Can mid-range smartphones become the new flagships? Google appears to think so with the new Pixel 5. The handset simultaneously offers some brand new hardware and software, while stripping away a few old design ideas to reach a more attractive price point.
Perhaps the biggest omission is the lack of a premium tier processor for cutting edge performance. Instead of this year’s Snapdragon 865 or 865 Plus, Google has opted for Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 765G. It forms the “super mid-tier” of Qualcomm’s mobile chipset portfolio, pushing the envelope of mid-tier performance, and pinching a few key features from its premium chipsets.
But why would Google make this performance trade-off on its 2020 flagship smartphone? Let’s explore the possibilities.
5G without breaking the bank
Google’s Pixel 4 dodged 2019’s early 5G hype train. Yet, the company couldn’t launch a flagship phone in 2020 sans the latest and greatest networking technology. The media would have eaten it alive. Unfortunately, the move to 5G has sent the smartphone bill of materials spiraling, and it’s partly responsible for sending us hurtling through the $1,000 price barrier.
Various brands have spoken about the 5G premium to explain price hikes this year. Xiaomi’s Lei Jun is on record stating that moving to this year’s premium 5G Snapdragon setup doubled its processor costs, adding $70 more to the BOM than previous 4G flagships. That’s a relatively hefty chunk, and part of the bill has been inevitably passed on to consumers. More recently, during a press call about the new Reno 4 series, Oppo noted that 5G can increase costs by up to 20%, and it’s also using the Snapdragon 765G.
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The bottom line: 5G is expensive and Google was already pushing its luck with the $899 Pixel 4 XL.
5G requires more components, especially in flagship-tier products sporting mmWave technology. Part of the issue is that the flagship Snapdragon 865 doesn’t feature an integrated modem, so manufacturers have to buy a 5G X55 modem as well. Those don’t come cheap. Add in the extra antenna and power components and the bill just keeps rising (hence the slightly higher price for the US Pixel 5 with mmWave support).
How many $1,000 Pixels would Google realistically sell?
The Snapdragon 765G skirts this issue with an integrated modem built into the same chip as the CPU, GPU, and other parts. That saves costs, space, and power too, with a small trade-off for some 5G peak speeds and capabilities. But it’s nothing that will impact the user experience at this early stage of 5G’s deployment.
To sum up, Google only had two choices with the Pixel 5. Push its luck with even higher prices than previous years, which was almost certain to fail given lackluster Pixel 4 sales. Or build on its success with the affordable Pixel 3a and go the more affordable 5G route via the Snapdragon 765G.
“Good enough” performance, big on features
Of course, there are other chipsets out there if you’re after something more affordable. However, the Snapdragon 765G stands out thanks to a number of key features borrowed from the Snapdragon 800 series. That includes support for the Pixel 5’s 90Hz refresh rate FHD+ display, fast charging, HDR gaming, 4K 60fps video recording, and 5G networking with mmWave.
Google is super hot on machine learning, for example, using it for its best-in-class image processing and Google Assistant. The Snapdragon 765G features Qualcomm’s high-end Computer Vision Image Signal Processor (CV-ISP) to run demanding image processing tasks with high performance and low power consumption. A feature previously reserved for the 800 series. The chip’s Hexagon-DSP is a dedicated processor for voice and other machine learning-based tasks. It doesn’t run quite as fast as the Snapdragon 865, but the feature support is there.
Given that the Pixel 5 doesn’t include Google’s in-house Pixel Neural Core, it’s probably safe to assume that the 765G offers all the performance Google needs to run its Night Mode, HDR+, Super Res Zoom, and various voice features.
You don't need the very fastest processor for some of the best software features.
This highlights the key point — you don’t actually need bleeding-edge performance to create a high-end experience. Smartphone chips are at the point of diminishing returns for day-to-day performance. Apps haven’t felt sluggish for years, with the exception of very cheap budget products. While the Snapdragon 765G is definitely not the fastest chip in benchmarks, it hits a performance versus price sweet spot. It offers just enough performance for most apps, typical gaming sessions, and enhanced AI and photography algorithms.
Why pay more for a high-performance chipset that you barely make full use of?
Better battery life?
If all that’s not reason enough, perhaps Google simply wanted to fix one of the Pixel series’ biggest bugbears — battery life. The Pixel 5 includes a new Extreme Battery Saver mode, so this was clearly on Google’s mind.
With two fewer big power-hungry CPU cores and less silicon area dedicated to graphics, the Snapdragon 765G sucks down less juice than its 800 series siblings for most tasks. Although this comes at the cost of peak performance, and the energy savings won’t be night and day as faster chips complete and sleep quicker. Nevertheless, the integrated 5G modem does make for more efficient networking.
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The chip is still built using a 7nm FinFET processing, the same as the Snapdragon 865, so it receives the same energy efficiency and area density benefits. Combined with a larger 4,080mAh battery, we’re finally looking at a Pixel flagship that should last all day.
The handset will likely also run cooler than its predecessor too, meaning that peak performance can be sustained for longer periods when required, such as when gaming. Not to mention that heat is a battery killer in the long term. Previous Pixel flagships struggled with performance consistency and have never been the fastest around. In a smaller compact body, optimizing for heat is a good call for performance and battery longevity.
Is the Snapdragon 765G the right call for the Pixel 5?
The Google Pixel 5 remains an odd entry in the Pixel series. On the one hand, it retains flagship features like its IP68 rating and wireless charging, while at the same time dropping Soli and flagship-tier performance for a cheaper price. This won’t please everyone, but faced with higher costs and an already poor reputation for battery life, Google had to make a decision.
The choice of a Snapdragon 765G rather than 865 is all about balance. For the Pixel 5, the 765G seems to offer a better compromise of performance, features, and costs than a more powerful and expensive chip would. It has everything Google needs to achieve its goals of powerful AI software, longer running battery life, and a lower price than other flagship 5G phones.
The Snapdragon 765G is a great fit for the Pixel 5.
Of course, these goals aren’t the same for every manufacturer, and there’s definitely still a place for the Snapdragon 800 series in smartphones. It’s still the chip for high-end performance, the most futureproof 5G features, and for mobile gaming enthusiasts. Just be prepared to pay more for the privilege.
Overall, the Snapdragon 765G addresses many of the Pixel’s previous problems, making it a great fit for the Pixel 5. Don’t you think?