In the rumor and hype period leading up to the Google Pixel 5 launch, I argued that Google may as well get weird with their next phone because their previous approach was clearly not working. The Pixel 4 was a disaster of a phone that Google killed off only a few months after introducing it, but we also know that the Pixel 3 wasn’t much of a success either. It was time for Google to change it up, a lot.
They actually did just that with the Pixel 5 by offering up a phone that isn’t trying to compete with Samsung or Apple’s best, and instead falls somewhere a step below both in specs and pricing. Google went kind of weird, and over the past couple of weeks I’ve been trying to figure out if that was the right play.
Here’s our Pixel 5 review.
What’s good about the Pixel 5?
Design. It has taken some time to get used to the size of the Pixel 5, because for today’s standards it is considered small. And after using various large phones over the course of the past several years, it most definitely feels small too. With a 6″ display tucked into a phone body that measures almost identically to the original smallest Pixel, this is as close as small phone lovers will get to a dream phone size.
Size aside, I’ve come around to the overall design of the Pixel 5 too. It’s basic, unassuming, feels somewhere between plastic and nice plastic, even though it’s metal underneath this weird coating, and is kind of slippery. But it’s also soft in the hand, has an understated elegance in this “The Child” green color, can be managed without both hands, won’t show fingerprints, and isn’t trying to do more than it needs to to fit into a category. And let me just say that I’m never going to complain about a phone that ditches the all-glass trend, which might be the worst adopted next to curved displays.
By no means does the Pixel 5 feel super premium, yet it is a solid step above the all-plastic Pixel 4a line. It even has these really cool matching reflective accents in the “G” logo and power button that shine depending on the lighting. The camera housing is a bit of an eyesore, except Google managed to keep it almost flat with the body, so that you don’t get that obnoxious tilt when set on a flat surface like every other phone has today. The front bezels are matching, the fingerprint reader is in a great spot, and the buttons are comfortably placed. I could probably keep going here.
The Pixel 5 is nice because the Pixel 5 is different without sacrificing a bunch. It’s not trying to be all of these other phones and it does that in a unique and totally acceptable way – from a design standpoint.
Battery life. The Pixel 5 has borderline exceptional, next-level battery life. With a 4000mAh cell, this phone will last you through a day of heavy usage over and over again.
I’m well into testing, to the point where this phone should be broken in and acting as it will going forward, and it’s still doing 5-6 hours of screen on time on a single charge while standing at more than 20% battery remaining at the end of the day. I’ve had days where I lightened up on screen time and went to bed with 43% battery available. It’s remarkable what a Google phone with a proper battery in it can do. This is one of those phones that I will never worry about using heavily, knowing that I might not be around a charger for a while.
If there’s an issue with the Pixel 5 and the battery department, it’s in charging. The 18W wired charging on this phone is not fast for 2020 standards. Today, for example, I looked at my “charging rapidly” Pixel 5 that was at 74% battery and Google’s estimate to 100% said it would take another 43 minutes. If you read my OnePlus 8T review, you’ll know that its 65W charging took that phone from 7% to 100% in 40 minutes. Think about that.
Google did include wireless charging at up to 12W, which is nothing special. It’s there and it works fine on Qi wireless chargers or the Pixel Stand. It does what you’ll need it to do.
So to recap battery life, the Pixel 5 might have the biggest battery ever from Google, but they’ve worked some magic. This phone is a beast on a single charge.
Camera. For the Pixel 5, Google went with the 12.2MP main shooter they’ve put in several years of Pixel phones, then coupled it with a 16MP ultra-wide camera. They ditched last year’s telephoto from the Pixel 4, leaving us to use their Super Res Zoom technology for distant shots. Is this setup good? Has Google kept up with its reputation as being one of the best in mobile photography? I think so.
The camera experience on the Pixel 5 produces very familiar shots, with a noticeable amount of contrast that is appealing to the eye and HDR processing that few other smartphone companies have been able to match. You can capture post-worthy pictures in any lighting or environment, which isn’t something I’d say about other devices. If it’s super dark or I’m indoors or I need a portrait shot, I still tend to trust Pixel phones, like the Pixel 5, more than any others. Google’s processing is just that much better.
The thing is, we’re still using this same 12.2MP sensor. While good, even excellent, there isn’t really anything different than what you’d find on the $349 Pixel 4a or last year’s Pixel 4 or the Pixel 3a, right? So you paid $699 here and got the ultra-wide with it, but that’s also on the cheaper $499 Pixel 4a 5G. This might sound like I’m complaining just to complain, but knowing how good Google is with cameras right now, I kind of want them to show me something new and there isn’t anything new here outside of a camera app tweak or two (Night Sight in Portrait, auto-Night Sight) and a new video mode (which I don’t use).
You should also be aware that Google took out the Pixel Visual Core and Pixel Neural Core chips that helped with image processing. That means they are relying on the Snapdragon 765G inside, which seems to do an OK job, if not slower than I remember the Pixel 4 and Pixel 3 being. Portrait shots, for example, take a long time to be ready for viewing or editing.
Again, I still trust the camera system here more than I do others and I think anyone who owns this phone will be happy with the camera experience and results. It’s familiar, and sometimes familiar is just fine as long as familiar was good before.
Software. Out of the box, the Pixel 5 runs Android 11 with Google’s Pixel Experience on top. Like the camera experience, there isn’t a lot of new going on. Android 11 is certainly interesting and will take some time for us to get used to, but other than that, there aren’t a bunch of new features or anything to look forward to.
In the new department, you have an Extreme Battery Saver that is there in critical moments where you need to extend battery life while still being able to use your phones and select apps. Google added a Hold For Me feature to Duplex that lets Google Assistant wait on hold for you during calls. Oh, they also updated the Recorder app with new features. Maybe it’s just me, but all of these things seem like such limited use items that I’m not sure I’ll ever need.
The rest of the experience means you get Google Discover and Google’s really basic Pixel Launcher, Night Light and Adaptive Brightness, dark theme, new Screen Record setting, navigation gestures, always-on display, a handful of gestures, and not much else. Almost everything here, all of the other Pixel phones will also get (or already have) – nothing is super exclusive to the Pixel 5.
Of course, you’ll get monthly updates for three years, as well as three years of Android version updates. That’s big! We like that. Owning a Google Pixel phone means you are constantly ahead of everyone in software, should have the most secure phone, and won’t have a software skin weirding-up Android. It’s kind of basic, though, and lacks a lot of the advanced stuff that Samsung and OnePlus do on their phones with special software.
I tend to like Google’s experience, mostly because it stays out of the way and does the basic stuff well. I don’t ever feel like it’s going to take 2 hours to set my phone up as I walk through every single settings category, tweak several items like I might on a Samsung phone, and then disable a bunch of garbage duplicate apps. Instead, Google’s Pixel phones are almost ready to go out of the box, once you get logged in. I appreciate that.
- Fingerprint reader: It has one and it is glorious. It’s fast, feels soft to the touch, and isn’t one of those awful in-display joints that everyone else keeps using. I love a good capacitive fingerprint reader, and the Pixel 5’s is a good one.
- IP68: It’s water and dust resistant, unlike the Pixel 4a and Pixel 4a 5G. That’s good.
What could use some help?
Price. I’m just going to say it – this phone should be $629 or maybe even $599. You know why it isn’t? Because Verizon
forced convinced Google to include their awful 5G mmW antennas and jack the price up to $699. There is no other reason this phone is at that price. Because if you look across the globe, where Google is selling the non-mmW model, the price never hits that $699 mark. In most of Europe, it’s €629 or under. We also know that Verizon’s special mmW model of the Pixel 4a 5G is $100 more than the non-mmW model that Google does happen to be selling here.
Complaining about the way a phone is priced is never fun and it almost always comes off like unnecessary whining, but this seems like such an obvious poor decision from Google. Again, they make a non-mmW model, they just won’t sell it here. If they did, it would be cheaper than $699, guaranteed, plus it would still work on every carrier and get mid and low-band 5G. It would be the same phone with everything I’ve talked about here, only at a more reasonable price point.
The inclusion of 5G mmW in this phone is one of the more frustrating things I’ve seen in recent years. 5G mmW is a terrible wireless technology that after a couple of years of Verizon hyping it, is still only on a couple of blocks in a couple of cities. There is absolutely zero reason anyone should be paying to access 5G mmW like Google is asking us to do here. I live in a major city and don’t have a single mmW tower to find, yet here I am having to pay for it. That’s absurd.
I should probably point out that similarly priced phones to the Pixel 5 also have faster charging, 120Hz displays, more storage and RAM, etc. At $629, Google might have been selling a real value phone, but at $699, they are matched up against a couple of phones (Galaxy S20 FE and OnePlus 8T) that will make it tough to consider.
Performance. When I reviewed the Pixel 4a a couple of months ago, I complained about the performance not being where I expected it to be on a phone from the company who makes the software on it. I think people thought I was nuts, so to keep that reputation going, I’ll say it again – performance on the Pixel 5 isn’t as good as it should be.
Google included a Snapdragon 765G processor, 8GB RAM, and a 90Hz display on this phone. All of those combined should make for a buttery smooth experience, and yet, I can’t help but find slowness here and there, a stutter or three during regular use, and regularly skipped frames or wonky animations.
This may seem like an exaggeration on some level, and maybe it is. I’m nitpicking, for sure. This phone is smooth most of the time. But I’m coming from the OnePlus 8T, Galaxy Fold 2, Galaxy S20, and OnePlus Nord before it. All of those devices are smoother, feel faster, and generally act more responsive than the Pixel 5.
Will most people notice the minor blips and skips that I do? I’m guessing, no, they won’t. But as someone who looks at new phones constantly and has a decent eye for a precisely optimized phone, the Pixel 5 needs to be better. Google makes Android and they should be setting the standard for how well a phone can run it.
Display. The 6″ AMOLED display on the Pixel 5 isn’t the best I’ve seen this year, that’s for sure. I appreciate the 90Hz refresh rate and don’t mind the fact that it’s full HD (1080p). My issues with it are in its color output and brightness.
In color, I could tell by looking at it from the start that it displayed a tad too warm for my liking. Unfortunately, there’s no way to adjust it from whatever it shows out of the box. Google leaves you almost no display controls, with options of Natural, Boosted, and Adaptive, none of which let you adjust warmth or coolness, RGB levels, etc. If it’s the only display you look at, you might not be offended, but to me it looks like a dirty white.
As far as brightness goes, the display simply doesn’t get bright enough. Thankfully, we haven’t had a ton of sun in Portland lately, but I’d be worried about this display’s performance in a location that gets mostly sun from one day to the next. With that said, the dim low point is really good, probably because that top end brightness isn’t great. To me, Samsung is still the king of brightness range.
Off axis viewing angles aren’t great either. You guys remember the blue shift that everyone complained about with the Pixel 2 XL? I’m not seeing that same blue color, but there’s certainly a brightness shift at angles I’m not used to seeing in 2020. As I type this, I’m looking at the OnePlus 8T and Pixel 5 lying next to each other at full brightness off to my side and the Pixel 5 simply looks a lot worse and is failing to hold onto a similar image than the one you get when looking directly at it. The OnePlus 8T still looks great.
I know that I keep coming back to, “But this isn’t the worst thing ever!” and I’m sorry for that. The Pixel 5’s display is OK, it’s just no where near as good as the display used in a comparable phone like the OnePlus 8T. In fact, it’s a good step or two behind it.
- Speakers. Google claims that the Pixel 5 has stereo speakers, but it really doesn’t. Instead, you get a decently-loud bottom firing speaker along with some sort of behind-the-display audio chamber/speaker thing. The Pixel 5 doesn’t have a standard earpiece speaker, in case you didn’t know. So what you get is a bottom speaker that sounds OK and gets pretty loud, along with this odd thing behind the display that can’t match the sound output from the other speaker. That makes for an awkward listening experience.
- 3.5mm headphone: It doesn’t have one!
First 10 Things to Do
Should you buy a Pixel 5?
A week ago, I was ready to tell you to completely ignore the Pixel 5. Today, my thoughts have changed there quite a bit.
The Pixel 5 is much more like a no nonsense tool to me than other phones. Everything else that is encased in glass comes off more like a fashion accessory or an extra item in your life you need to take special care of. With Google’s new phone, I feel more and more each day as if it’s just there to help me stay connected, get some things done, and then go away. It’s not special, it’s not even trying to be. And because of that, I can actually appreciate its simplicity. While I wanted Google to go weird, they didn’t. They went basic almost to the extreme, which I guess is in a way weird, compared to industry trends.
I know the phone will last me through a day and then some. I know the camera will be good (if not great) in almost any situation. I know the software won’t stand in my way and that it’ll be as up-to-date as any. It fits perfectly in my hand. The backside won’t cause anxiety every time I set it down. It’s sort of simple or boring. As someone who has been very into the complexity of the Galaxy Fold 2 over the past month, simple is pretty refreshing right now.
Should you buy it at $699? That’s the thing. I don’t think this is a $700 phone. Still, some of us prefer the Pixel experience and its short list of advantages even if that means overpaying. If that’s you, then go for it.