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Monday, February 14, 2022

Review: Pixel 6

 A variety of circumstances (both security related) led my wife and I to both end up with Pixel 6. First, Boen locked himself out of his Pixel 3a. Due to Factory Reset Protection, the phone became worthless and useless, since even after a factory reset the phone required him to login using his previous screen pattern. This is the well known, "too much security" problem. But BestBuy had a T-mobile Pixel 6 available and was willing to take in the Pixel 3a for a $180 discount on an already $50 discounted Pixel 6, so we ended up with a Pixel 6 for a little more than $400.

My S9+ has served me faithfully for more than 30 months, but the battery had been going downhill. More than that, I was 6 months away from the end of security updates. Prior to working on security, I'd never been a target, but since I now reported into a security organization, I decided to play on the safe side. I would default to one of the latest Galaxy Phones, but in the intervening 2 years, Samsung has seen fit to remove both the headphone jack and the microsd slot on their S models.  They also got rid of MST payments, so you couldn't use the latest phones on mag card readers! The latest one that had a microsd card slot was the Galaxy S21FE, which Arturo had. But over the holidays I couldn't get Samsung to give me a reasonable trade-in value for my S9+, so when Google's store offered me $215, I jumped on it for a 256GB Pixel 6. The Pixel 6 Pro wasn't under consideration because the worst feature of the S9+ was the curved screen. Unfortunately, the experience of trading in at the on-line Google store was much worse than going to Best Buy during a pandemic: it took weeks for Google to even receive the product, and more delays while they evaluated the phone.  They did eventually grant me my $215 trade-in, despite all the horror stories about people turning in a perfect phone only to be denied their credit. Given a choice between a BestBuy trade in and a Google one, the BestBuy trade in is much faster and easier.

There are many web-sites devoted to covering various features of the Pixel 6, but I'll focus on the experience of someone upgrading from a 3 year old phone. First of all, the bluetooth connectivity for the Pixel 6 is definitely far stronger than that on the S9+. I was really surprised by this. On the S9+, I learned to keep the phone in the same side pocket as the headphone ear piece I was using, and even then I'd occasionally get a cut-out when I was cycling. On the Pixel 6, I could put the phone in any pocket I wanted. Inside the house, I could roam far away from the phone and not get it cut out.  The latency between when I inserted by Jabra Elite 65 into my ear and the phone being connected (especially when answering a phone call) is also much faster than the S9+, and makes the experience much better than before, which was a pleasant surprise. The S9+ was also very aggressive about killing apps, so much so that I learned to manually start the audio app I wanted each time I used it. This was despite my S9+ being the 6GB RAM/128GB storage model, another reason I didn't go for the S21FE. By contrast, the Pixel 6 seems very willing to use all 8GB of RAM at its disposal, and auto-resume always correctly picked the right app to resume playing audio from on bluetooth connect, android auto startup, etc.

Lots of people complain about the size of the phone. I actually like a big phone, and the voice recognition on the phone is such that for typical one-handed tasks (like dialing a number) I don't even usually touch the screen. Where that falls over is for switching between audio apps, where sometimes the system will ask me to unlock the phone in order to start an app.

Similarly, it's nice not having any duplicate apps, and having to disable bixby, etc. Size-wise, the phones were actually similarly sized:

The Pixel is actually just a little bit bigger, despite having a much bigger screen, and the OLED display was also significantly brighter. It's unfortunately also heavier and wider, and I feel it in my pocket in ways I didn't feel the S9+. What's not so nice is the fingerprint reader. It works, just takes a little longer than the physical fingerprint reader that was on the S9+. Though again, the latest Samsung phones have also switched to an in display reader!

After I copied over my SD card to the Pixel, I had about 150GB left. Since I'd deliberately not copied any of my photos over, it was clear to me that the 128GB version of the phone would have been too cramped, since just after another month of installing apps and taking photos, I've used already 2GB. Since the base model came with 108GB free and I'm already using 108GB, I'd say that if you have the habit of using an SD card with older model phones, the base model is insufficient for daily use, let alone an extended period of travel, where you might download videos and shoot a lot of photos and videos while traveling. I immediately turned off Google Photos sync installed Amazon photos and got my already-paid-for unlimited full resolution storage. Google photos have very nice features, but none of them justify paying for cloud storage. By the way, if you run your phone at 100% capacity, you're going to wear out the storage system faster, since wear leveling partly depends on having free space for the leveling to happen!

In terms of interaction, the phone behaves much faster than the S9+. In particular, there's much shorter lag time when I double-press the power button to bring the camera up. This is a big deal since a major use case for the smartphone camera is the ability to shoot while cycling, and the less time you're riding with the camera pointing at a scene/action while trying to get a picture the better. Despite all the raves about high refresh 90Hz screens, I did not actually notice any difference in day to day use. In fact, I've turned off the 90Hz screen so I get better battery life since I didn't notice it at all. (Incidentally, this is one reason I decided I could live without a zoom --- when you're looking for a camera to use while riding a bike you don't need a zoom!)

By far the best feature of the Pixel phone, however, are the features related to voice and phone calls. I spend a lot of time waiting on the phone on hold. I tried hold for me and it worked. Then the next few times I got phone calls from someone I didn't know, I tapped the "screen my call" button, and the spam caller hung up (which let me know to immediately block the number!). When calling an automated dialing system, "direct my call" popped up and I got a transcription of the phone menu. I know I'm probably the last person to actually use telephones to make phone calls, but these 3 features alone were well worth switching over to a new phone for.

OK. Everyone raves about how good Pixel photos are. But what I notice about most reviewers is that they review the photo directly on the phone's screen, instead of looking them on a big 4K monitor. Phones have great screens, because that's what sells phones. But camera manufacturers sell cameras to photographers, so they save money on the bill of materials by putting in a relatively cheap screen. So if you compare a dedicated camera and a smartphone side by side when you take photos, you're going to think, "The phone shoots so much better photos than my dedicated camera. Computational photograph for the win!" But after you get home and look at the photos on a large 4K screen, you'll discover, as I did, that the dedicated camera is quite obviously better than the smartphone, even without fancy multi-frame HDR software pinning technology. Keep in mind that a 12 megapixel image (like that from the Pixel 6) is only barely good enough for a 4K monitor. Any improvements in monitor resolution will make it very clear that "barely good enough" in 2022 will no longer be good enough in 2026. In any case, I've on occasion been impressed by a Pixel photo, but for any kind of travel, or even routine capture, I've never regretted pulling out my Ricoh GR3 or EOS M5. Most of the photographs you'll see on my travel comes from a real camera, not a smartphone.

One particularly bad feature of the Pixel 6 is the panorama mode. I usually expect panorama mode to at least produce a higher resolution file than the non-pano shots. But the panorama mode on the Pixel 6 not only produces awful results, but stores the same resolution as a single picture. The results are awful and not worth your time. Better take individual shots and stitch them with hugin or Lightroom.

The quick UI for the phone works, and works fast: double-tap on the power button to activate the camera, and then shoot using the volume down button. The counter-intuitive part is that if you hold down the volume down button, instead of shooting in burst mode like a real camera, it starts shooting video instead! There's no way to reconfigure the phone to use burst mode, so I've learned to make do. In theory you can export frames from the video, but that's a total pain --- you have to use the Google Photos app and export the frames.

Pixel phones come with a voice assistant that's supposedly leaps and bounds ahead of everyone else, especially since supposedly the Tensor processor on the phone is designed for language processing. In practice, the hardware can't live up to the software --- frequently it'd miss the wake word, or I'd have to say "stop" a couple of times before the timer stopped, for instance. Despite training the language model, it misunderstands me a lot more often than I would like, and using the voice assistant via bluetooth headset frequently annoys me with the "you have to unlock your phone before you use this feature." The entire point of a voice assistant is that the phone stays in my pocket while I talk to it. Transcription accuracy is also not much improved, though transcription speed is now quite good. The lack of sensitivity of the microphone is also highlighted in another instance: I watched Hamilton while the phone was sitting on the couch, and the "Now Playing History" feature of the phone remembered every song that was in that musical. But the next day, I saw When Marnie Was There with the phone in my pocket, and the phone had no memory of the ending theme song.

The Pixel 6 comes with guaranteed OS updates until October 2024, and security updates until October 2026. That's a good window, ensuring that you're likely to trade in the phone long before that happens. (More than likely, the phone would have been broken or stolen before then) I don't usually care about software updates --- frequently, the UI changes just so someone can get a promotion, but the security updates are welcome, and obviously there will be bugs that I'd like to see fixed, as well as possible improvements in voice recognition and other tweaks to eliminate annoyances such as the need to unlock the phone for certain activities that voice assistant should just take care of.

For the prices we paid with the excellent trade-in values we got, this was a good phone. I'm still very annoyed that Samsung got rid of headphone jacks and micro-sd cards, which is how I ended up with the Pixel 6 (the Samsung A  series phones still have those features, but they weren't offering good trade-in values so we ended up paying less for the Pixel 6 than we would have for the A52 5G, which had a much worse camera and of course Samsung bloatware). Now that the holidays are over, you're likely to see even better deals for the Pixel 6, and if you find a good deal, it's worth taking a look at it. All in all, this is the first Pixel non-A phone that struck me as being good value compared to their Samsung counterparts, so it's also the first full on Pixel non-A phone that I would tag the recommended label on.


Sojka's Call said...

Did you end up with the Google Fi network? If so, what do you think of that?

Piaw Na said...

No, I'm still on Arturo wireless. :-)

Peter said...

Sadly, the "hold for me" feature only works for 1-800 numbers - which doesn't include the local medical center, for example.

If any Google PM is reading this, please figure out a way to do "hold for me" for any number, not just 1-800 numbers. (Other than that, "hold for me" is wonderful, although it seems to slightly discombobulate the call center people.)

N said...

What is Arturo wireless?

Piaw Na said...

A bunch of us (including Arturo) banded together and maxed out a T-mobile account and shared the expenses, reducing costs for a good data/voice plan down to a reasonable amount, well below what Google Fi provides.