappointing?! Unless reviewers heavily criticize Google for continually making phones without strong battery life, then Google will not be motivated to improve.
    Reply
  • purple_dragon
    Your article needs amended where it mentions the specifications. The Pixel 5a does not have mmWave 5G only Sub-6Ghz 5G.
    Reply
  • Helen Haymes
    I don't know if that's necessarily affordable, but the camera does look good compared to others.
    Reply
  • ej1
    JCLiggett said:
    I'm surprised you did not mention the lack of an SD card reader. Perhaps this is old news by now with Google, but as I am in the market for a new phone, it is top of mind for me. Even with 128 GB of on-device storage, I still want to have the ability to shift items to an SD card if needed. I suppose Google and Apple both want us to store our data in the cloud, but I don't trust that for my photos, downloads, etc. Right now it's a deal-breaker for me.
    To piggyback off your point, phones should be penalized/criticized for not having SD card readers!
    Reply
  • snedunuri
    Too many reviews these days (including this one) focus on the auxiliary features of phones, such as the camera, the speed of gaming, music quality, etc. While leaving out probably the main reason for getting a phone, which is to communicate! I would like to see more reviews talk about things like signal strength in different areas such as cities, countryside, or mountainous areas, voice quality, perhaps whichs carriers are optimized for the phone, And even things like browser speeds, and Google maps. These aren't sexy things But they are very important!
    Reply
  • bob7777
    The Pixel 5a body is not "a large polycarbonate slab". It's made of aluminum.
    Reply