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Google’s Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro are bigger, better, and smarter

The new Pixels are the best phones Google has ever made

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It’s rare that a new smartphone feels all that new. The common refrain is that smartphones are all a “mature” technology and today’s new phone is only incrementally different from the prior one. There’s a lot of truth in that — Apple’s made 15 generations of iPhones! — and the newness you gain from plunking down hundreds of dollars every couple of years to upgrade rarely changes your day to day.

Google’s new Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro, however, are a bit more new than the typical phone, even though they don’t fold in half or have especially unique designs. They come with new cameras, new materials, new hardware, new software, and new thoughts on what a smartphone should be able to do for you.

But a lot of this is new for Google and not necessarily different from what you can get from a litany of other smartphone makers right now. The $599 Pixel 6 and $899 6 Pro are a reset for Google’s smartphone ambitions, a fresh start for the company that has slogged through five generations of Pixel phones without so much as a dent in the smartphone world.

As a result, the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro are not perfectly refined devices, nor do they do everything Google claims as well as you might expect. But that doesn’t stop them from being among the best phones available and perhaps the best Android phones to buy right now.

Pixel 6 Pro and Pixel 6
The most distinctive part of the new Pixel 6 design is the camera bar on the back.

The design of the new Pixel phones is a change of pace for Google and follows the conventions of other popular Android phone makers for the past few years. Instead of quirky textured finishes with fun pops of color, they are the typical glass and metal sandwich slabs with aluminum frames and slippery backs. There’s less whimsy and character to their details than prior Pixel phones, something I miss. And if you look closely, they aren’t quite as polished as the best from Apple and Samsung at this point — it’s easy to find a rough edge or two along the seams.

The front of both phones is hard to distinguish from lots of other big Android phones on the market; they mostly resemble a Samsung Galaxy Note 10 or Note 20 to my eye. And while the back has a distinctive bar toward the top that houses the cameras, the whole thing reminds me of a TCL phone.

The Pixel 6 is available in three two-tone colors — black, red, or green — while the Pixel 6 Pro is only available in more staid variations of black, white, or gold. The aluminum sides of the regular 6 are chunky and matte black, while the 6 Pro’s sides are thinner and polished to a shine. Between the two, the 6 is certainly more fun, while the 6 Pro doesn’t quite match up to other phones within its price tier in terms of design or fit and finish.

The most prominent design element is the camera bar that spans the back of each phone. It’s large, sticks out far, and doesn’t quite blend seamlessly into the rest of the phone. On the plus side, it doesn’t cause the phone to rock on a table or desk when you put it down, unlike the camera bumps on other phones.

A lot of these design critiques are purely academic, though, because in reality you’re going to put a case on either phone and cover up any of the rough edges or boring colors. That’s an extremely good idea, too, because both phones are capital-L Large and their smooth glass backs are extremely slippery. I’ve had them slide off my desk, wireless chargers, sofa arms, tables, my lap, you name it, and one of our sample units actually fell hard enough to crack the Gorilla Glass Victus glass panel covering its screen. (Side note: I’ve been testing Google’s translucent recycled plastic cases alongside the Pixel 6 and they are horrible — I recommend checking out third-party options.)

Really, my main problem with the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro’s design is that they are just too big for my taste. They are challenging to use in one hand, they don’t fit comfortably in a lot of my pants pockets, and they are easy to drop. In prior years, Google offered both small and large versions of its phones, but for this sixth generation it’s big or bigger; the size difference between the two is negligible. These are iPhone Pro Max-size phones, which is fine if you want a big phone but leaves out those of us who aren’t fans of oversized slabs.

The Pixel 6 and 6 Pro both have big, spacious displays.

The flip side of that is both phones have big, spacious displays. The Pixel 6’s is a 6.4-inch OLED panel with 1080p-wide resolution; the 6 Pro steps up to a 6.7-inch OLED screen with 1440p wide resolution. The Pixel 6’s screen is fully flat, while the 6 Pro has curved sides that taper into the frame. I prefer the flat screen of the 6, but the 6 Pro’s curves didn’t cause any errant touch issues in my testing, something that can make a curved screen difficult to use.

Both are sharp, vibrant, and colorful, with the 6 Pro being slightly brighter when outdoors in sunlight. Neither have any glaring problems that plagued older Pixel phones, like weird color reproduction or flickering at low brightness levels.

There are some issues if you look closely, like a slight color shift at oblique angles or a noticeable shadow under the curved sides of the 6 Pro when using a light background, things we don’t see on the best phones from Apple or Samsung at this point. If there’s one place where the cheaper price tag of these phones comes through, it’s these displays. They’re good, but not up to the level set by other flagship competitors.

They also have fast refresh rates — 90Hz on the Pixel 6, up to 120Hz on the 6 Pro — that make scrolling and interactions very smooth. Fast refresh screens have become table stakes on premium phones and it’s good to see Google follow suit here. I did not notice a difference between the 90Hz and 120Hz, either, unless I compared the phones side by side— both are smooth in use.

Less smooth is the fingerprint scanner under the screen. It’s located in a comfortable spot — about a quarter of the way up from the bottom — but it’s much slower than other fingerprint scanners, including the ones on the back of older Pixel phones. Because it’s optical, the screen lights up when you scan a finger, which can be really disruptive in dark rooms. The scanner also misread my finger from time to time, requiring multiple attempts to unlock the phone.

Compounding this error is the fact that the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro don’t have any sort of facial recognition unlock — the fingerprint scanner is the only biometric authentication available, and it’s just not very good.

Even the regular Pixel 6 is still a very large phone.

One of the most important things about the Pixel 6 pair is the processor inside of them, Google’s new Tensor chip. It’s the first custom processor from Google, which is following in Apple’s footsteps and leaving behind off-the-shelf processors from Qualcomm or MediaTek.

In addition to powering the phone, the Tensor processor also has a lot of AI-based customization to enhance features in the camera, speech recognition, and gaming.

Google says the new processor is competitive with the Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 for performance, and in my experience, that’s true. Apps open quickly, it’s easy to switch between them smoothly, and the interface is free of stutters and hang-ups. Twitter was the one app that stuttered on both phones, but it was an outlier. The Tensor chip will not benchmark as highly as Apple’s latest processors, but it’s far ahead of the processor that was in the Pixel 5 last year and right up there with other premium Android phones.

The Pixel 6 has 8GB of RAM, while the 6 Pro is equipped with 12GB. In practical use, the 6’s lesser amount of RAM did not present issues — streaming apps do not aggressively close in the background like they did on older Pixel phones.

There also wasn’t an appreciable difference in battery life between the two phones. Both are easily able to cruise through a full day of use with plenty of juice left in the tank — most nights I went to bed with 35-40 percent battery remaining, even while using the camera a lot and enabling the always-on display feature. Light users can probably stretch this to two days without much effort. A big reason for this stamina is the fact that the batteries are just big — big phones bring big batteries and big battery life.

The fingerprint scanner is located about a quarter of the way up from the bottom.

Both models support wireless charging and fast wired charging, but neither come with a charger in the box. Google sells a $25 30-watt brick separately and will be releasing a $79 fast wireless charger in the near future, but I haven’t been able to test that yet.

Even if you do use a powerful enough charger, neither phone charges particularly quickly. Google aggressively slows down charging once it’s past 80 percent to preserve the battery cells’ longevity, and since these batteries are so large, getting to a full charge can take a long time. Fortunately, thanks to the long battery life, you will likely only have to charge when you’re sleeping anyway.

Another area that the Pixels excel is in their haptic feedback. Bad, buzzy haptics can ruin a phone experience for me, but the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro have subtle, clicky responses that provide just the right amount of feedback. It makes typing on the keyboard or interacting with the UI very enjoyable.

Both the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro have proper, dual stereo speakers that pump out a satisfactory amount of volume and sound clear for both streaming music or video and taking speakerphone or video calls. Good riddance to the vibrating screen pseudo-speaker Google used in the Pixel 5 last year.

Google is advertising 5G connectivity for both the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro, but the details around it aren’t quite that straightforward. The unlocked and T-Mobile versions of the Pixel 6 are limited to sub-6 5G, while the Verizon and AT&T models are more expensive and support the faster but very limited millimeter wave (mmWave) 5G.

None of that confusion applies to the Pixel 6 Pro — no matter how you buy it, it will support both sub-6 and mmWave 5G. AT&T’s extra cost for its model relative to the unlocked, T-Mobile, or Verizon versions just buys you the privilege of being an AT&T customer, nothing more.

I tested unlocked versions of the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro on Google Fi, which uses T-Mobile’s 5G network. Performance was commensurate with other premium phones I’ve used on T-Mobile — I was able to reach speeds of 300 to 400Mbps in certain areas of New York City, which is a lot faster than I get on LTE in the same areas.

The Pixel 6 Pro is the first Google phone with a wide, ultrawide, and telephoto camera.

The Pixel 6 and 6 Pro’s camera systems are also wholly new, with new sensors, new lenses, and new capabilities. Google has finally upgraded the camera hardware in the Pixel line for the first time since 2017, and it’s gone big — literally. The new main camera sensor is much larger than the one used in the Pixel 5 and earlier, and the Pixel 6 Pro is the first in the line to have ultrawide, wide, and telephoto cameras.

Both phones have the same main wide camera and ultrawide. The main camera is a 50-megapixel sensor that is hard-coded to produce 12.5-megapixel images behind an optically stabilized f/1.85 lens. That means you can’t actually capture the full 50-megapixel resolution and the images produced aren’t especially sharper or more detailed than other 12-megapixel cameras, including the Pixel 5’s.

Still, the images are very good in both normal and low light, and very competitive with the best from Apple. I won’t say there’s a clear winner here; some images from the Pixel 6 look better, some images from the iPhone 13 Pro look better, and which you prefer really comes down to your own personal preferences, something we’ve been saying about smartphone cameras for a few years now.

The Pixel 6 images have the classic Pixel look: high contrast, slight overexposure, extreme sharpness, and cooler white balance. You can adjust the white balance easily enough using on-screen sliders in the camera app, but tweaking the sharpness requires a bit more post processing work. Google’s artificial portrait mode is also largely unchanged — it aggressively blurs the background to the point where it almost looks like the subject is a cardboard cutout placed in a diorama.

One area I would like Google to improve is how long its vaunted night mode takes to capture a shot. It’s incredible how much detail the night mode is able to capture in dark scenes, but it takes quite a few seconds to do so, and oftentimes either the subject or the person taking the photo loses patience and things get blurry. The iPhone’s night mode frequently took half as long to capture night scenes as the Pixel.

Overall, though, the advancements in image quality from the main camera are not as big as you might expect from new, significantly better hardware. Oftentimes, it’s hard to tell the difference between it and what you could get with older Pixel phones, especially in good lighting.

The Pixel 6’s ultrawide camera is its weakest link — images are soft, it’s not as wide as others, and there’s a noticeable difference in color and processing between it and the main camera. It also lacks the macro focusing abilities available on the iPhone 13 Pro’s ultrawide camera.

On the other hand, the Pixel 6 Pro’s telephoto camera is excellent. It’s the first telephoto on a phone that I’ve actually enjoyed using and might be reason enough to spring for the 6 Pro over the regular 6. The 4x reach is noticeably longer than the 3x telephoto on the iPhone 13 Pro, but it’s much more usable day to day than the 10x zoom on Samsung’s Galaxy S21 Ultra.

On top of that, the telephoto produces sharp, detailed images, with great subject separation that requires much less use of software-based portrait modes. It’s a lot of fun to shoot with and the kind of thing that changes what you can do with your phone.

Google says it has upgraded the Pixel 6’s video recording abilities, but it’s still behind the iPhone, which remains the standard. You can shoot 4K 60fps as long as you want without the phone overheating, but there’s still noticeable artifacting and wonkiness with image stabilization, and the video image processing is weirdly different from how the Pixel processes still images. Highly saturated colors, like reds and oranges, are amped up to the extreme in video, almost like how Samsung used to process colors years ago.

On the front of the phones, the cameras differ — the Pixel 6 has an 8-megapixel camera with an 84-degree field of view, while the 6 Pro has an 11-megapixel camera with a 94-degree field of view. Not only will you fit more people in the 6 Pro’s frame, the image quality is noticeably better, too.

The Magic Eraser feature in Google Photos makes it easy to remove unwanted people or objects in images, but it can be hit or miss.

The Tensor chip in the Pixel enables a couple of special software tricks in the camera and photos app. The new Magic Eraser tool lets you remove unwanted people or items from a captured photo with a single tap, or you can highlight things to remove. It’s very cool, but also hit or miss — it won’t be taking the place of any skilled Photoshop editors anytime soon. You can also accomplish similar things with third-party apps, so it’s not entirely necessary to buy a Pixel for this.

What’s more interesting to me are the new motion capture modes, which let you mimic a panning motion shot or a long exposure with just a single tap of the shutter button. You can make a moving object, like a car, freeze in front of a blurred background, or you can capture traffic light streaks without the need for a tripod.

These kinds of images typically take years of practice and lots of gear to do with a traditional camera, but the Pixel 6 makes it as easy as snapping a selfie.

The Pixel 6 makes capturing a panning shot as easy as snapping a selfie.

Google has also made a big deal about tweaks it made to its image processing algorithm this year to better handle darker skin tones, which it’s calling Real Tone. Bias in image processing is a problem that’s beset the photo industry for decades, dating all the way back to film, so it’s encouraging to see Google address it. Google says the Real Tone processing is baked into the Pixel’s image processing pipeline and it’s not possible to turn it on or off at will.

Both Nicole Nguyen at the WSJ and Julian Chokkattu at Wired were able to test the camera with a range of darker skin tones and their conclusions are interesting; I encourage you to read their respective articles. Looking at all the photos, it’s clear the Pixel is still doing Pixel things: high contrast, with a dose of overexposure to compensate for that, and very sharp details. Some folks might like that look but not everyone will, even if you have darker skin.

The Pixel 6 and 6 Pro show off Android 12 well.

As you’d expect with a new Pixel, the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro run the latest version of Google’s Android, the completely redesigned Android 12. We’ve already done a full review of Android 12 — I’ll just add that it feels like the fun and whimsy that’s missing from the hardware design of the new Pixels was reserved for the software. It’s colorful and easy to read, with a lot of personalization options.

Also unsurprising, there are a number of Pixel-specific software features, including things that are improved by Google’s new Tensor chip. The Pixel 6 has better voice dictation transcription, since it can do it all locally now, and it can translate foreign languages in messages and media faster than before.

The Pixel 6’s ability to navigate an automated phone tree system is extremely clever but still needs work.

But the most impressive software features to me are found in the phone app. In addition to the spam routing features Google has had for a few years, the Pixel 6 can now help you with automated phone tree systems and tell you how long the wait time might be when you call a business. It can even wait on hold for you and then notify you when someone picks up.

The automated phone tree feature will listen in on the call and transcribe the options presented, then give you big tappable buttons to make choices. It’s far easier than trying to listen to every word the system is saying only to miss something critical and have to wait for it to restart.

But in testing, it’s clear this still needs work — it can’t recognize languages other than English (such as when you’re presented to “press two for Spanish”) and it often misses words and context that prevent it from giving you the right buttons on the screen to press. Still, it’s a novel idea and I hope Google continues to iterate and improve on it.

Other additions are the ability to show boarding passes and other useful information right on the lock screen and support for select voice commands to the Assistant without having to say “Hey Google” first. It’s particularly convenient to just mumble “snooze” when an alarm goes off and have the phone obey.

Google Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro

One of the biggest questions surrounding the Pixel 6 announcement has been, did Google do it? Has it actually been able to produce a competent, flagship-level smartphone that doesn’t have any show-stopping bugs or big gotchas?

And the answer is a resounding yes, the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro are excellent phones. They may not be the best in every category, but as a whole, they perform well, have great screens, excellent cameras, and reliably great battery life. The only real hang-up here is the size — if you don’t like large phones, they probably aren’t for you.

Adding to their appeal is how much value is packed in. The Pixel 6 in particular is just a lot of phone for $600 — it’s hard to think of anything on the market that can compete with it at that price. Google is offering a better experience than basically any other Android phone maker in the markets where the Pixel is available, and often doing so for a lower price. It’s even undercutting OnePlus, which built its entire brand on selling premium phones for lower prices.

Does that mean lots of people will actually buy the Pixel 6 or 6 Pro, when Google has long struggled to gain any market share? Frankly, I don’t really care, because those who do buy it will have a great phone at a great price. It’s hard to argue against that.

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