Google Pixel 5 Review: Almost my favourite phone of 2020. Almost.

There’s a lot to love about the Google Pixel 5. Quite a lot actually. In the face of the relentless trend of high-end phone brands splitting their newest flagship into multiple iterations to appeal to different budgets, the indelible company has decided to be different. Yet again. For their new flagship, Google have bowed out of the high-end game for the sake of the mid-range market – a move no doubt influenced by how well-received their slimmed ‘a’ iterations for the past two generations have been (Google Pixel 3a and Pixel 4a have always been better received than their XL counterparts).

The Google Pixel 5 is one of our top picks for Christmas 2020. For our full gift guide click here

Google stubbornly refusing to follow trends is nothing new though. Famously – and often, frustratingly – Google has been so confident in their post-processing prowess that they’ve only ever maxed out their rear camera systems with two lenses. It’s limiting as far as the many different photography modes a phone is capable of, especially when it comes to a hybrid zoom, and always begs the question as to what exactly a Pixel phone could be capable of if Google kept up with the likes of Apple, Huawei, Oppo and Samsung – that is, the now typical quad-camera systems.

A stubborn commitment to doing things their own way has been admirable in the past, but it is starting to feel a bit dated. This chips away at the Pixel 5’s photography somewhat, but there’s still plenty to atone – making this one of the best mid-range Android phones to date. Possibly my favourite.

Design

Google has put more into the design of this phone than they have any other Pixel before it. And they’ve nailed it. Gone is the typical glass back so common on higher-end phones, switched for an old-school metal which wraps around the sides with a matte-like finish with a textured bio-resin material. It feels incredible to hold, and the perfect grip is one of my favourite things about it. The minimalist look, and lightweight, almost smooth cardboard-esque surface makes this the most attractive phone of 2020. Easily. And it’s one of the lightest 5G phones out – edged out only by the iPhone 12 mini (135g vs 151g).

Double that praise if you get the Sorta Sage colour variant, with a chromed power button and spearmint like hue. The only other phone this attractive is the Oppo Find X2 Pro with its beautiful Vegan Leather Orange variant.

It’s important to note that the buttons feel a bit more recessed into the body of the phone. They aren’t popping out with a clashing colour like the power button on the 4/XL. As such, you may have to press a bit harder for functions to register, both on the power button and on the same-side volume rockers.

The all-metal body still, remarkably, supports wireless charging. This is because Google has cleverly included a cut-out in the middle of the shell, allowing a wireless charging coil to work efficiently despite the illusion of a uniform design. Google’s niftiness has allowed for the company’s first truly edge-to-edge display, but that isn’t without one major sacrifice.

That sacrifice would be the speakers. And it’s a major one, given the Pixel 4 XL is undoubtedly one of the best sounding phones for watching media without the use of any Bluetooth headphones. Instead of the front speakers, what you’ve now got is an under-display driver and another bottom-facing speaker that sounds woefully one-sided. The resulting sound is slightly muffled and a substantial regress from the 4 XL.

What you get for that sacrifice is a better overall and more ergonomic design. It then comes down to what you value more. With Bluetooth headphones getting better by the year – these ones in particular – the speaker thing is probably less of an issue than I make of it, and subpar stereo sound is negligible for a generation that’s spoilt for choice with good quality personal audio devices.

At least the gorgeous 6-inch OLED, with a refresh rate of 90Hz and a resolution of 2340×1080, is simply stunning to look at. It’s nowhere near the best on the market, but it’s near the best at this price. The smooth refresh rate certainly helps as well and, importantly, isn’t a step down from the more expensive 4 XL. Colours pop, contrast is great, browsing is fluid, and apps look their best. There’s not much else you could ask for. It also helps having little-to-no bezel wrapping around the screen, doing away with the slightly annoying top notch that was so big on the 4 XL because of Google’s soli radar system (more on the glaring omission below).

While the phone feels slim and compact, it’s still an obviously premium device. Both in how it looks, and how it plays. And while it may be more underpowered than a $999 smartphone in 2020 should be, it’s perfectly sufficient for those who aren’t looking for a device of excess. And that’s the market Google is sharply targeting. The one’s sick of being glued to their phone like it’s second nature, who don’t need the bells and whistles and are more than fine with just a really well-built phone that makes life easier.

The phone’s silky smooth rear sports the now signature square camera block that Google love so much. It’s neater and less obtrusive than the splayed out camera arrays of other phones, and is one of the Pixel design aspects I love the most. It looks almost identical to that of the previous Pixel phones, except now the flash is on the bottom of the array, and of course one of the lenses is different – it’s now a wide-angle rather than a telephoto (more on that below).

Perhaps the biggest difference from the fourth-gen is the (welcome) return of the rear-mounted fingerprint sensor, right in the middle at the most logical spot where the index finger naturally lands when gripping the phone with one hand. It’s fast, accurate and helps tighten the build up, moving far away from the in-display trend. I’ve been using the phone for months now and have had zero issue with accuracy or speed.

Performance

The $999 price tag should tell you that all you need to know about Google’s compromises. It’d be naive to expect anything but what you get here: a Snapdragon 765G chipset with 8GB RAM and 128GB storage (not expandable, unfortunately). The processor shouldn’t scare people away; it’s perfectly fine for reasonable use, but would falter if it was pushed a bit harder – for example, by a more demanding gamer. It’s worth noting that this isn’t even the best processor you’d find at this price, given the Samsung Galaxy S20 Fan Edition packs a Snapdragon 865 chipset, but it’s the same as the Oppo Find X2 Neo. Both are the same price, so Samsung wins when it comes to power here.

As with all Pixel phones, the benefit from going with Google is that you’ll get the very best Android experience possible. The Pixel 5 runs Android 11 straight out of the box, coming with a bunch of quality-of-life improvements including a “Conversations” feature which allows you to consolidate all your direct messaging apps (whatsapp, messenger etc) into one easy hub, and improved smart controls. The OS update is more iterative than meaningful, pulling taut a lot of the features that weren’t quite there yet with the previous version.

While Google are still putting a lot of stock in their Soli radar tech, which primarily has to do with nuanced motion sensing technology and allowed the Pixel 4/XL to pull a few party tricks with air gestures, there’s no trace of it with the 5. As mentioned above, this allowed the designers to get rid of the glaring forehead strip from the 4 and work towards a more seamless edge-to-edge display. I don’t miss it, neither should anyone else. Although I do quite like the way my Pixel 4 XL is all rearing to go and face-unblock as soon as I go to pick it up, and is smart enough to know when I’m looking at the phone, turning on the display so I can see the time and any notifications on the lock-screen.

Camera

Portrait Mode is still a beast, even without the telephoto lens

The Pixel series has always been well-regarded for Google’s superior computational photography, often making do with one lens to out-pace multi-lens competitors. It’s often meant the best low-light performance, the best portrait and bokeh, and the best selfies. Although other brands have caught up, and many raced ahead, Google is still one of the best photo-snappers out. That goes double for the portrait mode, in which you can even use night sight now. Although with the telephoto lens gone, my Pixel 4 XL is noticeably better at pulling in more depth information for better, more accurate bokeh.

And the biggest change here is that ditching of the telephoto lens, instead relying on Super Res Zoom for those zooming needs. The fourth-gen made great use of the telephoto by having it boost performance in Portrait Mode, but also combining with the Super Res Zoom software to take clear and usable shots when pushed above 4x zoom. You don’t want to do that with the Pixel 5. Unless you’re just going 2x, you don’t want to use the zoom at all. It’s horrible, and blurry, and stupid. Not even Google’s brilliant AI can stitch together a shot that’s taken at 7x zoom.

With some phones offering up to 100x digital zoom now, Google getting rid of the telephoto is a surprising choice. They could have had 3 lenses and kept some zoom performance in-tact, but they had to stick with just two lenses. As such, the telephoto is replaced by a wide-angle lens.

Pixel 5 wide
Pixel 5 standard

It’s more versatile for content creation – with both photo and video – and resisting a FOV any more than 107-degrees has helped eliminate distortion around the edges. A wide angle shot on the Pixel 5 looks clean and satisfying, especially when compared with other $999 phones. Still, it’s a wonder why Google keep dragging their feet when it comes to at least giving consumers 3 lenses. Is that too much to ask? Yes, Google has superior processing and still blasts well past competitors when it comes to tidying up noise as fast as a finger click, but that kind of software confidence still meaning outdated hardware is just beyond annoying now.

Night Sight is still as good as ever here, and with astrophotography mode a very welcome addition, the Pixel 5 beasts its way to the top of the crop for people who love low-light photography. I notice the camera app is even more helpful than ever before, popping up little tips here and there to help amateur photographers edit images in the best way possible – this includes much more nuanced sliders on a shot after it’s taken, with the ability to completely transform a drab shot into an Instagram-ready masterpiece in seconds.

Battery

Yes. Google. This is where I want to hug you and never let you go. You’ve finally listened to Pixel fans who have complained non-stop about you’re poor battery performance. The 3 XL’s battery life sucked, the 4 XL’s battery life was worse. Battery drain has been one of Google’s biggest issues. No more. With the absence of Soli radar, the Pixel is able to better manage its juice from a nice and big 4,000mAh battery. You can easily expect a full day’s use from this, even when you’ve been using the camera all that. Good job Google.

Reverse wireless charging is even possible, so the Pixel 5 can be used to charge up other devices.

Verdict & Value

As far as design goes, the Pixel 5 is my favourite phone of 2020. As far as everything else goes, it’s almost my favourite phone of 2020. It could have been so much more, but Google’s worst tendencies have held it back. Not having more than 2 lenses is definitely a pain point, and the performance isn’t as snappy as you’d get with Samsung’s same-price competitor. Still, there’s really a lot to love here. As I wrote above, if you aren’t one for excess, the Pixel 5 is a serious contender for your tech-obsessed heart.

FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Highlights: Feels incredible in the hand; does away with those Pixel standard bezels; ultra-wide angle + computational photography = no distorted edges; Night Sight as good as ever; helpful suggestions when editing photos; rear-mounted fingerprint reader is fast and responsive; snappy refresh rate; excellent battery life.
Lowlights: Slightly skimping on the chipset; very disappointing speakers when compared to the fourth-gen; stubborn camera array.
Manufacturer: Google
Price: $999
Available: Now

Review based on a Google Pixel 5 supplied by Google.

Chris Singh

Chris Singh is the Deputy Editor of the AU review and a freelance travel writer. You can reach him on Instagram by following @chrisdsingh.

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