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Google Pixel 5 review: Stellar simplicity

Our Rating 
Price when reviewed 
599
inc VAT

Cheaper than the Pixel 4 but just as impressive, the Pixel 5 is a class act

Pros 
Cheaper than last year’s Pixel 4
Substantial battery life boost
Camera continues to impress
Cons 
Utilitarian design
No face unlock
Lacks ‘XL’ version this year
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With 2020 rapidly coming to a close, the big autumn push for hardware launches is well underway. Google has jumped into the fray, unveiling its newest premium flagship smartphone, the Pixel 5, alongside a brand-new Chromecast, a long-awaited update to its original Google Home smart speaker and a 5G variant of the slightly cheaper Pixel 4a.

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What’s new with the Pixel 5, then? Well, If you were hoping for a long list of hardware upgrades, then you might want to reset your expectations before you continue reading. As it turns out, very little has changed this year, and some of those changes aren’t necessarily for the better. As you’ll soon find out, however, this isn’t really to the Pixel 5’s detriment.

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Google Pixel 5 review: What you need to know

In hardware terms, the Pixel 5 is closer to a mid-range phone than its predecessor, the Pixel 4. If you already own last year’s flagship phone, then, you might be tempted to keep hold of it for a bit longer, especially since the Pixel 5 uses the weaker Snapdragon 765G chipset and not the top-end 865. It also includes the same 12.2MP camera from previous Pixel phones.

What is new, however, is a secondary 107-degree wide-angle camera, 4K video recording at 60fps, a larger 4,080mAh battery and the 90Hz OLED screen has increased in size to 6in from 5.7in. The Pixel 5, as well as the Pixel 4a 5G, is also the first 5G-capable Pixel phone, and it’s the first smartphone with Android 11 pre-installed.

Google Pixel 5 review: Price and competition

How much will all of this set you back? Well, the good news is that the Pixel 5 is slightly cheaper than last year’s model, and you’ll be able to buy one for just £599, which is £70 less than the original price for the Google Pixel 4.

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This places the Pixel 5 directly in the crosshairs of the Samsung Galaxy S20 FE (£599), as well as the recently-launched OnePlus 8T (£549). Apple’s latest flagship, the iPhone 12, costs £100 more, starting at £699 for the ‘mini’ variant, while last year’s iPhone 11 – which we’ve used as a point of comparison in the camera section of this review – now matches the Pixel 5’s price.

Before we move on to the next section, it’s worth briefly mentioning that you might get a better deal if you opt for the Pixel 4a 5G instead. Launching alongside the Pixel 5, the Pixel 4a 5G employs the same Snapdragon 765G processor, also has twin cameras and 5G support and costs £100 less. I will be delivering my full Pixel 4a 5G verdict in the coming days, so stay tuned.

Google Pixel 5 review: Design and key features

Design-wise, the Pixel 5 is noticeably smaller in size than the iPhone 11. Indeed, measuring 70 x 8 x 145mm (WDH), the Pixel 5 is roughly 10% smaller, and I felt much more comfortable holding the phone in one hand while texting on my daily walks. Reaching for the rear-mounted circular fingerprint sensor didn’t require much effort either, even for my tiny hands.

Speaking of which, this brings us to the first of the Pixel 5’s shortcomings. With no reason given, Google has quietly removed the Pixel Neural Core, which previously detected face patterns for secure unlocking via the phone’s selfie camera. This means that the Pixel 5 no longer supports face unlock – no great loss in these mask-wearing times – but it will be missed when we inevitably find ourselves at the other end of this pandemic.

The Pixel 5 comes in two colours this year: “Just Black” and “Sorta Sage”. The phone itself is constructed from recycled aluminium, although the rear is also coated in a layer of “bio-resin”, which is essentially a textured plastic that allows Google to cut a hole in the inner aluminium chassis, creating enough space for the Pixel 5’s wireless charging coil.

Google Pixel 5 review: Display

The Pixel 5’s OLED screen is much the same as last year. The native resolution is still FHD+ (1,080 x 2,340), with a refresh rate of 90Hz, although it has slightly increased in size. The Pixel 5’s display measures 6in across the diagonal (up from 5.7in) with skinnier screen-bordering bezels as well as a new hole-punch selfie camera.

Once more, the Pixel 5’s display is truly wonderful. In terms of colour accuracy, it’s practically faultless, with a measured Delta E of 0.92 in sRGB with the phone’s “Natural” display setting selected. With sRGB colour coverage of 95% and a total volume of 96.5%, you can’t pick faults in this mode.

The Pixel 5’s ‘Adaptive’ and ‘Boosted’ display profiles aren’t quite as colour accurate, however, dialling up the vibrancy a little too much for my liking. I recommend switching to the “Natural” setting as soon as you boot up the phone for the first time.

This is an HDR 10+ display, too, which means you are able to stream HDR-enabled content on Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, YouTube and the like. This looks especially good since the Pixel 5’s screen isn’t lacking in the brightness department either, with a measured peak luminance of 670cd/m² in the phone’s auto-brightness setting.

Google Pixel 5 review: Software

As I mentioned earlier, the Pixel 5 is the first smartphone to launch with the latest version of Google’s widely used mobile operating system, Android 11. This is as close to a stock Android experience as it gets, too.

As ever, the Pixel 5’s software excels in its simplicity and ease of use. If you’re planning on making the move from iOS to Android, then there’s no better phone to make the transition: the Pixel 5’s user interface is remarkably well refined, with nicely-thought-out navigation features.

Swipe from the bottom edge of the screen and you’ll be greeted with the phone’s home screen, or swipe and hold and you have access to a carousel of recent apps, as well as a screenshot button (you can no longer use the power button and volume down method) and a text select feature. Simple swipes from the left or right edges of the screen take you back a step, too.

What’s new with Android 11, then? As well as a new handful of live wallpaper options, you can also change the size of the app grid icons on the home screen, and the phone’s playback options are now filed under the ‘quick settings’ dropdown menu, rather than the notifications drawer.

A new screen recorder feature is included, too, which does exactly what it says on the tin (although apps such as Netflix aren’t supported). Holding down the power button also now provides direct control of any connected smart home devices, such as the volume of Google’s Nest speakers, the temperature of your thermostat or the brightness of smart bulbs.

New Pixel-specific apps and features that are only available in the Pixel Launcher include an extreme battery saver mode, which adds an extra day to the Pixel 5’s battery life (lasting up to 48 hours). This works by turning off power-heavy applications that usually run in the background, with the option to select a list of ‘essential’ apps that aren’t switched off when this mode is enabled.

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Google’s excellent ‘Recorder’ app has also been updated, which now allows you to edit auto-transcriptions in the same way you edit text in Google Docs. You can also share audio clips as videos with on-screen waveforms and captioned transcripts, while the new smart scrolling feature automatically marks important words in long transcripts, helping you to quickly jump to the section you’re searching for.

Google Pixel 5 review: Performance and battery life

As for the Pixel 5’s internal specifications, Google has decided to use the Snapdragon 765G chipset for processing duties, rather than the more powerful Snapdragon 865 found inside most modern flagship phones. This 7nm chipset is clocked at 2.4GHz and is slower than the Snapdragon 855 CPU that powered last year’s Pixel 4.

As you can see from the graph below, single-core performance is much the same as the Pixel 4 but it falls behind on multi-core processing. It’s simply not as fast as last year’s model and it fails to reach the same levels of performance offered by similarly priced rivals such as the Galaxy S20 FE and OnePlus 8T.

Make of that what you will, but in my view the Pixel 5’s performance is substantial enough for most people.

Gaming performance isn’t quite as good either, at least according to the GFXBench benchmark. Anecdotally speaking, I didn’t spot any frame rate dips while running demanding titles such as Genshin Impact and Sky: Children of the Light. To my eyes, both of these games ran at stable, playable frame rates.

Of course, a chief benefit of the Snapdragon 765G over the 855 is that it has an integrated X52 5G modem, which means the Pixel 5 (unlike the Pixel 4) can connect to the UK’s sub-6GHz 5G network. The Snapdragon 855 didn’t have a 5G modem built-in, of course, but it did have the option of having one included separately – which wasn’t included in the Pixel 4.

The Pixel 5 also comes with double the base storage at 128GB, has an extra 2GB of RAM (8GB) and uses a larger 4,080mAh battery, with 18W wireless charging support. Speaking of which, the Pixel 5’s battery life is much improved. Lasting 22hrs 54mins in our video rundown test, the Pixel 5 rubs shoulders with the longest-lasting smartphones on the market, with a huge stamina boost of 89% over last year’s Pixel 4 (12hrs 7mins).

Google Pixel 5 review: Cameras

Photography buffs might be disappointed to learn that the primary camera remains unchanged yet again. Google is using the same 12.2MP (f/1.7) Sony IMX363 sensor that’s served its Pixel phones for the last few years, although this time around the 2x telephoto lens from the Pixel 4 has been replaced with a 16MP (f/2.2) ultra-wide unit.

I’m not entirely convinced by this move, especially since I personally prefer zooming into a scene, rather than trying to simply capture more of it. Whatever happened to the “wide-angle can be fun, [but] we think telephoto is more important” sentiment, expressed by Google’s Marc Levoy at the Pixel 4 launch?

As always, though, the Pixel’s camera changes mostly come from the software side of things. Google's excellent Night Sight shooting mode is now available in Portrait; a “Cinematic Pan” stabilisation mode has been added and the new Portrait Light feature allows you to artificially drop lighting into your image after the fact.

Predictably, the Pixel 5’s cameras still set the standard for the industry. The iPhone 11 nudges slightly ahead when it comes to sheer detail capture but (to my eyes at least) the Pixel 5 produces more pleasing and natural colours, which elevate the quality of images. You’ll see what I mean if you take a look at the comparison image below: the iPhone 11 carries a green colour cast that isn't as flattering to the skin tone, while also struggling with hair definition when adding artificial background blur in portrait mode.

It’s a similar story when the light begins to fade, too. I much prefer the Pixel 5’s low-light “Night Sight” images, which do a mighty fine job at brightening up shots without noticeably altering the colours; in contrast, the iPhone 11’s nighttime indoor pictures looked overly warm.

Finally, when it comes to video the Pixel 5 can (at last!) shoot fully stabilised 4K footage at 60fps, just like the iPhone. As for detail capture, yet again the iPhone 11 comes out on top here, but I particularly enjoyed playing with the new Cinematic Pan mode, which slows footage down to half speed for smoother horizontal movements.

Google Pixel 5 review: Verdict

Mirroring the Nexus phones of old, Google is finally shifting the Pixel’s focus from the high-end and closer in line with mid-range prices. And, after a few years of trying and failing to compete with more expensive handsets like the iPhone, it’s a smart move.

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Despite my somewhat pessimistic intro, the Pixel 5 is proof that you don’t need to make sweeping changes with every generational leap. Well-priced, well-specified and just as formidable, the Pixel 5 is yet again leading the charge and waving the flag for Android.

Google Pixel 5 specifications
ProcessorOcta-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 765G (1x2.4GHz, 1x2.2GHz, 6x1.8GHz)
RAM8GB
Screen size6in
Screen resolution2,340 x 1,080
Pixel density432ppi
Screen typeOLED
Screen refresh rate90Hz, 60Hz
Front camera8MP (f/2.0)
Rear camera12.2MP (f/1.7), 16MP wide (f/2.2)
FlashLED
Dust and water resistanceIP68
3.5mm headphone jackNo
Wireless chargingYes
USB connection typeUSB-C
Storage options128GB
Memory card slot (supplied)No
Wi-Fi802.11ac
Bluetooth5
NFCYes
Cellular data5G, 4G
Dual SIMNo
Dimensions (WDH)145 x 70 x 8mm
Weight151g
Operating systemAndroid 11
Battery size4,080mAh

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