Apple iPhone 12 vs. Google Pixel 5: Which Should You Buy?

Similar in size, feel and weight (though the iPhone is just a little heavier), this year’s default iPhone and Google flagship match up more than usual, warranting a quick comparison. The Pixel has no ‘XL’ variant this year, so the Pixel 5 is it in terms of premium, but that’s fine because it’s a cracking device with just one major Achilles heel. (Or two, if you’ve been following the news stories about build quality issue on early production units.) While the iPhone 12 ‘vanilla’ is very definitely more premium, in feel and specifications than last year’s iPhone 11.

iPhone 12 vs. Google Pixel 5: Head to Head

Although I’m hands-on with each, a buying decision is obviously mainly about the ecosystem, since if you’re all in on iOS or Android then the choice is clear and you’re guaranteed a very decent smartphone experience. However, the components chosen by Apple and Google also provide positive nudges to help out, one way or the other, so let’s look into the specifications and performance in detail.

Pixel 5 and iPhone 12

1. Display

Both are roughly the same size (6.1” and 6” diagonals respectively) and resolution (2532p and 2340p), but the Pixel 5’s smaller punch hole camera is less intrusive than the famous iPhone Face ID ‘notch’, plus the Pixel can run its display up to 90Hz refresh rate. 

Which sounds conclusive, but in practice, I found it hard to notice any benefit for this faster refresh in daily phone life. 

And, countering all this, I found the iPhone 12’s display, OLED this year and not IPS LCD, to have slightly better colours and contrast when playing back media, thanks in part to the ‘Wide Color Gamut’ and Dolby Vision support, plus the inclusion of the new ‘Ceramic Shield’ glass, claiming to be four times tougher, has to be a big balancing factor.

In short, both have great HDR10-rated displays and I can’t split them.

Winner: No winner

Pixel 5 and iPhone 12

2. Biometrics

Having just mentioned Face ID, this works as well on the iPhone 12 as on previous iPhones, though in these Covid-19 times I have to at least mention that a full-face authentication system isn’t much use when wearing a mask in public and it’s a right pain to have to constantly enter a six digit PIN. And as we’ll be wearing masks in public for at least another year (I predict) the simple capacitive fingerprint scanner on the Pixel 5’s rear has to win out. 

Yes, it’s a step ‘backwards’ from its predecessor’s (the Pixel 4’s) face recognition system, but the change has been fortuitous for Google, which specced out the ‘5’ long before Coronoavirus was a ‘thing’. The move back to fingerprints was because everyone hated face recognition on the ‘4’ – it worked, but software support was so sparse that the Pixel 4 range ultimately got dragged down dramatically. 

Given the times we live in and given that the well established fingerprint system works so quickly and reliably on the Pixel, I have to give it the win here. Even though Face ID on the iPhone is outstanding indoors and in private.

Winner: Pixel 5

Pixel 5 and iPhone 12

3. Speed

Slightly controversially, Google went for a mid-range chipset (Snapdragon 765G) for its Pixel 5, enabling the cost to be brought down slightly and also to help with battery life. This works on the whole, but in terms of running applications, including games, the A14 Bionic chipset in the iPhone 12 is significantly faster (despite lower RAM, at 4GB compared to the Pixel 5’s 8GB). Using mainstream applications, speed differences are small, but you’ll notice the iPhone’s power when rendering video or playing intensive games. 

Winner: iPhone 12

4. Data speeds

One of the selling points of both the iPhone 12 and Pixel 5 is 5G, the ‘next generation’ group of cellular technologies that potentially offers higher speeds and lower latency. While, in late 2020, actually finding good 5G coverage is a challenge in most of the world, 5G will undoubtedly become more common through 2021 and both the iPhone 12 and Pixel 5 will be well placed, with ostensibly identical network performance across all bands (including mmWave 5G in the USA).

Winner: none

5. Speaker(s)

This is easy to judge, as the iPhone 12’s ear/bottom speaker combination works really well, with software octave shifting sub-100Hz bass so that you hear just about everything, whatever you’re watching or listening to. The earpiece is a real speaker, so it’s not just high frequencies being rendered. Add in Dolby Atmos enhancements and stereo sound on the iPhone 12 is a treat. 

In contrast, Google stepped back from stereo with the Pixel 5 – previous Pixels had usually had proper speaker pairs, but here they went for smaller bezels and an under-screen piezo speaker, essentially vibrating the screen when in calls. Unfortunately this isn’t enough for media and music – Google knows this and, despite listing ‘stereo speakers’ in the official specs, the actual audio is mono, i.e. both left/right channels get rendered through the single speaker at the bottom. (The under-screen transducer emits some high-frequency mono to give a slight illusion of balanced sound, but it’s deeply unsatisfactory.)

Winner: iPhone 12

6. Camera

Both phones have great cameras, of course. Quite superb. Stabilized, multi-exposure combination algorithms, auto-HDR, and so on. You or I would be happy with either.

So finding a winner here is tricky – the iPhone 12 jumps ahead with a larger aperture on the main camera, plus a wider ‘wide angle’ (at 120 degrees field of view, compared to a mere 107 on the Pixel). But the Pixel counters with a proprietary ‘Super Res Zoom’ system that’s clever and which works, using tiny wobbles in your hand holding the phone to capture intra-pixel data points when zoomed. In effect giving the performance of a 2x telephoto without such a lens being present.

And both phones are now great at the video, with the Pixel 5 introducing four different software stabilization options, spanned across both physical lenses. And with the iPhone leading the way in the video as always in the phone world.

Winner: none

(See more on imaging our iPhone 12 full review in a few days time.)

7. Battery, charging

Another very tight category, since battery life on both phones is very good. However, iOS is notoriously battery efficient on ‘standby’, i.e. if the phone screen is off (e.g. in your pocket) then there’s minimal battery drain, while Android is less efficient and (tested on multiple devices) the standby drain is significant – on the Pixel 5 it’s possible to ‘lose’ 20% of battery charge each day without the screen even being powered on.

But in real-life use, both phones simply last the day with ease. The Pixel 5 lasts longer than the Pixel 4 range because of the more frugal, lower-end chipset. And both smartphones have Qi wireless charging (enhanced with MagSafe alignment in the iPhone’s case), for regular top-ups if you’re near a Qi pad at home, in the car, or at the office. (The Pixel 5 achieves Qi through an aluminum back by having a hole for the coils, with it all covered in resin for the textured finish seen in the photos.)

At around 2800mAh, the iPhone 12’s battery shouldn’t match the 4000mAh or so in the Pixel 5, but it does, thanks to clever chips and clever software. But there’s no overall winner here.

Winner: none

8. Durability

Both phones are fully IP68 water and dustproof, of course, as you’d expect at these prices.

The iPhone’s glass back is a weak point in terms of exposure for cracks, while the Pixel 5’s resin-covered aluminium unibody means that you only really have to worry about the main display. However, as noted in the opening paragraph, there have been reports of poor Pixel build quality recently (though the review device’s glue is holding fast!), whereas the iPhone 12 feels so, so solid, and after over a decade of stellar production quality, I’d bet at far fewer problems with the Apple device.

In theory, given the resin, you could use the Pixel 5 ‘naked’, i.e. without a case, while the iPhone 12, like every other iPhone since the dawn of time, and despite the hyped ‘Ceramic Shield glass’, almost has to be cased – for grip and drop protection. 

But cases are a personal preference – there’s also style and finish to be taken into account – and again I can’t split the phones.

Winner: none

9. Value

If you’ve been keeping up with the scoring so far, you’ll note that aside from the all the ‘no winner’ categories, the iPhone 12 is ahead by 2 to 1 (wins).

But price has to play a part in any buying decision too. The iPhone 12, in the same 128GB capacity as the Pixel 5, is £850 in the UK (inc VAT), whereas the Pixel comes in at £600, so £250 cheaper, a significant saving and one worth another ‘win’ here. Yes, you can get the iPhone 12 in a 64GB capacity for £50 less, but in this day and age, especially when shooting lots of photos and videos, plus looking at the size of some modern games, I contend that 64GB is marginal at best and that 128GB is the ‘right’ starting capacity for any smartphone.

Winner: Pixel 5

iPhone 12 vs. Google Pixel 5: Verdict

With that last round value win for the Pixel 5, we end up all square. Which is as it should be, since both are great smartphones and at least ‘reasonable’ value. 

The iPhone 12’s only weakness is that in terms of cost it’s a little pricey and not that far off the 12 Pro range, with significant extras, while the Pixel 5’s main weakness is the kludged ‘stereo’ speaker system.

But I’m not going to be drawn on which would make the better Christmas present to yourself, err… I mean a loved family member. They’d both be welcomed with equal enthusiasm!