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Pixel 6 Pro review: the very best Google phone

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The Pixel 6 Pro is Google’s reinvigorated attempt to beat Apple and Samsung’s best smartphones, with powerful new cameras, custom chips and a standout design.

The new model is Google’s top phone for 2021 and costs £849 ($899/A$1,299), sitting above the standard Pixel 6 costing £599.

From the front, the Pixel 6 Pro looks like a standard top-end phone with a large 6.7in OLED screen that’s really good-looking, crisp, bright and smooth, with a 120Hz refresh rate. There’s a small hole punch at the top for the selfie camera and a good fingerprint sensor under the display for unlocking the phone.

Flip it over to reveal a much more unusual design. Instead of the cameras clustered in a lump down one side or in the top corner, the lenses are arranged in a large horizontal bar that stretches right across the back. I can’t say it is particularly attractive, but it means the phone doesn’t rock around when placed on a desk or table like most other smartphones, which is a plus.

The 6 Pro is certainly a very big phone, but its curved glass sides make it easier to grip than some and very similar in size to Samsung’s Galaxy S21 Ultra, just 17g lighter. It feels a well made and premium device ready to compete at the top of the market.

Specifications

  • Screen: 6.7in 120Hz QHD+ OLED (512ppi)

  • Processor: Google Tensor

  • RAM: 12GB of RAM

  • Storage: 128 or 256GB

  • Operating system: Android 12

  • Camera: 50MP + 12MP ultrawide + 48MP 4x telephoto, 11.1MP selfie

  • Connectivity: 5G, eSIM, wifi 6E, UWB, NFC, Bluetooth 5.2 and GNSS

  • Water resistance: IP68 (1.5m for 30 minutes)

  • Dimensions: 163.9 x 75.9 x 8.9mm

  • Weight: 210g

Tensor

The Pixel 6 Pro has Google’s first custom Tensor processor, which performs similarly to other top-flight Android chips from Samsung and Qualcomm in benchmarks and general use. The custom elements, however, are designed to speed up and reduce power consumption when running Google’s various AI elements.

From local speech and object recognition to camera processing and photo editing, all of Google’s more advanced systems certainly run faster on the 6 Pro than on the previous Pixel 5. But comparing like for like with rivals such as the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra and OnePlus 9 Pro proved difficult.

Overall, performance was at least on par with top-flight rivals: responsive, smooth and snappy all round.

Battery life is good but not great, lasting a good 36 hours between charges with the screen on for about five hours using various messaging, note-taking and utility apps, the browser and about 20 photos, spending about two hours on 5G and the rest on wifi. That puts the 6 Pro on par with the S21 Ultra, but some way behind the 42-hour iPhone 13 Pro.

Sustainability

Google does not provide an expected lifespan for the battery. Those in similar devices typically maintain at least 80% of their original capacity after 500 full charge cycles. The Pixel 6 Pro is generally repairable by Google and third-party repair shops. Screen repairs cost £189, back glass repairs cost £149 and battery replacements cost £99 out of warranty.

The 6 Pro contains 100% recycled aluminium in its frame, accounting for about 14% of the phone by weight. The company publishes environmental impact reports for some of its products. Google will recycle all Pixel devices free of charge.

Android 12

The 6 Pro is one of the first smartphones to ship with the latest Android 12, which introduces Google’s Material You design and systems. It is one of the biggest visual overhauls given to standard Android and adds personalisation options that have required third-party apps or tools offered by the likes of Samsung, OnePlus and others in the past.

The whole interface can now be colour coordinated, including icons and widgets. System animations are refined with nice touches such as the screen turning on by expanding outwards from the power button.

A new “privacy dashboard” shows how often apps are accessing features such as location, your contacts, the mic, camera and other bits. Privacy icons for the camera and mic pop up at the top of the screen when they’re being accessed by apps, and you can turn mic and camera access completely off with new quick-settings toggles.

Google will provide at least three years of major Android updates and monthly security fixes. It will then provide an additional two years of updates with the “frequency and categories of updates depending on the hardware capabilities and needs”. Samsung supports its top phones for four years, while Fairphone is aiming for six years, and Apple supports its iPhone for up to seven years.

Camera

The 6 Pro has Google’s first truly new set of cameras in years. On the back there is a 50-megapixel main camera, 12MP ultrawide camera and a 48MP 4x optical zoom telephoto camera, plus an ultrawide 11.1MP selfie camera on the front.

The main 50MP camera is, simply put, one of the very best on a smartphone. It easily captures a stunning amount of detail across a range of good and tricky lighting conditions, with generally well-judged colour balance and a pleasing level of vibrancy. The telephoto camera is easily one of the best available, producing unrivalled shots at 4x magnification in good and medium light, with very little quality drop-off compared to the main camera, which is rare. Only Samsung’s S21 Ultra with both 5x and 10x optical zoom beats it on utility, though not necessarily on quality.

The ultrawide camera is the weakest of the three. With a 0.7x magnification, it isn’t quite as “ultrawide” as I would like, compared with rivals that have 0.5x magnification and a wider field of view. But it produces really good images that are a little bit softer on detail than the main camera.

Low light performance on the main camera is very good, while the dedicated night sight mode works wonders on all three cameras in very dim scenes. The 11.1MP selfie camera is also very good and can shoot normal and ultrawide photos for when you need to fit more people into a group shot.

Video quality is a step up from previous Pixels, but is still not nearly as good as Google’s still photography, and lags behind Apple and Samsung.

Fun new tools include dedicated modes to blur the background when shooting a fast-moving object such as a bike, or to blur moving objects in a static scene such as the light trails of moving cars on a street at night. These are impressive technical feats, but I have yet to master them, producing some very mixed results.

The “Magic Eraser” tool will remove unwanted objects from photos, such as strangers or power lines, similar to the inpainting tools of desktop photo editors. It works miraculously about 70% of the time, but sometimes leaves artefacts on the image where the object was removed.

Observations

  • The haptics or vibrations that recreate a sense of touch for buttons and other interactions are really sharp and good compared with most Android competitors.

  • The telephoto camera assembly rattles a little when you flip the phone over, similar to a Galaxy S21 Ultra.

  • Call quality and 5G reception was good, as was Bluetooth performance to several sets of headphones.

Price

The Google Pixel 6 Pro costs £849 ($899/A$1,299) with 128GB of storage, or £949 ($999/$A1,449) for 256GB.

For comparison, the Pixel 4a costs £349, the OnePlus 9 Pro costs £829, the Samsung Galaxy S21+ costs £949, the Galaxy S21 Ultra costs £1,149, the Xiaomi 11T Pro costs £599, the iPhone 13 Pro costs £949 and the Fairphone 4 costs £499.

Verdict

With the Pixel 6 Pro, Google has finally delivered a flagship-class phone that can compete with the very best in the business in all aspects, not just the camera.

The battery life is reasonable, the screen is fantastic and Android 12 is the most polished and refined software Google has put on a phone. The promise of five years of security updates is good, too.

It looks, feels and operates like a £1,000 phone, with all the bells and whistles you can expect for that sort of money. But aggressively priced at £850, it undercuts top-flight rivals by as much as £300, making it surprisingly good value if not exactly cheap.

The Pixel 6 Pro is the best phone Google has ever made. Whether that will be enough for it to be a hit remains to be seen.

Pros: class-leading camera, 4x optical zoom, fantastic screen, excellent performance, good battery life, recycled aluminium, five years of security updates, Android 12, impressive local AI features, competitively priced.

Cons: fairly slow charging, fingerprint scanner not as fast as competitors, no face unlock option, only three years of Android version updates despite five years of security support.

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