Google Pixel 5 Review – A flagship chip isn’t needed for a flagship phone
Google Pixel smartphones are widely considered the iPhones of the Android world. Google controls the experience from the top down, just like Apple does. The software on Pixel smartphones showcase what Google believes Android should be, and as such, the software is often well-received by enthusiasts. The hardware, on the other hand, has always left a bit to be desired in one or more aspects. With the launch of the Google Pixel 5, the company changed things up a bit and instead opted to pack a mid-range Qualcomm chipset instead of this year’s flagship Qualcomm silicon.
Having used the Google Pixel 5 for a week, I don’t think Google is giving us any reason to treat this phone as anything less than a flagship. Embedded below is my video review of the Pixel 5, but keep scrolling for the full written review.
About this review: I received the Google Pixel 5 for review from Google Ireland on the 8th of October, 2020. Google did not have any input into the contents of this review.
Google Pixel 5 Specifications
|Specification||Google Pixel 5|
|Dimensions & Weight||
|SoC||Qualcomm Snapdragon 765G:
|RAM & Storage||8GB LPDDR4X + 128GB UFS 2.1
|Battery & Charging||
|Front Camera||8MP Sony IMX355, f/2.0, 1.12µm pixel size, fixed focus, 83° FoV
Video: 1080p @ 30fps
|Ports||USB 3.1 Gen 1 Type-C|
|Security||Pixel Imprint (capacitive rear fingerprint scanner)
Titan M hardware security module
|Sensors||Proximity sensor, ambient light sensor, accelerometer, gyroscope, magnetometer, barometer|
Preamble – Is the Google Pixel 5 a flagship despite the Snapdragon 765G?
Before getting into all of the Pixel 5’s details, I wanted to talk about why I think Google has changed things up this year. 5G is expensive, and the Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 is expensive as well. We’ve seen that there are practically no “flagship killers” this year, and that’s down to the very basis of a flagship 2020 smartphone being more expensive than previous years. Google has seen the runaway success of its “a” series thanks to their affordability, so I imagine that the Pixel 5 was also an attempt to capitalize on the potential boost in sales performance at a lower price. In a bid to keep costs low, I imagine this is why Google opted for the Snapdragon 765G instead. Despite being of a lower-tier, the Snapdragon 765G handles pretty much all of your day-to-day tasks with ease, and there was pretty much no indication that I was using a smartphone without the latest and greatest Qualcomm chipset throughout the course of this review.
Regardless of the chipset, the Google Pixel 5 is a flagship. It’s Google’s latest addition to its top-end smartphone line, which I say makes it the flagship. Should it be compared to the flagships of other companies, too? Of course. Smartphones are more than the sum of their parts, and the software experience plays a huge role. The Pixel software alone is worth getting any Pixel phone, and having the latest Android 11 release on board is wonderful as well.
Google Pixel 5 Design
The design of the Google Pixel 5 is basic for a 2020 flagship, but it’s far and away better than anything we’ve seen from previous Pixel devices. Google executed the rectangular-slab-with-a-square-camera-bump-and-hole-punch-cutout design remarkably well. The most stand-out design aspect is that the bezels on all sides of the screen are equal—there’s no “chin” of any kind. The back is a textured rubber/cardboard kind of hybrid, which is why Google says that the Pixel 5 has a 100% recycled aluminum enclosure. Unlike other aluminum phones, the Pixel 5 can wirelessly charge as well, thanks to a small cutout leaving space for a plastic bio-resin. This build makes the Pixel 5 feel like no other phone I’ve felt before, and it still feels sturdy.
On the back is a slightly indented fingerprint sensor, along with the square camera module on the top left. The fingerprint sensor is at the exact same level of indentation as on the Pixel 4a, meaning it could be easy to swipe against it accidentally depending on your usual finger placement. Accidental swipes haven’t been too much of an issue for me so far, though. For what it’s worth, the sensor is extremely quick to react, and I have had zero issues with recognition.
There’s no brightly colored power button this time around—it’s just a straight metal power button, though it can shine a bit in the right lighting. The Pixel 5’s power button is not as clicky as the one on the Pixel 4a, which if I’m honest, is a little disappointing. It’s not that it’s weak, it’s that it now feels about as clicky as any other smartphone’s power button. Speaking of comparisons to past Pixels—the haptic feedback engine is still powerful, but I’ll admit it’s not quite as sharp as the one on the Pixel 4a. It’s still one of the best I’ve used in any smartphone, but it’s just something to note.
The Google Pixel 5 has a 6-inch, flat 90Hz OLED display that’s interrupted only by a hole-punch camera cutout on the top left. The hole is not too big so you won’t notice it in general usage, but it’s a design departure from the last flagship Pixel. The Pixel 5’s screen gets pretty bright, especially with auto-brightness on, and is more than capable on a bright Irish day. Disclaimer though: A bright Irish day is still considerably darker than most bright days elsewhere. I don’t think it’ll be an issue on really bright days though. On the other hand, the Pixel 5’s display also gets really dark—perfect for using the phone in dark rooms or at night! The 90Hz refresh rate experience is just as good as on competitors, but you can drop it down to a standard 60Hz refresh rate in the display settings if you want the added battery benefits.
Onto the speakers, there’s one at the top (under the display) and another on the bottom. I was disappointed but not surprised that the Pixel 4a actually has the better speakers. The Pixel 5’s speakers sound quite tinny, and the under-display speaker means the bottom-firing speaker has to do most of the heavy lifting when it comes to audio quality. The top speaker is forward-facing, but that doesn’t really matter when it’s under the screen. Not having a visible speaker grille up top is kind of cool once you notice it, but I don’t think it’s worth the trade-off in sound quality. It’s fine for voice calls though, and I didn’t have any issues understanding the person on the other end.
Is the Google Pixel 5 too small? In my opinion, it’s definitely not. I came from the OPPO Find X2 Pro which is, by comparison, a monster phone. It has a 6.7-inch display which is considerably bigger than the 6-inch one on the Google Pixel 5, making it a two-handed unwieldy beast for me. I picked up my OnePlus 8 Pro a few days ago—which also has a 6.7-inch display—to try out its new Android 11 update, and I was shocked by the sheer weight and the size of it. If anything, going from a large phone to a small phone has been really easy, sans the adjustment of typing on a smaller screen. I have smaller hands, so if I’m honest, I prefer a smaller phone. I just wish I could squeeze the sides of this tiny phone to bring up the Google Assistant — yes, you read that right, there’s no Active Edge support on the Google Pixel 5. The Pixel 4a was the first Pixel to ditch the feature (the original Pixels didn’t have it), so it’s ultimately not surprising to see that carried through.
Google Pixel 5 Camera Quality
If Pixel smartphones have mainstream recognition for any particular feature, it’s definitely because of their cameras. The Google Pixel 5 has the exact same primary image sensor as the Pixel 4, which used the same sensor as the Pixel 3… the 12.2MP Sony IMX363. It’s an older camera sensor, but Google understands it extremely well, so they’ve been able to optimize it year-after-year. It still gets the job done, and in fact, I would consider the Google Pixel 5 to be one of the best smartphone cameras around today. The Pixel 5 has been a pleasure to use in pretty much all situations that I encountered, and the Google Camera software yet again demonstrates its superiority over other camera stacks.
The one thing that bothers me about the camera experience is the fact that there isn’t a dedicated gallery app—instead, you need to use Google Photos. Google Photos feels quite bloated for just quickly looking at pictures I just took, so I felt the need to install a third-party gallery app. I realize I might be in the minority when it comes to this, though, so if you’re used to the Google Photos app, then you won’t have any issues with it on the Pixel 5.
Sadly, due to Ireland’s increasing COVID-19 restrictions, I haven’t really been able to take the Pixel 5 out for proper photo sessions. I’ve been taking photos in and around my house, but that’s about the best I’ve been able to do recently. I’ll be updating the below Flickr albums with more photos over time as I get them, but for now, I hope there’s a decent selection so that you have an idea of what you’re getting. Rest assured though, if there’s a phone you want to buy and you expect its camera will be one of the best around, you can’t go wrong with the Google Pixel 5. Photos process quickly and the Google Camera app is still one of the best camera apps around.
Comparing wide-angle, primary sensor, and 2x zoom
I’m including a comparison of all three shooting modes here, as I’m sure many were concerned at both a potential mismatch in color between sensors and a deteriorated quality without a telephoto lens for 2x zoom.
If you look at just one photo that I’ve taken with the Google Pixel 5, make it this one. I took this with the Google Pixel 5’s Astrophotography mode on a pretty starry night, simply by pointing it up at the sky while it sat in my tripod. I took a whole album of these, but the above is my favorite that I have taken with the Pixel 5 so far. I am incredibly impressed.
The wide-angle lens is a new addition to the Google Pixel line of smartphones, and thankfully they’ve nailed it too. The colors look the same as the primary lens, and photos look fantastic through it as well. Check out the Flickr album below to see a couple of photos that I’ve taken, and I’ll be adding more over time.
You can check out the XDA-Developers YouTube review for a 1080p60FPS video sample, however here is a slow-motion 1080p sample and a 4k60FPS video sample too. As you can see, video performance is excellent and the stabilisation does a brilliant job on both the 4K60FPS clip and the 1080p60FPS clip. Audio quality is great too, and overall the Google Pixel 5 definitely gets the job done.
Google Pixel 5 Performance
This is the section I’m sure many people have come to this review for. The Google Pixel 5 has been balked at by the enthusiast community because of its mid-range Qualcomm Snapdragon 765G chipset. Google decided not to go for a flagship chipset this year, and many assumed that this would be at the expense of performance. Obviously, there will be a difference, but such differences have been overstated by the community. In general use, I have not seen any difference between the Pixel 5 and the many Snapdragon 865-equipped flagships I’ve used this year, and the real-world tests I performed have more than proven that.
The Snapdragon 765G packs plenty of CPU and GPU power for pretty much all day-to-day usage that you’ll get out of a smartphone. I’m a pretty heavy power user of my smartphone, and I intend to stick with the Google Pixel 5 as my daily driver, despite having plenty of Snapdragon 865-powered options to choose from. Everything is pretty smooth on the Pixel 5: From the previously-laggy sharing menu to multi-tasking between multiple apps, the Google Pixel 5 has impressed me.
UI Stutter/Jank test
The Google Pixel 5 has a 90Hz refresh rate display, but how well does the phone actually maintain 90 FPS? I’ve perceived the Pixel 5 to be incredibly smooth, without too many “microstutters” or noticeable frame rate drops. While the phone will lower the refresh rate to 60Hz when a video starts playing, I tested scrolling through Facebook or Twitter, and videos in the feed do not drop the refresh rate to 60Hz. This means you can scroll on social media and not have jarring switches between 60Hz and 90Hz all of the time. If you notice it happening in apps anyway, you can enable an always-on 90Hz mode in the developer options, which I later did after all of my testing.
To quantify how well the Google Pixel 5 can maintain 90 FPS in real-world scenarios, we ran a modified version of Google’s open-source JankBench benchmark. This benchmark simulates a handful of common tasks you’ll see in everyday apps, including scrolling through a ListView with text, scrolling through a ListView with images, scrolling through a grid view with a shadow effect, scrolling through a low-hitrate text render view, scrolling through a high-hitrate text render view, inputting and editing text with the keyboard, repeating overdraws with cards, and uploading bitmaps. Our script records the draw time for each frame during the test, eventually plotting all the frames and their draw times in a plot along with several horizontal lines representing the target frame draw times for the 4 common display refresh rates (60Hz, 90Hz, 120Hz, and 144Hz.)
I compared the Google Pixel 5 to the OnePlus Nord, as I felt that it was only apt given the fact that both phones share the same chipset and OnePlus’s penchance for optimizing the performance. The Google Pixel 5 blew the OnePlus Nord out of the water in these UI smoothness tests, and you’ll see that as the Nord frequently drops below 90 FPS (and even 60 FPS) while the Pixel maintains 90 FPS with ease. While some of this may be attributable to the Google Pixel 5 featuring Android 11 instead of Android 10, I doubt this discrepancy can be entirely explained away by that. Furthermore, the Google Pixel 5 also smokes the OnePlus Nord in our next test, which leads me to believe that it’s more than just an Android 11 versus Android 10 thing.
App opening speed
XDA’s Mario Serrafero and Mishaal Rahman created an app launch speed test script using Android’s ActivityManager shell interface to measure how long it takes for the main Activity of 11 applications to launch from a cold start (ie. when not in memory). These 11 applications are Google Chrome, Facebook, Gmail, Google Maps, Messages, Netflix, Google Photos, Google Play Store, Twitter, WhatsApp, and YouTube. We launched these 11 activities for 30 iterations (and killed each app between launches) to reduce the variance. I’ve included both the OnePlus Nord’s and the Samsung Galaxy S20’s results to show comparisons against a comparable and presumably higher-tier device.
Please note that the scales of the below bar charts are different, however, it’s clear to see that the Nord falls far short of the Pixel 5 in this test. You can read the average time it took to launch at the bottom, with the numbers above each of the bars showcasing the variance of values.
In the case of many apps such as Google Maps and Google Messages, the Google Pixel 5 launches them much faster than the OnePlus Nord. The variance is much lower too, and app opening times are much more consistent on the Google Pixel 5. I knew that using the Google Pixel 5 felt like I was using a flagship, but seeing these results made it obvious why it felt that way. If you want an even bigger shock, compare it to the Samsung Galaxy S20 with the Snapdragon 865.
Again they are shockingly close, and the Google Pixel 5 punches well above its own perceived weight.
The Google Pixel 5 is definitely not a gaming-oriented smartphone, and its Adreno 620 GPU is definitely not the cutting-edge of graphics performance in Android smartphones. Nevertheless, some will almost certainly want to play games on their shiny new Google Pixel 5, and it will deliver good performance in most games you throw at it. Here’s a test of PUBG Mobile with HD graphics and high frame rate enabled; the Pixel 5 is clearly capable of handling this game.
The performance was generally consistent, and there were no noticeable hiccups. Interestingly, the MAD* was actually lower than the OnePlus Nord, despite the percentage of frames that dropped below 29 FPS being higher. This means that the frames were generally more consistent, even if they fell slightly more often.
*Why we calculate MAD
We calculate MAD (Median Absolute Deviation) to replace Variance. Why? For different FPS ranges (i.e. 60 FPS vs. 144Hz games), Variance becomes less intuitive. The formula for Variance has errors (distances of samples from sample mean) grow quadratically, so for 144Hz games, the sum of errors quickly explode. Our MAD statistic is much simpler: We calculate the collection of absolute errors from the mean (not median, for our case), then grab the median of the collection. In the context of games, we can interpret this as “the middling value of all the FPS fluctuations”. As a quick example, if we have a sample of [49, 60, 51, 52, 60, 60, 59], the sample mean is 58.5. So the absolute errors become [9.5, 1.5, 7.5, 6.5, 1.5, 1.5, 0.5], and the median of that collection, our MAD value, is 1.5. This means that our game is running at 58.5 FPS on average, and half of frame fluctuations are equal to or lower than 1.5. Since the mean FPS in our samples is typically super close to the target FPS, then MAD gives us an approximate idea of what most framedrops look like.
Sustained performance and thermals
The Google Pixel 5 performs well, clearly, but how does it perform under sustained loads? Does it get really hot? If I’m honest, in general usage, I didn’t notice it getting hot that much at all. Even when playing PUBG during that previous test, the device itself felt warm to the touch, but it definitely didn’t feel like a finger-burner. I ran the CPU Throttling Test to see how it held up in sustained performance, and after about 12 minutes it did start to throttle a bit. I couldn’t get any thermal readings of my Google Pixel 5, but it still didn’t feel that hot to the touch and was comfortable to still use. It maintained a respectable average of 129 GIPS (billion instructions per second), however, it throttled quite heavily to 69% of its total performance capability. This is one of the more disappointing tests for sure, but I never would have known that it throttles this much had I not run this test.
Battery life and charging
The battery life of the Google Pixel 5 has been nothing short of phenomenal, and it’s one of the longest lasting smartphones I’ve ever used. From morning until night, the Pixel 5 lasts me the entire day with plenty of battery to spare, and I’m not exaggerating. Here are two consecutive days of usage that I had with the Google Pixel 5, shortly after receiving it. These battery stats were taken on the 10th and 11th of October. I had a couple of late nights where I was using the Google Pixel 5 quite a bit, and I was impressed by how long it lasted. On both of these days, I will admit that the phone was left to sit on the home screen with the screen on for about an hour, but nevertheless it’s been impressive for my use. These are also with the always-on display switched on, meaning that standby drain is even higher than it would be with it off.
In PCMark’s battery test, the Google Pixel 5 hit a respectable 7 hours, 53 minutes at 100% brightness with 4G and Wi-Fi both on. 90Hz was enabled too. This is a theoretical minimum battery life with constant usage, which is much more improved over the previous Google Pixel 4. There’s also an extreme battery saver option now too, that should extend it even further.
The Google Pixel 5’s charging time is marred by the fact that it packs an 18W charger in the box, and that’s as fast as it gets. While I respect the dedication to a single-standard in the support of USB Power Delivery, it is a bit of a hard pill to swallow when you switch to the Google Pixel 5. At the very least, it is helped by the fact that the Google Pixel 5 does offer long-lasting battery life. On top of that, it will charge from 0% to 100% in roughly an hour and a half to two hours, so it’s not the worst charging time. It’s usable, but don’t be expecting to toss this on the charger for 10 or 15 minutes and get a whole day’s use of battery out of it. It does get a little bit warm when it’s charging, but again it’s not uncomfortably hot.
The Google Pixel 5, just like its flagship predecessors, supports wireless charging. The charging coil is right in the center on the back and will work on pretty much any Qi wireless charger that you have lying around. It supports up to 12W charging on a wireless charging pad, which means it charges at around 2/3 the speed of wired. The Pixel Stand is only a 10W wireless charger, so you won’t even max out the wireless charging capabilities of the Google Pixel 5 on its official charging stand. The charging coil is in the center on the back of the phone, and that’s where you can also reverse wireless charge at 5W speed. Reverse wireless charging (dubbed “Battery Share”) will charge any Qi-enabled devices and can be useful in a pinch.
The Google Pixel 5 is packed full of AI features. App recommendations show up not just in your app drawer, but on a dedicated app bar on the bottom of your home screen. When you’re texting in certain chat apps, you’ll also get smart recommendations for messages to reply with. Not every app is supported, and you do need to use Gboard, but it’s surprisingly useful.
Multitasking menu options
The multitasking menu on the Google Pixel 5 is interesting and has its uses, thanks to the select and screenshot options that are added. Taking a screenshot here isn’t too different (except it doesn’t show any of your notification icons), however, choosing “Select” lets you highlight text and images from within any app. I’ve gotten a surprising amount of use out of it, as it’s great for copying content from one app to another. It also makes copying easier, too. For example, on Twitter, you can only copy a full Tweet’s text or nothing at all. However, you can choose exactly what you want to copy with this tool instead.
One of my favorite features on the Google Pixel 5 is its “Now Playing” song identification. Ever been in a shop, and a song starts playing and you scramble to open up Shazam on your phone? Maybe I’m a bit of a music nerd, but it’s happened to me quite a few times. Now Playing uses the microphone to listen for music around you in an attempt to identify everything that it picks up. It works entirely on-device, so nothing is ever sent to Google’s servers. This is also why it may not identify every song—it works by downloading a regional database of songs that are then compared on-device to whatever is playing around you. When it finds a match, it displays it on the lockscreen, always-on display, and saves it in a Now Playing section in your sound settings.
You can verify it’s not sending anything to Google servers by testing it entirely offline. I turned off both mobile data and Wi-Fi to test whether or not it would identify a wide range of music that I put in a Spotify playlist and played in order. To my surprise, it recognized a sizable chunk of the songs that I played. I was surprised by some that it missed, but others I kind of expected for it to miss. For all of the songs that were recognized, they were recognized within a minute. I also tested a Jedward song, as they are not really known or popular outside of Ireland. I was quite surprised the Pixel 5 recognized them, but that goes to show that it works regionally. Bell-X1 is an Irish band, too.
|Modest Mouse – Lampshades on Fire||⨉|
|The Wombats – Turn||✓|
|The Cure – Friday I’m in Love||✓|
|The Vaccines – Post Break-Up Sex||✓|
|Cage the Elephant – Cigarette Daydreams||✓|
|Gorillaz (ft. Elton John & 6LACK) – The Pink Phantom||⨉|
|Current Joys – Kids||⨉|
|MF DOOM – THAT’S THAT||⨉|
|The Smith Street Band – Stay Young||⨉|
|Empathy Test – Monsters||⨉|
|Radiohead – Fake Plastic Trees||✓|
|The Antlers – Kettering||✓|
|Modest Mouse – Float On||✓|
|Zedd (ft. Jon Bellion) – Beautiful Now||✓|
|Gorillaz – On Melancholy Hill||✓|
|Cigarettes After Sex – Nothing’s Gonna Hurt You Baby||✓|
|Kanye West (ft. Pusha T) – Runaway||✓|
|Gorillaz (ft. Peter Hook and Georgia) – Aries||✓|
|BROCKHAMPTON – GINGER||✓|
|Bleachers – Goodmorning||⨉|
|Diamond Eyes – 23||⨉|
|Tristam & Braken – Flight||✓|
|Bell-X1 – Rocky Took A Lover||✓|
|Alle Farben & Younotus – Please Tell Rosie||✓|
|SIAMES – The Wolf||✓|
|ILLENIUM – Nightlight||⨉|
|Jedward – Lipstick||✓|
|Nujabes (ft. Shing02) – Luv(sic) pt3||✓|
New Google Camera
The Google Camera app has been redesigned entirely, with new buttons and a new UI.
You can access the top settings menu by either tapping the arrow or pulling down from the arrow towards the shutter button. All of the same options are available as before, but several of the options now have picture tutorials to let you know how the features work. You can still shoot in RAW and edit in something such as Snapseed or Lightroom on your phone if you’d prefer!
New live wallpapers and fonts
The Google Pixel 5 brings a number of new live wallpapers, all of which are animated based on different scenarios on your smartphone.
All of these live wallpapers react to whatever is going on on your device. The black statues one moves as you tilt your phone, while some of the colored wallpapers react to music or the time of day. There are other classic favorites too, such as the Earth, the Moon, and Mars. Font-wise, there are now 7 to choose from. The 7 I found when going through the Google Pixel 5’s system files are as follows. The names are taken from their package names on the device.
- Zilla Slab / Lato
- Arbutus Slab / Source Sans Pro
- Google Sans
Call Screening and Hold For Me
Sadly, I couldn’t test either of these features as they do not work outside of the US. However, Mishaal Rahman was able to get the Pixel 5’s new Hold For Me feature working on his Pixel 4. You can read his embedded thread to see how it works!
— Mishaal Rahman (@MishaalRahman) October 9, 2020
Google Recorder 2.0
The new Google Recorder app has a brand new feature, and that feature allows you to export a recorded audio clip as a video. You can switch on a waveform and even include a transcript that highlights words as you speak.
For recordings that are longer than 150 words, Google will attempt to spot important keywords and add a scrollbar at the bottom which highlights their location. You can also remove audio based on what you highlight in the transcript, as Google knows what is being said when. You can also fix transcripts that are incorrectly heard too, but I’ve left in the mistake below to show that it isn’t perfect. It picked up “at” instead of “out”, which was the only mistake it made in the transcript.
The @madebygoogle #Pixel5 has a really cool new voice recorder app, and you can effectively use it to generate voice tweets! Might start using this one quite a bit 👀#teampixel pic.twitter.com/5fByB7bKqZ
— Adam Conway (@AdamConwayIE) October 14, 2020
One feature that I tried to get working was desktop mode, but sadly, the Pixel 5 does not support DisplayPort Alternate Mode, meaning it cannot output video over USB-C.
Google also sent us out one of their fabric cases for review, and I’ve had it on my phone a lot of the time. It’s comfortable to use and doesn’t add too much bulk. However, it still feels extremely protective of the phone which surprised me. You can wash it a few times like you would wash clothes without ruining it in case it gets too dirty. While I think the fabric case is definitely one of the Best Pixel 5 cases that you can get, there are many others on the market too!
I feel that the Google Pixel 5 has earned an unfair reputation before it has even launched, thanks to its mid-range chipset. The Snapdragon 765G is clearly capable of competing where it matters. Is it the best smartphone in benchmarks? Absolutely not. However, if your apps launch quickly, are smooth to use, and the battery lasts all day, then why does it matter if you’re not getting the best benchmark scores? Phones are more than the sum of their parts, and the Google Pixel 5 demonstrates that better than any other smartphone on the market. If you’re looking for a fantastic software experience with good performance, the Google Pixel 5 is definitely worth looking at.