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The Google Pixel has never been about the hardware. While the industry was toying with foldable screens, 100x zoom cameras, and action buttons, the Pixel was always brains over brawn, pushing the envelope little by little through algorithms and machine learning -- so much so that users began to wonder if all the flashy hardware was even necessary; if you truly needed a telephoto lens to capture a portrait photo.
With the new Google Pixel 8 and Pixel 8 Pro, that level of skepticism and curiosity is at an all-time high for me. Because Google's approach to making a smartphone remains, and this time, it's leveraging AI in all the places: Search, Photos, the Phone and Camera apps, et cetera. That means more than ever, you'll be asking yourself, "Do I need AI to help me?" from when you're capturing photos to communicating with those around you.
If any (or all) of that interests you, read on. And if you're just tuning in to see how the new Pixel phones fare as, well, phones, you'll want to scroll along, too.
A curvier design makes all the difference -- Google made some subtle design shifts with this year's Pixel phones, and you really have to hold the two alongside the Pixel 7 series to grasp the differences. Both models now feature more rounded corners that are less likely to dig into your palms when held firmly, and it certainly helps that the back glass curves into the edges for a pebble-like hand feel.
I'm particularly fond of Google's material choices for the Pixel 8 Pro, opting for a satin/matte finish versus last year's glossy. This change drastically reduces fingerprint smudges, especially on the Obsidian (black) colorway. In fact, my matte black envy was real when I saw a fellow journalist unbox their review unit soon after we picked them up on the first day.
Fortunately, the Bay (blue) color has grown on me; you'd be doing the vibrant hue a disservice if you put anything but a clear case over it. It's also rare to find a Pro/Ultra/Max handset with such playful finishes nowadays (read: Apple's iPhone 15 Pro colors are boring).
Bright and ultra-smooth Actua displays -- The Pixel 8 and Pixel 8 Pro feature Actua and Super Actua displays, respectively, with the main advantage being screen brightness. This is one of the most significant upgrades with this year's Pixels, given how much more reliant I've become on smartphones when outdoors. From ensuring the proper framing of subjects in photos to scanning Google Maps while I scurry between meetings, a brighter, more visible display goes a long way.
The Pixel 8 Pro (2,400 nits) gets brighter than the Pixel 8 (2,000 nits), but I've had no problems using the latter in direct sunlight, which I couldn't say about the previous generations of Pixels, not even the $1,800 one. Pixel 8 also gets a bump-up in refresh rate, moving it further away from the cheaper Pixel 7a's 90Hz and in line with the Pro model's 120Hz. That's especially worth noting because Google is charging $100 more for this year's Pixels, so you'll want all the upgrades you can get.
Subtle camera improvements that matter -- The Google Pixel has always been a camera-first handset, and this year's Pixel 8 and 8 Pro can certainly go head to head with competing flagships. On the hardware front, Google improved the light sensitivity of every sensor, giving the 50MP main camera an f/1.7 aperture, the 48MP ultra-wide an f/1.9 aperture, and the 48MP telephoto lens -- exclusive to the Pro model -- an f/2.8 aperture. Basically, expect more detail and true-to-life colors, especially in low-light environments.
For example, I captured this photo on a moving (and shockingly empty) New York City express bus as it drove through a dimly lit tunnel. What impresses me is how the Pixel 8 Pro was able to capture the finer details, like the texture of the seats from the front row to the back and the text on the window stickers. Keep in mind that the bus was shaking in all directions as I was taking the picture, so the camera stabilization and HDR capabilities are on full display here.
Here's another shot that I took but with the 48MP ultrawide lens. The new Pixel phones support Macro mode, meaning you can capture subjects as close as just two centimeters away. In the image below of a potted planet, I like the detail and center focus and how the ultrawide lens creates a warping effect on the edges. It really gives an otherwise dull image some added flare.
And for something even more fun, check out this image from a bird outing at my local park. Isn't it adorable? The image to the right is not a zoomed-in photo, by the way, but instead is the aftermath of repositioning and resizing subjects with the new AI-powered Magic Editor, turning the little birdy into a creature who's clearly had enough of...everything.
My suggestion to Google is to automatically give subjects a touch of sharpness when enlarged. That way, the bird in the modified photo, for example, will appear more realistic with the surroundings.
Google Tensor G3 -- Features like Magic Editor are made possible by the new Google Tensor G3 chip, which powers standard tasks like app browsing, multitasking, and watching videos, and AI-enabled services like Google Assistant and Google Photos. At a performance level, I've yet to experience any major hiccups on both Pixel 8 devices, even when I tried to push the Pro model to its limits by editing 360-degree footage while playing a YouTube video in the background.
In fact, that was the only time when the Pixel got warm to the touch. I haven't experienced any overheating when charging the phones or using the cameras for a prolonged period of time, which may be a relief for more recent phone buyers. The phones have also lasted me comfortably throughout my days, and I consider myself a heavy user.
Google Assistant and AI
There's a lot to talk about with the new Google Assistant; what it's capable of doing today and in the near future. Starting with the Pixel 8 series, Google is positioning its Android devices much like how Microsoft has done with Windows PCs, putting its AI-powered virtual assistant front and center.
Naturally, you'll come across several AI features on the Pixel as you go about your day. To keep things tidy, I've listed below the best new AI features, along with my grading, based on ease of use and practicality.
Summarize (6/10): Google Assistant can now summarize webpages and articles in seconds. This feature was especially handy when FEMA ran its nationwide emergency alert test last week, and I wanted a snapshot summary of what it was, why it was important, and how I could stop the blaring notifications. The problem that I have with Summarize is consistency (or lack thereof). At times, the bullet-point summaries were too vague and would miss out on the actual key points of an article, which defeats the purpose of it all.
Read Aloud (10/10): Read Aloud is another Google Assistant feature that scans the on-screen text and dictates it with a natural-sounding voice. When I tested the feature on a ZDNET article, I was very impressed with how human-like the Assistant sounded, and more so by how it knew to pronounce the publication as "ZEE-DEE-NET" and not "ZDUH-NET" or "ZEE-DEE-NEE-EE-TEE".
Call Screening (8/10): The new and improved Call Screening on Pixel features a more context-aware chatbot that listens for the caller's reason and presents you with quick responses. For example, when I pretended to be a delivery driver in a mock call, the Pixel gave me response options such as "Give me a moment", "You can leave it with the neighbor", and "Tell me more". Like Read Aloud, the Assistant responds on your behalf in a natural tone, even if it uses what seems to be a preset voice response for each prompt instead of generating new lines every time.
Audio Magic Eraser (9/10): The same noise-cancellation technology plays a role in the new Audio Magic Eraser feature, which distinguishes voices, music, and other noises in a video clip and lets you lower or raise the volume levels of each. I tested the Google Photos tool with a video of someone playing piano on the street, and the way the Pixel discerned the performer from the bustling sounds of NYC was quite remarkable.
Best Take (7/10): Lastly, Best Take lets you select alternative facial expressions in group photos, so long as you have several similar-looking shots backed up to your Google Photos app. While the feature worked as described for me, I came across two problems: 1) Users who aren't subscribed to Google Cloud may run into storage problems when backing up multiple photos to use the feature, and 2) Best Take only appears when it detects enough alternative photos to parse through, meaning unless you're the type to snap multiple shots at a time, you won't always get the option to remix things in post.
There are a number of other AI features that Google says will be rolling out in the coming months, like Zoom Enhance, summarization capabilities in the Record app, and, of course, Assistant with Bard, so stay tuned for the updated review.
ZDNET's buying advice
It's been a while since I've had as much fun testing a non-foldable phone as I have with the Google Pixel 8 series. While there are still some kinks to work out, such as the microphone quality in phone calls, Google's given its latest flagship phones enough upgrades to justify the $100 upcharge. In fact, even at its new starting price of $699, I'd argue that the standard Pixel 8 is the best phone you can buy in the sub-premium market, especially with the improved 120Hz display.
As for the $999 Pixel 8 Pro, it ultimately stands out from the competition with the most forgiving camera system on the market -- if you don't like a photo you captured, fix it in post. The Pixel 8 Pro also supports all the AI features mentioned above, which, for many, should offer some useful assistance to everyday tasks.
These are the first phones that truly demonstrate how AI can help you throughout your day, from the moment you first unlock your phone to when you receive an evening call and just don't have the energy for it. That doesn't make the Pixel 8 series the best in its class per se, but Google is once again pushing the envelope of what a smartphone can do.
Going into this review, I spent a week with the Google Pixel 8 and Pixel 8 Pro, with my primary SIM (T-Mobile) in the Pro model and an eSIM (Mint Mobile) in the non-Pro model. My daily usage included listening to podcasts in the morning and night, using Android Auto/GPS navigation during my commutes, frequently communicating via text message, emails, and Slack, taking the occasional food/scenic photo because #newyorkcity, and spending a good two hours on Reddit and YouTube.
I try not to deviate from my normal usage no matter what phone I test in order to understand how each device handles the various tasks, for better or worse. Given Google's love for announcing key features that don't actually make it onto review units until months later, I'll be updating this testimonial as new services roll out. Stay tuned.