Thursday, May 30, 2024
Smart Phones

Pixel 8 and 8 Pro review: in Google we trust?

Google’s pitch for the Pixel phone in recent years has centered on how smart the phone is — that it’s one step ahead of you and can help take some of the pain out of your daily chores. The Pixel 6 and 7 didn’t quite live up to that vision, but these Pixel 8 devices feel like the first phones that could turn the sales pitch into a reality.

Right now, they’re better phones than their predecessors in some appreciable ways. And the potential of these devices is more compelling — the trouble is, Google is asking for a lot of your trust to get there.

The Pixel 8 and 8 Pro are better phones than their predecessors, but they’re also more expensive. They each see a $100 price hike, which puts the Pixel 8 at $699 and the Pixel 8 Pro at $999. Gone are the days of the standard Pixel passing as an upper-tier midrange phone — it’s all flagship, baby.

On the other side of the equation, you’ll also get more years out of the devices, in theory. They’re both slated to receive seven years of software updates — and not just security patches. Google is committing to seven years of OS platform upgrades for these phones, which is a major improvement over the three OS updates the Pixel 6 and 7 were promised. It’s one of the best software support policies on any phone, and that, frankly, rules.

There are more features coming. The Pixel 8 Pro will get a couple of potentially powerful photo and video editing tools in December 2023. And both phones will be eligible for Assistant with Bard when it’s available for testing in the near future. If it’s effective, the addition of Bard’s generative AI capabilities could totally transform Google Assistant from a tiny repeating machine into a true assistant. 

But these are all ifs and coulds and promises. Even if you’re cool entrusting Google with the amount of data you need to reap the benefits of all these tools, there’s no guarantee they’ll last: this is the company that promised Pixel Pass subscribers easy device upgrades every two years and then canceled the program just shy of the two-year mark. It has a good track record with promised Pixel software updates, but you can’t blame anyone for giving any Google claim a skeptical eye.

In the meantime, the Pixel 8 and 8 Pro contain some small but important upgrades over the previous models. The standard Pixel 8 finally gets a 120Hz refresh rate display. On both phones, you can, at last, use Face Unlock for payments and password managers — also important to the passwordless passkey future Google is working toward. The device’s interpretation of natural language is better, and it makes voice typing a much handier tool. And there’s a suite of new AI-infused image and video editing tools that will make you question the very nature of “truth” in photography. Icky? A little bit, but speaking as a parent who takes lots of pictures of their toddler, they’re great. 

Both phones offer a top refresh rate of 120Hz, but only the 8 Pro (right) can access a more power-efficient 1Hz mode.

Both phones get a display update this year, but the Pixel 8’s is most notable: a jump from a 90Hz screen to a 120Hz maximum refresh rate. Google calls this an “Actua” display; the Pixel 8 Pro has a “Super Actua” screen with a variable refresh rate from 120Hz down to 1Hz to maximize power efficiency. The Pixel 8’s top refresh rate is off by default, so you’ll need to enable it in the settings menu. You should because it’s noticeably smoother.

Both screens get a little brighter this time around, too. The Pixel 8 will go up to 2,000 nits in high brightness mode, and the 8 Pro reaches an impressive 2,400 nits — that’s compared to 1,400 and 1,500 nits on the Pixel 7 and 7 Pro, respectively. And it’s great! Until the device gets too hot and dims again. Using the Pixel 8 Pro on a hot day in direct sun, I saw it reach its peak brightness for just a few minutes before it ramped back down. The display was still usable even at the lower brightness, but don’t count on being able to access that highest brightness setting for too long in hot conditions.

The standard Pixel 8 feels like a much more reasonably sized phone than in previous years when your options were “bigger” and “biggest”

The Pixel 8’s screen is smaller than the 7’s — 6.2 compared to 6.3 inches — making the phone itself a little smaller, too. And both phone screens differ in one more significant way from last year’s: they’re flat rather than curved on the long edges. I find the new shape just a little easier to hold since there’s a tiny bit more real estate on the edges, and I don’t think the phones lose any of their Pixel character. The bezels are a little more prominent since they don’t disappear into the sides of the phone, but at no point in the past week has this bothered me. 

For all of the reasons listed above, the standard Pixel 8 feels like a much more reasonably sized phone than in previous years when your options were “bigger” and “biggest.” Most people like a big screen, I know this, but this still feels like a big phone — just at the very lower end of “big.” I stand by my assertion that a 6.1-inch screen is the only truly neutral phone size, and if you want that in a premium Android device, you’ll need to get a Samsung Galaxy S23, which is significantly smaller than this “smaller” Pixel 8. I rest my case, Your Honor.

On the back panel, Google switched out the Pixel 8 Pro’s glossy back glass for a matte finish this time around, and it looks spiffy with the new baby blue color option. It’s a very smooth matte, and it actually makes the phone a little more slippery in your hand than smooth glass since you don’t get the same grip against your fingertips. 

The Pixel 8 Pro (right) features a matte finish that’s easy on the eyes but slippery in the hand.

Inside the Pixel 8, you’ll find Tensor G3, the third-generation custom chipset from Google. Tensor has gained a bit of a reputation for being prone to overheating, and I did see the Pixel 8 Pro refuse to capture video at its highest resolution because the device was too hot. This was on a very warm day after quite a bit of constant use in direct sunlight before I fired up video mode, but still something to be aware of if you live in a hot climate. Outside of that, the Pixel 8 Pro only got noticeably warm a couple of times — usually with extended use of location services — outside of the typically toasty setup period. 

Tensor G3 handles daily tasks easily. It’s paired with 8GB of RAM in the Pixel 8 and 12GB in the Pixel 8 Pro. I did notice the system struggling with one particular heavy processing task: back-to-back portrait mode shots. I can capture a handful on the Pixel 8 Pro, but then I’m locked out for a few moments while the phone catches up, and I missed a couple of shots that way.

For better or for worse, the new chipset doesn’t seem to have much impact on battery life. I was able to get through a day of heavy use comfortably, but I wouldn’t try and push it into two days. The Pixel 8 Pro offers marginally faster charging — 30W wired, while the Pixel 8 offers up to 27W. The Pixel 8 Pro offers up to 23W wireless charging, and the 8 goes up to 18W — but you’ll need a second-gen Pixel Stand to get those speeds. On a standard Qi wireless charger, both phones get up to 12W. 

It told me on one occasion that my obviously hot cup of coffee was hot

The Pixel 8 Pro’s oddest addition is a temperature sensor. It’s not quite clear why it exists, and I think the best theory is that it landed on the Pixel roadmap sometime in 2020 when we were all very concerned with taking our temperatures a lot. Google has applied to the FDA to be able to use it to measure body temperature, but right now, that’s not something you can accurately use it for.

I didn’t find much use for the temperature sensor while testing the phone; it told me on one occasion that my obviously hot cup of coffee was hot. I struggled to find other uses for it. Unless someone can convince me otherwise — or the FDA clears it for use as a real thermometer — I’m going to chalk this one up as a gimmick.

One new feature that’s absolutely not a gimmick? Face Unlock’s upgrade to a Class 3 biometric, which means it can be used for the stuff that requires the highest level of security — namely, mobile payments and banking apps. Face Unlock was introduced on the Pixel 7 series, but if you used it to unlock your phone, you’d still need to scan your fingerprint if you wanted to pay for something or check your credit card statement. 

Going about your daily chores is a little easier when you have Face Unlock to help you along the way.

This classification upgrade also means my password manager can use Face Unlock systemwide, which made using the phone feel more seamless as I went about my day. Rather than having to reposition my hands to scan a fingerprint whenever I want to log in to an app or pay for a latte, I can just keep my hands where they are and wait while my face is scanned. This sounds like a small update, and it is, but it has an outsize effect. For a phone that’s all about helping you get through your day with as little friction as possible, this is a must-have feature, and it’s most welcome in the Pixel 8.

The Pixel 8 and 8 Pro are better able to decipher pauses and inflection when you’re talking to the Assistant, which can also understand when you shift between languages. This is another upgrade that sounds subtle on the surface but actually has an outsize impact. I used voice typing to dictate a note to the Pixel 7 Pro and Pixel 8 Pro at the same time, and the latter produced text I could actually send to another human without coming off like a sociopath.

I dictated a note to the Pixel 7 Pro and 8 Pro at the same time — the Pixel 7 Pro didn’t attempt to add any punctuation.

This is the text the Pixel 8 Pro produced when it heard the same speech.

It detected the inflection in my voice when I was pausing for effect or ending a thought and injected punctuation appropriately. The Pixel 7 heard me correctly but recorded everything as one long sentence. I might actually entertain using voice typing on this phone, which is a huge step for an admitted voice typing hater. 

Crucially, the Assistant is also better at understanding when I’m pausing in the middle of a thought — it lets me finish asking “What’s the weather tomorrow… in San Francisco?” without jumping in and answering the first half of my question like the Pixel 7 Pro does. This makes me a lot less anxious to hurry up and spit out the whole question, which is how I often feel talking to Google Assistant. Who knows, I might actually use it for more than setting timers.

The Pixel 8 Pro has an extra intelligence advantage: the ability to run certain generative AI models on-device. Right now, that ability supports an enhanced Magic Eraser on the Pixel 8 Pro that can remove larger objects more convincingly. But Google says more is on the way, including summary recaps in Google Recorder and better smart replies in the keyboard. The standard Pixel 8 doesn’t support on-device AI, so expect to see it left out of some of these feature upgrades.   

Camera hardware is just the beginning of the story.

There are really three parts to the Pixel camera: the hardware, the camera app processing, and Google Photos. The latter is where the most interesting — and controversial — advancements to the Pixel 8’s camera exist. But it all starts with the hardware, where Google made some significant upgrades this year. Pixel camera product manager Isaac Reynolds confirmed to us that both the sensor and lens on the main camera have been upgraded on both phones for better light sensitivity. That’s a 50-megapixel sensor coupled with an f/1.7 lens.

The Pixel 8’s 12-megapixel ultrawide is last year’s camera with macro focus added, and the Pixel 8 Pro gets an upgraded 48-megapixel ultrawide that can focus as close as 2cm. There’s no telephoto on the standard Pixel 8, per usual, while the 8 Pro’s 48-megapixel 5x telephoto lens gets a wider f/2.8 aperture compared to the 7 Pro’s f/3.5. Both devices do come with a 2x lossless crop zoom from the center of the main camera sensor, which is better than nothing on the telephoto-less Pixel 8. And while both phones have a 10-megapixel selfie camera, only the 8 Pro’s comes with autofocus.

My impression of the camera part of the Pixel camera — or at least the first two-thirds of the light-to-photo pipeline — is largely the same as in previous years. It’s occasionally brilliant, and when it fails, it at least fails in a predictable way. It keeps shutter speeds high when there’s a moving subject in the scene, and I managed to capture a series of Portrait mode photos of my toddler running at full speed — all in focus.

And Face Unblur continues to be the unsung hero of Pixel cameras. In some side-by-side testing with the iPhone 15 Pro Max, I see the Face Unblur icon on a lot of my Pixel images that came back acceptably sharp — and a lot more blurry photos from the iPhone.

The Pixel 8 supports Ultra HDR capture and display, which you’ll see as brighter white highlights in high contrast scenes. Ultra HDR images are more vibrant than the SDR images we’re all used to looking at, and frankly there’s too much to unpack in the scope of this review. For now, take a look at Mishaal Rahman’s excellent Ultra HDR hands-on and explainer for Android Police.

In general, Pixel cameras of the past had a tendency toward a cooler color cast, but the Pixel 8 continues to more freely embrace warmer tones, which I appreciate. I’d love to see Portrait mode get a major update in the next generation; subject cutouts are nowhere near as good as in the Samsung S23 series, and portraits in dim lighting show a fair amount of noise — especially from the 2x setting. It’s not the best camera for Portrait mode, but it’s good enough for right now.

Focus peaking makes it much easier to tell which part of your macro subject is in focus.

Pixel 8 Pro owners get an extra camera feature not available on the standard Pixel 8: manual exposure controls, or Pro Controls. You get access to shutter speed, ISO, and white balance, all just a toggle away in the native camera app. If you happen to be in a dark setting, you’ll see an icon to manually enable Night Sight and adjust the exposure time. There’s also a manual focus option that you can use with a picture-in-picture focus preview. Focus peaking kicks in when you’re in this mode, too, and it’s a really helpful way to use the camera’s macro mode rather than making an educated guess about what’s in focus. 

You can stop right there with your Pixel photo and call it a day, or open up Google Photos and put the new AI editing tools to use. A couple are coming later this year to the Pixel 8 Pro: Zoom Enhance and Video Boost, which I’ll be testing once they’re available. Right now, the 8 and 8 Pro ship with new tools called Best Take and Audio Magic Eraser, plus Magic Editor as a beta feature.

Best Take is the one that we have the most philosophical questions about. It’s available when you take a bunch of photos in quick succession with at least one face in the frame, and it will let you swap in different expressions for each face. You can tap each face to audition the different expressions, remixing the image that you took with the best faces from your entire series of photos. It’s wild. And it works — for the most part.

With good lighting and clearly visible subjects, it’s creepily good. You can sometimes tell that something isn’t quite right, like the positioning of someone’s shoulders, and occasionally, it’ll go very wrong, like the image where it gave my son an extra arm. But most of the time, the suggested faces swap in neatly, and nobody but you will be the wiser. 

Original on the left, Best Take edit on the right. We did normal faces and silly faces in this burst of shots, so you can mix the two in Best Take. The Pixel 8 Pro didn’t quite get Becca’s shoulder’s right in the AI image.

Are there quite alarming implications here for evil-doers? Yep. But it’s also the very camera feature that every parent would love to have, especially those with more than one kid. We’re all used to taking a rapid burst of photos in a desperate attempt to get just one where everyone is looking the right way, and somehow, that still never works. Being able to bring it all together in one image — one shining moment that technically never happened — is the dream. Right?

Personally, I feel varying degrees of weird about using it. I like the idea of being able to swap someone’s expression out when they were blinking and everyone else was looking, but fully mixing and matching different expressions feels strange to me. I think everyone will have their own comfort level with this, and I’m honestly still figuring out where the line is for myself.

One shining moment that technically never happened

Then there’s Magic Editor. This is the generative AI tool Google announced at I/O earlier this year that allows you to select parts of the image that you want to move or delete and uses AI to fill in the gaps. It’ll also change the lighting or replace the sky, though you’re limited to some automatically suggested prompts to do this. There’s no free-for-all here.

Like Best Take, Magic Editor is very good when it’s good. Alarmingly good. You can turn a sunny sky a stormy gray, move subjects around, and convincingly delete entire objects out of a scene. I moved my toddler from one side of an image to another so it appeared that he was standing next to and looking at his friend.

Original left, Magic Editor edit on the right. When you know where to look you can see where AI failed to fill in the gaps in the second photo, but especially at smaller viewing sizes, it’s very hard to see the evidence.

I can see the places where AI patched up the hole where he was actually standing, but I’m sure that nobody would see it at a glance. It’s a cuter photo, but it makes me feel a little icky whenever I look at it.

There are serious ethical concerns with putting these tools so close to the photo-taking process. Google’s response that it’s merely giving more people access to tools that already exist feels unsatisfactory. There’s a line in the image metadata flagging it as “AI-Generated with Google,” but it’ll be stripped out along with the rest of the metadata as soon as you upload it to Instagram. 

But even putting aside the question of how this could impact society, I feel as weird about it as I do with some of the Best Take results — maybe more so. I can see myself using it to take distracting objects out of the background of a scene or remove a wayward booger from my kid’s face. But I’m not really comfortable with much more than that, especially when it comes to manipulating human subjects. Others might find it to be a satisfying creative tool, which I can see the case for. But it’s another line that you’ll have to find for yourself because I’m sure we’re only going to see more of this kind of thing in the very near future.

The edited clip sounds almost like I’m taking a stroll down a perfectly quiet street — even as I reference the noisy traffic I’m contending with

Audio Magic Eraser is the tool that I find the least problematic, for better or worse. It automatically identifies different sounds in your video clips and separates them into channels — usually one for speech and another for noise or background music, depending on the situation. Then, you can dial down the volume on any of these channels to minimize or remove them completely. It’s surprisingly good, especially with constant background sounds. You can hear some compression in the remaining audio channel when it has to fight against louder and more unpredictable sounds, but it comes through way more clearly than in the original recording. 

The Pixel 8 already does some work to amplify voices against background noise while you’re recording, so it’s kind of impressive what you can do with the two features together. I recorded myself talking to the camera while walking next to a busy street, and the edited clip sounds almost like I’m taking a stroll down a perfectly quiet street — even as I reference the noisy traffic I’m contending with. I’m already using it to turn down background noise on videos of my kid, and I’m sure I’ll continue to use it in the future for this very purpose. 

The Pixel 8 Pro is a more gadget-y gadget than the standard Pixel 8.

A golden rule of personal technology is to never buy a product based on what it could offer in the future rather than what it offers right now. The Pixel 8 and 8 Pro as they exist right now are very good phones indeed, but I can’t help feeling that the most compelling case for one is what they might offer in the future. 

But let’s start with the ground truth. The Google Pixel 8 is a $700 phone with a screen that’s worthy of the flagship class, a highly capable camera, and a likable form that’s unusually comfortable for a big phone. It misses out on some nice features on the Pixel 8 Pro, but it’s well suited for the mainstream. A Samsung Galaxy S23 is just $100 more and comes with a telephoto lens but offers a smaller screen, which most people would consider a downside. 

The Pixel 8 Pro, on the other hand, is a more gadget-y gadget. Its camera system is more versatile than the standard Pixel 8’s with some upgraded hardware; it has a slightly more advanced screen and comes with a temperature sensor, for some reason. It has a few other advantages, like the ability to run some AI models on-device, and comes with a bigger screen, which, see above note about the popularity of big screens. It’s now a direct competitor to the Samsung Galaxy S23 Plus, which is also $999 and has a good but slightly less predictable camera and a lower-res display. 

And then there’s the potential. Some of the feature updates, like the improved natural language interpretation, could actually change how you use your phone, whether it’s embracing voice typing or asking more of your virtual assistant. It’s possible that Google Assistant will get way more useful when it integrates with Bard and could significantly upgrade its helpfulness.

Can you trust Google to make your investment worthwhile?

There’s also the very real potential that in seven years, the Pixel 8 and 8 Pro will only just be receiving their last OS platform update. Sure, there’s a chance that Google won’t even be making phones in seven years, but the company has made good on its previous software support promises, so it’s not completely foolish to believe it might happen.

How much you trust Google to fulfill these promises — and how much you trust the company with a lot of your personal information — should dictate whether or not the Pixel 8 is for you. They offer more potential than ever, but they’re also more expensive than ever. Can you trust Google to make that investment worthwhile? That’s a comfort level that each of us can only define for ourselves.

Photography by Allison Johnson / The Verge


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