Google Pixel 6 review: At $599, this is the best phone you can buy - CNET
There is a lot of hype around the Google Pixel 6, which has new cameras, Google’s Tensor chip and more premium ambitions. Some of that hype is from Google announcing the phone months before it was released and some of it comes from the phone’s bold two-tone design, which washes away the bad taste left by the understated Pixel 5. The Pixel 6 is the most significant phone upgrade Google has made since it launched the Pixel line in 2016.
Previous Pixel phones have lived in the safe, quiet and crowded midtier space where phones cost between $600 and $800. For most people, they were good and sometimes great phones but lacked the luster, specs and appeal of more premium phones from Samsung and Huawei.
Google Pixel 6
- The two-tone design
- The value for the price
- The main camera is Google’s best
- Under-display fingerprint reader can be frustrating
- Battery life is good, but hard to get more than a day
- The ultrawide camera is decent but not on the same level as the main camera
So what’s the problem? Well, in short, Pixel phones haven’t sold well. It reminds me of the early days when Michael Jordan joined the Chicago Bulls but weren’t winning championships yet. The Pixel 6 is an attempt to build the phone up to be more successful and appealing. It’s like when the Bulls decided to build a team around Jordan to help them win championships.
Instead of powering the phone with a Qualcomm Snapdragon processor, Google made its own chip, called Tensor. This allows the Pixel 6 to do computations and AI more securely and quickly on the phone than constantly using the cloud. Tensor opens up a slew of new software features Google wouldn’t have been able to add using a different processor.
Google extended its three years of OS and security updates to five. In the US, the Pixel 6 is available both through Google and all major carriers. And Google even created a subscription program a la Apple’s iPhone Upgrade program. It’s called Pixel Pass and costs $45 a month for two years.
Even the Pixel’s crown jewel cameras, got upgraded lenses and hardware that are more premium. Now that Google has improved everything in, on and around the Pixel is it ready for its championship? (I promise that’s the last Bulls reference.) In short, yes.
This is the Pixel I always wanted from Google. I spent over a week with the new phone and it lives up to a lot of the hype. The Pixel 6 starts at $599 (£599, AU$999) and comes with 128GB of storage. For that price, I can’t think of a better phone to recommend right now.
If you’re looking for an in-depth look at the Google Pixel 6 Pro, check out the review my UK colleague Andy Hoyle wrote.
The Pixel 6’s bold two-tone design makes me swoon
The Pixel 6 has a 6.4-inch, 1080p screen. It can be set to automatically switch from 60Hz to 90Hz depending on the content on screen. There is an hole punch cutout for the selfie camera and the screen is flat with thick sharpie like bezels that bleed into the matte finish aluminum sides. For comparison’s sake, it reminds me a bit of the iPhone XR and 11, which also had similar bezels and rounded sides, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
In use the screen is pleasant. The resolution is good, but it’s better on the Pixel 6 Pro.
The front is covered in Gorilla Glass Victus. Under the screen is a fingerprint reader, which at first worked for me half of the time. It was frustrating and not a very good experience. After a maddening few days, I double registered my thumb prints and it worked nearly every time. I don’t even need to smash my finger into the screen.
The back is where the phone’s design really makes me swoon. It’s made of Gorilla Glass 6 and has a two-tone color scheme. My review unit is Sorta Seafoam, which means the bottom of the back is sort of light gray or sort of light blue depending on the lighting. The top back strip is light lime green, which contrasts nicely against the deep black of the camera bar. The overall look of the Pixel 6 reminds me a tad of the Pixel 2 XL and its panda color.
The horizontal camera bar runs across the width of the back and looks bold and different. The camera bar isn’t just designed to be a Google branding element, you can put the Pixel 6 without a case on a table and it doesn’t wobble.
Overall, the fit and finish are nice. If you grab a Pixel 6 Pro, which costs $300 more, you can see several small ways it feels more premium than the Pixel 6.
The Pixel 6 takes amazing photos
Out of all the improvements, I was most hyped to try the Pixel 6 cameras and Google definitely delivered. The Pixel 6, with its higher specced lenses and sensors, takes fantastic photos. Let me immediately undercut that to remind you that this is still a phone. A mirrorless camera or DSLR can consistently take better photos in a wider range of lighting and conditions. But people don’t always have a mirrorless camera with them.
The Pixel 6 has two rear cameras: a main camera with a wide angle lens and a second camera with an ultrawide-angle lens. These are the exact same wide and ultrawide cameras found on the Pixel 6 Pro. The ultrawide camera offers 0.7x magnification instead of the 0.6x magnification on the Pixel 5. Overall the ultrawide is good but not great. Details in photos are OK but often soft.
There is a noticeable step down in quality going from the main camera to the ultrawide. Take a look at the photos below that I took of the Transamerica building in San Francisco.
I wish the ultrawide camera was wider. I prefer the perspective from the ultrawide cameras on the Galaxy S21 Ultra and iPhone 13 Pro more. Check out a comparison below.
The main camera has a 50-megapixel sensor, which uses pixel binning to create 12.5-megapixel pictures. Photos from the Pixel 6 are amazing. Details are great.
There are so many Pixel 6 camera modes and tools
Google and its Tensor chip allows for even more camera modes and tools. There is Night Sight, Google’s version of combining multiple images together when it’s too dark. It is excellent on the Pixel 6.
There’s the new Motion mode, which has two options: Action Pan and Long Exposure. Action Pan gives the background of a photo a dramatic motion blur. It’s fun. It’s not going to reinvent photography but it’s pretty fun to use.
The second Motion mode is Long Exposure, which mimics a long exposure photo. There are apps that do something similar but I got some decent light trails from traffic and some silk-like water from a fountain. Again, it’s fun. It doesn’t replace doing long exposure photography on a dedicated camera.
But that’s not all. Google gives you a neat tool called Magic Eraser. It lets you pick an object, a person or a part of a photo to remove. You can get to it one of two ways. In Photos, you’ll see a suggestion about removing people in the background. Or when you go to edit, tap on Tools to reveal the feature.
Magic Eraser finds and identify the silhouettes of people in the background. You can also use your finger to paint out the part you want gone. Overall it works good but it’s far from perfect. Sometimes I get absolutely amazing results like removing people from the photo below of a pedestrian walkway. Though on closer inspection, you can see the blurry patches where parts of the photo were removed.
Other times, like in the photo below, there were transition artifacts. It removed two people in the background here, but also disfigured the hand on the lady to the right.
There are so many more camera features that I wasn’t able to highlight in this review like Face UnBlur. But CNET will have an even more in-depth look at the Pixel 6 cameras soon.
The Pixel 6 camera treats complexions more equitably
One improvement Google talked about was Real Tone, which was a major rethink and exploration about how photos, specifically Google’s algorithms and engineers, handle people with different complexions. I still want to explore this feature more, but the photos I took of friends, co-workers and people with darker complexions look good, even if they’re not under the most flattering light. Often when I showed someone a photo I took with the Pixel 6, even if it’s them doing a mundane thing, they asked for a copy.
Below is a photo taken with harsh backlight. Admittedly, this isn’t a great way to take a photo, but I wanted to see what would happen. Google said the Pixel 6 handles stray light better. See how it did against a photo taken with the iPhone 13 below.
The differences between the two photos aren’t drastic, but Eric, who is the subject, preferred the photo from the Pixel 6. He liked how it handled the color and highlights in his skin. You can really notice this in his arms.
Videos from the Pixel 6 are better and selfies are just OK
The Pixel 6 records the best video from any Pixel phone. Details and color accuracy are better. In terms of comparing the image quality between photos and videos, there is a smaller difference than there has been on prior Pixels. Don’t get me wrong, photos are still the strength of the Pixel.
When recording video in medium and low light, image noise is pretty apparent. Also, the improvements Real Tone brings to photos are unmatched with how videos handle different complexions.
On the front, the Pixel 6 has an 8-megapixel camera that shoots 1,080p video. The Pro has a wider selfie camera that can record 4K. Selfies photos from the Pixel 6 are good but in medium and low light start to look noisy.
The Pixel 6 is defined by Google’s Tensor chip
In terms of performance benchmark tests, the Tensor chip doesn’t set any new records. In fact it’s largely on par with the Snapdragon 888 and that’s OK. The advantages Tensor brings are its security and on-device machine learning and AI.
Google quotes a day on a fully charged battery and in regular use I’d say that is accurate. But in heavy use, like shooting lots of photos and videos it had more like a three-quarters of a day battery life. During the 10 days I tested the phone, the Pixel 6 averaged a screen-on time of 6 hours, which is good, but not great.
Android 12 is solid on the Pixel 6
The Pixel 6 runs Android 12 and it’s probably the most underrated aspect of the phone. Android 12 is a delight to use. I like the big obvious buttons and sliders. The overall look of Android 12 is welcoming and prioritizes clarity over animations. I like being able to match and complement system colors with my phone’s wallpaper.
Android 12 combined with the Tensor processor provides a number of welcomed privacy and security upgrades. The Pixel 6 comes with several of its own Android 12 special features, some of which are powered by Tensor. A stand out for me is voice recognition. I found there to be a lot of improvement with translation, especially when I had a conversation with a Portuguese speaker. Translations were fast and accurate. For voice typing in particular, seems to understand context better, auto-punctuate more accurately and is easier to command and clear mistakes.
I tested the Pixel 6 on Google Fi, T-Mobile and Verizon here in San Francisco. The Pixel 6 supports sub-6 5G. There are special carrier versions of the Pixel 6 that also support mmWave 5G and start at $699 instead of $599.
Google improved the Pixel 6 in many ways
With all of the upgrades to software and hardware, you have to wonder if that will be enough to make the Pixel 6 successful. And that’s really the only thing I can’t answer. I can say this is the best phone Google has ever built. As tempting as the Pixel 6 is, for $300 more you can upgrade to the slightly more premium Pixel 6 Pro, which adds a telephoto camera; a 6.7-inch display with curved edges, a higher resolution and high-refresh rate; more RAM; an ultrawideband chip and Gorilla Glass Victus to the back. If you have $600 and are looking for a new phone, the Pixel 6 is my recommendation.