One Week With the Pixel 6 Pro
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.