Google Pixel 6 Pro First Impressions

Posted on October 30, 2021 by Paul Thurrott in Android with 30 Comments

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.

More soon.

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Comments (30)

30 responses to “Google Pixel 6 Pro First Impressions”

  1. yoshi

    I've been waiting all morning for this post. I saw on Instagram that you received it last night. I have this exact model waiting for pickup at Best Buy, but I've been debating canceling because my initial impressions in store weren't great.

    You may have swayed me to make the drive and grab it.

  2. owenm

    The under-screen fingerprint reader sounds like the biggest problem with this phone. I do miss the rear finger-print reader of past Pixel and Nexus phones. However, it doesn't sound like a deal-breaker either.

    • TraderGary

      My 6 Pro hasn't arrived yet. It's my understanding that the FP reader works fine if you let your finger remain until it has time to be read. It takes about a half second. People are tapping briefly and there isn't enough time to read based on the optical technology being used. I'm hoping that's the case because the FP sensor on my current 3XL is exceptionally good.

  3. brettscoast

    Thanks Paul have been looking forward to your first impressions of this particular phone, early signs are indeed encouraging. I will be getting one in the next couple of weeks so have been waiting with baited breath on the early reviews of this device which are mainly positive. I believe having this device in a protective case is essential. Look forward to your full review in the near future.

  4. simard57

    are there cons getting through a Carrier (such as T-Mobile) instead of buying direct from Google. I know it is locked - but other than that??

  5. thewarragulman

    I'm definitely getting one to replace my aging iPhone X, have been wanting to move back to Android as it fits in better with the Windows ecosystem I've been using than iOS does.

    I can't decide what colour I want though, I'm going with the standard Pixel 6, normally I go for black or grey colours, and the Stormy Black colour looks almost identical to the Space Grey of my iPhone X, but the two other colours of the standard Pixel 6 look great, the Kinda Coral colour looks good, especially the bright orange part above the camera bar, but the Sorta Seafoam is really grabbing my attention, I love the mint green below the camera bar and the lime green/yellow part above the camera bar, but I know I'll end up sticking a case over it anyway so it's a hard choice to make.

  6. jason_e

    I received mine on Wed. Nice phone but I am not as impressed as I thought I would be. Photos are not the step up I was imagining. I guess the excitement surrounding the phone and its new camera hardware set high expectations. Night shots are a let down with this phone. The photos are soft/blurry and like with past Pixels the photos are almost daylight looking which is not what I want. Google can fix these issues so time will tell. And the fingerprint scanner is a disappointment. Very finicky and frustrating at times. I wish they would have left it on the back.

    There is a lot to like here though. Loving Android 12 and the performance of the phone is great. The Magic Eraser feature in Photos is really cool and works great with the right photo. While not as impressed as I thought I would be I am definitely not disappointed. Unlike past Pixel purchases I will probably keep this one to use along side my main phone which is the iPhone Pro 13.

  7. polloloco51

    I am considering the Pixel 6. The Pixel 4a 5g, has been such a good phone so far. Especially for photos, battery, durability etc. I will likely just wait another year or so before upgrading.

    I've taken the Pixel 4a 5G on a 10 mile hike recently, and the battery was barely below 60%! It is among the top ten best phones!

    Certainly a much better value than the iPhone!

  8. sully5059

    I received mine this week and my run of phones without cases (Oneplus One > Nexus 6P > Pixel XL > Pixel 2 XL > Pixel 3 XL) may come to an end. It feels like it's going to slide out of my hand despite me being careful because it's new.

    I've ordered a dbrand skin for some grip, and to provide a bit of color above the camera bar (the color difference on the cloudy white version is also subtle). While I'm waiting for that to arrive I ordered the only clear case Amazon could deliver within a few days so that I can feel a better about leaving the house with it.

    • bluesman57

      Yes, this thing is slippery. My case hasn't come yet and I already dropped it dinging the corner a little. My hands are very dry so it's a big problem. Fingerprint readers don't work very well for me which is why I enjoyed the facial recognition on the 4XL, but the facial recognition also turns the phone on when you don't want it on.

      I use my thumbprint on this phone and it works most of the time.

  9. mikestanley

    If the Pixe 6 Pro is $200 less expensive (per storage tier) than the 13 Pro Max and $300 less than the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra, which competition is it several hundred dollars cheaper than?

    • Sihaz

      The two you just mentioned for a start...

      • Cosmocronos

        Merriam Webster: "more than two but not many."...

        A Bias toward a brand is very common human behaviour but in this case is plethoric.

  10. rmlounsbury

    I am curious to see if Google brings the Tensor chip to its Pixelbook hardware as well. Google has never made a sucessor to the original Pixelbook (still one of my favorite clamshall designs) and the Pixelbook Go is now 2 years old.

    Seems logical that if Google was building Tensor for Pixel that they might have a version for Pixelbooks in the works as well.

  11. michaelmartinez

    My Pixel 6 doesn't arrive until next week, but I received an email stating my Preferred Care status has begun. Does this mean that my two year coverage begins before my phone has shipped?

  12. scovious

    Assuming someone disabled every Google app and service outside of "google play services" then what makes the Pixel worth getting? (I can't ethically use any Google apps since I don't agree to their privacy policy)

    • jgraebner

      Why would you even consider buying a phone made and sold by Google if you have such a strong objection to the company's policies?

    • bsobotta

      I do the same thing on mine. Unfortunately i had to temporarily start using the google photos till i find a replacement.

      i avoided the pixel line over the years and am currently using a Nokia 8.3. If i could permanently remove all the google software out of a samsung i would probably have stuck with them.

  13. dietzeld

    Just received my Sorta Sunny Pro today. Beautiful phone. Definitely competes with Sam and Apple for two to three hundred dollars less. Very fast. Gorgeous, sharp screen. Photography is an important part of my usage. So far, wow describes everything about this device. It took Google a few years, but they are wearing the big boy pants now.

  14. tobiulm

    No home run at all. The pixel 6 is way to big. Look at the pixel density 5 vs 6. Then the strange things about glass backs. The pixel 5 was perfect. No ugly case. Why the hack everybody wants a glass back? Onyl because iphones have one? U know what it costs to replace the iphone back? Makes no sense to me. Then the camera. Pictures shot in 50MP then rendered down to 12MP. If you are realy in Photography consider a SONY XPERIA PRO-I. Still looking foward for your complete review.

  15. AnthonyE1778

    I've had my Sorta Sunny model (6 Pro) since Wednesday. I miraculously received mine the day before official release. I have loved it ever since. A few software oddities like the whole "continue setting up Pixel" alert guiding me through doing the same things again that I already did when I first powered on the device. The battery life is... not bad but really not impressive.

    But those are literally my only two complaints. Very slight software issues and battery life. Everything else, from the hardware to the cameras to the fit and finish of the device, is pretty amazing. I'm loving it so far.

  16. markbyrn

    Looking forward to getting my Pixel 6 Pro from Amazon - tried getting through the Google Play Store but it was too overloaded. It's a pity that Google doesn't allow one to purchase its Preferred Care plan for Pixels bought outside their store.

  17. doon

    All excellent points. Currently own a 4XL, previously owned a Nexus. Like the build quality, seamless integration, Android updates, and, like you, love the camera. It's the most important feature for me. When I see the number of phones produced(I've read seven million, and Apple sells ~217 Million in a year) it makes me think that this is a hobby for them, and I know it's not their core business. Considering their track record for whimsically killing apps and services, I'm concerned they might get out of the phone business at a moment's notice (Sorry! Supply chain issues are killing us!).

  18. philbypond

    I will be upgrading from my Pixel XL to this phone when the dust settles and it is available again. From all the generally very positive reviews I've seen, the only negative for me is the imbedded fingerprint scanner. It is judged as slow and not as accurate as other flagships or the ones on previous Pixels. Some say it is very bad and others say it is fine once you get used to the "rhythm" of using it. I'll be interested in your take on this since it something we do so often. Also, it may be something that is helped be a software update or that the AI capability improves over time.

  19. glassman1234

    My Pixel 6 arrived on Wednesday.... How lucky was that. I suspect first day availability of the 6 was better than the 6 Pro due to how demand skewed. Paul, I would advise not taking it out until you have a case for it. Twice before my case arrived on Friday I dropped the phone. Actually, I set it down and it slid off of an angled surface. Fortunately nothing bad happened to it, but boy was I handling it with kid gloves until Friday. So far quite happy with it, but I've come from a One Plus 6T and the very similar Android skins makes the transition pretty seamless. My wife's Samsung S20's skin drives me crazy every time I have to find anything for her.

  20. doon

    If the battery is as advertised, I think this is a big win for Google. The wonder for me is, why build so few?

    • Paul Thurrott

      Experience? :)

      I think they're hampered by the supply chain issues and by the fact that they've not sold a lot in the past, so they're not at the front of the line when it comes to getting parts. But also, it's not a huge brand for consumers.

  21. bluesman57

    I got mine Thursday. I'm also a longtime Nexus/Pixel fan, owning just about all of them. (Skipped Pixel 5), and for the same reason, photography.

    So far, I'm ecstatic about this phone, no problems at all, and the telephoto is outstanding. I've been wanting decent optical telephoto capability on a phone for a long time. My Canon R will be staying in the bag a lot more now.

    I think Google finally knocked one out of the park, if no problems show up.