Google’s released more than its usual share of smartphones this year, starting with the Pixel 4a over the summer months. Now they’re back again, with two 5G-enabled handsets, the Pixel 5 and the Pixel 4a 5G. If you just looked at the specifications of each device, you might notice that they’re built around a very common core.
Both have the top-of-the-midrange Snapdragon 765G chipset, which won’t win any speed tests but then again it doesn’t need to. People buy the Pixel range for vanilla Android with no frills and that superb camera performance. Google probably had to throw 5G in there to get carriers to stock the phones, hoping that more availability will lead to more sales.
That said, let’s see which one is the better value.
Looking at the image above, you’d be forgiven if you thought it was for the Pixel 5 and Pixel 5 XL. I mean, the design is exactly the same, just one is slightly larger than the other. Except, there is no XL model this year, there is the smaller Pixel 5, which costs more, and the larger Pixel 4a 5G, which costs less. Confused yet?
Think of the current lineup as two midrange phones, one with premium features. Then it makes more sense, with the Pixel 5 adding additional features over the Pixel 4a 5G’s base model. The 4a 5G comes in a plastic case, just like the Pixel 4a before it. The Pixel 5 is in an aluminum case, covered in a matte resin that looks like plastic, according to The Verge.
The Pixel 5 has a 6-inch OLED screen, that has a 90Hz refresh rate. The Pixel 4a 5G, even though it’s much bigger, only has a 6.2-inch screen, with larger bezels than the premium device. That’s fine, everyone from Techcrunch to Android Authority liked the screen quality on both devices, with the lower refresh rate on the Pixel 4a 5G being the only complaint levied against the cheaper device.
Time for some differences. The Pixel 4a 5G keeps the 3.5mm headphone jack, just like the Pixel 4a before it. That comes at the expense of waterproofing though, which you get on Pixel 5. You don’t get any wireless charging on the Pixel 4a 5G either, something has to give to keep the price point lower. Oh, and the speaker you use for phone calls isn’t a traditional speaker at all on the Pixel 5, instead, the screen vibrates to make the audio. Nice.
The standout feature of any Pixel device has always been the camera, and nothing changes here with the new handsets. They might still be using the smaller sensor when rivals such as Samsung have moved on to larger ones, but the image quality is still at the head of the pack. This time around, the telephoto lens of last year’s Pixel 4 has disappeared, with Google finally putting a wide-angle lens into the arrangement. Both handsets have the same setup, a 12MP main camera, and a 16MP wide camera, with an 8MP selfie camera that’s in a hole-punch on the screen instead of a notch.
If you’ve read any prior Pixel review, you’ll know what these ones will say. It’s still largely the same image quality as the Pixel 4 from last year, with a “shift towards warmer images,” according to Android Authority, that they reckon people will find more pleasing than the usually cooler tone of prior Pixels.
The real fun here is the new computational photography tricks. Portrait Light emulates a floating light source, so you can relight your images and add contrast and shadows. It’s only usable if the Pixel detects a person in the image, but you can use it on images downloaded from the internet or any other source, as well as images taken by the Pixel’s camera.
There are some new stabilization modes for video as well, like Locked which lets you frame a central area, and then the camera keeps that area framed even if your hands move or shake. The mode everyone was talking about though was the new cinematic pan mode. This slows the footage to half the speed, and mutes audio, so you get near-slomo panned footage.
Performance and battery
Let’s talk about that Snapdragon 765G. Sure, it’s not the flagship Snapdragon 865, but do you need it? Everyone from Android Authority to The Verge said they didn’t really notice the slower chipset in daily use. It’s noticeable if you’re doing side-by-side comparisons, but how many people have multiple smartphones? The other caveat is the Adreno 620 GPU isn’t the greatest. If you’re a heavy gamer of intensive titles such as Genshin Impact, you’ll notice some frame drops. Maybe not enough to put you off, but it’s not aimed at gamers either.
5G on each device is fine, assuming you live in a 5G area. The Pixel 4a 5G has 6GB of RAM, and 128GB of storage; the Pixel 5 has 8GB of RAM, and 128GB of storage. I’m not entirely sure the Pixel 5 needs that extra 2GB of RAM, but it’s probably just a way to differentiate between the two handsets.
The Pixel 5 has a 4,080 mAh battery, fixing the biggest issue with the Pixel 4. The Pixel 4a 5G has a 3,885 mAh battery, but battery life for both should be fairly close. Engadget found that they still had “24-percent capacity left” on the Pixel 4a 5G after 17 hours of their looping video test. Yes, 17. That’s an insane amount of battery life, and real-world usage was well over a day. That’s echoed by every other outlet, with The Verge mentioning they managed six hours of screen-on-time easily.
The Pixel 5 outpaced that in Android Authority‘s testing, with light usage getting over 7.5 hours of screen-on-time, and 5 hours on a heavy usage day. That’s almost two days of usage from things like your usual social media apps, and a full day even with shooting 4K video and using mostly mobile data only.
The bottom line
With both versions having a common core, you wouldn’t really notice too much of a difference with whichever version you picked. Both posted solid 8/10 scores from pretty much every outlet, as they’re essentially the same handset, with a more premium feel if you buy the Pixel 5. The annoying thing to me is that the Pixel 5 could have had a version that’s $100 cheaper. That’s because it supports both sub-6GHz 5G and mmWave, where on the Pixel 4a 5G, you have to pay $100 more if you want mmWave to support Verizon’s 5G network. A $600 Pixel 5 would have flown off carrier shelves, but there’s a lot of competition in the $700 range from other manufacturers using Android.
Our take? Buy the Pixel 4a if you don’t want 5G, it’s still the best phone you can get for $350. If you can’t live without 5G, and you aren’t a Verizon subscriber, get the Pixel 4a 5G; and if you’re on Verizon, get the Pixel 5 because you might as well get the premium version when the Verizon version of the Pixel 4a 5G is $599.
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