I've been using the Pixel 5 for the better part of a week now, and it's the first Google phone in years I'm getting a very particular feeling about. It takes great photos, I think the physical design is muted in a very charmingly Google way, and the software is exactly the unfettered Android experience I've come to know and love. But I'm just not sure how long I'm going to keep using it now that this review has gone up.
The Pixel 5 is by its nature an exercise in compromise. A slower chipset, the lack of face unlock, a missing telephoto camera lens, and cost cuts on components like haptics make it a bizarre case of this year's phone being worse in very material ways than last year's. And yes, it also improves: the Pixel 5 has more RAM (8GB), more storage by default (128GB), 5G (arguably useless in the US), and a battery that just goes and goes. These are all pretty good things (especially that last one)! But once you consider the price of this phone — $700 here in the US — the things you give up just cut too far in the wrong direction for me.
This was also my gut reaction the moment Google announced the retail price of the Pixel 5 here in America, but now that I've had a chance to really stew on it, I feel even more strongly. There's not just a reasonable case to be made that saving $100 was a wise decision here — it's left the Pixel 5 compromised in ways competitors will easily exploit. It's too bad, because the Pixel 5 is, even faults considered, a pleasant phone to use. But that price is a critical hump I'm just not able to get over.
|Display||6.0" 2340 x 1080 19.5:9 90Hz OLED|
|Cameras||Primary: 12.2MP f/1.7 (77° FoV)
Ultra-wide: 16MP f/2.2 (107° FoV)
Front: 8MP f/2.0 (83° FoV)
|Power||4080mAh battery, 18W wired charging, 10W Qi wireless (with compatible chargers)|
|Connectivity||5G SA/NSA (including mmWave for US models), 2x2 MIMO dual-band Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 5.0, NFC|
|Dimensions||144.7 x 70.4 x 8.0mm, 151g|
|Colors||Just Black, Sorta Sage|
|Camera||Both the main and ultrawide sensors take stunning photos.|
|Battery||This phone goes and goes, easily lasting me a full day and then some. Two days if I'm not using it as much.|
|Display||Google picked a nice panel for the Pixel 5. It's got great colors, and doesn't crush blacks at low brightness.|
|Fingerprint scanner||Fast and reliable, just like capacitive scanners should be.|
|Software and updates||Unspoiled Android, 3 years of (very timely) OS updates. Best in the (Android) business.|
|Price||This phone is laughably, borderline crazily overpriced. Google is off its rocker.|
|Chipset||Say what you will, but this is a noticeably slower phone than even last year's Pixel 4. A Snapdragon 765 doesn't belong in a $700 phone.|
|Regressions||Worse performance, slower camera processing, no face unlock, no telephoto camera, worse haptics. I'm not thrilled.|
|Competition||There are far more powerful phones available around this price point, like the OnePlus 8T and Galaxy S20 FE.|
|Colors and storage||Two colors, one storage configuration. That's pretty weak, Google.|
Design, hardware, what's in the box
If you have a Pixel 4a, just imagine someone spreading a nice, even coat of quality paint over all that plastic. There: you've got a Pixel 5. While the $700 "premium" Pixel isn't actually plastic (Google is using a recycled aluminum frame), until you go wrenching on it, you'd never know. Twisting the little phone in your hands quickly reveals that metallic structure, though an invisible gap has been carved out of the back to allow for wireless charging. Along the side, a nice and clicky power key and volume rocker are placed at a reasonably comfortable height (this is a small phone — almost any part of it is easy to reach), though I found both a bit too recessed compared to previous generations.
This capacitive fingerprint scanner replaces what for Android was the gold standard in secure face unlock.
The barely-there camera hump ensures the Pixel 5 will never quite lay perfectly flat on a surface, but it's so close to being flush that I can't complain. Next to it, you'll find the capacitive fingerprint scanner, which was fast and reliable in my testing, one of those real cases of "if it ain't broke..." I can get behind. I do like the newest generation of optical fingerprint readers, don't get me wrong — they're fast, accurate, and easy to use — but I'd be hard-pressed to come up with a compelling reason not to use a capacitive scanner if it saves on the bill of materials. They're totally fine! That all said, the issue from the Pixel 4a's scanner remains: the cutout for the scanner is so shallow it can be difficult to physically distinguish with your finger. But if you slap a case on the phone, it's obviously not going to be a problem. The thing I'm less able to get over is the fact that this capacitive fingerprint scanner replaces what for Android was the gold standard in secure face unlock on the Pixel 4 and 4 XL, a feature I very much miss here.
The camera hump is arguably not even a "hump."
The Pixel's earpiece speaker actually works by vibrating the display glass at the top of the phone.
On the bottom are the USB-C port and one of the Pixel 5's two speakers. "Two, you say? I only see the one!" Well, there's a bit of nifty trickery going on here, in that the Pixel's earpiece speaker actually works by vibrating the display glass at the top of the phone. Don't ask me how it works, but it does—calls are loud and clear, and that little guy definitely gives some extra oomph in combination with the more powerful bottom-firing driver. As usual on a Pixel phone, they also sound pretty good. They may not get as loud as some other phones, but clarity is surprisingly decent, with no grating clipping or peaky-ness that I tend to more frequently observe on even super-premium Android phones of late.
As you likely know, the Pixel 5 lacks any kind of expandable storage, meaning no microSD slot, and it doesn't have a 3.5mm headphone jack. What it does have are 10W Qi wireless charging (with select Google-certified accessories) and IP68 dust and water resistance, which are pretty much table stakes in this price range. The Pixel 5 also still charges at the same relatively dawdling 18 Watts it has since the original phones back in 2016. When a phone like the OnePlus 8T, which costs a whopping $50 more, is managing to go from zero to charged in under 40 minutes, I'm starting to expect a little more here, Google. At nearly 4100mAh, the Pixel 5's battery is very considerably larger than any previous Pixel phone, and it does take a little while to get up to full.
The Pixel 5's 1080p 90Hz display is great, achieving impressive contrast and black levels even at the lowest brightness settings, and supports HDR in applications like Netflix and YouTube. This is a very solid OLED panel, with my only real complaint that it does not appear Google paid to license the "overboost" outdoor brightness mode from Samsung for this screen, meaning direct daylight can be challenging to see through. In my testing, I also noted that — admittedly, like most other Android OEMs these days — Google is no longer using a circular polarizer on the display lens. This means that when wearing polarized sunglasses, there is a "dead" angle where the screen will go completely invisible, and also that the phone may not appear as bright as it should even when looked at straight on. It's not a big deal: Samsung doesn't even use them in phones like the $1300 Note20 Ultra, but since previous Pixels did have them, I figured it bore mentioning.
Seeing Google sacrifice premium haptics for the sake of presumably saving a few bucks is just sad.
On the basis of hardware alone, nothing about the Pixel 5 particularly stands out. Gone are Google's fancy secure face recognition sensor hub and Soli radar, and even little extras like active edge (or squeezy Assistant, as I like to call it) have bit the dust in the name of cutting costs. Using my Pixel 4 XL side by side with the Pixel 5, I am unable to escape the fact that almost everything about this new phone feels cheaper. One area I really can't abide that cheapening is the haptic feedback: it's a very noticeable downgrade from my Pixel 4 XL. Haptic effects are weaker, less crisp, and just not as pleasant. This was one of the very best parts of the last couple generations of Pixel, and seeing Google sacrifice premium haptics for the sake of presumably saving a few bucks is just sad.
On a completely separate note, I still love Google's fabric cases. They're super fun, and while in no way "worth" their asking price materially, are absolutely worth it in terms of character and texture.
Software, performance, and battery life
This is the part where I tell you how lovely and unspoiled Google's software is, and if I sound like a broken record, it's because it's true. I love an unfussed-with Android because it simply looks and feels clean and focused. I realize it's not everyone's cup of tea, but to the people who do things like put persistent mobile data speed indicators in their status bars like it's 2009, I suggest you skip this section! You are not catered to here! For those of you still with me: hello, friend. All is well in the world of Pixel software. And aside from the temporarily-new-Pixel exclusive Call Hold feature, Android 11 feels just as it does on every other phone dating back to the Pixel 2 right now. If you're reading this and haven't used a Pixel before, I ask you to imagine a smartphone that doesn't advertise to you or try to sell you another phone from the company you just bought one from. It's nice!
If you're on a phone that doesn't have or won't get Android 11, just know that compared to even Android 9, you're not going to see a ton of changes here.
Google's software navigation gestures are nearly iPhone-level smooth these days, and the "next generation" on-device Google Assistant is blazing fast (and remains Pixel-exclusive). Android 11's new media control notification UI is definitely an improvement, and the new screenshot interface is pretty slick. If you're on a phone that doesn't have or won't get Android 11, just know that compared to even Android 9, you're not going to see a ton of changes here.
The last two platform updates have heavily leaned into back-end optimizations meant to help developers build better experiences (and frankly, keep them from needlessly breaking shit), and also to take your privacy a little more seriously with more aggressive permissions for things like location and microphone access. The short and skinny is that Android 11 does have some user-facing features you should know about, though, and we've picked apart the best of them in much more detail in a separate post.
Performance is more of a mixed bag for me. The Snapdragon 765 (deep breath) is fine. But you need to look at the optics here: Google has released a $700 phone in 2020 that is objectively, demonstrably slower than the $800 one it released in 2019. And that's just not a hot look. People will go on until they're blue in the face that this doesn't really matter, and that no normal person even understands that phones can have different kinds of processors, let alone care which is in theirs. In fact, the Snapdragon 765G is quite a capable little chip, and Google has paired it with a respectable 8GB of RAM and 128GB of UFS storage. These things are all true! The Pixel 5 is pretty quick. Most people will be fine with that, and if your only concern is that this phone is going become a laggy piece of trash a year from now, let me disabuse you of that notion; there's really nothing to worry about.
The Pixel 4 is smoother, faster, and gets hung up when doing multitasking far less frequently.
When it comes to performance, though, I'd like to tackle two things. First: the Pixel 5 is very noticeably slower than the Pixel 4. There's no arguing it, I can easily see it in day to day use. The Pixel 4 is smoother, faster, and gets hung up when doing multitasking far less frequently (something benchmarking clearly bears out: the 855 may be a year old, but it ain't slow). We're also discussing a phone I've used a lot in the last year — I know what I'm talking about here. The Pixel 5 is plenty fast... for something I might expect to pay $400 or maybe $500 for. But, $700? Sorry, no sale. The second thing is a legitimate, everyday concern for a lot of people: games. The Snapdragon 765G may well be branded as a "gaming" chip, but its performance chops in this regard are meant to compare favorably to, say, a 600 series Snapdragon chip — not an 800 series. For example, the Pixel 5 can run Fortnite — one of the most demanding games on Android — as can all Snapdragon 765G phones, but it really shouldn't. Maintaining a steady 30FPS is near impossible on even the lowest graphic settings, with hard jolts a constant issue during play.
The next-gen on-device Google Assistant remains Pixel exclusive — and ridiculously fast.
On the comparative benchmark of performance, the Pixel 5 doesn't just fall flat, it faceplants.
Perhaps for someone on a strict budget who has bought a phone like the OnePlus Nord, a Mi 10 Lite, or a Realme X50 for $300-400, this is acceptable. But around $700, Google is playing with phones that use the full-fat Snapdragon 865 like the Galaxy S20 FE and OnePlus 8T, and they're simply much more performant. And that's not even mentioning the new iPhone 12 and 12 Mini, which would absolutely run laps around a Snapdragon 865, let alone Google's mid-tier silicon here. If you don't care about all this, that's fine — I am not here to convince you of what you do or don't need. But on the comparative benchmark of performance, the Pixel 5 doesn't just fall flat, it faceplants. Switching to budget silicon without a price to reflect that was a mistake, one that's crystal clear when you realize Google used the same chip in the far cheaper 4a 5G.
I will end this section on a high note, though: as far as battery life is concerned, things are finally coming up roses for Google's premier Pixel. It's great. Even with the 90Hz display and always-on mode enabled, 6 to 7 hours of screen time was no sweat on the Pixel 5, and 8 or even 10 hours is probably achievable with a little brightness management and AoD turned off. These are iPhone kind of numbers, which is so refreshing to finally see on Android consistently. Doubtless, the large 4080mAh battery plays a big role here, but years of power optimization on Android and more efficient processors have finally made range anxiety a corner case. And the fact that we're all basically staying home. There's that, too.
The primary sensor on the Pixel 5 is the same one Google has been using since 2016, which shows just how much of the heavy lifting software does on this phone's imaging. Think about it: Google consistently has the best still image quality of any smartphone maker period — and it's doing it with a sensor that's around half a decade old. As expected, the Pixel 5 continues this trend of excellence, though the tuning has been lightly adjusted, as it has been on every new Pixel with each passing year. This year, I think the colors pop a bit more, and especially things like greens and yellows feel a little more vibrant. It's subtle, but I believe it's there.
Google's ultrawide is just wide enough — it's not quite as crazy as most implementations, at just 107 degrees FoV.
The real new addition this year is the ultrawide camera, which is kind of polarizing. I'll keep my opinions on the utility of ultrawides brief, but suffice it to say that for every situation they came come in handy — landscape shots, capturing a group of people, action-oriented and vlogger-y style video — there are many times when framing an ultrawide shot is simply too challenging. It's not really a natural way to take photos in a lot of situations, whereas a telephoto sensor makes sense in almost unending scenarios and is natural and intuitive to use. And while I get that "you can't zoom out with software" (the next person who tells me this is getting a 😐), zooming in with software is far from perfect. Google's Super Res zoom is good, but it's nowhere near "makes up for not having the telephoto" good.
Super Res Zoom is no replacement for actual zoom, despite what some people may claim. (1x vs 7x compared)
That all said, these are both great cameras. I don't think I've ever seen a better ultrawide camera on a phone, and quite often they're genuinely pretty bad, so that's a real step up. The optics are wonky at the edges, sure, but every ultrawide camera shares this trait. It's just a trade-off you've got to accept.
New video stabilization modes offer even smoother video capture on the Pixel 5 —and seem to deliver
I have yet to play with the Pixel 5's new video features, but what I have seen in independent testing on YouTube has me sold: the new stabilization tech looks crazy good, and for all the guff I give the ultrawide for photo utility, the ability to capture video from a wider angle is inarguably more useful than telephoto. If only we could, you know, have gotten both of those lenses on this phone. That would have been nice. The only really unfortunate thing about this phone's cameras, objectively, compared to last year's phone is processing speed. The Pixel 5 takes almost as long to process photos as the Pixel 4a, which is not ideal. This won't slow you down much in practice — processing happens in the background, and there's a fair bit of buffer in there — but it does make quickly reviewing shots as you take them slightly more annoying as you wait for the phone to finish its software magic.
Should you buy it?
Once there's a sale, maybe. The Pixel 5 will make a certain kind of person happy, and that person is the one who is interested in buying a Google smartphone, and wants the newest, best model available. This is not a very large group of people, statistically, but a group of people that very much exists (hello, most of our readers). There's no weird hidden pitfall to the Pixel 5, there's nothing about it that's suddenly going to make you realize you made a bad decision if you buy it.
But for everyone else, the Pixel 5 is the poster child for why most people have absolutely no interest in a Google smartphone. It doesn't do many things meaningfully better than other phones, does some noticeably worse, and is far too expensive given what it is. Google deciding to cheap out on some of the little things that once made the Pixel unique, like excellent haptic feedback, a genuine take on face ID, and excellent stereo speakers (plus not so little things, like the chipset) has slowly eroded what little stand-out features the phones ever had in the first place. Google, if you're trying to flip iPhone owners like you say you are, this is a pretty terrible way to go about it. Apple is going to absolutely cream Google in any remotely fair comparison this year, perhaps still camera images aside.
Apple is going to absolutely cream Google in any remotely fair comparison this year, perhaps still camera images aside.
It's a perfectly decent phone, and I (mostly) enjoyed using it. But if you asked me right now to choose between the Pixel 5 and my year-old Pixel 4 XL? I'd pick the latter every single time — it's simply a better phone. And that year-old phone has regularly been available for less than the Pixel 5. That's not to speak of phones like the OnePlus 8T or Galaxy S20 FE, which handily trounce the Pixel 5 just about everywhere. That is, just about everywhere but the camera.
It's that camera that remains the single best reason to buy a Pixel compared to almost any other smartphone. The main rear camera is legitimately outstanding. The ultrawide is the best I've ever used on a smartphone, even if I feel it's kind of useless and maybe actively resent Google for taking away my telephoto lens. The new video stabilization features, while I've not done any demos, look excellent in the independent testing I've watched on YouTube. It sounds like Google is at least trying to get up on Apple's level when it comes to smartphone video capture, which is encouraging to watch.
But when you look at the money you're spending, and what the Pixel 5 is, there's no charitable case for this phone's pricing. I'd call this a $550 smartphone on a good day. Google has long been criticized for the Pixel line being overpriced, but this is finally a bridge too far. I don't care if it was due to costs associated with pointless mmWave 5G — that's not my problem, nor the problem of consumers. It's definitely a shame, because while I in theory like the idea of a "modest" premium smartphone, the Pixel 5 is too much modesty, not enough premium. I look forward to recommending it during Google's first $150 off promotion.