Google Pixel 5 Review: Pixel without the fluff

This year Google has shocked us with a Pixel smartphone that doesn’t offer the best processor but instead sports a killer battery, a better design than its predecessors and a rear-facing fingerprint scanner.

Google’s latest “flagship” hardware, the Pixel 5, isn’t what I expected. While I like a lot of what the company has done with the new smartphone, there are some aspects that I’d consider a miss.

That said, the Pixel 5 comes in at a retail price of $799, and a phone that’s worth its price tag isn’t typically an easy find.

In my time with the device, I’ve noted that the Pixel 5 isn’t the best Android smartphone on the market, but it has so much going for it here that’d I have no issues recommending the device to most users in need of a new phone.

Specs

Metal back

One of my biggest gripes with the Pixel 5 is that it only comes in one 6-inch size variant. Google believes that it found the right size for a smartphone, but it would have been nice if there was another option that wasn’t the lower-end Pixel 4a 5G.

I’m typically someone who uses larger devices, like the S20+ that comes in at 6.7 inches, the LG Velvet that offers a 6.8-inch display and other larger phones. But, despite what I’m used to, the Pixel 5 is surprisingly a pretty good size.

The Pixel 5 measures in at 144.7 x 70.4 x 8mm, and it fits perfectly in my hand. Again, I’d prefer something a bit bigger, but this size will likely satisfy most people. Additionally, it comes in a bit smaller and slightly thicker than the iPhone 12, and at least for me, a thicker phone is more comfortable to grip. Further, I typically text with two hands, and that’s not an issue with the handset. One-handed texting is also easy.

Google’s latest smartphone offers a flat 6.0-inch hole-punch display with the camera in the top-right corner. Gone are the days of oversized bezels and notches; the tech giant has finally given us a smartphone that looks fresh and modern, at least from the front.

The SIM tray is located on the left side of the device. There’s a metallic green power button and a volume rocker that matches the colour of the smartphone on the right side. I’m using the ‘Sage Green’ Pixel, so it’s a little odd to see that the power button isn’t a contrasting colour, but it’s not a big deal. The bottom of the handset sports the USB-C port, which is flanked by two speaker grills, though only one produces sound.

Flip the hardware to its back, and you’ll notice a square-shaped camera module with two shooters and an LED. And slightly below the cameras is a 2018-era fingerprint scanner.

Before I move any further, let’s talk about that sensor, which Google calls ‘Pixel Imprint.’ My first thought is, why would a company ever go back to a rear-facing fingerprint scanner when there are options like in-screen sensors or face unlock? It felt like Google was skimping out in a way that didn’t make sense. However, after spending time with the Pixel 5, I can confirm that this is surprisingly the right move. Google also ditched the Soli radar chip in the Pixel 5, which made the phone more affordable but removed features like ‘Motion Sense.’ Along with dropping Soli, Google didn’t include the infrared sensors, dot projector and other hardware that filled the large top-bezel on the Pixel 4 line. Soli, as well as the other hardware in the Pixel 4 top-bezel, enabled Google’s take on face unlock.

“The back of the Pixel 5 is aluminum, which, unfortunately, makes the phone feel less premium but is better in the long run when it comes to durability”

I expected Google would replace face unlock with an in-screen fingerprint sensor, but the tech giant went with a rear-facing physical one instead. I think this is the right decision as Pixel Imprint is far quicker than any in-display fingerprint scanners I’ve tried. I also experienced far fewer missed authentications. On the other hand, in-display sensors typically work 85 to 90 percent of the time. Pixel Imprint is accurate 99 percent of the time, and it’s a lot quicker.

The back of the Pixel 5 is aluminum, which, unfortunately, makes the phone feel less premium but is better in the long run when it comes to durability. When I don’t have a case on the Pixel 5, I’m less fearful of drops. This might be a problem in the future, but as of right now, I like the metal-feeling back more than a slick glass rear. It also doesn’t attract fingerprints or smudges, which is always a plus.

Users spend most of their time looking at their smartphone’s display, making it one of the most important aspects of a smartphone. So, it’s odd that Google lowered the pixel resolution on the Pixel 5. The tech giant’s new handset now offers a 1080 x 2340 resolution with a density of 432ppi, compared to 537ppi available on the Pixel 4 XL. On a day-to-day basis, I don’t typically notice the lower resolution. Even when I place the Pixel 5 and 4 XL side-by-side, it isn’t easy to notice the display quality difference. 432ppi seems to be enough pixels for a 6-inch display as both images and videos look good on the Pixel 5.

The Pixel 5’s OLED screen also features HDR10, offering deep blacks, bright whites and a great sense of contrast when consuming content.

But the screen’s best feature is called ‘Smooth Display,’ which allows the phone to run at a 90Hz refresh rate. A quicker refresh rate results in smoother animations and scrolling, but it’s strange Google didn’t implement a 120Hz refresh rate like the S20 series or the OnePlus devices. It’s likely that Google weighed the cost and decided that it wasn’t worth it — and I think I agree with Google. A 90Hz refresh is still ahead of many other devices on the market like LG’s, TCL’s, and even Apple’s lineup of 2020 smartphones. Plus, it doesn’t look that different from a 120Hz refresh rate unless you have a phone with a quicker refresh rate in your hand for a direct comparison. When I compared Samsung’s 120Hz S20 FE with the 90Hz Pixel 5, the S20 FE was noticeably smoother.

However, Google probably doesn’t expect the average consumer to compare phones side-by-side like this, and a 90Hz refresh rate is an excellent middle ground.

Great battery life

Google’s latest sports a Snapdragon 765G processor capable of 5G speeds. However, it’s less powerful than Qualcomm’s flagship 865 and 865G chips. I guess I’m not doing anything that warrants the extra power because I had no issues with the upper-midrange chipset.

“The phone offers both a lower single-core and multi-core rating than the Pixel 4”

To this day, I still haven’t been able to trip up the handset. Paired with 8GB of RAM, the device can handle about 20 apps opened at once, hours of me writing on Google Docs, editing selfies with Photos, taking pictures and videos, listening to music and watching movies. Moreover, I have no concerns when watching YouTube videos, playing light games like Among Us and Limbo and even playing more intensive titles like PUBG and Brawhalla.

I’ve never noticed the phone getting warmer than room temperature during gameplay, and it only reached a peak temperature of 40 Celsius when charging — though this has only happened overnight once or twice, according to the Battery HD app.

That said, the Pixel 5 doesn’t benchmark all that well. The phone offers both a lower single-core and multi-core rating than the Pixel 4, and it’s even slightly lower than the Pixel 4a 5G — although it’s unclear why considering the two devices offer the same processor. I don’t put much stock into benchmarks, however. In my experience, the handset has no issues in terms of how well it runs.

Thankfully, Google put a worthwhile battery into the Pixel 5. Depending on your usage, you can expect the Pixel to last a full day and in some cases, even until noon the following day, for example, if you’re not home and not using your phone for anything more than replying to friends and scrolling through social media. On days when you’re out and about and listening to music or watching videos, it’ll still confidently last until that night. I once left my house at around 9pm with my phone at about 20 percent — and I wouldn’t say I wasn’t conservative about usage — and it lasted until 1am.

Screen usage is a beast, with the hardware typically offering about 9 to 10 hours of screen time. When I turned on the Extreme Battery Saver functionality after the device reached five percent, the Pixel 5 made it to a bit more than 12 hours of screen time.

Further, I noted it could charge from 0 to 100 percent within an hour and a half. And reverse-wireless charging is worth it when you’re charging a Qi-compatible earbud case, but like any smartphone that offers the feature, I wouldn’t charge another handset on the Pixel 5’s rear.

While most people likely listen to music on speakers or headphones, the Pixel 5’s speakers are pretty loud. I can hear it throughout my room, but not when I’m washing dishes. Using the Sound Meter app, I determined it’s just slightly quieter than the Pixel 4, which is a bit more muted than the S20 FE. It typically peaked at about 55 decibels, which is comparable to a typical conversation with your friend. So it’s worth noting you’re not going to have a party with the Pixel 5, but it makes for good background noise.

In terms of the speakers’ quality, they’re a bit tinny, and the Pixel 5 isn’t the best phone to listen to music with if you want to use your handset as your primary listening device.

Let’s talk about 5G for a moment.

I use Koodo Mobile and the carrier does not offer 5G currently. That said, it doesn’t seem like I’m missing very much. MobileSyrup managing editor Patrick O’Rouke tested 5G in his iPhone 12 Pro review, where he said “I ran several speed tests from my home office, and in nearly every instance, my iPhone 11 Pro Max hit 24.3Mbps download and 10.4Mbps for upload on Rogers’ 5G network, compared to Telus/Koodo’s LTE network hitting 61.7Mbps for download and 3.72Mbps for upload.” Of course, he notes, that speeds depend on where you live and in Oakville, Burlington and Hamilton he experienced faster mobile internet.

My thoughts on this are that it’s good Google added 5G capabilities to the Pixel 5 and that it helps future-proof the phone for when 5G speeds improve across Canada. It’s also nice that you’re able to purchase a great-quality 5G smartphone for under $800.

You can read O’Rouke’s iPhone 12 Pro review for more information about his experience with 5G.

Similar experience

Like always, Google’s camera delivers. The Pixel 5’s shooters take nearly identical pictures to the Pixel 4, which isn’t a bad thing but isn’t necessarily a good thing, either.

Instead of the Pixel 4’s telephoto shooter, the company replaced it with an ultrawide lens and is substituting optical zoom with digital zoom. I assume Google didn’t add a telephoto camera to save cost, but for those who like to zoom, you might be disappointed. At face value, the Pixel 5’s Super Res digital zoom offers solid pictures. But once you begin cropping, you can tell that images look a bit noisy and are softer. This is especially true when you start using 3x zoom and above with the Pixel 5.

Look close enough you can see the degradation in quality in the Pixel 5 image on the right side.

However, it’s worth noting that if I had to choose between a wide-angle or a telephoto lens, I’d always pick the wide-angle. You can still digitally zoom inwards (though quality degrades), but there’s only so much you can zoom outwards. That said, to stay in competition with other smartphone manufacturers, it might be worth it for Google to include both a telephoto and a wide-angle lens in the Pixel 6.

Without zooming, the phone takes good shots. I find that images are detailed, vibrant without being oversaturated and pretty true-to-life, similar to Apple’s iPhone 11 series’ shots. The handset handles nearly any photo without significant issues and offers more range than the Pixel 4. Compared to the S20 FE, I find that Samsung’s hardware produces pictures similar in detail but that are more saturated and offer a greater contrast and vibrancy. That said, they aren’t true-to-life.

Flipping to the wide-angle camera, I mostly compared this lens to the S20 FE. The quality of images with the Pixel 5’s wide-angle lens is roughly the same as its regular camera. I find that you don’t see any distortion in these wider shots, but it’s worth noting that the Pixel 5’s lens features only a 107-degree angle, compared to the S20 FE, which offers a 123-degree lens. It would have been great to see Google bring a wider degree lens to the table.

Night images come out crisp, the sky is a tad overexposed, and there’s some contrast lacking, but for the most part, these images are solid. Some pictures can come out a bit noisy, but it’s not noticeable unless you look for it. I found the S20 FE’s images a tad too oversaturated in comparison, but it offered the same level of detail as the Pixel 5.

You can see more detail in my beard in the Pixel 4 XL image on the right.

Selfies are where I find Pixel smartphones usually reign supreme. I can’t say that this time around, unfortunately. Pictures look good, but they aren’t as detailed as you’d expect and are overly soft. In this regard, the Pixel 5 falls short of the Pixel 4 as the Pixel 4’s selfies were crisper and offered a lot more detail.

I can say the same thing about the Galaxy S20 FE that offers sharper images. In the picture above, you’ll notice that the Pixel 5 sort of blurs my facial hair, and it’s a tad noisy in comparison to the other two flagships. The Pixel 5 also has a portrait studio feature that can help offer a portrait light effect, and it’s pretty cool, but it’s not worth the lack of details that the Pixel 5 is missing.

“What I really don’t like about the Pixel camera experience is that there’s no significant leap”

I found this disappointing, as I love to snap photos of myself, but colour accuracy is excellent, and I find that the Pixel 5 reproduces my black skin pretty well. This is often an issue with other Android smartphones on the market.

What I really don’t like about the Pixel camera experience is that there’s no significant leap. In 2018, Google’s Pixel 3 delivered an unrivalled experience, but now it seems like other manufacturers have caught up. I like Pixel cameras likely more than any other on the market, but that’s just my personal preference. Samsung, Huawei, and OnePlus are all doing great things and making advancements in the camera department, so I can easily see someone else preferring the shots from one of these companies’ devices over the Pixel, and they wouldn’t be wrong for that opinion. Plus, the telephoto and wide-angle experiences are definitely superior to those handsets.

Hopefully, the Pixel 6 delivers a far superior camera experience that’s more in-line with what the Pixel 3 offered.

It’s also important to mention when I first launched the Pixel 5 the camera had issues with desaturation and details. Resetting the camera app by clearing the storage fixed the problem.

There isn’t anything bad about the Pixel 5

I wish Google offered the Pixel 5 in two different sizes to give users options. I also think the phone should have featured a telephoto shooter as well as a wide-angle lens. And, it’s worth noting that in such a saturated smartphone market, it’s odd to see that Google didn’t offer additional storage or RAM configurations. I know Google doesn’t usually offer RAM configurations, but it’s starting to become the standard with manufacturers like Samsung and OnePlus.

The Pixel 5 overall might be one of the best, if not the best, Pixel smartphones ever. Google made many noteworthy changes with the smartphone, and on paper, except for the 8GB of RAM and battery increase, they’re mostly bad. However, we still end up getting a solid Pixel device with an equally solid $799 CAD price tag. $799 might seem like a lot for some, but it’s impressive considering how smartphones are typically priced in Canada — for instance, the $949 CAD Galaxy S20 FE.

It’s also worth noting that the Pixel user interface is the best it’s ever been. It’s easy to use and doesn’t overcomplicate anything, an issue I often have with other smartphones.

While the term ‘flagship’ is hard to use when describing this new handset, the Pixel 5 is exactly what we need in this already over-saturated smartphone market. It doesn’t have a foldable display, four cameras, an in-screen fingerprint scanner, a curved screen, 12GB of RAM, or a high-end processor. However, what it does offer is an excellent battery experience — one of the best on the market — a solid build, decent camera performance, and it can handle everything I throw at it.

I’d describe Google’s latest and greatest as the no-frills affordable flagship; it’s not everything you may want, but it likely includes what most people need from a smartphone.

“I’d describe Google’s latest and greatest as the no-frills affordable flagship; it’s not everything you may want, but it’s likely what most people need in a smartphone”

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