Where do I start?
Smartphones in America are coming down to a choice of two: Apple or Samsung. At the moment, Apple and its iPhones make up slightly more than half of all smartphones in the U.S. Samsung is holding a bit over 30%. That leaves the other manufacturers fighting over the 25% or so that remain.
I’ve been a fan of HTC’s smartphones for years. HTC, of course, made the first Android phone and continued making great phones right up through the One M7 and One M89. My latest was the U12+, reviewed in these pages, a gorgeous all-glass phone with great cameras onboard. But HTC seems to have left the smartphone market high and dry.
After a disappointing start to the Pixel line, Google bought up half of HTC’s smartphone division and set to work on the Pixel 2. That phone was very well received. My wife and son were both using the Pixel 3a phones. (My son has since upgraded to the Pixel 6a, and my wife is now sporting the new Pixel 7 Pro.)
When word came out that Google was working on a Pixel 6 with its own inhouse processor and possibilities for new camera tricks, I was very interested. My U12+ had a cracked screen and was nearing the end of its useful life. I really didn’t want to buy either of the two giants in the field, Samsung or Apple (just my own bias against monopolies – I’m sure they’re both great phones), so I kept watch on every leak that came out about Google’s new phone, as they were the “successor” to HTC.
By the time Google made the official launch of the Pixel 6, it seemed that the public response was greater than even Google anticipated. The Google Store crashed under the weight of so many pre-orders. After multiple refreshes and attempts to put a phone in the shopping cart, I was able to order a “smoky black” Pixel 6 Pro, unlocked, with 128GB. Success. The phone arrived on the earliest availability date, October 28, 2021. It is everything that I’d hoped for.
A slippery bar of soap
The phone is beautiful. The front display curves around the edges in its new Gorilla Glass Victus covering, while the back is also fully coated in Victus. The look is one of a slab of glass in your hand. As beautiful as it is, PUT A CASE ON IT. The phone really is a slippery little devil. It will fall out of your pocket, it will slide off a couch, it will undoubtedly hit the floor the moment you stop paying attention.
I ordered this Crave Slim Guard case before the Pixel ever arrived. I also ordered the Google case, which has a “barely there” feel to it. The Crave cases are available in several colors; this is the Forest Green. The case fits the phone perfectly, nice and snug, and wraps around the edges without killing the look of the front display. Best of all, the case is NOT AT ALL slippery.
The display is also a beautiful thing, adapting to ambient light or you can set the brightness manually. The display measures 1440 x 3120 pixels. It also features an adaptive display that picks up colors from your background and applies it to text, icons, etc. (In my case, green, of course.)
The phone ships with Android 12. And, being an unlocked phone direct from Google, I receive security updates and new versions of the operating system first, before all of the major carriers can apply their own stamp and bloat to it. I’ve had Android phones from AT&T and Verizon, and both came with a lot of nonsense apps that I didn’t need or want. Buying direct from Google avoids all of that pre-installed garbage and I’m now dealing direct with the manufacturer. My carrier at present is Verizon, but there’s no sign of them on the phone. BTW, I was able to transfer the SIM from my HTC phone to the Pixel 6, and it worked perfectly. Up and running immediately. (My phone has since updated to Android 13.)
Okay, the phone is gorgeous, the display magnificent, and Android 12 has all kinds of new tricks and usefulness. But that’s not why I bought this phone.
Take a picture.
The current Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max owns the camera segment in cellphones. But Google is giving them a run for the money. Tom’s Guide has a good review of the Pixel 6 Pro v. the Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max.
The ratings for the Pixel 6 Pro have come out at DXOMark with an impressive overall score of 135. That puts it right up there with the iPhone 13 Pro in image quality. The nod for the camera and video go to the Apple, but not by much. And for those interested mainly in selfies (you know who you are), the Pixel is now king of that hill. (I am ignoring the smartphones from Huawei and Xiaomi, since I cannot recommend them at this time.)
As with all smartphones, the Pixel does a whole lot of processing before it spits out a JPG. In most cases, the colors are highly accurate – what you see is what you get (wysiwyg). Even shooting into the sun, the Pixel applies a bit of HDR (high dynamic range) to even out the lighting or to capture the intense blue of the sky without sacrificing the other colors.
I’m sure you’ve heard about the Magic Eraser® software that comes with the Pixel 6. This is a software trick that allows you to remove unwanted elements from a photo, AFTER you take the photo. In this example, I’ve removed a few folks from the lower left corner of the photo. The Eraser left some artifacts, certainly, but if you weren’t looking for it, you probably wouldn’t notice. You identify the unwanted portion of the photo, and then the Eraser predicts what would have been behind the portion to be removed. It doesn’t always get it perfect, but it does a fairly good job. The more uniform the background, of course, the better it works.
While I’m at it, here’s a telephoto on that arch. The Pixel 6 Pro includes a 4X optical telephoto lens that you don’t get on the Pixel 6. The Pro model also zooms out to an impressive 20X digital zoom. Digital zoom is almost always garbage, but Google’s software produces fairly good results. Still, it’s the optical zoom that counts. This is at 4X.
Another example of the Magic Eraser® removes a small post in the foreground of this landscape photo. If you know where to look, you can see imperfections. Another reason I post this photo is to show the true-to-life colors as captured by the Pixel 6 Pro. You can always play with light and color saturation after the fact, but I like my photos to capture what my eye sees.
The Pixel 6 Pro also shoots in RAW, if you want. This will give you the standard output JPG along with the “negative” RAW in .dng format. This is the image as it hit the sensor, without any sharpening or color saturation or any of the other processing that the camera normally performs. In some cases, the Pixel will spit out a JPG that is over-processed, to my eye. A bit too much sharpening, a bit too much color saturation. Here’s an example of what the sensor caught, as opposed to what the camera puts out as JPG.
One of the main options is the Portrait mode. Smartphone cameras try to get EVERYTHING in focus, near or far. Most digital cameras will offer a bit of blur to the background subjects (see: “bokeh”), as does the Pixel 6 in Portrait mode. Here are a couple of selfies, one with the background in focus, and the other in Portrait mode, with the background blurred out.
I should also note that, at the time it was released, the Google Pixel 6 Pro had the highest-rated selfie camera on the market, according to DXOMark.
Here’s another neat trick called Night Sight. The Pixel enhances a dark scene, making full use of available light. The shadows are lit up nicely throughout. But you’ll have to hold the phone steady for a while. It’s almost like shining a huge flashlight on the back yard here.
I’ve put up a gallery of images at my smugmug pages. Have a look!