Google Pixel 5 review: new phone, old tricks

October 14, 2020 By iwano@_84 Off

The amount of effort Google seems to put into its Pixel phones while simultaneously ensuring that they look and feel mundane never ceases to astonish me. The new Pixel 5 is the epitome of this trend, though it’s been present since the beginning.

The Pixel 5 is unassuming. Instead of pushing the state of the art forward, Google has seemingly retreated to simpler, more reliable, and less expensive technology. The Pixel 4 had face unlock, squeezable sides, and a literal radar chip. The Pixel 5 has a simple rear-mounted fingerprint sensor that harkens back to Android phones from 2018, not 2020.

And yet, it’s still a very good phone for $699. It’s not impressive or flashy. By spending just a little (or a lot) more money, you can get better specs, larger camera arrays, prettier screens, and fancier designs. The Pixel 5 is trying to sell something else, sometimes to a fault:

Simplicity.

The Google Pixel 5 in “Sorta Sage” green

The Google Pixel 5 in “sorta sage” green.

Pixel 5 hardware design

Here are words I’ve used to describe Pixel hardware in past reviews, all of which apply to the Pixel 5: utilitarian, humdrum, unassuming, and premium. That last one seems like it doesn’t fit, but once you hold the Pixel 5, you’ll feel it. There’s so little hardware flash that it can be easy to miss some of the design substance.

The Pixel 5 has a 6-inch OLED screen, rounded on the corners and interrupted only by a (somewhat large) hole punch for the selfie camera. There’s no XL version with a bigger screen, which might annoy some (and the Pixel 4A 5G isn’t so much bigger that it makes for a viable big-screen alternative). I personally love the size, but then I have always been a fan of something just slightly smaller than the Max / XL / Plus phones.

The power button is plain instead of having a pop of color

The power button is plain instead of having a pop of color.

The bottom speaker sounds much better than the panel audio speaker

The bottom speaker sounds much better than the panel audio speaker.

Both the Pixel 5 (top) and the Pixel 4A 5G (bottom) have regular and ultrawide camera

Both the Pixel 5 (top) and the Pixel 4A 5G (bottom) have regular and ultrawide cameras.

The bezels surrounding the flat screen are relatively small but still bigger than what you’d get on something like the Galaxy S20 with its curved display. But they’re perfectly symmetrical all the way around the phone. It makes for a pleasing look, but it’s achieved in a somewhat unfortunate way.

The Pixel 5 has stereo speakers, but the earpiece isn’t a traditional speaker at all. Instead, Google has used the technology it acquired when it bought Redux in 2018: panel audio. The Pixel 5’s screen itself vibrates to create audio. It works well for phone calls (and it’s neat to not have to specifically position the top of the phone to hear), but for watching video or playing games, it kind of stinks. There’s zero bass and not enough volume on the left channel. (LG used similar technology in its G8 phone in 2018 to similar results.)

Overall, though, I liken the Pixel 5 to a very well-made T-shirt: it’s comfortable and simple, but in a way that’s not really noticeable. The body is made of aluminum, but Google has covered it in a matte resin that’s easily mistaken for plastic. In what might be the only visual flourish on the entire phone, the black version has some sparkles in it. There’s also a “sorta sage” green color option. Because Google has apparently decided fun is bad, the power buttons just have a shiny metal finish instead of a pop of color.

The aluminum saves weight and thinness while adding rigidity, but it’s invisible. Also invisible: a cutout in the aluminum to allow for wireless charging (and reverse wireless charging). The Pixel 5 has IP68 water and dust resistance, but there’s no headphone jack. Google also dropped the ability to squeeze the phone to call up Google Assistant, but I don’t miss that.

The OLED screen is good, but it doesn’t quite live up to the flagship standards set by the Galaxy S20 or iPhone 11 Pro. It’s only 1080p, for one thing. And for another, the high refresh rate screen caps out at 90Hz. I think there’s a bigger perceptual difference between 60Hz and 90Hz than there is between 90Hz and the 120Hz on some flagship phones. But side by side, I can see it. Otherwise, color accuracy is good — though Google did drop its Ambient EQ tech that matches the screen temperature to the room.

Perhaps the most surprising — and some might say backward — decision Google made with the Pixel 5 was to go back to a rear-mounted fingerprint sensor. Dropping the Soli radar sensor and face unlock makes sense for the price point Google was aiming for, but many Android phones have in-screen fingerprint sensors now. Google contends that they’re neither fast nor secure enough for its standards. The rear-mounted sensor is very fast and accurate, but it’s still odd to go back after using face unlock or in-screen fingerprint sensors on so many other devices.

The Pixel 5 (top) and the Pixel 4A 5G (bottom)

The Pixel 5 (top) and the Pixel 4A 5G (bottom).

Pixel 5 performance

The clearest signal that Google isn’t trying to compete directly with top-tier phones isn’t the $699 price; it’s the Snapdragon 765G processor. For all of 2020, the best Android phones have had Qualcomm’s fastest chip, but Google has chosen to go with something a little slower in the Pixel 5G.

I don’t disagree with this choice. Although it doesn’t have the raw power of Qualcomm’s fastest chip, it’s still fast enough to not feel slow. I can detect a bit of a lag in rendering complex webpages or opening heavy apps like big games, but that’s mainly because I’ve reviewed so many flagship Android phones. In day-to-day use, I have had no problems with speed. There’s also 8GB of RAM for multitasking, which is enough to keep apps from closing in the background — a problem that frequently plagued older Pixel models.

There is one processor decision I do disagree with, though: removing the Pixel Neural Core processor for image processing. It means I’m waiting for photos to process way more often than I did with the Pixel 4. There’s a lag between shots when in portrait mode, which keeps me from shooting as quickly as I’d like, and I frequently have to wait for the HDR processing to finish when I review a shot after the fact.

As for battery life, I can happily report that Google has figured it out after the terrible battery life in last year’s Pixel 4. The Pixel 5 is easily able to stand up to a full day’s moderate — and even heavy — use. To stress-test it, I took it on a three-hour bike ride with GPS, streamed two hours of xCloud gaming, and used it throughout the rest of the day as intensively as I could. I got from 6AM to midnight before the battery conked out. It’s better than even the physically larger XL models of years past.

The story with 5G is much more mixed. Around the US, 5G speeds have been disappointing — unless you happen to be standing directly under one of the very few Verizon millimeter-wave towers scattered through major metro areas. It’s not a reason to avoid the Pixel 5, but 5G is certainly not enough justification to go out and buy one — same as any other 5G phone.

But there is a hidden tax to 5G: it makes phones more expensive. Google made the defensible decision to produce just one version of the Pixel 5 so that all models support Verizon’s mmWave flavor of 5G. That means it likely costs more than it otherwise would have. Many phones, including the Pixel 4A 5G, cost more on Verizon than they do on other networks. That cost is baked into the Pixel 5’s $699 price, even if you’re not a Verizon user.

The hole punch selfie camera and thin bezels on the Pixel 5

The hole-punch selfie camera and thin bezels on the Pixel 5.

Pixel 5 camera

The Pixel 5’s camera is just as good as it has always been on Pixel phones. That’s great news because it means photos are sharp, contrasty, balance light and shadows well, and work incredibly well in low light. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a phone that can produce better photos in everyday use.

But despite some improvements around the edges, the Pixel 5 doesn’t push the state of the art forward much compared to the Pixel 4 — or even the Pixel 3. Google is still using the same image sensor for the main 12-megapixel lens that it’s used since the Pixel 3. Google tells me that it hasn’t found a better one for its algorithms, but I was hoping for a bigger leap.

The Pixel 5 does make forward progress, though. For one thing, Google has acceded to popular demand by swapping out the telephoto lens for an ultrawide (though including both would have been better). For another, Google has finally responded to the criticism that its video is subpar.

Let’s start with the main 12-megapixel camera. Google has kept things pretty much the same for photos. The most noticeable change is that it now has its Night Sight mode turn on automatically without requiring you to switch in dark situations. (You can manually turn it off.) That lines up with what other smartphones have been doing for a while now.

Quality in both daylight and in the dark continues to be great. Samsung may try to wow you with high megapixel counts, but the Pixel 5 still produces more consistently good results with nice dynamic range and sharp detail.

iPhone 11 (left) vs the Pixel 4A 5G (right). The Pixel looks more natural, but still has a visible HDR effect

In low light, another big change is the combination of Night Sight and portrait mode. It’s a good trick, and you can get some really nice shots — though, as with all portrait modes, you’ll find issues with the edges of people’s hair. Google says that it’s added an extra lighter frame to its HDR Plus algorithm for dark shots, and I can see that effect. In especially dark situations, some of the Pixel 5’s photos look a little over-processed, but they still come out better than the iPhone 11. (I obviously haven’t tested it against the iPhone 12.)

Google seems to have taken another step in making its classic Pixel “look” look a little more like everybody else. There’s a little more yellow than I’ve come to expect from Pixels but not so much that it hurts color accuracy. Google also deserves credit for its stance on face smoothing: it’s off by default in an effort to avoid causing self-image problems.

With portraits, my favorite new feature is actually a part of Google Photos: you can manually adjust a virtual light source’s position and intensity to change how faces are lit. It is much more natural-looking than I expected it to be. All phones default to brightening up faces since that’s what people usually want, but this feature lets me add some shadows back when I think they should be there. It’s different from Apple Portrait Lighting effects, which are more about dramatic looks than adjusting the light.

My least favorite part of the Pixel 5’s camera is that so many of its modes — from portrait to video stabilization — crop in on the shot. I have to step back to get the proper framing way more often than I do on other phones. On the bright side, the camera UI clearly shows what the crop will be when you start switching around.

The new 107-degree ultrawide camera is 16 megapixels and it’s good, but the quality doesn’t stand out. You can also shoot video with it, but, unfortunately, it caps out at 1080p.

Video quality has long been the Achilles’ heel for the Pixel line, so Google put a lot of effort into it this year. In our testing, we found that it has better dynamic range, and my colleague Becca Farsace notes that it makes the right choices in terms of focusing and lighting. Quality is improved, but the Pixel 5 still can’t stand up to what flagships like the iPhone 11 Pro or the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra offer. At least it shoots in 4K 60 now, though, oddly, 4K 24 is still not available.

The Pixel 5 ultrawide camera

The Pixel 5 ultrawide camera. It also supports Night Sight, but you can’t shoot 4K video with it.

Google says it applied specific algorithms to reduce distortion on the edges, but it can only do so much.

Google says it applied specific algorithms to reduce distortion on the edges, but it can only do so much.

For me, though, the new video stabilization modes are much more useful. The standard stabilization is on by default and makes a notable difference with my shaky hands. There are other new modes that are useful if you’re an amateur like me.

“Locked” punches in and then keeps the shot locked as though the phone were on a tripod even if your hand wobbles a bit. “Active” keeps things steady when you’re walking or otherwise bounding around. Finally, “Cinematic Pan” essentially combines both slo-mo and aggressive stabilization so you can get some dramatic shots while moving the phone around (though, unfortunately, it drops the resolution down to 1080p).

All three of these modes won’t impress a videographer, but for a schlub like me, they meant I was able to get some interesting footage that otherwise would have been a jittery, jerky mess.

At the end of the day, the Pixel 5 earned its place as my favorite smartphone camera for photos. I still love the Pixel look, the low-light performance, and the overall quality I can get without having to expend much effort. In years past, it was my favorite by a wide margin. This year, the margin is much smaller. Other phones have caught up on photo quality, surpassed it in versatility with multiple lenses, or are still better on pure video quality.

The Google Pixel 5

The Google Pixel 5.

Pixel 5 software

Perhaps the biggest draw for Pixel phones is that they’re guaranteed to get software updates first. The Pixel 5 ships with Android 11 and will continue to have the latest version of Android as soon as it’s available for three years.

And Google’s version of Android on the Pixel mirrors its hardware philosophy: simple but elegant. There are only a handful of customizations to the core experience — things like basic theming and the option to put suggested apps in your dock.

Otherwise, the main benefit of the software on the Pixel 5 is that many of Android’s best features aren’t getting messed with. Long-pressing on the power button brings up a convenient menu of smart home controls and Google Pay. Notifications are organized into useful sections, and chat apps can be minimized into floating bubbles on top of other apps.

Google has added a few software features inside the Pixel’s custom apps. In the phone app, you can set Google Assistant to sit on hold for you and alert you when a real human comes on the line. I didn’t want to hassle any actual customer service reps with it this week just to test, but I do wonder how many of them will bother to stay on the line when Assistant asks them to please hold on while it rings you.

Google’s Voice Recorder continues to be an underappreciated app. It accurately transcribes text live, but a new feature lets you export that audio in a little video clip that works better on social media. You can even delete words from the transcript, and the audio will automatically be edited to match. If Google didn’t insist on heavily branding the video with its own logos, I’d use it a bunch.

The body is made of aluminum but then encased in a “resin” coating.

The body is made of aluminum but then encased in a “resin” coating.

My favorite Google phone of all time isn’t actually a Pixel; it’s the Nexus 5. That phone was less expensive than its competitors, had a very fast and clean version of Android, and was Google’s first foray into a new wireless standard (LTE). The Nexus 5 wasn’t the fanciest Android phone of its era, but it was the nicest one to actually use. You can see the parallel to the Pixel 5.

It may be disappointing to see Google shy away from the big leagues this year, but I think sticking to making a premium midrange phone is more true to the Pixel’s whole ethos. The Pixel 5 is not an especially exciting phone, but instead of overreaching, Google focused on the fundamentals: build quality, battery life, and, of course, the camera.

Some of its technological retreats are frustrating — I wish it had a chip for processing images more quickly — but most of them are no big deal. I quickly acclimated to the rear-mounted fingerprint sensor and never got annoyed by speed in regular use.

Instead of trying to make a flagship, Google aimed right down the middle — and it hit the bull’s-eye.

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