Google Pixel 5 Hands-On Review: More of What You Want

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The Google Pixel 5 isn’t flashy. It doesn’t fold up like an origami napkin or have an edge-to-edge display. In fact, it eschews all the “new and never-before-seen” functionality we’ve come to expect from flagships and replaces them with something much quainter: features that people really want. In a world where smartphones masquerade as miniature laptops and portable theaters, the Pixel 5 is arguably the best option for people who just want a phone.

Design

Like most Google products, the Pixel 5 champions a design aesthetic that is minimalistic and modest. On the surface, it is a clean, unassuming slab of aluminum and glass, with small bezels, a 6-inch display, and zero kitsch. It looks nice.

Google Pixel 5

Unlike the Pixel 4, the Pixel 5 doesn’t offer an “XL” variant, which means your only option is the 6-inch display. That might not sit well with some phablet fans, but for the rest of us, it’s about the perfect size.

In terms of display quality, the Pixel 5 performs quite well. Its 6-inch OLED utilizes Full HD+ (1080 x 2340) graphics, a 90 Hz refresh rate, and a new settings optimizer Google calls “Smooth Display,” to good effect. True to the Google aesthetic, everything on-screen looks very clean and sharp, including streaming content.

One of the more curious design choices Google made with the Pixel 5 was to move the fingerprint sensor to the back and ditch facial recognition altogether. A year ago, this move might have annoyed me, but today, in the age of COVID-necessitated face masks, it’s one of the features I loved the most. The fingerprint reader is fast and accurate, and in a world filled with daily inconveniences, using it instead of having to pull down a face mask to unlock the phone felt like a luxury.

Camera

The hallmark of the Pixel lineup has always been its superior image quality. Every year a new Pixel phone comes out, and every year we name its camera among the very best. The Pixel 5 continues that legacy, thanks to a simple-but-effective camera setup that is nigh unbeatable for average users.

Spec-wise, the camera setup features a 12.2MP dual-pixel lens and a 16MP ultrawide lens on the back and an 8MP selfie camera on the front. Those numbers might sound small compared to some of the more outrageous megapixel counts out there, but make no mistake, the Pixel 5 cannot be topped. The shots I took during the day were consistently sharp, well-balanced, and full of bright colors with nice contrast. At night, I used the Pixel 5’s Night Shot mode to capture stills that were equally great and exhibited a level of detail you just don’t see from other phones.

Along with its impressive camera array, the Pixel 5 also comes with some new photo-editing features that you can access through the Google Photos app. In general, those features work fairly well and include the ability to adjust settings like brightness, contrast, etc. My favorite of these new features, however, were the adjustments you could make to the lighting effects in Portrait mode. Using the app, you can actually move a virtual light around your face to change its source and intensity. It’s really cool and, when applied correctly, can add a lot of drama to your shot.

In terms of video, the Pixel 5 outperforms its predecessors, but it won’t fare as well against other flagships or those aimed at “professional” users. That doesn’t mean its video quality is bad, just that it’s not as indomitable as its photo performance. As an average, everyday user, that had little effect on my opinion of the Pixel 5. Compared to photos, I rarely shoot videos. The videos I do shoot are of my cat, and they all turned out shake-free and adorable, so I was satisfied.

Performance

Like its predecessors, the Pixel 5 ships with a near-stock version of the latest Android software. Using Android OS on the Pixel 5 is as smooth and intuitive as ever, thanks to an elegant design that doesn’t muddle features or make things hard to find. There are some customization options you can play around with if you want to change the settings, but I didn’t mess with those. I very much adored the overall neatness of the core layout and saw no reason to fiddle with it.

Instead of the latest, “lightning-fast” processor, the Pixel 5 uses a slightly older Snapdragon 765G chipset. Backed by 8GB of RAM and 128GB, the comparatively “underpowered” processor was plenty fast and plenty smooth. There wasn’t a single instance when I thought, “Boy, I wish I could pay hundreds of dollars more for a newer chip that makes no perceptible difference.”

It’s worth mentioning that the Pixel 5 does support 5G networking, though, as an AT&T user, I wasn’t able to test it on a legit 5G network (like Verizon’s). However, even on my own 4G network, the download speeds were similar to what I get with my iPhone; if there was any lag opening apps or mobile games, I didn’t notice it.

Along with excellent software performance, Pixel 5 users will also be the first to receive new OS and security updates. Google says these updates will roll out automatically and should be available for at least 3 years.

Battery Life

One of the disappointing features about last year’s Pixel 4 was its battery life. At launch, it didn’t hold up that long—a day of moderate use if you were lucky. Google implemented some fixes to boost battery performance, but not enough to qualify it as good.

Luckily, the Pixel 5 shares none of those issues. Despite it having only a slightly larger capacity, the Pixel 5’s 4000mAh battery greatly outperforms its predecessor. As someone who works from home full time, I’m constantly on my phone—much more than when I worked in the office. Yet, even with that heavy usage, the Pixel 5 easily made it through the day, never once needing to charge.

Speaking of charging: The Pixel 5 does offer two features that I, personally, don’t consider necessities, but are popular nonetheless—wireless and reverse-wireless charging. Despite my indifference toward wireless charging, I must admit that Google implementing both these costly technologies into a phone that is relatively inexpensive compared to its peers is pretty noteworthy.

Verdict

While its on-paper specs might not dazzle, in reality, the Pixel 5 never disappoints. Its design is simple and clean. Its interface is snappy. The 6-inch OLED display looks great and the all-day battery easily lives up to its name. Its most outstanding feature continues to be its sublime camera, which cannot be beat. If you’re looking for a phone that focuses on the fundamentals, not frills, then the Pixel 5 is an excellent choice.

Like what you see here? What are your thoughts on the Pixel 5? Share them in the Comments, below, and let us know if you have any questions.

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