Google’s Pixel line has a convoluted history. What started off as a way to show off Android’s capabilities in affordable phones with the Nexus line transitioned into Google’s attempt at flagship devices with the emergence of the Pixel. We’re now into the fifth generation Pixel device, and the question is: did they finally get it right?
Every Pixel phone up until now has dealt with issues. Battery life is the big one that comes to mind, but slowdowns and performance hiccups (especially on longer timelines) plagued every Pixel that I’ve personally used.
On top of that, the Pixel 4 brought Project Soli’s radar chip and Face Unlock to Android—neither of which ended up being anything more than more hardware that drove the cost of the phone up. Google never did anything useful with Soli, and Face Unlock was a bust due to low adoption from developers.
The Pixel 5 undoes both of those things and improves on past Pixel issues in profound ways. Battery life is excellent. Performance is very good despite the phone’s “underpowered” processor. And the meaningful, quality of life changes brought on in recent years—like waterproofing and wireless charging—are still present. All the right corners were cut with the Pixel 5, which no only makes for a better phone, but a more affordable one, too.
The Pixel 5 is a breath of fresh air in the phone’s long, convoluted lineup. But it also has strong competition with the resurgence of the midrange market—including Google’s own Pixel 4a and 4a 5G.
Hardware and Build Quality: The Premium Mid Range
On the outside, the Pixel 5 is relatively unassuming. It looks like a clean, modern smartphone. It forgoes the notch for a svelte hole punch camera since it doesn’t have Face Unlock. There’s a familiar fingerprint scanner on the back of the phone, which is the best place for a fingerprint sensor to exist.
To me, the fingerprint sensor is a dramatic improvement over the poor implementation that was Face Unlock. It’s tried and true, and pretty much all secure apps worth their salt support it. The same can’t be said for Face Unlock, which saw poor adoption for most developers since it was only available on a single set of phones in the Pixel 4 and 4 XL. Even if adoption had been better, the fingerprint sensor just makes more sense in 2020: The Year of the Mask.
Unlike in previous years, there’s only one size this time—and it’s the perfect size. The 6-inch display sits between what would normally be the “normal” and XL versions—just a bit bigger than the Pixel 4, but a bit smaller than the Pixel 4 XL.
It’s pocketable, one-handable, and easy to manage. It feels nice to use a phone that doesn’t feel so unwieldy. I personally love everything about the phone’s aesthetic and I’m more than pleased to see a refined take on a familiar design for a Pixel phone.
Before we get into the phone’s guts, I want to address the elephant in the room: body gap. Some Pixel 5 units are experiencing what appears to be a separation between the phone’s body and the display, which is disconcerting to say the least. My Sage Green review phone does not exhibit the issue, but the Just Black sample our sister site How-to Geek received does indeed show signs of body gap.
Now, before you worry about this, Google says that this isn’t really a problem and doesn’t affect the device’s water resistance (which is the primary concern with this sort of separation). Mostly it’s just ugly, but if you use a case you’ll likely never see it in the first place. That’s not an excuse, mind you—there is no excuse for this sort of malfunction in a $700 product—but might be peace of mind for users on the fence about buying the 5 because of potential body gap issues.
With that out of the way, let’s talk innards. Under the hood, it offers many mainstays for its price bracket:
- Display: 6.0-inch 1080×2340 OLED with 90 Hz “Smooth Display”
- Processor: Qualcomm 765g
- RAM: 8GB
- Storage: 128 GB
- Cameras: 12.2 MP standard shooter, 16 MP ultrawide; 8 MP front
- Ports: USB-C
- Headphone Jack: No
- Battery: 4,080 mAh
- Fingerprint Sensor: Rear-mounted
- Connectivity: 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac, 2×2 MIMO; Bluetooth 5.0
- 5G Compatibility: mmWave n260/n261, Sub-6 n1/2/3/5/7/8/12/28/41/66/71/77/78
- Android version: Android 11
- Colors: Just Black, Sorta Sage
- Price: $699
The processor choice here has been a point of contention for other reviewers and Pixel fans alike, especially when you consider phones like the Galaxy S20 FE feature the faster Snapdragon 865 for the same number of moneydollars. I personally have no qualms with the chip, as I’ve found the Pixel 5’s performance to be top notch through my use. But I’m also a firm believer that the experience offered by a smartphone is more important than its spec sheet.
For me, the real winner with the 765g is the battery life—this is the first Pixel with not just good, but truly exceptional battery life. I have to chalk that up to the choice to go with a slightly slower and more efficient processor, which is a tradeoff I’ll take every day of the week and twice on Sundays. Fight me.
To offset the lower-end processor, however, Google finally bumped the RAM to an acceptable 8 GB. This makes for more fluid multitasking and allows apps to stay running in the background longer—I haven’t hit a single RAM limitation since I’ve been using the Pixel 5, which is more than I can say for pretty much any other Pixel before it.
Overall, I find the Pixel 5 to be the most attractive Pixel to date—especially in Sage Green, which I never thought I would like. Performance for me has been excellent, and the battery life is even better.
Display and Cameras: Pixel Perfect…ish
The year is 2020, and I’d wager that you’d be pretty hard-pressed to find a bad phone display out there—especially on a modern flagship. At this point, it’s not about whether the display is good or not, but rather which one is marginally better than the others. And while I guess this is a mostly quantifiable metric, those sort of comparisons are trivial. It’s about your eyes.
To my eyes, the Pixel 5 has an excellent display. The 432 PPI makes every sharp and crisp—pixels are visually indiscernible from each other. Colors are vibrant (thanks, OLED!) without being oversaturated. Color balance is very good. And I think 99.9 percent of people will absolutely agree. It just looks good.
Like the Pixel 4 before it, the 5 also has Google’s “Smooth Display” feature. Essentially, this allows the display to jump between 60Hz and 90Hz refresh rates depending on the app. Also like on the Pixel 4, I can’t really tell a difference. It’s pretty smooth most of the time, but I don’t think there’s a hugely discernable difference between the two most of the time.
Now, if there were a way to toggle 90 Hz all the time, I think it would be more meaningful. But as it stands, this isn’t really a game-changing feature. Plus some phones come with 120 Hz panels now (like the S20 FE), which is a much more meaningful shift from 60.
The cameras, though? Like the Pixels before it, the Pixel 5’s cameras are really good. Unlike the Pixels before it, there are some downgrades and issues with the cameras.
To start, the Pixel 5 uses the same main rear camera as the Pixel 4. That’s all well and good—both phones heavily rely on Google’s post-processing for the magic touch anyway. But it moves away from the 4’s 16 MP telephoto lens for a 16 MP ultra wide camera. Ultimately, an ultrawide is far less useful than the telephoto. Especially when you consider panoramic modes and whatnot. Combine that with the fact that the 2x zoom on the Pixel 5 is very disappointing, and it’s easy to see why Google shouldn’t have abandoned the telephoto.
Speaking of the post-processing stuff, that’s the other downside of the Pixel 5: it takes a lot longer to process photos than the outgoing Pixel 4. If you’re a shoot-a-bunch-and-look-at-them-later sort of photographer, then you likely won’t notice. But if you want to shoot something and share it immediately, then you’ll be left waiting. That can get frustrating—especially if you’re shooting with Portrait Mode or Night Sight, which takes even longer.
This is likely the only major downside to the 765G processor (at least in my experience), but it’s a big one. The computational post-processing on Pixel phones has long been one of their biggest selling points, so to see it take a ding this year is undoubtedly disheartening.
On the upside, the photos still turn out looking great. So at least that hasn’t changed.
Value: The Dark Cloud Over an Otherwise Great Phone
I love the Pixel 5. It’s my favorite Pixel to date. But that’s also the crux of the issue, because I can’t say it presents the best value, even compared to the other Pixels this year. The Pixel 4a is half the price of the 5. It’s missing some of the 5’s more compelling features—5G, wireless charging, IP rating, etc.—but if you don’t “need” those things, it’s easily the better buy. It’s 80 percent as good as the 5 at half the price.
And then there’s the 4a 5G. It’s $200 less than the Pixel 5, but uses the same processor so it has 5G. It also has the same cameras. The $200 tradeoff? Wireless charging, IP rating, and 2GB of RAM. That’s…not a lot. If you don’t absolutely need wireless charging or an IP rating, this is clearly the better buy.
As much as I love the Pixel 5, I admit that it’s a hard sell when you compare it to the “a” series phones. If you don’t want 5G (and honestly, no one really needs 5G right now), the 4a is easily a better buy. Want 5G? Save yourself a couple hundred bucks and pick up the 4a 5G.
This leaves the Pixel 5 in a precarious place. I would argue that it’s the best Pixel that Google has ever made. But in the same breath, I’d also urge you to strongly consider whether or not you actually need water resistance and wireless charging, because that’s all you get with the 5 that you can’t have in the other 2020 Pixels.
That also doesn’t even take into consideration the other contenders at this price point, like the Samsung Galaxy S20 FE or iPhone 12 Mini. The FE is the same price as the Pixel 5, but offers a faster processor, an additional camera, a bigger battery, and a larger screen. It makes a very strong case for “best phone for $700,” and you’d be doing yourself a disservice but not at least exploring it as another option if you’re considering the Pixel 5.
Conclusion: The Best Pixel at the Worst Time
The Pixel 5 is everything I’ve hoped for in a Pixel: good price, good performance, excellent size, and meaningful features. There hasn’t been a single time during the review period that thought “man, I wish this had <some feature it didn’t have>.” That has never happened to me during a Pixel review.
If this phone would’ve been released any other year, it would’ve been an easy and instant recommendation. But it comes at a time when Google is essentially competing with itself thanks to the incredible value presented by the Pixel 4a and 4a 5G. This makes the $700 Pixel 5 a hard recommendation when you can easily get 90 percent of its best features in a phone that costs significantly less.
All that said, if you do buy a Pixel 5, I’m confident you’ll love it. But if you don’t have $700 to spend right now, rest assured that you’ll almost certainly be just as happy with something from the more affordable “a” series.
Or you can always wait for a Pixel 5 sale. Just saying.
Here’s What We Like
- The best Pixel to date
- Excellent form factor
- Great battery life
And What We Don't
- Not a good value compared to the 4a series
- Body gap may be an issue on some units
- Slow post-processing on photos