The Pixel 6 (from £599, Google.com) and Pixel 6 pro (£849, Google.com) have a high bar set for them. With a new design, camera, operating system and machine-learning chips, the search giant and its hardware chief Rick Osterloh are really pushing these devices as the Google phones.
While previous Pixel devices have been aimed at a mid-range market, these new handsets are intended to squarely take on Apple and Samsung.
Choosing between the two is relatively straightforward. Although there are differences – camera, screen size and price – the essence of the phones remain the same. Deciding between the Pixel 6 or the Pixel 6 pro mostly comes down to how far your budget can stretch.
Through the combined hardware and software, Google wants these to be the brand’s “most personal and most helpful” phones ever, and the 6 and 6 pro are undoubtedly the most compelling Pixel phones to date, with better designs and more features than ever before. But Android 12 still requires some time before Google’s vision is fully manifested, and people already invested in Samsung and Apple might need some more convincing in order to make the move.
How we tested
We put the Google Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 pro through their paces for one week, looking at build quality, camera capabilities and artificial intelligence editing, display, and their general performance against major competitors. Here’s what we thought.
A new design
The most obvious change to the Pixel devices is in their design, with a large horizontal camera bar running across the top of the back of the device. While other manufacturers usually place the rear cameras on the top left, Google clearly wants the Pixel to stand out from the crowd and have people notice when you’re using it.
The camera bump does jut out of the back but is not particularly noticeable when in a case – which most people will keep theirs in – and the slight ridge means that fingers do not accidentally stray across the lens while holding it.
The most obvious design change is a large horizontal camera bar running across the top of the device
Both phones have a glossy glass back that feels good to hold but is not quite as satisfying as the matte resin on the Pixel 5, the smoothness of the Pixel 4 or Samsung’s note 20 ultra, which is slightly sleeker. Hopefully future Pixels will return to that trend, as, in our opinion, no phone has surpassed the feeling of the Pixel 4 yet.
Also missing from the back is the fingerprint scanner from the Pixel 5, and there is no Project Soli face ID on the front either. Instead, Google has opted for a fingerprint scanner under the screen – which it says is more secure – and a small hole-punch notch at the top and in the middle. This does mean that it lacks some features other phones have, like glancing at the screen to check the detail on notifications, but it is not a noticeable trade-off and one we’re happy to make in exchange for more privacy.
Both the Pixel 6 and the 6 pro have bright, punchy displays that should satisfy anyone, made of Gorilla glass victus to ensure their strength. It’s the best display Google has put on a phone yet, and it feels easily comparable to the best Samsung can offer.
The quality of the display more than stands up to the competition
The Pixel 6 has a 6.4in 1080p OLED display with a 60-90Hz refresh rate for smooth scrolling. The Pixel 6 pro, meanwhile, has a large 6.7in, 1440p screen with slightly smaller bezels, and a 10-120Hz refresh rate. This makes it more responsive for quick-action games, but also means it can save power when it’s not needed for the always-on display.
The 6 pro has aluminium sides compared to the matte, squarer ones on the regular 6, which adds a certain premium feel to the bigger sibling, but also gives it curved edges, making it less aesthetically pleasing to us than a cut, flat screen.
Inside the two phones is Google’s custom-designed system-on-a-chip called Tensor, which it claims can compete with the Qualcomm snapdragon 888 that is generally found in other flagship phones.
There’s 8GB of RAM with 128 or 256GB of storage on the Pixel 6, and 12GB of RAM and a base of 128GB of storage that can go up to 512GB on the Pixel 6 pro.
Generally, apps open quickly and work responsively, as one should expect from any flagship phone, although some programs, such as Hearthstone, occasionally crashed unexpectedly. This happened so infrequently, however, that it’s hard to know the cause and we feel it’s unlikely most people would notice anything similar.
Android 12, Google’s new operating system, also runs smoothly on this device with the new “material you” aesthetic and updates to menus. Widgets and button palettes now automatically match the colours in the phone’s background image and there’s a beta setting for “themed icons” that changes the bright colours of Gmail, YouTube, Photos and the Play Store apps to two-tone palettes.
Eventually, Google aims for all apps – including third-party ones – to change while this feature is turned on, but no other major common apps such as Instagram, WhatsApp, Twitter or Netflix have been updated yet.
At this stage of development, we’re a little disappointed by Google’s claims of personalisation; we don’t often use widgets because we prefer to use the real estate on our phone’s screen for apps but, even if we did, having them be a slightly different colour is hardly the be-all-and-end-all.
Perhaps this will feel different in a few more updates time, and maybe users will enjoy the minor bells and whistles currently available, but since Android is known for its array of launchers, icon packs, and more, users can already get a much more personalised user interface on other phones.
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On the other hand, compared to Apple and iOS 15, it is nice to see Google trying to cater for specific users. iPhones have looked essentially the same inside and out since the iPhone X (bar a different camera bump and Apple’s own widgets) and have only just allowed people to move widgets around on the home screen. The consistency between devices has been a boon for Apple, as it makes it easy to upgrade, but its current stagnation may push people to try something different for change.
Another major change for Android 12 is a new, easy way to find the “privacy dashboard” in the Settings menu. From here users can find out exactly what permissions they have granted to apps and rescind them, and discover how often private information such as their location or camera and microphone usage has been requested during the past 24 hours.
The company is pitching the Pixel 6 as a more secure device. “With Tensor’s new security core and Titan M2, Pixel 6 will have the most layers of hardware security in any phone,” the company said in a blog post, basing the claim on “a count of independent hardware security subsystems and components”.
While we’ve not been able to unilaterally check that, it is gratifying to see Google attempt a balance between utility and privacy – especially when its business model is so dependent on knowing as much as possible about its users.
Google’s Tensor processor, meanwhile, uses machine learning to help with voice recognition, Google Assistant and some new photo-editing features utilising the Pixel 6 and 6 pro’s new cameras.
On the back of the standard 6 is a 50MP main sensor – much larger than Google has used before – and a 12MP f/2.2 ultra-wide lens. The Pixel 6 pro has that too, as well as an additional 4x telephoto camera, and Google says the new sensor can take in 150 per cent more light than the Pixel 5.
Between the Pixel 6 pro and Samsung’s note 20 ultra, both cameras perform admirably. The Pixel 6 pro has a slightly deeper sense of contrast, seen when photographing a white building against a dark grey cloud, and generally handles colours more naturally than its competitors.
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Pictures on the Samsung, meanwhile, had an overall brighter look that might look better on social media but can err on the side of flat compared to the more dramatic Pixel 6 pro.
One other feature that Google is touting is its magic eraser and motion-blurring capabilities, handled by the artificial intelligence in the Tensor chip. This allows people to remove objects or other people from the background to make a more compelling, less distracting image.
Google is not the first to offer this feature; Huawei’s P40 phones had a “remove passerby” mode and Samsung has its own “object eraser” tool. Comparing Samsung and Google’s tools gave mixed results – sometimes Samsung managed to remove rocks and detritus on a sandy beach without as many artefacts left over, and other times Google came out on top.
Any artefacts, from both companies, are less obvious when looked at on a phone or uploaded on social media – especially when erasing things from the background rather than the foreground – but when blown up on a big screen they are still visible. For important shots you might want to keep around the house, I would recommend getting a professional to touch them up rather than relying on the algorithms.
The action pan motion blur and a long exposure mode give a greater sense of motion, but require some practice
Google’s Tensor chip also has an “action pan” motion blur mode and a long-exposure mode, although we are yet to fully test these out in a wide range of situations. Using the mode when standing on a beach made the waves whip out in a way that did give it a greater sense of motion, but it still looks a little like the photographer was moving when the shot was taken. This mode will require some practice from the user before they feel comfortable using it in make-or-break situations like sporting events.
The battery life on both the Pixel 6 (4614mAh) and the Pixel 6 pro (5004mAh) is very good, and a marked improvement on the Pixel 4 XL. Using the phones intensively all day – taking photos, playing games, watching videos – they still managed to last until the next morning without needing to be charged.
This is no doubt helped by Google’s “adaptive battery” mode, which analyses and predicts which apps you will use and reduces power to the ones that are rarely opened. Enabling and disabling the mode, we experienced no difference in the performance or responsiveness of apps.
The verdict: Pixel 6 and 6 pro
For people who love Pixel phones – or Android phones – the move from the Pixel 5 to the Pixel 6 or 6 pro is an obvious choice. Google has taken the pleasure of pure Android, boosted the cameras, battery and design, and let it loose into the world. The Pixel used to be a mundane device; Google has now added a welcome bit of sparkle.
It is compelling enough to move us from a Samsung note 20 ultra, although the competition is very close. The camera has more depth, the user interface is cleaner, and little features like “at a glance” for calendar or weather information in the top left, or music detection, make Pixel devices feel more sophisticated than others.
If we had a Galaxy Watch and Galaxy buds headphones it might be harder for the Pixel to pull us astray, but those using third-party Android-compatible devices such as Bose headphones or Fossil watches could certainly be compelled.
Buying a smartphone nowadays is less about the device and more about the ecosystem, and prospective users should always keep that in mind.
That is even more true for Apple, where the features of a united iPhone, Apple Watch, and Mac ecosystem with iMessage and iCloud make it hard for people to swap. The Pixel 6 and 6 pro are good devices, but not good enough to break those chains.
Ultimately the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 pro feel like a refresh for the range, and for those looking for a new Android device, these are absolutely models to consider.
Google seems to be finally taking its place in the market seriously and its ability to control the stack – hardware and software – should not be underestimated; it’s what has given Apple its strength, after all. Even if this generation of Pixel is not a true iPhone competitor, that gap looks to be closing.
Google Pixel 6 pro
Google Pixel 6
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