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I'll confess. I've been a huge fan of Google's Pixel phone lineup since the original Pixel. I appreciated the subtle tweaks the company made to the plain version of Android. I also appreciated the Microsoft Surface-like approach Google was using to try and influence the likes of HTC, LG and even Samsung with its own smartphone initiative.
But, for the last few years, it's felt as if Google's Pixel lineup was lost. The Pixel 4 had some promise but fell short on several fronts. The Pixel 5 felt like the search giant just mailed it in -- going back to the basics, without really pushing the Pixel line forward. In fact, during that time, the A-series -- Google's budget-friendly versions of its high-end smartphones -- were not only the best deal, but were the best phones Google made.
It didn't feel right for the company behind Android and all of the services millions of people rely on daily to have to settle for having a lineup of low-end entry-level smartphones. In August of 2021, when Google announced that it would use its own Tensor processor in the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro, it sent a message that the company was finally getting serious about its smartphone ambitions. It's not a marginal investment to design, develop and produce your own chips, especially when Qualcomm has off-the-shelf chips for every tier of smartphone ready on a yearly cadence.
But announcing something as ambitious as Tensor and following through by delivering an experience that goes beyond what's been offered in the past are two different things. And after spending the last five months using the Pixel 6 Pro off and on, and it's still clear to me that not only does Google deliver on the promise of improved performance, but that the Pixel 6 Pro is the best smartphone Google has ever made. Let me explain.
This design is 100% Google
Early photos of the Pixel 6 Pro showed that Google was taking a new design approach. Gone is the plastic back with a square camera array in the top corner. Instead, there's a glass front and back on the phone, with three different color combinations that give the phones some life and break up the standard single-tone approach that most phone makers take. Your color options are Stormy Black, Cloudy White and Sorta Sunny.
On the back of the Pixel 6 Pro, just below the top edge of the phone, is the Camera Bar. Instead of a square or vertical camera array, Google opted to place a bar that spans the width of the Pixel 6 Pro, protruding from the housing and acting almost like a kickstand that places the phone at a slight angle as it rests on your desk. There are three rear-facing cameras and a single punch-hole cutout front-facing camera.
Unlike the Pixel 6 and its flat edge design, the Pixel 6 Pro's 6.7-inch display has curved vertical edges. It's similar to what Samsung used to do on some Galaxy phones, and a design approach I rather like. Unlike older Samsung devices, I haven't had any issues with accidental touches or taps on the side of the screen when holding the phone and tapping or swiping my way around.
On the right side of the phone is the sleep/wake button, with a volume rocker just below it. On the bottom is a USB-C port. The left edge of the Pixel 6 Pro is bare, save for the SIM card slot.
Pictures don't really do the color combinations or the design as a whole any justice. My first thought after opening the Pixel 6 Pro's box was that this design is exactly what I'd expect from Google. Combine the look of the phone with the Material You design approach we now have in Android 12, and it all makes sense.
Google Tensor packs performance and battery life
Inside the Pixel 6 Pro is Google Tensor, the company's first system on a chip that combines the Pixel's processor with other necessary radios and chips. Google's Titan M2 security coprocessor. The Pixel 6 Pro comes with 12GB of memory with storage options of 128GB, 256GB or 512GB. A 5,003mAh battery is also found inside the phone.
By switching away from Qualcomm's Snapdragon line of processors for phones, Google is able to customize and focus the performance of the Tensor chips on what the company prioritizes. For example, Google touts AI and battery life as two areas where the company focused on creating a reliable experience with Tensor.
And from what I've experienced, Tensor delivers. The most obvious example is battery life. The Pixel 6 Pro's battery lasts just as long as Apple's iPhone 13 Pro Max in my testing. Meaning I can go a full day and into the middle of the following day before the 6 Pro's battery runs out of power.
Google claims the performance of the Tensor chip is 80% faster than any other chip previously used in a Pixel phone, but that's not a huge claim considering the Pixel 5 (and recent A-series phones) haven't used Qualcomm's flagship processors. Instead, they've all been equipped with a 700-series chip that's more affordable at the cost of performance.
I can say this -- the Pixel 6 Pro hasn't shown any sluggishness or performance issues over the last week. Apps not only open fast, be it from the homescreen, app drawer or when swiping across the bottom of the screen when multitasking. But the animations that are part of Android 12 (more on those in a minute) are fluid and don't stutter.
To be clear, Tensor isn't impressively fast when compared to other devices. I ran Geekbench 5 on the Pixel 6 Pro (Google Tensor), iPhone 13 Pro Max (Apple A15) and Surface Duo 2 (Qualcomm Snapdragon 888). Geekbench measures the CPU performance and provides a simple, quantitative way to measure performance in addition to real-world experience.
The Pixel 6 Pro's single-core score was 963, and its multi-core score was 2,607. The iPhone 13 Pro Max scored 1,732 and 4,673 on the same tests. While the Surface Duo 2 scored 1,106 and 3,520, respectively.
Benchmarks aren't the entire story. And while the scores may indicate that Tensor is slower than the competition, the experience on the device doesn't reflect that.
One downside to Google's switch to Tensor that I didn't expect but has played out over the last few months is the delay of software updates from Google to the Pixel 6 line. Software updates that Google itself is in charge of have been delayed or even skipped in comparison to the same update for its Qualcomm-enabled Pixel phones.
Right now, that's my biggest complaint about the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro. In the past, one of the biggest benefits to having a Pixel phone has been routine and timely software updates across all Pixel devices, but for some reason, the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro have lagged behind older, Qualcomm-equipped models.
The Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro both have 5G connectivity, but not all Pixel 6 models are created equal. What kind of 5G support the phone has depends on where you buy it, at least for the standard Pixel 6. According to a Google support document, any Pixel 6 Pro model sold in the US has Sub-6 and mmWave support. That's the slower and faster versions of 5G, respectively.
However, the Pixel 6 is different. The Google Fi, Unlocked and T-Mobile models only have Sub-6 5G. A Pixel 6 bought from AT&T and Verizon have both mmWave and Sub-6. Confusing, right? Yea. Your best bet is to buy the phone directly from your carrier to ensure proper support.
Some people have had good experiences with the Pixel 6 Pro's fingerprint reader that's embedded under the display, and others have had horrible experiences. I've had a primarily good experiences with it. I would guess in maybe 1 out of every 20 attempts the sensor fails to recognize my finger. However, I had a horrible experience with it a few days ago when using the phone outside in direct sunlight. That ratio of invalid reads was easily reversed, with only 1 out of 20 scans working. I have no clue what was different, or if the sun was the reason for the issues -- but I can see why and how some people complain. That said, since then, performance has been back to what it's always been for me -- acceptable and something I'm perfectly fine with.
Camera improvements and other Pixel features
Google's Pixel phones earned the reputation of having the best smartphone camera available with the first few generations. However, the last couple of releases started to show the age of the hardware Google was still relying on to capture and process photos.
With the Pixel 6 Pro, Google added a 50-megapixel main camera, a 12-megapixel 114-degree ultra-wide camera, and a 48-megapixel telephoto lens with up to 4x optical zoom. With the new camera hardware combined with Tensor and Google's custom image processing and tuning algorithm, I had high hopes for the camera performance of the 6 Pro and I was not disappointed.
I spent part of my time testing the 6 Pro's camera taking photos at a family event, capturing people in all sorts of different lighting conditions. One thing that stood out to me about using the 6 Pro's camera is how little effort was required of me to get a good shot. I could double-press the power button to quickly open the camera and start taking photos, just as quickly and easily as I do with my iPhone.
The quality of photos the Pixel 6 Pro takes has improved, as well. Portrait pictures seem to identify the foreground and background more consistently than previous Pixel phones, and the pictures are more true to life -- a similar approach to what Apple does with the iPhone's camera.
There are several new software tricks integrated into the Pixel 6 Pro, both for photos and for everyday use. Magic Eraser is one such tool, promising to remove unwanted items in a photo either automatically or simply by you circling an object. While the demonstrations Google shows are impressive, in practice, it's nowhere near as good. Often times it's very obvious an object has been removed from the photo. But when the feature gets it right, it's great.
The Pixel 6 Pro also gained some new Assistant calling features that all aim to make the process of calling a toll-free number less stressful and easier. For example, when dialing a businesses phone number you can now see the average wait time based on time of day to help you decide when to call. Multi option menus when you call a business are now presented as buttons on your phone's screen, so you don't have to actually listen to the recording — and you can even have the phone wait on hold for you until someone actually answers (that's an old feature worth calling out again).
All that said, the Pixel 6 Pro's camera is one of the more impressive cameras I've used on a smartphone in recent memory -- outside of Apple's new Cinematic Video mode.
Android 12 is the best version of Android yet
I can't recall the last time I installed a major Android update and felt like the platform was moving forward as a whole. Instead, incremental features bundled with Assistant features and changes have been pushed out on a yearly basis. With Android 12, not only do Android owners receive a long and attractive list of new features, but the new design approach to Android 12 is something I'm a big fan of.
There are new animations throughout the interface that make it fun to do simple things like wake or put your phone to sleep -- there's a slow animation that show's the screen turning black and minimizing into the power button. The same effect is applied when closing leaving an app and going back to the homescreen. It's a very minimal, but effective trick that makes a big difference even if it takes you a day or two to notice it.
The new Material You design approach uses your device's wallpaper or background to determine the color palette for the rest of the interface. From the color of Google's keyboard to app icons to the app drawer and widget colors -- it all hinges on the color of your background. I like this approach, but it feels somewhat buggy at times. For example, the current wallpaper I have set gives me three accent color options to pick from -- one of which has a predominantly peach theme to it, along with two blueish color options. I opted for one of the blue options, but if I restart the phone, it defaults back to the light-peach theme, forcing me to go back in and select a different option.
Android 12 also includes several new privacy features. Some of them have been borrowed from Apple's iOS, such as indicators when an app is accessing your device's microphone or camera, or the ability to control how precise the location information you share with an app is. However, there's a privacy dashboard that not only shows how often apps are accessing your personal information, but it also gives suggestions about your Google account as a whole and how to better lock it down.
It's a shame that Google hasn't figured out how to streamline the update process to bring major updates to more devices than its own Pixel line, and even now, it's struggling to do it for its own phones. Instead, many Android device owners are left waiting on their phone maker to implement and then release the update. Android 12 is a big change on many fronts. One that the Android ecosystem as a whole will benefit from, and users shouldn't have to wait for it — especially when privacy features are involved.
Without a doubt, the Pixel 6 Pro is the best smartphone Google has ever made. From Android 12 improvements and custom Pixel features that improve upon the experience, to Google Tensor's performance, battery life and the return of the Pixel's superior camera experience -- there's still a lot to like there.
But the question remains -- even though this is Google's best, is it enough? With every Pixel release, we hear about how serious the company is taking its hardware initiatives, and more specifically how serious it is about competing with other smartphone makers.
It's a rhetorical question, of course. Only time will tell if customers new and old are as fond of the Pixel 6 Pro as I am, and that comes down to units sold. I continue to hope that this is the Pixel when Google breaks through the Samsung and Apple smartphone duopoly in the US.
If the Pixel 6 Pro can't do it, I'm not sure what can.