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Lifewire / Andrew Hayward
Super speedy 5G
Smooth 90Hz screen
Incredible battery life
Android 11 OS
Skimps on power
Iffy value proposition
While the similar Pixel 4a 5G is a better value, the Pixel 5 proves its worth as a stellar all-around 5G phone with amazing cameras and enduring battery life.
The Pixel 5 marks a shift in direction for Google: unlike all previous core models, it’s not a top-of-the-line, power-rich flagship phone. Seemingly seeking a better balance of performance, perks, and price point, Google has outfitted its singular Pixel 5 model (no larger XL this time) with a mid-range processor but kept some of the other nice-to-haves from premium phones, such as wireless charging and a speedier 90Hz refresh rate for smoother screen animations.
Paired with yet another brilliant Pixel camera setup, the end result is a strong all-around phone that, while not as flashy or exciting as some other Android smartphones, lacks any major hardware deficiencies while providing 5G connectivity. However, $699 still feels expensive for a phone that lacks a top-of-the-line processor, and Google has arguably undercut its own attempts here with the very similar Pixel 4a 5G for $499. In short: good phone, iffy messaging.
Google has three current smartphone models: the budget-friendliest Pixel 4a, the soon-to-release Pixel 4a 5G, and the Pixel 5. And at a glance, all of them look pretty much identical. Look closer and actually pick up the Pixel 5, however, and a couple of key differences become clear.
The biggest is that the Pixel 5 uses a resin-coated recycled aluminum backing instead of cheap, basic plastic. It’s textured for a better grip and more premium feel, and while it might just be a trick of the mind, the phone feels weightier in my grip despite being physically smaller and lighter than the Pixel 4a 5G. Truth be told, I came to the Pixel 5 after using the enormous Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra for a few days, and it felt like a little baby phone by comparison. But the more I used the Pixel 5, the more I appreciated a compact phone that you can more practically control with a single hand, thanks to its 5.7-inch height and 2.8-inch width.
Otherwise, the back layout remains the same, with a small “G” logo near the bottom, a rounded square camera module in the upper left, and a responsive fingerprint sensor right beneath. And it’s not just Black, either: there’s a Sorta Sage muted green model available on the Pixel 5, too. On the front, there’s a slight but welcome tweak in that the bezel around the screen is fully uniform on the Pixel 5, lacking the slightly larger “chin” from the Pixel 4a models and nearly all other Android phones that opt for an all-screen face. It’s one of those advantages that Apple has held over most rivals during the notch/punch-hole design era, but it’s a small benefit that helps maximize the immersion of using the phone.
Even with those tweaks, the Pixel 5 still looks pretty anonymous amidst the current crop of standout smartphones. The classic two-tone backing flourish was eliminated with the Pixel 4 and the side power button here is a glossy silver instead of a bright accent color, so the end result is a bit bland. At least the textured backing is more appealing to both the look and touch than the Pixel 4a’s plain plastic.
Curiously, the Pixel 5 omits the 3.5mm headphone port seen on the cheaper models, but thankfully adds IP68 water and dust resistance. You get 128GB of internal storage, which is a solid-sized cache that most people should do fine with, especially with Google Photos offering unlimited cloud storage for high-quality versions of your shots. However, there’s no higher-capacity model and you can’t pop in a microSD card for additional storage, so you don’t really have a choice with the Pixel 5.
Getting started with this Android 11-powered phone is thankfully a stress-free venture. Hold down the power button on the right side for a couple seconds and then follow the prompts that appear on the screen, which eventually guide you to the home screen. You’ll need to log into or create a Google account, accept the terms and conditions, and choose whether to restore from a backup or copy data from another phone, but it’s all very straightforward.
The more I used the Pixel 5, the more I appreciated a compact phone that you can more practically control with a single hand.
Thanks to Google’s shift in strategy, the Pixel 5 is actually a less-powerful phone than the Pixel 4. That’s because while all past core Pixels used the latest Qualcomm Snapdragon 800-series chip, the Pixel 5 takes a step down to the less-robust Snapdragon 765G.
Here’s the thing, however: you probably won’t notice a difference in day-to-day usage. The Pixel 5 feels plenty responsive across the board, and the extra-smooth 90Hz refresh rate only maintains the sense that everything is perfectly snappy. It’s not surprising, since even the less-powerful Pixel 3a models were pretty swift; Google has done a great job of optimizing its Android OS for the hardware. And with 8GB RAM alongside, I didn’t notice the occasional bits of slowdown that popped up on the Pixel 4a 5G—which has the same processor, but less RAM—sometimes when switching between apps.
Benchmark testing is where you’ll see the difference in just how much raw power the Pixel 5 has on tap compared to other modern handsets. I recorded a score of 8,931 in PCMark’s Work 2.0 performance test, which is actually an uptick from the 8,378 recorded on the Pixel 4a 5G. However, the Snapdragon 865-powered Samsung Galaxy S20 FE 5G—which also sells for $699—turned out a much higher score of 12,222 on the same test. There’s a significant gap between them, and it’s one that could rear its head over time as the Pixel 5 has to contend with more powerful apps and games in a year or two.
GFXBench showed modest graphical performance, too, with just 12 frames per second registered on the Car Chase demo and 45 frames per second with the T-Rex demo. Both marks are in line with what the Pixel 4a 5G logged, and both are well short of what’s possible with the Galaxy S20 FE 5G and other flagship-level phones. That said, 3D mobile games scale well across hardware, and glossy games like Call of Duty Mobile and Asphalt 9: Legends both run smoothly on the Pixel 5 with graphical settings trimmed down a bit (as they do by default).
The Pixel 5 supports both the widely-used (but modestly speedy) sub-6Ghz and extremely fast (but currently lightly deployed) mmWave varieties of 5G network service, and I was able to test both on Verizon’s 5G network. There is an enormous difference between the types. With Verizon’s Nationwide 5G (sub-6Ghz) coverage, I typically saw download speeds between 50-70Mbps—a slight improvement over 4G LTE speeds in the same testing area just north of Chicago.
I recorded a maximum download speed of 1.6Gbps on Verizon’s 5G Ultra Wideband network. That’s the fastest speed I’ve seen anywhere on anything.
Currently, Verizon’s mmWave-powered Ultra-Wideband 5G coverage is concentrated in very small, high-traffic areas. I found a single block of coverage nearby outside a movie theater and train station, and recorded a maximum download speed of 1.6Gbps. That’s the fastest speed I’ve seen anywhere on anything. You really could download full movies in mere seconds with that kind of speed on tap, but it’s early days for 5G deployment and Verizon’s Ultra Wideband coverage is very, very sparse for now. Still, you can get a taste of it now, and you’ll be set for when 5G coverage becomes much easier to find.
The 6-inch screen of the Pixel 5 is a smidge smaller than the 6.2-inch panel of the Pixel 4a 5G, but maintains the same 2340x1080 resolution and is a hair crisper due to packing the same amount of pixels into a smaller physical space. I couldn’t tell the difference with the naked eye, but that’s fine: it’s a colorful and solidly bright OLED panel. But the Pixel 5 has a clear advantage with the aforementioned 90Hz refresh rate or Smooth Display feature, which delivers smoother scrolling and animations. Everything feels much snappier and more responsive as a result.
The Pixel 5 produces solid audio output via its bottom-firing speaker and earpiece above the screen, which combines to deliver stereo sound. Streaming music via Spotify sounded clear and balanced, and it was perfect for playing some tunes in a pinch or watching videos. Call quality was great, too, including via speakerphone.
Google may not always have the most cameras or the highest-specced ones on paper, but the company clearly knows how to make them sing via brilliant software and processing algorithms. That has been true since the very first Pixel, and it’s definitely still the case with the Pixel 5.
Between a 12-megapixel wide-angle and 16-megapixel ultra-wide camera on the back, you’ll consistently take great shots with minimal effort. The results typically are more natural-looking than you’ll see from Samsung’s flagship cameras, for example, which tend to provide an overly vibrant look that not everyone will be fond of. From nature to faces, pets, and places, the Pixel 5 is well-equipped to take sharp, detailed snaps in nearly any scenario.
That’s true even in low light, thanks to Google’s Night Sight feature. It just keeps getting better and better each year, turning nighttime landscapes and dark rooms into solidly-lit, eye-catching photos, plus you can capture starry landscapes with the astrophotography mode. Video quality is likewise excellent, shooting up to 4K resolution at 60 frames per second and offering multiple video stabilization options to deliver the level and type of smoothness you prefer.
The 4,080mAh battery pack is pretty robust for a phone this size; it’s a bit larger than the Samsung Galaxy S20’s cell, for example, and that phone has a larger and higher-resolution screen and a flagship processor. But even with the expectation that the Pixel 5 would deliver a strong day of uptime, I was blown away by just how little battery life it sips throughout the day.
Across several days of solid (but not overwhelming) usage with the screen at full brightness, I never dropped below 50 percent of a remaining charge by the time I went to sleep at night. On lighter days, it was common to wind up near 70 percent. This is one of the most resilient smartphones I’ve ever tested, and it’s fair to say that more casual users can comfortably stretch to two days of usage on a single charge. The battery is a surprising benefit of the Pixel 5, and a welcome about-face from last year’s Pixel 4 models, which struggled with battery life due in part to the power-hungry Motion Sense radar system gimmick.
While metal-backed phones typically don’t have wireless charging, this one has a small cutout beneath the surface to enable wireless top-ups. That’s a clever move on Google’s part, and it gives you another charging option in addition to 18W wired fast charging using the provided power brick.
The Pixel 5 ships with the latest Android 11 operating system, bringing various tweaks and enhancements to the interface. None are especially huge, but Android has been in strong shape for some time now, and Google’s own flavor is arguably the best around.
As mentioned, the interface feels really responsive on the Pixel 5, and Google’s minimal design ethos keeps things simple while learning from your tendencies, surfacing information and features when it thinks you need them most. You also get benefits like the Call Screen feature, which can save you some stress and hassle when telemarketers call. Furthermore, the Pixel 5 is guaranteed to receive at least three years’ worth of OS upgrades and security updates, so you can rest easy knowing that the phone will be well-supported.
The Pixel 5 is essentially a mid-range phone priced like a flagship, and it doesn’t sit quite right.
Google’s play for a more affordable core Pixel was to use a less-powerful processor while keeping a lot of the other perks you’d expect. Fair enough. But $699, while on the lower end of the flagship spectrum, still suggests a high-end phone. Apple’s upcoming iPhone 12 mini, for example, is priced the same and offers the fastest smartphone chip on the market, albeit with a smaller screen onboard.
It’s a matter of perception. The Pixel 5 doesn’t feel slow and or seem hobbled compared to phones with faster hardware inside, but it’s hard to shake the notion that you’re paying flagship money for a phone that can’t fully hold its weight against like-priced rivals. The cheaper Pixel 4a 5G hits a better sweet spot of price and features, though, especially since it has the very same processor and cameras, but the Pixel 5’s added perks might ultimately convince you to spend the extra cash.
The Pixel 5 sits in an odd middle ground between mid-range power and flagship features and perks, but you might find it a reasonable trade-off for what is ultimately a capable and compelling 5G phone.
Samsung chose a different path for its new $699 phone: trimming a couple of premium perks from the $999 Galaxy S20 flagship phone. The Galaxy S20 FE 5G opts for plastic backing instead of glass, and drops down from QHD+ resolution to 1080p, but ultimately still compares favorably to the Pixel 5. It has the faster Snapdragon 865, as noted previously, alongside a great triple-camera system, stellar battery life, and a smooth 6.5-inch 120Hz display.
Google’s phone delivers even better battery life and has the benefit of mmWave 5G compatibility, while the Galaxy S20 FE 5G only supports the sub-6Ghz kind. Still, if it was my $699 to spend, I would opt for the Galaxy S20 FE 5G, which delivers top-tier performance in a very strong all-around package. Not every carrier even has mmWave 5G on offer, plus coverage is super sparse right now for those that do.
Even if it’s a less-powerful phone, the Pixel 5 is a better all-around package than its predecessor. Trimmed of gimmicks and focused on the core fundamentals of a smartphone, it performs well in nearly all respects and especially impresses on the camera and battery life fronts. While using a mid-tier processor complicates the value equation for a $699 handset, the Pixel 5 feels smooth and responsive in use and the 90Hz screen is a beauty.
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