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(Pocket-lint) - Google Pixel devices have changed direction in 2020. The Pixel 4a was expected, but then delayed, launching pretty close to the announcement of the devices that followed - the Pixel 4a 5G and this phone, the Pixel 5.

Of these, the Pixel 5 carries a new name; it's a solo device, without an XL model to appeal to those wanting a bigger phone. And with pretty much the same hardware as the Pixel 4a 5G, the Pixel 5 is a slightly confusing device - smaller, yet more expensive, with just a few unique features attempting to justify the higher price.

Can the Google Pixel 5 really justify its worth?

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Our quick take

The Pixel 5 is something of an oddball. On one level, this is a very competent phone. It has the power, camera, performance and the build quality to offer a great experience. It's close to a flagship experience and for those wanting a compact device, it's a great choice.

But there are downsides, such as the poor ear speaker which detracts from the package, and there's also the issue of the cheaper Pixel 4a 5G. The cheaper phone lacks the waterproofing, the wireless charging and the 90Hz display, but it otherwise has a larger display for less money with much the same performance - including the same camera - while also having better speakers and a 3.5mm headphone socket. So why pay more for less?

For some people, the lure of the solid camera experience, the pure Google software - while remaining at the front of the update queue - all wrapped in a premium package, makes the Pixel 5 a tempting handset.

Alternatives to consider

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OnePlus Nord

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The OnePlus Nord is bigger, but cheaper, while being just as powerful. It doesn't have the camera skills of the Pixel, however.

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Samsung Galaxy S20 FE

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The Samsung Galaxy S20 FE (5G), is a bona fide flagship device. It is larger, more powerful, with the option for expanded storage, while also offering a 120Hz display. Yes, it's more expensive, but it's still cheaper than most flagships - and you're getting a lot more phone.

Google Pixel 5 review: Premium, but at a price

Google Pixel 5

4.0 stars
For
  • IP68 dust/water protection
  • Great display
  • Plenty of power
  • Free from bloat
  • All-round camera performance
Against
  • Its larger sibling - the 4a 5G - is cheaper and much the same
  • Speaker quality is poor
  • No zoom camera

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Design

  • Dimensions: 144.7 x 70.4 x 8mm / Weight: 151g
  • Aluminium body, IP68 dust- & weather-sealed
  • Hidden ear speaker
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The Pixel 5 looks pretty much the same as the Pixel 4a and 4a 5G. There's no avoiding the fact that they look like a family of phones. In fact, one might ask why the Pixel 5 is called the Pixel 5, when it's pretty much identical to the Pixel 4a 5G, except smaller.

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That's a strange position for a smaller phone. But the Pixel 5 pushes a couple of features to try and justify its higher pricing, namely an aluminium body - although it's coated and textured, so it doesn't feel like a metal phone like the HTC One M8 did.

Instead that coating is matte, so stays free from smears and is nice and grippy, but doesn't feel too different to coated plastic. In fact, it's not hugely different to the plastic finish of the Pixel 4a 5G in terms of feel. There's a textural difference, sure, but it's not like the difference between, say, bare metal and plastic. However, it might have better longevity.

The layout, ports and buttons on the Pixel 5 match the Pixel 4a 5G too, with the only obvious external difference really being the ear speaker and the lack of 3.5mm headphone socket. On the Pixel 4a models there's an obvious grille at the top of the display, while on the Pixel 5 there isn't - it's embedded, hidden from sight.

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It's also not very good. Hiding that ear speaker has two major effects: firstly it reduces the quality of incoming calls. Talk to someone with a deep voice, or turn the volume up on a call, and you'll feel that reverberate through the body of the phone, which isn't nice, while sounding rather muffled. Yes, you can hear what they are saying, but it lacks quality.

Secondly, while boasting "stereo speakers" on the spec sheet, it lacks the clarity and punch that you'd expect. With the top speaker being muffled and rather weak, the base speaker is left carrying the can. Side-by-side against the Pixel 4a 5G, the Pixel 5 sounds rubbish - and that means that music, videos or games you play, just don't sound like they are coming from a phone with stereo speakers.

What we do like, however, is the return of the fingerprint scanner on the rear of the phone. Having used phones dominated by the under-display fingerprint scanner for a number of years, the return of this simple technology is welcomed - it's fast, it's easy to unlock and really reliable. Others might say it's a step backwards, though.

Display

  • 6.0-inch OLED, 2340 x 1080 resolution (432ppi)
  • 90Hz refresh rate, HDR support

The display on the Pixel 5 is pretty compact; the 6-inch size in nice and easy to manage, resulting in a frame that's not too large. It's flanked by the Pixel 4a at 5.81-inches and the 4a 5G at 6.2-inches, the latter obviously having greater appeal thanks to being larger and cheaper.

To give the sense that the Pixel 5 is offering something more premium it has a 90Hz refresh rate, while the other devices are 60Hz. This can mean that some of the visuals are smoother, for example scrolling through lists and with wider adoption for games, faster refresh rates are delivering clearer visuals for some gamers too.

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But it's one of those things that you barely notice unless you have the devices side-by-side - and in many applications, a faster refresh rate makes little or no difference. When it comes to managing your messages, the camera or watching movies, it's an irrelevance. It's a case of being nice to have, but not a deal breaker.

Google sticks to a Full HD+ resolution which is perfectly fitting for this phone, while high dynamic range (HDR) support can boost the visuals within supported streaming services. We can't complain about the colour, vibrancy or detail, because this OLED display looks good, indoors and out.

One thing we did notice is that while streaming content on Prime Video, it never moved from HD to 1080p resolutions, where most phones of this ilk will make that transition pretty soon after you start watching. Netflix, however, offered HDR titles - we suspect the Prime Video resolution issue is a temporary problem.

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There's a neat punch hole for the front camera in the top corner, and while it's not the smallest opening ever, it's not too intrusive either.