Catching Up With the Pixel 8 Pro: A Review, Mostly About the Camera

I got the Pixel 8 Pro a couple of weeks ago; it arrived at my house just before I came back from one leg of my book tour. I upgraded and updated everything the one day I was home so I could take it out with me on the last leg of the tour, and have used it in the days since I’ve been home, mostly to take pictures of fall foliage. What follows are thoughts on the phone, which are not exhaustive, since I haven’t used every single one of the updated features. But my daily use of it has been enough for me to say: I like this phone a lot and can recommend it to folks.

* First off, I moved over from a Pixel 7 Pro (I update every year; this is one of my tech buyer indulgences). The transfer process was pretty seamless, both in terms of the actual transfer of data, and in terms of how I use the phone. If it weren’t for the fact my phone is now a cheerful powder blue rather than the vaguely olive green of last year’s model, from a physical standpoint I wouldn’t know I changed phones at all. Google has made the back of the Pro more of a matte finish than last’s glossy finish, which I am told makes it slightly easier to grip, but inasmuch as immediately slapped a case on it (clear, so the color comes through), I wouldn’t know. I put on cases because I have fumble fingers, and dropped the phone within ten minutes of having it. The only major physical change to the Pro this year that I notice is that the (really very nice and bright) screen is flat rather than curved, which it was with the other Pro models. It’s a small detail and one I like.

* The big change (for me, anyway): Upgraded sensors in the cameras, which in my anecdotal experience has resulted in noticeably better pictures. They are sharper, have better details and the cameras are more responsive, whichever camera you use and in various circumstances. I’ve taken landscapes, portraits, pet pictures and lots of foliage shots, and all of them really pop — not in an oversaturated way (Google still tends to grade its shots cooler and more naturally than, say, Samsung), but in a way where even a quick shot just plain looks good. That patented Google “crispiness” of shots is still there, so if that’s not something you like then you won’t like it here, either. But I like it, so there’s that.

A number of years ago, with an earlier iteration of the Pixel, I noted that Google’s computational photography had gotten to a point where the camera on the phone was more than “good enough” to ptovide generally excellent pictures. The camera, both with its sensors and its computational backend, has only improved since then. What have noticed recently is that I am using my dSLR less, because a lot of the time it is simply not necessary for the sort of photography I do on a day-to-day basis, and also because in many circumstances, the Pixel is simply better for the use case: “Macro” photography (i.e., getting up really really close) is one example. I’m not going to abandon dedicated cameras with large sensors and lenses (I am in fact thinking of upgrading soon), but in many ways the Pixel is now my “main” camera and the dSLR is the supplemental camera, not the other way around.

Which reminds me: The Pixel phones typically use their 48 and 50 megapixel sensors to “pixel bin” and make 12 megapixel final photos, but now there’s an option on the Pro to take the full-resolution photos. My own experience with this has not been great; ironically the detail is less because the pictures take longer to shoot and my hands are not terribly steady. Save this for when you have a lot of light available. Also, the Pro now has a “pro” tab in the camera software so photographers can have more granularity with settings. This will be welcome to some, but even on my dSLR I tend to shoot on auto and then edit in Photoshop, so it has limited utility for me. Finally, like in previous Pixels, you can shoot in RAW, but these take up a lot of space. Again, for my daily use, 12 megapixel JPEG on auto is usually more than enough out of the Pro.

* Some big new features of the Pixel 8 Pro are the “AI” tricks that allow you to edit photos on your phones in ways that alter reality even more than you could before: The Pro now will let you move objects around in a photo and then uses a “generative fill” process to compensate for the fiddling; it also has a setting which, if you have taken several quick shots in a row of posing people, allows you to pick the best poses for each of the people out of the photos and amalgamate them into a single shot, theoretically banishing forever the shots where someone has their eyes closed.

There’s been some mild handwringing about these new features because they take photography further from being an accurate portrayal of reality and into something else. Personally I’m more sanguine about this than other people, particularly regarding the “Best Take” feature. If we’re using computational photography to alter reality, and we are, then swapping out a face in a picture with one taken within five seconds of the one being swapped, and in the same context, so that for once you can get a shot of your kid not pulling a ridiculous face, seems to me one of the more innocuous ways to do that. And also, this is me reminding all and sundry that photography has since its inception been about editing and choices. People have been lying through photography, in ways big and small, almost since the first time a lens was uncapped.

There’s also, at the moment, the practical matter that these new tricks the Pro can play are still mostly tricks. The face swapping thing works well enough in my limited use of it, but the thing where you move people around and then Google generatively fills around it is… not great. I took a picture of Charlie and Smudge and moved Smudge around, and it was clear that, well, there was some photo manipulation going on:

Could I have continued to edit the photo to make it look more realistic? Sure: I could have erased the free-floating shadow where Smudge used to be, for one. But other stuff (like moving/creating the the shadow under Smudge’s new position, for example), would take actual time and effort on a photo editing suite that is not Google’s. Google’s own in-phone* photo editing tools seem to me to be of the “good enough for social media, where no one’s looking too hard” variety, and outside of some very basic stuff — like removing that ball, for example — I would save any real photo manipulation for Photoshop or some other more robust photo editing software.

(* This asterisk comes from the fact that it looks like at least some of the new photo editing is not done on the phone at all, but on Google’s servers; for the face-swapping function, for example, you have to have uploaded the images into Google Photos. As a long-time inhabitant of the Google ecosystem, this doesn’t bother me too much, but it’s not a trivial thing that one’s picture tweaks are being crunched in the Google cloud and not on the privacy of one’s own phone. Be aware, is what I’m saying.)

The new “generative fill” tech and face-swapping stuff is fine, but like so many of the Pixel’s previous more fringe photo editing innovations, I suspect I personally will end up using them very rarely if at all. I tend to export my photos into Photoshop to tweak them beyond the most basic color/contrast/structure sort of stuff.

* I haven’t used the audio/video stuff at all so I can’t talk about any of that, although I am looking forward to seeing if the new noise reduction tools for on video recordings work as well as other people have suggested they do. I’m a fan of being able to cut out background noise as much as possible. But I’ve never been much of a video guy.

Phone calls — remember them? — sound good!

* As noted earlier, camera upgrades notwithstanding, my day-to-day use experience of the Pixel 8 Pro is… just like it was with the Pixel 7 Pro, which is very good! I noted last year that I felt like Google was really hitting its stride with the user experience of the 7, and the 8 is more of the same. It has a few tweaks here and there but not so many that I really notice them in daily use. Some of Google’s more showoffy bits I’m not going to use, like “AI”-generated wallpaper, which I won’t be using because I have pictures of Krissy and Athena instead and also, I don’t know which artists Google’s AI has scraped for those autogenerated wallpapers, but I suspect they haven’t been paid. So, pass. The Google 8 Phones have Android 14 preinstalled. Android 14 feels like an incremental improvement from 13: some tweaks but not enough that it makes using the phones a markedly different experience. It’s fine.

I am deep within the Google ecosystem and I’ve generally been very happy from a daily, “Okay Faceless Tech Company, Here Is Everything About Me, Help Me Get Through My Life” sort of way, and the Pixel 8 Pro continues that practice. I especially value the Pixel line’s spam blocking abilities. Rare is the spam phone call or text that makes it through the defenses, and even when one does, I have call screening and easy text filtering so I don’t have to think about it ever again. Everything else works as expected. At this point in the game, I am happy enough with the Pixel Phone experience that I don’t need it to do something flashy and new with every single iteration. It works for me and I like it.

I will say that the first couple of days I had the Pixel 8 Pro, it felt like the battery was draining more quickly than it had on other iterations of the phone. Now, a couple weeks in, the “adaptive battery” setting seems to have figured out who I am and how I do things, and the battery life is… fine. Pixel battery life has always been… fine. I carry chargers and an external battery with me when I travel in any event (I have many things to charge), so this is not too much an issue for me.

* So yes, I’m quite happy with the Pixel 8 Pro, and especially the new cameras. If you are in the market for a new phone, I would recommend it both as a camera and as a phone. If you’re not as much of a camera nerd as I am, you’ll probably be happy with the smaller and cheaper Pixel 8, which has pretty much all the software features of the Pro. If you have a Pixel 6 or 7, either of the standard or the Pro variety, I don’t think you need to make the jump to this one; those phones are probably going to do you just fine for another year or so. Pixel 5 or earlier owners who are thinking of taking the leap? Yes, do. Likewise anyone who is good with the Android phone life and is looking for a new phone. In my experience, the Pixel line is as good as Android gets, and the Pixel 8 Pro is at the top of that heap.

— JS

19 Comments on “Catching Up With the Pixel 8 Pro: A Review, Mostly About the Camera”

  1. I did the same as you, upgrading from the 7 Pro to the 8 Pro. My experiences have been pretty much the same as well, though I haven’t had as much time to take pictures yet, sadly.

  2. I’m a perenially-slow adopter on the smartphone front, but my Pixel 3 (and Android 12) is approaching the clearing at the end of the path. I’ve been thinking about jumping up to the 7 (mostly on price, though my carrier “generously” offers the 8 for free*, a term here meaning “for an additional charge on your monthly bill for the next two years”), and appreciate the reminder link to your take on it.

  3. I’ve gotten unlocked Pixels from Google for a while; not the cheapest option but then I don’t have a bunch of Verizon crapware on my phone, either.

  4. Interesting write-up – thanks!

    I have never owned a cell phone, and while I probably never will (I’m a bit too fanatical about my privacy), I have to say that your rhapsodic description of the camera’s capabilities on this phone would be what would push me to actually get one of the things. I love taking photos (rarely, I even get a decent one), but the dSLR is a bit too big and heavy to lug around on the regular. And nowadays it’s next to impossible to find a decent small point-n-shoot – because “everyone has cell phones” so the manufacturers have given up on that product line.

    All of which is to say that I really wish someone would put that great photo technology into something that’s ONLY a camera and none of the other stuff, though I realize that won’t ever happen. It’s still interesting to read about, so thanks for the review – and enjoy your new toy!

  5. I recommend using Google Fi as your carrier. You get no crapwared Pixel phones (and others) at a decentish price, and they make trade ins easy.

  6. ::moved Smudge around, and it was clear that, well, there was some photo manipulation going on::

    To put it mildly! Smudge looks like the subject of “My First PhotoShopped Picture”, quite literally pasted in from another place and angled just differently enough that he looks…well, pasted in.

    OTOH, seeing Smudge show Charlie his belly is kind of adorable.

    ::I’m not going to abandon dedicated cameras with large sensors and lenses (I am in fact thinking of upgrading soon), but in many ways the Pixel is now my “main” camera::

    That’s kind of the case for most of us these days—we always have our smartphones with us, while our “big” cameras are to be trotted out for special occasions and when you want to shoot the moon, literally as well as figuratively. I have my FujiFilm X-S20 still/4K video camera sitting on the desk next to me, which I’ll be using to shoot short films video subjects that I want to enter in festivals, while most of my day-to-day photography/videography is with my iPhone 14 Pro, because by the time I’ve picked up the camera, turned it on, removed the lens cap, chosen the right setting, and autofocused in? My cat has usually stopped doing whatever silly thing I wanted to take a picture of in the first place, and is wandering over to me to see what this strange device I’m fiddling with is….

  7. Thanks for the excellent review! Having bought the phone myself, directly from Google, the stock Android is without any bloatware, which is a big plus, I have to say.

  8. I started the audiobook of KPS in the small hours because audiobooks are how I fall asleep. I then pressed “extend by 30 minutes” for FOUR HOURS. It is now 4:30pm the same day and I have just finished. I hope you’re happy. I need a nap or a sequel.

  9. Colonel Snuggledorf, you might consider a point and shoot from Canon or Nikon for everyday use. I hear you about the hassle of schlepping a dSLR around.

    John, uncharacteristically, I jumped on the Pixel 8 after years of cheap Motorola phones. I bought one in 2021 and some hellish combo of Motorola and T-MOBILE meant it never got an Android update from Android 11. I haven’t gotten a security update since March. So I will never buy a Motorola phone again.

    New hardware plus Android 14 plus the promise of seven years of some kind of support plus ahem employee discount made this worthwhile.

  10. Good grief, forgot this important point: yeah the camera is fantastic. I took some curtain call photos at SF Symphony last week that are easily the best I have ever gotten.

  11. I am awaiting delivery of a Pixel 7a, which was nicely in my price range. It’s an upgrade from my Nexus 6P purchased in 2016. Hey, it did what I needed it to! A couple of parts failed (battery in 2020 and USB-C port in 2021), but I just ordered parts off eBay and replaced them myself.

    That said, I am really looking forwarding to the Pixel 7a.

  12. I’m still on a 4a (5G) and am fairly happy with it, but when EOL time comes I’ll probably stay with the Pixel line as well. It’s been quite solid for a while now!

    (My biggest concern right now is dealing with Ting, which was a great MVNO and is now… having issues, let’s say.)

  13. Colonel Snuggledorf, take a look at one of the entry level mirrorless cameras like the Nikon Z50.

    And Mr Scalzi, the Nikon Z8 mirrorless is a really nice camera and with the ftz adapter you can keep using your Nikkor glass.

  14. Totally off topic, and I may have missed your post.
    But today I saw something on TV that I have never seen before in 56 years: a television commercial for an audio book.

    Starter Villian.

  15. I can see where Athena gets her reviewing skills from! – engaging, thorough, and illustrated :). You’ve also convinced me to pitch for a Pixel 7 or 8 the next time I need a new phone, so thanks

  16. John, do you use a streaming music service on your phone? If so, what do you use?

    One reason I’m in the Apple ecosystem is that Apple Music lets me upload music files to a cloud, and those files can be played through Apple Music on any Apple device. I’m a huge Prince fan and have tons of soundboards and unreleased material, and with this feature, I can easily listen to that music anywhere. I don’t think any other streaming service has that, though I could be wrong.

    (Also- thank you so much for doing what you do. I just finished my first semester in an Executive MBA program, and I’ve made a point to continue to read for fun while studying. I LOVED Starter Villain, and I’m just about done the first Interdependency novel. Your work is helping to keep me sane.)

  17. I am far from a power phone used. The nerd in me used to like to have the newest and bestest anyway but I just got tired of that game. So now I am planning to replace my Pixel 5a when the 8a comes out in the Summer. For me the a series of phones hits the sweet point in price/performance and I do like the clean install of Android without the other manufacturers stuff put on top of it.

  18. I miss the call screening on the Pixel. I had really terrible Pixel experiences (a 5a that I loved just stopped working completely, the 6a I got sent as a replacement couldn’t hold an app open for more than a couple seconds) and switched back to Samsung.

    When the Pixels actually worked they were great. I’d absolutely still have my 5a if it hadn’t bricked.