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Google Pixel 5 review

The Pixel 5 is a great phone but the competition is fierce at this price

Pixel 5
(Image: © Laptop Mag)

Our Verdict

Google's Pixel 5 is a great smartphone with an attractive and ergonomic design, class-leading cameras, solid battery life and a clean Android interface. Unfortunately, it cuts one or two corners too many to keep the price down.

For

  • Ergonomic, lightweight design
  • Beautiful 6-inch AMOLED display
  • World-class cameras
  • Pure Android 11 with Pixel-exclusive tools
  • Solid battery life

Against

  • Middling performance
  • Subpar speakers
  • Stuck at 128GB of storage
  • About $100 too expensive
  • Possible QC issues
Google Pixel 5 specs

Price: $699
OS: Android 11
Display: 6.0 inches OLED (2340 x 1080-pixels; 90Hz)
CPU: Qualcomm Snapdragon 765G
RAM: 8GB
Storage: 128GB
Rear camera: 12.2MP wide (ƒ/1.7), 16MP ultrawide (f/2.2)
Front camera: 8MP (ƒ/2.0)
Battery: 4,080 mAh
Size: 5.7 x 2.8 x 0.3 inches
Weight: 5.3 ounces

Google has lost some of its smartphone magic. When the original Pixel launched, it helped revive a stagnating industry. The camera was the highlight, bringing near DSLR-quality shots to the palm of your hand with exceptional low-light capabilities. Since then, Android users have waited for Google to debut the next revolution.

But after minor updates to its past few releases, Google has gone a different route, focusing on the upper-midrange category instead of producing a true premium flagship product. The Pixel 5 is for people who want a feature-filled device at a more affordable price. It is a utilitarian phone that nails the fundamentals and strips away the extras. 

Is it enough? Despite the compromises, yes. In the Pixel 5, an excellent OLED screen, a class-leading camera, an ergonomic design and long battery life come together with the perks you only get from Google — pure Android, clever Pixel-exclusive tools, and lengthy software support — to create a top-notch user experience. And at $699, the Pixel 5 is easier to justify than, say, the $999 iPhone 12 Pro. 

Of course, there were compromises made to keep the price down. The latest Pixel lacks an IR camera, there are "only" two lenses on the back and, most importantly, the mid-range Snapdragon 765G is a downgrade from Qualcomm's fastest chips. Also worth considering is Google's other mid-range option, the Pixel 4a 5G, which shares features with the Pixel 5 but costs $200 less.

Those aren't the only reasons to skip the Pixel 5 — Google's historically poor QC has returned. As such, I need to preface this review with a warning about quality control; several customers are reporting hairline gaps between the Pixel 5's frame and screen. The seams in our review unit aren't perfectly uniform, either. Google is currently investigating the issue, so consider holding off on buying the first batch of Pixel 5 phones.

Pixel 5: Price and configurations 

Starting at $699, the Pixel 5 is the most expensive Pixel phone of 2020 but considerably cheaper than flagship phones from Apple or Samsung. 

The Pixel 5 is only sold with 128GB of storage. There is no upgraded storage option and you can't expand the storage capacity using a microSD card. The Pixel 5 is available in Just Black and Sorta Sage, a pastel mint color. 

If you're considering Google's other offerings, the Pixel 4a starts at $349 and the Pixel 4a 5G goes for $499.

Pixel 5: Design 

The Pixel 5 finally adopts trends seen across the smartphone industry, including the edge-to-edge display and hole-punch camera. The phone loses some character by following the lead of others, but is ultimately better off for it. 

I've owned a Pixel 4 XL for the better part of a year, and when I powered on the Pixel 5, my first thought was "I need this." What first struck me about the Pixel 5 is how comfortable it is to hold. The 6-inch phone is perfect for my medium-sized hand thanks to its compact footprint and thin, curved edges.

Pixel 5

(Image credit: Laptop Mag)

Also helping the phone's ergonomics is a slightly textured resin on the rear panel that makes the Pixel 5 easier to grip. It feels like fine-grit sandpaper, and gives the phone a ruggedness that doesn't detract from the minimalist aesthetic. Some people might be tricked into thinking a glass-coated phone is more premium because of the extra heft, but I really like the Pixel 5's lightweight textured frame.

I just wish Google had sent me the Sorta Sage color variant; The soft spearmint color with the chromed green power button looks great in the press images. Oh well. The aptly named Just Black version I'm reviewing is stealthy with its matte-black finish and dark chrome side button.  

Google removed the front speakers from the Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL to accommodate the edge-to-edge display. I'll talk about how audio quality is affected below (spoiler: significantly), but overall, the change is a welcome one. I prioritize ergonomics over speaker quality so I hope Google keeps this bezel-free design in the future.

Pixel 5

(Image credit: Laptop Mag)

Another compromise of going bezel-less was replacing the IR camera at the top with a standard hole-punch lens. This means the Pixel 5 loses the facial recognition sign-in found on the Pixel 4. In its stead is a circular fingerprint sensor on the rear, centered just below the camera module and above a G logo. 

I wish the circular sensor was more pronounced, regardless, the fingerprint scanner instantly logged me in. I even prefer the fingerprint sensor over the IR camera on my Pixel 4, although an ideal setup would include both options. 

Despite some modern upgrades, the Pixel 5 fits in Google's phone lineup. You get the same functional design with a squircle camera module that looks nearly identical to the one on the Pixel 4. Also transferring over from the previous phone is an IP68 waterproof rating, meaning the Pixel 5 can withstand submersion under 3 feet of water for up to 30 minutes.

Pixel 5

Pixel 5 (left); Pixel 4 XL (right) (Image credit: Laptop Mag)

At 5.6 x 2.8 x 0.3 inches and 5.3 ounces, the Pixel 5 is much lighter than its competitors. The Samsung Galaxy S20 FE (6.3 x 2.9 x 0.3 inches, 6.7 ounces) and OnePlus 8T (6.3 x 2.9 x 0.3 inches, 6.6 ounces) are considerably heavier, while the 6.1-inch iPhone 12 weighs 5.8 ounces. 

Pixel 5: Display 

The Pixel 5's 6.0-inch, FHD+ (2,340 x 1,080-pixel) AMOLED panel with a 90Hz refresh rate is gorgeous. Holding the newest model next to my Pixel 4 XL revealed improved white balanced, darker black levels and an edge in sharpness.

Pixel 5

(Image credit: Laptop Mag)

A trailer for Wonder Woman 1984 was a flurry of colors. Kristen Wiig's blue eyes pierced through her gold retro glasses, which glistened with a similar intensity as Wonder Woman's impenetrable armor. The superheroes' lightning whip popped against the deep inky blacks of a late-night sky while the pale turquoise ocean was as clear as a gem beside the sun-drenched beach. 

With a 90Hz refresh rate, animations appear smoother on the Pixel 5's display than they would on a screen stuck at 60Hz (like the latest iPhone 12 models). Higher refresh rates drain the battery faster, so it's good that the screen switches between 90Hz and 60Hz depending on the type of content being displayed. For example, when you go from browsing the web to playing a game, the panel should jump from 60Hz to 90Hz.

Pixel 5

(Image credit: Laptop Mag)

Covering 91% of the DCI-P3 color gamut, the Pixel 5's display is more colorful than the one on the iPhone 12 (81%) but not as vivid as the OLED panels on the Galaxy S20 FE (133%) and OnePlus 8T (120%). The category average is 112%. 

The Pixel 5's display can get bright with adaptive brightness turned on. With it off, the screen peaked at only 415 nits. When enabled, our colorimeter clocked 610 nits, which is slightly dimmer than the Galaxy S20 FE (679 nits) and OnePlus 8T (678 nits). The iPhone 12 topped out at 570 nits, just below the 572-nit category average.

Pixel 5: Audio 

Performance isn't the only thing that regressed from the Pixel 4 to the Pixel 5. The speakers on the newest version sound much worse than those on the previous. Now consisting of an under-display driver and another firing out of the bottom edge, the stereo sound on the Pixel 5 is subpar.

Pixel 5

(Image credit: Laptop Mag)

It's fine for taking calls but music, YouTube videos and movies sounded tinny and distorted. When I listened to Twenty One Pilots' "The Hype," the lead vocals sounded distant and there was essentially no kick to the drums. The speakers get relatively loud (easily filling my large living room) but degrade quickly once I went beyond 70% volume. 

Pixel 5: Performance 

Armed with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 765G chip, the Pixel 5 forfeits some performance to keep the price down. The 765G is a solid chip, but it doesn't come close to delivering the same speeds as other flagship models employing the Snapdragon 865. 

This is Google telling customers that it conceded the ultra-premium segment being fought between OnePlus, Samsung, Apple and a few others. Instead, the company is attempting a return to the old ways of delivering value by bringing premium specs and features to midrange prices. It's the formula that made a name for Google's Nexus phones and turned OnePlus into an Android giant.

Pixel 5

(Image credit: Laptop Mag)

The shift from flagship to midrange could throw off some customers. Take me, a Pixel 4 XL owner, as an example. I like what Google did with the display and design of the Pixel 5, but should I upgrade to a phone with a slower processor? That's right, the 765G is slower than the chips in last year's Pixel 4. Then there's the other Pixel model released alongside the Pixel 5, the Pixel 4a 5G. This larger but less expensive device uses the same 765G as the Pixel 5 but costs $200 less. As you might have gathered, $699 isn't cheap for a phone relying on a mid-tier chip. 

With 8GB of RAM (up from 6GB), the Pixel 5 makes up lost ground against the Pixel 4 XL, and the 90Hz display makes objects flow smoothly across the screen so the phone feels fast. The Pixel 5 didn't feel any slower than my Pixel 4 XL during my testing. The new model never failed to load webpages or run apps, even when I had 20 Google Chrome tabs open and a YouTube video playing. I just can't promise you that the Pixel 5 will hold up as well after two or three years of use. 

You might not run into any performance issues with the Pixel 5, but our benchmarks tests aren't so kind. The Pixel 5 simply can't compete with the competition on paper. The Pixel 5 scored a lowly 1,617 in the Geekbench 5 multi-core test, falling well short of the 2,928 posted by the Galaxy S20 FE (Snapdragon 865) and the OnePlus 8T's 3,203 (Snapdragon 865). Apple continues to dominate in this area with the iPhone 12 (A14 Bionic), putting up a bonkers 3,859.

Pixel 5

(Image credit: Future)

GFXBench, a benchmark that measures graphics performance, had some more bad news for Google fans. The Pixel 5 ran at 438 frames for a 7 frames per second average. Tripling that score is the Galaxy S20 FE (21 fps) while the iPhone 12 nearly reached 5x at 34 fps. 

In the Adobe Premiere Rush video editing test, the Pixel 5 needed 2 minutes and 25 seconds to transcode a 4K video to 1080p resolution. The iPhone 12 needed only 26 seconds (!) while the Galaxy S20 FE took 1:24 and the OnePlus 8T finished after 1:38. 

The Pixel 5 supports sub-6Ghz and mmWave 5G so you get the widest and fastest cellular speeds from each of the major US carriers. We tested 5G in various cities using a Lenovo Flex 5G and determined that while theoretical speeds are astronomical, Verizon's 5G network is wildly unreliable and coverage is limited to certain spots in a few cities nationwide. It's a useful feature for future-proofing but most people won't reap the benefits for several years. 

Pixel 5: Battery life and charging 

What a difference one year can make. Google listened to the runtime complaints from Pixel 4 owners and outfitted the Pixel 5 with a large 4,080-mAh battery, up from a measly 2,800mAh. 

As a result, the Pixel 5 lasts much longer on a charge than its predecessor, enduring for 9 hours and 29 minutes with the 90Hz refresh rate enabled. While 1 hour and 26 minutes might not seem like a massive upgrade, the Pixel 5 is weighed down by a 5G modem that drains battery life an 8-cylinder engine does gas. 

After turning the 90Hz mode off, the Pixel 5 got a second wind, winding down in 9 hours and 53 minutes, or 24 minutes longer than before.

Pixel 5

(Image credit: Laptop Mag)

With Fast Charge support, the Pixel 5 charged from 1% to 43% in 43 minutes, so you can expect a full charge in less than 1.5 hours. 

There is more to battery life than our test reveals. Google has some clever tricks up its sleeve to keep the Pixel 5 from shutting down before you retire for the night. Adaptive Battery uses a neural net to predict which apps you're going to use in order to reduce power to those you don't need. Extreme Battery Saver pauses all apps except those you mark as essential. 

The Pixel 5 charges via a USB Type-C port. The phone supports wireless charging without a glass cover thanks to a bio-resin (thin plastic) skin covering the aluminum. What's new is that the Pixel 5 can wirelessly charge other devices using the Battery Share feature. Bluetooth earbuds with wireless charging support, for example, can power up when placed on the back of the Pixel 5.

Pixel 5: Cameras 

Pixel 5

(Image credit: Laptop Mag)

Google earned its place among the smartphone elite by using computational photography techniques to get the most out of a small sensor. But the competition has stiffened since the first Pixel topped the iPhone and Galaxy. Now the iPhone 12 and Galaxy Note S20 Ultra use their own tricks to capture images that compete with Google. 

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The Pixel 5 doesn't bring major improvements to the camera, and that's OK. The 12MP f/1.7 main camera is capable of capturing exceptional shots with rich detail, vibrant colors and wide dynamic range. It even takes much better shots than the previous device under certain conditions, though most of the comparison shots I took with the Pixel 4 XL were nearly identical with a slight edge going to the Pixel 5.

Pixel 5

(Image credit: Laptop Mag)

This landscape shot with pumpkins in the foreground has strong detail and accurate colors despite the overcast conditions. You can see where the leaves of each tree start and end, and the more vibrant colors, like the red tree toward the middle, stand out against the muted greens and yellows. The pumpkins are a juicy orange tone and I can zoom in enough to see the ghosts, spiders and witches someone expertly painted on the black-and-white jack o' lantern. 

Google Pixel 5

(Image credit: Laptop Mag)

Getting up closer to those trees, these red berries show the exceptional bokeh created by the f/1.7 sensor. This image was shot with portrait mode turned off.

Google Pixel 5

(Image credit: Laptop Mag)

That said, turning on portrait mode can make a big difference (and create problems). This lion statue photo looks like it was shot with a DSLR thanks to the background blur. If you look closely, however, you'll notice that the nearest pumpkin isn't completely blurred out.

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It might not have a dedicated macro lens, but the Pixel 5 can take some great close-up shots. Here is an image of ornamental kale followed by a macro shot of the gorgeous pink ruffles. As you can see, the Pixel 5 maintained focus up to a few centimeters away, allowing me to take a picture that makes the plant look like coral. Very cool.

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Pixel 4 XL (Image credit: Laptop Mag)
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Pixel 5 (Image credit: Laptop Mag)

I'm most impressed by the color accuracy of the Pixel 5's camera. My Pixel 4 XL struggles under certain conditions whereas the Pixel 5 got close to the real-life color in almost every shot I took. This photo of flowers with a pink-to-yellow gradient is the most jarring example of how the Pixel 5 corrects the mistakes of the Pixel 4 XL. The color of these plants is very close to what you see in the Pixel 5 shot. I'm not sure what happened with the Pixel 4 XL here.

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Google Pixel 5

Main wide-angle lens (Image credit: Laptop Mag)
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Google Pixel 5

Ultra-wide-angle lens (Image credit: Laptop Mag)

Contradicting itself, Google replaced the zoom lens on the Pixel 4 with a 16MP, f/2.2 ultra-wide-angle lens despite saying last year that telephoto is "more important." I agree with Google 2020, not Google 2019. The extra-wide-angle lens is great for capturing landscapes, large objects or densely packed skyscrapers.

These two neighborhood photos taken during the beautiful Michigan fall show how much more you can capture in an image when using the ultra-wide-angle camera. You'll notice, however, that the wider shot is less detailed.

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This admittedly awkward Halloween picture of me (yes, I'm wearing a blue barracuda shirt for you '90s kids) lounging on the patio benefits from Night Sight, which uses computational photography to let you take pictures in near darkness. The second picture is less noisy and shows much more detail, revealing the wood grain on the railing posts. 

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The 8MP f/2.0 front-facing camera takes detailed selfies. I prefer the ultra-detailed shots taken on the Pixel 5 than the aggressively smoothened selfies you get from Galaxy phones. However, the Portrait mode shot I took on my balcony isn't perfect. While I like the warmer tones it gives my skin, some of the bricks to the right of my head in the background weren't blurred and ruin the shot.

Pixel 5: Android 11

Arguably the best reason to buy the Pixel 5 over other similarly priced phones is for pure Android 11 and the guarantee of software updates for several years. A conservative upgrade from Android 10, the latest software version brings new media controls to the notification pane, allowing you to control media more conveniently. 

Improvements were also made to taking screenshots; now a preview instantly appears in the lower-left corner with nearby edit and share buttons. Chat bubbles, à la Facebook Messenger, were also added to Android 11, and Android Auto can be used wirelessly if your car supports it.

Pixel 5

(Image credit: Laptop Mag)

Beyond the features found in Android 11, the Pixel 5 has a few exclusive tricks up its sleeve. The new Hold for Me tool employs the Google Assistant to wait on a call for you until the person you're chatting with returns. When you're first put on hold, you'll see a large "Don't hang up" prompt along with a "Return to call" option. While you wait, a transcript appears on the bottom of your screen, and when a human finally returns, the phone rings and vibrates to let you know it's time to rejoin. 

Combine Hold for Me with Call Screen, which answers a suspected spam call for you and sends you a transcript so you can decide whether to answer, and the Pixel 5 will save you the frustration of fake calls and the time-sink of being placed on hold. These are some quality of life features you don't get with other phones, and they can make a big difference in day-to-day usage.

Conclusion 

Pixel 5

(Image credit: Laptop Mag)

As a Pixel 4 XL owner, I wanted an excuse to buy the Pixel 5. The thing is, the Pixel 5 does give me reasons to upgrade, it just spoils them with underpowered components. I have a hard time spending $699 on a slower phone than the one I currently use, even with the quality-of-life improvements it brings.  

If Google had opted for the Snapdragon 865 chip and raised the price of the Pixel 5 by, say, $100, it would have made for a more compelling option as a cheaper premium device. Instead, the Pixel 5 feels like a more expensive midrange phone. And that's really a shame because Google got so many things right this time around. 

The Pixel 5 has an attractive, ergonomic design, a bright 6.0-inch AMOLED display, excellent cameras, and solid battery life. In short, it hits all the key points except for performance where it lags behind other mid-tier options. 

But less-than-perfect performance shouldn't disqualify the Pixel 5. The fact is, I'm no longer Google's target customer. The company's flagship phone isn't for enthusiasts — it's for people who want a high-performing device but aren't open to spending $1,000. And honestly, if you don't plan on running demanding apps, then the Pixel 5 will serve you well. 

My colleague Sean Riley said the Pixel 5 made him wish Google launched a true flagship this year. I couldn't agree more. There is so much to like about the Pixel 5 but it's hard for power users like myself to accept the phone for what it is — for that reason, I'll cling to rumors claiming a high-end Pixel phone will arrive in the coming months. If one is in the works, I hope this "Pixel 5 Pro" doesn't deviate much from the Pixel 5, because, apart from a few things, I really do love this phone.