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Review: Google’s Pixel 5 is the best value ‘flagship’ smartphone you can buy

For quite a lot of people, Google’s new Pixel 5 is something of the ideal smartphone. It has great cameras, a great screen, decent battery life and is a nice ‘in-between size’ that will suit many. But maybe most apposite of all, it has a price that’s very hard to match.

nlike previous flagship Google Pixel phones, the Pixel 5 will set you back just €620, far less than the new iPhone or Samsung S20 and way, way less than last year’s Pixel 4 XL (€1,000 for the equivalent 128GB storage model).

Does this mean that it’s an out-and-out bargain? Not quite. But having used it for around a week, I can say that it is definitely a candidate for being the best value smartphone you can get.

It’s not perfect by any means: its looks and design are plain to the point of being positively dull. And it’s missing a third rear camera lens. But its many strengths, and especially that price, overcome the one or two weaknesses it has.

I’ll start with the Pixel 5’s two biggest improvements: battery life and camera performance. This time last year, I excoriated the Pixel 4XL for its weak battery life. It simply couldn’t last a full day. Fast forward to today and it’s a totally different story. This isn’t the longest-lasting phone I’ve tested, but it’s more than sufficient to get you through a full day. This is down to Google switching from a 3,700mAh battery (in the 6.3-inch Pixel 4XL) to a 4,080mAh battery (in the 6-inch Pixel 5).

So it passes this first basic test with flying colours.

Next is the camera quality.

Last year, I moaned that the Pixel 4XL had sacrificed the inclusion of an ultra-wide lens for a limited telephoto lens. It’s reversed this decision and put in a 16-megapixel ultra-wide lens. If this phone cost any more, I’d be a bit more critical of Google not putting in all three lenses. But given the choice of prioritising between an ultrawide and a telephoto, Google made the right decision. And the 0.6x ultrawide certainly performs well. It’s not quite as wide as some other phone lenses, but the upside is that there’s relatively little distortion.

Both the Pixel 5’s main 12-megapixel rear camera and its 8-megapixel front-facing selfie camera perform exceptionally well. The hardware in the sensors may not be as advanced as more expensive rivals, but Google’s computational photography skills make up for it. Out of the box, this may be the best ‘instant snap’ cameraphone you can buy. Over a range of photos I took during the last week, the Pixel 5 delivered very pleasing results most of the time. Its judgement on colours, shades and contrasts was superb. Its selfie portrait mode is really, really superb. Its night mode is good, too.

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The Pixel 5’s main 12-megapixel rear camera and its 8-megapixel front-facing selfie camera perform exceptionally well


The Pixel 5’s main 12-megapixel rear camera and its 8-megapixel front-facing selfie camera perform exceptionally well

The Pixel 5’s main 12-megapixel rear camera and its 8-megapixel front-facing selfie camera perform exceptionally well

Yes, the absence of a telephoto (2x or 3x) lens option was felt. But for those who just want something consistently excellent for snaps, the Pixel 5 absolutely delivers.

(For video, I found it to be not quite as good as more expensive flagship models, especially the iPhone.)

Of its other features, perhaps the best one is the integration of Android 11. What I mean here is that this phone works really smoothly, with very little friction or fuss.

In some ways, Google’s Pixel phone is the true Android equivalent of the iPhone, thanks to this tight software implementation. Things just work. There’s no fuss and not much complication. Bloatware isn’t really an issue, either.

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Its selfie portrait mode is superb


Its selfie portrait mode is superb

Its selfie portrait mode is superb

So you find yourself not paying attention to the phone itself, just the content and the apps you’re using. It’s a shortcut to the stuff you really want to use without the hardware posing for attention in between.

This is helped by a really nice, fluid, 90hz Oled display that makes everything scroll like cream. That 6-inch screen size is probably a sweet spot for a lot of people. Because it’s almost (but not quite) bezel-less, it’s very manageable in your hand. But a 6-inch display is also big enough to read or watch something without squinting or scrolling too much. (Oddly, this isn’t Google’s biggest-screen handset. The model just below this one, the €490 Pixel 4a 5G, has a 6.2-inch screen and is proportionately larger in the hand because its bezels are thicker.)

Other features worth mentioning include the Pixel 5’s fingerprint reader. While its placement on the back of the phone feels a little retrograde, it actually works incredibly well and is far quicker than most under-screen fingerprint readers I’ve tried on pricier smartphones.

It’s also a 5G-enabled handset. I’ve written quite a lot in recent weeks about the launch and availability of 5G in Ireland across the three main operators. Suffice to say that it’s not really a widespread thing yet and won’t be for at least another year. That said, it’s good to have it on board.

There’s wireless and reverse-wireless charging here, which is handy for anyone who with wireless chargers already knocking around their home.

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The battery life is a major improvement on the Pixel 4


The battery life is a major improvement on the Pixel 4

The battery life is a major improvement on the Pixel 4

It’s also water and dust resistant, thanks to its IP68 rating.

As for its engine and storage specs, you get 8GB of Ram and a Snapdragon 765G processor, which makes for a good, fast experience. It comes with 128GB of storage, which has now become the minimum for phones at this price level.

So what is the Pixel 5 missing? Or where do you miss out with it?

Other than the third telephoto lens on the back, I think the main potential drawback may be how utterly plain it looks. There is little to talk about in this phone’s physical design: it is probably the most anonymous-looking handset I’ve come across all year. Even though it’s a tight, neat aluminium unibody case, it oddly feels a little like plastic. Its lightweight structure adds to this effect.

The fact that my test model was a nondescript black compounded all of this, although you can get it in a slightly more interesting light green. Obviously, there’s an alternative take on this: that it’s a ‘classic’ smartphone design and that it doesn’t detract from what you’re using it for — content. But aesthetics do matter. If this phone cost any more than it does, its physical blandness would be a blacker mark.

Google also cut out face-unlocking, which is unfortunate for anyone who relies on this feature.

I’m also not hugely enamoured with the way that it replaced the top speaker with a vibrating screen mechanism. When you’re talking to someone, it seems like it’s easier for others around you to hear what the caller is saying because of the way the sounds is spread more widely.

(It does have a bottom speaker, though, to create stereo sound when you’re playing something back.)

I suspect most people won’t care too much that Google has cut out the feature where you could squeeze the phone to trigger the Google Assistant. It was a pain at misfiring.

The only remaining drawback I can really mention is that lack of physical devices that appear to be available to buy. Reports suggest that under a million Pixel 5 phones are being made, meaning that allocations for Ireland will be tight.

As I write, Google’s online store says that it’s out of stock. Given that the launch deal for the Pixel included a pair of Bose headphones, I’m not surprised — that is one hell of a deal. Google is probably suffering from the same supply chain issues that all manufacturers are facing. But it does mean that if you want to buy one of these, you may be left waiting several weeks.

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