The only Google Pixel 5 review you need to read

If you need a real world, honest review of the Pixel 5, you've come to the right place. Jack Wallen shares his experience after purchasing the latest Pixel phone from Google.

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Google Pixel 5

Image: Angela Lang/CNET

You probably know that I hemmed and hawed about buying the latest iteration of Google's Pixel phone (read "Google Pixel 5: To upgrade or not to upgrade?"); however, in the end, I made the purchase. Why? Because even though the Pixel 4 was a beautiful, flagship-spec'd phone, it was suffering from a steady stream of issues based on the Android 11 upgrade, and a battery that was starting to veer toward the frustrating.

This was the first time I upgraded to a new Pixel that I wasn't all that excited. Up until Android 11, I really enjoyed that device. The smooth, orange back glass was elegant and refined. The speed of the processor--especially when working over Portrait Mode photos--was faster than any smartphone I'd used to date. With Google opting to tone down the look of the Pixel and including a mid-range CPU, there was not much to be thrilled about.

Still, I hopped on that Google Pixel 5 bandwagon. The price was right and I knew it would tide me over until Google (fingers crossed) learned from their mistakes and to play catch-up with Apple once again.

When the Pixel 5 arrived, I went through the usual process of onboarding the new device. If you've never experienced migrating from one Pixel to another, I can tell you there is no easier experience to be found. Connect the phones with the included cable and walk through the wizard. In the end, you'll have every app and account configuration on your new Pixel that you had on the old Pixel. It's seamless, painless, and effortless.

Once I had everything transferred over (total time was less than 10 minutes), it was time to check out the device. 

SEE: Samsung Galaxy Unpacked 2020: Galaxy Z Fold2, Samsung Galaxy S20, and more (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

The size, feel, and look of the Google Pixel 5

The size of the Pixel 5 is slightly smaller than the Pixel 4, however, the display has grown significantly. The Pixel 5 almost completely does away with bezels. This is as close to an edge-to-edge display as I've used. In fact, it reminds me very much of what was once my favorite Android device the (vastly underpowered) Essential PH-1. With nothing but a pinhole in the upper-left corner, the Pixel 5 screen is a thing of beauty. It's bright, smooth, and large--especially given the small-ish size of the device. 

Google has done a masterful job of eking out as much screen as possible.

When you turn the device around, the elegance of the display dissolves away into a rather bland back. To put it simply: The backside of the Pixel 5 is boring. But, looks aren't everything. Even though you might shrug your shoulders at the sight of this phone, the second you have it in your hand, you immediately start to appreciate what Google has done. 

One issue I had with the Pixel 4 was that, although it was gorgeous, it was slippery in the hand. Every time I picked that phone up, I had to worry I'd drop it. The Pixel 5 resolves that issue, by giving the aluminum backside a rougher texture. It almost feels like expensive paper you might find in a store that sells nothing but notecards for the rich and famous. The different texture does a great job of helping you keep hold of the device.

In the upper-center of that backside is the fingerprint scanner--another piece of the puzzle that seems like a backslide for the Pixel. 

I really liked the facial recognition of the Pixel 4. However, given that we're in a pandemic and must wear facial masks/coverings, that facial recognition was useless when outside of the house. With that in mind, the fingerprint scanner was the way to go. And man, does it work well. This fingerprint scanner blows away what was found in the Pixel 3. Tap your finger on the small indention and the device is instantly unlocked. 

Although you might be disappointed in Google choosing to take a step backward with the fingerprint scanner, this was a wise choice and executed to perfection.

The Google Pixel 5 camera

The camera is where the Pixel line of phones has always found itself heads above the rest, bar none. On paper, the Pixel 5 retaining the same sensor they've used for some time was a disappointment. In a world where two steps forward really only seems like one, if you're standing still it seems like you're moving backward.

I'm here to tell you, that aging sensor still works beautifully. Both the front-facing and selfie cameras do an outstanding job of snapping brilliant photos (Figure A).

Figure A

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A regular photo and a selfie with zero adjustments made.

There is one really cool feature to be found with Portrait Mode photos taken with the selfie camera. Once you snap a portrait photo, you can adjust the location of the light. It might not sound like much, but it really does make a big difference in the look of your Portrait Mode selfies (Figure B).

Figure B

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Adjusting the light in a selfie, while I act up a storm on my telly.

That Portrait Mode feature alone is worth the price of admission of the Pixel 5--especially if you take a lot of Portrait Mode selfies. 

The Google Pixel 5 performance 

I've owned Pixels dating back to the Google Pixel 2, and I'm here to tell you, the fifth iteration stacks up with the lot of them. Even with the lesser-powered Snapdragon chip, there is only one instance where I can tell the difference between the Pixel 4 and 5. That instance is when the camera processes Portrait Mode photos. Unlike with the Pixel 4, where Portrait Mode processing was almost instant, the Pixel 5 does take a couple of seconds to process. But that's it--a couple of seconds. 

Other than that issue, you'd be hard-pressed to notice a difference. In the name of transparency, I don't game on my phones, so I cannot speak to how the phone performs when using more demanding apps, but with everyday usage (phone, email, web, messaging, and various apps), the Pixel 5 is a champ.

The Google Pixel 5 battery life

If there was one reason for you to upgrade from the Pixel 4 to the 5, it's the battery. I have yet to see this device battery run below 50%. I'm routinely surprised at how much battery life I have at the end of the day. With the Pixel 4, I'd be regularly in the single digits by bedtime.

The combination of the larger battery, the slower chip, the increased RAM, and the Android optimizations make an incredible difference. If you're looking for a phone that will last a full day plus, the Pixel 5 is what you want.

The Google Pixel 5 sound 

I don't usually put much stock in the sound of smartphones. I'm an audiophile and I know I'll never get truly good sound from such a device, and the Pixel 5 doesn't disappoint. Now, if you're listening to music, chances are good you're doing so via headphones, so with a very good pair of headphones, you can enjoy your music as well as you can with any phone.

The call quality, I have to confess, suffers. Google went a very unique route with this (to achieve the edge-to-edge look) with an under-display speaker. Because of that, every call you make sounds as though it's on speaker phone. The sound comes from everywhere. Some might think this is a positive. It's not. Although call reception quality is outstanding with the device, the sound of calls is just odd. Everyone sounds as though they're broadcasting from an old radio add from the 1950s. It's not something you won't get used to, but at first it's a little jarring. On top of that, you immediately assume everyone can hear everything you hear--that's not the case. 

The Android experience

As usual, the Android experience on the Pixel 5 is the best you'll ever have. Thankfully, Google worked out all the kinks Android 11 suffered on the Pixel 4, so the Pixel 5 is absolutely flawless. The Pixel launcher is better than ever. In fact, if you enjoyed Android on the Pixel 4, you'll love it on the 5. It's smoother, more refined, cleaner, and far more reliable. I've used Android since version 1 (on more devices than I can remember) and, without hesitation, I can say that what is to be found on the Pixel 5 is the best Android experience I've had. It's that good.

Conclusion

In the end, the choice is yours, but if you've spent more than enough time comparing specs, only to find yourself second guessing the purchase, set those fears of "downgrading" aside. Even with the lesser CPU, the Pixel 5 is most definitely an upgrade from the Pixel 4. Make the purchase now--you won't regret it later.

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