Google’s Pixel phones have always been known for one thing: their extraordinary cameras.
Specifically, Google’s computational photography prowess — the magic of algorithms and AI/machine learning — to create (not snap) images that either match or exceed photos taken with iPhones or Samsung Galaxy phones.
After years of being the-Google-phone-with-the-great-camera, and a weird testbed for features like the “bathtub” notch on the Pixel 3 and Soli radar sensor on the Pixel 4, Google finally has a clear vision for what the Pixel is: an AI/ML phone. With a new custom chip, Tensor, the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro are not the most powerful phones, but they may well be the smartest.
Do you want the smartest — err — smartphone around? But also: Does Google’s expertise in AI/ML mean the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro’s cameras put the iPhone 13 Pro and Galaxy S21 Ultra cameras to shame? We went all out to find out. The proof is in the pictures.
You can disagree, but I think the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro look stunning. The colors ("Kinda Coral" and "Sorta Sunny" are the only colors that matter), the premium materials, the camera bar — the backsides very distinctly do not resemble other phones. Even the recycled translucent cases are sleek and pair well.
The Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro differ in a few ways:
- Design: Matte aluminum vs. polished aluminum
- Display: 6.4-inch flat OLED vs. 6.7-inch curved LTPO OLED
- Resolution: 2,400 x 1,080 vs. 3,120 x 1440
- Refresh rate: 90Hz vs. 120Hz
- Battery: 4,615 mAh s. 5,003 mAh
- RAM: 8GB vs. 12GB
- Storage: 128/256GB vs. 128/256/512GB
- Rear cameras: No telephoto vs. 48-megapixel 4x optical zoom telephoto
- Front camera: 8 megapixels vs. 11 megapixels
Here's how the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro are the same:
- Software: Android 12 with Material You
- Charging: Fast 30W wired / Wireless Qi / Reverse wireless charging
- Rear cameras: 50-megapixel f/1.9 wide + 12-megapixel f/2.2 ultrawide
- Biometric: In-display fingerprint sensor
- Durability: IP68 water and dust resistance
These are big phones with big screens, and they're thick, too. The Pixel 6 Pro is considerably lighter than an iPhone 13 Pro Max and S21 Ultra. The displays on the iPhone 13s and Galaxy S21s are brighter, which makes HDR video even more vibrant, but you wouldn't notice it unless you did a side-by-side comparison; the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro displays are excellent. I question how bright our phone screens need to keep getting — everyone turns the brightness down to conserve power, anyway.
I think the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro look stunning.
We could debate the merits of flat displays versus curved, bezel thickness, refresh rates, resolution all day long. But these are still phones, and while I like most of what Google's serving up, there are some basic phone things that could be better. Like the placement of the power button. It's too high up and not as easy to press compared to the iPhone 13s, S21s, and OnePlus 9s. All of them have power buttons that are lower with the volume rocker above them or on the other side. I don't have huge hands so I'm always shimmying the phones in my hand to reach the power buttons, and it gets annoying fast.
The haptics are also different — better on the Pixel 6 Pro than the 6. The Pixel 6 Pro's haptic motor is positioned near the bottom of the phone so it buzzes your palm; it's a strong vibration. The Pixel 6 has a motor that's near the top so it vibrates near the camera bar; it feels weak because it's farther away.
The Pixel 6 and 6 Pro are the first Pixels with in-display fingerprint readers. They're slow on both phones; I had more failed unlocks than on the S21 Ultra or OnePlus 9 Pro. There's also no face unlock of any kind. I know, face unlock on Android is less secure than Face ID on iPhones, and it's less useful when you're wearing a mask. But I love the speed of opening my phone with my face. It would have been nice to have the option given how unreliable the fingerprint reader is.
All of the other stuff is rock solid. Good to see you, IP68 rating and reverse wireless charging. I will say, I was disappointed there's no longer a charger in the box; previous Pixels came with a fast charger. You only get a USB-C-to-USB-C cable and a USB-A-to-USB-C adapter. I'm not even sure why the USB adapter is included anymore since the cable is USB-C on both ends; a headphone jack dongle would have been better.
The brain of the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro is Tensor, Google's first custom-designed system-on-a-chip (SoC). The chipset mirrors Apple's shift from off-the-shelf ARM chips to its own mobile silicon for iPhones. Apple went custom SoC in 2010 with the A4 in the iPhone 4. Google is only now realizing Qualcomm's Snapdragon chips — powerful and common as they are in Android phones — are holding the Pixel phones back.
Tensor is not as powerful as the latest Snapdragon 888/888+ chip that powers phones like the S21 Ultra and OnePlus 9 Pro. For single-core CPU processing, it benchmarks about as fast as the Snapdragon 865 chip in last year's OnePlus 8 Pro; its multi-core processing is only slightly faster than the Snapdragon 855 in the OnePlus 7 Pro. And the iPhone 13/13 Pro — their A15 Bionic chips mop the floor with the Pixel 6s.
Tensor is capable enough for basic Android phone tasks and popular apps, but it's not very performant for 3D gaming. I tried Genshin Impact and Asphalt 9 — two of the most GPU-intensive mobile games — and while the graphics looked great, the framerates were not. After only a few minutes of running around Genshin's luscious world and battling enemies, I ran into framerate drops; movement got choppier and the Pixel 6s became warmer to the touch as more things happened on screen. In Asphalt 9, the game frequently froze for a second or two whenever I raced through a course with lots of weather effects and destructive environments, while trying to do 360-spin knockdowns on rival cars; this same gameplay runs hiccup-free on the iPhone 13s, S21 Ultra, or OnePlus 9 Pro.
If not for the bountiful amount of RAM (8GB for the Pixel 6 and 12GB for the 6 Pro), I don't think these games would run smoothly at all. And even with tons of RAM, Android 12 — refreshing as it is — is glitchy. On several occasions, BDG chief content officer Josh Topolsky, who's also been dailying the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro, and I both noticed a bunch of UI glitches and lag across Android 12 that left us bewildered. The bugs usually disappeared after locking the screen or rebooting, but the frequency in which they appeared daily was enough to make us question just how well Google tuned Android for Tensor; it's not the level of responsiveness you get with iOS and Apple's A-series chips on iPhones. Then again, Apple's been at custom silicon for over 10 years; this is Google's first mobile rodeo.
It's not very performant for 3D gaming.
The middling CPU and GPU performance shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone since Google is upfront about Tensor's strength for AI and machine learning applications. Tensor shines more for features like speech recognition with the Google Assistant, computational photography, and live on-device translations. Rick Osterloh, Google's senior vice president of devices and services, said Tensor enables "our most helpful, most personal, most Google phone ever."
But is Tensor really a game-changer in day-to-day use? That depends on how hard you drink the Google AI/machine learning Kool-Aid. If you don't use the Assistant often, or you don't need to live translate text often, or you don't use your voice to type (up to 3x faster on Pixel 6 than on past Pixel phones), many of Tensor's benefits will be lost on you. Are you making that many calls to businesses with automated systems that you need your phone to transcribe the keypad options and wait on the line for you? The Pixel 6 makes all of these inconveniences more tolerable, but they’re not major selling points.
However, if you're that person who's all in on these features — and you really have to make some big changes to how you use your phone — then Tensor is an upside to the Pixel 6s. I'm not this person. I've tried to be this person for years with Pixel after Pixel phone, but the way I use my phone just doesn't lend itself to all this "ambient computing" that Google is trying to sell. I asked two friends who are diehard Pixel users, and even they don't use their phones the way Google markets them. Most people use the Assistant occasionally, and the other features like Google Translate when it's necessary, but not all day, every day. Google's AI/ML-driven features are undoubtedly useful — I love how much faster and more accurate the real-time transcription in the recorder app is — but I've yet to meet a person who uses all or many of Google's ambient features so often that it'd justify switching to the Pixel 6s.
Tensor also makes the Pixel 6s super secure, according to Google. In addition to the Titan M2 security chip that protects data like your passwords, there's a security core right on the Tensor SoC that runs private tasks separately and securely. I'm no hacker so I can't vouch for the security, but Google claims these two safeguards make the Pixel 6s the most secure Pixels ever and "the most layers of hardware security in any phone" according to Google product manager Sandra Ellis.
Battery life also got better. For the first few days of heavy use, even with huge batteries, I barely made it through a day with either phone, especially when I took lots of photos and videos (I did). After a few weeks, the phones settled down and I’m now getting longer screen-on-time reports. (It’s well-documented that it can take weeks for Android to optimize battery life after setup.)
The defining feature for Pixels has always been the cameras. Google's computational photography was so good that it infamously used the same image sensor from Pixel 2 to Pixel 5, and still managed to mostly keep pace with phones with newer and larger image sensors for low-light capture.
For the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro, Google revamped all the cameras (front and back) with higher resolution sensors, improved lenses with larger apertures, and sprinkled more powerful computational photography, enabled by Tensor, to crank things to eleven.
The Pixel 6 and 6 Pro camera specs look impressive on paper, but they do not blow the iPhone 13 Pro and Galaxy S21 cameras away. Despite the main wide lens having a 50-megapixel image sensor, the Pixel 6s can only spit out 12-megapixel photos; there's no way to shoot full-resolution pics like on other Android phones with high-resolution sensors. Most photos look as good as shots taken with the iPhone 13s or S21s. And sometimes, the photos look worse. Photos can be oversharpened; shadow and contrast detail inexplicably reduced; Night Sight still tends to over-brighten low-light photos to the point where much of a scene's darkness is wiped out.
Google has made a number of improvements to the entire imaging pipeline in the Pixel 6s that make the cameras better. For most general outdoor shots, it’s really hard to spot any differences between the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro cameras versus other phones.
As with past Pixel phones, the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro have a tendency to go a little overboard with the HDR processing. It boosts the color in the shadows, which is maybe what you might prefer anyway, but it’s not at all close to what the scene actually looked like. It really comes down to the processing you want.
Dark skin tones
I’ve got light skin so I’ve never had an issue with wonky skin tones. Google says the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro are its most “inclusive” cameras ever thanks to more accurate image processing for skin tones for people of color. I asked Input deputy editor Cheyenne MacDonald to model for me, and according to her, the Pixel 6 Pro looked the best, followed by Samsung’s Z Flip 3, and then the iPhone 12 Pro, which looked the worst, washing her skin tones out.
All of these bowls of ramen look pretty damn delicious to me.
Shadows & white balance
Things change when you shoot indoors. Shadows, contrast, and white balance all process differently. Here’s an image of a wooden dragon head on my bookshelf. With autofocus doing its own thing (no tap on screen from me), the Pixel 6 Pro does a much better job preserving shadows compared to the Pixel 6. The same shot (not shown) from my iPhone 12 Pro turned on Deep Fusion to process the mid-level luminance and capture more details; the iPhone 13 Pro’s larger sensor just nailed the shot — white balance and all. The Pixel 5 actually holds its own; the image is bluer, but the details are sharp. However, it did automatically turn on Night Sight to give it a boost; none of the other cameras activated their respective night modes. The Galaxy S21 Ultra pic — it’s a little soft, but that’s a common trait for Samsung phones (tap-to-focus takes better photos than regular autofocus).
Tensor enables two “Motion” modes: Action Pan and Long Exposure. Action Pan creates pictures with a sense of speed; Long Exposure simulates, well, long exposures. There’s also an over-hyped Magic Eraser for removing distractions in images.
These features are fun, but at the same time, Action Pan and Long Exposure modes don't always nail the stylistic shot; they're labeled "beta" features and their usefulness is limited to whether you care for that kind of photography. I instantly fell in love with Action Pan, but it has its shortcomings. First, it’s a mode, which means it’s gotta be on before you take a shot or you’ll never capture it. One time, there was a freshly washed red Ferrari that was rolling down the street, but by the time I opened Action Pan, the car was already gone. Second, similar to Portrait mode, you can see the imperfections if you zoom in. Action Pan and Long Exposure are good for the two-inch width of an Instagram post, but not for anything larger.
My biggest complaint with Long Exposure is there’s no way to control how long the exposure is. Sometimes the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro would expose for a short period and sometimes longer. It clearly stops the exposure when it doesn’t detect motion, which led to more half-baked long exposures.
Magic Eraser can be really good at removing certain things like people or garbage. But oftentimes, the results just look bad, especially when you zoom in to peep the details. (Others have had better Magic Eraser results.)
As for the telephoto lens with 4x optical zoom (20x max digital zoom) on the Pixel 6 Pro... it’s fine. It's longer than the 3x telephhoto you get on the iPhone 13 Pro, which means you can get just a bit closer, but it pales in comparison with the dual telephoto lenses (3x and 10x optical zoom) on the S21 Ultra, which is capable of a truly brain-breaking 100x zoom (30x and 50x hybrid zoom are definitely serviceable). The Pixel 6 Pro's 20x Super Res Zoom is just not good at all. I tried photographing the Moon with the Pixel 6 Pro’s 20x zoom, and let’s just say it can’t hold a candle to the S21 Ultra’s zoom. (Then again, neither could the iPhone 13 Pro’s 15x digital zoom.)
There's also no macro mode of any kind on the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro. While I don't like the auto macro mode on the iPhone 13 Pro, Apple at least lets you turn that camera-switching off, so long as you upgrade to iOS 15.1. So many Android phones have macro modes on the ultra-wide camera — the omission on the Pixel 6s' is notable.
My big takeaway after shooting with the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro cameras: Image quality is great, but not so great it makes the iPhone 13 Pro or S21 Ultra eat dust. Apple and Samsung caught up, and the differences are minor at this point. My main pain point with the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro cameras is that they’re not very consistent. Unlike the iPhone 13 Pro and S21 Ultra, where I'm confident in the shot I click every time, the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro cameras feel more like a guessing game. Maybe Google can fine-tune the cameras with software updates (OnePlus is always tweaking the cameras on its phones for better image quality). But as they are now, the cameras on the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro are great, but not leaps ahead of the iPhone 13 or S21 Ultra.
No bad selfies here. Regular or portrait mode.
Processing time can also be annoyingly slow. For low-light photography, the Pixel 6' auto Night Sight requires you to hold the phone steady for longer and wait for the image to finish processing, compared to the S21 Ultra, which is faster to expose and process; Tensor just isn't fast enough. Meanwhile, the iPhone 13 Pro's huge sensor lets in so much light that Night mode rarely needs to kick in. And when it does, Apple's A15 Bionic is way faster at processing the photo, to the point where it's instant or near-instant.
The image sensor for the 50-megapixel shooter on the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro cameras is larger than ever before; Google says it lets in 2.5x more light than the sensor on the Pixel 5. For night shots, that means cleaner shots in the dark with less image noise. But like low-light, the Pixel 6s lean on auto Night Sight to get an edge, whereas the iPhone 13 Pro is usually able to snap a photo without needing you to hold steady.
The below shots were taken around 11:15 p.m., and just like in the low-light set, you can see the difference in white balance (Pixel again skews blue and iPhone leans warmer) and how much darkness is preserved in each shot. If you zoom in, there’s a good amount of detail in the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro images, but that’s also true for the iPhone 13 Pro and S21 Ultra. And if you really look closely, you can see more lens flaring (look at the top of the building to the right of the flags) in the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro images.
In terms of video capture, Google says it's made significant upgrades to video quality and stabilization. Video is definitely less jerky compared to previous Pixels, but iPhones still reign supreme for shooting videos; the iPhone 13 Pro does ProRes and Cinematic mode. Many flagship Android phones, like the S21 Ultra, can also capture 8K video; the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro are limited to 4K at 60 fps.
A comparison between the Google Pixel 6 Pro vs. iPhone 13 Pro's cameras / stabilization for shooting 4K 60 fps video. Also a test of the front-facing cameras and microphones for vlogging.
The Pixel 6 and 6 Pro are Google's most beautiful and feature-packed phones to date. They also highlight the areas where Google still has work to do if it's to make even a dent in iPhone and Galaxy phone sales.
Pricing is the best thing the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro have going for them — arguably the best reason to buy them. Google's flagship Android phones undercut the iPhone 13s, Galaxy S21s, and OnePlus 9s. The Pixel 6 starts at $599 and the Pixel 6 Pro at $899. The iPhone 13 starts at $799 (13 mini starts at $699) and the iPhone 13 Pro at $999 / $1,099 for the 13 Pro Max. The Galaxy S21 starts at $799 and the S21 Ultra at $1,199. The OnePlus 9 starts at $659 and the 9 Pro starts at $969. (These are all MSRP so, of course, there are discounts and trade-ins that might lower the cost.)
It’s remarkable what a dramatic difference a year makes. The Pixel 6 and 6 Pro are a stark 180 from last year's basic, mid-range Pixel 5. I think anyone who buys these new phones (they’re out of stock and Google is warning of supply chain shortages) will be satisfied, but The Best Phone? The best cameras in any phone? Google's still got a ways to go before Apple and Samsung need to start sweating.
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