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Google Pixel 5 review: An off year for Pixel fans

Chris Velazco
·Senior Editor, Mobile
·21-min read

It used to be that, if you bought a Google Pixel, you were getting a powerful smartphone with some of the cleanest, most clever software around. Then, last year, things started to change: Google started offering lower-cost smartphones that, while maybe not as technically impressive, retained that focus on excellent software and intelligent features. That embrace of the mid-range has culminated in Google’s 2020 smartphone lineup. There’s the cheap and cheerful Pixel 4a, the slightly slicker Pixel 4a 5G, and now the Pixel 5 — a device that seems more like a lateral move from the 4a than a significant upgrade.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing when you consider what the Pixel 5 offers. Google’s approach to Android is as charming as ever, and at $700, the Pixel 5 is one of the least expensive Pixels ever, at least if you discount all those deliberately lower-end ‘a’ phones. (To wit, it costs $100 less than the Pixel 4 did last year.) And now that 5G networks are widely available, you can finally use a Pixel to tap into them. Those are all good things, but Google has a problem: There's now a handful of excellent phones in the same price range, and I'm not convinced the Pixel 5 has what it takes to beat them.

Configurations

Unlike previous years, when Google would release a regular and XL version of its flagship phone, the Pixel has no counterpart. There aren’t multiple models of the Pixel 5 either, unless you count unlocked and carrier-specific variants. If you’re thinking about buying a Pixel 5, you’re going to spend $700 plus tax for a 128GB model regardless. The only choice you have to make is between the Just Black and Sorta Sage color options.

Google Pixel 5 review
Google Pixel 5 review

Design and hardware

If nothing else, Google made a good-looking phone. The Pixel 5’s design looks a lot like the much cheaper Pixel 4a, which means we’re working with another compact, all-screen design. There are some important (and subtle) differences here, though: This Pixel’s bezels are completely symmetrical for one, and since they’re narrower than the 4a’s, Google had room to squeeze fit a 6-inch OLED screen into this compact body. Of all the phones I’ve tested over the years with 6-inch screens, this easily feels like the smallest. That means it’ll easily slip into a pocket or a purse, but if you want a modern Pixel with a bigger screen, your choices are pretty limited. You can either get a Pixel 4a 5G, try to find a good deal on a Pixel 4 XL, or hope Google tries something different next year.

That said, this is still a pretty nice screen. My one real gripe is that it seems on par with the Pixel 4 XL in terms of brightness, which is to say it’s more than good enough indoors but can struggle under bright light. Still, it has spacious viewing angles and loads of vivid colors, though exactly how vivid is really up to you — as usual, there are three color modes to choose from. And thankfully,

Like the Pixel 4s before it, the Pixel 5's display can ramp up its refresh rate to a smooth 90Hz. It’s a treat for the eyes, certainly, but the effect isn’t nearly as pronounced here as on the 120HZ screens we've seen from other devices in this price range. (Samsung’s Galaxy S20 FE and the new OnePlus 8T both have these faster kinds of displays. You’ll hear about those phones a few more times before this review is over.)

Google Pixel 5 review
Google Pixel 5 review

I should also point out that, at 2,340 x 1,080, this panel isn't technically as crisp as the screens we got in either of last year's Pixel 4 line. I know some people were worried about that step down in pixel density, but unless you make it a point to press your face right up against the glass, you'll honestly never be able to tell.

Otherwise, the rest of the Pixel 5's design is pretty straightforward — apart from one of the color options, anyway. I've been testing the Sorta Sage model, and I get why Google chose the name: Sometimes it looks like a pale green, and other times it’s more of a baby blue, almost like that one version of the Pixel 2 from a few years ago.

Google also went with a metal body for the Pixel 5 this year, though I have to say, I wouldn't have been able to guess if Google didn't tell me. Part of that is because the Pixel 5 is extremely light, and part of it is because the coating used here feels like anything but metal. It’s honestly hard to describe how this material feels -- it’s textured, but not overly so. The best analog I can think of is smooth, but not polished, stone.

All told, the Pixel 5's design is simple and clean, and I like it as much as I like the song from Kingdom Hearts with the same name. And that's a lot.

It's worth pointing out that Google had to leave a bunch of long-time Pixel features and components out this time. I hope you didn't like squeezing your phone to activate the Google Assistant, because you can't here. And there's no giant forehead either because there's no Soli radar. Whether Google left it out for design reasons, or cost, or because few people really seemed to enjoy it, we don’t know. Either way, I don’t miss it much.

The dramatic downsizing of the Pixel’s forehead also means there’s no secure face unlock here, which is just fine by me because a) we're still living in a weirdo pandemic world; and b) the Pixel Imprint fingerprint sensor around back is among the fastest and most accurate I've used. Oh, and like last year's Pixel 4s, the 5 is rated IP68 for water and dust resistance. That makes it the most durable new Pixel of 2020, which came in handy the time I was watching YouTube videos and decided to toss the Pixel 5 into a fountain.

(Author’s note: This is in no way a reflection on how I feel about BTS. I come to you in good faith, K-Pop stans.)

Google Pixel 5 review
Google Pixel 5 review

Clearly, there’s a lot to like about this more durable design. Having said that, Google made some decisions here that are much harder to appreciate. There's no headphone jack here, which is only really annoying because both versions of the Pixel 4a have it. It would have been nice to have the option to buy a Pixel 5 with more than 128GB of storage, but as we saw with the Pixel 4a, limiting the number of configurations helps Google keep costs down. And then there's the Pixel 5's audio situation, which just isn’t very good.

The phone's bottom-firing speaker does most of the heavy lifting, which isn't all that unusual — the same is true of most smartphones. Unlike the majority of phones, though, the Pixel 5’s top speaker is now built into the screen. There's a driver under the display that actually makes that panel vibrate and transmit sound. Is it a neat solution? Heck yeah. But that also means your movies, music and podcasts can sound tinny and unbalanced. For me at least, it's most notable when you're watching a video or taking a video call while doing other things -- you know, situations where you’d generally have the speakers going full-power while holding the phone in one hand. It isn’t much better when you’re listening while holding the phone in landscape either, since you’re only getting audio from one side.

I'm not sure this will be a dealbreaker for most people, but it doesn’t sound great, and people who bought phones like the Pixel 3 for its dual front-firing speakers are going to be disappointed. Thankfully, I haven't run into any pesky Bluetooth connection issues as other people have encountered with earlier Pixels, so you shouldn't have any trouble pairing your trusty all-wireless earbuds. I’ve been doing that for a few days straight with no trouble.

Google Pixel 5 review
Google Pixel 5 review

In use

One of the things I’ve always liked about Pixels is how fast they feel — it’s that clean software, combined with pretty low touch latency and a speedy high-end processor. Since the Pixel 5 uses Qualcomm’s top-of-the-mid-range Snapdragon 765G with 8GB of RAM, you can imagine how apprehensive I was going into this review. After all, this is the first time that a non-A-series Pixel phone used something other than the year’s highest-end Snapdragon chipset.

Well, I was worried over nothing — mostly. While the 765G isn’t quite as fast as the 865s and 865 Pluses found in other devices, there's still plenty of horsepower for multitasking and gaming. To my surprise, I eventually just stopped worrying about whether the phone had enough oomph to get something done, because in all but the most demanding edge cases, it does.

That’s not to say everything is peachy here. For one, the metal enclosure can get warm when the Pixel 5 is dealing with heavy loads. When I jumped back in to knock out some quests in Genshin Impact’s sprawling world, the game itself ran beautifully, but it wasn't long before the Pixel 5 got a little too toasty for comfort. You're probably not going to notice this often, but know that it’s possible. Beyond that, I noticed some of Google’s stock apps hanging briefly, and once or twice, the Recent Apps view, where you can easily pop into your other running apps, stopped working entirely. The thing is, I don’t think that has as much to do with the Pixel 5’s sheer processing power as it does with using pre-launch software.

Google Pixel 5 review
Google Pixel 5 review

Speaking of software, the Pixel 5 ships with Android 11, and for the full rundown on what that update brings to the table, I strongly suggest you check out our full review. In the meantime, I’ll just add that I appreciate a lot of the little quality of life changes here, like the smart home and Google Pay controls in the power menu and the better-organized notifications shade.

Now, as usual the Pixel doesn’t run 100-percent clean, stock Android. To give its phones an edge, Google likes to squeeze in clever software features that only sometimes make their way to other phones. That means the Pixel 5 can, among other things, sit on hold for you and give you a live transcript of what’s happening on the other end -- that way, you can just go back to whatever you’re doing. When you get routed to a live person, the Pixel buzzes and makes a jaunty little sound, and you dive right in again.

Google Pixel 5 review
Google Pixel 5 review

This is, by far, one of the coolest and most practical applications of Google’s Duplex technology I’ve ever seen, and it worked like a charm when I had to call Verizon about some billing stuff. That said, there are a couple of things I should note about this feature. First, it's technically a preview, so don’t expect it to work all the time. I’m not exactly sure what a failure would look like, but update this story if I figure out how to make one happen. Secondly, I honestly don’t know often I’d use this, because most of the companies I get stuck on hold with — like our parent company Verizon — know they have long hold times and give you the option of having a representative call you back.

Google’s Recorder app got some notable upgrades if you’re into that sort of thing. When you record a long enough conversation, for instance, the Pixel will scan through the transcript and flag certain keywords it thinks you might want to go back to. From what I’ve seen, though, the feature still needs work: It sometimes marks some words as notable even though other words came up more frequently in conversation. You can also edit transcripts and their corresponding audio more easily now, and if the person you’re recording says something quotable, you can export it as a video clip with an animated waveform and transcript. Since I don’t have a podcast to promote like Cherlynn, I haven’t exactly figured out how best to take advantage of this tool, but I will.

My favorite software addition, though, can be a little tough to find. If you swipe the screen to open Google Assistant and tap a little tray icon, you’ll discover the Assistant Snapshot, which basically collates a lot of the data Google has on you in one place. Your mileage may vary, but Snapshot shows me how long it’ll take to get to the office -- which I can probably get rid of -- plus bill reminders, a shortcut to control my basement lights since I need those a lot, and even recipe suggestions that seem to take my search history into account. (Now that fall is here, that means Google knows I’m on the hunt for good Instant Pot recipes.) I’m still getting used to having this smart agenda around, but I hope Google replaces its news feed with this Snapshot entirely.

Google Pixel 5 review
Google Pixel 5 review

And as for 5G — well, most of the things we’ve said in the past about it still apply. The Pixel 5 (in the United States, at least) supports both sub-6 and mmWave, so it should work with whatever carrier you’re using. The thing is, the 5G experience can vary pretty wildly depending on who your service provider is, where you live, where you actually use your phone, and more. I activated our Pixel 5 review on my Google Fi line, which meant I was ultimately using T-Mobile’s sub-6 5G network here in Brooklyn. It wasn’t dramatically faster than the LTE service I used to get around the neighborhood, but that’s not necessarily what should expect from a Pixel 5 of your own.

Of course, none of this would matter if the phone’s battery life stunk, but Google seems to have taken to heart all of the criticism leveled at the Pixel 4 line. This year, the Pixel 5 packs a 4,080mah battery, the biggest we’ve ever seen in a PIxel. That combined with a Full HD+ screen means you can pretty easily get a day and a half of fairly consistent use. Sure, if you really push the phone, that number can dip as low as 12 hours of usage, but for the typical, day-to-day stuff, I feel comfortable relying on the Pixel 5 in a way I never did with the 4 or 4 XL.

The thing about reviewing a Pixel close to launch is that there isn't usually a ton of time for Google's Adaptive Battery feature to kick in. If you haven't heard of it, Adaptive Battery is a clever tool that analyzes the way you use the phone to train an algorithmic model that eventually tunes your battery performance. That means, for me at least, about a day and a half of battery life is the baseline, and there’s potential for that to improve somewhat. Throw in perfectly adeqaute wireless charging and an extreme battery saver mode that disables all but the most crucial apps need your phone to last, and I have to hand it to Google. At least in the time I’ve had the Pixel 5 so far, I’ve been very pleased with its battery.

Google Pixel 5 review
Google Pixel 5 review

Cameras

The cameras are one of the big reasons we've recommended Pixels for years -- they’re incredibly simple to use, and they produce nice-looking photos with zero effort required from you. That’s mostly because Google has been reusing the same main 12-megapixel camera sensor since the days of the Pixel 3, and used its computational photography chops to make the images it captures look as good as possible. In fact, Google's vast experience with this exact sensor is part of why it hasn't moved on to any of the bigger, better sensors out there -- the company has put a ton of work into optimizing its software for this exact camera.

That makes a lot of sense on paper, and the Pixel 5’s main camera still takes solid photos -- they’re very similar to what I got out of the Pixel 4 series, though quite a bit warmer. In fact, in a shootout between this phone, the iPhone 11, the Galaxy S20 FE and the OnePlus 8T, the Pixel often produced images with the warmest and flattest colors. Which brings me to a subject of huge importance for cameras: Vibe.

If you’re a seasoned photographer, feel free to skip this bit. Here’s what the average smartphone shopper should know, though: When a smartphone company adds a camera to a device, they don’t just read the raw data from the image sensor and display it on your screen. (That would look awful.) Instead, those images are meticulously and intelligently processed to make them more appealing. I bring this up now because many smartphone makers have distinct “looks” they aspire to recreate. Samsung’s style is all about saturated colors that make the world look nicer than it usually is. Apple’s approach skews more realistic. And Pixels? Well, I think they’re best described as “moody” — Marc Levoy, former head of Google’s computational photography team, once told The Verge his visual approach was inspired to some extent by the works of Caravaggio, and you can still see that influence now.

Which of those approaches is best? That’s up to you! I can’t give Google flak for sticking to what it thinks its fans want, even if the results look a little... drab by comparison. But I can say this: That main camera the company has relied on for so long doesn’t resolve detail as well as the S20 FE, even with Google’s aggressive processing. Meanwhile, the new 16-megapixel ultra-wide camera has been pretty good, but nothing mind-blowing. Expect to see a lot of softness fast when you start zooming in, and it struggles in edge cases where lighting is dim, but not dim enough to trigger night sight. In fairness to Google, though, the Pixel 5 was better at correcting the barrel distortion at the edges of its ultra-wide photos than the iPhone 11 and OnePlus 8T, though that came at the expense of a tighter crop. (The Galaxy S20 FE, meanwhile, won this contest handily.)

I’m glad Google went with a more flexible ultra-wide for the second camera, but it’s clear that in still camera performance, the rest of the industry has caught up. That’s especially true in low light. This year, the Pixel 5 can automatically activate Night Sight when it’s dark out, which meant Google could get rid of the automatic flash mode. On the whole, this feels like the right move, since a harsh flash is usually the last thing that’ll make a night photo look good.

That said, phones with bigger main sensors like the Galaxy S20 FE are naturally going to do better, even if Samsung’s image processing might not be as clever or as nuanced as Google’s. It's gotten pretty damn good, though -- to the point where I enjoyed many of the S20 FE's photos more than the Pixel 5. The OnePlus 8T also stacks up well for the price, especially in low light. It's also worth noting both of these phones, which cost as much or less than the Pixel 5, also have telephoto cameras for better long-range shots.

Google Pixel 5 review
Google Pixel 5 review

As usual, Google tries to make up for it with features like portrait lighting, which lets you brighten up a face and move a virtual light source around to get just the look you’re after. This is probably the best experience I’ve ever had with a portrait mode, and it blows Apple’s approach out of the water. If you’re a selfie fanatic, you’re gonna love it, and the same goes for people who spend a lot of time photographing others. If you don’t fit neatly into either of those categories, though, you might find the overall camera experience leaves you cold.

And then there's video, which was always pretty bad on Pixels. You can shoot footage at resolutions as high as 4K at 60 frames per second, which is a first for a Pixel, but I’m still not impressed with its quality. At best, I’d say its on par with what you’d get out of a Galaxy S20 FE. That might be why Google added some new video stabilization modes to make the most of your footage -- there’s one for more active, run-and-gun style shoots, and another that locks the frame on a far-off subject as you move toward it. The former didn’t seem to have much impact, but the latter? I’m all for it. Just note that you have to be fairly thoughtful when using it — it does a terrific job keeping your chosen subject in the middle of the frame, but it doesn’t do much to mitigate the rhythmic bob that comes with shooting while walking.

The most fun by far is the new cinematic pan mode, which stabilizes your video and shoots at a higher framerate at half speed. This results in smooth, movie-like shots that could be fun to integrate into a larger project. I still need to play with this more, but as much fun as I’ve had using it, I’m not convinced it’s going to win over many Pixel skeptics. If anything, it feels like a weird nod to creators who have enjoyed similar, stabilized slo-mo shots on other devices for a while now.

Google Pixel 5 review
Google Pixel 5 review

Wrap-up

Come to think of it, that pretty much sums up how I feel about the Pixel 5. It’s the best small-ish Android phone I’ve used in a long time, with plenty of charming software features and a smattering of high-end niceties. If this were any other year, I’d probably be recommending it more strongly.

But it’s not, so I can’t. To be clear, if clean, clever software with long-term support is the first thing you value most in a smartphone, the Pixel 5 is probably the best you can get. But consider this: You could get a Galaxy S20 FE 5G, with a more flexible camera system, better performance, a bigger, more beautiful screen, and expandable storage for $700 -- $750 if you want one that plays nice with mmWave 5G networks. And while its software won’t be for everyone, the $750 OnePlus 8T is another option in the same price range, and packs a faster chipset, more RAM and storage and super-fast charging. And its camera, while slightly behind the Pixel 5 in image quality, is a lot closer than Google would probably care to admit.

I know I’m sort of comparing apples to oranges here, so about this: The Pixel 4a 5G, which uses the same chipset as the 5, packs the same cameras and has a bigger screen that's still really easy to handle, all for between $500 and $600. If you can live without water or dust resistance, and you don’t care about wireless charging, you’re probably better off with one of these instead. None of this is to say I don’t like the Pixel 5, or that it’s a bad phone — I’m just not convinced it’s the best deal right now.

Key specs

Google Pixel 5

Processor

Qualcomm Snapdragon 765G

RAM

8GB

Internal storage

128GB

Main Display

6-inch OLED with transmissive hole

Display resolution

2,340 x 1,080 (19.5:9)

Rear cameras

12.2MP f/1.7 camera with HDR, optical + digital image stabilization and autofocus with dual pixel phase detection and 16MP f/2.2 ultrawide camera with 107-degree field of view

Front-facing camera

8MP f/2.0 camera with 83-degree FOV

OS

Android 11

Charging

USB C with USB-PD 2.0, supports 18W fast charging

Battery size

4,000mAh (min); 4.080mAh (typical)

Dimensions

144.7mm x 70.4mm x 8mm

Weight

151g

Fingerprint sensor

Yes, on rear

Waterproofing

Yes, IP68

NFC

Yes

Headphone jack

No

5G

Yes, sub-6 and mmWave