Google’s Pixel 6 Beats iPhone Camera But Fails Elsewhere: Review

(Bloomberg) — The Pixel 6 is the latest smartphone to be released under the Google brand and the closest thing to an iPhone running Google’s Android software. It advances mobile photography with creative new uses of artificial intelligence, but it ultimately falls short of competing with the world’s most popular handset.

Controlling the operating system, hardware design and now also its own custom-made chip, the Alphabet Inc. company does much of what makes Apple Inc.’s devices distinct from the competition. But in testing by Bloomberg News, Google’s duo of new Pixel devices lacked the refinement and functionality to match what users can expect from iPhones and many Chinese Android vendors.

The $599 Pixel 6 and $899 6 Pro differ in a few ways: the 6.7-inch Pro model has a better display with dynamic refresh rates to smoothly handle fast-moving action, uses higher-grade materials and adds a 4x zoom camera. It also has more memory and a larger battery than the 6.4-inch device. Both are built around Google’s first custom-designed processor, called Tensor, which does a terrific job of keeping up with user input and making the interface feel fast and responsive.

Google’s ambition with Tensor is to vertically integrate its AI strengths and underlying hardware — this chip is credited with delivering faster and more accurate speech recognition as well as accelerating image processing and making the device more power-efficient. Prior generations, including the most recent Pixel 5, have used mid-range Qualcomm Inc. chips that have slowed their user experience down.

“Mobile chips simply haven’t been able to keep pace with Google research,” said Google Silicon Senior Director Monika Gupta at the company’s launch event. “And rather than wait for them to catch up, we decided to make one ourselves.”

The biggest improvements are two creative modes added to the camera: Action Pan and Long Exposure. The latter blurs moving objects, such as cars passing by, to create flowing streaks of light, a photographic technique that typically requires a large DSLR camera and a tripod. Google’s approach demands little effort: just point it at the nearest highway and you’ll get professional-quality shots that no other mobile device can rival.

The action shot reverses the technique, freezing the subject of the photo while blurring the surroundings to simulate a sense of speed. Google’s intelligent processing even blurs the background visible through a car’s window, generating images that would previously take hours of fine-grained editing to produce.

The pricier 6 Pro’s added zoom camera gives users more creative flexibility and benefits from Google’s previous AI advantage, Night Sight mode. That technique has since been replicated by Apple and others, but it’s still a major improvement over what DSLRs can achieve at night, stacking several images to produce a clean low-light shot.

Outside of the camera is where the new devices start to falter. The fingerprint reader is distractingly poor, delivering false negatives with a regularity that discourages its use. Comparing it to the speed and accuracy of in-display fingerprint scanners on Oppo and Vivo phones — or even Google’s own Pixel Imprint reader that used to sit on the rear of the device — makes this feel like a distinct own goal. Google has created a problem out of something that others have solved long ago.

The design of the new Pixels also leaves something to be desired. The rear glass of the 6 Pro is extremely slick and slippery and the devices have seams and color variance across their materials that make them look and feel less cohesive than rival offerings.

The combination of attractive pricing and advanced imaging with Google’s promise of five years of security updates makes for a compelling package. The company, which has never threatened to break past even 1% of the global smartphone market, saw sufficient demand upon the Pixel 6’s announcement to crash its web store. Google is making another big marketing push, putting ads for its devices on courtside boards during marquee NBA games, but it still has work to do to catch up to the best in its own Android ecosystem, let alone the iPhone.

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