Pixel 5a vs. TCL 20 Pro 5G: Which sub-$500 phone is best?

  • General

The Pixel 5a isn’t a groundbreaking phone from a hardware standpoint. However, it represents an excellent value at just $449, and it joins an ever-growing list of compelling sub-$500 phones like the recently launched TCL 20 Pro 5G.

I would have called the sub-$500 phone market an area to avoid until last year when the Pixel 4a 5G claimed the top spot among our best budget phones. In previous years, the performance, camera, and overall build quality sacrifices were too much. Looking below $300 or paying up to get to the lower-end flagship models were the right options back then.

While you still make sacrifices buying in this range versus splurging on a flagship, it’s nowhere near the dropoff it once was. And it can mean getting 80-90% of the flagship experience for half the price.

The Pixel 5a and the TCL 20 Pro 5G are perfect examples of this, and while there is a clear winner, there are strong arguments for both phones.

Pixel 5a vs. TCL 20 Pro 5G: price and value

The Pixel 5a starts at $449 for a 128GB model with 6GB of RAM. It also stops there as there aren’t additional upgrades available. You can have any color you want as long as it’s Mostly Black.

The TCL 20 Pro 5G comes in at a slightly higher $499, but gives you 256GB of storage with 6GB of RAM. Again, there are no upgrade options, but you can pick from a couple of color options, either Marine Blue or Moondust Grey.

This will tip my hand for a later section, but while the TCL 20 Pro 5G hardware offers more than a $50 advantage on the Pixel 5a, the three years of software support you get with the Pixel 5a makes it the better value.

Winner: Pixel 5a

Pixel 5a vs. TCL 20 Pro 5G: design

The idea of the Pixel 5a winning any design competition in 2021 is enough to elicit a chuckle from me. I’ve owned almost every Pixel, and I’ve appreciated the design and even think the rear fingerprint sensor is a better design than people give it credit for. Still, the Pixel 5a feels dated and doesn’t remotely compare to the TCL 20 Pro 5G.

The TCL 20 Pro 5G looks like a flagship phone with its 6.7-inch waterfall edge display, beveled edges, and gorgeous glass back, particularly in Marine Blue. While the flat rear camera gives away the fact that the phone doesn’t have a periscope zoom, it’s terrific as a design feature as the phone can rest flat on a desk without being propped up by its cameras.

On a more practical note, the Pixel 5a offers an IP67 rating, meaning that it will survive in roughly 5 feet of water for up to 30 minutes. The TCL 20 Pro 5G has no water resistance rating.

The TCL 20 Pro 5G is a bit larger than the Pixel 5a, although given the disparity in display sizes, it isn’t as much as you would think. The TCL 20 Pro 5G measures 6.5 x 2.87 x 0.35 inches and weighs 6.7 ounces, while the Pixel 5a is a bit shorter at 6.3 x 2.9 x 0.35 inches and weighs 6.5 ounces. These figures are too close to sway anyone.

I have to give the win to the TCL 20 Pro 5G when it comes to design. It’s by far the better-looking phone and feels more like a flagship; the Pixel 5a wins some utility points with its waterproofing, but not enough to claim overall victory.

Winner: TCL 20 Pro 5G

Pixel 5a vs. TCL 20 Pro 5G: display

The Pixel 5a has a 6.3-inch OLED display with a 2,400 x 1,080-pixel resolution. The TCL 20 Pro 5G matches the FHD+ resolution but steps up to a 6.7-inch display. Both displays offer just a standard 60Hz refresh rate, which is disappointing as we see 90Hz and 120Hz panels in more affordable phones like the OnePlus Nord N200 5G.

That is where the similarities end for the two displays, as TCL, a company known for its displays, absolutely obliterates the Pixel 5a display in every regard. Looking at the two side-by-side, it is a night-and-day difference as the Pixel 5a looks muted and dull by comparison, but our benchmarks give a more quantifiable breakdown of the differences.

The colorimeter results show that the Pixel 5a covers 84.5% of the DCI-P3 color gamut. The TCL 20 Pro 5G covers 130.4%. The Pixel 5a isn’t terrible; that’s comparable to the iPhone 12 Pro Max (84.8%) but the TCL 20 Pro 5G is that good when it comes to delivering vibrant color.

Brightness also goes to the TCL 20 Pro 5G, with 622 nits of brightness compared to 501 nits for the Pixel 5a. Again, the Pixel 5a holds up just fine in bright environments, but the TCL is noticeably brighter.

Finally, when it comes to our Delta-E color accuracy test (lower score is better), the TCL 20 Pro 5G wins again with a 0.28, which is comparable to many high-end flagships. The Pixel 5a scored 0.32 in this test.

TCL 20 Pro 5G runs away with this category; if you consume a ton of video content on your phone, this could be a much tougher final decision for you.

Winner: TCL 20 Pro 5G

Pixel 5a vs. TCL 20 Pro 5G: performance

The Pixel 5a uses the same Snapdragon 765G processor as the Pixel 5a and Pixel 4a 5G last year, while the TCL 20 Pro 5G gets the Snapdragon 750G processor. Despite what logic dictates based on the numbering, the Snapdragon 750G in the TCL is the newer and more powerful processor between these two.

With that said, both are still decidedly upper-mid range processors. You’ll have no problem loading a dozen or so Google Chrome tabs, running a picture-in-picture video, and scrolling through an article or your social media app of choice. Both will show the occasional stutter in these activities, but those will be more frequent with the Pixel 5a.

On the Geekbench 5 overall performance test, the TCL 20 Pro 5G received a score of 1,922. The Pixel 5a finished well behind with 1,345. In my review of the Pixel 5a, I was hopeful the company would improve its performance with a software update. That hasn’t come yet, and even if they do, it’s unlikely to push it beyond the Pixel 4a 5G (1,614).

Graphics-focused testing was the one area where Pixel 5a scored a win; in the Wild Life Unlimited 3DMark test, it managed 10 frames per second, above the 6.7 fps of the TCL 20 Pro 5G. Interestingly, my real-world gaming test didn’t bear this out as PUBG was playable on the default medium settings with the TCL 20 Pro 5G, while the Pixel 5a was a jittery mess even at the lowest settings.

Neither phone is a powerhouse, but there’s no question that the TCL 20 Pro 5G is the winner.

Winner: TCL 20 Pro 5G

Pixel 5a vs. TCL 20 Pro 5G: battery life and charging

From a pure specs standpoint, these phones are close with the Pixel 5a having a 4,680mAh battery and the TCL 20 Pro 5G housing a 4,500mAh battery. Charging is nearly identical, with both phones supporting reasonably fast 18W charging and including the necessary charger in the box. TCL does get some extra points for supporting wireless charging, something Google regrettably left out.

Turning to the battery life, both were somewhat disappointing in our Laptop Mag battery test, which involves constant web browsing over cellular at 150 nits of brightness. The TCL 20 Pro 5G only managed 8 hours and 48 minutes, while the Pixel 5a lasted 9 hours and 45 minutes. Neither is terrible, but given the mid-range processors and 60Hz displays, we were expecting more.

Both phones fared better in our real-world testing during the reviews, but the Pixel 5a really shone, easily making it into a second day throughout the review period. Even after my lengthy camera and streaming video tests, I typically ended the day with roughly a third of the battery left.

The wireless charging is a strong argument for the TCL 20 Pro 5G for me, but battery life is more universally vital, and the Pixel 5a was far enough ahead in that regard that it claims this category.

Winner: Pixel 5a

Pixel 5a vs. TCL 20 Pro 5G: cameras

The camera comparison between the Pixel 5a and the TCL 20 Pro 5G is the ultimate encapsulation that more and bigger is not always better in the camera realm.

The Pixel 5a sticks to the same 12.2MP (f/1.7) wide-angle and 16MP (f/2.2) ultra-wide as the Pixel 4a 5G and the Pixel 5. The TCL 20 Pro 5G features a primary wide-angle 48MP at f/1.8, a 16MP ultra-wide at f/2.4, a 5MP macro at f/2.2, and a 2MP depth camera to improve portrait photos.

While Google was rightly criticized for this same camera selection in the Pixel 5 last year, it is still a good setup in the affordable Pixel 5a. It ultimately yields better results than what would appear to be superior hardware in the TCL 20 Pro 5G.

I was impressed with the TCL 20 Pro 5G cameras; the company has made tremendous strides since last year, and the wide-angle and ultra-wide lenses are good, particularly in solid lighting. However, Google remains the undisputed ruler of budget phone photography with the Pixel 5a. The f/1.7 aperture helps as well, but ultimately, it’s the company’s computational photography prowess that wins the day.

Here’s a look at some samples from the wide-angle cameras with both. The depth of color, detail, and high-dynamic-range from the Pixel 5a are all superior. When you get a shot involving a skyline, you can see the TCL 20 Pro 5G struggle with the sky blowing out.

TCL 20 Pro 5G – wide-angle

The ultra-wide shots are similar, although the TCL 20 Pro 5G performs slightly better on colors with this lens. Unfortunately, it also exhibits considerably more lens distortion on its ultra-wide photos. Distortion, the curvature of the image at the edges, is most noticeable if you have a straight line from a building or something similar at the corner, but it isn’t ideal for group shots either.

TCL 20 Pro 5G – ultra-wide

The macro camera on the TCL 20 Pro 5G will be meaningless for most users; it can be fun to play with at times but isn’t the kind of photography most people use regularly. The depth camera is more relevant, but as you can see in these images of my chickens, the Pixel 5a is more capable at portrait mode despite lacking a dedicated depth camera.

TCL 20 Pro 5G – wide-angle camera sample

The Pixel 5a also claims victory with its front-facing camera despite another seeming hardware deficit. The TCL 20 Pro 5G features a 32MP sensor with an f/2.5 aperture compared to the 8MP f/2.0 of the Pixel 5a. The results speak for themselves, with the Pixel 5a again delivering more realistic colors and avoiding being blown out in a pretty standard outdoor photo.

Pixel 5a vs. TCL 20 Pro 5G: software

This is another easy win for the Pixel 5a; Google offers three years of major OS and security updates, while TCL only promises two and those are much slower to receive.

Otherwise, the software experience is essentially the same between the two phones; both presently are running Android 11. TCL doesn’t do anything too outlandish with its overlay. It offers you several enhancements on top of stock Android but walks you through them during setup and lets you stick with stock if you prefer.

Google similarly sticks pretty close to basic Android with some Pixel-specific enhancements like Call Screen and Hold for Me, which help you deal with telemarketers and waiting to speak to customer service representatives, respectively. Other cool extras include Recorder, which records and transcribes audio for you.

Regardless of the software extras, the extra year of major OS and security updates is enough to carry this win for the Pixel 5a.

Winner: Pixel 5a

Overall winner: Pixel 5a

I suspect most of you guessed that the Pixel 5a would win this war, but you might have been surprised by the number of battles the TCL 20 Pro 5G won.

Some buyers should consider the TCL 20 Pro 5G over the Pixel 5a. Suppose you primarily consume content on your phone and like to do some (relatively light) gaming. In that case, the TCL 20 Pro 5G, with its gorgeous display and more capable processor, is unquestionably a better choice.

However, for most buyers in this price range, the longer battery life, more extended software support, and the outstanding cameras of the Pixel 5a make it the better overall choice.

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