It's been three years since I used a Pixel device. Not since the first version was I even motivated to pick one up and try it out. They all excelled in specific areas, but always suffered from some frankly jaw-dropping issues or hardware omissions — and when they somewhat sorted it all out with the Pixel 4 they wanted to charge premium prices and not deliver on the premium part.
Something changed with the Pixel 5. Amid a pandemic Google began to focus on what they could do to bring a device together, and perhaps what their customers wanted. So instead of weird and wonderful new developments they absolutely promise to develop, they took half a step back. Creating a device that leans on tried and tested hardware, not the bleeding edge. Just reliable specs, done well and priced at a point that Google felt it can complete.
At £599 in the UK (yay for no mmWave) it is a steal of a smartphone. Googles very own Android version, on hardware chosen to run it at peak optimisations — or at least thats what we are led to believe.
Despite there being loads of progress in this middle-top section (between £400-£800) the Pixel has an advantage that it is Googles flagship. So, it gets more development attention than many phones at this price point. While some companies cut things out to save costs and also not overshadow their top-tier handsets, Google can put in as much as they can for the price point they want to hit. While augments can be made that the Pixel 5 doesn't have the bleeding edge of everything like other flagships, when you look at a phone such as the Note 20 Ultra, the Pixel 5 is half the price.
In actual use these supposed cuts are mostly nowhere to be found. The Snapdragon 765G provides more than enough power for every situation. Sure it isn't as powerful as the 865, but who actually uses the power that these chips possess? I would challenge anyone that uses this phone to find any stutter or lag, or any situations where the thought of having a more powerful processor ever crops up. Even whilst gaming and editing images the phone never misses a beat — I am sure you could find lag somewhere that is caused directly by the processor but I have never seen it.
In fact, this 'cut' leads to battery life that is truly unbelievable. Let me say that again because it has never happened on a Google phone before — the battery life is insanely good. In fact, I can't kill it! 8 hours screen on time is achievable, and some of my more leisurely days this week I got almost two days of use. Something helped by Googles option for a more reserved battery life processor, and no doubt software optimisations, squeezed every minute possible out of the 4080mAh battery.
Use it a lot I did because it is such a delight to use. The build quality feel, the ergonomic design and this hardware combination make a hard to resist package. Whilst the screen is a long way off the highest resolution on the market, its 6inch 1080 × 2340 (432 ppi) is one you won’t find major issues with, but it is very dim and the auto-brightness terribly slow.
Some slowdown or issues you may usually find in mid range hardware is smoothed out by the 90hz. Colours are natural and very pleasing to the eye, while text is sharp and the screen is all around absolutely fine to use. As we find with many of the choices made when building the Pixel 5, many words are written about the lack or this and that — but when you actually use it the phone, you realise what really matters.
There is no XL version this year, meaning that the Pixel 5 sits somewhere between the two, and with slim bezels and all metal build. In my opinion, this phone is the best feeling smartphone this year. The design may put some off as boring or utilitarian, but in a world on folding smartphones and weird innovations, Goole have carved out a simple but pleasing ‘candy bar’ smartphone that is both functional and still notably a Pixel.
The Sage colour I have is the only colour you should consider, the black version just doesn’t have the same appeal as the mottled green matte resin Google have covered the back in. This covering over the Aluminium body provides some rigidity to the design, meaning that wireless coils can be covered up, and the device always feel welcoming.
The design only broken by a slightly recessed fingerprint sensor, one that is fast and reliable and secure. It is a little strange to go back to rear mounted sensors after using more modern biometric options, but after a few moments it becomes smooth and natural, and you begin to wonder why things ever changed. Face unlock is fine, but this phone was designed in a pandemic, so you can understand the switch.
Since the very first version, Google put all its marketing and development into the Pixel Camera. It took top marks on DxOMarkMobile then, and has ranked very highly since then. The Pixel 5 continues this successful trend of doing more with less, and takes some truly amazing pictures. Its focus on black magic level image processing has led it to be lauded above many much more expensive phones and while it is still an extremely great camera, this year the sensor has really started to show its age.
Google definitely has its reasons, it couldn't find another sensor to work very well with its processing algorithms, there is no avoiding the fact that newer more modern sensors are frankly much better. The 12MP IMX363 which first appeared on the Pixel 3, and is not far removed from the one on the Pixel 2, is now a long way behind larger higher quality sensors. While Google bridged the gaps with software in days past, the competition now takes as good, if not better shots.
With that said, the Camera is a delight to use — capturing images quickly and easily and achieving photos to be proud of in almost any situation. It punches well above it weight at only £599, and the edition of an ultra-wide lens makes it much more versatile.
The Pixel 5, as with those that have gone before it, excels in low light, and makes a mean portrait, but most of this is post-processing, so what you see in the preview window might not actually what the image turns out as. It also could be different again when you look at the photo on Google Photos later. Frankly that is usually a great thing, if a little baffling at first, and Google makes it easier to edit or revert changes made. Introducing a process of being able to change the angle of the light in portrait shots. Something that I feel only Google would do, and is amazing to play with, but ultimately, one of those features no-one uses.
Which brings us to a larger discussion about Google and Pixel version of Android. It’s a version that crops up nowhere else. A few that get close, but no-one does it as well. The Pixel always stays true to a Google vision of their OS, pushing features to it first, or sometimes exclusively to the Pixel Line.
This is one huge reason why the Pixel doesn’t need the top of the range processor because Android on the Pixel is nearly always fast and smooth. You get updates first, with Android 11 on board a long time before some are every shipping Android 10 to handsets. Google have also promised this for three years from release, so users will always be up to date — but what happens when Android isn’t optimised for this processor is anyone's guess.
There are loads of software delights that you sometimes stubble on such as the power menu now highlighting compatible smart home gadgets and Google Pay cards. Unfortunately, my version does not feature the Google Assistant On Hold feature as it is US only, but does have live transcribe for any audio just a tap away at any point.
Google want Android to be as useful as possible while collecting data it can use to sell you things and companies adverts. We are all well are of that, and Android on the Pixel is the best possible version of that. You forgive the little quirks and the pestering for maps reviews because the OS is straightforward and a delight to use. Surfacing information, sending you notifications when you need them and being all around a great experience. There is nothing getting in the way on a Pixel, no third-party layers of options, not OEM themes. Just you and Google, and I like that.
It’s easy to sum up a Pixel device. Good software, great camera and some compromises somewhere — but with the Pixel 5 they have found their hardware mojo. By actually stepping back and building a device for the current circumstances, they have made ultimately a better phone. No gimmicks, nothing new to learn, just tried and tested hardware all wrapped up in hardware that delivers.
I feel like my review is about a thousand words too short, but because we know what we are getting with Googles best the words have already been written. The Pixel 5 does open up a more interesting topic around the demand for keeping up to a specification race no-one needs, but when you pick up the device and use it all of that falls away.
You can point at this spec and that spec, but when you combine these things together in a Google package the Pixel 5 punches well above its weight. Although the camera shows its age, it’s still a delight to use and its software smarts sorts out shooting errors anyway. This is easily the best Pixel ever — and I wouldn’t recommend you buy anything else unless the few ‘cuts’ are things you simply can’t do without.