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Pixel 5 review: Great camera, but it's hard to recommend at this price

Google lowered its launch price, but the Pixel 5 hasn't pulled ahead of its more compelling rivals.

Google's jumping on the 5G train with the $499 Pixel 4A 5G (£499, AU$799) and $699 Pixel 5 (£599 and AU$999). The phones run the latest Android 11 OS, have a second ultra-wide camera and bigger batteries than any previous Pixel phone. But as the marquee device, the Pixel 5 is equipped with a few more features.

These goodies include a 90Hz display, 2GB more RAM, a bigger battery and a water-resistant, aluminum body. It also has wireless charging and reverse wireless charging. (For more on the differences, check out CNET's video, Pixel 5 and Pixel 4A 5G spec comparison.)

Like
  • 90Hz display
  • 5G-enabled
  • Reverse wireless charging
  • Terrific camera
Don't Like
  • Pricey for its hardware offerings

Other than that, the phones have the same camera setup, processor and general look and feel. And because they have so many overlapping features, I lean towards the Pixel 4A 5G. While I love the higher refresh rate on the Pixel 5 and wireless charging, that $200 I'd be pocketing by going with the 4A 5G makes it worth skipping out on those features, at least for me. After all, with that chunk of change I could buy a pair of wireless earbuds or more storage on Google One. Plus, it still has 5G and a bigger screen, which makes the Pixel 4A 5G my pick of the three new Pixel phones this year (yes, don't forget about that Pixel 4A from August) and one of my top overall picks for Android phones in its price range.

As for the Pixel 5, it's hard to recommend given its price. True, it is $100 cheaper than the Pixel 4 ($390 at Back Market) was when it launched last year. And Google knows people aren't willing to spend a lot right now and is producing only 800,000 Pixel 5 phones this year. But while the Pixel 5 is Google's flagship phone, it isn't exactly an ultra-premium flagship phone. There are plenty of alternatives from Samsung, Apple, OnePlus and even LG that boast better hardware.

Most cost as much or more than the Pixel 5, but not all. The OnePlus 8 ($699 at Amazon), for example, is currently $600 for the 8GB/128GB model. It too has 5G, an ultra-wide lens, a 90Hz display and the T-Mobile variant is water-resistant. Though it doesn't have wireless charging or reverse wireless charging, it has a larger display and the more powerful Snapdragon 865 chipset, as opposed to the Pixel 5's Snapdragon 765G. And if you're looking for even more flagship features, like 8K video recording, a faster processor, expandable storage or more cameras (like a telephoto lens), it's best to look elsewhere altogether.

Pixel 5's camera: New ultra-wide camera and stabilizing options

Like in past years, the Pixel phones' main selling point is the camera. Google got rid of the telephoto lens that we saw on the Pixel 4 and replaced it with an ultra-wide camera. Though I like having a telephoto lens, the ultra-wide camera works well and I do enjoy having the wider field of view for sweeping landscapes or just fitting more content in a single frame.

Tweaking a photo using the Portrait light tool.

Lynn La/CNET

The camera's low-light mode, branded as Night Sight, takes great pictures in dim lighting and now it works in portrait mode so you can still take those polished, dramatic pictures in the dark. The effect isn't always perfect, however. In the photos I took I did see some patchiness around my flyaway hairs and instances where my fingers in the foreground (holding up a peace sign) was confused and blurred out as part of the background. Google also added a tool that lets you play around with portrait lighting. It's easy to use and it came in handy whenever I took a generally nice image, but the lighting just didn't quite come out right.

For video, the phone still uses a mix of optical and electronic image stabilization that gives video a smooth, almost drone-like quality. And there are now different types of optimizations you can choose for stabilization, including Cinematic Pan. This offers a slower, more cinematic look for panning. (I also like that Google included quick explainers and samples of when to use each of these options and what they look like; it makes the phone quite user-friendly.) And for slow-motions fans, the phone can now record 60fps in 4K resolution.

In general, the cameras are still fantastic and remember the Pixel 5 and 4A 5G share the same cameras. Pictures have great dynamic range, shots are vibrant and clear and Night Sight does an excellent job at handling low-light. Digital zooming maxes out at 7x and while it works well enough, details do get muddied on faraway objects. Also, the delta between the Pixel's camera and other phones isn't as wide anymore. Compared to the OnePlus 8T, for example, pictures looked pretty on par with one another. Though, when it came to low light, the Pixel had better dynamic range and white balance.

This shot of boats in the evening were taken with the main 12-megapixel camera.

Lynn La/CNET

The same scene captured with the 16-megapixel ultra-wide camera.

Lynn La/CNET

A closeup shot of this succulent shows sharp detailing.

Lynn La/CNET

This photo of the building was taken across the street using the main camera and no zoom.

Lynn La/CNET

The same shot of the building using the 7x digital zoom.

Lynn La/CNET

This picture exemplifies the Pixel's wide dynamic range. When the OnePlus 8T took the same image, the signage on the building was blown out and unreadable.

Lynn La/CNET

Night Sight now works with portrait mode to take bokeh-like photos in the dark. Here, my only light sources were a nearby candle and a computer monitor a few feet away.

Lynn La/CNET

Night Sight lit up this very dim scene near a lake, and you can see details in the foreground shrubbery as well as the apartment lights in the background.

Lynn La/CNET
Pixel 5 previews Hold For Me and other Android 11 goodies

The Pixel phones run Android 11 and there isn't a huge amount of new software things we haven't already seen since the OS has been rolling out. That includes Dark Mode, Quick Controls and a feature I've used often to help with this very review -- the built-in screen recorder.

Hold For Me lets Assistant take your place while you're put on hold.

Lynn La/CNET

The devices do preview something called Hold For Me, which lets Google Assistant take your place when you're on hold and notifies you when a real person is back on the line. It builds off the same AI technology as Call Screen and the interface is quite efficient when I used it to call a dummy line that Google setup. You still have to hover around the phone when a person takes up your call, but I'll take any relief I can get from crappy hold music.

The native recorder app also has more tricks up its sleeve since the last time I took a look at it on the Pixel 4A. I'm not too sure why Google has really leaned in on this app, but as someone who uses it all the time for taking notes and recording interviews, I'm not complaining. You can now edit text and copy or remove chunks of audio. Unfortunately, you can only edit text one word at a time for now, which prevented me from breaking a misheard word into two (it transcribed me saying "their powers," into "empowered") and it was tedious when I had to correct a handful of mistakes in a row. I do like this new tool in the Recorder app, which creates a little graphic if you want to share some quote or audio snippet on social media.

Pixel 5's natural, minimalistic aesthetic and 90Hz display

Compared to the Pixel 4, the Pixel 5 and 4A 5G have thinner bezels and a hole-punch camera display on the front. The rear camera bump is more flushed on the Pixel 5 too, which looks much nicer. 

When designing the Pixel 5, Google said it wanted the phone to have a soft look that's reminiscent of a pebble or stone. Perhaps because the cozy, Scandinavian aesthetic is trendy right now, but I dig the phone's matte, natural appearance. It reminds me of high-end Japanese washi paper and the sage green color looks especially good. The reflective accents of the power button and "G" logo on the back are also a lovely touch. On the surface, I couldn't tell the difference between the Pixel 5's aluminum design and the Pixel 4A 5G's polycarbonate, or plastic, encasing. But in the hand it does feel denser, despite being smaller. 

The Pixel 5 also has a 90Hz display, meaning the screen refreshes 90 frames a second. Most phones, including the Pixel 4A 5G, refresh 60 times a second, though there are some that have 120Hz displays, like the OnePlus 8T and Galaxy S20. For the Pixel 5 to have a higher refresh rate means that scrolling through news feeds and web pages feel much smoother and almost bouncy. To save on battery life, there are some situations that the phone will revert back to 60Hz, like when the screen is static or when an app doesn't necessarily call for a high refresh rate. 

google-pixel-5-5g-8970google-pixel-5-5g-8970

The Pixel 5 has a 90Hz display

Angela Lang/CNET
Pixel 5 performance and battery

The Pixel 5 and 4A 5G feature a Snapdragon 765G processor. It's an interesting choice given that a lot of current flagships and last year's Pixel 4 have the more robust Snapdragon 855 chipset. While that means the Pixels' benchmark scores aren't as high as, say, the OnePlus 8 or Galaxy S20, the phones are comparable to devices that have the Snapdragon 765G processor, like the LG Velvet for example. It's still fast and reliable too, and during my time with it, I didn't experience any hiccups or lag time throughout my day-to-day tasks.

3DMark Slingshot Unlimited

Google Pixel 5

Note: Longer bars indicate better performance
Geekbench v.5.0 single-core

Google Pixel 5

Note: Longer bars indicate better performance
Geekbench v.5.0 multicore

Google Pixel 5

Note: Longer bars indicate better performance

The Pixel 5 has a 4,000-mAh battery while the Pixel 4A 5G has a 3,800-mAh battery. It's the highest capacity of any Pixel phones in years past, but keep in mind plenty of other phones -- like the OnePlus 8 and the Galaxy S20 have batteries that are as big or even bigger than that.

From what I've seen so far, the Pixel phones are able to go without charging for more than 24 hours with mild usage. I remember last year with the Pixel 4, that phone's battery noticeably drained pretty quickly through the day and fortunately I'm not seeing the same thing here. A preliminary battery tests on the Pixel 5 for continuous video playback on Airplane mode clocked in 21 hours, 17 minutes. This is an excellent time, especially when considering that the Pixel 4 averaged half that time at 10 hours. But we're still conducting battery tests on the Pixel 5, so check back soon for an update. Lastly, Google is introducing a new mode called Extreme Battery Saver. It's an option on top of the regular battery saver mode and it severely limits app usage to extend battery life. 

Pixel 5 vs. Pixel 4A 5G, OnePlus 8 and Galaxy A71
Google Pixel 5 Google Pixel 4A 5G OnePlus 8 Samsung Galaxy A71 5G Display size, resolution 6-inch FHD+ OLED; 2,340 x 1,080 pixels 6.2-inch FHD+ OLED; 2,340 x 1,080 pixels 6.55-inch AMOLED; 1,080x2,400 pixels 6.7-inch AMOLED; 2,400x1,080 pixels Pixel density 432ppi 413ppi 402ppi 399ppi Dimensions (Inches) 5.7 x 2.8 x 0.3 in 6.1 x 2.9 x 0.3 in 6.3 x 2.8 x 0.31 in 6.39 x 2.97 x 0.31 in Dimensions (Millimeters) 144.7 x 70.4 x 8.0 mm 153.9 x 74 x 8.2 mm (Sub-6 only) 153.9 x 74 x 8.5 mm (mmWave + Sub-6) 160 x 72.9 x 8.0 mm 162.5 x 75.5 x 8.1 mm Weight (Ounces, Grams) 5.33 oz; 151g 5.93 oz; 168g (Sub-6 only) 6.03 oz; 171g (mmWave + Sub-6) 6.35 oz; 180g 6.52 oz; 185g Mobile software Android 11 Android 11 Android 10 Android 10 Camera 12.2-megapixel (standard), 16-megapixel (ultra-wide) 12.2-megapixel (standard), 16-megapixel (ultra-wide) 48-megapixel (standard), 16-megapixel (ultra-wide), 2-megapixel (macro) 64-megapixel (main), 12-megapixel (ultra-wide), 5-megapixel (macro), 5-megapixel (depth-sensing) Front-facing camera 8-megapixel 8-megapixel 16-megapixel 32-megapixel Video capture 4K 4K 4K 4K Processor Qualcomm Snapdragon 765G Qualcomm Snapdragon 765G Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 Snapdragon Qualcomm 7250, Snapdragon 765G Storage 128GB 128GB 128GB, 256GB 128GB RAM 8GB 6GB 8GB, 12GB 6GB, 8GB Expandable storage No No No Up to 512GB, 1TB Battery 4,000mAh 3,800mAh 4,300mAh 4,500mAh Fingerprint sensor Rear Rear In-screen In-screen Connector USB-C USB-C USB-C USB-C Headphone jack No Yes No Yes Special features 5G enabled; water resistant (IP68); 90Hz refresh rate display; dual-SIM capabilities (nano-SIM and e-SIM); reverse wireless charging; fast charging 5G enabled; dual-SIM capabilities (nano-SIM and e-SIM); fast charging
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