I've been using the 3 for quite some time as my main phone now and have compared it recently with the Pixel 4a and then the 4a 5G. This time its a straight shoot-out between two phones with similar places in the range separated by time - and an economic shift in emphasis. The question is, would I now fork out six hundred quid of my own cash when I have a Pixel 3 anyway.
A similar theme may emerge here as I, once again, raise the question of battery and how poor it is on the 3. The 4a did significantly better. The 4a 5G did amazingly better. How's the 5 going to shape up? The speakers are always my second port of call and I was a tad underwhelmed by the sound of the 4a and 4a 5G compared to the Pixel 3. So again, exploring to do.
The Pixel 4 was last year's model and had a different emphasis again. It was certainly a flagship, in the way it could be argued that the 5 is not. Google were testing out FaceID options, Soli sensors and trying to keep up with Apple, in a sense, whilst pushing boundaries into new tech (on a phone) themselves. This year, they've dropped a lot of that apparently in response to the economic Covid-19 climate and responding to what people are looking to buy.
Enter the Pixel 5. A less-than flagship chipset. Back to a capacitive fingerprint scanner. No fancy radar stuff and FaceID shenanigans. And a strange (so-called) stereo speaker arrangement. It almost feels like a step backwards but to be fair they have retained the premium design and feel of the Pixel 4 (and 3), IP-rating, pushed the OLED panel to a 90Hz refresh-rate, thrown in 2 more GB RAM, whacked the battery capacity up, added reverse Qi charging, made 128GB storage standard and dropped the price from £769 to £599 here in the UK. So it's an odd year with pros and cons, which makes me wonder what on earth the direction might be in 2021!
The phone has premium-feel aluminium and is slightly grippy (still needs a TPU for me though) with lovely curves in the metal round to the screen. It's slightly less tall than Pixel 3, fatter, but pretty much the same width. The Pixel 3 had a glass back of course where here we're back to metal. I found the buttons on the 4a 5G had a little 'play' but here, they are as solid and firm as the Pixel 3's and 'clicky' like the 4a's. I really don’t like the shiny-chrome power button and much prefer the colour-coordinated Pixel 3’s design, but that's a personal taste thing - and I have a TPU anyway! Regular readers will know that I thought I had found my mythical 'Pixel L' in the 4a 5G but actually, on reflection, I think I'm more comfortable here with this size. Being that tad wider than the Pixel 3 gives a little more space to breathe and the screen goes right out to the edges (pretty much) making it 'feel' bigger and (dare I say again) just right! The IP6/8 environmental protection is common to both devices, incidentally.
I'm not a fan of the huge square camera island on the back, preferring the slimline arrangement of lenses others employ encouraging the use of the device in landscape. This design feels just like a shameless iPhone copy. The fingerprint scanner sits to the right and below it and is in just the right place for the index finger. Capacitive fingerprint scanners seem to be coming back a bit these days and I approve. With smart Always on Displays and double-tap to look at notification content, the need to pick the phone up from the desk/table is reduced anyway. It's lightning fast to register and also in use - another advantage over some other terrible systems.
The Pixel 3 to Pixel 5 copy took 16 minutes with a USB-C to USB-C cable and each time I do this, more and more is in place, Smart Lock does a lot of the work alongside Auto-Fill. The Restore process is getting really very smart, even down to home-screen layout and within 30-60 minutes, left to it's own devices, it's not far away from the 'put one down, pick the other up' dream! Still not quite Apple standard but not far off. It will really arrive when it, for example, downloads my Audible books and Kindle reads.
The 5’s screen, protected by GG6 (over GG5 of the Pixel 3) is a 6" 1080p OLED panel over the 3's 5.5" returning a very similar 432ppi. Not only is it bigger but it goes out to the edges and is a slightly different ratio of 19.5:9 from the 3's 18:9. This ends up making the chassis wider, as I said above, but not so tall. The 5's panel is slightly brighter than the 3's (manual 100%) and the 3 has a slight warm cast alongside the 5, but there's really not much in it. Again, colours are very slightly richer on the 5. All this can, of course, be tweaked in settings anyway to please the viewer.
What is different is the 5's new 90Hz refresh rate. The 5 automatically controls this when it detects content that will make the most of it. I can't tell the difference anyway, so it's all lost on me! For the purist, there is a toggle in Developer Options to force the 90Hz on the whole time. All very silly in my book, but fair enough for those who can tell! There's the very same Always on Display on both phones which ticks pretty much all the boxes for me - and I'll trade in Motorola's Peek for Now Playing any day!
Let's get straight to sound! The speakers' output is a key feature for me. Many criticise my insistence of this and tell me to get a Bluetooth speaker which is much better than any phone - or use headphones - but this is me, and I choose to want a decent sound coming from my phone! Which is why I reeled in shock when I first heard them! My first impression was that this is a disaster! It didn't sound anything like as good as the Pixel 3, nor even 4a/4a 5G. Oh dear. The tone/quality wasn't as good, though to be fair, the volume wasn't far off.
One of the issues here is that the Pixel 3 has front-firing (true) stereo speakers. When you're in front of the phone, the sound fires into your face and stereo can be enjoyed when watching a film, for example. I have watched films on a small phone screen, though I know others will laugh! The right speaker of the Pixel 5 fires out of the bottom of the phone, carries all the lower-tones, and the left appears to be somewhere under the glass between the middle of the phone and the top-edge pushing out the top-end tones. If you put your ear on the phone to try and locate it, it's difficult to pin-down. The resulting mashup is not as pleasing as the Pixel 3 output, there's no two ways around it (pun intended).
As a result, if you place the 5 in front of you, the stereo effect/soundstage is all-but non-existent. I have used media which exploits stereo sound. With the Pixel 3, it dances around in front of me as it should - but the 5 pretty much pushes it out in the middle somewhere and all stereo effect is lost. And I have tried right in front of my face - same result. So, the question is really about how important that stereo separation is for the user and how much they might forgive that if the overall sound output is acceptable still.
To be fair, the overall sound is going to be perfectly good for 98% of people, but not for nit-pickers! The sound is still very good compared to many other phones - I tested it here today with another phone I was reviewing (which I thought had very good output) and was then shocked to listen to the Pixel 5 afterwards and realised that actually it was oodles better still! So yes, test-bench stuff is always going to be very subjective as most people don't do this kind of testing in the real world - and most people will no doubt think it sounds great.
There's no 3.5mm audio-out socket on either phone so it's down to USB-C headphones/earphones, an adapter for your existing - or bluetooth for both phones. Using a simple USB-C to 3.5mm dongle here the sound is reproduced excellently with as much volume as I'd want and very good quality. As you'd expect, using an enhanced adapter (I have the Razer Phone 2's here) it ramps everything up to 11 with a wonderful sound. Bluetooth pairing is simple and quick with a reliable connection and the sound is comparable with the Razer dongle combination above, though not quite - and also it depends very much on the supporting listening equipment of course and here I'm using Huawei FreeBuds 3. Not much to choose between the two phones on any of this - all works excellently well.
I chose the Pixel 3 with 128GB over the 64GB version but now the latest crop of Pixels are fitted with 128GB as standard, which is great! If they had a microSD card slot too, I'd be even happier but Google want to keep things controlled and simple with storage going forward. Both phones support UFS2.1 and the read/write times are the same for each. Plug in any microSD Card into a USB-C adapter and similar results are to be had - speedy read/writes - and both pass my 2TB Extreme SSD test in the same fashion. No HDMI-Out on either which is a shame, though with only 128GB storage, carrying large amounts of media for sending to TVs and monitors is limited anyway.
There is a difference in chipsets in use between the two phones. The older 'flagship' level Pixel 3 had (pretty much) the best of the day on release, being a SnapDragon 845, but now Google's choice is the 765G. I really wanted to see some difference between the two phones to prove the point that it had been skimped on to get the cost down, but I really can't. There's no noticeable difference in operational speed that I can see. If you read what test-bench geeks have said about it they report (up to) a 20% operational advantage of the 845 (in certain tasks) but I can't see it! I've put the two through their paces next to each other and in some cases the Pixel 5 is faster! Same is true the other way round for RAM. The Pixel 5 has been upped from 4GB to 8GB over the older phone but I see no noticeable difference in task-switching or number of apps open, in terms of everyday use. I do sometimes wonder about test-benching and the usefulness of the data over real-world use and experience.
Both phones have the same single nanoSIM Card slot and facility for an e-SIM for those who want it. Connectivity is good on both phones except for one difference, that being voice calls which I did have some problems with using the Pixel 3 in fringe areas. No such evidence with the Pixel 5 which holds a signal excellently well with no complaints either end, given the same zone. This was an isolated complaint, however, as all other connectivity with the 3 was fine - NFC, GPS, Cellular data and WiFi via broadband and the Pixel 5 appears to do just as well. There's 5G on the Pixel 5 but not on the 3 which I am unable to test as I have no coverage in my area! Speeds can certainly be impressive but as discussed on the PSC podcast recently, it seems that the real practical advantage over 4G is when there's loads of people gathered in the same location using all the bandwidth.
Both phones have Wireless Qi Charging and that's great. Working reliably, not with location fuss, straight on and done. The difference however is in the battery capacity and Google have, at last in 2020 woken up! The Pixel 3 has a diabolical battery which is drained ludicrously fast when the screen is on. I have written about this so much that I won't bore you again but the 2,915mAh unit in the older is now replaced by the 4,080mAh in the newer. With the efficiencies of the mid-range chipset I was hoping for a huge turnaround in UX. Sure enough, I'm delighted! The Pixel 5 screen-on test returns 2 hours 20 minutes for 10% of the battery use over 45 minutes (yes, really) of the Pixel 3.
Strangely, the all-day test on the Pixel 3 was never too bad - it was always about that screen-on. However, the Pixel 5 is much better in that respect too. A genuine two days between charges is possible with middling to heavy use, more for light. I don't find that the Always on Display on either model has any impact whatsoever in my tests - well, maybe a few percent. (I'm continuing to test this though as, as an aside, the battery in the 4a 5G which is slightly smaller gets a better performance and the only reason we can come up with is that the 4a 5G has less RAM to drive - or maybe the OLED panel is a different one grabbing more power on the 5.)
There's an 18W charging brick with both phones which does a decent enough job without knackering the battery with high-power charging speeds getting popular these days. You can roughly speaking half charge the phone in about half an hour or so and fully charge it in about an hour and half. Lastly, the Pixel 5 does have reverse wireless charging (Battery Share) which seems to work perfectly and charges other devices from it's own battery, though at a slow 5W rate by putting the phone back-to-back with the other device.
As you would expect, the software experience is pretty much exactly the same on both phones as Google lives up to the promise of keeping the Pixel line up to date for 3 years. The Pixel 3 feels just as 'new' as the 5 in that respect. Both on Android 11 and both with monthly Google Security Updates first out of the gate. I've commented on the Android system often enough not to repeat it again here, just to reiterate that this is the pure Android experience, just as Google wanted and designed it to be used. Others meander away with bells and whistles on top, bloating and floating with so-called enhancements and extra features, but for those who want in on the ground floor, and close to the beating heart of Google, this is the only option. Google have various unique features of their own as a part of the experience, such as Now Playing and Recorder, but the purist will see this as a part of the package, not add-ons. Some will say it's boring and lifeless, others like me just love it!
There's a couple of differences in the camera department besides the simple software-driven excellent results available on both of these phones. The 12.2MP main shooter is present in both but the Pixel 5 adds a 16MP wide-angle over the 3's offering. Last year (with the 4) they dabbled with 2x optical zoom, this year, it's wider. Which you prefer is a matter of taste and can be argued either way. It would be nice to have both, but not this time. Wide-angle cameras are great of course for landscapes and interior shots where you are backed into a corner to try and get as much into the shot as possible, but 2x optical also gives a different advantage and saves zooming-with-your-feet! In actual fact, the software is so clever now that digital zooming by pinching the screen still returns excellent shots for all but the picky nit-picker, certainly up to 2 or 3x zoom. The Night Sight/Astrophotography mode is also simple, clever and cool - but hold still! The Selfie camera in the corner of the screen really doesn’t matter on a phone this size. If it were a 6.9” media-centric 21:9 cinema-phone then yes, maybe, like the Xperia 1ii with a forehead still, but I’m happy with the more-screen payoff. As always, check out Steve Litchfield's coverage of all things Pixel 5 against the other 2020 Pixels including more in-depth on the camera in The Phones Show 406 and The Phones Show 407.
The big question for me is, for a third time in this round of 2020 Pixels, would I pay up my own hard-earned on one of them. I change my tune after each one that comes through my hands! I was convinced that the 4a was too small, then that the 4a 5G was 'just the right size' and now, after going back to the Pixel 3 between-times, I'm convinced that the Pixel 5 is the one for me! The Qi Charging and much, much better battery performance has me sold but the speaker performance clearly isn't as good as the front-firing 'proper' stereo of the Pixel 3 - and in that respect, the 4a 5G would serve me better. There's the 3.5mm audio-out issue, missing from the 5 which could be gained with the 4a and 4a 5G. Too many choices!
To answer my original question, if I was going to spend somewhere between £350 and £600 on a new Pixel, my brain tells me that it just has to be the 4a - but my heart goes with the 5. I'm currently ruling out the 4a 5G on the basis of size, but the 5 feels just perfect in my hand, slightly wider than the 3 and Goldilocks comes to mind. It's also made from aluminium which, however much we want to argue it, is so much more 'premium' than even the best plastic! I have been fortunate to have been able to sample all three this year and hopefully at least some of my observations might help somebody out there decide which they think might suit them.