Google Pixel 5 Review

November 26, 2020 | Tim Coleman |

Introduction

Google has launched its 2020 slew of smartphones, with the Google Pixel 5 positioned as the company's flagship model.

You might notice that the pricing is more aggressive this time around - the Pixel 5 costs £599, whereas its predecessor the Pixel 4 cost £669 on launch. It may be the company's flagship, but the Pixel 5 is not designed to compete against best phones in town.

Completing the new lineup is the Pixel 4a 5G at £499 and the few-months-old Pixel 4a at £349. We've had all three current phones simultaneously during our review of the Pixel 5 and they share many similarities.

In this review, we'll of course focus on what sets the Google Pixel 5 apart and also highlight the key improvements over the phone it replaces, the Pixel 4.

In short, the Pixel 5 has the best build quality in the current crop - it's IP68 rated and features a metal shell. It also has a higher-spec display, the most RAM and best battery life complete with wireless charging.

It does not, however, have the biggest screen and there's no sign of a Pixel 5 XL version. For a bigger display, it's the Pixel 4a 5G.

Consistent with all three phones is Google's apparent ethos to create devices that are downright simple to use, and this is seen most clearly in the Android interface and camera app.

The Google Pixel 5's camera relies heavily on the company's highly effective intelligent processing to do the hard work for you. Truly, the result is lovely looking photos in most scenarios, without the fuss.

The Google Pixel 5 is available now, priced at £599 / $699, in 'Just Black' and 'Sorta Sage' colours.

Ease of Use

Google Pixel 5

There are a handful of attributes that justify the flagship status and higher price point of the Google Pixel 5 compared to the Pixel 4a 5G and Pixel 4a.

First up, the build quality. This is the only current Pixel phone to boast weather-sealing, being IP68 rated for water and dust resistance.

The phone's exterior is made from recycled aluminium, as opposed to the polycarbonate (plastic) bodies of the other two phones. Metal casing is more of a rarity on a phone these days - most other IP rated phones have a glass back.

It also boasts a display covered with Corning Gorilla 6 glass which is tested as more robust than the Corning Gorilla 3 glass used in less costly phones. In short, you can be assured that the Pixel 5 will take a few knocks.

That metal casing appears largely the same as the plastic versions, but look closely and the surface is more textured. Certainly, you'll feel that texture in the hand and it is more grippy.

We'd be quite happy using the Pixel 5 without a protective case and to expose it to the elements - the same cannot be said for the Pixel 4a 5G and Pixel 4a.

Google Pixel 5

In order to secure its superior build quality and IP rating, a necessary concession is the omission of a headphone jack. If you want to use a headset, it'll need Bluetooth connectivity.

Every one of the current Pixel phones has a different display size, but they are all FHD+ with the same 2340x1080 pixel resolution and 24-bit colour depth. However, the Pixel 5 has a 'Flexible' OLED display with a higher contrast ratio of 1,000,000:1 to the 100,000:1 of the other two phones.

We held up the Pixel 5 alongside the Pixel 4a 5G and the tonal detail of the Pixel 5 display is indeed better. It's a subtle difference, but once noticed the superior display quality is appreciated, especially for watching movies.

Also, if you look closely in highlight areas of a scene in the camera app - such as tree branches against an overcast sky - there is plenty more detail in those highlights in the Pixel 5 that is otherwise washed out in the 4a 5G.

There's also a better 90 Hz refresh rate here, which should result in a smoother viewing experience compared to the modest 60 Hz refresh rate of the other Pixel phones. That refresh rate is the minimum that we would expect at this price point.

Now it may have a larger 6.0-inch screen than the 5.8-inch screen of the entry-level Pixel 4a, but the phone units are almost identical in size. In short, the Pixel 5 's display makes better use of the phone's dimensions, mainly at the bottom.

Google Pixel 5

Overall, we really rate the display quality and think the phone dimensions are spot on - this truly is a single-handed use phone whether navigating the OS or the camera app.

The reliable fingerprint scanner is positioned sensibly on the camera's rear and blends in to matt-finish. Otherwise, the only other shade (in the Just Black version) is the power button, being silver.

Battery life is really solid and a key improvement over the Pixel 4's sub-standard battery life. With a 4,080mAh capacity battery,the Pixel 5 will comfortably last a whole day of frequent use and well into a second day.

An 18W fast charger comes in the box and you'll be able obtain a reasonable charge of the phone from a 30-minute plug-in. The battery can also be charged wirelessly, and indeed be used AS a wireless charger with compatible devices. Sharing is caring!

We like the option to display the estimated time that the battery will run out in the notification bar. That's a much more useful metric than the usual percentage remaining (although you can see that info, too).

You also get the most amount of RAM in any Pixel phone at 8GB. It's paired with the Qualcomm Snapdragon 765G processor.

Google Pixel 5

There's the faster 865G processor available in other similar priced phones, but frankly the processor, RAM and display refresh rate in the Pixel 5 all combine for a completely fluid user experience.

When compared to the Pixel 4a entry-level phone, the quicker processor and greater RAM do speed up any minor lags in the camera app. For instance, in playback you'll get to view the portrait blur effect at half the delay - ready in under a second.

The Pixel 5 starts life with the Android 11 operating system and you're guaranteed up to three years of updates - truly this device is future proofed. On that same theme, it comes equipped with 5G connectivity for the fastest data available.

All Pixel phones offer built-in only storage only and in the UK they are only available as 128GB versions. That's a generous amount for the much cheaper Pixel 4a, but here it would be reasonable to expect 256GB. Shame.

However, there's direct compatibility with Google Photos, the online storage option to offload media from the phone and free up space. As we'd hope, the whole experience is as simple as can be. Also, unless you're shooting loads of videos, that storage will suffice for a considerable time.

Camera-wise, we're looking at a simple specification. There's the 8MP f/2.0 front camera with 84° field of view. The lens is found in the top left of the display - that's an increasingly common-place design.

Google Pixel 5

Switch to the rear and you'll see the standard 12.2MP f/1.7 dual-pixel rear camera with 77° field of view - that's roughly a 24mm focal length.

The second camera marks a key difference between the Pixel 5 and Pixel 4. Whereas the Pixel 4 has a 2x optical telephoto camera, the Pixel 5 has a 16MP f/2.2 'ultrawide' lens with 107° field of view - that's a 0.6x magnification of the standard camera.

We expect a polarised response to the new rear camera setup. If we're pushed, we prefer the new setup with ultrawide camera that feels more versatile.

From experience, the quality of the 2x digital zoom in the Pixel 5 is surprisingly good, though we don't know if it's as good as the 2x zoom camera of the Pixel 4.

So while you can pretty much get the same telephoto effect in both phones, the older Pixel 4 cannot go wider like the Pixel 5.

Elsewhere, you don't get a macro photo mode, but like all phones the Pixel 5 can focus quite close using its standard camera.

Google Pixel 5

Each camera is supported by an above average phase detection AF. Not all phones focus as quickly or as reliably as the Pixel 5 across a variety of scenarios, including low light.

The lenses are also stabilised; optically for photography, with electronic chucked in for video. We're not talking gimbal performance (like the Vivo X51 5g), but it's a solid performance.

In general, we have been comfortable shooting photos handheld knowing that detail will be as sharp as it can be, while videos with moderate panning and general walking are smooth.

The camera app is essentially identical between the Pixel 5 and Pixel 4a 5G because, well, the camera setup is identical. The only difference between these two phones and the single-camera Pixel 4a is access to the additional the ultrawide camera via the zoom range slider.

As for navigating the camera app, well it's all very straight forward really - this is a simple user experience.

There's a choice between the standard camera, portrait camera, Night Sight and Video, each with a basic degree of customisation and framing guides, plus Panorama, Photo Sphere, Slow Motion, Time Lapse and Google's 'Lens'.

Google Pixel 5

As standard, full-size JPEG pictures are 4:3 aspect ratio, although you can shoot in 16:9. Given the 19.5:9 aspect ratio of the screen, there is a reasonable bookend on the display outside the image area where app controls are displayed. It's a clean look.

The regular camera offers the most customisation, where you can select the flash on or off, add RAW image capture alongside JPEG, activate 'Motion' (that captures a short video around the photo capture to increase your chances of capturing the best moment), Self Timer and lastly aspect ratio.

The portrait mode crops in tighter to your subject than the standard camera setting and produces a background blur effect.

Video wise, you get 4K and Full HD up to 60fps when using the rear camera, or Full HD 30fps with the front camera. The slow motion is a 1/4x speed in Full HD (120fps) or 1/8x speed in 720p (240fps).

Panorama and timelapse modes both handle well with excellent end results. For the latter, there are five speed options with suggestions for what type of action the speed is best suited to, with the fastest 120x speed ideal for a sunset.

Night Sight provides a subtle but welcome improvement to images in low contrast light. You're guided to keep the phone steady during image capture, and the end result is a brighter image with more tonal detail in shadow areas in particular.

Google Pixel 5

There's also an astrophotography setting within the Night Sight mode. We've not received this prompt in real world conditions despite spending nighttime outdoors in a rural location (the prompt appears in Night Sight when the camera is face down on a surface, so we know it's there). If you're interested in such a mode, then the Vivo X51 5G is the phone to check out.

We've already raved about the Live HDR feature in our Pixel 4a review. For us, it is superior to an auto HDR option.

Simply tap the image area to reveal highlight and shadow sliders, through which brightness levels can be independently adjusted. Live HDR is ideal for discerning image makers who want manual control over brightness levels.

On the surface, the Pixel 5's camera is modest. However, for us it is entirely logical and offers the manual control where it is most needed, backed up by key features that ensure sharp pictures, such as effective stabilisation and phase detection AF.