The Pixel 5, which looks pretty good. [credit: Ron Amadeo ]
Google's flagship smartphone for 2020, the Pixel 5, is definitely a departure from previous releases. The company has opted out of the ultrapremium flagship wars that have led to smartphone prices rocketing past the $1,000 price point, and instead, it's turning in a midrange, $700 Snapdragon 765 phone as its highest-end device. On one hand, I appreciate the pushback on the $1,000 smartphone price tag, especially in the middle of a pandemic depressed economy. On the other hand, Google has always had trouble competing with the rest of the market when it comes to value for your dollar, and that's just as true in the upper-midrange market as it was in the flagship market—there are better deals out there.
As we've said in previous Pixel reviews, it's hard to know what exactly Google's goal is supposed to be with the Pixel line, and it doesn't seem like Google is sticking with too much of a long-term plan, either. After the death of the value-oriented Nexus line and a ho-hum Pixel 1 launch, Google Hardware SVP Rick Osterloh told the world "Pixel stays premium" in 2017, indicating a return to cheaper phones wouldn't happen. In 2019, the company went back on that and released the Pixel 3a, a midrange $400 phone. Now, in 2020, even the most expensive Pixel isn't premium anymore. The Pixel 5 is also a midrange smartphone, and that means it doesn't feel all that much different from the Pixel 4a.
Originally, the Pixel was a premium phone because it was supposed to be Google's iPhone killer, so what is it now? The move downmarket seems like an admission the company can't—or doesn't want to—compete in the cutthroat premium-smartphone market. Other than Apple, the rest of the Pixel's competitors are also Google's Android customer base. Google has never shown an interest in playing hardball with them, and so the Pixel line has only ever looked like a small "hobby" side project. This conflict of interest has meant the Pixel phones have almost always been "good software with hardware that isn't quite competitive," and that remains just as true in the upper midrange market as it was in the premium-smartphone market. Moving downmarket a bit doesn't put Google any closer to the competition. The Pixel line used to be aspirational, but there's nothing unique about the phone this year in terms of new features. So more than anything, the Pixel 5 feels like Google is taking the year off.