One Week With the Pixel 6 Pro
Posted on November 3, 2021 Posted by John Scalzi 17 Comments
I’ve had the Pixel 6 Pro for a week now, and have used it as a daily phone and taken lots of pictures with it. I did a piece of (very) first impressions the first day I had it, so this is a follow-up having lived with it a bit. The verdict so far: I like it! But I do not yet love it, like I loved the Pixel 5, which on the surface was a rather less capable phone, but which seemed a somewhat better fit for me and how I use my phone on a daily basis. So let’s dive into all of that.
1. I think one of the reasons I do not love the Pixel 6 Pro is simply that it’s too big for me. Which is on me: I knew going in that this was a monster phone, especially relative to the Pixel 5, which is the phone I was coming from. I don’t think I appreciated how much larger and heavier it was, and how much of an adjustment that would be for me. For me, it’s ungainly; I’m always conscious of it in a way I haven’t been with smaller phones, both in my hand and in my pocket.
I’m not a fan of that, and while I imagine I will get used to it, it does take some of the day-to-day enjoyment out of the phone, at least so far. I notice it especially laying in bed in the middle of night, where one-handed scrolling is especially useful (no, not for that reason. Stop it). I’m going to solve this particular problem by keeping the now SIM-card-less Pixel 5 on my nightstand as a mini-tablet for nighttime use. But in a larger sense, so to speak, the hugeosity of the Pixel 6 Pro is part of its learning curve for me.
This is not going to be an issue for everyone! I am not a particularly large human, nor do I have particularly large hands, and lots of people of all sizes like really big phones. If you are a big phone fan, either the Pixel 6 Pro or the marginally smaller but still objectively large Pixel 6 will do you just fine. But for me: Yeah, still in the adjustment period.
2. The reason I got the Pixel 6 Pro, despite the size, had to do with the camera set-up; the Pro features a 50MP primary sensor, a 48MP telephoto sensor with a 4X optical zoom, and a 12MP wide-angle set-up, all housed in the now (in)famously large camera bar running across the phone’s back. I was particularly keen to try the telephoto camera and optical zoom, as the Pixel line, which otherwise has done very well with their cameras, largely eschewed optical zoom for software solutions. These were okay as long as you didn’t have to zoom in too much, like, more than 1.5x zoom. The more you zoomed in, the more your photo looked like a watercolor.
Having now played with the 4x optical zoom, I can say that it’s… okay. Well, that’s not entirely fair. Here, look at this 4x picture I took this morning (the picture is as it was out of the phone and otherwise unedited):
It looks pretty decent! Nice colors, good details, you can see both the crispiness of the frost on the grass and the warmth of the morning sun on it. When I crop into the picture a bit, however, I notice more “watercolorness” than I would have expected from an optical zoom:
Now, some of this might be that it’s not optically zoomed as much as I thought it was. Ars Technica’s review of the Pixel 6 Pro notes that the camera doesn’t always switch over from the main sensor to the telephoto sensor and its optical zoom, choosing instead to stay with the main sensor and digitally zoom in. Which, if true, well, why? I bought the Pro for that optical zoom; I want to use it. It might also be that no matter what, the sensor in the phone is tiny and realistically there’s only so much detail one should expect from it, especially when those 50MP and 48MP sensors don’t output photos at those resolutions; they “pixel-bin” their images for better light sensitivity and output photos that are about 12MP.
Whatever the reason, the 4x photos I’ve taken have ended up being perfectly good but not as impressive as I would have hoped. In almost all the 4x photos I’ve taken so far, there’s a chunkiness to the details that feels more like software than optical to me. If this really is a matter of the camera software staying longer on the main sensor than it should, hopefully that can be addressed in later updates. If it’s not, then I guess optical zoom on phone cameras has a while to go yet.
The Pixel 6 now also offers 20x digital zoom (using, one presumes, the telephoto camera). Here’s that 20x zoom pointed at the barn down the street in a picture otherwise unedited and uncropped:
That’s very watercolory. And I think it looks kind of cool! I couldn’t paint that as well as my Pixel 6 Pro just has. But, yeah, as far as getting good detail from a distance goes, I’m not going to be throwing aside my Nikon d780 just yet.
3. Aside from the telephoto aspect of the camera, how is it? Well, it’s a Pixel camera, which means it’s generally very very good. I posted a gallery of photos from the camera a few days ago, and they’re all excellent pictures. And in general, my experience with the Pixel 6 Pro is what it has been with every other Pixel I’ve had, camera-wise: It makes me look like a better casual photographer than I actually am, and when I make an effort to compose a photo, the results can be effectively indistinguishable from what I can get from a single-purpose camera, especially after some editing in Photoshop. There are even some things the Pixel can do better (or, perhaps more accurately, more simply), than my dSLR, most notably night time- and astro-photography, where Google’s computational photography secret sauce pulls out details that I would really have to work to get out of the Nikon. The Pixels have always been top-of-the-line all-purpose cameras, and that distinction continues with the Pro.
Because Google likes showing off (and also wants you to help them improve their computational photography models), it occasionally offers special modes for their cameras. This year, they are motion-blur and time-lapse modes, which I’ve tried and, yeah, they’re fine, but not actually anything I’m likely to use a lot. Likewise the portrait mode is all right in a pinch but still imperfect; it still fuzzes out glasses if they’re on the top of your head (see portrait to the right) and doesn’t entirely know what to do with hair (when you have it, which I mostly don’t). Personally I find the desire to computationally add blur a little puzzling; I usually find myself distracted by the imperfections. I tend to leave portrait mode off and use my Nikon if bokeh is really something I need for a photo. But I understand not everyone has a dSLR at their disposal, so, if you want fake blur, Pixel’s version of it is perfectly cromulent. Just take off your eyewear and smooth down your hair.
Oh, and “Magic Eraser,” which will get rid of annoying people and objects in your pictures! It works pretty well, but it’s probably not going to replace Photoshop’s erase tool for me for real detail work. Below you can see how it did erasing power lines from a picture of my yard:
Not bad at all, as long as you don’t count the telephone pole being replaced by a cylinder of corn stalks. I could probably have gone in and touched that up further in the tool, but I wanted you to see the first pass. It’s a handy thing, but not perfect yet, and clearly the more detail your photo has the more difficult it will be to have it work seamlessly.
Several reviews have made note of the Pixel 6 Pro’s improved video capabilities; I can’t say because when I’ve tried to use the video function on the camera, it tells me there’s an error, and if I keep trying to make a video, it crashes the camera app. I have no idea why, and inasmuch as I don’t see a lot of people complaining about it online, I’ll assume it’s a weird but rare bug that will be fixed at some point in the future. I rarely take video so that has not been a problem for me to date.
(Update: Aaaaand in fact I just solved the problem by turning off the phone and turning it on again. The video function now runs fine and also the video I took looks perfectly okay. Weird!)
4. Leaving aside my personal issues with the size of the Pro, there’s really only one thing I actively dislike about the phone, and that is its in-screen fingerprint scanner, which, bluntly, sucks. There are a lot of misfires and it’s laggy, and honestly I don’t know why Google couldn’t have just kept the fingerprint scanner from the Pixel 5, which worked great. Hopefully the scanner’s lack of excellence can be addressed in a later update, but for now, ugh, it’s awful.
On the other hand, the battery life is looking to be better than my initial impression of it. I’m now getting roughly the same battery life out of the Pro that I was getting out of the Pixel 5 — possibly a couple hours less overall but given the larger and more advanced screen on the thing, and the various computational things it does onboard, that’s not unreasonable. It takes me more than a full day to go from 100% down to 20%, which I think is a perfectly reasonable amount of time given what I do with the phone (reading, social media, taking pictures, watching video and listening to music).
Given what I use my phone for, I don’t know how much I tax Pro’s vaunted “Tensor” core, but I can say that aside from that fingerprint scanner, there’s nothing I’ve thrown at the Pro that it hasn’t been able to handle perfectly well. Pictures, which are probably the most intensive thing I do on the phone, are taken and processed without any noticeable lag, and when I’ve asked the phone to transcribe my voice, it does it quickly and without any egregious errors. The actually genuinely excellent voice recognition capability of the Pro is probably the most impressive feature if one thinks about it, but because it just works, one doesn’t really think about it at all.
As I mentioned in the previous “first impressions” post, the screen on the Pro is lovely and works perfectly well and I don’t really notice the 120Hz refresh rate one way or another, so I suppose it’s doing its job just fine. The Pro has a curved screen, which is mildly controversial, apparently, but I really don’t notice it much, especially since I slapped a case on the thing, which mitigates most of the annoyances of a curved screen in terms of using it on a daily basis.
Finally, the one thing I’ve used the least on the phone to date is the actual phone, but to the extent that I have used it, it works like it’s supposed to. I’m a huge fan of the Pixel suite of phone tools designed to cut down the number of scam and/or robo calls one gets, and in my experience they are hugely effective; it’s extremely rare that any of these calls gets through the Google gauntlet to me. They are useful enough that they are a close second in Reasons I Keep Getting Pixel Phones (number one being the camera). I like only getting the calls that I want to receive.
I haven’t really talked about Android 12, which is the new iteration of the Android OS that arrived mostly at the same time as the latest Pixels, because I don’t really have that much to say about it. It seems to me mostly an aesthetic refresh, and while I like the new aesthetic of it and of “Material You,” Google’s latest design spec, on a day-to-day user experience basis it’s pretty much the same. If you like Android, then you’ll be fine with it, probably.
5. Now a week in, would I recommend the Pixel 6 Pro? After all, I only like it, not love it. The answer is: Do you like big phones? Is your old phone ready to kick it? And do you like being in the Google/Android ecosystem more than, say, the Apple/iOS ecosystem? If the answers to all the above are “yes,” then, sure, I would absolutely recommend the Pro. It’s a great phone, even if it’s not 100% perfect for me. If you’re not concerned about the telephoto camera, you can save some money by going to the standard Pixel 6 (it has a slightly smaller screen and 8GB of RAM instead of the Pro’s 12GB, but by all indications they both generally run equally well). Either would be a fine phone selection.
That said, I will stick by my personal “like but not love” assessment. Maybe the Pro will grow on me! I hope it does. And if it doesn’t, it is still objectively an excellent phone that will do everything I ask of it, except be smaller and have a fingerprint scanner on the back. For me, the phone is pretty much 95% of the way there. It just turns out that last 5 percent is the difference between “like” and “love.” If that changes, I’ll let you all know.
Interesting that your in-screen fingerprint scanner does not work, because that is the biggest disappointment I have with my Galaxy S10.
The back-of-the-phone scanners on my previous Motorola and Huawei worked fine, first time every time. Samsung must know that it’s just fashion over function but they don’t care, and now Google has gone down the same path.
Thank you for the honest review which is something you really don’t get from all the tech sites.
“still objectively large Pixel 6” – yes, totally agree on that. It’s quite noticeably larger than my old Pixel 3. I do not really care about the camera, so no “Pro” for me; but I do like to have a “supported” phone for as long as possible, hence Pixel. (Yeah, Google has a history of pulling the rug from under their products, but the phones so far have lived up to expectations).
I don’t carry the phone around with me all day. I’d like a notification light to blink at me when I have a text waiting, or missed a call. I don’t want to have to pick the phone up to see notifications.
But manufacturers no longer include a blinking notification light, and I seem to be the only person who misses it.
I guess everyone else carries the phone around with them all day.
Good review! I think the magic erase is cool. Maybe the telephone pole is too big of a chunk to erase, but the little sign is totally gone. Fingerprint scanners are fickle anyway. The hubster can’t get any to read his fingerprint in the winter, I guess because his hands get too dry and rough.
Dan, I just read about an app that works on the Pixel 6 phones to give you the equivalent of a notification light. The article about it is on PhoneArena. The app is called aodNotifiy app. I haven’t used it (I don’t have a Pixel 6 phone. Yet!)
I also thought the fingerprint sensor sucked.
The miracle cure is settings>display>”increase touch sensitivity”
My wife and I just bought new iPhone 13s to replace our aging 6Ss (they arrived from Apple yesterday after a 10-day supply chain* disruption – woohoo!) and although we did not get the enormous Max models, they’re still surprisingly large compared to the old phones.
But just as you said about your new phone, these 13s are quite a bit heavier. It would have never occurred to me that I could use a cell phone as a weapon if ever needed but these new guys would be like getting hit by a brick! (Your accuracy may vary.)
When I was in high school in the early 70s it was called “distribution.”
Not a fan of big phones. I bought the iPhone 13 Mini because I can use it one handed, and it’s the perfect size for me. Otherwise? Eh, it’s a 5g smartphone. The 5g works really well, as I suspect it does with Pixels. I use my Nikon Z6ii for most of my photography as the camera in the iPhone is noticeably inferior to the Pixel 3 that died a year and a half ago.
Also, the “face unlock” is both too aggressive, and doesn’t work at all when I’m wearing a mask, so I turned it off. It’s not particularly difficult to enter the unlock code, but it is a small phone. The Pro models would be more of a hassle.
@Christoph – I also have a Pixel 3, which I love, and small hands, which apparently phone designers do not. I could never upgrade to a 6 Pro, but have been thinking about getting a 6, which is supposed to be about the same width.
Have you found the 6 that much more cumbersome than the 3?
I agree about the notification light and was interested to see the app for that–wonder if it’s at all selective? Like, known callers? I too treat my phone like a landline, leaving it parked where I can find it if I want it, which is seldom. I have been thinking about taking a selfie recently, though.
I’ve got a Pixel 3XL, and first impressions were “whoa, huge” but eventually got used to it – maybe it’ll be the same for you? It is Not Smol though – I think you said your 6 is the same size?
Slightly unrelated question – was it the winery near you that had a fire? Hope it wasn’t as bad as it sounds from the early news reports.
@TheLinguist: Definitively more cumbersome. I used to use the 3 mostly one-handed (no small hands here), and the 6 might be just too big for that – or too slippery, because who puts a smooth glass surface on the back of a phone? Someone who wants to sell replacement phones, I guess. (A rubber cover is on the way, but supply chains in late 2021, you know how that goes).
Fortunately I never got phone envy. I’m still using an LG that came free with my plan 3-4 yrs ago. Still learning what it can do and the only thing I added was a little more memory. You get better telephoto photos than I get regular ones, but that’s okay because it’s just another little toy to me. Other than a burner that only makes calls it’s probably amongst the most basic phones out there, and I am endlessly entertained by it.
But, at the end of the day they are still Android phones.
That means Googles inane updates that always take away more than they give. Those updates love to mess with the camera on my phone, turning on things I had turned off and sending pictures straight to the cloud.
I would spend the money if it was a different operating system.
Way back when my Moto X was dying and I was considering the Pixel 2, your positive review helped me make the decision.
Just this week I switched from that 2 to the 6 (rest of my family has either the 5 or 5a and I wasn’t impressed).
I completely agree that this phone is simply too big to completely love. I do not have small hands, but this phone absolutely requires two hands. If I try to use it one-handedly, it’s not very secure and I can see the rate of being dropped would increase.
Indeed, it sat in it’s box for several days until my OtterBox case arrived.
And thus I recall with wistful fondness my MotoX that was the perfect size for using one-handed, I was able to choose it’s color, and I used it for several years without ever getting a case for it.
Then again, the Pixel camera is far far better. Worth it? I suppose.
I’ll get used to it. But I’m looking forward to the flip and fold options hopefully coming soon.
I also bought a 6 Pro first day. I needed a new phone because I was still using my 3 XL, which was damaged a couple months ago when it fell out of my pocket. I also the Pro over the straight 6 for the sake of the 4X camera.
Unlike you … I’m generally happy with it? My chief complaint is that low-light focusing often screws up and focuses on the background instead of the foreground. That’s a problem given the shallower depth of field.
I agree about the size, on-screen fingerprint scanner, and battery life.
The other beef I have compared to my old 3 XL, which had a flat screen, is that the curved screen makes the edges touch-sensitive so that I often scroll or select something inadvertently.
@TheLinguist The 6 Pro is definitely more cumbersome than my 3 XL was. The problem isn’t width – the general shape is tall and narrow. It’s so tall, though, that it won’t fit comfortably in some of my pants with shorter pockets. And the main issues are weight and thickness: 210g and 8.9mm respectively. The plain 6 is listed at 207g and the same with, so I predict that you would find it uncomfortable.