Google Pixel 6 & Pixel 6 Pro: Ending Apple’s camera reign?

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Pixel 6 & Pixel 6 Pro: Google to end Apple’s camera reign
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To make it clear - we’ve been there many times… We make camera comparisons with flagship phones every year and pretty much ever since the iPhone vs Android debate started. We’ve seen the candidate that’s supposed to knock the iPhone off the top so many times.

For the record (wink, wink), we are focusing (wink, wink) on video capturing of the Google Pixel 6 and how it fits into the whole idea of a powerful camera system.

iPhone 12 Pro Max vs Galaxy S21 Ultra vs Google Pixel 5: So far, so bad

Let’s cut to the chase and look at Google’s last attempt at competing with the big boys. As you can see by video screenshots from our camera comparison between the iPhone 12 Pro Max, Galaxy S21 Ultra, and Pixel 5, Apple has little to no competition when it comes to video.

On the first two samples, we are looking at extreme loss of detail when recording video in daylight. Then on the second two we see extreme noise and lack of clarity in low light on the Pixel 5. The iPhone 12 Pro Max is doing a significantly better job in all scenarios thanks to its bigger sensor, but also powerful chip, which works in tandem with the camera to deliver some stellar results in the video department.

Google Pixel 5 has:

  • Tons of noise on video (or photos) when in mid-low light
  • Extreme loss of detail in good and challenging lighting
  • Ineffective HDR in extreme backlit conditions

Respectively, if you flip it around, you get everything the iPhone 12 Pro Max does better than Google’s latest device. Really, we can go on and on, but we think the samples speak for themselves here.

Google Pixel 6 & Google Pixel 6 Pro: The Android camera system you've been waiting for

Again, to reiterate, we focus primarily on video, but some, if not all, of what applies to video will also apply to photos. After a four-year wait, Google’s finally upgraded the camera hardware and camera software (processing) on the Pixel 6 series. The company doesn’t share specific numbers just yet, but according to leaks:

Google Pixel 6

  • Main camera: 50MP
  • Ultra-wide camera: 12MP
  • Front camera: 8MP

Google Pixel 6 Pro

  • Main camera: 50MP
  • Periscope zoom camera: 48MP
  • Ultra-wide camera: 12MP
  • Front camera: 12MP

Of course, what’s exciting is that the camera sensors are finally new. Google isn’t using the same old Sony sensor they’ve used for the past 3-4 years, and that’s already a step in the right direction.

According to Google, the Pixel 6 & 6 Pro will let in 150% more light than previous Pixel devices. We assume this claim is based on the primary camera sensor of the Pixel 6 and is compared to the Pixel 5.

What’s also exciting is that we finally have three focal lengths to work with. Apart from the brand new main and ultra-wide-angle cameras, it’s now confirmed that the Pixel 6 Pro will use a dedicated periscope zoom lens with 4x magnification. Assuming that camera has a 48MP resolution and Google’s AI magnification algorithm, we are looking at about 8-10x lossless zoom, on top of the already impressive (compared to previous Pixels) 4x optical zoom. That’s exciting!

Powering the Pixel 6 camera system: Behind the scenes with Tensor and how it affects the camera on the Pixel 6

It’s not a secret that Google loves software processing and AI when it comes to the camera system on Pixel devices.

So far, Pixel phones have been utilizing what Google calls “the Pixel Visual Core” image processor (Pixel 2 & Pixel 3), which later turned into the more powerful and versatile Pixel Neural Core (Pixel 4 up). The latter aided computational photography, but also Live Transcribe, which also makes it an audio processor.

And of course, from the perspective of the average consumer, Pixel devices had always had “that Pixel look” when it came to photos. With the original Pixel, Pixel 2, and Pixel 3, Google had it in the bag. These phones took some of the best, most balanced HDR photos out there, and this even applies to the Nexus 6P from back in the day.

However, the same can’t be said about video. As you were able to see by our camera comparison, even the latest Pixel 5 struggles to keep up with Apple’s iPhone when it comes to capturing great video. Apple’s been king in this department for years due to the fact that they are able to optimize the camera experience holistically - for photo, video, software, and hardware.

Cupertino has complete control over everything, which makes for an overall more consistent camera experience. That’s why you’d hear people refer to the iPhone as “the most reliable camera phone” - not necessarily “the best camera phone” because there are Android flagships with incredible hardware, but “most consistent one”.

Enter, Tensor...

Google’s own SoC (reportedly manufactured in partnership with Samsung), which is here to take all the different bits and pieces that Google’s been playing with for years and stitch them together to allow Google’s photo processing to fully transition to video! That’s right. The new Tensor chip in the Pixel 6 & Pixel 6 Pro promises to take everything we love about the Pixel photography and bring it to video.

This means the Google Pixel 6 & 6 Pro are expected to:

  • Utilize HDRNet for video, which will help with tricky HDR scenes, where you might be pointing at the sun or another strong light source.
  • Keep the picture looking like it’s coming from a “real” camera without oversharpening
  • Offer smooth transition between different focal lengths.

If any of that sounds familiar, it’s because Apple’s iPhone has been able to do Smart HDR for video and offer the smoothest transition between cameras for years. It seems like Tim Cook and company are getting some... company.

In the end…

The takeaway is that Google is going for it. The company is trying to compete in areas like:

As far as the topic of this story is concerned - the camera experience is definitely a focal point of Google’s brand new Pixel 6, and we can’t wait to try it out this fall.
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