Why You Don’t Need to Buy the Most Expensive Smartphone

Enter the Pixel 5A

Key Takeaways

  • You can now buy a mid-range smartphone for under $500 that will satisfy the needs of most users, experts say. 
  • Google’s new Pixel 5a starts at $449 and has a 6.34-inch OLED screen. 
  • The 5a keeps most of Google's Pixel software features, including call screening for fighting robocalls and car crash detection.
The Pixel 5a 5G smartphone.

Google

Mid-range smartphones are getting so good that users have little incentive to upgrade to premium models, experts say. 

Google’s new Pixel 5a, which starts at $449, is the latest addition to the budget-conscious "a" line of phones. It’s got a hardly shabby 6.34-inch OLED screen and a Snapdragon 765G chipset. There’s also a 16-megapixel ultrawide camera and a 12-megapixel primary camera.

"Users want to be able to access cloud applications and high-speed data like 5G," Kevin Ryan, a professor who teaches about network technology at Stevens Institute of Technology, told Lifewire in a phone interview. "If the Google Pixel offers these features at a low price, then it could be a market disruptor." 

Pixel for Pennies

There’s a lot to like about the new Pixel, even at its relatively low price point. The 5a's chip is the same as the one used in last year's 4a 5G: the Qualcomm Snapdragon 765G processor. I’ve been using the 4a for the past few months, and it’s been more than fast enough for any application I’ve thrown its way.  

Also, like the 4a, the new model has 6GB of RAM and 128GB of storage. Both models have a fingerprint reader on the back and a 3.5mm headphone jack on top.

The camera system on the 5a is nearly identical to the Pixel 4a with 5G. I’ve been shooting everything from indoor scenes to wide angles and have no complaints compared to my iPhone 12 Pro Max. The 5a includes the same lenses as its predecessor along with its features, including a portrait mode, Night Sight, and an ultrawide lens.

The 5a gets a slight upgrade in the display department. The 5a has a 6.34-inch OLED display with a 20:9 aspect ratio compared to a 6.2-inch display on the 4A 5G at a 19.5:9 aspect ratio. 

But most users won’t notice these tiny hardware changes. What’s more important, notes Ryan, is the software that’s loaded with the Pixel. 

"There’s a lot of brand loyalty in the world of smartphones, and that brand loyalty is based in part on the applications that can be run," Ryan noted.

"If the Google Pixel offers these features at a low price, then it could be a market disruptor." 

The good news is that the 5a keeps most of Google's Pixel software features, including call screening for fighting robocalls and car crash detection. My personal favorites are the recorder app that transcribes in real-time and the nighttime photography features

5G With Limits

Perhaps the biggest gotcha with the 5a is the limited support for 5G. The latest Pixel allows connections to low-band 5G networks from T-Mobile, AT&T, and Verizon. 

However, while the Pixel 5 supported higher-frequency millimeter-wave 5G networks, the 5a is limited to the lower bands. Theoretically, this could mean that the 5a will get slower connection speeds in some situations. 

Of course, the Pixel 5a has plenty of competition in the mid-range smartphone category. 

For example, the $499 Samsung Galaxy A52 5G boasts an even larger display than the Pixel 5a with a 6.5-inch 1080p OLED panel. The A52 5G includes three rear cameras with a 64-megapixel standard wide with OIS, 12-megapixel ultrawide, and the 5-megapixel macro camera.

Someone using a Pixel 5a 5G that's plugged into a powercord.

Google

If you lean towards Cupertino, Apple has you covered in the mid-range department with the Apple iPhone SE 2020. The model with 128GB of storage comes in at $449. It has a relatively small 4.7-inch LCD screen and an A13 Bionic processor that’s a generation behind the top-end models. 

There’s also the $349 Google Pixel 4a, which has a smaller screen than the 5 series and a slightly slower processor. 

While the smartphones like the Pixel 4a and 5a may not have the bells and whistles of more expensive models, they pack plenty of features for most users. 

"What I want is for my phone to be fast with at least 4G and have cloud-based services," Ryan said. "And ultimately, what's important to users is the compatibility of apps and the ability to download upgrades."

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