Tested: Living With a Google Pixel 5a

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(Photo: David Cardinal)None have been best-sellers, but Google continues to turn out an interesting series of smartphones that appeal to Android purists — especially budget-conscious ones. Although I’ve been very happy with my Pixel 4a, particularly given its $350 price, I couldn’t resist taking the plunge on a $450 Pixel 5a 5G. After my first week with the phone, I’m really pleased. That said, if you took it away and made me go back to the 4a, the ultra-wide camera might be the only specific thing I’d immediately miss. Here’s what I’ve experienced so far.

Speedy, Full-Featured, 5G Phone for Under $500

Google has never sold all that many Pixel devices. They typically aren’t marketed by carriers (other than Google itself), and never have the flashiest specs. But they have usually been a good value for money if you want a pure Android experience, rapid access to new versions and updates, and the latest Google software wizardry. So far, the Pixel 5a is no exception. Like the original Model T, it comes one way: black, with 6GB of RAM, 128GB of internal storage, and a dual rear camera.

I was happy to see the addition of an ultra-wide rear camera and an IP67 waterproof rating. If you can use an eSIM on one carrier, there also appears to be good dual-SIM support. For a full briefing on the specs of the Pixel 5A, head over to the review from our sibling publication PCMag.

Pure Android, Pure Google, Easy Upgrade

Upgrading to a new Android phone has gotten easier over the years. In particular, moving from one Pixel to another is as close to trouble-free as I’ve ever experienced, especially if you use a password manager. I cabled my 4a to my 5a and essentially everything came across. As a pleasant surprise, even my Bluemail accounts migrated automatically (except for passwords).

This level of convenience may seem pretty ordinary, but I happened to be setting up a Note 9 on the same day. What a difference. The Note was full of Samsung bloatware, and confusing prompts about things like backing up photos to Samsung instead of Google, using Samsung’s Find My Device instead of Google’s, and tons of “specially-designed-for-Galaxy” versions of apps that all need to bug you with their TOS. That experience reminded me of why I used to sideload custom ROMs on my phones. Of course, if you’re already bought into the Galaxy ecosystem, then the situation might be reversed, and you’ll have a much easier time upgrading to another Galaxy device.

The Ugly Side of Connected Devices

While the process of upgrading from one phone to another has improved over the years, most of us have more and more connected devices — wearables, IoT appliances, and that smart water pump you forgot the password to. In my case, the simplest devices to access from my new phone were ones that use Wi-Fi and have password-manager-friendly apps. Some devices insist on having opaque login pages, which at best means hunting down the password manually, and at worst resetting it if it was never stored.

Re-pairing Bluetooth devices is another time-consuming and frequently annoying process, especially if you’ve forgotten how to put your devices in pairing mode or whether to pair each of them through Android or through their app. Fitbit handled this really well, as the device is connected to a user, so once I logged in (and shut off my old phone for a bit) the 5a found my Sense right away. Garmin required that I “add a new device” and manually pair it. My various earbuds were a mixed bag. My Pixel Slate seems permanently confused about which phone to use since I have so many of them laying around. Overall, I’d love to see transferring device information become as easy as app migration has.

Ergonomics of the Pixel 5a

The 5a is slightly larger than my 4a, which is slightly larger than the 3 it replaced. It’s still fairly narrow, which means it isn’t any harder to use with one hand, and it’s well balanced. So overall, a bit more heft is probably worth it for the sake of the larger screen, dual cameras, and bigger battery. I don’t like using a substantial case, though, so I would have preferred the initial rumor that the 5a would come with Gorilla Glass 6 instead of Gorilla Glass 3. On the bright side, two great features of the 4a that the 5a have kept are a headphone jack and a rear-mounted fingerprint sensor. I’m a huge fan of back-side fingerprint sensors. They are easy to press when you pick up the phone. Power button sensors are also fine, but under-display sensors seem annoying and a source of extra work for me.

Succumbing to the Dark Side: The Lure of Larger Phones

For years I’ve tried to hold the line on the move to ever-larger phones. It’s one reason I purchase the “a” version of Google’s devices (plus, I’m cheap). But it has gotten harder and harder. On the Apple side, my colleague Joel was willing to use his old cracked-screen iPhone forever until Apple finally updated the SE to a newer version. Yet, somehow, starting from my original HTC Aria each new phone I wind up buying is slightly larger than the last. It’s not that I mind a big screen, it’s that I really like the ability to stick my phone in a shirt pocket without it looking massive or falling out. Plus, a narrow phone is easier to use with one hand.

Danger: This is Not a Phone for Vloggers

For some inexplicable reason, first the Pixel 5 and now the Pixel 5a overheat when recording 4K video at 60fps. With my phone, recording 4K @ 60fps would shut it off, or I’d get warnings about reduced video quality due to overheating within a minute or two. If you then try to switch to 30fps with the camera already hot, the phone still complains. The back of the phone does feel hot at that point, but the phone itself continues to operate normally otherwise. I did find that if I started at 30fps, and never tried 60, I could record long clips without overheating. I certainly hope Google can fix this issue, as it has the potential to ruin the appeal of the phone for many users.

Photo captured with a Google Pixel 5a and processed on the phone -- Photo by David Cardinal

Photo captured with a Google Pixel 5a and processed on the phone. (Photo: David Cardinal)

In contrast, I’ve been really happy with the quality of photos I’m getting from my 5a. It’s quick and produces natural colors. Plus I get the ultra-wide camera I really need for many of my photo projects. I’m still carrying my Nikon D850 for serious work, but increasingly I’m traveling with just a phone or two for photography.

I’m Not Sure How Much I Care That It’s a 5G Phone

Even in 2021, I’m not sure I would have paid extra for a 5G-capable phone given where I live (where the last reliable G we got was 2), and where I travel (other than for tradeshows, mostly rural or backcountry). But I’m happy enough to have it, as we’re increasingly going to have it inflicted on us. So it doesn’t bother me that it doesn’t have support for mmWave 5G, but it is capable of speeds around 100Mbps. In consolation, about half the time AT&T shows our pathetic home wireless coverage as “5G E.”

Overall, The Right Phone for Me

Obviously, the 5a doesn’t have some of the new goodies like the Tensor chip planned for the Pixel 6, and it isn’t as beefy as a Samsung flagship. But the Pixel 5a 5G packs a massive amount into a sub-$500 phone, including a refreshingly hassle-free Android experience. Speaking of which, I’m looking forward to when I can update mine to the Android 12 beta I have been running on my 4a. All in all, I’m really happy I purchased it.

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