The iPhone 13 is impressive, but Google's Pixel 6 is surprisingly more exciting
Commentary: As a longtime Apple user, I'm unusually interested in the Pixel 6.
Sareena DayaramSenior Editor
Sareena is a senior editor for CNET covering the mobile beat including device reviews. She is a seasoned multimedia journalist with more than a decade's worth of experience producing stories for television and digital publications across Asia's financial capitals including Singapore, Hong Kong, and Mumbai. Prior to CNET, Sareena worked at CNN as a news writer and Reuters as a producer.
In part this comes from Apple's lackluster iPhone 13 upgrades. Don't get me wrong: The iPhone 13 is impressive. Better screens? Yep. Better cameras? Yep. Longer battery life? It's there. A "free" iPhone 13 for trade-in? Sign me up right now. (On second thought, I'm not big on upgrading my phone every couple of years and those carrier deals come with a lot of caveats.)
But by and large, it was a sleeper year for the company in terms of the iPhone 13 lineup, at least. Sure, that smaller notch is swell, and holy smokes, have you seen the dramatic videos you can take with Cinematic mode? I adore those features, and I can't say I didn't feel my skin tingle when I watched them in action. But apart from the routine improvements to things like the processor and those features I mentioned earlier, there was a bevy of features that remained remarkably unchanged, like the overall design and dimensions for starters. CNET's Patrick Holland said in his iPhone 13 review that the phone isn't radically different from the iPhone 12.
Google's Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro, on the other hand, look super impressive and seem to represent a massive leap forward for Google in terms of design, performance and features. Now that it has launched, the one thing I can see holding it back for some people is 5G. As far as we can tell, Pixel 6 wont get mmWave, which is the ultrafast flavor of 5G provided by select carriers -- and that's unfortunate for a flagship phone. But if you're not fussed about mmWave or if it's not available where you live, then this might not be an issue for you.
Either way, here's why Google's Pixel 6 has me looking past the iPhone 13.
Take a look at the Pixel 6 and you'll see it's undergone a sweeping design transformation and glow-up. Gone are the squircle camera bump and the modest color palette of the Pixel 5. That design makes way for a camera bar that runs the full width of the phone, with splashy colors and glossy metal highlights.
As a renowned mobile software developer, Google had previously designed its phones in a manner that let the Android mobile operating system take center stage. In the user's eye, the hardware was meant to fade into the background, serving as a mere vehicle to Android. But for 2021, Google seems to be doing away with that design philosophy in favor of a bolder, eye-catching look. The hardware of Pixel 6 is visually distinctive, and it's clear Google is playing to stand out in the competitive field of high-end phones this year.
But there may be more to the Pixel 6 than meets the eye. Under the hood, Google says, it's equipped the Pixel 6 series with a custom-built system on a chip known as Tensor, which CEO Sundar Pichai touts as Pixel's biggest innovation to date. It was designed in-house by Google engineers, meaning it's been tailor-made for Android -- much like Apple does with its own mobile processors.
Google's kept mum on performance, and whether Tensor can keep up with Apple's chips remains to be seen, but I think it stands a good chance now that it has more control over the design and development of its processor. Hopefully, with that control, it could also extend the number of years of software support, allowing you to hold onto a Pixel 6 for more years with security updates. Previous Pixel phones have been guaranteed three years of support, which is substantially less than the six years of support the iPhone 6S has received or the four years of support Samsung is now providing its Galaxy phones.
Either way, this represents another "seismic break from the past," as CNET's Brian Bennet put it. Don't forget last year's Pixel 5 ran on the midtier Snapdragon 765G processor, which is a notch below the Snapdragon 865 built into flagship phones such as Samsung's Galaxy S20, to allow Google keep a lid on the price.
Pixel 6 software: Android 12
Another thing I'm excited about is the software. The Pixel 6 ships with Android 12, making it one of the first phones to carry the updated mobile OS -- and there's lots to be excited about. You'll be able to do cool things like take scrollable screenshots (finally!), a minute-by-minute privacy dashboard and the customizability of the OS looks lovely. But apart from that, Google has teased that the Pixel 6 series will lean heavily into AI, and the Pixel 6 could be the most AI-centric phone Google has ever made. That could translate into things like better language translation and even better computational photography for Pixel's already excellent cameras.
Specs aside, maybe I'm more excited by Pixel this year because Apple has crossed that threshold where greatness is expected, if not guaranteed. Google, meanwhile, still has a lot to prove in the smartphone arena. The Pixel's market share is minuscule compared to that of Apple's iPhones. Or maybe it's the fact that the iPhone and iOS already had an overhaul in 2017 with the iPhone X, while Pixel's transformation is long overdue. But now Google is doing things many of us have been waiting years for -- and with this new direction, I'm hopeful that Google's Pixel has the potential to be a heavyweight lineup.