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Google’s Pixel phones are our favorite Android phones here at WIRED, and they have been for a few years. They have industry-leading cameras, get speedy software and security updates directly from Google (like iPhones do from Apple), and are priced competitively. But choosing the right model can be tricky. Should you upgrade to the new Pixel 6? Save your cash with the Pixel 5A? Or wait for the Pixel 6A and Pixel 7?  

Don’t fret—we’re going to break down the differences here between these Pixels and sort out the right one for you. We also have Pixel-exclusive tips to help you get the most out of your new phone, and we recommend some cases we’ve tested and like if you want protection.

Updated May 2022: We’ve added details about the Pixel 6A and the Pixel 7.

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The Best Pixel for Most People
Google Pixel 5a
Photograph: Google

The Pixel 5A (9/10, WIRED Recommends) is one of the rare sub-$500 phones with an OLED screen, delivering deep blacks and vivid colors. The Qualcomm processor inside also offers some of the smoothest performance you’ll find for the money, and its 4,680-mAh battery lasts nearly two full days on a single charge. Hooray! You get 5G connectivity (sub-6, the slower kind), NFC for Google Pay, a rear fingerprint sensor, plus the coveted headphone jack. Topping it off are three years of software and security updates, which is more than most affordable phones get. 

Also not common on budget and mid-range phones is an IP67 water-resistance rating, meaning the Pixel 5A can survive being submerged in up to 1 meter of water for 30 minutes. The phone’s unibody is now aluminum instead of plastic, which makes it a little more durable, and its 6.3-inch screen size doesn’t make it too unwieldy to hold. 

Its dual-camera system delivers better results than nearly every other phone in its price range (and some pricier ones too). That’s especially true in low-light scenes, thanks to Google’s Night Sight mode, which stacks multiple images to produce brighter and more detailed shots. Set the phone on a tripod in a dark area and you can even capture the stars by toggling on Astrophotography mode. 

The biggest downsides? There’s no wireless charging, and you’re stuck with 128 GB of storage, as there’s no MicroSD card slot to expand it. There’s also no high screen refresh rate, an increasingly popular feature you’ll find even on $300 phones (it makes the screen look smoother). Due to global supply chain issues, this phone is only sold in the US and Japan. 

If You Can, Wait for the Pixel 6A ($449)

Google has announced the Pixel 5A’s successor, the Pixel 6A, which goes on sale July 28 for $449. It’s the better phone in nearly every way: It has the same Tensor processor that’s inside the flagship Pixel 6, so it’s more powerful and enables all the same software capabilities as Google’s priciest phone. The camera is the same as the Pixel 5A, but it should see small improvements due to the chip. 

The Pixel 6A is more compact, with a 6.1-inch screen, but don’t expect two-day battery life anymore. You get broader 5G support here, three Android upgrades with five years of security updates, and greater availability—it’s launching in 13 countries and will be sold at various retailers. It’s a shame that Google axed the headphone jack. Google says it’ll keep selling the Pixel 5A, and it’s still a great phone for the money. If you want a headphone jack, go for it, especially if you need a new phone right now. But if you don’t care for it, and you’re not quite in a rush, then wait for the Pixel 6A. 

The Best Android Phone for the Money
Google Pixel 6 Pro

Pixel 6

Photograph: Google

It’s been months since the Pixel 6 (9/10, WIRED Recommends) launched, and I’m still reeling at its surprisingly aggressive price. It’s easily the best Android phone around for the money. For $599, you get excellent performance, arguably the best cameras in a smartphone, more than a day of battery life, and a 90-Hz, 6.4-inch OLED screen. You also get all the usual accouterments, like wireless charging, IP68 water resistance, and 5G. That’s pretty much all the marquee features you’d want. Even better, it’ll get five years of security updates, matching Samsung phones for the best software support, though Google will only issue three Android OS upgrades. 

The Tensor chip is what makes this Pixel unique. It’s a custom processor from Google designed to handle sophisticated machine learning algorithms, meaning it enables even smarter features than ever before. Assistant voice typing, for example, uses a more powerful speech-to-text natural language processing model and essentially makes it much more accurate and faster to voice-dictate with Google’s keyboard app. Magic Eraser can detect items in the background of your photos that you might want to erase, like trash cans, and will remove them with minimal artifacts. We go over more of these below. Tensor also plays a big factor in the Pixel 6’s image and video capture quality, with the latter showing a significant improvement over previous Pixel phones.   

But my favorite Pixel 6 feature is Real Tone. Google worked with image-makers to improve the camera’s image processing for people with darker skin tones, tweaking exposure and colors to achieve more accurate skin tones. The difference, especially when compared to the iPhone 13, is astounding, as you can see in my review. It’s a shame it’s taken this long, but a phone that doesn’t drown my face in shadow or change the tone of my skin is one that’ll stay in my pocket.

The only things I don’t like much are the in-display fingerprint sensor, which can sometimes take a few tries to unlock the phone, and the bevy of software bugs that cropped up after I reviewed it and caused some issues in the first few months of this device’s lifetime. Almost all of these issues have been resolved now, but it does offer a reminder to always wait a month or two before buying a new Pixel to make sure the kinks are ironed out. 

If you want more, there’s the Pixel 6 Pro ($899), which has a larger and even smoother 120-Hz OLED screen. The additional 4X optical zoom camera complements the main 50-megapixel sensor and 12-megapixel ultrawide found on the Pixel 6, plus there’s a slightly better selfie cam and more RAM. Google also added an ultra-wideband (UWB) chip that can precisely track other UWB devices in the Pro, but there’s nothing that takes advantage of it just yet. It undercuts the competition with its price, but it’s not as good a value as the Pixel 6.

Should You Wait for the Pixel 7?

Google made the unusual move of teasing the Pixel 7 and Pixel 7 Pro very early. Coming this fall, both have a recycled-aluminum camera bar instead of glass. They’ll be powered by a “next-gen” Tensor chip too. Right now, the Pixel 6 is a great phone that will last you years, but if you absolutely need the latest and greatest, you may as well wait to upgrade. 

Google Pixel 6

Pixel 6 Pro

Photograph: Google

Is Pixel Pass Worth It?

With the Pixel 6, Google introduced a new way to purchase its phones from the Google Store. For $55 a month for the Pixel 6 Pro, $45 a month for the Pixel 6, and $37 a month for the upcoming Pixel 6A, you get the respective phone, and then you have the option to upgrade to a newer Pixel after two years. That comes to $1,320 for the Pro, $1,080 for the Pixel 6, and $888 for the Pixel 6A. Considering they retail for $899, $599, and $449, what gives? 

Well, you also get Google’s Preferred Care, which includes screen repairs, replacements, and accidental damage coverage for the same time frame, plus 200 GB of Google One cloud storage, YouTube Premium (no ads), and YouTube Music Premium. You’ll also get Google Play Pass, which offers access to apps and games with zero ads or in-app purchases, plus other unspecified offers on the Google Store down the road. 

If you calculate all those individual services with the cost of the Pixel 6 Pro over the course of two years, your total comes out to $1,746. So you are effectively paying less. But it’s only really worth it if you watch a ton of YouTube and use YouTube Music, instead of other options like Spotify. 

Google says if you already subscribe to one of these services, your current plans will be canceled and you’ll get a single bill for Pixel Pass once your Pixel ships (though you will need to manually cancel YouTube Premium or YouTube Music Premium before subscribing to Pixel Pass). 

About Those Older Pixel Phones
google pixel 5 mobile phone

Pixel 5

Photograph: Google 

The Pixel 5 and Pixel 4A 5G from 2020 have disappeared from the Google Store. You can find them at Amazon, but the Pixel 5 is pricier than the newer Pixel 6, and it’s absolutely not worth that price when Google’s current flagship trounces it in every way. 

Amazon currently sells the Pixel 4A 5G for the same price as the Pixel 6, and while it’s a good phone, that price doesn’t make any sense. You’re better off sticking with the Pixel 5A 5G. That is unless you’re not in the US or Japan, and you really want a Pixel with a headphone jack. Then it’s worth picking up, though don’t expect it to be in stock for much longer. 

The Pixel 3 range is too old, and that includes the Pixel 3A. The Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL suffer from poor battery performance and aren’t worth picking up. These older phones will also stop getting software updates in 2022. Buy one of the newer models.

Cases and Accessories We Like
Official Google Pixel 6 phone case in pink
Photograph: Google

The official Google cases feel like they deliver more protection than their predecessors. There are several fun colors, a dual-layer design that helps absorb shocks when you drop it, and raised edges on the front to protect the screen. The inner layer of the Pixel 5A case is made with 75 percent recycled plastic, and the other two are made with 30 percent post-consumer recycled material. 

Of all the Pixel cases I’ve tried, this feels the best. It has a wonderful texture that’s pleasant to touch, and the case keeps a slim profile. The buttons remain clicky, and the ports are well exposed. It’s affordable, but the front edges aren’t raised. There’s a good chance the screen will hit the ground when you drop it.

Pixel phones don’t have a great track record with screen durability—they scratch easily. We tested this protector originally for the Pixel 5A, but it’s not available anymore. Caseology does sell it now for the Pixel 6. Installation is easy, and it includes a squeegee to get rid of air bubbles. You get two screen protectors for the price, including a microfiber cloth, a wipe, and dust removal stickers.

It’s slim, has a nice texture, retains clicky buttons, and has accurate cutouts for the ports and speakers. What’s not to love? This is arguably Spigen’s most attractive case lineup too. The edges aren’t raised drastically, so don’t expect much screen protection. Pair it with the Caseology screen protector above to cover all your bases.

Moment Force case for Google Pixel 6
Photograph: Moment

The Pixels have great cameras, but you can take them further by using third-party lenses like these from Moment. Slap on a fish-eye lens for a fun, distorted photo effect. Use a 58-mm telephoto to get even closer to your subject. Whatever lens you pick, you’ll need a Moment case for the system to work. It takes about two seconds to attach or remove a lens with a simple twist. The Pixel 6 cases have Moment’s (M)Force magnets embedded inside, so they’ll work with the company’s various MagSafe mounts, like one for tripods, video lights, and mics, or other MagSafe accessories.

This is a solid Pixel wallet case with a kickstand. You can prop it up in landscape mode with the foldable leather flap on the back. Underneath this magnetic flap, it can store a credit card or two. The whole thing is chunky, but the buttons are easy to press. It also has raised edges on the front to protect the screen. 

This dual-layer case from Otterbox feels really tough, yet it’s fairly slim. The edges around the camera module and front screen are raised, the buttons are easy to press, and the headphone jack and USB-C port are protected from the elements. This one offers a step up in protection compared to the above picks. 

Google Pixel Wireless Charging Stand Gen 2

Google Pixel Stand (Gen 2)

Photograph: Google

Of the Pixels in this guide, wireless charging is only available on the Pixel 5, Pixel 6, and Pixel 6 Pro. Google’s very own Pixel Stand is one of the best wireless chargers around because it’s simple. The base doesn’t slide around, the phone stays put, and it enables some fun features, like turning the screen into a digital photo frame and quick access to Google Assistant. It’s made of 39 percent recycled materials with mostly eco-friendly packaging too. Our Best Wireless Chargers guide has more options.

This charging adapter is all you need to recharge your Pixel, whichever model you have. The newest high-end Pixel phones don’t come with chargers in the box, so if you don’t have any spare USB-C chargers, it’s worth picking one up. This one’s prongs don’t fold up, but it’s still really compact. 

It takes some effort to install this case on the Pixel 6 or Pixel 6 Pro, but once you do, it’s arguably the most protection you’ll find for your Pixel. There’s an inner two-piece polycarbonate shell that snaps over and under the Pixel, and then a thick synthetic rubber slipcover goes over for extreme durability. The buttons are surprisingly clicky, and it’s not as thick as I expected it to be (it does make the phone very wide, though). It’s made of 50 percent recycled plastic, and there’s a holster you can pop it in to carry your Pixel with pride on your belt.

Hidden Tricks to Try If You Get a Pixel
Google Pixel 6

Wait Times.

Courtesy of Google

There are some key features exclusive to Pixels that you won’t find on any other Android phone. Some of these are only available on the new Pixel 6 series, especially since they rely on the processing power of the Tensor chip. Here’s a quick breakdown:

Call Screening: When you get a call from an unknown number, Google Assistant will scan and flag it if it’s suspected spam or a robocall. If it’s neither and simply a number you don’t recognize, you can have Assistant take the call. You’ll see a real-time transcription of what’s happening, so you can end the call right away if it’s a telemarketer or pick up if it turns out to be a long-lost high school friend. Tweak these settings by opening up the dialer app and heading to Settings > Spam and Call Screen.

Wait Times and Direct My Call: When you enter a 1-800 number in the phone app, you’ll now see an estimated wait time until someone real picks up (though it doesn’t work with every business). Google’s Direct My Call feature also transcribes the entire call and separates out menu options so you can clearly see them without having to listen intently to the call. You can turn this on by going to the phone app’s Settings > Direct My Call. It’s now available for Pixel 3A and newer.

Hold for Me: If you’ve been placed on hold with a 1-800 number, you can ask Google Assistant to take over. It will play a loud chime when the person on the other end is back. No need to listen to hold music! This feature is available on Pixel 3 and newer devices, but it only works in the US. Toggle it on in the phone app’s Settings > Hold for Me

Google Pixel 6

Live Translate. 

Courtesy of Google

Live Translate (Pixel 6 series only): In select messaging apps, the Pixel 6 will automatically know when someone sends a message in a language other than your default. It’ll translate it (if you wish), and you’ll be able to respond in that same language. Only some languages are supported, and you’ll need to download the languages you want to see translated by heading to Settings > System > Live Translate

Live Caption: Pixels can automatically transcribe any video playing on the screen. You can quickly toggle this on by tapping one of the volume buttons and tapping on the square button below the volume slider (or head to Settings > Sound and Vibration > Live Caption). If the video is in a different language, you can even see it translated (only on Pixel 6), though you’ll need to download one of the four supported languages. 

Now Playing: Ever hear a song at the coffee shop and wonder who it’s by? Now Playing uses on-device machine learning to figure out what the music is in your background, and it will display the artist and title on the lock screen (or in your notifications). It doesn’t require an internet connection, so there’s no data shared between you and Google. This isn’t turned on by default, so head to Settings > Sound and Vibration > Now Playing and toggle it on. You can even turn on Now Playing History, in case you forgot to write down an artist’s name when you saw it earlier. Google recently added a button you can press in case Now Playing doesn’t automatically identify a song, sorta like Shazam. 

Quick Tap: Head over to Settings > System > Gestures > Quick Tap to enable it. It lets you double-tap the upper back of your Pixel (4A 5G or newer) to trigger a function. That includes flipping the camera for a selfie, sliding down the notification bar, or, exclusive to Pixels, starting a Snap on Snapchat.  

Demonstration video of Google's Assistant Voice Typing
Video: Google

Assistant Voice Typing (Pixel 6 series only): Tap the mic button on Google’s Gboard keyboard and you’ll be privy to the much-improved voice typing experience enabled by the Tensor chip. It’s really fast, pretty accurate, and knows to automatically add punctuation. It understands when to send a message if you say “send,” and commands like “next” will move the cursor to the next paragraph.  

Quick Phrases (Pixel 6 series only): When the alarm goes off, you can just say “stop” or “snooze”  instead of fumbling for your phone. This applies when you get a phone call: Just say “answer” or “decline.” You can make sure this is toggled on by launching Assistant and saying “assistant settings” and then scrolling to Quick Phrases. It works in Italian, Spanish, and French, too. 

Ultra-Wideband (Pixel 6 Pro only): The Pixel 6 Pro is the only Google phone with a unique ultra-wideband chip, which makes it possible to precisely track other ultra-wideband devices nearby (just like how the iPhone 13 Pro can find the exact location of an AirTag). It also improves Google’s Nearby Share, so it’s quicker to send photos, files, and other content to other devices.

Google Pixel 6

Magic Eraser.

Courtesy of Google

Magic Eraser (Pixel 6 series only): In the Google Photos app, you can remove objects in the background of your photos (even those not captured on Pixels). Just tap the Edit button and head to Tools > Magic Eraser. It will automatically suggest things to remove, or you can highlight the object with your finger. 

Super-Res Zoom: If you’re taking a picture of something far away, use two fingers to pinch and zoom in, then snap the photo. Google uses software wizardry to upscale the quality of digitally zoomed-in photos, so you see a lot more detail. Remember, it only works if you zoom in before snapping your pic.

Astrophotography Mode: Set your Pixel on a tripod (something like this will work), point it at the sky, open the camera, and go to Night Sight mode. Once the phone detects that it’s completely still and on a tripod, you’ll see Astrophotography mode kick in. Tap the shutter button and, within three to five minutes, you’ll have a photo of the stars. Ideally, you should be in a dark area with little light pollution, but it’ll work wherever you are. Don’t touch the phone—just let it do its thing until the timer ends.

Portrait Light: You can change up the lighting in your portrait selfies after you take them by opening them up in Google Photos, tapping the Edit button, and heading to Adjust > Portrait Light. This adds an artificial light you can place anywhere in the photo to brighten up your face and erase that 5 o’clock shadow. Use the slider at the bottom to tweak the strength of the light. It also works on older Portrait mode photos you may have captured. It only works on faces.

Google’s Recorder app.

Video: Google

Google Recorder: If you record interviews, meetings, calls, or anything else, you’ll love the Google Recorder app. It’s exclusive to Pixels, and it offers real-time transcription so you don’t need to take notes. You can open these notes in a Google Doc to edit them later or tap on a word to jump to the point it’s spoken in the recording. Recordings can be shared with anyone, even if they don’t have a Pixel. Better yet, you can automatically back these up to your Google Account to access them anywhere (or find them here). It works in English, Japanese, Spanish, Italian, French, and German.

Car Crash Detection: Hopefully you never have to use this feature. As the name suggests, Pixel phones can tell when you’ve been in a serious crash with the help of mics and motion sensors. Turn it on in the Personal Safety app, and if a crash is detected, your phone will check to see if you’re OK. If there’s no response, it can share your location with emergency responders. It works in the US, UK, Italy, France, Spain, Australia, Japan, Ireland, Taiwan, and Singapore. 

Watch for “Feature Drops”: Google adds new features over time in a series it calls Pixel Feature Drops. There’s no particular cadence as to when you can expect these software updates, but they tend to happen every few months. This includes features from newer Pixels coming to older models and brand-new features for the latest models. And, of course, Pixels get three years of Android version upgrades and monthly security updates (up to five years for the latter on Pixel 6 and 6A), so make sure to always check for updates to keep your phone secure. You can do this by heading to Settings > System > System Update.

Source: Wired – Gear