Instead of two different sizes, in addition to two different sizes this year Google made two different phones, there's the $499 Pixel 4A 5G and the $699 Pixel 5, and I'm reviewing them together because even though they have different names they are very similar phones. I think of them as the no frills standard phone and the kind of fancy upgrade, just kind of fancy though, Google isn't trying to beat the flagships with the Pixel 5 and it's not exactly breaking new ground with the Pixel 4A 5G. They're good but neither one of these is gonna blow you away. Not in terms of hardware features or in terms of speed or price, or even in terms of camera but because Google isn't overreaching, it means that neither one of these phones is going to let you down.
Google doesn't want the Pixel to be flashy, it never really has. These phones are simple and they feel simple with matte finishes and slightly rounded corners. You've got a square camera bump on the back next to a rear mounted fingerprint sensor. The screens on both are flat with big round cutouts for the selfie cameras inside the screen. I think the design is pretty clean and classic, but I get that the line between classic and boring is thin and these phones are right on that line.
Even though the Pixel 4A 5G and the Pixel 5 look very similar there are subtle differences when you start to look at them closely.
Let's start with the Pixel 4A 5G. It has a 6.2 inch screen and it's made out of plastic on the back just like the regular Pixel 4A, It feels fairly smooth but not too cheap. One annoying thing is that the fingerprint sensor on the back is just barely recess so it can be hard to find, but you do get a headphone jack. It comes in black or white, and that's that.
When you hold it up against the slightly smaller Pixel 5 you can start to see where Google saved some money on the hardware on this phone, the bezels around the 4A 5G screen are a little bit bigger and they're not fully symmetrical on the top and the bottom. There's also the weird fact that the 4A 5G, which is the bigger phone has a smaller battery inside, it's 3,885 milliamps as opposed to the 4,080 on the Pixel 5.
There's a $200 price difference between these two phones but look, they share the same processor, cameras, storage, and software, so really the only real reason to pick the 5 over the 4A 5G is that it's nicer in some fairly subtle ways.
First, it just feels a little bit nicer. The Pixel 5 has a six inch screen and an aluminum body, but since Google likes to keep its phones really utilitarian that aluminum is covered with this sort of plastic coating. It has a little bit more grip on the finish, which I really like and there's some sparkle inside the paint here too, and it also has a fingerprint sensor that you can actually feel, it's just subtly nicer, like I said, including having small and even bezels all the way around the screen.
The Pixel 5 technically has stereo speakers, but one of those speakers is a panel audio speaker, which works by literally vibrating the screen to make sound it's cool for phone calls 'cause you can put your ear wherever, but for watching videos or playing games, it means that one of the speakers is kind of weak and tenney.
You also get wireless charging thanks to a hidden cutout here underneath the aluminum. There's a high 90 Hertz refresh rate screen and eight gigs of Ram instead of six, which is on this one. You can also get it in a sort of sage color in addition to black. I obviously prefer the Pixel 5 but again, you're paying 200 bucks for nicer things, not really better performance, so, let's talk about performance.
Both of these phones have a Snapdragon 765G processor which is not Qualcomm's very fastest chip, but it might be the Qualcomm chip with the best balance of performance and battery life with 5G. Even though these phones don't have the biggest batteries in their class, they're lasting all day for me, and then some. On the 4A 5G I hit six hours of screen time, and then on the Pixel 5 I just attacked it, I did three hours of GPS tracking on a bike ride, I played two hours of xCloud games, you know, streaming from the Cloud, I did a few hours of other stuff and I still got from 6:00 A.M. to midnight with that very heavy use. The bottom line is that battery life is way better than on the Pixel 4. Google also added an extreme battery saver option which just turns off a bunch of apps in the background, unless you put them on an approved list. I think a second battery saver option is dumb, I think it's that what they call it extreme, and I think it's sad that Google thought it was necessary because battery life is fine, and so as speed and performance.
I have reviewed a ton of Android phones at the top flight Snapdragon 865 processor, so I can feel when big heavy apps like big games launch a little bit more slowly but it's not noticeable in everyday use. And since the Pixel 5 has a 90 Hertz higher refresh rate screen, things like scrolling and animations are really nice and smooth.
Google's version of Android is still clean and easy to use and you get Android 11 out of the box. I really like how Google does things on Android, it's always just a little bit less fiddly than other versions, but I admit you don't get a lot of flashy features, but I mean, there are a couple that are neat, you can have the Google Assistant sit on hold for you so you don't have to listen to the whole music, and the voice recorder app on the Pixels can output these little automated videos that show a transcript as you speak, it's kind of fun.
Google is joining the rest of the US 5G hype industrial complex and trying to make us believe that 5G is a huge deal right now and you're gonna get incredible speeds with it, but unless you're very lucky in where you live, you won't. For me in Oakland, 5G and Google Fi is no faster than LTE and sometimes it's slower, and if you want the 4A 5G slightly bigger screen, and you're on Verizon you have to pay a hundred bucks more because Verizon's millimeter wave flavor of 5G is more expensive, also really hard to find.
My take is that if you need a phone right now you might as well get a 5G phone if you can afford it but don't upgrade just to get a 5G phone.
One last performance thing Google dropped the Pixel Neural Core photo processing chip which means that all the photo processing happens on the main processor, which isn't the fastest, so you have to wait a lot for images to process before you can look at them. The shutter on the camera is still really fast but yeah, I felt that speed hit.
The camera has always been the Pixel's key strength and the new thing this year is an ultra wide camera instead of a telephoto one. Finally, the really good news is that the cameras are as good as they've always been on the Pixel, but that also means that they're just as good as they've always been on the Pixel.
There is some tweaking around with how images are tuned, there are some new features that I really do love and some improved video which was always a Pixel's a weak spot. But the bottom line is that Google hasn't really pushed the state of the art here, and everybody else has kind of caught up, the cameras on the Pixels are really good but then so are Apple's and Samsung's and Oneplus's.
Google is sticking with what it knows basically right on down to the same main 12 megapixel sensor that it's been using since the Pixel 3, Google says it lets them adapt their algorithms on the same platform. So, Google's Pixels are still well detailed and contrasty, they still excel at night mode but I think the results this year are just a little bit closer to what Apple and Samsung do with color, they're just a little bit more yellow than what I expect out of a Pixel, but it's still fine.
Google has also made night sight automatic now, so you don't have to switch over to a separate mode to use it but you can turn it on and off as you wish. It's also doing night sight for portraits which is neat, but you can start to see the limits of the algorithm here, in challenging conditions the HDR effect looks just a little bit over-processed.
I also wish that the Pixel camera didn't punch in for so many of its modes, portrait mode and video always make me take a step back to get the shot.
For portraits Google Photos has this new thing where you can adjust a virtual light sources position and intensity, it's really good even if I don't know how often I'm actually gonna use it.
The ultra wide, the new camera, it's fairly good, it's 16 megapixels, and like on other phones, you can see a small drop in quality, but it's not a huge drop off, those algorithms are still working here. Still though, you can't shoot 4K with the ultra wide, and another trade off is I have to admit the telephoto quality does take a small hit compared to the Pixel 4.
To me, the most important upgrades ought to be in video. So the Pixel can do 4K 60 finally, but not 4K 24. Google has a new default stabilization that's good enough to leave on all of the time unless you really try to break it, I think it works quite well.
There's three other stabilization modes, so there's locked, which just keeps the image in frame and steady, like the phone is on a tripod and it's actually kind of incredible. Active is for when you yourself are bouncing around, when you're walking, or on a bike, or whatever. And then there's cinematic pan which is basically just slow mode with some extra stabilization, it is really cool, but it drops you down to 1080P.
These stabilization modes are not the most amazing quality that I've ever seen but they do let me pull off shots that I might not have been able to have gotten in the first place, they simplify some camera techniques that are hard for an amateur like me to pull off.
On overall video quality, I do think Google has improved and it makes good choices on focus and lighting, but it's still really isn't quite as good as what the flagships have been doing this year.
At the end of the day, the Pixel is still my favorite phone for taking photos because I love the Pixel look, I love the overall quality, and I love the low-light performance, but instead of being my favorite by a huge margin this year it's my favorite by a small margin, and I have to admit other phones have a little bit more versatility because they've got you know, more lenses and slightly better video.
It's not normal for a new version of a phone to take a step backwards and it's technologies, but that's kind of what Google chose to do with the Pixel 5, ambient EQ in the display, face ID, the solely radar gesture thing, and Google's custom Neural Core image processing chip, they're all gone and they've been replaced with simpler technology. It's good and reliable technology, but yeah, that's weird.
Google did all that to bring the cost down though, and I think that's not a terrible move, the Pixel line and especially last year's Pixel 4 has always struggled to compete at the top end of the market, so, instead this year Google is just aiming right down the middle and that feels more true to what the Pixel has always been, a very nice mid-range phone, but again, lots of mid-range phones are very nice now, the OnePlus 8, the Galaxy S20 Fan Edition and you know, the iPhone, they all cost about the same as a Pixel 5 and lots of them beat it in important ways. And the Pixel 4A 5G is even a little bit weirder, you're paying five or 600 bucks for the benefit of 5G and a bigger screen, but you lose out on features that are actually kind of common at that price range.
If you want a Google phone, I am happy to say that this year Google made three good ones, the Pixel 4A, the 4A 5G, and the Pixel 5 are all really solid phones, even though they're not as special as they used to be.
I still love the Pixel for its software experience and it's reliably good camera. I think that Google nailed the fundamentals on this Pixels in ways that it hasn't necessarily done in the past, and this year it's done so at a reasonable price.