The Pixel 5: Why I Got One + First Impressions
This entry has two roughly equal parts: The first part is why I decided to get a Pixel 5, despite some initial misgivings, and the second part is a “first impressions” review. I’m separating them out for reader convenience; if you just want the review, scroll down to the second part.
Part One: In Which I Rationalize the Purchase of a Pixel 5
I’ve been using the Google Pixel phone line since the Pixel 2, prompted by the fact that the line uniformly has the best cameras on cell phones, and also because it always has the latest edition of Android, plus the various neat tricks that Google implements on the Pixels — like “astrophotography mode” and call screening, which then may or may not trickle out to the rest of the Android OS universe. I’ve upgraded with every new edition because a) I can, and b) because I am always curious about the new things that have come with each edition of the phone.
With that said, when the Pixel 5 was announced, I had to give some thought about whether this time I would pick it up, or just hold steady with Pixel 4, or even — gasp! — go over to something like a Samsung. The reason for this was that the Pixel 5 is in many ways not so much of an upgrade as it is a “side-grade” to the Pixel 4, and a recasting of the Pixel line from a “flagship phone” to something more pedestrian. The Pixel line has gone mid-range.
So: The Pixel 5 no longer has the fastest available processing chip; it has the upper-midrange 765G Qualcomm chip, and it doesn’t have the specific chip that Google previously put into the Pixel line to speed up photo processing. It has more RAM than the Pixel 4 (8GB, up from 6), which is good, but has the same resolution screen with a (very slightly) lower pixel density, which is meh. The main camera is the same 12MP main camera as has been in every Pixel since the 2, and the telephoto lens — which I prefer — is replaced with a 16MP wide-angle lens, which I am indifferent about. The motion sensing on the Pixel 4 is entirely gone, as is face ID, and the fingerprint scanner is back. There’s only one form factor this year, so if you were a fan of the larger XL variant, you’re out of luck this year.
And so on. Basically, spec-wise, the only real improvement the Pixel 5 has over the Pixel 4 (save one, which I will get to) is the amount of RAM. Everything else is either technically a downgrade (the processing chip), or a lateral move (the ultra-wide lens instead of the telephoto). Now, Google is also selling the Pixel 5 for substantially less than it did the previous iterations of the Pixel — $699 out of the gate, and with holiday price drops already planned — so neither I nor anyone else can complain that Google is charging the same for less. But when it comes to phones, I’m not a price-sensitive person; I don’t mind paying extra for bells and whistles. So the question is, what do I get out of the Pixel 5 that either I don’t already have, or, could get from another phone?
One answer is the one Pixel 5 upgrade that I didn’t mention: The battery. The Pixel line has always been mostly underpowered for its technical specs, and so this time around Google shoved a 4000mAh battery into the P5, a better than 50% capacity boost from the Pixel 4. A much larger battery paired with more modest processing specs means that finally I — whose phone has its screen on a whole lot — might get through an entire day without needing to recharge. This is less of an issue in our COVID times, when I’m at home anyway and never far from one of my Pixel charge stations. But one day we might be able to leave our homes again (safely, wear a mask, people) and that will be useful.
Otherwise, excepting a few features Google is offering the Pixel 5 first, but which will inevitably trickle down the Pixel line (for example, its new “Wait on Hold” feature, which has the phone stay on hold for you so you don’t have to listen to horrible repeating wait music), the answer is: Actually, the Pixel 5 doesn’t offer me anything I don’t already have through the Pixel 4, or could get, and arguably better, elsewhere. It’s a mid-spec phone, and, surely, a decent one at that, but it is what it is, and what it is not is a flagship phone. So if I do want all the latest bells and whistles, then it’s time to look elsewhere.
But here I am with a Pixel 5. So what happened?
First: I kinda need a new phone? My Pixel 4’s battery has gone downhill in a significant way in the last couple of months, and while its capacity was acceptable when I first got it, more recently it really has not been, even just hanging out at home. I’m not going to ding Google itself too much for this, other than for its choice to go with a comparatively small battery to begin with. Battery tech in general is something I could rant endlessly about; suffice to say Google isn’t the only one with battery issues. Point is: I was shopping anyway.
Second: The Pixel Android experience is, for me, a significant enough differentiator that I am loath to leave it behind. Most obviously for me, the computational processing that goes into the pictures is better than anyone else’s — the fact Google can use the same camera hardware for three iterations of the Pixel and still stay in the top ranks of camera phones is ridiculous, both as a testament to Google’s acumen, and to how far everyone else had to go to even catch up.
But even outside of that, the Pixel Android experience is fantastic. The Pixel is first with security and other updates, including, clearly, the newest versions of Android. Google’s phone experience is the best — call screening delights me in ways I can’t express — and its other Pixel-exclusive functionalities may or may not be essential, but are useful, or at least, interesting. Other Android makers’ UI implementations tend to be more “look at me” than actually useful (exception: Motorola had nifty gestures I still miss), and in the worst case (looking at you, Samsung) things one had to work around. I like bells and whistles, but at the end of the day I want my phone to actually work in a way that doesn’t aggravate me. Bells and whistles are the frosting, not the cake.
Which leads us to the third thing, which is about me specifically: In thinking about the Pixel 5 and whether I should upgrade to it, I engaged in, if not exactly a journey of the soul, then at least an examination of how I actually use the phones and tech I have, and what, exactly, I want out of them at this point in my life.
And the fact is that as much as I hate to admit it to myself, on a day-to-day basis, I don’t use my phone in a manner that requires a high-end experience. I take photos but I do nearly all the serious processing of the photos on my desktop, where I have a big-ass monitor that lets my 51-year-old eyes actually see what the hell I’m doing. I don’t do much video on my phone at all, but when I do I also port that over to the desktop to process. I don’t play a lot of videogames on my phone or (when I’m not traveling) watch all that much video on it, and most of that tends to be snippets from Reddit or Facebook rather than full-length videos. Mostly I use my phone to read — social media sites, articles, ebooks and emails.
In terms of what I need from my phone, on a daily basis: I am a mid-range user.
So, what the hell, I decided to try a mid-range Pixel and see what it gets me.
Part 2: Initial Thoughts on the Pixel 5
And now, after that probably-too-long preamble, here are my first impressions of the phone.
1. I like the size. I prefer phones that I can fit and use in one hand, and I am not notably monster-handed, so the Pixel 5 is pretty much perfectly sized for me. It is, in fact, almost exactly the size of the Pixel 4, which I also considered a very nice-sized phone (it’s apparently a tenth of an inch wider, which I don’t notice, and actually a smidgen lighter). The screen is larger (see the picture at the top of the entry) because the Pixel 5 loses most of the top bezel, which is nice but which I don’t really notice relative to the previous phone. My feeling about it is that it offers an almost seamless continuation in size from the Pixel 4. Which is good!
2. The Pixel 4 has a motion-sensing Soli chip which it used for unlocking the phone with your face, and to do some gestural commands, and in doing so forewent the fingerprint sensor on the back of the phone. The Pixel 5 ditches the chip and motion sensing and brings back the fingerprint sensor. I am very happy about this. The Pixel 4 face unlock experience for me was… sporadic. Indeed there were a couple of months in there where it hardly worked at all, and I couldn’t figure out why (and then it fixed itself, and I couldn’t figure that out why, either). Likewise the hand gestures worked for me maybe 40% of the time, i.e., not nearly enough to make it part of my everyday use experience.
The fingerprint sensor, on the other hand, works perfectly pretty much all the time, is nicely placed on the back on the phone where my hand mostly is anyway, and the neat function where you can use the fingerprint sensor to pull the notification panel up and down is back, and I love that. And also, in a world where everyone who is not a callous piece of shit wears a mask in public, face unlock is useless. So: Hooray! Fingerprint! It’s back, and really useful, and I don’t miss face unlock at all.
3. Photos are, well, Pixel photos. Which continue to be very very good! The following are straight out of the camera, no editing, all taken in the same place, with different levels of zoom. Here’s a 1x photo of my backyard oak, taken from my back deck:
So, your basic nice Pixel color fidelity, slightly crispy processing, and overall (to me) pleasant photo experience. Now here’s the .6x wide angle:
Which is also fine! The colors are a little lighter and I notice a bit of distortion at the edges, but it’s a wide-angle lens, it’s what a wide-angle lens does. Personally I’d’ve preferred to have stuck with the telephoto lens, as it suits my own use case better than a wide-angle lens, but it’s not that I won’t get use from a wide-angle — you may have heard, I take lots of sunset pictures. It’s fine. But it does mean that for the rest of my Pixel 5 experience, any zoom I have is going to be a digital zoom rather than an optical zoom. Let’s see what the Pixel 5’s 2x digital zoom looks like:
It’s fine. It’s not as good as an optical zoom, but for posting pictures to the web or social media, only a photo snob will complain. Here’s 4x zoom:
Yeah, that’s getting fairly impressionistic.
My experience of the Pixel 5 and its zoom is pretty much what it was with the Pixel 3, which is: Keep it at 2x or under and you’re fine, and after that your pictures start looking like a watercolor. The digital zoom on the Pixel 5 goes to 7x, but I don’t recommend that unless you are really looking forward to abstraction.
This is not a huge problem for me personally, since I have a dSLR and other portable cameras with optical zoom capabilities. Also, at the end of the day I prefer how Google does its computational photography over other phone manufacturers: Google “night sight” photos are still the gold standard, and while I only rarely use the “astrophotography mode,” whenever I do I am very very glad I have it.
But, yeah: If you are more of a telephoto user than an ultrawide user, and your phone is your primary camera, then the Pixel 5 is not your phone.
4. On the subject of the camera, the Pixel 5 does a couple of things I’m going to have to adjust to. First, it’s changed the way that “portrait mode” is outputted — it used to be that after you took a picture in portrait mode, it would output a photo with the artificial bokeh, and one without it. Now it appears to offer up just one photo, which you can then go in and fiddle with in settings, adjusting the level of bokeh and a few other things in the in-app photo editor. This actually makes sense to me and it does give you more flexibility in the final output of the photo, so that’s good. But, it’s also different, and so it’ll take me a while to get used to.
The other thing that’s different, which I don’t really like, is that when the Pixel senses it’s in a low light situation, it will automatically turn on the “night mode” setting. Theoretically that’s good because Google’s night mode is excellent and you’ll likely get a better photo. As a practical matter, it’s annoying, because night mode photos are longer exposures, so you have to hold the camera still for a second or more, and also, in a number of situations I’ve had so far, the camera handled the scene just fine without night mode — the difference two pictures, one with night mode on and the other with it off, were negligible.
The Pixel 5 seems really aggressive in swapping over to night mode, so if you’re indoors in even slightly dim light, be ready for that. In the cases when the Pixel 5 autoswitches to night mode, it offers a quick touch to disable it, which is fine but still requires your attention. I’m not in love with that, and there’s no obvious way in settings to turn it off or to fine-tune it. Hopefully that will happen. I like night mode, but I want to be the person who decides when to use it.
5. Other camera notes: The “selfie” camera is fine and like all selfie cameras makes me look like I have a moon face. The Pixel 5 was supposed to have come with the “face retouching” feature off, but mine had it on out of the box, which might have had something to do with me importing settings from the Pixel 4, which does have it turned on by default (and I never switched off the default). Other reviews of the Pixel 5 tell me that the video aspects of the Pixel are much improved and I’m willing to believe it, but I almost never use the video capabilities of my camera, and haven’t so far with the P5, so I can’t say at this point. I’m sure they’re fine.
Others have noted that without the special photo-related chip previous Pixel models had, the camera on the Pixel 5 takes longer to process portrait and night mode photos than the Pixels 3 and 4 did. This is correct and was something that I noticed almost immediately. It’s not great! But I also don’t know if it’s something that’s going to bug me a whole lot. Normally-shot photos seem to process just fine. I think it will probably be fine for what I use the Pixel for.
Finally, Google’s in-camera editor (which is now available on other Pixels as well) has some significant feature bumps, which include a nifty and actually very effective artificial fill light for portraits: If you don’t like the lighting on someone’s face, you can move around a procedurally generated light to fix it. I like this a lot and find it useful.
Generally speaking, the Pixel 5’s camera is at least as good as any previous Pixel (minus optical zooming), which means it’s at least on par with any other phone camera out there. I, like pretty much every other reviewer I’ve read, assumes that with the Pixel 6 (or whatever the next version of the Google phone is), Google is going to have to a) bump up the resolution on that main sensor, b) actually put optical zoom and ultrawide on the same phone because, come on. Google used to be way ahead of competitors and now it’s head-to-head. If they stay where they are with the next iteration, other manufacturers are going to eat their lunch.
6. Moving away from the camera and toward the rest of the functionality of the phone, at least so far it seems I was right: for how I use the phone, I’m not missing the top-of-the-line chip. The Snapdragon 765G handles all of my social media and text reading with aplomb, doesn’t seize up when I have a bunch of apps open, and plays music and video without any problems whatsoever. It’s fine! And unless I suddenly become a mobile gaming junkie, which seems unlikely, I doubt I will have any problems (I’ve seen other reports that it handles mobile gaming just fine, which seems reasonable to me). The screen is a variable-refresh-rate deal with its top refresh rate at 90fps; I don’t notice any problems scrolling through articles or watching videos. All my apps work fine.
I’ve seen some kvetching about the in-screen speaker on the Pixel 5 (the speaker vibrates the screen to make noise and thus is apparently quieter than the bottom speakers, which are standard phone speakers), but, meh. One, as a practical matter it seems plenty loud enough to me, and two, I tend to like to keep my phone as quiet as possible, so the “use your phone as a boombox” scenario is not a real concern of mine. Again, it’s fine! The Pixel 5 paired quickly and painlessly with my Pixel Buds, which are what I use for phone calls and most of my phone listening anyway.
(“Hey,” I hear some of you say, “Doesn’t the Pixel 5 have 5G capability? Aren’t you gonna comment on that?” Well, it does have 5G capabilities, but I’m not using them right now. I bought the phone from Google, not Verizon, in no small part so my phone isn’t cluttered up with Verizon’s bullshit non-deletable apps. As a result it didn’t come with the 5G SIM card it apparently needs to access that speed level. I’ll get around to ordering it from Verizon eventually. The other thing is: See the map below? The red part is where they have 5G. That little pink hole in the middle of that? Literally where my house is. My driveway has 5G coverage, but the house doesn’t. Come on, Verizon, that’s just mean. Anyway, 4G works just fine.)
In short, the Pixel 5 does everything I want it to without fuss or complaint, and seems to be more than enough phone for my daily needs. I will obviously have to deal with my existential pain of not being a “top-end” user and instead just being a poser who chases the new and flashy, but that’s between me and my psyche and nothing you need to be involved in.
7. Oh, and, the “sort-of-sage” color: I mean, I liked the Pixel 4 “Oh So Orange” color better, but it’s perfectly nice. It fits my office decor better, in any event.
Would I recommend the Pixel 5 to others, based on my first impressions? I would! I would caveat the recommendation with the note that I don’t think it’s an essential upgrade for anyone with a Pixel 4 (or really, even, a P3) or anyone who has a recent-ish phone they’re happy with. But if you’re looking to upgrade, don’t feel the need to spend $1000 on a flagship model this year, and have a use case for your phone that’s similar to mine (photos + social media + reading with occasional video/games), then this is an overall very pleasant and very competent phone, tightly integrated with the Google informational ecosystem.
(That last thing may be either a plus or minus depending who you are; for me, who long ago decided Google was the tech monster I was going to willingly feed my data to, it’s mostly a plus. Your mileage may vary.)
Plus: Lovely photos. It’s why I came to the Pixel line in the first place, and a reason why I stay.