Google Pixel Intelligence

Pixel 6 or Pixel 6 Pro? Some real-world guidance that might surprise you

If you're thinking about picking up one of Google's new Pixel phones, you'll definitely want to read this first.

Pixel 6 vs. Pixel 6 Pro
JR Raphael, IDG

Google Pixel Intelligence

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To Pixel 6 or to Pixel 6 Pro? That is the question.

By now, you've no doubt heard plenty about Google's latest and greatest Pixels. So rather than repeat what you've already seen in several dozen other places, I thought we'd focus on a purely practical, real-world comparison for anyone torn between the two Pixel 6 models. I've been carrying around both the regular Pixel 6 and the Pixel 6 Pro and living with 'em for nearly two weeks now, and I've collected some pretty telling observations that might be a bit different from the more spec-oriented comparisons you've pored over elsewhere.

First and foremost, I'd say this: Lots of traditional tech reviews tend to focus on measurement minutia and place the greatest emphasis on numerically driven, objective variables. It's understandable, as that's part of the job of the traditional tech reviewer — and coming up with an authoritative assessment is certainly easier when you have consistent variables to add up and compare.

But I'd also say this: That kind of thinking frequently misses the forest for the trees. As an actual tech-totin' human, the amount of RAM in a phone or the number of pixels in its display won't mean much for you. All that really matters is what the phone is like to use in your day-to-day life. In contrast to all those objective measures, figuring out which phone is worth carrying is an inherently subjective, experience-based judgment.

And that sort of thinking is 100% what we're gonna get into here.

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Pixel 6 vs. Pixel 6 Pro: The foundation

Before we get going, I want to step back for a second and quickly run over the technical differences between the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro — just to make sure we're all on the same page and to give us a starting point for this conversation. Then, we'll break down how much all of these measurements do or don't matter and what you'll actually notice when using the phones in real life.

On paper, the primary differences between the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro are:

  • The screens: The regular Pixel 6 has a 6.4" FHD+ display with a refresh rate that goes up to 90Hz, while the Pixel 6 Pro has a 6.7" QHD display with a refresh rate that goes up to 120Hz.
  • The size: Along with the Pro's larger screen comes a larger body, at 6.5" tall by 3" wide and 0.4" thick compared to 6.2" by 2.9" by 0.4" on the regular Pixel 6.
  • The RAM: The Pixel 6 has 8GB of RAM while the Pro has 12GB.
  • The cameras: The Pro has a higher-quality front-facing camera along with an extra telephoto lens on its back side.
  • The storage: The Pro goes up to 512GB as an option for local storage space, while the regular 6 tops out at 256GB. (Both phones start at 128GB.)
  • The battery: The Pro has a 5003 mAh battery inside it, while the regular Pixel 6 has a 4614 mAh power center.

Other than that, the phones are more or less the same — same Google-made processor, same exceptional Android experience, same thoughtful and genuinely practical feature additions, same unmatched level of ongoing software support, and same lack of added nonsense that you see in most other Android devices (y'know, the always-fun stuff that compromises your privacy and makes for a messy, unpleasant, and often unprofessional virtual environment).

Got it? Good. Now, with all of that in mind, let's dive into how the phones actually differ.

Pixel 6 vs. Pixel 6 Pro: The screen and the body

We'll start with the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro displays and overall sizes, because that's where you might be the most surprised by some of these devices' real-world differences. First things first, the Pro's display is indeed noticeably larger than the regular Pixel 6's, though not by any sort of massive, experience-changing margin. It's also more pixel-dense, but we're talking a level of difference that no one without Superman-level vision would possibly notice.

I'll take that same thinking a step further: In general, I don't think any normal person would give any of the quality-related differences between the devices' displays an ounce of thought. Even when looking at the two phones side by side, I suspect most folks would say, "Okay. The Pro's screen is a little bit bigger. Cool?"

Pixel 6 vs. Pixel 6 Pro screens JR

Does size matter? The larger Pixel 6 Pro, at left, and the regular Pixel 6, at right.

The same holds true for those attention-demanding refresh rates. The Pixel 6 Pro's 120Hz figure may sound impressive on paper, but you're almost certainly not gonna notice the difference between that and the Pixel 6's 90Hz refresh rate in real-world use.

As for the idea of the Pixel 6 Pro giving you more screen space, here's an unexpected reality: The Pixel 6 Pro's screen actually tends to be less info dense than the regular Pixel 6's. In other words, if you're looking at the same exact web page, email, or document on both phones, you'll often see slightly more of the content on the regular 6's screen than you will on the Pro's (even though the individual characters and elements are a bit larger on the Pro).

Pixel 6 vs. Pixel 6 Pro screen density JR

Paradoxically, you end up seeing more text on-screen at the same time with the regular Pixel 6, at left, than you do with the Pixel 6 Pro, at right.

That aside, one thing you'll absolutely notice is the shape of each phone's display. More specifically, the Pro's screen curves over at the edges — and that makes a very noticeable and meaningful difference in what the device is like to use.

First things first, credit where credit's due: The curved smartphone screen certainly looks futuristic, cool, and fitting for a "premium" product. Heck, it's kind of a technological wonder! The problem is that from a practical perspective, it actually makes the phone considerably less friendly to both your hands and your eyes.

Pixel 6 vs. Pixel 6 Pro curved screen JR

Livin' on the edge: The Pixel 6 Pro's curved screen, at left, next to the regular Pixel 6's flat display.

Visually speaking, the curved display frequently causes text to be harder to read and images, videos, and other content to be awkwardly sloped over at their edges. This effect isn't unique to the Pixel 6 Pro, either. It's just the nature of the technology. It's a striking example of prioritizing form over function, and it's almost a relief to go back to a flat display after spending time with a curved one.

The other effect the Pixel 6 Pro's curved screen causes is an extremely noticeable difference in what the phone is like to hold in your sweaty meat-hooks compared to its smaller sibling. As a result of that curved screen, y'see, the Pixel 6 Pro has a much smaller straight-edged area of its frame on the phone's sides. Since the screen is curved, the device's perimeter has more of a slope to it and ends up feeling almost uncomfortably sharp against your palm when you hold it.

Here's a photo showing the Pro on top and the regular Pixel 6 on bottom. See how the area you actually hold against your hand is so much smaller and more angled on the Pro compared to the regular Pixel 6?

Pixel 6 vs. Pixel 6 Pro side JR

Side view: The Pixel 6 Pro, on top, and the regular Pixel 6, on bottom.

On the regular Pixel 6, the entire perimeter is basically flat, and that’s what rests on your palm when you’re holding it. On the Pro, it’s just a tiny strip of flat perimeter with sloped edges leading into it.

Pixel 6 vs. Pixel 6 Pro side highlighted JR

The part of the phone that rests against your palm on the Pixel 6 Pro (top) vs. regular Pixel 6 (bottom).

Combined with the Pro's extra height and width compared to the regular Pixel 6, I've actually found that my hand starts to cramp after holding that phone for a while — with one-handed use in particular but even when I'm hanging onto the thing in one hand and actively swiping or tapping with the other.

And one more thing on this same subject: On the Pro, the surface of that frame on the phone's sides is shiny and glossy, which makes the material noticeably more slippery than the regular Pixel 6's grippy, matte-finished alternative. If you're planning to put the Pro in a case, that'd mask most of that (aside from the curved display's appearance, of course). But if you're planning to use the phone without anything around it, you might want to give it some thought.

Pixel 6 vs. Pixel 6 Pro: The camera, the battery, and beyond

So that's where the Pro feels like a bit of a step down compared to the regular Pixel 6. Where the Pro comes out ahead is absolutely in the realm of the camera.

Both phones take phenomenal photos, following in the tradition of Google's Pixel line — with some subtle but meaningful improvements over Pixels past, both in the core quality of the images the devices capture and in the tools they provide you for fine-tuning and enhancing those images after the fact.

When you want to zoom into something far away, though, the Pixel 6 has a massive advantage.

I mean, just look: Here's the same shot from the regular Pixel 6:

Pixel 6 photo JR

A regular shot taken from the Pixel 6. (Click image to enlarge.)

...and from the Pixel 6 Pro:

Pixel 6 Pro photo JR

A regular shot taken from the Pixel 6 Pro. (Click image to enlarge.)

Pretty much identical, aside from the ever-so-slightly different positioning of my hand — right? But then you zoom into Mr. Turtle, and — well, here's what you get when you zoom all the way in with the regular Pixel 6:

Pixel 6 photo zoom JR

A fully zoomed-in shot taken from the Pixel 6. (Click image to enlarge.)

...and then with the Pro:

Pixel 6 Pro photo zoom JR

A fully zoomed-in shot taken from the Pixel 6 Pro. (Click image to enlarge.)

So, yeah: a definite, significant difference when it comes to longer-range zooming. No question about it.

As for the rest of the contrasts between the two devices, the RAM is almost certainly not gonna be something you'll notice in regular day-to-day use. I certainly haven't. When I asked Google for context on what difference the Pixel 6 Pro's extra 4GB of RAM might make for anyone in practical terms, a Pixel team member told me that 8GB is generally plenty for everyday use and that the Pro's additional memory is mostly there to help power the larger, high-resolution display, which requires more graphical resources. They did say there might be some effect with being able to keep more things in active memory and thus switch between apps more quickly when you have a lot of stuff open at once, but any such difference has been fairly subtle and difficult to detect for me.

That same caveat is worth keeping in mind when it comes to the battery size as well. Yes, the Pro has a larger battery — but it also has larger power requirements. I've seen some tests, in fact, that give the regular Pixel 6 the stamina edge. In real-world terms, there are tons of variables involved, and it really comes down to how, exactly, you're using the phones on any given day. In my nonscientific real-life observations, I've found the Pro to have a slight edge over the regular Pixel 6, but they've generally been in the same basic ballpark. And both phones have done well; even with heavy use and several hours of active screen time, I've yet to run out of juice on either model before the end of the day.

Pixel 6 vs. Pixel 6 Pro: Putting it all together

Whew! That's a lot of info to chew over, I know.

Let's put it all together as simply as possible: The Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro are both lovely devices, and Google is smartly positioning the larger, higher-priced option not just as the bigger version but as the "pro-level" experience — the "fully loaded," most "premium" phone available for the "ultra technophile," as the company has put it.

That branding is nice. It certainly made me want to get the Pixel 6 Pro — up until I actually spent time using both models for extended periods in the real world.

Based on my experiences with the regular 6 and the Pixel 6 Pro, I wouldn't say that the Pro is any more suited to professional use than the regular Pixel 6 model. In fact, I think it comes with some meaningful productivity disadvantages compared to the regular 6 — namely around what its screen is like to look at and the effect its curved-edge, glossy-framed construction has on the comfort of its use. What the screen looks like and what the phone is like to hold are pretty consequential factors, if you ask me, and they deserve an awful lot of weight.

So all considered, I'd say this: If the Pixel 6 Pro's exceptional photo-zooming capability is important to you — and/or if you absolutely need the highest-level 512GB storage option that it alone offers — then think carefully about whether that outweighs everything else and makes the Pro worthwhile for your needs.

Otherwise, I'd strongly suggest going with the regular Pixel 6 instead. You'll save yourself 300 bucks — half of the regular Pixel 6 price! — and you'll get the better all-around experience, even if you don't get that impressive super-zooming power. The real question to ask yourself is how often you'd use that telephoto zooming and how much it actually matters to you, especially with everything else in the picture.

For most people and in particular professionals, the regular Pixel 6 is the best all-around experience you can find on Android (and arguably beyond) right now. Once you factor in its price and its actual per-year value, nothing else even comes close to comparing — and that includes both the Pixel 6 Pro and the lower-priced Pixel 5a.

See? We weren't kidding when we said these phones could change everything. And what we're seeing now is still only the start.

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