Pixel 6 and Tensor after 7 months: Google’s super-smart chip sets the bar low for Pixel 7 to shine

This article may contain personal views and opinion from the author.
Pixel 6 and Tensor after 7 months: Google’s super-smart chip sets the bar low for Pixel 7 to shine
When Google unveiled Tensor in October of 2021, Senior VP Rick Osterloh said that this chip was "the biggest mobile hardware innovation in the history of the company". While that's indeed a very bold claim, it's not exactly a massive surprise - Google is mainly known for its advances in the areas of data, machine learning, and software.

But back to Tensor…

According to Google, Tensor exists because "(other) mobile chips simply haven't been able to keep up with Google research". Hence, rather than waiting for them to catch up, the company decided to build its own Machine Learning-focused platform that can do everything that Qualcomm-made processors supposedly haven't been able to.

So, a few years ago, pre-2021 and pre-Pixel 6, Google's team of researchers came together to collaborate across hardware, software, and ML, and as it turns out, the fruit of their labor was Tensor - a mobile processor "focused on Machine Learning, rather than on peak CPU and GPU performance". In fact, during Tensor's reveal, Google stated that the CPU and GPU were designed "to complement the chip's ML capabilities".

To put all of that tech jargon into more practical terms, Google's promise with Tensor was for:

  • A super-smart chip that enables features other processors haven't been able to deliver
  • A "premium gaming experience" for the most popular Android games
  • A Context Hub, which makes experiences like Now Play and Always-on Display possible without draining much battery life
  • An advanced ISP (Image Signal Processor) that facilitates the company's next-level computational photography

But enough Google quotes, statements, and promises! I've been using the Pixel 6 Pro for about seven months now, and I think I'm ready to tell you whether Tensor makes Pixel 6 feel like the all-Google flagship phone that the company always wanted to make and if it meets the company's goals, mentioned above.

Tensor is unique because it gives Pixel 6 superpowers (or smart features) via the TPU and ISP

What sets Tensor apart from other Apple, Qualcomm, and MediaTek chips are its rather unique smart capabilities. Although the most technically impressive new Pixel 6 feature to me was its real-time speech translation via Live Translate (which came in handy for one of my Huawei stories, where the presenter spoke Mandarin), it's the party tricks that steal the show for most.

For instance, friends and family members have been most impressed with features such as:

  • Magic Eraser and its ability to remove unwanted people and objects from a photo
  • Exclusive camera features like Action Pan have redefined action photography on a phone
  • Now Playing and how Pixel always listens to find songs that are playing around you without any input from the user

And although some smart features such as Face Unblur and Real Tone can't be appreciated fully because of their subjective matter, they've somehow proven to be useful. My Pixel 6 Pro's camera keeps skin tones in check, unlike iPhones which like to make people blue or orange, and I can't recall seeing a blurry photo come out of the Pixel camera either, so I have to give it to Google.

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On the other hand, I haven't used some of the other smart features like Assistant Voice Typing (dictation) much, and others like Wait Time (which informs you about the wait times for business numbers you might want to call even before the call is placed) and Direct My Call (supposed to save you from going through automated call menus), aren't available in Europe, so I haven't been able to take advantage of them either, which is a real shame.

Google, let's change that? Please.

Google Tensor real-world performance: Does it make Pixel 6 as reliable as an iPhone 13?

Yes and no…

In general, the days when Android phones were slow and laggy are long gone, and the Tensor - Android 12 - Pixel 6 combo adds to that notion. My Tensor-powered Pixel 6 Pro is a fast and responsive phone for the most part. In fact, Android's shorter animations often make Pixel 6 Pro feel nippier than the latest iPhone when it comes to launching apps (apart from games).

That being said, there is one thing that Apple's phone still excels at, and that's the overall feel of polish when it comes to performing simple or more demanding tasks. And I know this is supposed to be "a Tensor review", but I have to clarify that the chip isn't solely responsible for the Pixel's ups and downs. Android 12 is also involved in what makes Pixel better or worse - keep that in mind.

But back to the polished experience, I'm looking for...

I know "polish" sounds very ambiguous as a term, so let me give you some actual examples which show why Google's chip-software combo still has some way to go:

  • Rebooting my Pixel 6 Pro results in the phone needing to "warm up" after a restart. Yes, Pixel 6 takes a good minute or so to get Android ready to rock and roll again. There's a very good chance that the phone will be slow and laggy until it loads up its resources, connects to the internet, etc. This isn't the case with my iPhone 8 or the iPhone 13 I've tested. Polish.

  • The Pixel 6 Pro's 60Hz mode (when you lower the screen refresh rate to 60Hz to preserve battery life) feels sluggish. There's no other word I can use to describe it. And although, to an extent, that's certainly an effect of me switching from 120Hz to 60Hz, I can't help but notice that my five-year-old iPhone 8 and especially the iPhone 13 feel remarkably smoother at 60Hz compared to the Pixel 6. Polish...

  • Material You - Google's new approach to customizability on Pixel is absolutely wonderful, and I've certainly grown to love it, which wasn't the case in my first days with the Pixel 6 Pro. However, something's telling me that Material You on Android 12 is very much a work in progress. For instance, the beautiful widgets would often reload after I go into an app and go back to my home screen, and it's noticeable how Pixel 6 takes some time to load up a new wallpaper and the new accent colors that come with it. Polish?

Tensor's performance in slightly more demanding tasks isn't flagship-grade

Last but not least, like many people today, I sometimes shoot short videos that might or might not end up on Instagram. And this often requires me to edit them - whether it's cropping, adjusting the lighting, colors, etc. So, I ran a few tests to put things into perspective, and the results aren't great for Google...

  • iPhone 13 was able to save a cropped and color-adjusted 2-minute 4K video in literally no time - basically right away
  • On the other hand, my Tensor-powered Pixel 6 Pro took between 20-30 seconds to complete the same task

Now, for the record, according to Geekbench, the iPhone 13 Pro is nearly 70% more powerful than the Pixel 6 Pro, but trust me - this doesn't hold true when it comes to tasks like browsing the internet or scrolling through social media.

But while benchmarks aren't always representative of real-world performance, sometimes raw power and optimization are the difference between a 30-second wait and an immediate result, as seen in the example above… Do with that information what you will!

How good is Tensor at handling the Pixel's magical (but complex) camera capabilities?

While we're on the topic of performance, I can't ignore the elephant in the room. Can the Pixel 6 Pro record continuous 4K video without overheating and giving up like previous Google phones (Pixel 5, Pixel 5A)? And the answer is yes - for the most part...

Tensor-powered Pixel 6 Pro still has problems with extended 4K video recording (like Pixel 5)

I'll refer you to a good practical test made by In Depth Tech Reviews on YouTube, which shows how Pixel 6 Pro starts to heat up and therefore gives up after about 20 minutes of continuous 4K HDR video recording, while the iPhone 12 Pro Max (not 13) doesn't break a sweat. One ironic detail is that the Pixel 6 Pro manages to stay cooler than the iPhone but still decides to play it safe.

Still, Tensor's 20-minute 4K video recording achievement is a rough 50% improvement over the Snapdragon-powered Pixel 5, so I'll have to take it, I guess? Moreover, the video quality on Pixel 6 is much better than before, thanks to HDRNet (which actually makes Tensor's job even harder).

Pixel 6 Pro takes some of the brightest Night Mode photos out there but it also takes its time while doing so

Yes, the Pixel 6's shutter speed and post-processing are still slower than that of an iPhone 13, but to Google's credit, that seems to be the case with any other Android phone. On the bright side, I prefer the Pixel's style of daylight photography, so let's say that "good things take time"?

Night Mode also takes noticeably longer to capture on Pixel 6 compared to iPhone 13 (and other Android phones), which probably has to do more with Google's approach to taking photos rather than Tensor's capabilities. Still, low-light photos taken with Pixel 6 Pro come out much brighter, which some people will appreciate.

Tensor's problems with efficiency and battery life hold Pixel 6 Pro back from excellence

If things like continuous 4K HDR video recording and swift video editing on the go aren't crucial to your smartphone experience, I'd understand. However, there's one area where it seems like Tensor and Android 12 on Pixel 6, and Pixel 6 Pro have done more damage rather than good.

Of course, this area is battery life on Pixel 6. Before we continue, I can reassure you that the Pixel 6 Pro has good battery life. It's just that it's not amazing when pitted against some other phones (with smaller batteries).

Now I'll skip straight to the numbers in order to make my point:

  • iPhone 13 Pro Max, which has a significantly smaller battery than the Pixel 6 Pro, tends to last about 40% longer than Google's flagship
  • Tests show that Pixel 5 has as good or even better battery life than Pixel 6 Pro, despite having a much smaller battery

I believe those two examples just about sum up how Google messed up the recipe proportions while cooking up the Pixel 6 Pro (and Pixel 6 to an extent).

Although the iPhone 13 Pro Max comes with a similarly sharp, big and brighter 120Hz display, Apple's phone leaves the Tensor-powered Pixel 6 Pro in the dust when it comes to endurance. Let me remind you that Cupertino's A15 Bionic chip from the iPhone 13 Pro is 60-70% more powerful than Tensor according to benchmarks...

On the other hand, a phone like the Pixel 5, which came with a mid-range Qualcomm chip, a 90Hz screen (no variable refresh rate), and a relatively small-sized 4080 mAh battery, manages to do as good or better than the Pixel 6 Pro.

Is Tensor the reason for the Pixel 6 Pro's mediocre battery life?

Can we blame the Pixel 6 Pro's mediocre battery life only on Tensor? I don't think that's fair. We've seen phones like the Huawei P30 Pro from 2019, which showed how software optimization could help deliver the best in class battery life back in 2019, and Apple's latest iPhone 13 lineup is another shining example of that. Samsung also does relatively better than Google in that regard.

But despite Tensor's Context Hub, which is meant to take care of tasks like the Always-on display and Now Play and make them more efficient, it doesn't seem like this has paid off. Therefore I've turned off my Always-on display...

Verdict: Google's Machine Learning is remarkable, but Tensor 2 and Pixel 7 will need more power to compete with Apple and Samsung

A not-so widely known fact is that Tensor was initially supposed to debut on the Pixel 5 in 2022, but for one reason or another, this didn't happen. Well, Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro are here now. In fact, they'll be replaced by the already-announced Pixel 7 and Pixel 7 Pro in a few months.

Without a doubt, the most remarkable thing about the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro has been how Tensor made Pixel the smartest phone in the world. And that's a statement that I stand by. But have Tensor and Android 12 made Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro as reliable or as powerful as an iPhone, which I'm sure is Google's goal? Not yet...

What I mean is that before buying a Pixel phone, you need to know what you're getting yourself into. Google made it clear that Tensor isn't and won't be chasing CPU and GPU records. Google wants to deliver a new level of smart experiences.

Pixel 7, Android 13, Tensor 2 and will Pixel 6 be as reliable as an iPhone after a few years of use?

Well... Something is telling me that Tensor won't age as well as Apple's A-series of chips due to the two different approaches Google and Apple have towards software updates and optimization.

While Google throws new features around, Apple's conservativeness seems to keep the iPhone more consistent. Does that make the iPhone 13 feel boring at times? Sure. Is it more reliable than a Pixel 6? Certainly.

So, here's to the Pixel 7!

Google, if you're reading, I'm very much on board with the "let's make it smarter and cooler" idea. However, let's also try to make the second generation of Tensor more consistent and competitive - at least with other Android phones on the market.

To end on a positive note, it's understandable that Google's first attempt at their own processor won't be as successful as Apple's tried and tested formula. But Google deserves credit for challenging itself!

The company from Mountain View decided to be bold and move away from its comfort zone (Qualcomm) to try and fulfil its vision of the smartest phone in the world, and while the road is bumpy, it could be glorious! As I said, I already love the Pixel's smart features.

We also shouldn't forget that Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro were priced extremely competitively compared to Samsung's and Apple's flagships. In fact, some might say it's unfair to compare them with the Ultra and Max phones of the world, and they wouldn't be exactly wrong, would they?

Anyway, Google is now the UK’s number four smartphone maker, managing to break into the top five for the first time, thanks to a whopping 220% sales growth since 2021. The company’s also done very well in the US, where it achieved almost 400% of growth and the number five spot, and although this gives Sundar Pichai & Co only 1% of smartphone market share, Google’s future slowly starts looking brighter and brighter! Like a Pixel 6 Night Mode photo...

Tensor 2, Android 13, Pixel 7… here we go!

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