you only get So many Hail Marys go through in consumer electronics. Even among the largest companies. Take a look at Microsoft’s long-standing mobile phone ambitions. Even a $7.2 billion acquisition of one-time flagship Nokia could not place the company on the table with Apple and Samsung.
A few earlier false starts aside, Google’s mobile hardware ambitions — overall — have been more successful. But the Pixel line has never been the big hit it needs to justify the resources the company has spent on the category. The devices have felt massive, at best, a showcase for some of the cool stuff Google is working on in mobile software and ML and, at worst, kind of too-running.
It’s clearly strange to see the company struggling to make waves, though entering a field as crowded as smartphones was never going to be easy. And it’s doubly difficult to break into when, overall, flagship smartphones are all great and the continued dominance in the space is largely the result of forward momentum. Adding to Google’s troubles is a longstanding insistence that true successes are all on the software side.
It’s an interesting thesis, to be sure, that Apple, Samsung and the like are essentially wasting their time fighting the specs battle. Something to consider, but in its current state, at least, it is not possible to be hardware agnostic. Of course, the importance of artificial intelligence and machine learning is increasing, but the camera lens, display, and processor all still matter. at least for now.
Last May, it was revealed that key members of the Pixel team had left the company. It was part of a bigger rethink, an even more back-reaching one. This August, CEO Sundar Pichai said that the company has been working on its in-house silicon for four years. As far as the Hail Mary, weaning ourselves from chipmakers like Qualcomm is a big deal. And a bigger phone is needed to go along with it.
Released this time last year, the Pixel 5 was the last stop in the old fashioned way. Big changes don’t happen overnight — or even in a year when it comes to major electronics product lines. Unfortunately for Google, news of its minor restructuring surfaced ahead of the phone’s release, and even the company had to admit that better days were ahead. The Pixel 6 isn’t making or breaking for the line, but after several generations of uninspired sales, it needs to prove that things are heading in the right direction.
And by those standards, the phone is a resounding success.
This stands in opposition to Google’s specific agnosticism as a testament that great software still requires great hardware. The Pixel 6 is by no means a state-of-the-art, overclocked spec machine, but it does stand as an example of what Google’s sometimes impressive software can do, given the proper hardware.
From the moment you pick up the Pixel 6 Pro, it’s clear that something is different here. The handset looks more like something Samsung produced than its Pixel predecessors. It has a shape and size reminiscent of the Galaxy line, an aesthetic quality only enhanced by the curved glass edges.
One of the things that honestly surprised me on the day of the announcement was how polarizing curved glass is in the online community. Here, its use is primarily aesthetic, rather than attempting to jam any sort of edge functionality, the Samsung. The biggest argument I’ve heard against this is that there’s a risk of accidentally turning on the touchscreen while lifting the phone off the edge. It’s not a problem I’ve encountered, and honestly, I’m completely curved screen-agnostic.
The 6 Pro display is a 6.7-inch, QHD+ (3120 x 1440) OLED at 512 ppi. It’s nice, big and bright, with a maximum refresh rate of 120Hz. The Standard 6 features a 6.4-inch display clocked at 411 ppi and 90Hz. You really can’t go wrong either way, but the Pro is a nice upgrade on that front. The front-facing camera is a pinhole design, obscured by the default wallpaper.
There’s also an in-screen fingerprint reader at the bottom, which unlocks the phone quickly. The display is covered with Gorilla Glass Victus, with Gorilla Glass 6 at the back. The upper-third of the back is monopolized by a large, distinctive camera bar. I like it from a design standpoint – it’s a nice change from the standard class the competition has veered toward.
This is a significant bump, which means that the phone sits at an angle on its back. However, this effect is largely negated by adding the standard case. Another concern with camera placement is that you may have to be a little more careful about where you place your hands when shooting in landscape mode. Again, I haven’t had a problem on that front, and if you do, it’s easily fixed.
There is a slight color difference between the top and bottom glass of the camera bar. It’s really just a fun little flourish — something the company did with the power button on older Pixel units. It’s clear that Google is still working to evolve to differentiate itself from similar-looking competition. Thankfully, it’s just a subtle touch. The entire design language gracefully rides the line between boring and quirky.
Camera systems are perhaps the ultimate example of how good software and hardware differ from one another. I was testing the Pixel 6 Pro at the same time as the Surface Duo, and especially in mixed or low light, it was really night and day (so to speak), despite the Microsoft device having a solid camera rig .
Developing your own camera system for several generations pays dividends. I really liked the shots I was able to capture on this thing. The 4x optical zoom on the Pro is also a nice touch. It can go up to 20x digital, but even with Google’s computational photography, you quickly start introducing noise into the image.
In addition to the standard suite of Pixel camera features comes some cool new tricks. The Magic Eraser is similar in principle to Photoshop’s Content Aware Fill tool. Rub your finger over an unwanted background image and it will use the Nearby settings to fill in that space, effectively “erasing” the object. It is far from perfect. A closer look will usually spot anomalies, and the more complex the surroundings, the worse it will work, generally. Still, it does an impressive job thanks to a new feature built into the app.
Ditto for Action Pan. It works in much the same way as Portrait mode, adding a false blur effect to the background of an object. This works well with larger, more geometrically simple objects like a car. Something like a person riding a bike, on the other hand, gives it more trouble around the edges – like a portrait. Long exposures effectively do the opposite, blurring out moving objects while keeping the background still.
Not going to lie, my hermetic epidemic lifestyle has not given me the opportunity to shoot many humans. At the top of the list is Face Unblur, which cleverly uses two cameras and facial recognition to create an overall sharp image on a moving object. We’re going to be digging into the Actual Tones feature soon, but it’s a very welcome effort to better capture a wider range of skin tones. This, again, relies on facial recognition, which can sometimes be an issue.
The slate of text tools coming to the Pixel are impressive too. Live Translate will work in my limited testing, and it’s an impressive addition to texting. Assisted voice typing works well, though it occasionally ran into issues (probably my announcement), including adding emoji via voice. All are welcome to existing features like Recorder, which has since added German and Japanese to the mix.
Of course, the real star of the show is Tensor. Google joins a growing number of companies that have abandoned Qualcomm’s silicon dominance in favor of their own chips. This one was four years in the making, and is perhaps an equally good sign that the company is committed to the Pixel line for the foreseeable future. This time around, the company credits the first-party SoCs for powering several new features for the Pixel 6 experience. It notes in a recent blog post,
With Google Tensor, we’re unlocking amazing new experiences that require cutting-edge ML – including motion mode, face enabler, speech enhancement mode for video, and implementing HDRnet for video (more on these later) more). Google Tensor allows us to push the boundaries of helpfulness in a smartphone, taking it from one-size-fits-all hardware to a device that’s big enough to respect and accommodate the different ways we use our phones. is intelligent.
In our Geekbench tests, the system scored 1031 on single-core and 2876 on multi-core. it’s a dramatic improvement on that 574 more 1522 is the average we saw for the Pixel 5 – but keep in mind, that system sports a moderate Snapdragon 765G process. There’s absolutely no major content there. Compare this to 1093 and 3715. do with You get that with the Snapdragon 888-powered Samsung Galaxy S21, and it’s clear that Google’s in-house chip has a way to go in terms of sheer processing firepower. Things get even worse when compared to the 1728 and 4604 that we got in our iPhone 13 Pro testing.
The battery was one of the biggest sticking points with earlier models, but Google has addressed it here, big time. The 6 and 6 Pro have 4,614 and 5,003mAh batteries, respectively – which represent a solid upgrade from the Pixel 5’s 4,080mA. This, in turn, was a nice jump from the Pixel 4. Google says you should be able to charge for 24 hours – I found that I got around 26 hours with moderate use, so there’s good news on that front.
After several years between Pixel hardware and sales, Google really needed a tool to prop up a weak mobile division. Four years of processor development, six generations of software and some shiny new hardware all come together nicely in one package. Google has long insisted that the Pixel line is more than just an opportunity to highlight new Android software, and for once, that’s actually true.