Google Pixel 5a review | Engadget

Image Credit: Terrence O’Brien / Engadget

The change in size mostly comes down to the slightly larger screen. The OLED panel on the 5a is 6.34 inches, versus 6.2 inches on the 4a 5G. Otherwise, though, the screens are basically the same. The increased resolution of 2,400 x 1,080 makes up for the size difference so they both have a density of 413 ppi. Both also sport a contrast ratio of 100,000:1 and support HDR and are stuck at now outdated 60Hz. And both are just bright enough to use in direct sunlight, though high brightness mode is definitely a necessity if you’re watching a video outdoors.

Even the holepunch for the front-facing camera is in the same place. That said, I appreciated Google’s “for fun” wallpapers that camouflage the hole by incorporating it into the design. My favorite is the record player where the camera becomes the hole at the center of an LP.

Gallery: Google Pixel 5a camera samples | 29 Photos

That 8-megapixel front-facing camera, by the way, is one of the weak points of the 5a. It does the job in perfect lighting and for video calls. But details can be a bit soft, in low light it gets noisy and portrait mode is hit or miss. Overall, I found Google’s portrait feature to be a bit too aggressive even on the main camera. You can easily adjust the blur and depth after the fact, but the default settings could stand to be more subtle.

The selfie cam, though, is the same one found on the Pixel 4a 5G, so none of this is a surprise. In fact, all of the cameras are the same. The two sensors around the rear, however, are much better than the one on the front. There’s a 12.2-megapixel main shooter with optical image stabilization and a 16-megapixel ultra-wide-angle lens. They have a somewhat “moody” vibe when compared to shots from an iPhone or a Galaxy device, but they’re not obviously inferior. And even though images taken with the wide-angle lens can get a little fuzzy if you start zooming in on details, Google’s processing does an admirable job of minimizing barrel distortion. Google isn’t at the top of the smartphone camera heap anymore, but it’s not far off and photography is still an undeniable strong suit of the Pixel family.

Pixel 5a Camera features
Terrence O’Brien / Engadget

There’s nothing new to report, though. It’s the same set of excellent photography features that you got last year: Portrait lighting can help clean up and add some contrast to photos of people (but sadly not pets — the option only appears if a human face is detected). Night Sight turns on automatically in dim lighting and at times produces mind-blowing results. And the video stabilization modes are excellent. Cinematic Pan, which combines slow motion with super smooth movement, is especially fun.

Also, just like every other “a” model Pixel, this one has a headphone jack. All I can say is: That’s great, now please bring the headphone jack back to flagship phones. I know I’m not the only person clamoring for it. And it drives me nuts that the only way to get an old-school 3.5mm jack on my phone is to go down market.

Google Pixel 5a
Terrence O’Brien / Engadget

One last thing to mention: The actual full name of the phone is the Pixel 5a with 5G. So, guess what, it supports 5G connectivity. That’s not really surprising since the Snapdragon 765G has an integrated 5G modem. Unlike the Pixel 4a 5G, however, there is no mmWave variant of the 5a. And, although technically it’s capable of C-Band support, it’s currently not enabled and Google wouldn’t commit to adding support in the future. That’s not a huge deal at the moment since there are no active C-Band networks in the US yet. But it might irk some when AT&T and Verizon start flipping the switch, likely sometime later this year. That said, full C-Band rollout isn’t expected to happen until at least late 2023.

Those caveats out of the way, 5G still seems stuck in a state of arrested development. I tested the Pixel 5a using Google Fi, which essentially means I was on T-Mobile’s network and speeds were all over the place. In my home, it was often slower than Verizon’s LTE network, averaging around 35mbps down. (Note: Verizon is Engadget’s parent company… for now.) But two and half miles up the road at a local Subaru dealership I was routinely getting over 300mbps down, topping out at 370mbps.

5G speed test
Terrence O’Brien / Engadget

Of course, 5G and excellent cameras aren’t a rarity at this price any more. Mid-tier phones have come a long way over the last few years. The problem for Google is, it no longer clearly “owns the midrange.” Part of that is down to price. While the 5a is $50 cheaper than the 4a 5G, it’s not the obvious bargain that the 4a was at $350. If it was even just $50 cheaper still, the 5a would be a much easier sell at $399.

The Samsung A52 5G is slightly more expensive at $500 (though regularly on sale for less) and has a slower Snapdragon 750G SoC. But, its Super AMOLED screen clearly outclasses the Pixel’s and has a 120Hz refresh rate. Plus, its camera system is much sharper and feature-packed (but that doesn’t necessarily mean “better”). In addition to a primary camera and ultra-wide shooter, there’s a macro lens and a depth sensor that helps with portrait mode. While both the A52 and 5a ship with 128GB of storage, the Samsung has an advantage in that it has a microSD card slot.

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