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Pixel 2 XL was the best Pixel ever…change my mind

I have always loved Google Pixel phones….well, not really, actually. But definitely one of my favorite phones, maybe of all time, was the Google Pixel 2 XL. I pit the Pixel 2 XL against the then new iPhone X in my only ever head-to-head comparison review, and reported both phones to be wonderfully capable and enjoyable for somewhat different reasons.

Anyway, Apple gets plenty of excitement, so let’s ignore them for a minute and focus on the Google Pixel 5, the latest of Google’s flagship model cell phone. Yes, I know it’s not really a flagship device, at least not by 2020 standards, but in the year of Coronavirus nothing is off limits, not even flagship phones with non-flagship specs.

No, but seriously, stick with me.

The amazing experience of getting a phone the day it comes out

As readers of this site may well know, a portion of our content is possible because some devices are provided by retailers and manufacturers in exchange for honest reviews. The Pixel 5 is not one of those devices; instead, I was quick on the hype train on preorder day and was excited to get my Pixel 5 on its release date. Sadly, I was delayed a couple of days, but still ended up with a phone in hand and have been using it as my primary phone ever since.

Keep in mind, of course, that I very much consider myself an “iPhone guy”; in fact, stay tuned for the iPhone 12 Pro Max review coming in the next several weeks. Still, I think there’s something to be said for the stock Android experience that Pixel phones provide, and since the days of carting around my big ol’ Pixel 2 XL, I’ve missed that fresh, fast, clean stock experience. That said, I don’t want this to be a review about Android 11…so I’ll try to point most of it at the Google Pixel 5.

Clearly, Google is trying to destroy the environment

You guessed it—there is an included power brick in the box. Indeed, the Google Pixel 5 priced at $699 comes with an included 18-watt USB-C charger, charging cable, and a full-sized cell phone box.

I told myself I wasn’t going to get into that…oh well.

In short, the unboxing experience is the same as prior Pixels (no included ear buds, though), and just as good as any other competitor’s flagship packaging. But this phone is not about the box it comes in.

Reviews with specs are soooo 2019

If you followed the launch event or have read or watched any other Pixel 5 review, you are already fully aware of the specs, and how underwhelming they are. In fact, some number of years ago there was a similar sentiment in Apple’s world:

October 27 marked the (almost) 25-year anniversary of Apple’s first Mac, and the Cupertino company utilized this almost-Anniversary to score some emotional reminiscence points during its announcement that day of the latest line of MacBook Pro models. And then, the internet yawned.

Link to post

5 more minutes, Mom

The Google Pixel 5 is arguably one of the most yawn-worthy phones of 2020, starting with its design. It is a unibody metal phone; gone are the dual-material designs of the past that I never really liked. It has a rear fingerprint sensor, which is arguably aged, a hole-punch cutout in the upper-left of the screen for the front-facing camera, a super boring shiny power button instead of some other fun, exciting feature color, and uniform bezels around the front of the phone. Thankfully, the large chin is absent, as is the awful bathtub notch…so Google gets some points there, but otherwise…meh.

The material is interesting—almost an enigma of sorts. On one hand, it is fully metal, but it also has a plastic-like coating that gives it a grippy feel and also helps hide some fingerprints. It’s a metal phone, but it’s not really all that heavy. Plastic phones feel like plastic phones—and while the Google Pixel 5 doesn’t feel like plastic, it also doesn’t really feel like metal either. But it feels good—and it doesn’t feel cheap. Some people will complain about the Pixel 5’s heft, that it doesn’t feel like a flagship phone…maybe that’s because of the coating, or the lack of glass… I’m not sure, but honestly, I think it’s really, really great. But, this phone is not about the physical design.

Describing something as ‘acceptable’ shouldn’t mean that it’s bad

Performance of the Google Pixel 5 is everything I need it to be. While it’s powered by a Snapdragon 765G (which is far from a typical ‘flagship’ spec), at no point did it feel slow or clunky or inadequate. It has a totally workable 8 GB of RAM, good for standard tasks and everyday phone use. Storage is limited at 128 GB with no expandable memory, which means you may need to look at buying some cloud storage from Google or your favorite alternate provider if you think you’ll need more. For me, for most phones, 128 GB is totally fine.

The Pixel 5’s display is a 6” FHD+ 90Hz OLED that fits nicely into a case not much larger than it is…and this is in many ways an almost ideal phone size. I get that people like big phones, but I’ll soon talk about why a big screen would work against what it seems Google was trying to do with their latest release.

The battery is great. The Pixel 5’s 4000 mAh cell easily gets about a day and a half of light-to-moderate use with the display brightness set to adaptive; this is actually one of the few significant improvements over last year’s Pixel. Oh, and it has a 5G chip which supports mmWave and Sub-6, for whenever that becomes relevant.

The camera is…well, it’s a Pixel camera, and it’s where we start to see what this phone is about. The camera hump on the back is minimal, with two cameras—a standard shooter and an ultra-wide lens, which both do the job that all Pixel cameras have always done: great photos aided by Google’s software, excellent night performance, there’s not a lot to complain about. But the camera, that isn’t the whole story.

Software is king

None of that stuff matters, really because the software of the phone is what makes this phone exciting. Google seems to have done almost too good of a job making a phone whose hardware is barely noticeable when you use it…instead, the focus is entirely on software, which is what Google does best.

This is not Google’s first time releasing a generally boring product that was a good performer; the recent Google Pixelbook Go was another such device whose hardware was just as good as it needed to be to not get in the way of the underlying experience. And as I said before—I’m an iPhone guy, so I understand ‘experience’ when it comes to tech products.

The rub

This may feel like a different kind of review because it has to be; this is a different kind of phone. Tech sites and reviewers have been somewhat negative about the Pixel 5 because it is allegedly a flagship device, but doesn’t have flagship specs. Or a flagship price tag.

But maybe the Google Pixel 5 isn’t a flagship device. It may be Google’s only new release this year, but that doesn’t have to qualify it as flagship. The term flagship is abused anyway, so if we remove that from our vocabulary and inspect the Pixel 5 for what it is, maybe we’ll get some clarity in what makes it great.

The Google Pixel 5 price starts at $699, and that’s exactly where it ends. There is one model, one size, one amount of storage, one screen, one processor…at least until the 5a is released in March. I spend a fair amount of time reading and watching reviews, and have seen for years plenty of critics who complain because phone lineups are too confusing. With only one Pixel 5, though, there isn’t a whole lot to be confused about; it seems, this is what some folks have wanted for a long, long time.

So what?

And I think, in many ways, that’s what the Pixel 5 comes down to. It is a phone for the masses, one that removes hardware complications and ambiguity and leaves only the core, pure Android experience that Android lovers appreciate.

The speakers aren’t great. So buy some headphones.

The performance is necessarily limited by the Snapdragon 765G. So maybe you should look at another phone if you plan to do a lot of gaming.

The screen is only 6”. So maybe you should invest in a tablet if you’re looking for something for consuming media content and that screen isn’t large enough for you.

It has a rear-mounted fingerprint sensor and no face unlock. So you won’t have to worry about a face mask getting in your way.

The camera is great. So if that’s what you’re looking for, you won’t be disappointed. And in all other senses, this phone will be the ideal essential phone.

Essential got it wrong

I bought the original Essential phone (PH-1), and I loved the vision that it represented, but it was a little ahead of its time—or more specifically, time wasn’t far enough head (and therefore, technology) for that phone to be truly successful. Years later, Google releases the Pixel 5 and does what Essential tried to: make a phone that does exactly what it needs to do without getting in the user’s way.

There are undoubtedly people who aren’t meant to buy this phone, and I get it. Maybe you want a big screen, or a higher refresh rate (although 90 Hz is great), or a stylus, or face unlock…great, those phones are out there. The Pixel 5, though, is not any of those phones in a very unique way, which makes it, somehow, stand out from the crowd.

And the price is right…or at least, it’s close to right. On a discount—at $599 or even $649—I think this is a phone that will keep many people satisfied for at least a couple of years. More interesting, though, will be what happens in early 2021 when Google typically releases a mid-year phone with a spec bump. Maybe Google is playing with new form factors and wanted to take a relaxed approach in 2020 with the Pixel 5. And maybe…


…the Google Pixel 5 is just a good, all-around phone for the masses, intended to give you the best experience with Android you can get.

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