Google Pixel 5: To upgrade or not to upgrade?

Longtime Android user Jack Wallen debates upgrading to the newest Google Pixel phone. Find out his conclusion and why was it such a hard choice.

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Image: Google

I’m just going to say it up front: Google really put me in a pickle with the Pixel 5. I’ve been a fan of the Pixel phones for some time. I started with the Pixel 2 and have upgraded ever since. Pixel 3? Pixel 4? Check and check. I was happy–the Pixel phone was the ideal device to deliver a pure Android experience. The camera was brilliant and Android ran with a speed and ease I hadn’t experienced on any other phone.

My Google Pixel 4 was probably the best phone I’d had to date, minus the battery life. But I spend most of my day at my desk, so battery life was never really a problem for me.

Then came that Android 11 upgrade, which caused all sorts of issues. The “Hey Google” hot word for Google Assistant was, for some unknown reason, always switching off, the bubble interface regularly flaked out, Google Snapshot failed to update, and other issues made the Pixel experience less Pixel-like.

Then, the Pixel 5 comes along. When the release date was announced, I assumed I’d just upgrade and my love affair with the Pixel would be rekindled. But something strange happened: For the first time since I hopped onto the Pixel train, Google made me question if I should upgrade.

SEE: Samsung Galaxy Unpacked 2020: Galaxy Z Fold2, Samsung Galaxy S20, and more (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

What happened?

From the Pixel 2 to the Pixel 4, this device was clearly flagship level. On top of the best-in-breed camera, Google always made sure to use a top-notch CPU, plenty of RAM, and the latest bells and whistles to grab the consumer’s attention. The Pixel 4 was a great example in how it made facial recognition really fast and accurate.

But with the announcement of the Pixel 5, this changed. Gone was facial recognition and the flagship CPU. In their place saw a return to the fingerprint sensor and a lower-tier CPU. Couple that with a camera sensor holdover from the Pixel 3 and 4 and it looked very much as though Google really didn’t care enough to bring out their A-game.

After chewing on this for a bit, I realized I was (for the first time) unsure if I wanted to purchase the latest Pixel phone. The device seemed like it would be more of a downgrade from the Pixel 4.

That’s not a good look on Google–especially given the release of the game-changing, beast of a device, the iPhone 12. Google’s flagship device can no longer lay claim to the title of flagship. Instead it’s just a mid-range phone with an aging camera and specs that won’t turn heads.

What was a Pixel fan to do? 

Believe it or not, I spent nearly a week contemplating the idea of dropping $699.00 on a mid-range phone–one that would probably be a disappointment compared to my wonderfully orange and once-upon-a-time reliable Pixel 4.

The more I pondered, the harder the decision became. Eventually, however, I put a subliminal two and two together.

What Google is doing makes sense

It took me a while to reach this conclusion, but eventually I realized that Google is actually pulling off really smart move. Instead of bringing something completely new and shiny to the table, they’re taking what has worked for the Pixel in the past, polishing it up, and creating a device that will bring back the flawless Android experience.

The single biggest complaint of the Pixel 4 was the battery life and although it wasn’t as miserable as many would lead you to believe, it wasn’t great. I could go for about 12 hours of very low usage and still have 50% of my battery left. Under moderate usage, that was cut down to about eight hours. If I really placed the demands on the phone, we’re talking roughly six hours. That’s not enough. 

Google decided to solve that problem. However, the one thing they absolutely couldn’t do was scale back on the display. That would have been a deal-breaker for so many users. After all, the Pixel 90Hz refresh rate is already looking a bit antiquated against those with 120 Hz refresh rates. If Google were to return to a 60 Hz refresh rate, the Pixel would fall so flat, the company would have a hard time recovering.

The simple fix was to scale back the CPU to a more battery-friendly chip and then add a much larger battery into the mix. Beef that up with a good amount of RAM (to overcompensate for the CPU) and, with those things in place, Google could lay claim to a “day and a half” battery life for the Pixel and a not-so-shabby performance level.

That’s a pretty big win–big enough for users to forgive the slower CPU and the long-in-the-tooth camera sensor. Given that most users who buy Pixel phones are doing so for the pure Android experience, so long as the newest Pixel device could deliver that, the Pixel 5 might not be a loss in the making.

The Pixel 5 sheds some bells and whistles and opts to go the purist route–keep what works, fix what doesn’t, and deliver a high level of familiarity with grace.

For those that have experienced Android on a Pixel device, you get it. You know what a pure Android experience is. The Pixel launcher is, hands down, the simplest and cleanest mobile interface on the market. When you don’t have to deal with carrier bloat added and skins on top of the operating system, Android is pure joy. 

My foregone conclusion

I knew, in the back of my head, I’d wind up clicking Confirm on my purchase. I left that Google Pixel 5 in my shopping cart for a full week, but eventually gave in. Why? For me it boils down to two things:

  1. How Android 11 has wreaked havoc on my Pixel 4.
  2. Wanting to stick with that pure Android experience and gain an improved battery life to boot.    

My Pixel 3 has an older model Snapdragon 845 2.8 GHz with 4 GB of RAM and the Pixel 4 contains a Snapdragon 855 2.8 GHz. Compare that to the Pixel 5, which includes a newer Snapdragon 765G 2.4 GHz with 8 GB of RAM. That doubling of RAM is important and should lend itself to a device that will feel much faster than it should. Given that I can pick up my old Pixel 3 and still feel like it’s a snappy device, the Pixel 5 should work out just fine.

Since I’ve grown accustomed to the poor battery life on the Pixel 4, I’m guessing the Pixel 5 will be a breath of fresh air. As far as I’m concerned, the Pixel 4 camera is still one of the best in the market and Google is lucky that the competition is only just now catching up with them. My guess is, however, Google will have to pull out some serious magic for the Pixel 6–otherwise, their vaunted camera will no longer be considered best of.

So, I made the purchase and am waiting for my Pixel 5 to arrive. Once I have it for a while, I’ll offer up my honest review.

As a footnote to Google: This might be the last time you’ll ever be able to release a device that isn’t an obvious upgrade to the previous. When you start designing the Pixel 6, it better surpass everyone’s expectations or it could wind up being your last-ditch effort to remain in the mobile phone hardware business which would be a shame, as no device delivers the Android experience quite like the Pixel.

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