pixel 5 design

Pixel 5 Review: An exercise in compromise [Video]

For better or worse, the Pixel 5 is not like previous flagship Google smartphones. It’s a very different proposition for buyers as a result — but is it actually a good device?

The Pixel series has often be pointed to as the “pinnacle” of Android since the first device hit shelves back in 2016. An outright flagship device, designed and delivered by Google as it intended. Despite trying to take on Apple directly, the Pixel series has faltered a little over four years, which Google has decided was a sign to change tactics.

Gone is the flagship price structure and, therefore, some features. In comes a more modest set of specifications and a more honed software approach. If the Pixel series relied on software before, with the Pixel 5, it’s arguably the only component to catch attention.

One huge question surrounding the entire launch is if this was or would be a sensible decision. With that in mind, this is our review of the Google Pixel 5.


Small but still approachable

Saying that a smartphone at 6-inches is small feels like a massive contradiction but based upon the rest of the market, the Google Pixel 5 feels really “dinky” and compact. Part of that is down to the expert use of bezels and no “forehead” this year that houses all kinds of Face Unlock tech but the lack of an “XL” variant is one that further pushes the small phone agenda.

I will say that when in a case, I do find the Pixel 5 hard to fully distinguish from the Pixel 4a. Thankfully, the added weight is one of the few areas where they do majorly differ. Obviously, without a case, I think it’s easy to tell right away that the Pixel 5 has a more “premium” feel — whatever that actually means.

The lack of a colorful power button is disappointing as it was always a playful addition, although the Sorta Sage green color still manages to provide that usual Google “character.” The side buttons are clicky and precise too. Think of the Pixel 5 hardware as a hybrid of older designs with a hint of a bezel-free future. It still feels like a Pixel but maybe not in the way you expect it to.

pixel 5

The return to an aluminum chassis is tempered as the Pixel 5 comes with what Google calls a “bio-resin” finish. In reality, it just feels like soft, textured plastic — albeit a little more textured and spongey. Without a case, it’s still pretty grippy, which is always a complaint on glass-backed devices. A chassis cut-out allows the device to be wirelessly charged, so no worries about your Pixel Stand becoming defunct.

We’ve already seen complaints about the unibody design but, luckily, those problems do not appear to be too widespread to be a major concern to anyone looking to pick this smartphone up. The softer curves make the package feel even more compact with no detriment to the rest of the design either. I’m lamenting the removal of Active Edge as I used it daily, but maybe it might return on a future device? A man can hope.


Slick and smooth

pixel 5 display

The retention of the 90Hz refresh rate is one that really helps elevate the Pixel 5 package above many similarly-priced rivals, as the software helps ensure this is slicker and sleeker than the competition. As more devices are now coming with higher refresh rate panels, apps have also been updated to take advantage of them. This means that even though a dynamic refresh rate is enabled out of the box, slowdowns are far less obvious than they were when the Pixel 4 series launched.

Taking a bump down to FHD+ is also one that, realistically, makes almost no outright noticeable difference on a smartphone screen of this size. Sure, a QHD+ display is a nice bonus, but this is a fine OLED panel that looks sharp, clear, and crisp from all angles. Colors are superb, while viewing angles are similarly excellent. As I mentioned during our initial first impressions, the uniform bezels are a genuine godsend. How has it taken this long for an Android device to come with properly uniform bezels on all sides?

The only gripe I have with the display is the brightness levels. Like we saw with the Pixel 4 series last year, it’s just not quite as bright as some of the competition — even though it looks substantially better in most cases. Is it bright enough? For most people, I’d argue that it is.

Software and performance

No major slowdowns

Let’s address the Qualcomm Snapdragon 765G chipset first. In terms of benchmarks and raw performance, the 765G is more or less on par with the Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 chipset found in the Pixel 3 series. From the outset, this isn’t a good look but such is the exorbitant 5G tax applied to the current flagship Qualcomm chips, this might be somewhat of a blessing in disguise.

That would be an empty platitude if the performance were deemed “poor.” Luckily, the Snapdragon 765G (plus 8GB of RAM) is absolutely fine for what we’d call “general” usage — which accounts for about 99.9% of people. I’ve yet to run into any noticeable slowdowns that ruin the fluid Android 11 experience.

If you come from a device with faster storage and a more powerful processor and faster UFS 3.0 storage – rather than UFS 2.1 – then you will likely notice millisecond load extensions here and there. This is remedied with the 90Hz refresh rate in almost all areas, but if you come from an older Pixel device or lower-end hardware, it’s almost impossible to tell.

pixel 5 display

Being completely honest for a moment, if you switch from flagship to flagship, you’ll see some slowdowns here and there. Is it enough to break the experience? For me, no. The Pixel 5 runs absolutely fine. I personally see no differences when playing Call of Duty Mobile on the Pixel 5 versus the Pixel 4 XL. Should you be using video editing apps like Adobe Premiere Rush, then you might see some differences in timeline exports but it will be seconds rather than minutes.

We’ve done a much deeper dive into some of our top Pixel 5 features and Android 11 that will discuss much of the “main” software experience a little better but the differences between older Android versions are far less pronounced this time around.

There are a few new inclusions such as Hold for Me, which utilize the Google Assistant to automatically hold the line when calling toll-free numbers. Unfortunately, it isn’t available outside the US, which means I’m missing out.


Finally, all-day endurance

The biggest complaint with last year’s Pixel devices was the poor battery life at launch. Credit where it’s due though, Google has improved things with software updates. Software can only go so far, so the all-important upgrade to the Pixel 5 series had to be the battery size.

I’m pleased to confirm that the Pixel 5 battery delivers in spades. Due to a weird manufacturing glitch, the internal cell can range from 4,000 to 4,080mAh. This is about the baseline for a flagship smartphone at this stage of 2020 but given the Adaptive Battery tweaks, lower-resolution display, and more modest chipset, it’s a winning combination.

I’ve regularly seen way above 5 hours of screen-on time each day with plenty of headroom to spare. In some cases, I’ll head to bed with 35-40% battery life remaining. That is with the 90Hz refresh rate forced in Developer options, plenty of Bluetooth usage, and the display set to around 65% brightness. With a tweak here and there, I’m almost certain you could achieve 10+ hours of screen-on time on the Pixel 5.

Personally, I won’t lament the 18W charge speeds, as I will just stick my Pixel 5 on a Qi charger overnight. It would have been nice to see 30W charging though, as a quick top-up without having to wait is always a nice option.


Brand new perspectives

Pixel 5 camera

Throughout my time with the Pixel 5, the camera has been an interestingly different experience than previous flagship Google devices. Images are still pretty much superb but the camera “magic” that Pixels are known for is starting to wane as the rest of the industry catches up. But I will say that even despite this, I still prefer the images out of this device in nine out of 10 cases over the competition.

One of the biggest strengths is undoubtedly the ability to just point, shoot, and nail the look and feel of a scene with little to no effort. It’s why I insist on carrying a Pixel device with me wherever possible. The Pixel 5 is no different this time around. Add in the new ultra-wide-angle lens that has long been requested, and while it is especially late to the party, it’s a great setup that is complemented well by a selfie camera that is equally capable.

Google has executed the ultra-wide-angle lens especially well. Good optics with the backing of arguably the best post-processing in the mobile space ensure that details are retained throughout an image. There is no vignetting or major softness towards the fringes of images — which is my own personal gripe with ultra-wide shots in general. Another important thing to note is the consistency of each lens color-cast when switching focal lengths.

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