For half a decade, Google, the maker of Android, the world’s most widely used phone software, has had a dream to make a best-selling phone that rivals the gold standard, the iPhone.
Google’s Pixel phones have consistently received positive reviews but sell tepidly because of a major weakness: They have relied on off-the-shelf parts from other companies. As a result, they have felt sluggish compared with devices made by Apple, which tightly controls the quality of its iPhones by doing design in-house.
With the new Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro, which cost $600 and $900 and will be available on Thursday, Google believes it now has phones that level the playing field.
These are the company’s first phones to include Tensor, its own computing processor, similar to how Apple designed the silicon that powers its iPhones. The Tensor chip enables the Pixel phones to rapidly perform complex computing tasks, like voice transcriptions, Google said.
After a week of testing, I concluded that Google has made serious progress with the Pixels — but it is still dreaming. Its advancements were not enough to make me switch from an iPhone.
The new Pixels feel zippy, but their computing power lags behind the iPhone’s speeds by as much as 50 percent. And while many photos produced with its camera looked clear and well lit, some looked overly sharp. The Pixel 6’s ability to immediately translate languages into one’s native tongue also felt unfinished — it didn’t work well with some languages, like Japanese.
Here’s what you need to know.
The Tensor processor is the result of Google’s long and expensive journey in smartphone technology, which included a $1 billion acquisition of the handset maker HTC in 2018. To speed things up, Google embedded its most complex algorithms into the chips, including advanced photography effects and language translation, eliminating the need to connect to its online servers to complete those tasks.
The speed increases were noticeable. The Pixel 6’s motion looked buttery smooth, compared with that of its predecessors, when scrolling through apps and websites. But when I tested some of the phone’s special features, like the ability to watch a foreign-language video and display subtitles translated into English in real time, the results were mixed.
When I opened TikTok and searched for videos of people giving language lessons in French, Italian and Japanese, the technology performed well with French and Italian. The software correctly translated casual ways to say “I am not” in French (pronounced “shwee pah” as opposed to the more formal phrase “je ne suis pas”).
But it struggled with Japanese. One TikToker demonstrated a basic conversation that, when properly translated, meant the following in English:
The Pixel 6’s translation came out like this:
That translation probably would have earned a C in a Japanese language class.
These results weren’t surprising. The Pixel software said that for translated captions, Japanese was in “beta,” meaning it’s a work in progress. In another sign that this feature was incomplete, I wasn’t able to test translated video captions for Mandarin speech, which I’m somewhat fluent in, because the Pixel has yet to support Chinese.
A Nice Camera That Sometimes Tries Too Hard
Pixel phones have always relied heavily on a blend of software, artificial intelligence and machine learning to produce clear and vibrant photos. The Tensor chip, Google said, would help the camera software take photos more quickly.
To test the new cameras, I took the Pixel 6 devices and two of the latest iPhones to a park on an overcast day to shoot hundreds of photos of my corgi, Max (who now holds the record as the most featured dog in The New York Times).
The Pixel 6 and 6 Pro’s cameras were fast, just as advertised, and many photos looked great, with realistic colors and nice shadow detail.
Yet the Pixel 6 photos often looked like the phones were trying too hard with more advanced effects. In some photos shot in “portrait” mode, which sharpens a subject in the foreground and gently blurs the background, my exceptionally cute dog looked overly sharpened to the point that he looked much older. The iPhone 13 Pro produced a more aesthetically pleasing portrait of Max, who is 8 years young.
Often, the colors of the Pixel 6 photos also looked too “cold,” making Max’s white mane appear blue. The color temperature could be adjusted in the camera software, but the iPhone cameras generally produced photos with more natural colors without any extra effort.
All told, the Pixel camera was very good. Zoomed-in shots looked clear on the 6 Pro, the more expensive model, which has an optical zoom lens.
Google was the first phone maker to introduce the ability to take photos in low light without using a flash, and the new Pixels still excel in this area. When comparing them with low-light shots taken with the new iPhones, I’d call it a tie.
In the end, the Pixel 6 and the Pixel 6 Pro are solid products. Considering their starting prices, which are about $200 lower than competing high-end phones from Samsung and Apple, I can recommend them to Android fans.
But what will Google do with Tensor to make the Pixel stand out? Not only are parts of the software unfinished, but the parts that the phone excels at aren’t all that special.
The ability to transcribe foreign languages, for one, is useful, but it’s also something that older phones can do. When I visited countries like Thailand and Japan in years past, taxi drivers communicated with me by using Google’s Translate software — they spoke into their phones and played the English translation out of the speaker. It worked with some delay, but it was adequate.
You might enjoy other benefits of Google’s shift to its own silicon. Battery life in the new Pixels is much longer than in past models — after each long day of testing, plenty of juice was still left by bedtime. But again, this is not a differentiator from other modern phones that have equally long battery life.
Google’s competitors also have nice exclusives. Most notably, there’s the “blue bubble” effect, or iMessage, on iPhones. Over the years, Google has gone through several iterations of messaging apps, and none have been as seamless and enjoyable to use as iMessage.
That special something — something sticky, delightful and ubiquitously useful — is what Google needs to deliver to get hordes of people to switch to a Pixel. It’s hard to tell what that might be.