The Google Pixel 5’s cheaper asking price compared to previous flagship Pixel phones could, on the one hand, be viewed as an admission of defeat in the premium space dominated by Apple and Samsung. Or alternatively, it could be a sensible, perhaps necessary, reposition of the Pixel line.
Whichever school of thought you subscribe to, the Google Pixel 5’s more midrange slant makes a lot of sense. So how does it fare in its less premium pastures?
The Pixel 5 is one of the most straightforward phone purchases you can make. There is just a single 8GB RAM and (unexpandable) 128GB storage specification, priced £599 ($699, AU$999). All you have to do is choose between Just Black and Sorta Sage (pastel green) colourways.
As the Pixel 4 launched in 2019 from £699 ($799, AU$1049), the Pixel 5 is its most affordable standard-size flagship Pixel yet (although there’s the cheaper-still Pixel 4a and Pixel 4a 5G) – much more in line with the likes of the OnePlus 8T than the more premium-priced Samsung Galaxy S20, Apple iPhone 12 and Sony Xperia 1 II.
Unsurprisingly, Google’s repositioning of its Pixel line comes with some compromises. Firstly, the Pixel 5 is powered by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 765G processor, rather than the more advanced Snapdragon 865 chip found in its main rivals.
Its OLED screen ‘only’ has a 1080 x 2340 resolution and 90Hz refresh rate, too, the latter leaving Samsung Galaxy and OnePlus leading in terms of screen response. And, perhaps most disappointingly for some, the dual-camera system for the Pixel 5 comes without a telephoto lens.
Screen 6in OLED screen
Dimensions (hwd) 14.5 x 7 x 0.8cm
But this is a cheaper phone, and despite some losses, there are also gains. The first is 5G network support, of course. Thankfully, the Pixel 4's 2800mAh battery has been replaced by a much more acceptable 4080mAh juice pack for the Pixel 5.
It's Qi-certified for wireless charging, too, and can wirelessly charge the Pixel Buds when they're placed on its rear panel. You get more screen real estate, too – 6in compared to 5.7in – to help ease the loss of Google's bigger Pixel XL variant. We’re also pleased to see the return of the back-panel fingerprint scanner, which the Pixel 4 replaced with Face unlock, and Android 11 OS is inevitably present.
The Pixel’s stubbier-than-most chassis – a metal as opposed to glass unibody – is one of the most compact (at 14.5cm tall and 7cm wide) and lightweight (151g) on the market, making it particularly easy to grip and use with one hand. Google’s decision to waterproof the Pixel 5 is further good news, with its IPX8 water-protection rating meaning it can be fully submerged in water around 1m deep.
Despite the loss of the telephoto lens, the Pixel 5’s combination of its 12.2MP main sensor (complete with optical and electronic image stabilisation) and all-new 16MP ultra-wide sensor (capable of snapping a 107-degree field of view) is a winner.
We miss the better quality photos of the Pixel 4 – you can zoom out to 7x here, it just gets notably noisy from 3x – but on the other hand, we relish being able to squeeze more into the frame, even if the perspective isn’t as wide as that offered by the Apple iPhone 12 and Samsung Galaxy S20. Night Sight remains one of the Google camera software heroes – it’s a saving grace for low-light photography – so we’re pleased to see it’s now available in Portrait Mode too.
With triple and quad lenses, manual modes and crazy zoom capability available in smartphones these days, the Pixel 5’s camera may seem underwhelming. But thanks to Google’s trusty software, it doesn’t suffer from the seeming simplicity of its lens hardware. In fact, as a point-and-shoot snapper requiring minimal effort, Google’s Pixel remains one of the best and will be more than proficient for most.
The Pixel 5’s 6in 1080 x 2340 OLED display is larger than the Pixel 4's 5.7in display but, as it keeps the same resolution, has a slightly lower pixel density (432ppi). Compared with the Samsung Galaxy S20’s 6.2in screen (3200 x 1440), it holds its own remarkably well – good news considering the S20 has one of the best screens in the business.
Play The Mandalorian season two trailer, and the Samsung offers a bit more colour punch and truer skintones. There’s greater depth and sharpness to landscapes and a touch more motion smoothness as things get busy, too. But there’s not a great deal in it between the two.
The Pixel’s OLED screen renders reds deep and blacks true, with plenty in the way of clarity and cleanliness to lap up the trailer’s impressive cinematography. That 90Hz rate steps up to keep things smooth, too. All in all, it’s pleasantly watchable – you could even say surprisingly so for the price.
The Pixel 5 lets itself down in the sound department, and this is where the Samsung Galaxy S20 justifies its extra expense.
It’s not that the Pixel 5 is unlistenable; there’s clarity and weight behind video soundtracks and music as we play them through the B&W PX headphones, both wired through a USB-C dongle – the Pixel 5 doesn’t have a 3.5mm headphone jack – and wireless over Bluetooth. It’s simply flat-sounding and unengaging. That’s mostly down to its lack of ability to distinguish layers in the soundstage and entertain any purposeful interplay between the strands of music, but it’s also not very detailed.
We play Matt Berninger’s One More Second and, unlike the Samsung, there isn’t the space between the string rhythms and soft drum beat, nor any subtlety to their textures. Berninger’s vocal comes through on the same plane in the canvas, without much hint of the charming inflections that make his delivery so stirring.
The Pixel 5 is a rather different proposition from Google – a phone that compromises to hit a lower price point – yet its strengths and weaknesses are in the same areas as its predecessors – its superb screen quality and so-so sound performance respectively.
And then there are its rivals from OnePlus and Google itself. After all, the Google Pixel 4a 5G offers the same camera, a bigger screen and many of the same specs to the Pixel 5 for a fair bit less money (£100, $200, AU$200) – and that perhaps detracts from the Pixel 5’s ultimate appeal more than anything else.
- Screen 5
- Sound 3
- Features 4
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Read our Google Pixel 4 review
Read our Samsung Galaxy S20 review