The Google Pixel 6 rocks the boat of Google’s otherwise fairly steady rollout of small phone upgrades. This is a more dramatic redesign than we’ve seen between generations before, and it brings a big shift in the internal technology, with Google’s in-house Tensor chip sitting in the space that would normally have been occupied by a Qualcomm Snapdragon chipset. At $599, it’s also one of the cheapest base-level flagship smartphones you’ll find. Let’s see how this Pixel overhaul actually plays out.
Google Pixel 6 Images
Google Pixel 6 – Design and Features
One of the most noticeable things about the Pixel 6 is its size. While Google has offered an even larger Pixel 6 Pro, the standard edition is still a substantial phone. It has a 6.4-inch display with a small buffer of bezel all the way around (something that’s trimmed on the Pro model). The 6.24-inch height and 2.94-inch width are sizable, albeit not quite so overbearing as the even larger iPhone 13 Pro Max. The Pixel 6 is thick, though, feeling pretty beefy in the hand and having even more depth where the rear camera bar juts out.
The camera bar is the next big design shift from Google. Rather than having the cameras in a small corner housing, Google has raised a little plateau that stretches across the entire width of the phone. It’s about an inch tall and rises up from the back of the phone about 1/16 of an inch. While it doesn’t snag on pockets as much as I’d initially worried, it does provide a little shelf for collecting a bunch of dust.
The camera bar will likely be a contentious part of the design. It lends a certain flair to the looks of the phone and makes it instantly recognizable. Considering how Samsung and Apple continue to put ever more monstrous camera bumps on their top-end models, Google has simply leapfrogged them here for the most in-your-face camera bump. The design makes more sense on the Pro model, which features three cameras – one of which is a periscope style zoom lens – but on the Pixel 6 there’s only a pair of rear cameras that hardly take up half of the bar. That said, raising the cameras up may have created more room in the phone for its beefy 4,614mAh battery.
Style-wise, it’s a bold new look. There’d always been something of a two-tone element to most Pixel phones, but the Pixel 6 takes that to another level with a solid color on the back complemented by a second color on the strip of glass just above the camera bump. I say bold, but Google has gone with all muted colors for the phone, so it’s more visually striking than colorfully bold.
The phone has a solid construction with an aluminum frame, Gorilla Glass Victus on the front, and Gorilla Glass 6 on the rear. The raised camera bar does feel like it’s slightly more vulnerable than traditional camera bumps though. The phone has an IP68 rating that’s par for the course, though it’s not rated for submersion as deep as Apple latest iPhone 13 models, which can go down to 6 meters.
The way the display sits in the phone is also a minor eye sore. While the Pixel 6 Pro has gone with a more elegant integration of the display with the frame, curving it at the edges a la Samsung, the Pixel 6 simply seats its display with a plastic buffer between it and the frame that makes it kind of stick out awkwardly.
The Pixel 6’s display is solid, and plenty sharp at 1,080 x 2,400. The AMOLED panel is a pleasure to look at, and it’s bright enough for outdoor use. A 60-90Hz refresh rate successfully keeps everything feeling smooth. It’s not as fast or versatile as the 120Hz displays with wide variable refresh rates showing up on the market, though those displays are almost all reserved for the higher tiers like the iPhone 13 Pro or Galaxy S21 Ultra. Google fitted a fingerprint scanner underneath the display, and it works surprisingly well compared to others I’ve used, though it’s still not lightning fast.
Google has built stereo speakers into the phone that push out strong sound levels at max volume, but you’ll likely be relying on Bluetooth for any other audio, as USB-C is the only port on the phone. It does allow fast charging at 30W, but Google isn’t including a charger in the box – the new industry norm. Wireless and reverse wireless charging are also supported, two things that aren’t always a given when keeping the price low.
Google Pixel 6 – Software
The Pixel 6 comes running the new Android 12 operating system. While it leaves a lot that’ll be familiar for long-time Android users, it makes some changes. The first and most noticeable change is to the shortcuts and notification shade. These have received a major redesign that makes them completely overtake the screen with no transparency, so “notification shade” doesn’t feel quite appropriate anymore.
When opening the shade, the notification space will fill the entire screen even when there are no notifications. Google has also made the shortcut buttons much larger, which feels like an unfortunate choice as it makes fewer shortcuts available. Some shortcuts have also gotten less short, as Wi-Fi and cellular connectivity have been grouped together, so trying to turn off Wi-Fi becomes a multi-step process even with it appearing as a shortcut.
A positive change is the clarity on app permissions and mic and camera access. Now, it’s simple to see when the mic and cameras are being accessed, and it’s easy to check to see when apps are using certain permissions through a new dashboard Google has created.
Google Pixel 6 – Gaming and Performance
The Google Pixel 6 had a lot of questions in front of it with the Tensor chip Google threw in, but any concerns about hampered performance can largely be put to rest. The phone is perfectly snappy and as responsive as any other phone I’ve used, from iPhones to the Galaxy S21 Ultra. The camera launches particularly fast, which is a wonder to see since it’s likely going to get a ton of use from anyone who gets this phone.
The phone holds up well in gaming, too. Asphalt 9 loaded up quickly, and ran without any noticeable hitches over the course of a straight half hour of play, even in the 60fps mode. It does get a bit toasty though. The heat is well dispersed, so there’s not a painful hotspot, but it’s surprising that the phone doesn’t stay cooler with so much mass. This may be part of the phone’s use of two high-performance cores instead of the one found running in the likes of the Snapdragon 888 other flagship Android phones include.
Connectivity is another strength. There’s 5G on board, and I was able to see over 300Mbps download speeds in one test with T-Mobile. The base Pixel 6 doesn’t have mmWave for the ultra-fast speeds, but AT&T and Verizon offer a version with mmWave for an extra $100. Wi-Fi 6E also allows the phone to tap into high-speed networks, letting me draw on the full bandwidth my ISP provided at 600Mbps.
Google’s upgrade to voice recognition is also impressive. The phone is very fast and precise in transcribing speech. It even gets things like comma placement and periods between sentences fairly accurate. It’s one of the first times I’ve felt I could rely on voice dictation to write out messages as accurately as I would with my own thumbs.
The battery on the Pixel 6 is a bit of a letdown. Given its large size, I would have expected to have an easier time drawing on it for the long haul, but if I leave it unplugged overnight, I’m usually not looking at a second full day’s worth of charge left come morning. Whether that’s simply from the processors drawing a lot of power or from the display is unclear. Watching a 45-minute show streamed from Netflix at 50% display brightness took 10% off the battery. A half-hour of Asphalt 9 took 13%. The phone is quite capable of chewing through that battery when pushed. Though it’ll still last through the day with more modest use.
Google Pixel 6 – Camera
Google’s cameras are always a highlight, and though the Pixel 6 may not have as much to get excited about as the Pixel 6 Pro, it’s still packing some solid photographic tools.
Here are the cameras the Google Pixel 6 packs:
- 50MP (binned to 12.5MP) Wide, 1.2-micron, f/1.9, Laser AF, OIS
- 12MP ultrawide, f/2.2, 1.25-micron, 114-degree FOV
- 8MP Selfie, 1.12-micron, f/2.0 83-degree FOV
The Pixel 6 notably shares its wide and ultra-wide camera setups with the Pixel 6 Pro, meaning the only thing users will miss out on here is the new 4x telephoto camera and the upgraded selfie sensor. That’s $300 you’ll be able to save if you don’t find yourself snapping a lot of selfies or zooming in subjects.
Google Pixel 6 – Camera Samples
Across the variety of shooting I did with the Pixel 6, it performed admirably. Whether I was shooting in broad daylight or trying to take nearly impossible night shots, it regularly turned out an image I could use.
The main rear camera takes its 50MP sensor and bins four pixels into one, giving it a lot more light capturing potential than you might expect from 1.2-micron pixels. Clarity is superb while shooting in daylight, and it doesn’t struggle with indoor brightness levels either. That said, just about any phone you find for over $400 can do a solid enough job in these conditions. It’s at night when the Pixel 6 widens the gap between it and other phones.
The Pixel 6 manages to keep brighter details perfectly intact while pulling in a lot of shadow detail that can easily just go black on other cameras, and it manages to do it while keeping the ISO impressively low to avoid image noise. I even managed to snap a photo of the inside of a little free library bookshelf at night that was so dark I could hardly see inside it with my own eyes, and it managed to resolve legible text from the book spines.
I brought the iPhone 13, Pixel 5a 5G, and my personal Galaxy S20 (which shoots near identical photos to the S21) out for testing alongside the Pixel 6. While none of the phones performed poorly in the test, the Pixel 6 managed to outshine them all when it came to balancing a high dynamic range and catching extra details in the dark. That said, the Pixel 5a actually kept up shockingly well with the Pixel 6, even managing to capture a challenging shot of a metal dragon that I found superior to the Pixel 6’s own shot of it. There’s some room for variance between the shots, and the two cameras used different ISO and shutter settings to achieve their results, but this test put just as much a feather in the Pixel 5a’s cap as it did the Pixel 6’s. (Note: Some photos from the iPhone 13 had a photographic style pre-applied that makes them appear cooler and darker.)
Google Pixel 6 – Camera Comparisons
The ultra-wide camera mostly keeps up with the main sensor in quality. It gets a little soft toward the edges and shows more noise in the dark, but I have to look pretty closely to figure out which sensor I used in a shot, which is great news for anyone who wants consistency for their photography. Even the selfie camera captures rich details and natural color, though it appears to be the same sensor that both the Pixel 5a and last year’s Pixel 5 offered.
Google has also added a couple of features that take advantage of the extra AI capabilities offered by its Tensor chip. These include a magic eraser to remove objects from photos as well as a Motion mode that can fake a long exposure or an action pan. They’re effective if you want a quick effect, but aren’t producing magical results. The action pan and long exposure both make it seem like there’s a lot more movement going on by applying a blur to the background, but they can get a little sloppy with edges. The magic eraser is a bit cooler, removing extraneous objects from your shot and smearing over them with details from around them. It’s impressive and works quickly, but it doesn’t hold up to close inspection.
Google Pixel 6 – Magic Eraser
Video capture is still not on the same level as photography. Recording at 4K/60 resulted in footage that had small, occasional stutters. Meanwhile, shooting at 1080p/30 didn’t run into the same issues. It’s a trade-off in clarity, but may be worthwhile for the more useful footage. In both cases, the camera manages to capture a decent amount of light and color.