Google’s flagship smartphone for 2020, the Pixel 5, is definitely a departure from previous releases. The company has opted out of the ultrapremium flagship wars that have led to smartphone prices rocketing past the $1,000 price point, and instead, it’s turning in a midrange, $700 Snapdragon 765 phone as its highest-end device. On one hand, I appreciate the pushback on the $1,000 smartphone price tag, especially in the middle of a pandemic depressed economy. On the other hand, Google has always had trouble competing with the rest of the market when it comes to value for your dollar, and that’s just as true in the upper-midrange market as it was in the flagship market—there are better deals out there.
As we’ve said in previous Pixel reviews, it’s hard to know what exactly Google’s goal is supposed to be with the Pixel line, and it doesn’t seem like Google is sticking with too much of a long-term plan, either. After the death of the value-oriented Nexus line and a ho-hum Pixel 1 launch, Google Hardware SVP Rick Osterloh told the world “Pixel stays premium” in 2017, indicating a return to cheaper phones wouldn’t happen. In 2019, the company went back on that and released the Pixel 3a, a midrange $400 phone. Now, in 2020, even the most expensive Pixel isn’t premium anymore. The Pixel 5 is also a midrange smartphone, and that means it doesn’t feel all that much different from the Pixel 4a.
Originally, the Pixel was a premium phone because it was supposed to be Google’s iPhone killer, so what is it now? The move downmarket seems like an admission the company can’t—or doesn’t want to—compete in the cutthroat premium-smartphone market. Other than Apple, the rest of the Pixel’s competitors are also Google’s Android customer base. Google has never shown an interest in playing hardball with them, and so the Pixel line has only ever looked like a small “hobby” side project. This conflict of interest has meant the Pixel phones have almost always been “good software with hardware that isn’t quite competitive,” and that remains just as true in the upper midrange market as it was in the premium-smartphone market. Moving downmarket a bit doesn’t put Google any closer to the competition. The Pixel line used to be aspirational, but there’s nothing unique about the phone this year in terms of new features. So more than anything, the Pixel 5 feels like Google is taking the year off.
Google hardware has found a good spot for itself in the Pixel 4a price range, where the same software it ships on every phone does a good job propping up the cheaper hardware, all at a price that seems fair. The Pixel 4a is really the Pixel 5’s biggest competition. Most of the good points of the Pixel 5—the camera, software, and Google’s update policy—exist in an identical form on the Pixel 4a, and for $350, the Pixel 4a is half the price. The Pixel 5 makes a few unique design decisions that give us something to talk about, but none of these oddities brings a significant consumer benefit. The remaining meaningful differences don’t feel like enough to justify spending $350 extra over the Pixel 4a.
There’s metal in here somewhere
The only size the Pixel 5 comes in is actually pretty small. It’s definitely a non-XL phone, and there is no “Pixel 5 XL” this year. At 144.7 x 70.4 x 8mm, the Pixel 5 has almost the same dimensions as the Pixel 4a, save for the 4a being 1mm shorter. Again, the lack of differentiation between the Pixel 5 and 4a is kind of puzzling.
|SPECS AT A GLANCE: Pixel 5|
|SCREEN||6-inch, 2340×1080, 90Hz AMOLED
(408ppi, 20:9 aspect ratio)
|CPU||Eight-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 765G
Two Cortex A76 cores and six Cortex A55 cores, up to 2.4GHz, 7nm
|NETWORKING||802.11b/g/n/ac, Bluetooth 5.0, GPS, NFC|
|PORTS||USB 3.1 Gen1 Type-C|
|CAMERA||Rear: 12.2MP main camera, 16MP wide-angle
|STARTING PRICE||$699 at Amazon|
|OTHER PERKS||18W charging, rear fingerprint sensor, eSIM, wireless charging, IP68 water and dust resistance|
A 6-inch, 2340×1080, 90Hz OLED display covers the front of the phone, with a hole-punch front camera in the top left as the only blemish. The screen is perfectly flat, making it superior to the distorted curved displays out there, and it leaves a pleasant-looking symmetrical bezel around the perimeter of the phone. The 90Hz display offers handsome smooth scrolling and animations, but Samsung and OnePlus now offer 120Hz phones in this ~$700 price range. Compared to the Pixel 4a, you’re getting slimmer bezels and a slightly bigger screen (6 inches versus 5.8) in basically the same size body.
One relatively unusual detail about the front is that there is no earpiece speaker grill. Instead of a front-mounted speaker or a slot for an internal speaker to pump out sound, the Pixel 5 has an under-display speaker. Inside the phone, a driver is mounted to the back of the display, and it makes the glass vibrate to produce sound. It’s a rare phone feature, but the end result is not great.
For calls, you want to normally hold the phone with the top edge to your ear, but that’s not where the speaker is anymore. So while you can still hear it, the actual sweet spot seems like it’s about at the 20 percent mark from the top of the display. It’s awkwardly low on the phone. The volume and quality are fine for phone calls, but “under the display” is an odd spot for a speaker that is normally at the very top of the phone.
For media audio, the under-display speaker is worthless, and the Pixel 5 speaker setup is basically mono. Yes, it technically has two speakers, and they technically both put out sound, but it is about a 90/10 split. If you cover the normal, bottom-firing speaker, the sound almost completely goes away, with only a tinny, impotent buzzing coming from the under-display speaker. The Pixel 4, which has two normal speakers, sounds much better and louder, and even the Pixel 4a achieves about the same volume while turning in higher-quality stereo sound. The Pixel 5 speaker is just awful for media.
This is going to be a running theme in this article, but I really don’t understand what Google was aiming for here. The industry-wide smartphone manufacturing supply chain would push you toward the standard solution everyone else is using. In this case, that would be a normal speaker that exhausts via the smartphone bezel. That works great, it looks great, and it can be done while also minimizing the size of the smartphone bezel. I’ve never heard anyone complain about the standard earpiece/speaker combo, and instead of taking the path of least resistance and picking something that works well, Google went against the crowd and picked a weird solution that hurts the user experience. Why can’t you just be normal?
I was sent the unique, green “Sorta Sage” color, which is interesting looking. The body is actually aluminum, which is a complete shock for a modern 2020 phone. Sadly, the aluminum is not the outside of the phone. Like on the Pixel 2, the phone is aluminum with a thick outer coating on the back, so your hands never touch metal. This also explains how both the phone is metal and supports wireless charging. Part of the industry’s big switch away from metal and towards all-glass phones a few years back was due to wireless charging, which can’t penetrate a metal back. For Pixel 5, Google manages both metal and wireless charging by punching a small hole in the body to let the wireless signal out. There are holes on the sides for the mmWave antennas, too. The whole metal body is then covered in resin so that you don’t even notice the holes. The whole idea seems durable. Even pressing directly on the “resin only” spots indicated in this picture doesn’t reveal any weak spots.
The back resin coating kind of looks like recycled paper like what you’d find on a paper bag. The back resin is not a solid color—it’s kind of speckled and fibrous. There’s also a lot of variation if you look closely, with all sorts of little grains in the phone body (these appear in higher concentrations in some spots than others). The feel of the phone is also pretty close to paper. There’s a light texture to it, making it less slippery than glass.
Overall, the new back coating seems fine. It’s grippier than glass and isn’t as much of a fingerprint magnet. I think Google has negated most of the premium aspects of metal by covering it up with resin, though, so I don’t really see the point. Google has to deal with all the engineering challenges of building a metal phone, but then it covered that hard work with resin. I would be singing a different turn if Google ended up with a premium-feeling, Macbook-like design, but that’s not what happened. The Pixel 5 doesn’t feel all that different from a plastic phone, so going through all the effort doesn’t make a ton of sense to me if there’s little user benefit. Again, it’s fine, it’s just a questionable use of labor and the bill-of-materials budget.
Look closely at that aluminum frame and you’ll see chunks cut out of the left and top edges of the case, and that’s where the mmWave antennas go. Yes, the Pixel 5 has mandatory mmWave 5G, which is another case of “why are we spending money on this?” in the midrange market. The Snapdragon 765G makes 5G support mandatory, but you only need to support the cheaper, easier-to-rollout sub-6GHz flavor of 5G, which, on the 765G, is still a simple, one-chip solution. mmWave 5G, on the other hand, requires extra, expensive antenna modules. We’ve seen mmWave versions of phones cost anywhere from $50-$100 extra.