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Google’s Pixel 6 may finally retake the camera crown — but is it enough?

Google’s Pixel devices have long offered some of the best cameras on Android phones. The company has, despite not pushing limits in the boundaries of hardware or using the most powerful sensors, managed to compete with the iPhone 12, Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra, and the OnePlus 9 Pro in terms of image quality.

Overall image quality isn’t the be-all and end-all of mobile photography, though, and the sheer versatility of other flagships in offering cameras meant that Google fell from leading the pack to just managing to stay in the conversation. Whether it was a telephoto lens for better portraits, higher-resolution main cameras, or just being really good at video, the Pixel was outclassed at its own game. With the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro, Google is working on reversing that.

For one thing, the company is equipping the top-end Pixel 6 Pro with a triple array camera. There’s the main camera for handling everything, an ultrawide camera, and a telephoto lens. Google hasn’t given numbers or sensor details, but leaks from Jon Prosser nail down the numbers as a 50-megapixel (MP) main camera, a 48MP telephoto camera for portrait shots, and a 12MP ultrawide. That’s a stacked loadout, especially for Google.

Google Pixel 6 colors.

Software is still going to play a huge role here, and that Google Tensor chip is going to come in handy. “With Tensor we thought about every piece of the chip and customized it to run Google’s computational photography models. For users, this means entirely new features, plus improvements to existing ones,” Google’s Rick Osterloh explained in a blog post. The company showed some of these improvements to reporters from Gizmodo and The Verge including one which was able to extract a clear image from a blurry photo of a moving child.

“What the Pixel 6 does is run the process of snapping a bunch of photos from the main sensor and combine them into a single, HDR image. But now the Pixel 6 also has the ultrawide grab a fast, sharper image to capture that detail. Then the TPU recognizes that there’s a face, and then combines the ultrawide’s image with the rest,” The Verge wrote.

The Pixel 6 doesn’t just take good photos — it’s supposedly good at video, too. With the new Tensor chip, Google is reportedly able to surpass the iPhone 12 Pro at videography — in demos at least. “You can almost envision Tensor as being built to perform computational photography for video,” Gizmodo quotes Osterloh as saying. “To be able to process machine learning in real-time on our videos as they’re going is a big change from where we’re at.

Despite this, it may not matter enough for Google to sell in amazing numbers — at least this go-round. All smartphone cameras take good photos. Even something like the OnePlus Nord 2, which isn’t giving the more camera-capable Pixel 4a any reason to lose sleep, takes decent photos. When it comes to comparable flagships like the iPhone or Samsung Galaxy S-series, a broader ecosystem of devices and accessories may exert more of a pull on the regular phone buying audience.

“Google has long used imaging — specifically, computational photography — as a core part of the Pixel value proposition. By developing its own Tensor silicon with a heavy emphasis on A.I. and image signal processing, Google hopes to be able to differentiate the Pixel from other Android phones and the iPhone,” Techsponential’s Avi Greengart told Digital Trends over email. “However, it is already hard to distinguish image quality differences among today’s flagship camera phones, so the Pixel 6’s camera it will not just need to be a generational leap, that leap will somehow need to be immediately noticeable by mainstream consumers if it is going to drive significant sales.”

Asus Zenfone 8 (left), Google Pixel 5 (center), Apple iPhone 12 Pro (right).
Asus Zenfone 8 (left), Google Pixel 5 (center), Apple iPhone 12 Pro (right) Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

Although, with the Pixel 6, it’s not so much the camera, as the overall package that represents — at least on paper — a phone that’s competitive with the best phones of 2021 on a pure hardware level. The Pixel 5 was critically well-received despite lacking all the bells and whistles expected at the top, how much better will the Pixel 6 be received, if Google maintains its software quality?

We’re a long way from knowing if the Pixel 6’s cameras and overall offering will be enough of an upgrade to reverse the trend of Google’s mobile hardware business. What we do know, is that this is the most exciting Pixel release in a long time, and the experience should be worth the premium price it’s likely to command.

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Michael Allison
A UK-based tech journalist for Digital Trends, helping keep track and make sense of the fast-paced world of tech with a…
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