My Pixel 6 Pro arrived late yesterday while I was somewhere over the North Atlantic. But it’s a miracle it came this quickly, given all the trouble I had—like so many others—preordering one. And I’m grateful that my niece, who was taking care of our cats and retrieving our mail and packages while we were away, was able to swing by the house and get it inside so it was waiting for me when I got home. By the time I arrived home last night around 11 pm, I had been awake for 21 hours and had just driven 90 minutes through pouring rain from the airport. So I took a quick peek at the Pixel 6 Pro box and went promptly to sleep.
And then I woke up this morning with thoughts of little else. I’ve been a fan of Pixel since it was called Nexus, but almost every model I’ve owned—and I’ve pretty much owned them all—has had some problem. What has kept me in the Pixel fold, despite a few indiscretions with its Apple, Huawei, OnePlus, and Samsung rivals from time to time, is the product line’s unique combination of photographic prowess and Google software and services innovations.
But the past few years have been tough on this Pixel fan. In 2019, Google released the Pixel 4 family with its bland design and inexplicable choice of a telephoto lens over an ultrawide shooter. And then 2020 happened, and I’m not talking about COVID: in a bizarre one-two-three punch, Google released the tiny and cheap Pixel 4a with its single camera lens, the Pixel 5 with its easily rubbed-off coating, and the Pixel 4a 5G, which I would have branded as the Pixel 4a XL.
Each of those 2020 Pixels was a mid-market handset from a components perspective, and it says a lot about Google’s software optimization skills that they worked well at all. And each recycled the same tried and true—or, tired—camera hardware from previous generations, again proving that Google’s software capabilities, in this case related to computational photography, could overcome middling hardware and keep the products competitive with more expensive and modern competitors.
This year, things are different. Yes, Google released a Pixel 5a recently as a nearly-identical follow-up to the Pixel 4a 5G, but it also teased, then launched, and then released a new generation of hardware under the obvious but unassuming name Pixel 6. The only major branding difference is that the larger of the two phones is called Pixel 6 Pro and not Pixel 6 XL, but it makes sense: the Pixel 6 Pro isn’t just a larger version of the Pixel 6, it’s a superset, with additional RAM, a superior display, and an additional camera lens that makes it the obvious choice for people like me who care very much about photography.
Do I wish that Google retained the XL scheme, where the two models were identical aside from size and price? Yes. Yes, I do. But the one big advantage of this change is that the base model Pixel 6 starts at just $599, making it hundreds of dollars less expensive than its competition and thus a unique value.
As for the Pixel 6 Pro that I purchased, it too is a unique value: With prices starting at $899, this handset costs several hundred dollars less than its competition, in this case the Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max ($1099 and up) and the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra ($1199 and up).
And yes, the Pixel 6 Pro clearly meets the bar set by those market leaders. That’s obvious from the moment you open its surprisingly small box, as is the fact that this handset has absolutely nothing in common with its direct predecessors, the lackluster Pixel 5a and the bland Pixel 4 XL.
Gone are the plastic exteriors, replaced with premium metal materials that rival the quality look and feel one gets from Samsung’s or Apple’s products. It’s shiny, and glossy, and yet somehow not a fingerprint magnet, and
I’m too nervous to bring it outside until the case I also preordered (along with a power brick, which is now optional, as with the competition) arrives later today.
It’s also nearly impossible to photograph in the Stormy Black color I settled on when the Cloudy White version I really wanted had already sold out: The black side power and volume buttons blend right into the black aluminum sides of the device.
And on this version, at least, the unique color banding is perhaps too subtle, with the gray area above the camera bar on the back hard to differentiate from the black below it. I’ll be covering it with a case, regardless.
Speaking of that camera bar, it’s not as big as I expected. By which I mean, it does stick out from the rear of the handset as much as it seems it does from the pictures I’ve seen, and I’m guessing the depth of this bar isn’t much more than the depth of the iPhone 13 Pro Max’s surprising big camera lens. But here again, we see a Pixel advantage: Unlike with iPhone and other modern flagships, the Pixel 6 Pro won’t rock when it’s placed on a table because that camera bar keeps it evenly situated. And when you add a case, I bet the bump pretty much goes away too. (We’ll see.)
The quality feel continues when you first power on the Pixel 6 Pro. The experience is smooth and confident, with instantaneous app launches and screen transitions. That makes sense, since it’s based on Google’s new Tensor SoC, which uses a unique combination of cores to provide not just the expected performance and efficiency capabilities that are common to the ARM architecture but also Google-powered AI and machine learning experiences that extend from the camera to Google Assistant voice features. Put simply, it was impressive what Google accomplished with mid-level and off-the-shelf Qualcomm parts, but the mind boggles when you consider what it can do with its own highly optimized hardware.
Given Google’s history and the routinely poor sales that Pixel has experienced to date, it’s reasonable that we all wondered how long the firm will continue to pour resources into this hardware family. But it’s clear now that Google is committed to Pixel for the long term: its Tensor efforts were a multi-year effort, and are only the beginning of a new era in which Google, like Apple, will differentiate its products not just through design and software, but via customized hardware. Pixel 6 isn’t just a new start for this product line, it’s like an entirely new thing: This handset bears almost no relation to the Pixel I’m replacing with it.
Looking ahead, I have a lot of testing to do. I just got the Pixel 6 Pro signed in, configured, and updated. Now I have to install all the apps I need—I went with a clean install this time for what I assume are obvious reasons—and customize the home screen; I’ve been using a one-screen home screen for well over a year now, but I may go in a different direction this time thanks to the many new and improved widgets that Google has made for Android 12. And then there are the obvious areas for exploration, which include not just photography but all the new Pixel-specific AI features.
Did Google hit a home run with the new Pixel 6 family? It’s far too early to say, but I can’t help but think that it did. Yes, those bad experiences from the past still haunt me, and I will keep waiting for the Pixel 6 Pro to betray me in some way, as so many of its predecessors did. But my off-the-cuff reaction, based on many, many years of evaluating hardware, is that Google finally got it right this time. This handset looks truly impressive.