Google Pixel 5a review: Still a great camera phone

Editor’s note: The Pixel 6a released in Summer 2022 and is an upgrade in every way to the Pixel 5a. It packs the Tensor G1 chipset and a smaller form factor. Google no longer sells the Pixel 5a, so I recommend you opt for the Pixel 6a instead for the same $449 price point.

The Google Pixel 5a is a revelation in the most boring sense of the word. After the incredibly good Pixel 4a in 2020, 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 the 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. We’ll have to see what a potential Goggle Pixel 6a does to see if it changes the current Pixel a’s winning formula.

The Pixel 5a costs $449. For that money, you get 5G connectivity (just sub-6Ghz) 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.

The Google Pixel 6a has just been announced, with much wider availability than the Pixel 5a. Check our Google Pixel 6a vs. Pixel 5a face-off to learn about all the differences and similarities.

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.

As with the Pixel 4a, the Pixel 5a’s biggest rival remains the iPhone SE, currently the iPhone SE 2022. It starts slightly cheaper at $429, and has a much more powerful chipset. However you do get half the basic storage of the Pixel 5a (64GB), a single rear camera versus two, and an LCD screen instead of an OLED panel. Read our Google Pixel 5a vs. iPhone SE 2022 comparison for more details on this.

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. A couple months after its release, we still don’t know if Google will expand the Pixel 5a’s availability in the future. Google’s focus at the moment is on the Pixel 6, which at a starting price of $599 is just $150 more than the Pixel 5a. (We’ve got a Pixel 6 vs. Pixel 5a comparison to help you decide which phone is best suited for your needs.)

Google Pixel 5a review: Design

With the exception of the new Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro, 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.

As an aside, the rumored Google Pixel 6a could be a big departure in design terms from the Pixel 5a.

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 6.34 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.

(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.