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.