Review: Google Pixel 5 – the diminutive flagship to take you through 2024

Google’s latest ‘flagship’ is unusual, to say the least. You see, it’s not a traditional flagship in terms of specifications or price, yet it’s clearly what Google considers its top smartphone for 2020. It could be argued that 2019’s Pixel 4 and 4 XL are superior – they’re certainly more powerful and (in the XL’s case) larger, plus they did have a proper telephoto camera. You could also argue that this year’s Pixel 4a 5G is better value, but I’d like to review the ‘5’ on its own merits – as it’s a super-compact slice of high tech with only one Achilles heel (for my personal needs).

Pixel 5

But tackling the physical first, the Pixel 5 gets 10/10, 100%, full marks – the hybrid aluminium/resin body is a masterwork. The black unit being reviewed has the most wonderful (and tough) texturing, giving extra grip and ensuring that it’s virtually impossible to leave unsightly fingerprints on. (There’s also a ‘Sorta Sage’ green variant, but this lacks the texturing and isn’t as recommended.)

Pixel 5

The 2.5D glass has enough curve to make for easy side-swiping in the UI, while the 6” display surface itself is completely flat, which is good. The side buttons are nicely detailed and with a positive action. And the Pixel 5’s bottom has the now traditional Apple-esque fake speaker grille to match the real one, bottom right.

The Pixel 5 is an almost identical size to the 4a, and also to many other well known models, not least the iPhone 11 Pro and the Samsung Galaxy S10e – in other words, it’s compact, yet the bezel-less design means that you still get plenty of screen real estate (6”, with an 86% screen to body ratio). So it’s very comfortable in even modest size hands, and a great relief after massive and heavy flagships from the likes of Sony and Samsung in recent times.

Pixel 5

The front camera peers out from a cutout in the display, top left, and rarely causes an issue – the default dark theme means that you’ll hardly notice it – the displacement of the clock by a centimetre from the top left corner is the main effect.

Did I mention resin? The aluminium case has a circular hole in its back, filled with resin and hiding the Qi wireless charging coils – which helpfully also work outwards (as it were) to reverse charge small accessories (select ‘Battery share’ on the drop down shade). It’s all implemented seamlessly and again I have to give top marks to the materials used and the textured finish.

Pixel 5

Google followed Apple in dropping the 3.5mm jack from its flagships back in the Pixel 2 days, so it’s not surprising to see just the single Type C port here – though it’s worth noting that the jack is alive and well on the cheaper 4a devices, so if you need it then these are worth seeking out.

Google has certified the Pixel 5 as IP68 water and dust resistant, always great to see, though the cheaper 4a series has the same gaskets and presumably just lacked any official testing scheme/costs.

Imaging

Pixel 5

The camera island on the back is minimal, barely 1mm, and that includes the ridge around it to protect the camera glass when you put the Pixel 5 down on a surface. Inside the camera square are the usual excellent Pixel main camera (12.2 MP, f/1.7, 1/2.55″, dual pixel PDAF, OIS), a brand new wide angle camera (16 MP, f/2.2, 107˚), and the usual dual LED flash/torch.

Back at the Pixel 4 series launch, Google’s then head-of-imaging, Marc Levoy, the guy who had dreamed up the whole HDR+ camera system in the first place, declared that wide angle cameras were just for fun and that zoom was where phone imaging was ‘at’. A year later and he’s moved on, having disagreed with the rest of the product team, who indeed wanted users to have ‘fun’(!) 

In fairness to both, he’d also overseen the multi-exposure Super Res Zoom system for the main camera – and he did such a good job with this that a telephoto lens isn’t really needed anymore. Which means that a second camera can indeed be a wide-angle affair with no loss in zoom flexibility. 

See the example shots here, ranging from 0.6x zoom (wide angle) to 2x (the main software zoom preset in the UI). In practice you can zoom up to 4x without any real worries. Which is damn impressive – as it always is on modern Pixel phones.

Wide angle
Wide angle shot from the Pixel 5 camera, with typical fish eye distortion
Unzoomed shot from the main camera
Unzoomed shot in bright overcast conditions from the main camera
1:1 crop from the photo above
1:1 crop from the photo above, showing typical Pixel digital noise, but also accurate detail, with no horrible smoothing, as seen from some other manufacturers.
x5 zoomed
x5 zoomed using just Google’s Super Res Zoom software
1:1 crop
1:1 crop, showing way more detail than the main 12MP sensor can physically resolve. Here you can see the ‘Licensed to sell’ phrase very clearly. Yes, a telephoto lens would have done better, but at the expensive of camera island depth.
Pixel 5 photo
It’s hard to take a bad photo with the Google HDR+ software…
1:1 crop
1:1 crop from the photo above – staggeringly good….
Pixel 5
It’s that time of year…!
1:1 crop
1:1 crop from the photo above. Good colours and detail, with sensible DoF too…

New for this camera series is Portrait lighting, as shown below. With the software knowing/guessing a human profile, face, figure, etc, it can mimic a studio light being moved around – useful for filling in shadows on faces especially. The effect is subtle but worthy:

Screenshot

Video capture continues to improve – gyro stabilised at up to 4K/60fps – no crazy 8K or super slow-mo here, but that’s fine for almost everyone. New for the Pixel 4a/5 series are special video stabilisation modes – it’s great to have the choice rather than relying on ‘one size fits all’ algorithms:

Screenshot

Screenshot

Media

So far so good then, but the Pixel 5 stumbles a little when it comes to playing back media. I’ve already mentioned that it’s jack-less, unlike the 4a stablemates. But that’s OK, you just use Bluetooth headphones or buy a Type C DAC/dongle, right? Indeed, so that’s headphones taken care of.

However – and it’s a big however – Google unwisely advertised the Pixel 5 as having ‘stereo speakers’ and… it patently doesn’t. It’s not just the use of a piezo under-glass speaker for the earpiece, only capable of mid-range and high frequencies at low volume – it’s that Google’s software knows that this earpiece speaker isn’t going to be effective and so all stereo sound gets rendered in mono and sent to the bottom/right speaker!

It’s easy enough to test, after all. I put on a YouTube Left/Right speaker test video and, yes, volume and fidelity out of the bottom/right speaker was identical even when the ‘left’ channel was playing. Now, I should emphasise that Left/Right speaker separation is usually compromised in smartphone speakers, since a manufacturer knows that its earpiece speaker isn’t as meaty as the one at the bottom and so the channels are ‘mixed’ slightly in software so that ‘left’ becomes ‘mostly left with a bit of right’, and vice versa. Ensuring that you hear most of a sound stage, however it’s panned. But I’ve never heard a completely mono mix out of a smartphone that claimed ‘stereo’ before. 

It’s clear that Google omitted a traditional earpiece speaker for aesthetic reasons, but there are other phone designs with even bezels that also include a slim speaker grille, so this remains a Pixel 5 weakness.

Add in that the 1080p OLED display, while having a 90Hz refresh rate, which many will like, isn’t the brightest in the world and nowhere near the Super AMOLED screens of the best Samsungs, and you end up with a smartphone for which media is always a bit of a struggle. Which is a shame, I’m a huge YouTube/Netflix fan and I suspect that you are too.

In fairness, the size of the Pixel 5, kept diminutive and with no XL variant available, doesn’t lend itself to extended media consumption in the first place. But I’m still a little disappointed by the speaker arrangement – and by Google’s disingenuous marketing prose.

Battery, network and performance

I have no idea how Google has squeezed a 4080mAh battery into the Pixel 5. It’s quite clearly space-saving magic of the highest order and I’m trusting that no Galaxy Note 7-style battery-squeezing tricks have been used! 

Android is still more power hungry through the day than iOS and Pixels seem to sip battery faster than most handsets, but then they’re doing a lot of ‘smart’ stuff in the background and I still easily got through every day with the Pixel 5, so no complaints.

The hidden (under resin and texture) Qi wireless charging works as brilliantly as usual, so it’s trivial to keep topping the phone up. The Battery Share reverse wireless charging is smartly done and also worked every time, though for most of us this will only be used occasionally.

5G support is a headline feature and is essential on such a potentially long-lived phone, though 5G has yet to arrive where I live and so couldn’t be tested. Ignore the claims of ‘download a movie in seconds’, by the way – for most of us, 5G will just be something that sits in the air around us over the next decade and will give better response times and lower latency (e.g. for online gaming).

The Snapdragon 765G chipset used absolutely flies, helped by 8GB of RAM and UFS 2.1 storage. There’s far too much snobbishness concerning phone chipsets – a phone of this size and ambitions, with a 1080p display, really doesn’t need something larger and more expensive to keep its applications going.

Software

In terms of software, this is a known quantity, of course – it’s up to date Android 11 with the usual Pixel bells and whistles, including ambient music detection (which seems to recognise more and more each year, despite all being done locally, on the phone), which shows up on the (optional but excellent) ‘Always on’ display. 

Pixel 5

In theory there’s also Extreme Battery Saver, which essentially turns everything off except incoming calls and texts, though this feature wasn’t offered on the review device so I can only assume that it’s coming in a system update soon.

Part of the joy of Pixels is being right up to date with security fixes, of course, and the Pixel 5 is already on October 2020 security, with a probable four years more, so until late 2024, with feature (major version) updates to the OS for three years, until late 2023, so this should get ‘Android 14’ within its lifetime. Impressive.

Verdict

As a fan of slightly larger, brighter screens, of stereo speakers, and even of 3.5mm jacks (as on the 4a range), the Pixel 5 should have been a big disappointment to me. And, in truth, it’s not the hardware I’d seek out personally. But that takes nothing from its viability as a product for others. 

The Pixel 5 is small and perfectly formed and it’s a super smartphone for the new 5G decade. It’s about all your data – and most of the world’s data, delivered at possibly brain-numbing speeds – in the palm of your hand. And without wishing to tempt fate, the tough textured metal frame should endure most of what you encounter day to day without needing a protective or grippy case, making this potentially the slimmest and lightest smartphone of the year.