Review: The Google Pixel 5 aims to conquer the mid-range

The smartphone market, like the world at large, finds itself in a strange spot in 2020: it seems harder than ever to justify spending a four-figure sum on a smartphone, which is why we’ve seen a wealth of new phones at the upper mid-range of the market. With the Pixel 5, that’s exactly where Google is aiming.

At a glance:

  • Superb camera, still
  • Clean Android experience
  • Affordable price point

We may never know exactly how the global coronavirus pandemic affected Google’s smartphone plans and production lines for this year, but there’s not all that much to choose between with the tech giant putting out just three phones in 2020 – the Pixel 4a, the Pixel 4a 5G, and the Pixel 5.

While Apple and Samsung have broadened their flagship phone lines to offer more affordable alternatives, Google is staying away from the very high-end completely for this smartphone cycle. What you need to know first about the Pixel 5 is that it will cost you US$699 SIM-free and unlocked, putting it right up against the iPhone 12 mini, the Samsung Galaxy S20 FE, and the OnePlus 8T.

Whereas last year’s Pixel 4 used the best chipset available and came with a variety of gesture-controlled tricks, the Pixel 5 goes back to basics and settles for the mid-range Snapdragon 765G for processing power. The main 12.2-MP camera is the same as last year, while the 16-MP secondary camera offers an ultrawide lens rather than a telephoto one.

In other words, Google isn’t pushing the envelope with its top Pixel phone this year, but instead looking to offer something that’s better value for money (harking back to the Nexus phones of old). The problem is there are a lot of excellent phones at this price point now, and Google is giving itself plenty of competition with the Pixel 4a and the Pixel 4a 5G.

Pick up the Pixel 5 and it feels like you’ve got a quality piece of hardware in your hand. Whereas the Pixel 4a and Pixel 4a 5G use a polycarbonate shell, the Pixel 5 goes with metal and glass, and that makes a tangible difference to how the phone is to touch and hold. The screen is a winner too – a 6-inch, 2,340 x 1,080-pixel OLED panel, with a 90-Hz refresh rate that the two cheaper 2020 Pixels can’t match.

The Pixel 5 uses better quality materials than the Pixel 4a and Pixel 4a 5G
The Pixel 5 uses better quality materials than the Pixel 4a and Pixel 4a 5G

David Nield/New Atlas

The Pixel 5 doesn’t quite reach the aesthetics or the premium-level quality of the very best Apple, Samsung and Huawei phones, but that’s never really been the case for the Pixel line. This is a phone that’s still very well built, a pleasure to use, and nice and compact. The thin display bezels add to the appeal, with the single punch hole selfie camera the only interruption to the front panel.

Despite the mid-range processor on board, performance is perfectly respectable, with no sign of sluggishness or lag. The 8 GB of RAM fitted inside the Pixel 5 certainly helps here – another advantage over the Pixel 4a and Pixel 4a 5G, which both have 6 GB – and you get 128 GB of internal storage, which should be enough for most people.

The clean, bloat-free version of Android that comes with Google phones has always been one of the best reasons to get a Pixel, and it’s the same again here. Google has also started adding some software exclusives to its phones, such as the very handy Recorder app that’s able to transcribe spoken audio into digital text in real time (and let you tag and search through your recordings afterwards).

With a Pixel phone you never have to worry about delayed software updates either. Android 11 is on board and you can bet that the Pixel 5 is going to be first in line when Android 12 and Android 13 come out as well. It’s one of the key reasons you might want to pick this over something from OnePlus or Samsung, for example.

Battery life was reasonably impressive during our time with the Pixel 5: it’s not going to set any records for the time between charges, but it’ll last you a good 24 hours, as long as you’re not completely hammering the battery all day with the most demanding apps. In our two-hour video streaming test at maximum brightness, the battery level dropped 22 percent from full, which is respectable enough. Calculate that out and you’re looking at about 9-10 hours of video streaming before the battery dies.

It’s nice to have wireless charging here, and 5G connectivity, and IP68 waterproofing, which you don’t always get on mid-range phones. There’s no headphone jack though, so if you’ve got some wired headphones that you want to carry on using, the Pixel 4a or the Pixel 4a 5G might be a better buy for you.

And then there’s the camera, which has been perhaps the main reason to buy a Pixel phone ever since the first in the series in 2016. In terms of the physical hardware, Google hasn’t changed much about the rear camera array this time around – and it’s identical on both the Pixel 5 and the Pixel 4a 5G – but then again perhaps it doesn’t have to.

The 6-inch OLED display on the Pixel 5 runs at a 90 Hz refresh rate
The 6-inch OLED display on the Pixel 5 runs at a 90 Hz refresh rate

David Nield/New Atlas

The dual-camera 12.2-MP + 16-MP setup is capable of taking some fantastic photos in all kinds of lighting and from all sorts of distances, as you would expect if you’ve used a Pixel before. It’s able to hold its own against any other smartphone camera on the market, though we don’t think the lead that the Google phones have in this department is quite as big as it used to be. Check out the sample photos we’ve included in the gallery for some examples of what the Pixel 5’s rear camera can do.

Colors are well balanced, details are well captured, and the Night Sight mode continues to impress with how much data it can get out of dark scenes. We weren’t completely happy with every single snap the Pixel 5 took, but if smartphone photography is important to you, this is one of the best in the business. We’d rather have kept the 2x telephoto lens of the Pixel 4 rather than having ultrawide, but you may think differently – and Google’s digital zoom algorithms are competent enough for most scenarios.

The Pixel 5 is more of the same from the Pixel series: a fantastic camera and a clean, Google-centric software experience wrapped in a reasonably premium package, with a value-for-money proposition that’s more tempting than ever.

There are faster phones out this year, and phones that are better-looking, and phones with much bigger screens – but if your priorities are in line with the Pixel 5’s priorities then we think you’ll be very pleased with this phone. We certainly had no complaints during our time with it, and we’re already intrigued as to what Google is going to do with the Pixel 6.

The Pixel 5 is available to buy now from the Google Store and other retailers for $699, with Just Black and Sorta Sage your color options. If you’re tempted by the camera quality and the speedy Android updates of the Pixel 5, do consider the Pixel 4a and the Pixel 4a 5G as well, which may be better value for you.

Product page: Google Pixel 5

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