Gears & Gadgets

Pixel 5 review: Google spends its bill-of-materials budget unwisely

Google’s flagship smartphone for 2020, the Pixel 5, is definitely a departure from previous releases. The company has opted out of the ultrapremium flagship wars that have led to smartphone prices rocketing past the $ 1,000 price point, and instead, it’s turning in a midrange, $ 700 Snapdragon 765 phone as its highest-end device. On one hand, I appreciate the pushback on the $ 1,000 smartphone price tag, especially in the middle of a pandemic depressed economy. On the other hand, Google has always had trouble competing with the rest of the market when it comes to value for your dollar, and that’s just as true in the upper-midrange market as it was in the flagship market—there are better deals out there.

Some history

As we’ve said in previous Pixel reviews, it’s hard to know what exactly Google’s goal is supposed to be with the Pixel line, and it doesn’t seem like Google is sticking with too much of a long-term plan, either. After the death of the value-oriented Nexus line and a ho-hum Pixel 1 launch, Google Hardware SVP Rick Osterloh told the world “Pixel stays premium” in 2017, indicating a return to cheaper phones wouldn’t happen. In 2019, the company went back on that and released the Pixel 3a, a midrange $ 400 phone. Now, in 2020, even the most expensive Pixel isn’t premium anymore. The Pixel 5 is also a midrange smartphone, and that means it doesn’t feel all that much different from the Pixel 4a.

Originally, the Pixel was a premium phone because it was supposed to be Google’s iPhone killer, so what is it now? The move downmarket seems like an admission the company can’t—or doesn’t want to—compete in the cutthroat premium-smartphone market. Other than Apple, the rest of the Pixel’s competitors are also Google’s Android customer base. Google has never shown an interest in playing hardball with them, and so the Pixel line has only ever looked like a small “hobby” side project. This conflict of interest has meant the Pixel phones have almost always been “good software with hardware that isn’t quite competitive,” and that remains just as true in the upper midrange market as it was in the premium-smartphone market. Moving downmarket a bit doesn’t put Google any closer to the competition. The Pixel line used to be aspirational, but there’s nothing unique about the phone this year in terms of new features. So more than anything, the Pixel 5 feels like Google is taking the year off.

Google hardware has found a good spot for itself in the Pixel 4a price range, where the same software it ships on every phone does a good job propping up the cheaper hardware, all at a price that seems fair. The Pixel 4a is really the Pixel 5’s biggest competition. Most of the good points of the Pixel 5—the camera, software, and Google’s update policy—exist in an identical form on the Pixel 4a, and for $ 350, the Pixel 4a is half the price. The Pixel 5 makes a few unique design decisions that give us something to talk about, but none of these oddities brings a significant consumer benefit. The remaining meaningful differences don’t feel like enough to justify spending $ 350 extra over the Pixel 4a.

There’s metal in here somewhere

The back finish of the Pixel 5 kind of looks like a paper bag or construction paper.
Enlarge / The back finish of the Pixel 5 kind of looks like a paper bag or construction paper.
Ron Amadeo

The only size the Pixel 5 comes in is actually pretty small. It’s definitely a non-XL phone, and there is no “Pixel 5 XL” this year. At 144.7 x 70.4 x 8mm, the Pixel 5 has almost the same dimensions as the Pixel 4a, save for the 4a being 1mm shorter. Again, the lack of differentiation between the Pixel 5 and 4a is kind of puzzling.

SPECS AT A GLANCE: Pixel 5
SCREEN 6-inch, 2340×1080, 90Hz AMOLED

(408ppi, 20:9 aspect ratio)

OS Android 11
CPU Eight-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 765G

Two Cortex A76 cores and six Cortex A55 cores, up to 2.4GHz, 7nm

RAM 8GB
GPU Adreno 620
STORAGE 128GB
NETWORKING 802.11b/g/n/ac, Bluetooth 5.0, GPS, NFC
PORTS USB 3.1 Gen1 Type-C
CAMERA Rear: 12.2MP main camera, 16MP wide-angle

Front: 8MP

SIZE 144.7×70.4×8mm
WEIGHT 151g
BATTERY 4000mAh
STARTING PRICE $ 699 at Amazon
OTHER PERKS 18W charging, rear fingerprint sensor, eSIM, wireless charging, IP68 water and dust resistance

A 6-inch, 2340×1080, 90Hz OLED display covers the front of the phone, with a hole-punch front camera in the top left as the only blemish. The screen is perfectly flat, making it superior to the distorted curved displays out there, and it leaves a pleasant-looking symmetrical bezel around the perimeter of the phone. The 90Hz display offers handsome smooth scrolling and animations, but Samsung and OnePlus now offer 120Hz phones in this ~$ 700 price range. Compared to the Pixel 4a, you’re getting slimmer bezels and a slightly bigger screen (6 inches versus 5.8) in basically the same size body.

One relatively unusual detail about the front is that there is no earpiece speaker grill. Instead of a front-mounted speaker or a slot for an internal speaker to pump out sound, the Pixel 5 has an under-display speaker. Inside the phone, a driver is mounted to the back of the display, and it makes the glass vibrate to produce sound. It’s a rare phone feature, but the end result is not great.

For calls, you want to normally hold the phone with the top edge to your ear, but that’s not where the speaker is anymore. So while you can still hear it, the actual sweet spot seems like it’s about at the 20 percent mark from the top of the display. It’s awkwardly low on the phone. The volume and quality are fine for phone calls, but “under the display” is an odd spot for a speaker that is normally at the very top of the phone.

For media audio, the under-display speaker is worthless, and the Pixel 5 speaker setup is basically mono. Yes, it technically has two speakers, and they technically both put out sound, but it is about a 90/10 split. If you cover the normal, bottom-firing speaker, the sound almost completely goes away, with only a tinny, impotent buzzing coming from the under-display speaker. The Pixel 4, which has two normal speakers, sounds much better and louder, and even the Pixel 4a achieves about the same volume while turning in higher-quality stereo sound. The Pixel 5 speaker is just awful for media.

This silver block attached to the back of the display is the speaker. Instead of being at the top of the phone, it's much further down than you would expect. The sweet spot for sound seems even lower than the speaker assembly.
Enlarge / This silver block attached to the back of the display is the speaker. Instead of being at the top of the phone, it’s much further down than you would expect. The sweet spot for sound seems even lower than the speaker assembly.

This is going to be a running theme in this article, but I really don’t understand what Google was aiming for here. The industry-wide smartphone manufacturing supply chain would push you toward the standard solution everyone else is using. In this case, that would be a normal speaker that exhausts via the smartphone bezel. That works great, it looks great, and it can be done while also minimizing the size of the smartphone bezel. I’ve never heard anyone complain about the standard earpiece/speaker combo, and instead of taking the path of least resistance and picking something that works well, Google went against the crowd and picked a weird solution that hurts the user experience. Why can’t you just be normal?

I was sent the unique, green “Sorta Sage” color, which is interesting looking. The body is actually aluminum, which is a complete shock for a modern 2020 phone. Sadly, the aluminum is not the outside of the phone. Like on the Pixel 2, the phone is aluminum with a thick outer coating on the back, so your hands never touch metal. This also explains how both the phone is metal and supports wireless charging. Part of the industry’s big switch away from metal and towards all-glass phones a few years back was due to wireless charging, which can’t penetrate a metal back. For Pixel 5, Google manages both metal and wireless charging by punching a small hole in the body to let the wireless signal out. There are holes on the sides for the mmWave antennas, too. The whole metal body is then covered in resin so that you don’t even notice the holes. The whole idea seems durable. Even pressing directly on the “resin only” spots indicated in this picture doesn’t reveal any weak spots.

Google's picture showing the steps in the Pixel 5 build process. The second from the left shows holes punched in the aluminum body, which is how the wireless charging works.
Enlarge / Google’s picture showing the steps in the Pixel 5 build process. The second from the left shows holes punched in the aluminum body, which is how the wireless charging works.
Google

The back resin coating kind of looks like recycled paper like what you’d find on a paper bag. The back resin is not a solid color—it’s kind of speckled and fibrous. There’s also a lot of variation if you look closely, with all sorts of little grains in the phone body (these appear in higher concentrations in some spots than others). The feel of the phone is also pretty close to paper. There’s a light texture to it, making it less slippery than glass.

Overall, the new back coating seems fine. It’s grippier than glass and isn’t as much of a fingerprint magnet. I think Google has negated most of the premium aspects of metal by covering it up with resin, though, so I don’t really see the point. Google has to deal with all the engineering challenges of building a metal phone, but then it covered that hard work with resin. I would be singing a different turn if Google ended up with a premium-feeling, Macbook-like design, but that’s not what happened. The Pixel 5 doesn’t feel all that different from a plastic phone, so going through all the effort doesn’t make a ton of sense to me if there’s little user benefit. Again, it’s fine, it’s just a questionable use of labor and the bill-of-materials budget.

Look closely at that aluminum frame and you’ll see chunks cut out of the left and top edges of the case, and that’s where the mmWave antennas go. Yes, the Pixel 5 has mandatory mmWave 5G, which is another case of “why are we spending money on this?” in the midrange market. The Snapdragon 765G makes 5G support mandatory, but you only need to support the cheaper, easier-to-rollout sub-6GHz flavor of 5G, which, on the 765G, is still a simple, one-chip solution. mmWave 5G, on the other hand, requires extra, expensive antenna modules. We’ve seen mmWave versions of phones cost anywhere from $ 50-$ 100 extra.

The Pixel 5G teaser, a sign that Google's priorities don't necessarily align with consumer priorities.
The Pixel 5G teaser, a sign that Google’s priorities don’t necessarily align with consumer priorities.
Google

If consumers were given a choice, I bet a very small percentage of them would pay extra for mmWave. Verizon, the US’s biggest booster of mmWave, only has mmWave support on four percent of its network according to a survey by PCMag. Even the most optimistic rollout plans from carriers have mmWave only limited to cities, and even then, the terrible penetration of mmWave means you’ll have trouble getting it when you aren’t in line-of-sight to a tower.

Buying a mmWave phone today feels less like an investment in the future, and it’s more like an iffy proposition where you might never get your money’s worth. It’s one thing to include mmWave on a flagship phone with all the extras, but on the Pixel 5, it feels like another instance of Google poorly allocating the bill of materials for the phone. There is no clear reason why consumers would want to pay $ 50 to $ 100 extra for mmWave service they might never receive and don’t have a clear use case for in the first place. LTE is fast enough, and the problems people traditionally have with cellular service—spotty coverage and poor indoor performance—won’t be fixed by mmWave.

Instead of focusing on what would benefit consumers, mmWave on the Pixel 5 seems to be a manifestation of Google’s inexplicable fealty to US cellular carriers. Android Police spoke to the Pixel team ahead of launch about mmWave and were basically told, “The carriers wanted it.” Sure enough, Google’s deal with the devil has earned it a spot on Verizon’s homepage, while customers get stuck with the bill. Including mmWave in a midrange phone is an anti-consumer choice designed to make Verizon happy and no one else, plain and simple.

The midrange nature of the Pixel 5 means Google has stripped away just about every weird experimental feature it debuted on previous Pixel lines. There’s no squeeze to activate the Google Assistant, no “Project Soli” hand-waving air gestures, and no Face ID style facial recognition. The only thing you get for biometrics is the tried-and-true rear capacitive fingerprint reader, which works great. There’s no headphone jack and no microSD slot, but there are two features you might not normally find in the midrange market: wireless charging and IP68-rated dust and water resistance.

If you do end up buying a Pixel 5, make sure you get a good one. There have been numerous reports of the phone arriving with a rather large gap between the body and the display, leaving many to question if the water-resistance will actually work. Google says there’s nothing to worry about, but even the nicest interpretations of the situation has to admit that the variation of gap size we’re seeing online is alarming. Google needs to step up its quality control. Our unit has a small gap around the perimeter that doesn’t look damaging to the water resistance, but it’s annoyingly already collecting crud and will need to be cleaned out with a toothbrush or something.

Again, this is a weird and different design that goes against the flow of the normal smartphone supply chain, and Google’s unique contributions are bad for the consumer! Normal smartphone construction would assemble the phone with a ton of glue and ultratight gaps.

As usual, the flagship Pixel hardware is not price competitive, and you can get more for less from other companies. The OnePlus 8T is $ 50 more than the Pixel 5 and has a faster processor, a bigger, 120Hz display, 4GB more RAM, double the storage, a bigger battery, and faster-wired charging. The only points in the Pixel 5’s column are a better camera, three years of updates, wireless charging, and an IP68 rating. The Samsung Galaxy S20 FE is also $ 700, and that phone has a bigger, 120Hz display, a faster processor, wireless charging, an IP68 water resistance rating, a MicroSD slot, and a bigger battery. The downside here is Samsung’s terrible software update track record—the FE still runs Android 10! The Pixel 5 will also have a better camera.

The software

The Pixel software is good and normal, which is increasingly hard to come by in the Android world. The basic operating system isn’t covered in ads like a Samsung phone, there’s no sold-to-the-highest-bidder crapware, and you’ll get day-one updates, direct from Google, for three years.

This is the most iOS-like Android update experience you can have, meaning that the hot mess of Android fragmentation just doesn’t apply to your phone. Google still has a ways to go to catch Apple though, since Cupertino provides around five years of OS updates. This is another area of the Pixel line where Google could do better, but it just doesn’t want to. Chromebooks are getting nine years of updates from Google.

There’s not much in the way of special software anymore. You get the same Google recorder app and safety app that we covered in the Pixel 4a review. The big new feature is a “Hold for me,” a Google Duplex-powered feature that will wait on hold with companies for hours and hours while muting the terrible hold music. It can even tell the difference between a real person and the “thank you for holding” recording that will play every minute. This is also coming to older Pixels, probably including the Pixel 4a, so it’s still not a reason to buy the Pixel 5.

Performance—Meet the world’s slowest Snapdragon 765G

The Pixel 5 might be Google’s flagship smartphone, but it’s not using the same flagship Snapdragon 865 that you’d find in a high-end Samsung or OnePlus phone. Instead of using Qualcomm’s flagship SoC, the Pixel 5 uses the Snapdragon 765G, a midrange chipset that you’ll also find in the ~$ 450 OnePlus Nord or the $ 700 Nokia 8.3 5G.

Before the launch, we sounded the alarm that this will lead to some awkward comparisons year-over-year, since the Pixel 5 will be slower than the Pixel 4. Now that we’ve run some benchmarks, it’s actually way worse than we imagined. The Pixel 5 is not only slower than the Pixel 4—Google throttled the chipset so much that at times it’s slower than the Pixel 4a, which only has a Snapdragon 730. Google’s $ 700 2020 phone is slower than its $ 350 2020 phone. The Pixel 4a and Pixel 5 score about even in Geekbench 4 single-core scores and the Pixel 4a wins in multi-core and every GFXBench test.

Falling to Snapdragon 730 levels sounds bad until you realize both it and the 765G have a pair of Cortex A76 cores and six Cortex A55 cores—the 765G is just built on a 7nm process instead of 8nm, and it’s clocked a bit higher. The 765G gets so many extra Snapdragon Model Number Points because it supports 5G and the 730 does not.

Google’s official spec sheet doesn’t cop to lowering the frequency of the Snapdragon 765G, so the low scores seem to be entirely about the cooling solution. While the Snapdragon 765G-equipped OnePlus Nord has a copper heat pipe cooler, crack open a Pixel 5 and you’ll only find a simple aluminum slab for a cooler.

You can see for yourself in the benchmark shootout. The OnePlus Nord is the phone to watch here, since it has the same SoC as the Pixel 5 and shows how much Google has throttled the phone. We also have last year’s Pixel 4 (a Snapdragon 855), this year’s $ 350 Pixel 4a (a Snapdragon 730), and a proper flagship phone, the OnePlus 8 Pro with a Snapdragon 865.

One thing you’ve got to give the Pixel 5 over the Pixel 4a is the bigger battery (4080mAh versus 3140 mAh). The Pixel 4a battery was fine, but the Pixel 5 battery is fantastic and will easily last a day even with heavy usage.

Camera

For the main camera sensor, the Pixel 5 uses the Sony IMX363, a four-year-old sensor that Google has previously used in the Pixel 3 and 4 (and a basically identical older revision, the IMX362, was used in the Pixel 2). Using a four-year-old camera sensor feels like a really cheap move on Google’s part, and in terms of hardware, the company’s camera sensor is inferior to just about every comparable phone on the market. Today the IMX363 can be found in bottom-of-the-barrel budget phones, like the Redmi 8A, which costs $ 87. Here, Google is shipping it as the primary sensor in a $ 700 smartphone.

Google’s software prowess somehow manages to keep the Pixel camera humming, though. It can still turn in competitive shots even if it’s handicapped by ancient hardware. You also get fantastic software features like the astrophotography mode.

The Pixel 5 sensor is teeny tiny compared to the competition. (A note about the iPhone sensor: Apple says it's "47% larger" than last year. The iPhone 11 had a 1/2.55" sensor, and 47 percent bigger than that would be around a 1/1.7" sensor.)
Enlarge / The Pixel 5 sensor is teeny tiny compared to the competition. (A note about the iPhone sensor: Apple says it’s “47% larger” than last year. The iPhone 11 had a 1/2.55″ sensor, and 47 percent bigger than that would be around a 1/1.7″ sensor.)
Ron Amadeo

Here’s a fun look at camera sensor sizes in a few notable phones: Google has spent years resting on its laurels and now it’s shipping a far smaller sensor than just about all of the competition. Bigger is almost always better when it comes to camera hardware—bigger sensors and bigger pixels pull in more light. While you can close the gap in either direction with good (Google) or bad (Samsung) camera software, the hardware is your starting point. Hopefully, this shows how cheap Google is being when it comes to the Pixel camera hardware, and how much room for improvement it’s choosing to ignore by picking a larger sensor. Google has a bunch of software wizards on the camera team, but it could absolutely improve things by investing more in its camera hardware.

No one in the smartphone market is really pushing the boundaries of camera hardware. The Nokia 808 Pureview, a phone that is eight years old, still bests everything on the market with its giant 1/1.2″ camera sensor. The Nokia 808 still holds up today—the YouTube channel “WillitbeatNokia?” regularly compares the 808 to brand new smartphones, and it’s ridiculous how much of a fight the giant sensor can still put up. This is before any of the modern image stacking techniques of today; it’s proof of the power of a bigger sensor.

What’s truly frustrating is that we look at the Pixel 5 and give it a hearty “meh,” but there’s a clear upgrade path that Google could take if it wanted to make the Pixel 5 something special. Reworking its camera stack on a new foundation of a bigger sensor could return it to camera dominance over the rest of the smartphone market, but the company just doesn’t want to invest in the hardware and labor needed to do that. Like a lot of things on the Pixel 5, the camera copy/paste job feels like a half-hearted effort from Google.

There’s really not much point in a camera shootout when the Pixel camera has been the same for years, but we can at least put our money where our mouth is and include the Pixel 2 in the camera lineup.

Not focusing on what matters

it’s not a mystery why the Pixel 5 doesn’t seem like a great deal: Google is spending its bill-of-materials budget unwisely. Instead of a better camera, we’re getting 5G. Instead of a faster SoC, we’re getting a weird metal and resin body. Instead of good, normal speakers, we get a buzzy little under-display speaker. The Pixel 5 feels like a lesson in misplaced effort and wasted money. There are some expensive components here and some effort was put into new and different design elements, but the company invested in things that either don’t matter to a normal user or were experiments that didn’t work out.

Making an aluminum body work with wireless charging, mmWave, and other modern RF equipment was no doubt a challenge, and Google must have invested plenty of time and money in making it work. What is the point when you cover it with a resin that doesn’t feel all that different from plastic, though? Google had to engineer around all the difficulties of working with metal, but there’s not a clear benefit to the Pixel 5’s use of metal. Users don’t get a premium feeling, Macbook-like body, and since you can still dent metal, they lose out on the durability you would have gotten with straight plastic. It feels like a lot of money went to waste.

The company did some work to switch from a normal smartphone earpiece/speaker to an under-display speaker. It’s different and high-tech, but the results have terrible sound quality. It’s not even clear why Google did this or what benefits it was hoping for. Most modern smartphones have a speaker under the display that exhausts sound out of the tiniest speaker grill above the display, which provides great sound while also minimizing bezels. Google’s goal with the under-display speaker was to… remove the nearly-invisible speaker slot?

The same can be said of the phone’s mmWave support, which Google is including even though mmWave networks don’t really exist (and, again, maybe won’t ever exist). There’s also no clear reason for a user to even want mmWave, since a good LTE connection provides more than enough bandwidth for normal smartphone activities. We know mmWave adds $ 50 to $ 100 to the cost of a phone, and it doesn’t benefit users at all.

So what’s the point?

With so many of Google’s “premium” changes being a wash, there are not many obvious reasons to pick the Pixel 5 for $ 350 more than the Pixel 4a. The most obvious improvement is the 90Hz display and bigger battery. Those are nice, but they aren’t worth $ 350 extra. You also get wireless charging and IP68 water resistance with the Pixel 5, but other than that, the Pixel 4a has the same main camera, better speakers, the same software and update plan, at times a faster SoC, and less build quality issues with the display gap.

It feels like there are so many things Google could do to the Pixel line to make it better, but it just doesn’t want to. It could combine modern camera hardware with its software stack to produce competition-crushing photos. It could spend its bill of materials wisely and make the phone more price-competitive instead of giving us mmWave 5G. It could match Apple’s software update plan and offer five years of updates. The path to a better product is here. For whatever reason, Google doesn’t want to try that hard.

The Good

  • The flat display is an improvement over distorted curved display phones.
  • 3 years of day-one updates.
  • Minimal crapware.

The Bad

  • Terrible speakers.
  • A very throttled SoC.
  • It’s expensive. You can get 120Hz, higher-end devices for a similar price.
  • Lots of variance in the fit and finish.

The Ugly

  • If Google didn’t bow down to the carriers and skipped out on mmWave, this phone would probably have been $ 50-$ 100 cheaper

Listing image by Ron Amadeo

Let’s block ads! (Why?)

Tech – Ars Technica

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *