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Saturday, February 17, 2024

Google's New Pixel 6 Phone Undercuts Its Peers at Just $599

Google has two new Pixel phones for you: the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro. We've known they've been in the works for quite some time, not just because of the incessant leaks, but because Google itself peeled the wallpaper off in August when it showed off a new custom-made processor that would power the pair. None of this has stopped the new Pixels from being two of the most hyped-up Android phones of the year. 

These are the most feature-packed Pixel smartphones ever, but much of these smarts hinge on Tensor, the chip Google built from scratch to handle complex machine-learning (ML) algorithms. The company says this chip improves every single feature on Pixels, from Night Sight in the camera to voice dictation in the keyboard. 

On paper, Google's new Pixels have all the features you'd expect in phones that cost $700 and up, but the Pixel 6 starts at $599—$100 cheaper than last year's Pixel 5 (8/10, WIRED Recommends). The Pixel 6 Pro, which has a few extra camera features we dive into below, starts at $899. That price also undercuts the “Pro” version of devices from manufacturers like OnePlus, Samsung, and Apple

Do they measure up? We'll have to wait and see if that's the case or not, but here's the nitty-gritty on these two Android phones. They're up for preorder now from Amazon, Google, B&H, and Best Buy, and officially go on sale October 28.

Luxe Feel

Like Google's first three Pixels, the new Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro have a new design that irrefutably stands out. There's no mistaking this phone in a crowd. That's thanks to a black visor that spans the back of the phones, which houses the camera system. 

Above this bar is an accented color that's different from what's below the bar, further calling back to the two-tone design on the original Pixels. The colors are just as playful: Pixel 6 comes in Sorta Seafoam, Stormy Black, and Kinda Coral (my personal fave), whereas you can choose from Sorta Sunny, Stormy Black, and Cloudy White on the Pixel 6 Pro. 

I've been using the two for the past few days and can't share much about them just yet—look for our review next week—but these Pixels feel just as high-end as most $1,000 phones. The Pro especially has shiny aluminum around the edges that give it a classy look, whereas the Pixel 6 sticks with a matte texture that's more subdued. Both are wrapped in glass, with Gorilla Glass Victus protecting the Pro's screen, and Gorilla Glass 6 protecting the standard Pixel 6. Victus is a year or so newer than 6, and supposedly more protective.

These are also two of the larger Pixels Google has produced. The Pixel 6 has a 6.4-inch screen and the Pro is a 6.7 incher, but they don't feel drastically different in size. That's because the Pixel 6 has thicker borders around the screen, and the Pro's screen curves out to the edges to maximize screen space. 

Maxed Out Specs

They have pretty much any feature you'd want in a top-end Android phone, including OLED panels, stereo speakers, full 5G connectivity, speedy Wi-Fi 6E, IP68 water resistance, and wireless charging (a new Pixel Stand wireless charger is on the way too). Both also have fingerprint sensors baked into the display, a first for Google but a feature that's become the norm on most high-end Android phones.

Like its competitors, the Pixel 6 range does not include charging adapters in the box, just a USB-C to USB-C cable and a USB-C to USB-A adapter. 

Here's how they differ:

Pixel 6: There's a 90-Hz screen refresh rate, just like on last year's Pixel 5, and a 1,080 x 2,400-pixel resolution. The Tensor chip, which Google says delivers up to 80 percent faster performance over its Qualcomm-powered predecessor, is joined with 8 gigabytes of RAM. It has a 4,524-mAh battery cell, which Google says should last more than a day. Neither has a MicroSD card slot (nor a headphone jack), but on the Pixel 6, you can choose between 128 or 256 gigabyte storage options. 

Pixel 6 Pro: You get a higher 1,440 x 3,120-pixel resolution and a 120-Hz screen refresh rate, which Google says can dip as low as 10-Hz when there's not much happening on the screen to save battery life. The bigger size means a bigger 4,905-mAh capacity, and you also get 12 gigabytes of RAM. And if you record a lot of video, there's an additional 512 gigabyte storage option. The Pro has an exclusive ultra wideband (UWB) chip, which can help it pinpoint the location of other UWB devices, similar to how the new iPhone 13 can find the precise location of Apple AirTags. Google says it will roll out “several features” that utilize UWB in the coming months but we don't yet know what those will be.

Camera Upgrade

Pixel phones are known for their stellar cameras, but their lead has waned. To combat this, Google is upgrading its imaging hardware. Both the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro have the same main camera, a 50-megapixel large 1/1.31-inch sensor that can take in up to 150 percent more light than the Pixel 5. The camera uses a process called pixel binning, where pixels merge to absorb more light, so you end up with a 12.5-megapixel photo. 

Both share the same 12-megapixel ultrawide camera, and the Pixel 6 Pro has an additional 4x optical zoom 48-megapixel telephoto camera. It's not the first Pixel phone with a zoom sensor, but it is the first to have a triple-camera system. Unlike the Pixel 6, which only has optical image stabilization in its main camera, the Pro has it in every single lens. That should mean the cameras should be less prone to blurriness due to hand-shake (and more stable video).

The fixed-focus selfie cameras are different between the two. The Pixel 6 has an 8-megapixel shooter that can only handle 1080p at 30 frames per second, but the Pixel 6 Pro's 11-MP selfie cam can do 4K at 30 fps. 

There are new camera modes for simulating fast motion and long exposures. Action Pan lets you simulate motion in a photo, like when a cyclist or train passes by. You'll get a motion blur effect around the subject, which is something you can only do with camera apps that include a manual mode. 

Long Exposure simulates the effect of the shutter staying open for a long period of time. With this mode, you can create effects like streaks of cars on a highway, or a smooth and creamy-looking waterfall.  

Powered by Tensor

Google says its Tensor processor unlocks a slew of new improvements in the camera. For example, the Pixel 6 range's video capabilities, in general, are purportedly leaps and bounds better as the chip can process many of the same algorithms it uses for photos. 

Other Tensor perks include Magic Eraser, an editing feature in Google Photos that removes unwanted objects in the background of your photos with a single tap of your finger. (It'll even work on your older photos.) Face Unblur has the camera prioritizing a face in an image and will try to keep it as sharp as possible, even if the subject is moving. 

Real Tone is the fruit of a collaboration Google started with a variety of diverse photographers and cinematographers to ensure the camera accurately captures people with darker skin tones. Google says these collaborators helped significantly increase “the number of portraits of people of color in the image datasets" it uses to train its camera models. (It's worth noting that ahead of the Pixel 4's launch, Google relied on a third-party contractor that targeted homeless people with darker skin tones to perfect the phone's facial recognition system.)

It's unclear how well  Tensor han dles graphically demanding apps and games when compared to existing processors like the Qualcomm Snapdragon 888. But Google shared other non-camera features that utilize it. Live Translate will trigger in a variety of messaging apps whenever you get a message from someone in another language. The Pixel will then translate it to your default language and will let you respond in that same language (the number of languages is limited to 11). It can also translate and transcribe videos that play on your screen on device. 

Perhaps more useful day-to-day is Assistant Voice Typing, which is a new version of voice dictation typing in Google's Gboard keyboard. Supposedly, it understands context, adds punctuation automatically, and is significantly faster than before. There's also Calling Assistance, which might be helpful if you need to call a business. In the dialer app, it shows the best times to ring a company with the shortest wait times; once you place the call, Assistant transcribes any automated messages from the other end, including menu options so you can see and hear exactly where you'll be directed when you press “1."

Pixel Perks

The Pixel 6 has a new Security Hub in the Settings menu, which will give you an overall grade on your system and account security, with suggestions on how to improve it. 

These devices also have the ability to quickly toggle off-camera and microphone access right from the quick settings tiles (though this is a broader Android 12 feature, which is also launching today to Pixel 3 devices and newer). And Google's new Titan M2 security chip can monitor for malware and potential phishing attempts across apps like WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger. 

Google says it's promising at least five years of security updates, up from three. Pixel 6 will only get three years of Android OS updates, but Google says it's continuing its Pixel Feature Drops, where the company adds new features every quarter.   

Updated October 19: We've added a reference to a time when Google unethicallly collected data for it's Pixel 4 face scanning tech.

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