I will be total honest with you. I don't really understand Google's phone strategy right now. I'm not sure what google is worth does either. I've written about it here, but I'll save you an additional 800 words to read. The short version is that Google has three phones on the market and there isn't much of a difference between them.
The pixel is a portrait of a hardware department in transition. This applies to a number of aspects, from strategy to the fact that the company has recently seen a minor exodus of executives. It's pretty clear that the future of Google's mobile hardware division will look very different than it is today – but the three phones of 2020 are most likely a holdover from the old guard.
What you see here is the Pixel 5. It's Google's flagship product. A device that has, among other things, more or less the same mid-range Qualcomm processor as the 4a, which was announced earlier this year. However, it differs from this budget handset in that it incorporates 5G. But then here comes the 4a 5G to further cloud the water.
There are some key differences between 5 and 4a 5G that were announced at the same event. The 5 Series have a stiffer body made from 100% recycled aluminum and the polycarbonate of the cheaper unit. It also has waterproofness and reverse wireless charging, a fun feature we've seen on Samsung devices for a few generations. Beyond that, however, we come across something that has been a critical issue since the leadership began. If you don't use hardware to define your devices, it becomes difficult to distinguish the hardware of your devices.
Since the inception of the Pixel line, the company has insisted that it will rely on software advances to drive the products forward. It's a nice feeling after years of arms race between Apple and Samsung. That said, when it comes to introducing new equipment, the results can be pretty poor. That certainly applies to the Pixel 5.
It's not a particularly exciting phone from a hardware standpoint. That's probably fine with many. Smartphones have finally become more of a commodity than a luxury item, and many users are simply looking for one that just does the job. That said, Google has pretty tough competition for the Pixel 5's price tag – and there's loads of Android out there Devices that can do even more.
However, there are certainly some upgrades in addition to the above that should be noted. Fittingly, the biggest and most important of them all is probably the least exciting. The Pixel 4 was actually a pretty solid device that was hampered by one really big problem: poor battery life. The 2,800 mAh capacity was a pretty massive millstone around the device's neck. Fortunately, that has been addressed extensively here.
Google has problems up to 4,080 mAh. That's also a pretty big bump over the 4a and 4a 5G, which are 3,885 mAh and 2,130 mAh, respectively. This extra lifespan is especially important as both Battery Share and 5G are added. For the sake of disclosure, I should mention that I still live in an area without 5G (three cheers for working from home) so your mileage will vary based on coverage. With LTE, however, I was able to use the handset for about a day and a half and surpass the stated “all-day battery”.
This is supported by a (relatively) compact display. Gone are the days of the XL (although confusingly, the 4a 5G has a larger screen with a slightly lower pixel density). The flagship is only available in a size of 6 inches (2,340 x 1,080). It's larger than the 5.7 inches of Pixel 4, but with a lower pixel density (432 versus 444 ppl). The refresh rate of 90 Hz is retained. Compared to all the phones I've tested recently, the Pixel 5 feels downright compact. It is a refreshing change to be able to operate the device with one hand.
The camera is likely the aspect of the handset where the opposing hardware-first and software-first approaches conflict most. Google was pretty confident that it could do whatever it wanted with a single lens early on, but eventually reluctantly gave in to a two-camera setup. The hardware is pretty similar to last year's model, but the 16-megapixel 2x telephoto optical lens has been replaced with a 16-megapixel ultra-wide telephoto lens. Whether this represents progress depends largely on your personal preference. To be honest, I would prefer a bit more distorted zooming.
Google is of course built on a solid foundation. I really loved the photos from Pixel 4. What the Google imaging team has been able to do with relative hardware limitations is really impressive. Even if you lack the scope of a premium Samsung device or a high-end iPhone, the occasional photo snapper will be very pleased with the shots they get on the Pixel 5.
(Gallery IDs = "2061057,2061047,2061059,2061056,2061058,2061055,2061053,2061052,2061060,2061051,2061049,2061048")
The night vision device has been improved and will now turn on when the phone's light sensor detects a dark scene. My morning walks have gotten noticeably darker over the past few weeks as the season has changed and the phone automatically switches to pre-sunrise mode for these shots (COVID-19 made me an early riser, don't know what to tell you should). . The feature has also been added to portrait mode for better focused shots.
The Pixel's portrait mode remains one of the favorites – although it's still imperfect and encounters issues with hair or complex geometries. For example, most of the time it doesn't know what to do with a fence. The good news is that Google put a lot of editing options into the software here – especially for portrait mode.
They can get really crazy in terms of bokeh levels, placement, and portrait lighting, a relatively subtle effect that makes it seem like a light source is being switched. Changing the effects can sometimes be a little delayed, probably due to the lower processing power. All in all, it's a good and well-rounded photo experience, but as always, I'd love to see what the Google imaging team can do if the company ever gives them some real high-end photography hardware to play with. Wishful thinking for whatever the Pixel 6 gets, I suppose.
Ultimately, the two main reasons to upgrade from Pixel 4 are 5G and a bigger battery. The latter is certainly a big selling point this time around. The former really depends on what coverage is in your area. 5G has improved a lot lately, but there are still parts of the US – and the world – that use LTE by default on this device. Also note that the $ 200 cheaper 4a 5G offers improvements over the previous year's model on both counts.
Still, $ 700 is a pretty reasonable price for a well-rounded – if not exciting – phone like the Pixel 5. And Google has other perks too: pure Android and the promise of guaranteed updates. However, if you're looking for something with a little more flash light, options are numerous in the Android world.