The Pixel 6 is a critical phone for Google after even diehard fans were a bit underwhelmed by last year's "high-end" option. The Pixel 5 was not a bad phone by any means, but it didn't differentiate itself enough from the Pixel 4a 5G and at $699 its price just didn't feel justified.
I wrote at the time saying that the Pixel 5 made me wish Google would make a flagship smartphone and all signs are pointing to me getting that wish in 2021. There's no guarantee that Google will be successful with its efforts, but a long-term investment in its own processor could finally give the Pixel line a chance to really challenge the iPhone.
There's still almost half a year to go, but here's a look at everything we know so far about the Pixel 6 including the expected price, release date, specs and more.
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Pixel 6: Release date
While Google may have slipped in some ways with the Pixel 5, it did not slip on its typical release date. The Pixel 5 was officially available on October 15, 2020, which is just a week off the October 24, 2019 release of the Pixel 4.
Google consistently hits right around late September to mid-October for the announcement of its new Pixel devices with the release about a week to two weeks later. At present, we have no reason to believe Google will miss that target this year.
Pixel 6: Price
One of the most intriguing questions for the Pixel 6 is the pricing. There have been no official statements or credible leaks on the price just yet. Last year's Pixel 5 dropped to a starting price of $699, down from the $799 base price for a Pixel 4.
Google made it clear in 2020 that it wanted to push the value proposition with the Pixel lineup. There's room to question whether that goal was achieved with the Pixel 5, but the Pixel 4a and Pixel 4a 5G certainly hit the mark. During the company's Q3 2020 earnings call, Google and Alphabet CEO, Sundar Pichai responded to a question about a move to a mid-to-low-end hardware strategy by saying, "We have definitely shown that Pixel 4a, Pixel 5 are a clear value proposition. We'll build on that."
While it seems unlikely that Google will have an offering on par with the pricing of the Galaxy S21 Ultra or the iPhone 12 Pro Max (if it's aiming to provide good value), somewhere in the range of $799 to $999 seems within reason particularly if a Pixel XL model makes a comeback.
Pixel 6: Design
While there were certainly some interesting characteristics to the Pixel 5, the material sciences used in order to deliver a metal back on the phone while still offering wireless Qi charging was clever and unique. Overall, the Pixel design has remained fairly bland throughout, so while this would certainly seem like an opportune time for a significant revamp, it's hard to predict until we get some more concrete leaks to that effect.
Some basic changes we would expect is a move to an in-display fingerprint reader; the Pixel 5 went back to a rear fingerprint sensor from the facial recognition of the Pixel 4, but it can't afford to get away with that again in 2021 — a true flagship should have both options. The return of facial recognition alongside an in-display fingerprint reader is certainly possible as well depending on the price point.
An update to the Google Camera app may have given us one hint regarding a design change to the Pixel 6. 9to5Google did some digging in the code and found references to a device codenamed "Oriole," which is believed to be the Pixel 6. The software showed the device featuring a centered hole-punch camera, a change from the left alignment in all previous Pixels, perhaps the move allows for easier integration with facial recognition hardware.
The biggest design question for the Pixel 6 will be whether we see an XL model. Google skipped a larger Pixel for the first time last year. However, there was evidence that a Pixel 5 XL was in the works at some point so it's unclear if this was a deliberate move or the result of a problem somewhere along the line.
Pixel 6: Cameras
Pixel was the easy answer for the best camera on a phone for a few years, but it faltered a bit with the Pixel 5. Now to be fair, it isn't that the Pixel 5 is a worse camera than the Pixel 4, it's simply that the competition got a lot better. In part, this was due to improved computational photography for Apple and Samsung, but it was also hardware stagnation from Google.
Google's primary 12MP wide-angle on the Pixel 5 is virtually identical to that used in the Pixel 3, while both Apple and Samsung have made dramatic improvements. Google also swapped the telephoto lens of the Pixel 4 for an ultra-wide on the Pixel 5, but the Pro models from Apple and every Samsung Galaxy S now offer a trio of lenses.
Google may still have the software advantage over Apple and Samsung, but its hardware deficit makes that a moot point. If Google is going to market the Pixel 6 as a flagship it has to finally upgrade its camera sensors.
Pixel 6: Display
The Pixel 5 offered a 90Hz refresh rate, matching that of the Pixel 4, but we would expect Google to up that to 120Hz for the Pixel 6. Samsung's top-of-the-line has now moved to 120HZ on a QHD+ resolution, but Google is more likely to stick to the FHD+ of the Galaxy S21 and Galaxy S21 Plus.
Google will certainly stick with AMOLED to allow for always-on display mode, but we'll otherwise need to wait for more leaks to find out whether it has more up its sleeve.
Pixel 6: Performance
This has the potential to be the most interesting upgrade for the Pixel 6 because, looking back to April of 2020, a report surfaced indicating that Google was working on its own CPUs. The code-name for the chip was identified as Whitechapel and 9to5Google recently found another internal reference to this codename associated with the forthcoming Pixel. The chip is reportedly being designed in partnership with Samsung, which is responsible for producing Apple's chips as well.
This would be an ARM-based chip that the source indicated would use an 8-core design and feature hardware optimization for machine-learning, again, much like Apple's A14 Bionic. Further support for this rumor came from the aforementioned Q3 2020 earnings call during which Pichai said, "We are doing some deeper investments in hardware, some of it takes 2-3 years to come together" followed shortly after by "Next year you will see us lean more into...some of our deeper investments will come into play there.
In early April 2021 9to5Google claims that its staff was given access to a document that confirmed that the Whitechapel SoC is being developed with Samsung Semiconductor using a hardware and software design similar to Samsung Exynos. The document pointed to two devices codenamed "Raven" and "Oriole" launching with the SoC, previous reports have suggested these devices are coming this fall and they are believed to be two variants of the Pixel 6.
I wouldn't count on Google going toe-to-toe with the A14 or A15 Bionic, but it's hard to believe that Google would make this significant investment to produce something other than a flagship-class CPU. While the Snapdragon 765G found in the Pixel 4a 5G and Pixel 5 were perfectly adequate for daily tasks, they fell woefully short of the flagship competition.
One area where the Pixel 6 may surprisingly match up with the iPhone is with an ultra-wideband (UWB) processor. This is the technology that Apple uses with AirTag, but precise location tracking is just one application it can be used to improve data transfer and communication with smart home devices as just a couple more examples. Mishaal Rahman of XDA Developers claimed to have additional confirmation at the end of April that support for the USB API in Android 12 was being tested on the "Raven" device.
Pixel 6: Outlook
While Google doesn't appear to be in any danger of abandoning the Pixel line entirely, there is some reason for concern that Google won't produce another flagship phone. For fans of budget phones, this probably sounds just fine, but for those who like the idea of a powerful Android flagship that receives reliable software updates, the Pixel was one of the only options on the market with OnePlus as the other contender.
It is still very early days for Pixel 6 development, so rumors and leaks remain light, but those that we do have are quite encouraging for those like me who are hoping for a high-end phone from Google again. And for those who prefer the budget options, don't worry, it is abundantly clear that Google values that market and a Pixel 5a is likely a certainty. Given Google's poor luck keeping its hardware under wraps in recent years, there's sure to be more updates soon, so check back regularly for the latest.