Something new has happened to the Pixel line with the release of the 6 series phones, and it is not just the new custom Tensor chip that powers the devices, there is a genuine hardware difference between the two phones on offer.
Previously, besides the obvious bigger screen and bigger battery that came with a larger device, the standard Pixel and its XL variant were fundamentally the same phone, just sized differently.
With the 6 series, the new Pro option has a couple of additions -- it can handle millimetre wave 5G, has an additional 48-megapixel telephoto lens with 4x optical zoom, and packs more memory and storage. If any of those things are must-haves, or you simply want the biggest Google phone on offer, then the 6 Pro is your best bet.
But if you just want a big phone, then the standard 6 has you covered.
Personally, I was a fan of the small size of the regular Pixel 3 and 4, but the 6 has continued the creeping size increases that Google did with the Pixel 5 and its bigger 4a devices to such an extent that the 6 has the same footprint as the 3 XL.
The small pixel option appears to be consigned to the scrapheap, and the world is a little poorer for it.
Beyond physical footprint, the 6 series also has an entirely new look. This is most obvious on the back of the phone where Google has opted for a two-tone rear, separated by not-so-much a camera bump, but more of a camera ledge. Despite the initial recoil reaction you might have to a bar full of cameras, I think this approach has merit.
If you are going to have a bump, why not own it and take advantage of the extra space a ledge allows? It also has the added benefit sitting at a slight angle on a desk, and not rocking to one side when it is interacted with.
Due to its in-screen fingerprint reader, this means the phone can sit on a desk, and there is no need to poke a finger behind, or hover your face over to biometrically unlock the phone.
The new silicon: Tensor and cameras
The real starter of the 6th edition of the Pixel show is Google's new Tensor chip and camera sensor.
When the Pixel first appeared, it was spoken about in the same realm as Apple and Samsung on the photo-taking front. Google settled for using a 12MP Sony sensor and decided it could make the output better through software. This approach worked well for years, but it was probably one rotation of the Sun out of date last year. This year, Google has finally delivered an updated sensor in the form of a new 50-megapixel sensor for the back camera.
This sensor produces better pictures than prior Pixels, handles light better so night mode kicks in less, and takes slightly wider pictures at 1x zoom than the Pixel 5. Comparing ultrawide photos between the Pixel 6 and 5, even though the interface will state it is operating at 0.7x on the 6 and 0.6x on the 5 at minimum zoom, the photos are still slightly larger from the 6.
That's not to say Google is not throwing all the AI it can muster at camera output -- this is still a Google phone after all.
To that end, this is all the high-level explanation you need for why Google created its own chip, the Tensor. This thing is built to run AI models that Google always wanted to run on its own, but feels it couldn't.
Speaking to journalists, Google senior director of product management for silicon Monika Gupta said the company felt like it was being held back.
"We had all this amazing technology in-house state of the art ML models, but we couldn't actually deliver them into Pixel, or we could ... in a compromised way because we couldn't actually run the most sophisticated, most state-of-the-art ML models that we wanted .... until now, until Tensor."
Gupta added that all of the chip has been designed to help run AI while impacting the 4,524mAh battery's life as little as possible. As a side note, the 6 series has a 30-watt charger that is said to do 50% charge in 6 minutes, however in my testing, it would not charge a Pixel 5, but was fine on a Pixel 4a.
In raw performance terms for Tensor, Geekbench scored the 6 above newer Samsung phones for single-core tasks but lower when it came to multi-core performance. While benchmarks never tell the full story, the important takeaway is that Google is placing back near the top of the charts with this chip, and it is going to be able to handle regular workloads with aplomb.
AI when the machine has more learning to do
Google has said there is no better demonstration of the culmination of its AI and hardware capabilities than Material You -- the functionality in Android 12 where the interface colours are gleaned from the images used for wallpaper and lock screens.
It is important to point out that I have a Pixel 4a in front of me that runs Android 12 and has this functionality, and it's using a Qualcomm Snapdragon 765G, hardly the world's premier AI-interference platform.
I also find Material You to be rather dumb and has a love of pastel colours. For instance, on my devices, there is a love of light pastel pink, pastel blue, and pastel purple in the main, with some yellow or green sometimes thrown in.
I've found any kind of red will make the AI suggest its favourite is pink, as will for some reason the following picture of Baby Yoda.
It also doesn't help that Material You relies on changing the compliant app's background colour to help its personalisation, which means when the user has dark mode enabled, an entire dimension is instead replaced by an unchanging dark background. This is further compounded by the dark background not being complementary to subtle changes in tones selected, at times.
I asked Google whether the black box AI uses only wallpapers as input or if it also injects the camera roll as part of the process because some of the colour choices are baffling, but it said the colour was based on only the "most recently applied wallpaper".
"Each one of those colours are then used to generate a palette. The 'Wallpaper colors' tab in the 'Wallpaper & style' app enables the user to try out each of those generated palettes. The selected palette is applied onto the system UI and supported apps," the company said.
"Through the use of colour science, the algorithm that generates the pallet is also able to guarantee we meet accessibility standards and contrast ratios that make sure apps and the system are always usable to everyone."
In testing Material You, I found I had developed intense opinions on wallpapers, which is not something I expected coming into this review. If you can find a wallpaper and colour choice combination that works for you, then you've won the AI lottery. Otherwise, do not think it will make a material difference to your experience of using a Pixel, you are much more likely to be disappointed.
Other AI features feel similarly half-baked and it is going to be a rare person that makes extensive use of them all.
The magic eraser tool to remove objects from photos is basically a smart Photoshop clone tool. When it works, it's great -- once again, you feel like you've won the AI lottery -- but one time I tried to remove someone beside me and for my trouble that person was replaced with a third arm. So this tool is far from faultless.
Live translate is cool, but I am still personally suspicious of automated translation tools knowing the importance of having the right context and register for certain phrases.
Other features like Direct My Call and Wait Times are only available in the United States and may never appear in Australia, and therefore, should not be factored into your purchasing decision, unless you are in the US.
There is also the lack of simple labelling from Google on what is an Android feature, what is a Pixel feature, and what is a 6 series feature.
For instance, the 4a has Material You, but no magic erasure tooling. As Google has done in the past with apps like its Recorder, it has made it unclear which of the abovementioned AI features will make their way into existing Pixels in the coming months and years?
I wouldn't pick up a new Pixel based on the potential benefit of the AI features; there simply is not enough reliability where they will be of benefit. When they are beneficial, it's a lovely additional extra, a treat you were not expecting.
Because this is all software, Google can easily update the models to address any of these drawbacks, so it is very much wait-and-see on this front.
Beyond AI, there is one addition that is truly baffling, involving how to power off the device by default. When the user presses the power button the Google Assistant will jump in asking to help, and if it is the first time the button is pressed, the assistant will provide a tutorial on what you were trying to do, power the phone off. The Google-preferred process is for the user to speak the words "power off" to the phone, which will then bring up the power menu as it previously did.
The process is not able to be completed if the microphone has been blocked, which is allowed on Android 12.
Thankfully, an option exists to remove this Assistant injecting behaviour and restore the power button with power menu functionality.
Whether to take the plunge
Thankfully for Google, the questionable software is either able to be switched off, replaced, or extraneous to the experience -- such is the flexibility of Android.
It leaves the hardware as the real selling point, and on this front, the Pixel 6 does great.
The phone comes in two storage options, 128GB for AU$1,000 and 256GB for AU$1,130, and the choice of greeny-blue and yellow Sorta Seafoam, two-tone pink Kinda Coral, and dark and light grey Stormy Black.
By comparison, the 6 Pro is over AU$300 more expensive for each storage option, and charges AU$1,600 for its 512GB option. Whether millimetre wave 5G and the telephoto lens is worth AU$300 for you is the purchasing decision to make. Either way, the Pixels are competitively priced.
If you are a Pixel 3 or 4 owner that has been waiting for a premium Pixel to reappear in order to upgrade, then this is the phone for you.
If you are happy with your old Android phone, then no, the best Pixel series can wait. But when you are due to upgrade, it should definitely be high up the list of contenders.
While the 6 Pro is there to battle against the iPhone Pros and Samsung Ultras of the world, the Pixel 6 is there to fill a void in a workman-like fashion and get the job done.
This phone delivers, quibbles with software aside, but there's a major part of me left wishing that Google had made something called a Pixel 6 mini.