Google Pixel 6 Pro Review: Fantastic everyday phone with an undeniable Exynos inspiration

Google Pixel 6 Pro Review: Fantastic everyday phone with an undeniable Exynos inspiration

The Google Pixel 6 Pro is the most beautiful Pixel smartphone ever made. It launched as a part of the Google Pixel 6 series, with Google Tensor, a chipset made by Google. It also debuted with the latest and greatest version of Android — Android 12. Google Tensor is the company’s debut in smartphone chip-making, and the Google Pixel 6 Pro is packed with all of the Google goodness you’ve come to expect from a Pixel. Machine learning-powered features, clean software, and fast updates, it’s got it all.

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The most exciting part of this device for me is Google Tensor, and I expect that’s the same for a lot of people. Last year’s Pixel 5 with its Qualcomm Snapdragon 765G chipset left a sour taste in many people’s mouths, with many stating that it wasn’t good enough for a flagship smartphone. Tensor, being an entirely new chipset, has nothing and everything to compare to, and even then, the company has already said it isn’t focused on benchmarks.

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Even better, the Pixel 6 Pro has the company’s first major camera upgrade in a long, long time. Google had stuck to the same IMX362/IMX363 since the Google Pixel 2, and the sensor was beginning to show its age when compared to recent flagship smartphones. The Pixel 6 Pro packs the Samsung GN1 50MP sensor, and it fares a whole lot better than anything Google has done previously.

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Back of the Google Pixel 6 Pro

About this review: I received the Google Pixel 6 Pro for review for IrishTech from Google Ireland on the 20th of October, 2021. Google did not have any input into the contents of this article.

    The Google Pixel 6 Pro is the latest and greatest flagship smartphone from Google, and it has a lot to love. It's not perfect, but it's the best Google phone yet for sure.

      Features:

      Pros:

      Cons:

Google Pixel 6 Pro: Specifications

Specification Google Pixel 6 Pro
Dimensions and Weight
  • 210g
Display
  • 6.71-inch LTPO AMOLED
  • QHD+ (1400 x 3120)
  • Centered hole-punch
  • 120Hz display refresh rate
  • HDR10+ support
  • High brightness mode
  • Full 24-bit depth for 16 million colors
  • Gorilla Glass Victus
SoC
  • Google Tensor octa-core chipset
    • Titan M2 security chip
RAM and Storage
  • 12GB LPDDR5 RAM
  • 128GB/256GB/512GB UFS 3.1 flash storage
Battery & Charging
  • 5,000mAh battery
  • 30W fast charging
  • 23W fast wireless charging
Rear Camera
  • Primary: 50MP f/1.8 Samsung GN1 primary camera, OIS
  • Secondary: 12MP f/2.2 ultra-wide camera, 114-degree FOV
  • Tertiary: 48MP f/3.5, telephoto, 4X optical zoom, 20x digital zoom
Front Camera
  • 11.1MP f/2.2
Ports
  • USB Type-C port
Connectivity
  • 5G NR (Sub-6GHz)
  • NFC
  • Ultra-wideband (UWB)
  • Bluetooth 5.2
  • Type-C port
  • WiFi 802.11.b/g/n/ac (2.4GHz + 5GHz)
Other features
  • Optical under-display fingerprint reader
  • IP68 water and dust resistance
  • Stereo speakers
Software
  • Android 12
  • Three years of OS updates
  • Five years of security updates


Google Pixel 6 Pro: Design

Google Pixel 6 Pro from the side

The Google Pixel 6 Pro features a pretty unique design, with the camera visor on the back standing out when compared against the competition. It houses the phone’s 50MP Samsung GN1 primary camera, the 12MP ultra-wide camera, and the 48MP telephoto camera. It also has some other important camera hardware there too, like the microphone and the flash. Admission: I actually prefer this camera bump when compared to other phones with a large camera bump on one side, as it going across the entire device means that it won’t rock on a desk when using it. It also looks like the visor on Thomas Bangalter’s Daft Punk helmet, which is pretty cool.

Design-wise, this is my favorite Google phone yet.

The display is curved and the phone itself is thick, making it rather unwieldy to hold in one hand. It’s also pretty slippery, and the Stormy Black model that we have is very much a fingerprint magnet. I’d definitely recommend getting some kind of case for it, as this is a difficult phone to properly grip on to. The back of the Stormy Black model is dual-tone, with the top part of the device above the camera visor being a lighter gray than the part below it.

The front of the phone is unimpeded aside from the front-facing camera thanks to its uniform bezels, making it a pleasure to use and look at. It’s somewhat “boxy” in its design at the top and bottom, and it’s reminiscent (for me anyway) of some older Samsung Galaxy Note devices. I think part of what gives it that feel is the squared-off bezel on the top and bottom, and I really, really like how it looks as a result.

There’s also a speaker grille at the top of the display that serves as an earpiece or stereo speaker. The earpiece is fine for calls, though the sound comes out upwards rather than outwards. That means that I need to tilt the phone slightly to properly hear the person on the other end, though it’s really not a big deal and something I naturally fell into very quickly. The speakers themselves sound pretty good, and they get quite loud.

I’m a big fan of the Pixel 6 Pro’s camera design, and it definitely does something to iterate upon the formulaic glass slab that we see each and every year. I don’t really care about camera bumps, but I know many people do and this is about as good as it gets if a smartphone is going to have one. It’s big, but it’s not much thicker than other offerings from other companies.

I'm a big fan of the Pixel 6 Pro's camera design, and it definitely does something to iterate upon the formulaic glass slab that we see each and every year.

The buttons are tactile and clicky, though I’m slightly disappointed that the power button no longer has a fun and unique color. The placing of the buttons is also kind of strange — the power button is above the volume rocker, making it slightly awkward to take a screenshot. The SIM card tray is also on the left-hand side and the USB-C port is on the bottom, beside the speaker grille.

full front of the Google Pixel 6 Pro

The Google Pixel 6 Pro has a 6.71-inch, curved 120Hz OLED LTPO display that’s interrupted only by a hole-punch camera in the top middle. The hole is not too big so you won’t notice it in general usage. The Pixel 6 Pro’s screen gets pretty bright, up to 800 nits with auto-brightness on, and is more than capable on a bright Irish day. Disclaimer though: A bright Irish day is still considerably darker than most bright days elsewhere.

To be honest, I don’t think it’ll be an issue on really bright days though. I do wish it could get a little bit brighter just sitting indoors, but it’s not a major complaint, and it’s completely visible under direct sunlight which is what matters most. On the other hand, the Pixel 6 Pro’s display also gets really dark—perfect for using the phone in dark rooms or at night! There’s an “extra dim” option too if the display’s lowest brightness isn’t low enough for you.

Haptics-wise, these are the best haptics I’ve used in an Android phone, and are nearly on par with the iPhone 13 Pro that I’ve also been using recently. The fingerprint sensor is accurate and quick, located under the display. Thanks to the incredible haptics, it’s easy to feel for it when you’re not looking at the phone and want to unlock it.


Google Pixel 6 Pro: Camera

If Pixel smartphones have mainstream recognition for any particular feature, it’s definitely because of their cameras. Google has long maintained more or less the same camera hardware for several years now, and the Pixel 6 series is a massive departure from that comfort zone. The company has taken the plunge on the Samsung GN1 sensor, jumping from the IMX363 that has been a mainstay of Google for years now. Google’s photographic capabilities on the Pixel 5 were some of the best in the business, though the sensor really showed its age in low light and non-ideal scenarios. With an upgrade to a larger, all-around better sensor, Google’s ready to try and take the throne once again. The Pixel 6 Pro has been a pleasure to use in pretty much all situations that I encountered, and the Google Camera software yet again demonstrates its superiority over other camera stacks.

The Pixel 6 Pro with Google Camera software yet again demonstrates its superiority over other camera stacks

If the Samsung GN1 camera sensor sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the same camera that powers the Vivo X70 Pro Plus. Given how amazing some of the photos produced by the Vivo X70 Pro Plus have been, we know how capable this sensor is. It measures 1/1.31 inches, it has a 1.2μm pixel size, an f/1.85 aperture, and an 82-degree field of view. Google also employs Quad-Bayer pixel-binning on this camera, giving a real resolution of 12.5MP. There is no option to take a high-resolution 50MP photo in the camera app from what I can see either.

As for the telephoto camera, it’s a 48MP periscope setup, allowing for 4x optical zoom and up to 20x digital zoom. The regular Google Pixel 6 variant drops the telephoto and instead employs the company’s Super Res Zoom on the main sensor for up to 7x zoom.

The one thing that bothers me about the camera experience is the same problem that has bothered me on every Pixel smartphone. It’s the fact that there isn’t a dedicated gallery app—instead, you need to use Google Photos. Google Photos feels quite bloated for just quickly looking at pictures I just took, so I felt the need to install a third-party gallery app. I realize I might be in the minority when it comes to this, though, so if you’re used to the Google Photos app, then you won’t have any issues with it on the Pixel 6.

The Google Pixel 6 Pro’s camera is a definitive improvement over the Pixel 5, but it still has a number of issues that I hope the company addresses. For example, it’s not possible to take an astrophotography photo on the ultra-wide-angle camera or the telephoto, and you can’t film in 4K 60 FPS on anything but the primary sensor, either. Both additional cameras can be recorded using 4K 30 FPS or below. There’s sadly no auto-focus on the ultra-wide camera either, but it’s extremely quick on the main sensor. There’s also a pretty bad lens flare in a lot of photos where there’s a light source, and at times the auto-focus fails to work without tapping on the screen.

Google Pixel 6 Pro: Main Camera

Google Pixel 6 Pro Main

The Google Pixel 6 Pro has a fantastically capable primary sensor, though as already mentioned, has issues with lens flare when there are other light sources. The point-and-shoot ability of the camera is unrivaled in my testing against other devices, as I can quickly double-tap the power button and have a photo taken within two seconds if the auto-focus works correctly. Most of the time it does, but there have been some occasions where it frustratingly requires me to tap the screen before I can even take one.

Google Pixel 6 Pro: 4x Telephoto

Google Pixel 6 Pro Telephoto

The Google Pixel 6 Pro’s 4x telephoto camera is obviously much, much better than what came with the Pixel 5. The Pixel 5 used the company’s Super Res Zoom to capture a 2x zoom photo, though there was no actual telephoto camera to work off of. While the results were decent considering the phone didn’t actually have a telephoto camera, the Pixel 6 Pro’s telephoto is much, much better. I was really impressed with some of the shots that I got in the above album.

Google Pixel 6 Pro: Video Footage

The Google Pixel 6 Pro does an excellent job in video and has a marked improvement at night time thanks to the company’s HDRnet algorithm. At times the video can look janky and imperfect, but it’s leaps and bounds above what the Pixel 5 once was. If what you really want is a smartphone for video filming, though, then I’d wait and see if the company releases a software update before taking the plunge. It’s fine and works well most of the time, but switching between zooms can be janky. The audio also seems to crackle sometimes, though the quality is quite good when it doesn’t.


Google Tensor and Performance

Google Pixel 6 Pro back with G logo

Google Tensor is the company’s first custom mobile chipset, and it’s made specifically for the Google Pixel 6 Pro. Google has been known to make custom chipsets in the past when what’s available on the market doesn’t cut it. Even YouTube runs some of Google’s custom silicon, and the company called it a “VCU” — a Video (trans)Coding Unit. Google said in the Pixel 6 series announcement that when it came to mobile AI processing, it had been “held back for years” from what it had wanted to do. In an interview with Ars Technica, “Google Silicon”, the group responsible for mobile chips at Google, more or less reaffirmed that stance.

“Open up your camera and you have a live view and a lot of really interesting things are happening all at once. You’ve got imaging calculations. You’ve got rendering calculations. You’ve got ML [machine learning] calculations, because maybe Lens is on detecting images or whatever. During situations like that, you have a lot of computation, but it’s heterogeneous,” Phil Carmack, Vice President and General Manager of Google Silicon told Ars Technica.

Heterogeneous means that all of it runs on different parts of the chipset at the same time. The difference between Tensor and any other Qualcomm chip is that Tensor is made for the software, and the software is made for Tensor. This chipset isn’t being used anywhere else, and it’s specifically created for use on the Pixel 6 series.

Tensor, according to Google, was uniquely developed and optimized. The company says that all of the individual components of this chip are optimized as one cohesive unit, rather than individually optimized parts working together. In other words, the chipset is aiming for operations to be divided evenly across the entire chip with all parts working together. Google also mentioned that optimizing individual parts may grant better peak CPU and GPU speeds which will look great in benchmarks, but they “don’t always reflect real-world speed”.

Benchmarks don't matter so long as the user experience is good.

There is definitely some merit to what Google has said about Tensor. In contrast, a chipset like the Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 is designed to be used on many devices and is sold to a wide swathe of device manufacturers. The software can be tailored to the hardware, but the chipset will never be designed and tailored specifically to the manufacturer’s vision if it deviates from what Qualcomm provides. With that, it becomes clear what Google hopes to achieve. Benchmarks don’t matter so long as the user experience is good. If it’s just as good in real-world use as competitors that may score higher on CPU-bound tests, then who cares?

Google Tensor has the following components:

  • 2x Cortex-X1 cores
  • 2x Cortex-A76 cores
  • 4x Cortex-A55 cores
  • 1x Tensor Processing Unit (TPU)
  • 1x Low-power “Context Hub”
  • 1x Titan security chip
  • 1x Image Signalling Processor (ISP)

The TPU is Google’s integrated machine learning engine and is custom-made by Google for running the company’s own machine learning algorithms. It’s tailored specifically towards the company’s needs and wants for a smartphone. In the case of the ISP, key algorithms are now part of the chip itself, rather than part of the software to be translated and executed on the chip. One of the most interesting parts of the chip is the Context Hub, which enables low-power ambient AI features like always-on display and Now Playing to run all the time without battery drain.

Tensor appears to have ties to Samsung’s Exynos range of chipsets, which we heard about a few months before its release. “Whitechapel” was apparently the internal codename for the Pixel 6 series’ chipset, and it later leaked that Samsung had been working on a chip internally with the same codename, the Exynos 9855. For context, the Exynos 2100 is internally known as Exynos 9840, and the Exynos chip expected to power the Galaxy S22 is apparently the Exynos 9925.  I have also found references to Exynos in some of my device’s system files after some digging, and the modem, according to my baseband, is G5123b. The Exynos Modem 5123 is the same modem that’s paired with the Exynos 990 in the S20 series, suggesting that this is a modified version of it.

App Opening Speed Benchmark

Mario Serraferro and Mishaal Rahman created an app launch speed test script using Android’s ActivityManager shell interface to measure how long it takes for the main Activity of 9 applications to launch from a cold start (ie. when not in memory). I modified this test for the Google Pixel 6 Pro. These 9 applications are Google Chrome, Gmail, Google Maps, Messages, Google Photos, Google Play Store, Slack, Twitter, and YouTube. We launched these 9 activities for 10 iterations (and killed each app between launches) to reduce the variance. Please note that Google Messages had a few issues with this test. On a number of occasions, it took over 1500ms to launch, and on others, it was completely fine in our testing. Anecdotally too, all apps launch quickly and I’ve never felt that an app is taking too long to load versus the experience I’ve had on other devices. These results are very good.

Google Pixel 6 Pro app speed test

UI Stutter/Jank test

The Google Pixel 6 Pro has a 120Hz refresh rate display, but how well does the phone actually maintain 120 FPS? I’ve perceived the Pixel 6 Pro to be incredibly smooth, without too many “micro stutters” or noticeable frame rate drops. While the phone will lower the refresh rate to 60Hz when a video starts playing, I tested scrolling through Facebook or Twitter, and videos in the feed do not drop the refresh rate to 60Hz. This means you can scroll on social media and not have jarring switches between 60Hz and 120Hz all of the time. If you notice it happening in apps anyway, you can enable an always-on 120Hz mode in the developer options.

To quantify how well the Google Pixel 6 Pro can maintain 120 FPS in real-world scenarios, we ran a modified version of Google’s open-source JankBench benchmark. This benchmark simulates a handful of common tasks you’ll see in everyday apps, including scrolling through a ListView with text, scrolling through a ListView with images, scrolling through a grid view with a shadow effect, scrolling through a low-hitrate text render view, scrolling through a high-hitrate text render view, inputting and editing text with the keyboard, repeating overdraws with cards, and uploading bitmaps. Our script records the draw time for each frame during the test, eventually plotting all the frames and their draw times in a plot along with several horizontal lines representing the target frame draw times for the 4 common display refresh rates (60Hz, 90Hz, 120Hz, and 144Hz.)

The Google Pixel 6 Pro is extremely smooth

The results show that the Google Pixel 6 Pro is extremely smooth. The top set of graphs are from the Google Pixel 6 Pro, whereas the bottom set of graphs are from the Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra. The Google Pixel 6 Pro still mostly maintains a 120Hz refresh rate, whereas the Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra renders a lot of frames that can’t even be displayed. The Pixel 6 Pro maintains 120Hz pretty well, meaning that it’s actually slightly more efficient, though can also drop below 120FPS on more occasions.

Sustained Performance and Thermals

The Google Pixel 6 Pro performs well, but sustained performance is important too. The Google Pixel 6 Pro can get quite hot, but I believe that’s as a result of software. I found a number of problems in the software of my Google Pixel 6 Pro, and one particular problem I noticed was “com.google.android.gms.persistent” draining my phone’s battery. It appeared to be triggered on occasion after leaving Chrome open in the background for a while, though I didn’t have enough time to confirm whether this was definitely the cause. Every time my phone started to heat up and the battery began to drain, I noticed that this background process was using a ton of CPU. Other than that, thermals have been great, with the phone occasionally heating up but also dissipating heat quickly through the glass back.

The Google Pixel 6 Pro can withstand heat and still perform decently well.

I ran the CPU Throttling Test to see how it held up in sustained performance, and it slowly throttled over time. I couldn’t get any real thermal readings from the Google Pixel 6 Pro (the “Temperature: 50C” in CPU Throttling Test is wrong), but Ampere reported that the phone reached 40°C (104°F) but it was still comfortable to use. It maintained a respectable average of 190 GIPS (billion instructions per second), and it throttled to 75% of its max performance over half an hour. This is a pretty good test and shows that the Google Pixel 6 Pro can withstand heat and still perform decently well. I have never noticed any kind of thermal throttling in normal usage of my phone.