The Google Pixel 5a Is the Best Phone You Can Buy for Under $500

At $449, the mid-range Android handset offers smart updates in a familiar design

August 27, 2021 12:09 pm
Get to know the Google Pixel 5a
Get to know the Google Pixel 5a

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Unless you were paying attention last week, you may have missed the release of the new Google Pixel 5a. Coming in under the radar, the tech giant’s newest offering features a Qualcomm Snapdragon 765G processor, a gorgeous 6.34-inch OLED display and a large enough battery which Google claims can support nearly two days of use on a single charge. Plus, it comes with an IP rating for water and dust, a rarity in most sub-$500 phones. It may not be the splashy announcement you’ve been waiting for, which will come this fall with Google’s long-awaited flagship, the Pixel 6, but the Pixel 5a is a subtly upgraded midrange phone with impressive specs.

The Pixel 5a is, in many ways, the same as its predecessor, the Pixel 4a, from processor to dual-pixel camera. And though it may be candidly underwhelming on paper, don’t let the similarities fool you. At $449, this new handset has quickly become the best deal you can find on an Android phone.

Design: Stick To the Basics

Like Pixel A-series phones of the past, the Pixel 5a retains its well-known simplicity. The 1080p OLED display pairs with stereo speakers, a hole-punch selfie camera, two rear cameras, a rear-mounted fingerprint sensor and USB-C 18W fast charging. It also comes with a headphone jack for all of us that still enjoy analog sound, and it’s available in the Mostly Black colorway.

But for all that remains the same, the Pixel 5a offers a few upgrades as well. The battery, for instance, tops out at a whopping 4,620mAh — an increase of 820mAh over the Pixel 4a. Testing provided us with over a day’s worth of juice on a single charge, and while the 18W fast charging wasn’t exactly “fast,” it supplied enough power to get us through a few more hours of use. We should note that this may be the last time you’ll see a power brick in the box, as rumors suggest Google will stop bundling power bricks and phones to cut down on e-waste.

Meanwhile, the 6.34 inch screen is the largest on any Pixel A-series phone to date. And we’re happy to report that it exudes rich and vibrant colors, as well as enough brightness to offer incredible visibility even in direct sunlight.

The final major upgrade comes courtesy of a new metal body that’s wrapped in a matte plastic shell. Its soft-touch finish is easy to hold and provides plenty of grip, not to mention the added IP67 water and dust resistance, so you don’t have to worry if it gets wet or falls in the dirt. Pair it with a case to add a touch of color and protection.

The Pixel 5a maintains the same design, with a few upgrades that make it almost perfect
The Pixel 5a maintains the same design, with a few upgrades that make it almost perfect

Performance: An Old Chip That Isn’t So Old

The global chip shortage that’s impacting major automakers and electronic brands is, as would be expected, affecting Google as well. So, while the new Pixel 6 is set to come with a brand new SoC processor, Google stuck with the Qualcomm Snapdragon 765G chip — also found in the Pixel 5. It may not be the latest and greatest in processing power, but it’s more than capable of handling a multitude of apps and games without feeling overworked. It’s also paired with 6GB of RAM and 128GB of built-in storage, which is more than enough for a mid-range handset. There were times when the phone was hot to the touch while managing different tasks, but this is an ongoing issue not unfamiliar to Pixel phones.

We should also take a moment to discuss the Pixel 5a’s 5G support. Whereas last year’s Pixel 5 included support for higher-frequency millimeter-wave 5G networks, the Pixel 5a does not. This means the Pixel 5a won’t have access to to those upgraded networks from mobile carriers like Verizon and AT&T. It’s not a dealbreaker, but something to consider.

The Pixel 5a features incredible camera quality that's tough to beat for the price
The Pixel 5a features incredible camera quality that’s tough to beat for the price

Camera: Incredible, Dependable Quality

Google Pixel phones have always been known for superior cameras, so it should be no surprise that where other mid-range phones fall short in image quality is exactly where the Pixel 5a shines. Though it doesn’t look exciting on paper, the 12.2-megapixel main rear camera includes optical image stabilization and is accompanied by a 16-megapixel ultrawide lens which features Google’s Super-Res Zoom. Thanks to Google’s remarkable image processing, the cameras can handle more high contrast and low light imagery in natural colors than many of its competitors.

The front camera, meanwhile, takes on selfies without overcorrecting or adding unwanted softening. No matter what level of selfie addict you are, the Pixel 5a should offer plenty of dynamic range for any photog that’s snapping personal pics. Now if only we could convince Google to add a camera launcher to the lock screen so we don’t have to double-tap the power button every time we want to snap a quick shot.

If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It

Remember when OnePlus and Motorola were designing phones that we called “flagship killers?” Well, it only took Google a few years to catch up and beat them at their own game. Though most of us eagerly await the Pixel 6 launch later this year, the Pixel 5a delivers all the basics you could ever need. Its intuitive UI, speedy updates, incredible camera and minor tweaks over the previous model somehow fit into a package that’s bigger and better, yet costs less than the outgoing Pixel 4a. And while it isn’t leading the market and comes in a limited capacity (only in the US and Japan, and not being offered through major carriers), the Pixel 5a covers the bases for a fraction of the price. And that’s something you just can’t beat.

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