Google Pixel 6 Pro smartphone review: Android’s homegrown hero
The Google Pixel 6 Pro is one of the best Android phones around and it comes at a surprising price.
Google wants you to know that it has developed some extremely powerful artificial intelligence technologies. During the announcement event for its Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro smartphones (which are currently up for pre-order), the company plainly claimed that off-the-shelf smartphone components weren’t powerful enough to handle the algorithmic AI feats it hoped to achieve. So, the company built its own custom system on a chip called Tensor with technology from semiconductor design company ARM.
As with Apple and its chiips, Google’s new chip strategy isn’t about brute force power, but rather maximizing efficiency across internal systems to make much better use of the hardware. By tightly linking the CPU, GPU, the image signal processor, the machine learning engine, and the rest of the systems, Google believes it can create a system that runs fast and more efficiently while enabling AI features that were previously out of reach. At least in the case of the Pixel 6 Pro, Google has found a home for its lofty AI aspirations.
Google Pixel 6 Pro specs
With a custom chip onboard, it’s hard to directly compare the Pixel 6 Pro’s specs to its competition since the actual numbers don’t necessarily directly translate into performance. The Tensor chip has a total of 8 CPU cores, two of which are built for performance, two of which are considered mid-range cores, and four that fall into the “high-efficiency” category. The GPU has a total of 20 cores. You’ll find that same chip in the base-level Pixel 6, but the Pixel 6 Pro gets a bump up to 12 GB RAM as part of its premium price.
Generally speaking, this proved plenty of computing firepower to handle all of the typical tasks I tried with the Pixel 6 Pro without stutters. Direct speed comparisons to Apple’s A-series processors and Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 888 5G have been somewhat inconclusive in their results but, from a real-world perspective, Google’s in-house chip seems plenty burly to handle whatever Android task you ask of it. I edited video, tweaked some raw files in Lightroom Mobile, and played a little bit too much “Magic: The Gathering Arena” all without having to worry about stutters or issues of any kind, really.
The Pixel 6 Pro screen
The 6.7-inch OLED screen offers a 1,440 x 3,120 resolution, which gives it a 19.5:9 aspect ratio. That makes it bigger than the 6.4-inch Pixel 6 screen, but size isn’t its only advantage. The stock Pixel 6 display tops out at a refresh rate of 90 Hz, while the Pixel 6 Pro can up to 120 Hz for smooth motion. It can also drop that refresh rate considerably when the onscreen image is mostly static in an effort to save battery. It makes the screen feel responsive and look pleasant.
I like the overall look that the Pixel 6 Pro’s screen offers. It’s easily bright enough to use outdoors in direct sun and the colors stay punchy and vibrant, even with the brightness cranked to its maximum setting. I typically kept the brightness set around 50 percent for typical use. When it comes to color, the display skews a little cooler than the iPhone 13 Pro Max and Samsung Galaxy S21 to which I compared it.
Under the screen
Nestled at the top of the Pixel 6 Pro’s display, you’ll find a small hole through which the improved front-facing camera peeks. Honestly, I’ve never loved the pinhole strategy for selfie cameras since I find it more intrusive than a notch at the edge of the screen. That’s a personal preference, though, and it functionally disappears after you use it for a day or two and get used to the placement.
On the opposite end of the display, you’ll find a fingerprint reader that doesn’t require a hole. It does, however, light up rather bright when you put your thumb on it. It’s enough to make your thumb glow red while it’s reading your print. If you don’t cover the whole sensor area, it leaks fairly bright light around the edges of your finger, even if the overall screen brightness is turned way down.
The Google Pixel 6 Pro cameras
The Pixel 6 Pro’s cameras really give Google a chance to show off the AI advantages its new chip offers. I have always been mostly impressed with the Pixel cameras in past generations, even if the Pixel 4 did have a problem with light banding when shooting in most artificial light. Google has achieved impressive results with relatively underwhelming camera hardware thanks to its computational photography chops.
The Pixel 6 Pro offers some upgraded sensors and lenses to help provide better raw image material. The 50-megapixel main sensor has grown since the last generation, allowing it to pull in more light. Like the stock Pixel 6, the Pro also offers a 12-megapixel ultra-wide camera that isn’t quite as wide as what you get on an iPhone 13.
The Pro differentiates itself from the stock model with the 48-megapixel telephoto camera. The sensor sits inside the device, perpendicular to the main display. The lens rests in a vertical orientation and sees out through a small glass panel in the camera bar like a periscope. The telephoto camera has a much slower aperture than its wide-angle counterparts (it only opens to f/3.5, compared to f/1.85 on the main camera and f/2.2 on the ultra-wide). On paper, none of this is particularly impressive. Most flagship smartphones offer faster lenses and often larger sensors but that has been the case with the Pixel phones for generations.
Google Pixel 6 Pro camera performance
Enter Google’s imaging AI. Right off the bat, the still image quality feels very familiar. The HDR tech makes scenes look vibrant, but doesn’t crank up the contrast or the saturation as much as the iPhone and it’s a lot less than the Samsung cameras.
I still generally like the look of the images that come straight out of the Pixel 6 Pro camera system. Despite the aggressive HDR efforts to increase the dynamic range, the contrast still feels relatively natural. That said, it still has that smartphone look in which the blacks appear slightly lifted and the sharpening can make objects look downright crispy around the edges.
Switch the camera over to raw capture and you get an impressively accurate overall reproduction of a scene, but it can feel flat for people who are used to all of the post-processing that the phone typically applies when you shoot a typical photo.
Like most other smartphone camera systems, the Pixel 6 Pro accentuates high-frequency details, which means areas of the image with lots of little details will appear very sharp. This works great to make landscapes and indoor scenes look sharp and detailed, but isn’t always flattering on faces with lots of texture or beards like mine.
Right out of the camera, though, the Pixel photos are still my favorite when comparing the major players. At this point, though, the differences are relatively small, and personal taste plays a big part in which one you prefer.
Capturing motion in photos with the Pixel 6 Pro
Every time you take a picture, the camera is doing considerable work to try and recognize what’s happening in the scene and adjust its performance accordingly. For example, if the camera detects a face, it will automatically prepare to shoot with both the main camera and the super-wide camera. Capturing images with both cameras simultaneously enables features like Face Unblur, which will sharpen a subject’s face in a photo that would otherwise be entirely blurry due to motion.
Capturing motion is actually an overarching theme for the Pixel 6 cameras. There’s a “motion” tab in the available camera settings and it houses some of the most promising examples of Google’s computation photography skills.
The new Long Exposure beta replicates a familiar photographic effect that’s typically achieved by leaving the camera’s shutter open for a (relatively) long period of time and letting motion in the scene to create smooth trails of blur. True long exposures don’t typically work well on smartphone sensors because the readout is too slow and the top-down capture creates distortion.
Long-exposure apps get around this by taking a number of exposures in rapid succession, then combining them together into one image to create the illusion of motion. Google uses a similar method in the Pixel 6 Pro, but it’s using AI to interpolate the data between the frames and create a much smoother and more convincing motion effect.
The long-exposure results are impressive, even if they’re imperfect. I shot some long exposures during the day, which is tough to do with a traditional camera because long shutter speeds typically let in too much light. With the AI method, that’s not a problem. You don’t get much control over how much motion blur appears in the photo, so results vary. And sometimes the interpolation doesn’t get it just right and blur trails look a little wacky. However, it shows a lot of promise and I’d use this feature semi-regularly as it is.
Shooting video with the Pixel 6 Pro
The Pixel’s video chops have always lagged behind its still photography skills. Google chalks this up to available hardware’s inability to apply the same kind of AI magic to moving images that it can with stills. The Tensor chip appears to have made big strides in this arena, too.
Now, the Pixel can apply its HDR tech to video, even when you’re shooting high-res 4K footage at up to 60 fps. As a result, the video looks a lot more like what you’d expect from the Pixel’s still-image quality. The images are sharp—especially in high-frequency details—and the dynamic range is rather impressive.
If you’re looking for the absolute top video-image quality, I still give that title to the iPhone Pro series, but I think the vast majority of users will be more than satisfied with the Pixel 6 Pro’s AI-enhanced video output.
Holdover Pixel users may also notice that the AI processing has made the camera much more heat efficient when it comes to recording high-res video. I shot for more than 15 minutes at maximum settings without a hint of heat issues, which wouldn’t have been the case with the previous Pixels.
Pixel 6 translation skills
Voice represents another area in which the Tensor chip provides some distinct AI advantages. The Pixel 6 processes language in more natural ways that use less power thanks to the system’s structure.
I tried the real-time translation features with a friend speaking Japanese (they also speak English, so could confirm the accuracy of what was said) and the speed and efficiency with which the device can translate is truly impressive. We tried the same thing over a video call and the tech worked impressively well there, too.
This kind of thing requires tons of computational work and the Tensor chip handles it without hesitating or even substantially draining the battery. Because of the new chip, the device can handle a lot of this functionality directly on the device without the need to involve the cloud, which is good for both efficiency and security.
The overall Pixel 6 Pro experience
Starting at $899, the Pixel 6 Pro feels like it’s punching a bit above its weight. When it comes to camera quality and features, it would serve the vast majority of users just as well as top-end iPhone or Samsung Galaxy devices. That is, of course, unless you’re looking for very specific features like the iPhone’s advanced video capture or the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra’s mega-zoom.
In my time with it so far, the Pixel 6 Pro has done everything I’ve wanted it to do. The battery easily lasts a full day, even when I’m using it a lot in the name of testing. The fast-charging feature is also extremely handy and exclusive to the Pixel 6 Pro.
It’s also just an attractive-looking device. The Pro offers three color combinations with blocks of color separated by the black camera bar. I personally prefer the look of the bar rather than the individual lenses, but some people will certainly disagree.
Who should buy the Pixel 6 Pro
The Pixel 6 Pro spec sheet was encouraging after the announcement. Past models have typically compromised in some form or another, but Google clearly has a lot of faith in the 6 Pro as a real flagship device. It’s not heavy on superlatives, but the all-around package is very satisfying. I’ll update this review down the road once I’ve had more time to explore all the nuances that invariably pop up when using a device for hours a day but, for now, the Pixel 6 Pro looks like it was worth all that effort Google put into it.