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Google really doubled down on affordability with its 2020 lineup. There was no super premium option last year; there was the Pixel 4a, cheaper than its predecessor at $349, the Pixel $499 4a 5G, and the $699 Pixel 5. The three phones share a lot of DNA, but the 4a and 5 in particular are very similar, physically, with nearly identical footprints. If you're in the market for a small phone from Google, how do you choose? Let's discuss.
To get it out of the way up top, the Pixel 4a and Pixel 5 are both good devices: they've got admirable battery life, great (although no longer industry-leading) cameras, and Google's popular take on Android. Being made by Google, they're also both guaranteed to stay updated longer than most (but not all) Android devices.
Differences and similarities
If it wasn't given away by the $350 price gulf, the Pixel 5 is an objectively better device in almost every way: it's got a faster processor with 5G, more RAM, a bigger battery, an additional camera, 90Hz display, wireless charging, and it's water- and dust-resistant. The only thing the 4a has going for it, price aside, is that it has a 3.5-millimeter headphone jack — a feature the industry has decided people spending more than $500 on a phone don't want anymore. Given that fact, you'd think this is an easy decision, right? Not so fast.
The majority of the advantages the Pixel 5 has over the 4a are pretty marginal. The Pixel 5 has an all-aluminum body, but it's coated in a "bio-resin" that feels an awful lot like the plastic the Pixel 4a's body is made of. The standard 4a packs a Snapdragon 730G, which is a bit slower and than the 5's 765G and lacks 5G, but the difference isn't large enough that an average consumer would notice the difference.
"The majority of the advantages the Pixel 5 has over the 4a are pretty marginal."
More material differences, like the Pixel 5's bigger battery, additional RAM, wireless charging, high-refresh rate display, and IP rating definitely hold weight: they're what compelled me to choose the 5 over the 4a. But I'm an enthusiast, and if those finer points matter less to you, spending double on the fancier phone might be a stretch.
The phones share a lot in common, too. Their design is nearly identical: in the same color, side by side, it's not obvious at a glance which phone is which. They both have relatively small 1080p displays, at 5.81 and 6 inches. The 4a lacks an ultrawide camera, but the two phones' primary camera sensors are identical. Both come with 128 gigs of non-expandable storage. They're more the same than they are different, especially since they 4a eventually got its own fun color (it debuted in black only).
If you're choosing between Google's two smaller 2020 phones, unless you're the type of person who can't live without nice-to-haves like wireless charging or a high-refresh rate display (which, to be fair, there's a decent chance you are), the Pixel 4a is the better buy — it's one half the price of the Pixel 5 for 80 percent of the experience. And considering Samsung's Galaxy S21, another smallish phone that beats the Pixel 5 in just about every way on paper, has been on sale for as cheap as $650 (to say nothing of Samsung's bonkers trade-in deals), the Pixel 5 is a pretty tough sell unless you're someone who really wants whatever the current top-of-the-line Google phone is.
What about the 4a 5G?
The decision is complicated a bit by the existence of a third Pixel tier this generation, the Pixel 4a 5G. That phone has a larger, 6.2-inch, 60Hz display and the same 765G processor and camera setup as the Pixel 5 for $499 (or $449 on sale as of writing). An extra hundred bucks or so is a much more reasonable markup to get slightly better performance, 5G support, and an additional ultrawide camera — the only things the 4a 5G lacks compared to the 5 are the 90Hz screen, IP water- and dust-resistance certification, aluminum body, and eight gigs of RAM (the 5G packs six). Plus it has a headphone jack. If you don't want a phone without 5G and can live with the larger size, the 4a 5G is probably right for you.