When Google unveiled the Pixel 5 alongside the Pixel 4a 5G at its Launch Night In event on September 30, I was perplexed. On paper and in pictures, the $699 Pixel 5 made little sense compared to the $499 Pixel 4a 5G, not to mention the Pixel 4 XL. I struggled to understand why Google made a smaller phone with very similar specs for more money.
I might have been a little hasty. After spending a few days testing the Pixel 5 alongside the Pixel 4a 5G, Google’s game plan is a whole lot clearer. I’m still not convinced Google needs two 5G phones in its lineup—and I’d like the Pixel 5 a whole lot more if it were $100 cheaper—but I’m no longer sure the Pixel 5 is the superfluous model. The Pixel 4a 5G may seem like a no-brainer purchase for $200 less than the Pixel 5, but the difference between the two phones is a lot bigger than a couple of gigs of RAM and some aluminum.
I also get what Google is trying to do. Google is calling it “the ultimate 5G Google phone,” but its focus isn’t on gimmicky features like Motion Sense or Active Edge, or even niche camera tricks that show off Google’s AI prowess. Rather, the Pixel 5 is about taking the high-end Pixel experience and distilling it in a smart and stylish package that challenges the very definition of a flagship.
A design without compromises
Much like the Galaxy S20 and S20 FE, the Pixel 5 and 4a are extremely similar phones. Both have a small hole-punch camera in the upper left corner that looks a lot better than the Pixel 4’s giant forehead or the 3 XL’s notch.
The Pixel 5 has subtle enhancements that give it an almost luxurious feel. The aluminum back, Simply Sage color, and chrome power button all add a touch of luxury compared to the plastic 4a. It doesn’t quite feel as metallic as the original Pixel duo to the paint over the wireless-charging-friendly plastic, but it has a very nice texture. It’s downright Apple-like, a comparison I never thought I’d make for a Pixel phone. It’s like the iPhone 11 versus the Pro, or the XR versus the XS.
The Pixel 5 is also the first Android phone I’ve used that actually has uniform bezels around the screen. Google is using a flexible OLED to bend the display under itself and reduce the chin, a surprising and impressive bit of engineering for a phone that doesn’t cost a thousand bucks. While it seems like a small thing, once you turn it on for the first time, you won’t look at another Android phone the same way. Even the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra doesn’t have quite the same visual appeal after switching over from the Pixel 5.
Altogether, the $699 Pixel 5 is the first phone Google has made that actually feels like a premium device. At just $200 more than the Pixel 4a 5G, it’s a smart addition to the lineup.
My only criticism is that it might be a bit too small for some buyers. The Pixel 5 has a 6-inch display, which is actually two-tenths-of an inch smaller than the 4a 5G’s, and more in line with the iPhone 12’s 6.1-inch display. It doesn’t feel overly small, but Android phone makers have conditioned us to equate bigger with premium, and Google is bucking the trend with the Pixel 5.
The same but different
The Pixel 5 has the same Snapdragon 765G processor as the Pixel 4a 5G, but overall, the Pixel 5 feels like the faster phone. That’s because it has a bit more RAM (8GB vs 6GB) and a faster display (90Hz vs 60Hz), more seemingly small changes that make a big difference.
In benchmarks, the 5 and 4a 5G have very similar single-core and multi-core scores, around 580 and 1600, respectively, but the Pixel 5’s extra RAM pushes it slightly ahead. I’ve used it for only a few days, but out of the box, the Pixel 5 feels as fast as my Pixel 4 XL, and not much slower than the Galaxy S20.
But what really gives the Pixel 5 its edge over other phones in its class (and higher, to be honest), as always, is its camera. The Pixel 5 has the same general dual-camera array as the Pixel 4 XL, though the secondary telephoto lens has been swapped out for an ultra-wide one. It’s something of a matter of preference, though I’d personally like both of them in the Pixel 6. But even with a different lens, the results aren’t categorically different from those of the Pixel 5 versus the 4XL. Photos take a touch longer to process due to the slower CPU, but for the most part, the experience is very similar to that of the previous Pixels.
That’s a good thing. Pixel fans will lament the lack of a year-over-year leap, but with the 4a and Pixels 5, Google continues to show that it can deliver a top-notch camera experience with lesser hardware, and now a lesser chip, than its competitors. I’ll get into the particulars of each in my full review, but assuming this is the new Pixel philosophy, Google might have finally hit on a winning formula that plays to its own strengths, rather than playing catch-up with the premium juggernauts.
The feature is Android
As expected, the Pixel 5 ships with Android 11 on board, and it feels very much like Google designed it strictly for the new Pixels. The gesture navigation feels better than ever with less bottom bezel, and the optimizations make the Pixel 5 feel like a phone with a much faster chip and much bigger battery. A new Extreme Battery Saver mode will help your Pixel last for up to two days by disabling features, throttling the processor, and limiting notifcations by prioritizing apps.
With the Pixel 5, Android is the premium feature. It reminds me of the last great Nexus phone, the Nexus 5. At the time it was the launch device for Android 4.4 KitKat, and it showcased the new design, improved performance, and Google now Launcher. It wasn’t flashy or over-the-top, but it got the job done.
And so it is with the Pixel 5. I’ll get into the camera and performance in my full review, but on a high level, Google dispensed with the gimmicks and focused on the things that matter. We finally have a true alternative to the Galaxy S20 and iPhone 12 that leans on the things Google does best. It could lead to some truly impressive phones to come.
Michael Simon has been covering Apple since the iPod was the iWalk. His obsession with technology goes back to his first PC—the IBM Thinkpad with the lift-up keyboard for swapping out the drive. He's still waiting for that to come back in style tbh.