When Google released the Pixel 4a, plenty of reviewers (including myself) fell in love with it. A Pixel phone with a modern design, good battery life, a fantastic camera, a great size, and a $349 asking price is a recipe for device you can recommend to just about anyone.
That’s why I was so excited for Google’s Pixel 5, announced right at the end of September. “A better version of this?!” I asked myself while holding the 4a in my hand. “That’s exactly what I want!”
Why did I feel that way? Because Google made it an effort to redefine what a Pixel phone was. When you think Pixel, what type of smartphone do you get? In the year 2020, it means you get good performance, great cameras, excellent software, good battery life, and nice screens. Mind you, none of those features are special, but they all must individually be done right. Otherwise, the entire experience falls apart.
For too long, Google hasn’t focused enough on these aspects of the smartphone. Instead, it’s tried to rely on its software optimizations to make up for where it lacks in hardware. That’s why its phones have shipped with smaller batteries, less RAM than most competitors, and nothing crazy in terms of storage. But this year’s line of Pixel phones signals Google’s ambition to start paying attention to what matters, and the Pixel 5 is perfect proof of that.
The Pixel 5 is Google’s new foundation for what it means to buy a Pixel phone. It means you get all the fundamentals of a great smartphones, no frills or fuss, with the company’s excellent Pixel experience on top. Of course, that’s led to many believing it’s boring, and on paper it certainly is. But it has me excited for where the Pixel goes from here, because if the Pixel 5 is what happens now when Google makes a phone, I’m really looking forward to what they have coming up next.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Here are all my thoughts on the Pixel 5 from Google.
Oh boy, the design of the Pixel 5. Let me be clear: I am a huge fan. It’s boring to look at and it’s not shiny by any means, but the impression you get when you first pick it up is something we haven’t felt in years.
That’s because Google decided to build the phone out of aluminum. A vast majority of the Pixel 5 is metal which makes it feel sturdy and premium while retaining a sleek and light aesthetic.
Note that I said a “vast majority” of the Pixel 5 is aluminum. It’s because Google took a chunk of it out and replaced it with plastic so that it could include wireless charging. It’s common knowledge in the tech world that wireless charging doesn’t work through metal, but it does through both glass and plastic. In this case, Google cut just enough aluminum out to accommodate the coils. It then implemented the plastic and coated the whole thing in a bio resin to create a seamless finish.
Because of this, the phone feels a bit cheaper than you might think. It still definitely feels like metal, but only to an extent. The best way I can describe this is when you wake up in the morning, your Pixel 5 will feel slightly warmer than it would if it were entirely made of cold metal. It still feels a bit crisp, but certainly not as crisp.
The bio resin finish also adds an interesting texture to the Pixel 5. Again, it’s a bit tricky to explain, but the way I’ve been summing it up is a far less harsh version of OnePlus’ famous sandstone finish. It’s a 10-year-old piece of sandpaper. It’s grippy yet gentle and should appeal to the masses.
Hopefully, that makes sense.
The Pixel 5 the first phone in a long time I can confidently say doesn’t demand a case, and it’s all because of the aluminum body. However, I did ask Google to send a couple of their fabric cases for the Pixel 5 and Pixel 4a 5G since I wanted to feature them in their respective reviews. This time around, the cases are blended much more with alternative colors to make them appear textured, whereas in years prior each case had a solid color scheme. I like the cases I was sent since they add a bit of extra grip to the phone and make them look sleek.
As you can tell, I got the Just Black model to review. It’s also available in a Sorta Sage finish which nearly every other reviewer got. I have yet to see the sage in person, but I have a feeling I probably won’t like it as much as the black. If it were a little bit lighter and more neon-y, I’d probably dig it since it could match the Matridox color scheme. However, I can’t get over the resemblance between it and Easter egg dye-infused hardboiled yolks. Something about it just feels icky.
Much like in years past, Google has added a splash of contrast to the finish on the Pixel 5 with a colored power button. However, instead of just painting the button a different color, this year Google decided to give it a glossy metallic finish. This way, the contrast is much more subtle. They did the same thing to the G logo on the back. I’m not gonna lie, the gloss adds a touch of class to the aesthetic, but I’m sure many will miss the much more fun pop of color on the side of their device.
Also worth noting: the Pixel 5 is IP68 certified, so you don’t have to worry if your phone gets wet.
Around the rest of the Pixel 5, you get a normal array of phone stuff. There’s a bottom-mounted speaker, a USB-C port, a SIM tray, volume buttons, and various microphones. You’ll also find a pretty sizeable camera housing on the back, with a fingerprint scanner below it.
No more Face Unlock
The fingerprint scanner is perhaps the biggest design difference when compared to the Pixel 4. After just one generation, Google has dropped its Soli radar sensors that powered Motion Sense and Face Unlock for a simple fingerprint reader on the back of the Pixel 5. By doing so, they made the screen nearly bezel-less and unlocking your phone with a mask much easier. But at the same time, that means no air gestures, no ability for your phone to light up when you approach it, and no way to unlock it with your face.
The latter is what I miss the most when using the Pixel 5, but only sometimes. It’s when I have my mask on, I realize how thankful I am to have a fingerprint reader. As for the Motion Sense gestures, I disabled about 70 percent of them anyway, so I don’t really miss them. Having your phone fire up as your hand approaches it, though, is kind of dope. Still, it’s nothing worth buying a different phone over.
Like I said, the screen on the Pixel 5 has changed significantly compared to the Pixel 4. Gone is the large forehead and in its place lives a very minimal bezel.
The display itself measures in at 6 inches with a 19.5:9 aspect ratio. Thanks to its uniform bezel, the phone is about as physically big as the Pixel 4a which has a 5.8-inch screen. It uses an OLED panel like the 4a and shares the same resolution: 2340×1080.
The big difference between the Pixel 5 and 4a (and the 4a 5G, for that matter) is the refresh rate. Google kept the same 90Hz refresh rate from the Pixel 4 series, and it makes a world of difference. If you haven’t used a screen with a faster refresh rate than 60Hz, this might sound like a small detail. But I’m telling you, once you try 90Hz or faster, you won’t be able to go back. It makes everything feel so much smoother.
As for the rest of the screen, colors are nice and vibrant, blacks are inky, and off-axis viewing is great. Unfortunately, the case for most Pixel phones is they don’t get very bright. The Pixel 5 is no exception as it gets kind of tricky to see in bright sunlight. That being said, it’s tolerable. Just know you’ll be cranking the brightness up more often than not.
Performance on the Pixel 5 has been a hot topic ever since the phone was announced. Historically, Google has included a top-of-the-line Snapdragon processor in its Pixel phones depending on the year they were released. But with this year’s flagship, the company decided to go with the Snapdragon 765G, a step down from the high-end Snapdragon 865.
This means the phone doesn’t give you the absolute best performance you can get on the market today. Of course, features haven’t gone scarce because of the cheaper chip – 5G, 4K 60fps video, and decent graphics are all still here. But if you’re looking to impress someone with your phone’s benchmarks, the Pixel 5 won’t do it for you.
That being said, I have no complaints. Everything from scrolling through social media to playing games like Alto’s Odyssey are a breeze on the device. Plus, you get 8GB of RAM to handle multitasking and background apps which helps the Pixel a lot given the line’s history of slowdowns due to lack of memory.
Before I got my Pixel 5 in to review, I was using the Pixel 4 XL. Between the two, I’d say they have nearly identical performance. The Snapdragon 855 compared to the 765G is technically more powerful, but in day to day operations, it’d be a stretch to say you can notice a difference. If the Pixel 4 is a 10 on the Pixel Performance Scale, the Pixel 5 is a 9.5.
Of course, there is an area where you’ll immediately notice a performance limit. It now takes longer to process photos since Google dropped the Pixel Neural Core and is relying on the 765G. I’m not sure how many of you are previewing photos you take immediately after you captured them, but if you do, you’ll be waiting an extra couple of seconds compared to the Pixel 4 for them to finish processing.
As a whole, you really don’t need a top-of-the-line processor to handle ordinary phone tasks. Unless you’re editing video or playing heavy games, the chipset inside the Pixel 5 is more than enough to handle your everyday tasks.
I’d also like to mention that there’s only one tier of the Pixel 5, and it has 8GB of RAM and 128GB of storage. If you want more RAM or storage, you have to shop elsewhere. Google just doesn’t offer it.
It’s no secret that for the past few years, the Pixel has had one of the best (if not the best) cameras on a phone. For the Pixel 5, though, that conversation shifts a bit. Things aren’t worse by any means, but Google’s strides in quality generation over generation have definitely slowed down, and that’s allowed the competition to catch up.
It’s mainly due to the fact Google is using the same 12.2MP lens as the Pixel 4 which was the same as the Pixel 3. That means this camera is over two years old at this point, so any hardware-related upgrades like more resolution or sharpness won’t be achieved until the company drops the sensor for good.
That being said, the Pixel 5 still manages to capture beautiful photos thanks to Google’s software algorithms. Colors are vibrant, saturation is good, and you still get that signature Pixel contrast. There are some instances where you can tell the HDR is working overtime, leading to photos that look a little too processed. But as a whole, the Pixel 5 still manages to have one of the best cameras you can get in a smartphone today.
At night, the Pixel 5 manages to be as impressive as ever. Astrophoography mode is a big reason I keep a Pixel phone in my pocket, and even without Night mode on you can get some amazing shots. This year’s flagship Pixel introduces Night mode for portrait shots, allowing you to add a blurry background to low-light photographs. It works pretty well, but any light that does get in the shot has to be properly positioned. Otherwise, your photos will look a little over-processed.
With the Pixel 5, Google swapped the telephoto lens on the Pixel 4 with a 16MP ultra-wide lens. This is obviously the right call. Google’s own software processing does a good enough job to give you sharp 2x shots, so adding an ultra-wide option rounds off that perfect trio of shooting options inside the camera app.
I do wish the lens were a bit wider since it’s only 107 degrees. Other phones like the iPhone 12 have a 120-degree ultra-wide which manage to capture even more of a scene and make the final shot much more dramatic. Google’s reason for sticking with a tamer ultra-wide is so they can apply corrections to things like faces more consistently. I get that, but if you wanted to avoid distortion, wouldn’t you just use the main camera?
I don’t know, I guess I’m just complaining. At the end of the day, I’m incredibly thankful Google finally put an ultra-wide camera on the Pixel. It feels like we’ve been asking them to do this for years and they finally did it. Thank God.
Video from the Pixel 5 has gotten better compared to the Pixel 4, but it still can’t match the quality of a Samsung phone or – the king of smartphone video cameras – the iPhone. That’s not to say it’s bad by any means, but it could use some work.
With the Pixel 5, Google gives you the option to shoot in 4K at 60 frames per second which is nice, but it doesn’t extend to the ultra-wide lens. You’re stuck with 4K 30fps.
You also get some new stabilization features. Standard gives you run-of-the-mill stabilization, Locked keeps the focus on a subject and punches in to 2x, Active increases stabilization for heavy movement, and Cinematic Pan lets you capture sweeping pan shots at half speed and muted. They all work well enough in their own respects, and I can see people using them often.
The selfie camera, weighing in at 8MP, is perfectly suitable. I wish it were a bit wider (it’s only 87 degrees), but any wider and Google would have to make the hole-punch in the Pixel 5’s screen larger. That might be a fair tradeoff, but it all depends on how many people you tend to include in your selfies.
At the end of the day, does the Pixel 5 retain the Pixel line’s reputation of having the best smartphone camera? That’s hard to say. Apple, Samsung, and even OnePlus have entered the same ballpark as Google in terms of quality, whereas a couple of years ago that wasn’t the case. Now more than ever, it’s a question of personal preference. I tend to like the look of Pixel photos, but you may prefer the added vibrancy of Apple or Samsung’s cameras or OnePlus’ more modest approach. Of course, getting a phone at $700 with a camera this good is nice, and it may be enough to convince you to buy the Pixel 5. But if money’s not an option and you don’t need the Pixel look, you’ll be happy with just about any other flagship camera.
As for me, I’ll be sticking with the Pixel, at least for the foreseeable future.
With post-processing playing a huge role in the Pixel’s camera success, it only feels right to follow up that part of the review with a section dedicated to the phone’s software.
This conversation is incredibly easy. The Pixel 5 ships with Android 11 out of the box, and it provides one of the cleanest and friendliest experiences money can buy. Every time I fire up my Pixel, I feel right at home. That’s something you can’t really say about other phones. Some devices focus on a near-stock experience while others load theirs up with a ton of unnecessary features. Google avoids all of that and just focuses on making a useful, clean, and welcoming software experience, and that’s exactly what you get with the Pixel 5.
All your favorite Pixel features are here like the fantastic Pixel Launcher, Call Screening, Now Playing, Flip to Shhh, and the redesigned Google Assistant. Unfortunately, the company dropped the squeeze gesture to activate the Assistant, but at least you can swipe up from either bottom corner to activate it.
In a way, you kind of have to sacrifice the squeeze-to-activate-Assistant feature for another one: swipe down on the fingerprint scanner to bring down the notification pane. To me, this is a fair tradeoff. I use the swipe-down gesture way more than I did the squeeze.
New with the Pixel 5 and 4a 5G is Hold For Me. When you’re on a phone call and they place you on hold, you can have the Google Assistant stay on the line for you while you go about your day. You can do other things on your phone or place it back in your pocket. When a human returns to your call, the Assistant will ring your device to which you can answer it like an ordinary phone call. I haven’t found myself in a situation where that feature would come into play, but if it’s anything like Call Screening, I’m sure it works well.
Battery life has historically been a pain-point for Pixel phones. For some reason, Google has never been able to master endurance on its phones, but the Pixel 5 is a delightful exception.
The device ships with a 4,080mAh battery that manages to last at least an entire day on a full charge. I’m getting through 16-hour days with at least 40 percent left in the tank. That’s impressive given how underwhelming the Pixel 4 was last year. I’d bet you could stretch it to two days if you’re careful.
To help make battery life last as long as possible, Google includes an Extreme Battery Saver mode that turns off unnecessary apps in the background. It’s a separate feature from the default battery saver and should help eek out a few extra percentages when a charger is nowhere to be found.
Speaking of which, charging the Pixel 5 is the same process as the Pixel 4. You get an 18W wall adapter in the box that charges relatively quickly, and you also get wireless charging thanks to that plastic cut-out I mentioned. New with the Pixel 5 is reverse wireless charging, letting you wirelessly charge accessories like earbuds using your phone’s battery. It works as you expect, but it’s extremely slow. I wouldn’t try charging another phone with the feature if I were you.
It’s up for debate whether tech reviewers should be talking about 5G more than they are, and maybe I should’ve discussed the feature earlier on in this review. But here’s the God’s honest truth: it’s not good yet.
I get 5G through Google Fi powered by T-Mobile’s network, and I have it in a vast majority of places I go on a daily basis. The Pixel 5 supports mmWave connections but I’m not in an area where I can test that. I am, however, surrounded by sub-6Ghz which is what I’ve done all my testing on.
My opinion? It’s just not impressive. Speeds are nearly identical to LTE for the most part, and in some instances it’s only slightly faster (a.k.a. around 10-15Mbps extra). In some other instances, it’s slower than LTE. I’ve found myself searching for a way to disable 5G on the Pixel just to avoid these shortcomings but to no avail. You’re pretty much stuck with it regardless of whether it’s good or not.
I don’t have any major complaints about it, nor do I think it’s a reason to buy the phone. I’m still of the belief that it’s worth purchasing a phone with 5G simply for futureproofing. But if you’re expecting insanely fast speeds the moment you pop your SIM card inside, you’re in for a wake-up call.
Here’s a few sidenotes I had about the Pixel 5 during my review process.
- The vibration motor feels cheaper this time around. Haptics are more hollow and sharp than the Pixel 4 which is a shame. They’re still strong so you’ll feel your phone vibrate in your pocket, but definitely less premium nonetheless.
- The speakers on the Pixel 5 are weird. You get a standard downward-firing unit on the bottom, but the “stereo speakers” only work because Google implemented a speaker beneath the screen. Your display essentially vibrates to produce sound which works well for phone calls. However, it’s very lackluster when you try to play music from your phone. If you buy a Pixel 5, don’t expect true stereo speakers because you’ll only ever hear the downward grille.
- When I paired my Pixel 5 to my car’s audio system, I didn’t get any info about what was playing nor could I use my car’s buttons to control playback. I posted the issue to Google’s support forums and learned that the Bluetooth AVRCP version was set to 1.5 by default. Apparently, this causes problems with certain Bluetooth devices such as my 2015 Honda CR-V. I had to revert to version 1.4 inside the developer settings to get it working. I don’t think this is a Pixel-exclusive issue, but I wanted to note it just in case you run into the same problem after buying the device.
- Some users have been complaining about a gap between the display and the rest of the Pixel 5. I think I have one, but it’s not severe at all. Google even came out and stated the gap doesn’t have any effect on the IP68 certification. Unless it’s really bad, I would just live with it. You’ll probably put in a case anyway.
My time with the Pixel 5 has reminded me of why we have smartphones in the first place. At their core, they’re communication devices that give you access to millions of services right in your pocket. The Pixel 5 fits this mold perfectly. It’s a simple, straightforward product that shies away from gimmicks in favor of reliable essentials.
Does that make the Pixel 5 boring? Well, unless your definition of “boring” is “not full of flashy features,” then yes, it’s exceptionally boring. But the fact that it aces the fundamentals of a modern smartphone so well has me excited for where the Pixel lines goes from here.
Maybe next year Google brings back Motion Sense. Maybe they go buck wild with the specs. Hell, maybe they make a folding phone. What’s clear with the Pixel 5 is Google hitting the reset button. They’ve gone back and mastered the essentials of a great smartphone, and if that’s what your needs demand, you should consider picking the Pixel 5 up. I don’t think it’ll disappoint.
If you want more from your phone, though, you’ll need to shop elsewhere. The Pixel 5 is definitely a bit bland for those looking to purchase something they can show off to their friends. That’s not the purpose of Google’s 2020 smartphone line. It’s intended to hit the reset switch so Google can cook up a clear path forward. And for some, that’s enough of a reason to not purchase a Pixel.
But if you want a phone that can handle the essentials extremely well, the Pixel 5 is a great buy. The screen, performance, battery life, camera, software, and build quality are all borderline great. Now it’s time for the company to add a bit of flair.
See you in 2021, Google Pixel.
Google Pixel 5$699
- Terrific size
- Fantastic battery life
- Ultra-wide camera on a Pixel phone
- Lovely software experience
- Fingerprint sensor comes in handy nowadays
- Only one storage tier
- 5G isn't worth the hype (right now)
- Can come off boring to some