(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?
- Dimensions: 144.7 x 70.4 x 8mm / Weight: 151g
- Aluminium body, IP68 dust- & weather-sealed
- Hidden ear speaker
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
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.
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.
Hardware and performance
- Qualcomm Snapdragon 765G, 8GB RAM
- 4,080mAh battery capacity
- 5G connectivity
- 128GB storage
One of the major shifts in Google's phone strategy in 2020 has been moving the Pixel 5 from the true flagship space into the sub-flagship space. Equipped with the Qualcomm Snapdragon 765, this is a 5G phone and, like many others on this hardware in 2020, it offers great performance.
What's most remarkable is how Qualcomm has closed the gap between the mid-range and the flagship in terms of performance. This is a slick and fast phone, it doesn't stutter or struggle like mid-range devices used to, but importantly the Snapdragon 765 has enabled cheaper devices. In essence you don't need a Snapdragon 865.
There's some very capable competition in this segment, like the OnePlus Nord for example, but it's a repeat performance in terms of the power on offer from the Pixel 5.
We have noticed that the fancy aluminium body is more prone to becoming warm under load: spend an hour playing Call of Duty Mobile and the Pixel 5 will definitely be warmer than the Pixel 4a 5G - which is also a Snapdragon 765 device) - although not uncomfortably so. It's hard to see the Pixel 5 as a gamers' phone anyway because of the smaller screen size, but the point is that it's still able to run the top games without a problem.
The battery life is also good. Lots of things run in the right direction here: a reasonable 4080mAh capacity and a display that's not too large, results in a phone that has the endurance to get through the day.
One of the benefits that it brings is wireless charging, which is something that both the Pixel 4a models miss out on. It also offers reverse wireless charging, meaning you can, for example, charge your Pixel Buds by placing them on the back of the phone. It's a luxury, but it's pretty clever too - and something we've seen from the likes of Samsung in the past.
The Pixel 5 supports 18W charging which is pretty fast, but not the fastest out there. Although it does at least come with an 18W charger in the box.
Those Pixel cameras
- Dual rear cameras:
- Main: 12.2-megapixels, 1.4µm pixel size, f/1.7 aperture, optical image stabilisation (OIS)
- Ultra-wide: 16MP, 1.0µm, f/2.2, 107 degrees field of view
- Front: 8MP, 1.12µm, f/2.0
The camera story for the Pixel should be pretty familiar by now, with the main camera here being the same core hardware as we've seen the previous few generations of Pixel phones. Don't let that put you off, however, because the race to more megapixels doesn't really pay dividends in the age of computational photography, which is where Google very much rules the roost.
At its heart, this is a good sensor, but the results speak for themselves, as this phone will give you a usable shot in pretty much any situation - bright sunshine, overcast days, HDR scenarios or in darkness. That's the Pixel's strength - point, shoot, share - and enjoy the fact that you don't have to mess around in the process.
The same is applicable to the front camera, which gives great selfies in pretty much all conditions. They can be a little more contrasty than some rivals, but generally the quality is good in all conditions. The only downside is that it's fixed focus, so perhaps less flexible than some. There's two options for the front camera, a 1x view or 1.4x view which crops in a little closer. It's perhaps a strange addition, but means you can choose if the photo is about your face, or about where you're standing.
Google does a great job with edge detection to create portrait images, preserving the ability to edit the level of blur, but now with much more editing control through the Photos app. This takes a leaf out of Snapseed - allowing easy adjustments of lots of different aspects of you image, with a lot more guidance than previously too. In fact if you have Snapseed installed, you can head into the "more" section of the editor to open the image up directly in Snapseed itself or other photo editing apps on your phone.
Because this is Google and it's using computational photography, you can apply edits to images that were taken without the specific hardware on this phone. For example, you can edit images to add portrait functions, like the new portrait lighting or background blur, no matter what camera they were taken on.
Night sight continues to offer stellar performance, but now acts automatically - so you don't have select it to use it (although you can turn off the automatic Night Sight if you wish). That will take a longer exposure and process away image noise and discolouration to get a better final result - and we still think that Night Sight is among the best performers for low-light imagery you'll find on a phone, especially in these mid-range prices.
There's more smarts in the new camera app too, with things like a level that will not only reveal your roll (horizontal tilt) but also the pitch (vertical tilt) so you can line up better photos and avoid the distortion that comes from not having the lens square-on to the subject.
However, there's no zoom lens on the Pixel 5. Google flirted with that on the Pixel 4 and has now moved over to ultra-wide instead. It's a lower quality lens, with smaller pixels and a narrower aperture, so it's less capable than the main camera in challenging situations. Yes, it will take an ultra-wide photo in low light, but it will be a lot more grainy than those from the main camera, with not even Google's computational magic able to clean it up. But it does manage to escape the worst of the blurring towards the edges, so it's a better ultra-wide than some cheaper rivals - but also note that it's only 107 degrees, so there are wider lenses out there, which might explain the better relative performance.
Moving to zoom and it's all digital. The app offers a tap to 2x zoom and that's perfectly usable. There's digital zoom out to 7x, but at that point it's pretty mushy and not great. There's also a bug in camera, where often you can take a 2x zoom picture and it saves as 1x instead. This is common when you take a 1x photo, then a 2x photo and hit the preview icon to take a look. You'll see the 2x image processing, and then it jumps back to the 1x view. You can avoid it, but just check to make sure you're getting the image you think you are - but in the screen recording below you can see what happens.
Having mentioned processing, it's worth saying that processing is part of living with a Pixel camera. As we found with the Pixel 4a, the Pixel 5 will spend some time processing images you've just taken before you arrive at the best version of that photo. It's not a critical problem, but if you take a photo and then view it right away, be prepared to look at some processing.
There are video enhancements on the Pixel 5 and they can be a lot of fun. You can capture in 4K and apply a range of different stabilisation types. There's normal everyday stabilisation that will remove handshake, for example, but then there's lock, active and cinematic pan, the last of which gives you a slow motion pan that's nice and steady. They are great fun and easy to use, ideal to get creative with video.
While it doesn't have all the lenses that you'd get on a flagship model, the overall performance from this camera is great. One of the downsides, of course, is that the Pixel 4a 5G camera is exactly the same - and in a cheaper model.
Pure software charms
- Android 11
- Some Pixel extras
The major advantage in owning a Pixel device is that you get the best of Google first. You'll be at the front of the queue when it comes to software updates, while also getting some of the software features that make Pixels special.
But for anyone coming from another manufacturer, the Pixel's approach - free from bloat, with nothing preinstalled or tinkered with - makes for a great experience. There's enough thrown in, like the live wallpapers and the Now Playing feature that will tell you what songs are on in the background, to make the Pixel feel a little bit special in the Android world.
Then there added features in Android 11, such as native screen recording, that adds skills to what you'll get from Android without the need to use additional apps.
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
The OnePlus Nord is bigger, but cheaper, while being just as powerful. It doesn't have the camera skills of the Pixel, however.
Samsung Galaxy S20 FE
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.