Google’s incursion into hardware has shown us a very interesting pattern of priorities. From forgettable looks, to odd design choices, and even a brief stint into only making mid-rangers, it’s clear Google has always been open to experiment. I can’t really say I’d call any of their phones visually great, but their software was a different story.
It’s crazy how the company has spent years delivering some of the best photography I’ve ever taken, more software updates than every other Android OEM, and steady feature enhancements even to old devices, all while using aging camera sensors and less-powerful chips than the rest.
It makes me wonder if this is the reason for their lack of success. It’s sad to see more enthusiasm in the comments than we see in sales figures. It only proves a point that regardless of how victorious Google is in software, hardware requires moves that are just as bold.
This is the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro. What Google calls the best they have to offer, built around you, and what I would call the most dramatic change Google has ever done to this lineup. Now that “built around you” premise is pretty tall for a product you can’t customize at checkout like a Moto X, but the real question is if these are better phones than before.
I think the best way to start is with the obvious: Google was really out to make a statement with these phones. From the leaks the company took-over months ago to the design language, there’s a lot about these phones that’s interesting, but none of that does a better job than the price tags. I’m going to go out on a limb and call these the new flagship killers because for what you get, these numbers are pretty impulsive.
Now the first thing to note is that the days of the small Pixel are over. Doesn’t matter which variant you pick, both are pretty massive. Think of the Pixel 6 as nearly the same footprint of a Pixel 4 XL, and the 6 Pro as more like a Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, which wouldn’t bother me as much if the power button wouldn’t be over the volume rocker, and without the ridges Google always provided before to tell a difference… Their colors are similar and yet different, so to tell them apart, notice the flat approach with matte rails of the 6 vs the curved and shiny borders on the 6 Pro. Also keep in mind that the Gorilla Glass Victus is only in the front of the Pixel 6, while the Pro has it on both sides. In a word they both feel pretty premium, which is already something other OEMs are skimping on at the non-Pro price level.
What makes the price of the Pixel 6 pretty irresistible is that internally they’re almost the same phone. Each device has Google’s new Tensor chip, same Titan M2 security co-processor, and the same starting storage. The 6 Pro just starts at a bit more RAM, has an extra storage tier, a slightly larger battery, and includes mmWave 5G, while the Pixel 6 only brings sub-6. Every other antenna, IP rating, and even the fast and reverse wireless charging is then shared between each unit.
Another slight difference is their displays, in more than just the curves. They both have gorgeous OLED panels with the same HDR certifications and high contrast ratio. What varies is that the 6 Pro is Quad HD+ vs HD+, and that the 6 Pro is variable refresh rate up to 120hz, while the Pixel 6 only supports 90. Still, the more I’ve used them, the more I’ve realized they’re both just as great, and their dual firing speakers assist far better than any other Pixel before them for content consumption.
That said, even with how gorgeous the hardware looks from every angle, I’ve struggled with how it blends with the software. See, Material You is a pretty different approach to stock Android, but as much as Google claims that it adapts to you, that’s really a matter of taste. It favors larger text and larger icons, which is great for a guy like me in need of reading glasses. The problem is that you really can’t switch that off easily if you prefer density. The result is a large phone with a more spread out user interface, which is just code for a lot of wasted space. It might be more in-your face, but it defeats the purpose of having so much real-estate and pixel density. A clear example is the home screen. I’m the kind of guy who prefers as many useful widgets in my primary screen, but given the placement of the “At a glance” widget you can’t remove, plus the limited grid availability, I’m kind of forced to have this be the only phone I can’t customize the way I want. And listen, sure.. Change your wallpaper and notice the entire UI adopt a different color scheme. Have the icons adapt to the theme if that’s your thing. I find all these things nice to have, but not enough to consider this phone built around me. If Material You is all about giving me a user interface that adapts to my wallpaper, well.. how’s that any different or better than the way every other Android phone has supported themes for years?
It’s the main reason I can’t say I’ve enjoyed using this phone for some tasks. It’s harder to handle with one hand, and it seems the top visor doesn’t really help weight distribution. The fingerprint scanner on the screen is welcomed during this pandemic, but also not the fastest I’ve used. That said, on a positive front, there are little things I do enjoy about this phone. It’s dictation capabilities are second to none for example, in addition to how it can transcribe voice notes better than any other phone. Also, battery life has been pretty good. I wouldn’t call either a two day phone, but good enough to get through a moderate to heavy day. Same thing with phone calls and data retention where my experience has been pretty solid across the board while using Google Fi.
But alright, the reason why this Pixel 6 Pro will remain either in my pocket or bag remains the same. Google has been slaying photography for years in ways that make no logical sense given past hardware limitations. Imagine all that software capability, now matched with a real spec sheet. The samples you’ll see are mainly of the Pro variant as the only difference between the regular is the extra telephoto lens, plus the wider selfie camera, with the obvious performance improvements in those specific scenarios.
There are daylight photos, and then there’s Pixel daylight, with an added punch in contrast that seriously makes clouds pop better than any phone out there. Color science seems untouched from every other Pixel I’ve reviewed, along with this phone’s epic capabilities in dynamic range. Make the shot more epic, or now add a bit of zoom to get some software detail with the Pixel 6, or go all out with 4X optical or even further on the Pixel 6 Pro. Even if the later lacks all the chops of an S21 Ultra, the hardware and the software give it a close run for its money.
Night mode is where things get a bit mixed. See, I would say no other phone can handle low light from any focal length better than this one, but the problem is lens flares. Like in the case of the original Pixel, both these phones create a sunflower effect around lights that doesn’t just get in the way of accuracy, but also affects photos that have some light hitting the camera. Not sure if Google can fix this with software, but I do hope it happens.
Now, I’m mixed because in everything else this is the coolest camera for a regular consumer. Want that long exposure effect to stretch the lights across your scene. There’s a mode for that. Want a moving photo that gives your subject some extra pop, there’s a mode. Want to erase people from a shot? Magic Eraser is seriously one of the best implementations I’ve seen, and so easy to use. Want to do astrophotography without having to get manual controls just right, just point your phone to the stars and enable the mode. Even up to selfies and portraits, the Pixel is just too good at removing layers of complexity from the user and helping you get shots that no other phone can easily provide.
I also feel Google has made some dramatic enhancements to video. Colors, performance and detail seem to have an added pop that only compliments the epic stabilization Google has been known for since Pixel 1. I’m also happy to see that we finally get 4K video from the selfie camera on the Pixel 6 Pro with results that are just as good, even if sadly you’ll still be stuck at 1080p if you choose the regular variant.
Google Pixel 6 5G
One flagship killer
A Pixel is a Pixel. Perks like immediate software updates, extended software support, constant feature drops, and the wow factor that the software can bring to these cameras is really hard to resist.
Google Pixel 6 Pro 5G
Another flagship killer
If you’re looking for an investment in the long run, grab any of these phones. I do hope these Pixels succeed, because even if they still feel like an experiment, they’re definitely good buy.
To conclude, I think it’s important to consider that just like in the past, a Pixel is a Pixel. Perks like immediate software updates, extended software support, constant feature drops, and the wow factor that the software can bring to these cameras is really hard to resist. I seriously don’t think I’ve had this much fun using a camera, or have felt that any other phone helps me become this artistic.
It’s definitely not my favorite phone given how the UI implementation is NOT built around me, and I also wish there was a smaller size option like in the past. Still, once you match all the perks with the bold designs and these crazy price tags, and let’s be real, it sounds like I’m nitpicking. It’s as if Google just told OnePlus to hold its beer because this phone is not just less expensive than any of its offerings, but also nails what even more expensive flagships still fail at.
Neither the Pixel 6 nor the Pixel 6 Pro is a perfect phone. I’m sure you’ll find one thing or another you’d wish was different, but this is not a case where I recommend these phones for the price. I do so because I feel they’re simply too good for the money. If you’re looking for an investment in the long run, grab any of these phones. I do hope these Pixels succeed, because even if they still feel like an experiment, they’re definitely good buy.