Reviews

Pixel 5 review: Mid-range Pixel, full price features

It’s been a weird year for phone launches for Google, with their 2020 range of phones, announced, and from today, available to buy. The 2020 range began with the announcement of the Pixel 4a in August, and followed up with two new 5G enabled phones, the Pixel 4a (5G) and Pixel 5 on October 1st. 

The Pixel range this year appears to be a response to the COVID-19 pandemic, with Google’s senior vice president of devices and services, Rick Osterloh telling reporters at the launch ‘What the world doesn’t seem like it needs right now is another $1,000 phone’. This shows in reports from the likes of Gartner who’ve seen global sales take a dive for the first two quarters of 2020. Google also says that the hardware was locked in before the pandemic hit, so it seems as if Google really was going for mid-range on their Pixel phones this year.

The 2020 Pixel range is pretty solid though instead of an expected four phones – Pixel 5/5XL + Pixel 4a/4a XL –  we only get three this year, which fit Google’s message of giving consumers the option to choose which hardware and features they want with various price points.

The Pixel 4a very obviously fits into the entry level, though the line blurs a little more with the Pixel 5 and Pixel 4a (5G). 

Google shares many aspects of hardware between the two models, including the same processor (Qualcomm Snapdragon 765G), camera platform (12.2MP Main + 16MP Ultra-Wide) as well as sharing the Titan M Security Chip/Pixel Imprint fingerprint sensor and design across all three phones.

There’s many similarities but they are different phones with the Pixel 5 positioned as Google’s Premium Pixel this year. At $999 it’s certainly priced pretty well for a smartphone with premium features, but it is using some mid-range hardware. Google has supplied both a Pixel 4a (5G) and a Pixel 5 for review, and I’ve used and reviewed them separately. If you’re interested in the Pixel 4a (5G) you can head here, or if you want to see how the Pixel 5 went after a week of pretty heavy use, here’s my thoughts.

Hardware and Design

As far as design goes, Google hasn’t strayed too far from the look of previous Pixel phones, though as with each generation there’s variances between each generation. 

The Pixel 5 has similar stylings as the Pixel 4 phones with the same square camera bump on the rear as well as a ‘Pixel Imprint’ fingerprint scanner. The camera bump includes a 16MP wide-angle secondary sensor this year instead of the Telephoto option Google went with on the Pixel 4. The same 12.2MP main sensor we’re familiar with from previous Pixels makes a return too.  

Google included a black band around the sides of the Pixel 4 phones last year. This year Google has opted for a single piece of recycled aluminium wrapping the entire rear of the phone and curving around the top and sides to meet the display on the front. The Pixel 5 is still IP68 dust and water resistant which is good, so you can immerse in 1.5 meters of freshwater for up to 30 minutes

The aluminium has a sand-like finish giving it a natural feel that’s also easy to grip, and doesn’t tend to attract fingerprints – at least on the Sorta Sage coloured phone.

The Pixel 5 comes in two colour options: Just Black and Sorta Sage, and while it’s a personal aesthetic choice, I am completely in love with the Sorta Sage colour which also includes a lovely chrome power button. 

The power and volume rocker are on the right side of the phone, with the SIM card tray on the right. The Pixel 5 also supports eSIM across all three Australian telcos so you can use that too.

The Pixel 5 comes in only one size this year, and it’s a little smaller than the Pixel 4 in height, though marginally wider. Though shorter the Pixel 5 still packs in a larger 6” FHD+ (1080 x 2340) resolution Flexible OLED panel covered with Corning Gorilla Glass 6, but if you are after a Pixel with a larger screen this year, you’ll need to check out the Pixel 4a (5G) which comes with a 6.2-inch display.

The size makes it easy to hold and operate one-handed – at least for me, though I have slightly larger hands. The Pixel Imprint fingerprint sensor is fast and sits where your finger rests naturally on the rear making it easy to unlock the phone. It’s surprising how much I missed the fingerprint sensor, though there are face unlock fans who will be unhappy about the absence of IR cameras.

The removal of the IR cameras and ‘Soli’ motion sense radar control in the , as well as moving the 8MP front-facing camera into a punch-hole notch in the display has given Google the ability to shrink bezels around the screen of the Pixel 5. They’ve also worked to get rid of the infamous chin on the bottom with a small bezel running around the entire display. A bit of bezel works well for palm rejection and I’m pretty happy at the balance that Google has struck.

Notably around the top of the display is an absence of a speaker grille. Google has included an under-display speaker on the Pixel 5 giving stereo sound. The under-display speaker is fairly tinny, with the bottom firing speaker on the base near the USB-C port a little clearer. Sound isn’t outstanding, but it is stereo.

The display itself is excellent with deep blacks which take advantage of the native Dark Mode on Android, but is still vivid and colourful. Google does give you some options for tuning the colour of the screen to your personal preference with options for Natural, Boosted or Adaptive.

The screen is bright and easy to read indoors but can be a little hard to read in bright sunlight, though switching between light and dark mode can help here. 

The Pixel 5 internals include a Qualcomm Snapdragon 765G processor which we’ve seen on a number of phones launching recently. It’s classed as a mid-range processor, though it includes the X52 5G modem on the chip making it more power efficient. 

Google has included support for both mmWave and sub-6GHz 5G compatibility on the Pixel 5, while the Pixel 4a (5G) only includes support for sub-6GHz 5G bands in Australia. There’s only limited mmWave 5G support here in Australia, so while it’s nice to have in the Pixel 5, it’s not really necessary…yet.

Google has paired the SD765G processor with 8GB of RAM in the Pixel 5 and 128GB of storage, a base storage standard across the 2020 Pixel range. Given the Pixel 5’s position as a premium Pixel, it would have been nice to get a 256GB option, but at least the 64GB models are no more. 

The 8GB of RAM on the Pixel 5 is very much enough for the Google Pixel launcher and Android 11. The flow of multi-tasking and swiping is smooth, fast and feels fluid, especially with the 90Hz display enhancing animations.

The mid-range processor with an on-die modem, a FullHD+ resolution display and factors like Google’s Extreme Battery Saver mode and 4080mAh battery make for a good battery life. It’s not outstanding, but a far cry better than the Pixel 4 last year giving you a full day easy, with a little extra if you enable the Extreme Battery Saver mode.

Google includes an 18W adaptor with USB-PD 2.0 charger in the box. The charger is classed as supporting ’fast charging’ and will top up the battery in a decent time-frame, though Google isn’t making any claims about the speed. It’s not on par with or even close to fast chargers from the likes of other manufacturers including OPPO, Huawei, Samsung and other manufacturers these days and even though I charge overnight, it would be nice to get a very fast top-up quickly when needed. 

When recharging you do have the option for wireless charging, Google has cleverly hidden a non-metallic portion of the rear casing allowing the Qi charging coils to charge the phone. 

There’s also now an option of reverse wireless charging on the Pixel 5, so you can in theory top up a mates phone, or charge your watch, Pixel Buds or any other devices with wireless charging support.

Camera

Google’s Pixel phones are notoriously good at taking photos. There’s a distinct look to Google’s Pixel camera, which Google managed to carry all the way down to the Pixel 4a this year. Google has expanded on the camera array for the Pixel 4a (5G) and Pixel 5 this year including the same 12.2MP main sensor we’ve seen on previous Pixel phones, though this year a 16MP ultra-wide angle sensor with 107° field of view joins it. 

Google has confirmed that the Pixel 4a (5G) and Pixel 5 do NOT include the Pixel Neural Core Image Signal Processor (ISP) that Google used last year to enable Live HDR+ and Dual Exposure features in the camera app. Though the Neural Core is not on-board, the Live HDR+ and Dual Exposure features are still present.

There IS a difference in processing photos between the Pixel 4a (5G) and Pixel 5, but it’s not a big gap. There’s just a second or so of ‘processing’ when you put the phones side-by-side. 

The decision to include an ultra-wide sensor on the Pixel 4a (5G)/Pixel 5 is a big one after Google talked up the telephoto lens on the Pixel 4. I personally prefer the ultra-wide option as it lets you capture more scenery, people or anything in the shot. 

Google isn’t just slapping in an ultra-wide lens, they’re also lending their computational photography algorithms to ultra-wide shots, correcting any lens distortion as soon as you take it. I like the Ultra-Wide option, but here’s to a triple sensor Pixel 6 with Ultra-Wide and Telephoto.

The 12.2MP sensor though is, as it has been on previous Pixel’s just great. I love the composition of Google’s Pixel photos. The camera takes a good shot in almost any light, with support for Live HDR+ and dual exposure controls allowing you to control the composition, and lighting in the frame, before you take the shot. 

Google’s much vaunted Night Sight is again on-board, though this time the camera app can automatically prompt you when it thinks you’ll see benefit from switching it on.  Google is also bringing Night Sight to portrait mode, letting you take some pretty good portrait shots in very low light. 

Though no physical telephoto option is present on the Pixel 5, Google’s ‘Super Res Zoom’ is still present with up to 7.0x digital zoom available in the camera app. Google told EFTM that there is a dedicated team working on Digital Zoom for Pixel and they will continue to improve the Super Rez Zoom/Digital Zoom including making images ‘crisper’, so that’s a bonus. And to be fair, the results on digital zoom are pretty decent but here’s hoping a Pixel 6 will just have a triple camera array with both ultra-wide and telephoto options.

For the launch of the Pixel 4a (5G) and Pixel 5, Google has really started looking at video seriously. They’ve been lagging behind on that front, but have finally begun working on it. For a start these are the first Pixel phones to support 4K/60fps video recording. There’s also easy access to Slow Motion (1/8x or 1/4x) and Time Lapse (5x – 120x) modes. 

One of the big features announced for the Pixel camera was a new range of stabilisation options in the camera app:

  • Standard – For light movement (default)
  • Locked – For far away still shots
  • Active – For heavy movement
  • Cinematic Pan – For Smooth shots (half speed, muted).

The Cinematic Pan mode is pretty decent, stabilising the video you just took, even in 4K. The effect is pretty impressive.

Another great addition to the Google Pixel experience is the ‘Portrait Light’ editor in Google Photos. You can retroactively add more light with varying degrees of brightness as well as change the source of the light, all while retaining the artistic blurred background.

Software

Android 11

The Pixel 4a (5G) and Pixel 5 are launching with Android 11 on board, and this being a Google phone, it already has the latest October 5th security update. Google updates the security patches on Pixel phones monthly, and these phones will both get a new security update monthly, as well as feature updates to new versions of Androidwhen available for the next 3 years as well.

This being a Google phone it’s essentially stock Android, though with the Pixel launcher in place. For all intents and purposes, this is how stock Android looks though. 

There’s no bloatware or pre-installed apps from random vendors to uninstall or pause. The system boots into Android and there’s just a folder of Google apps, and then it’s up to you to install your favourite apps from Google Play

There’s a lot going on under the hood with Android 11. Improvements to scoped storage which sandboxes app data better, updates to Project Mainline enabling Google to push updates for more Android OS specific updates without going through any extended approval process from carriers, manufacturers and others.

The user focused updates for Android 11 include a number of things including Persistent Media Controls, as well as Conversation and bubbles in the notification panel, notification history and new smart home controls and options in the power menu.

Persistent Media Controls

The persistent media controls in Android 11 are handy to have, with apps supporting the feature showing up in your notification panel, just below the quick settings. 

The panel can host up to five most recently used media apps, if they’re using the MediaBrowserService API in Android 11. YouTube, YouTube Music, and Pocket Casts slotted in there perfectly, though Audible doesn’t, and you’ll probably find a few new apps that need to update to use the feature.

I’ve lost media playing before, especially streams I’ve cast, so having them all appear in a swipeable carousel at the top of your notification panel is a great idea. There are some hold outs on implementing the new API into apps, so if your app doesn’t show up in there yet, maybe reach out to the developer.

Conversations and Conversation Bubbles

Conversations and Conversation Bubbles are a new way for Google to attempt to control the multitude of messaging services now available on Android. 

The Conversation control panel is similar to media controls, in that there is also a separate section on top of the notification shade containing only real-time conversations with people. Conversation Bubbles give you a fast way to access an active chat, by leaving it as a bubble, similar to Facebook’s Chat Head bubble, active on your screen even over other apps. 

The new Conversation Panel is definitely a handy inclusion in Android, given I message friends, family and colleagues daily through a variety of applications. 

Conversations are now on a per conversation, not a per app basis, so you’ll see a profile pic for your conversations. You also get a few new preferences for conversations  in Android 11, you can mark conversations as priority, or not a priority, as well as silence notifications for a particular conversation or set custom notifications and sounds for them. Finally, you can choose to promote a conversation to Bubbles. 

I have to say I’ve been a big fan of the Chat Head notification that Facebook came up with for Messenger years ago, and it works just as well for other conversations. Promoting an app to a conversation Bubble is as easy as tapping the icon next to ‘Mark as read’ – that is, if the app supports it. 

Notification History

Ever accidentally swiped a notification away before you properly digested it? I have, and the new Notification History option is the best thing since sliced bread as far as I’m concerned. 

Notification History is turned off by default in Android 11, but enabling it is as simple as searching ‘Notification History’ in the Android Settings and switching it on. Once enabled you’ll see a ‘History’ option at the bottom of your notification panel, tap it and you’ll see a list of your notifications. Simple, but effective. 

Notification panel encroachment

There are a lot of changes coming to the Android notification panel, with conversations and media controls both now getting a dedicated ‘section’. This has meant there are slight changes to Android’s notification panel layout, most notably the shrinking of viewable Quick Settings, which now only show six, instead of nine Quick Settings Tiles. 

I’m not such a huge fan of this new truncated view for Quick Settings, but it’s the new way and you’ll need to re-arrange your top six favourite Quick Settings to ensure you can access them quickly.

Power Menu

Google has slowly begun introducing more ‘features’ to the Android Power Menu and in Android 11 there’s now Google Pay, and Smart Home controls on show when you press the power button. 

To be honest the old power menu is looking a little busy these days. I only use a single card with Google Pay and so with no need to change which card I’m using it’s fairly useless to have this quick access. If however you have multiple cards and need to change them, it’s pretty fast to use.

For Smart Home Controls, I’m still trying to remember the new controls in the power menu are actually there. The Smart Home Controls in the power menu can show anything you’ve registered in Google Home, and in theory third-party apps can also interject their own page of controls here. 

I’m not a huge fan of these new controls on the Power Menu, but as long as Power and Restart are prominently displayed I can ignore the intrusion, but for anyone who finds the new UI attractive, there’s some good options for controlling your Google Pay and Smart Home.

Should you buy it?

The Google Pixel 5 is a lot of smartphone for $999, even with a ‘mid-range’ processor on board, but there’s a lot of competition in this space from the likes of Oppo with the Find X2 Neo, Vivo X50 Pro and others utilising the same Qualcomm Snapdragon 765G processor. 

WIth the Pixel 5 you do have to take into account the ‘Google-ness’ of the release which means a guarantee of 3 years minimum on Feature and security updates. A promise most companies aren’t willing to offer with their phones. 

Having a Pixel also means you have one of the best smartphone cameras on the market.  But that then introduces the prospect of choosing between a Pixel 5 and a Pixel 4a (5G) which both share the same camera platform, and the 

The Pixel 5 is definitely screaming out for some more premium features like Fast Charging, and a larger storage option would also make a choice between a Pixel 5 and Pixel 4a (5G) a little easier. 

All that said, the Pixel 5 has got those extra little touches I like, such as the IP68 dust/water resistance, 8GB of RAM which makes for smooth performance, wireless charging and slightly larger battery. I like the larger size of the Pixel 4a (5G) screen, but the smoothness of the 90Hz display on the Pixel 5 is also another factor here.

There’s a lot of pros and cons for both the Pixel 5 and Pixel 4a (5G), but come down to it, if you want a ‘Premium’ Pixel this year, then it’s the Pixel 5 you should choose.

The Pixel 5 is available from today on the Google Store, as well as through Telstra, Optus, Vodafone, JB Hi-Fi, Officeworks and Harvey Norman for $999 AUD in two colours: Just Black and Sorta Sage (Green).  

Pixel 5 review: Mid-range Pixel, full price features
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