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Google Pixel 8 review: The little Android smartphone that can

The Google Pixel 8 is a big upgrade over Pixel 7 yet falls a little short compared to its competition. But if you love small phones, then it will win you over

The lower 75,999 price point means that the Google Pixel 8 asks less of your wallet and is, therefore, more likely to end up in your pocket.(Google)

By Tushar Kanwar

LAST PUBLISHED 02.12.2023  |  12:00 PM IST

It’s no surprise that Google’s Pixel 8 Pro got the most attention in this year’s lineup, be it for the upgraded optics and ‘Pro’ camera controls, the new temperature sensor or the 1-lakh-rupee-breaching price point. Yet, the regular Pixel 8 is no pushover – far from it, as it shares a lot in common with the Pro variant – the same Tensor G3 processor with its artificial intelligence (AI) and machine-learning chops powering the same Android 14 software, and the same seven-year commitment for software updates as the bigger Pro.

Also, let’s face it: the lower 75,999 price point means that the standard Pixel asks less of your wallet and is, therefore, more likely to end up in your pocket. But how does it fare on a daily basis, and does the lower price mean any significant compromises over the Pro?

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Design and build

Now, Google hasn’t messed around with the visually distinct Pixel aesthetic, with the Robocop-visor camera bar on the rear letting you spot a recent Pixel from a fair distance. Google’s saved the matte-blue Bay color only for the Pro for some reason, so the regular 8 is only available in Hazel, Obsidian and the new Rose color variant I tested, all of which are protected by Gorilla Glass Victus (and not the second-gen Victus of the 8 Pro).

Also read: Google Pixel 8 Pro review: The right idea for the future of phones

The most understated win for the Pixel 8 is its compact size – it’s a little smaller than the Pixel 7, packing in a 6.2-inch (instead of a 6.3-inch) display and shaving off 5.1mm and 2.4mm off on the height and width in the process. Coupled with the rounded corners, the phone is not only easier to handle one-handed but also easier to carry and pocket than the significantly larger flagships one has grown (sadly) accustomed to. If you want a small phone and feel underserved by phone makers at large, the Pixel 8 Pro should certainly top your list. And just like all recent flagship Pixels, the Pixel 8 retains IP68 dust and water resistance, and wireless charging.

Display

Contributing to the Pixel’s size reduction program is the thinner bezels around the 6.2-inch, 120Hz, 2000 nits display, a screen which is undeniably a step up from the 90Hz panel on the Pixel 7 from last year.

The full-HD+ panel is bright even during outdoor use, and the colors are vibrant, which, along with the stereo speakers, makes it a good (albeit small) display to consume HDR10+ content from YouTube/Netflix. The panel misses out on quad-HD+ resolution and the LTPO tech of the 8 Pro, which would have allowed more granular control between 1Hz and 120Hz, instead sticking to switching between 120Hz and 60Hz when the screen is idle.

There’s an under-display fingerprint scanner, and a new feature this year is face unlock via the selfie camera found in the cutout on top of the display.

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Performance and battery

If you’ve read our review of the Pixel 8 Pro, you’d likely know that Google’s Tensor G3 chip has been on the receiving end of some amount of criticism – that for a phone priced at upwards of 75,000, gaming or computing performance doesn’t land in the same ballpark as the Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 or the Apple A17 Pro chips, and whether the phone will age gracefully over its seven-year software lifespan.

In use, the phone does tend to throttle early (to avoid overheating) when you’re playing graphics heavy titles but handles daily tasks and heavy photography reasonably well. Sticking to the 128GB of UFS 3.1 speed storage (not UFS 4.0) on the base model isn’t a good look for a flagship phone, but Google is hardly the only one guilty of this. Battery life is respectable, with the 4,575mAh battery yielding between five to six hours of screen-on time, but wired charging is (a step forward but still) limited to 27W charging speeds, which gets you from empty to full in a little under 1.5 hours.

FILE: New Google Pixel 8 Phones are displayed in New York City, US October 4, 2023. (Reuters)

AI on the phone

Redemption comes by way of its AI-first use cases, in being able to run on-device machine learning models, particularly in the photography department. So, while the resolution specs still stay at 50MP for the primary and 12MP for the wide-angle with autofocus, it’s the AI features that rightfully command a lot of the attention.

Features like Best Take, which automatically let you pick the best shot among a batch of group photos, or Magic Editor, which lets you move the position of people and objects in a photo and uses generative AI to fill in the missing blanks, make a genuine difference in taking photos every day, though it does lead one to question just how much the Pixel 8’s photos qualify as “photos" as purists would define them.

When it works, which is more often than not, the effect it has on your photos is transformational, but you will have to consciously want to use these features regularly for you to get a handle of their capabilities. Even without these features, the Pixel 8 takes stellar shots – with plenty of detail and accurate colors on the primary shooter and among the best wide-angle cameras on an Android phone. Low-light images are excellent, as are portrait images – the Pixel 8 is my go-to for people and object portraits in particular, with its excellent edge-detection algorithm accurately discerning the background from the subject, loose strands of hair and all.

Video footage from the primary camera has plenty of detail and good dynamic range, but the ultrawide falls a bit short in videos. The one feature I really liked was Audio Magic Eraser, which is designed to remove background noises from video, be it the hum of an air conditioner, stray traffic noises or the sound of barking dogs – all of which are very common occurrences if you live within an apartment community and have little control over stray auditory inputs.

Folks eyeing the Pixel 8 for its camera chops will have to note that Google has tried to draw a clear line between the regular 8 and the Pro – so even as it belts out great shots with consistency, the Pixel 8 is missing the dedicated telephoto lens, Night Sight Video, Pro mode controls and the upcoming Video Boost feature.

Verdict

There’s a lot to like with the Pixel 8, and it represents a big upgrade over the Pixel 7…including a sizable price hike. Held up against its most obvious competitors – the Samsung Galaxy S23 and the Apple iPhone 15, the Pixel 8 falls behind on account of pure performance, and in the case the S23, a dedicated telephoto and better performance/battery life, while redeeming itself with its camera prowess and an industry-leading software support cycle.

What’s more likely is that someone who considers the Pixel 8 will also eye the 8 Pro, with its brighter LTPO screen, more cameras and fully unlocked photo/video capabilities, even as you pay a lot more for that privilege. It’s the latter – intentionally limiting the software on the Pixel 8 - which really holds the Pixel 8 back, not the hardware. It’s really only if you’re a fan of small phones that the Pixel 8 will win you over.

Tushar Kanwar, a tech columnist and commentator, posts @2shar.

Also read: A deep dive into the photography experience on Google Pixel phones