Well, it’s October – and you know what that means? It means we’re finally getting close to Pixel 6 time. As a guy who has been out of the Pixel game for nearly 2 years at this point, I am pumped. Not only is there a new Pixel waiting in the wings, it is a device that is actually worth getting excited about. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always been ready for each Pixel iteration over the years, but I’ve also dealt with the gut punches every year caused by early leaks that point to devices that with less-than-desirable characteristics.
Who can forget the Pixel 2’s terrible screen, the Pixel 3’s bathtub notch that served no real purpose, or the Pixel 4’s giant forehead that included facial recognition that simply never took off? And don’t get me started on that phone’s lack of a wide-angle lens when every other flagship on the market had one! Pixels have always had that “yeah, but…” hangup that have made the inevitable launches fall a bit flat.
But not this year. This year, the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro look legit from top to bottom, without misgivings or compromises. This is the year I’m full-on ready to return to Google’s phone and for the first time in a long time, I don’t feel like I’m having to concede anything to do it. This year really does feel like the year of Pixel. Let’s get into why that is.
First, we have to talk about Tensor. For months on end we’ve been hearing about Google’s custom SoC that went by a few names – GS101 or Whitechapel – and though I always felt the rumors were true, it was fantastic when Google came out and confirmed all this with their Pixel 6 announcement in early August. Gone were the codenames and rumors, and it was all systems go with Tensor: Google’s first custom SoC for Pixel. Though we don’t officially know the exact specs or power that will come with this chip, the fact that Google is making their own custom silicon – with help from Samsung, sure – is a big deal.
I could talk at length about all this, but the short take is all about vertical integration, hardware and software working together to make a device better. Apple has done this for a long time with iPhone, but now we’ll finally have an Android device that isn’t running the same cookie-cutter SoC that every other flagship phone uses. With Tensor, Google has control over what all those cores in the processor are actually doing and they can align their software up in a way that is primed to take advantage of that.
While this benefit will extend to all sorts of things on Pixel 6, here’s one real world example. Google’s photography chops have always been great, not because of sensors and lenses, but because of computational photography. In my humble opinion, we are where we are today with phone photography largely because Google proved it was possible to use algorithms and machine learning to make better photos with less skill and effort.
Video, however, has never been as stellar on Pixel phones. You’d expect it to be because of how good the photos are on Pixel, but the processing power needed to do the auto-corrections in video versus single photos is exponentially more. With video, you’re capturing 30-60 images per second. Think about the processing it takes to get one photo cleaned up and you quickly see why getting Google’s photo prowess to apply to video just hasn’t been possible.
But with Tensor, it very well could be. Knowing photos and videos are the biggest draw of any Pixel, you can mark my words: Pixel 6 will be spectacular at both. With a processor built from the ground up to do Pixel-y things, you can bet that this thing is aligned the right way to produce the best photos and videos we’ve likey ever seen on an Android smartphone. Even in the very early hands-on time that a handful of press people had with Pixel 6, the video improvements were one of the most notable features they all mentioned: and these are reviewers I really trust.
Tensor allows for that and who knows what else. Better photos and videos? Sure, but what about far superior on-device Google Assistant, better machine learning tricks like dealing with spam callers or spam texts, better on-device photo edits, smarter customizations, and better gesture-based controls. I don’t know all that Google is planning to do with Tensor, but it is clear that this SoC is well worth getting excited for and will allow Google to do things maybe we’ve not yet seen in our smartphones. Oh, and the rumors also suggest that it will be quite fast as well, so all the general stuff you do on your phone like watching videos, browsing the web, catching up on social media and gaming will all be great too.
Pixel 6 Hardware
But there’s other hardware to get excited about here, too. Take the RAM and storage options for both Pixel 6 and 6 Pro: all have 12GB of RAM and either 128, 256, or 512 GB of storage based on the most reliable leaks. Depending on whether you go with the Pixel 6 or 6 Pro, we have 90 or 120Hz refresh rates, 6.4-inch or 6.7-inch screen sizes, and Full HD or Quad HD resolutions, respectively.
There is an under-display fingerprint scanner and hole-punch selfie camera on both models and the regular Pixel 6 has a flat screen while the Pixel 6 Pro gets a subtle curve to the sides of the display. From the renders, the phones look incredibly well made and based on those early hands-on reports, they don’t just look well made, they feel well made, too.
Around back we’re getting up to three cameras this year on the Pro and only two on the regular Pixel 6. Thankfully, on the Pixel 6 you get both the 50MP main lens and the 12MP ultrawide if early reports are true. For the Pixel 6 Pro we add on a 4x telephoto at 48MP, but none of those numbers really matter, do they? The big news is Google has upgraded the camera hardware for the first time in a long time for Pixel, and now they have the SoC to actually do amazing things with those lenses and sensors. This camera is going to be special.
So we now have a great SoC with vertically integrated hardware and software, all the specs you could ask for, great build quality and a striking design. We’re already describing a phone that sounds pretty awesome, right? But you could maybe argue a device like the Samsung Galaxy S21 does all this, especially with Samsung’s own Exynos chips in certain models. That, however, would be forgetting one very important part of the Pixel equation: software.
Google’s version of Android
There’s no question: Google just does Android better than anyone else. If you’ve used a Pixel phone for any length of time, you pick up on this. There’s something a bit more special about the overall user experience on a Pixel that makes you want to go back to it, and Android 12 will likely only make this more compelling. Put this heightened user experience side by side with the latest Android updates – on time – and you get the Pixel experience that frankly can’t be found anywhere else.
I’ve been a OnePlus guy for nearly two years at this point and just testing the Pixel 5a for a few days made me miss the Pixel software so, so much. It’s just a better version of Android than anyone else makes, and it was almost enough for me to put my SIM card in the Pixel 5a long-term, even though that device and it’s lower refresh rate and slower processor don’t meet my phone needs these days. Google’s version of Android is just that good.
Look, I’ve had some nice phones the past few years. OnePlus makes great hardware that is nice to use and looks great, but there’s one problem that always persists: they aren’t Pixels. It doesn’t matter how fast the Snapdragon 888 is or how good the OnePlus 9 screen is, the fact of the matter is you can’t get Google’s Android experience on those phones and as a prior Pixel user, that makes it feel a bit empty.
This year, however, I get to come back home to Pixel. I get to look forward to a phone that doesn’t seem to compromise in any way. It’ll feel great in the hand. It’ll be fast. It’ll have a fantastic camera. It’ll have great specs and a great screen and it’ll run Android the way Google envisions it. It is a phone that I’m more hyped for than any other phone I can remember. And for once, I honestly think it’ll live up to every bit of it.