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

The Google Pixel 8 Pro gives an early glimpse of how life with AI in everything will look, making it feel unique despite it being almost entirely run-of-the-mill

At the heart of the Google Pixel 8 Pro is the new custom Tensor G3 processor, paired with 12GB of memory and 128GB of storage.
At the heart of the Google Pixel 8 Pro is the new custom Tensor G3 processor, paired with 12GB of memory and 128GB of storage. (Google)

How much better can phones get? At some point in the past two- three years, we reached a point when no smartphone is really bad. Even the least expensive phones now have most of the applications you would use frequently, while anything beyond the mid-range price bracket is good enough for pretty much everything. Smartphones, therefore, have become all about fine margins—some extra screen brightness here, a few extra camera pixels there…. The Google Pixel 8 Pro does things a little differently in this regard.

To be sure, Google has never really played the specifications war—it has always presented its erstwhile Nexus, and now the Pixel line of phones, as an ideal example of the software experience it envisions. But while it was all about the Android experience till now, this year Google appears to have made it all about its Artificial Intelligence (AI) prowess with its Pixel 8 series. From what you write, to what you see and what you hear—the Pixel 8 Pro has AI everywhere, making the smartphone feel more dynamic, and, at the same time, more concerning.

Why is it concerning?

Greater use of AI today directly correlates to greater use of data—specifically, personal data. The rationale is simple—in any field, AI algorithms will continue to get better when you keep showing them what is wrong. To do that, companies need to collect data, which is what leads to concerns about what the future holds for your personal data.

Google has tried to alleviate these concerns by stating that the Pixel 8 Pro runs “distilled” versions of the company’s generative AI models, which are not just limited to text, “on device”. “On device” here really suggests that the AI model doesn’t need to access Google’s cloud servers every time you use it. While this is good to speed up AI access and give AI features to you offline, Google has never explicitly specified that all the data will stay on your device, forever.

This means there’s no guarantee that the data generated from any of the new Pixel 8 Pro’s AI features will not end up in its servers and be used for training its AI tools and services. In fact, if you do opt in to Google’s AI trials (and most AI features are at present on trial), you would be consenting to at least some of your data, albeit in anonymous form, being collected.

All about the data

You may argue in Google’s favour that it isn’t the only company that is doing so, and that the future of every internet activity will be a transaction of data. In such a world, the Pixel 8 Pro showcases the right image of what future smartphones will look like. Google’s AI features claim to make typing faster with better predictive suggestions; imaging gets the beta-mode “Magic Editor” that can change skies, remove humans and relocate objects on a photograph; and finally, AI helps Google’s Pixel recorder recognise more accents better and enable more accurate live transcription.

It is this that makes the Pixel 8 Pro feel like a smartphone that is, alarmingly enough, alive. It feels more animated than not, and even with all forms of ad tracking disabled across my apps and browsers, there’s plenty that this phone appears to be capable of.

At its heart is the new custom Tensor G3 processor, paired with 12GB of memory and 128GB of storage. While the memory, thanks to the Tensor chip’s intelligent memory management, does not feel limiting, the storage limitation is awkward. If Google had to opt for a single storage option again, at least a 256GB option would have made sense. The present storage option will invariably push you towards subscribing to one of Google’s “One” membership plans—which begin at 130 a month for 100GB of cloud storage.

Storage obstructions aside, the Tensor chip is what enables all the AI processing on device. Since I have used a Pixel 7 Pro earlier, it is definitely safe to say that the Pixel 8 Pro is faster. Features such as the Magic Editor, or the Assistant’s on-device “read aloud” feature for articles opened via the Chrome browser, feel snappy enough. It is this snappiness that makes the Pixel 8 Pro’s AI features more palatable—you feel like using them.

Google Pixel 8 and Google Pixel 8 Pro phones are displayed during a Google product launch event in New York on October 4, 2023.
Google Pixel 8 and Google Pixel 8 Pro phones are displayed during a Google product launch event in New York on October 4, 2023. (AFP)

This, or the new iPhone?

There will, of course, be the obvious question—should you buy the new Pixel or opt for the new iPhone? For the Pixel 8 Pro has crossed the 1 lakh price point this year—it costs 1,06,999. This no longer leaves Google with the prospect of “value”, and given that we have been seeing plenty of “clean” Android versions, devoid of default spam, in the market, trying to sell the Pixel on its Android chops is no longer enough.

Google hopes that the other tricks up its sleeve will be enough. For instance, the 6.7-inch LTPO OLED display, which Google calls “Super Actua”, has an auto-variable refresh rate of 1-120Hz. This makes the display inherently smooth, while saving battery consumption. The rear camera set-up has a 50MP main unit, a 48MP ultra-wide unit with macro and autofocus, and a 48MP telephoto unit with 5x optical zoom—rivalling the new iPhone 15 Pro Max.

It all comes down yet again to AI—Google’s Pixel 8 Pro comes with a “Best Take” feature which does seem to produce super-consistent photographs that deliver the best frame composition, while a “Video Boost” AI feature, set to arrive as a software update later this year, will enhance videos in terms of colour tonality, details, sharpness, brightness, texture and more.

The Google Pixel 8 Pro appears to produce a more authentic colour tone even in 5x optical zoom photographs than Apple’s iPhone 15 Pro Max. The Pixel also consistently produces fewer blurry photographs than the iPhone—although Apple’s latest produces better portrait photos in low light. In overall terms, there’s no doubt that the Pixel 8 Pro is a fantastic camera phone—getting pretty much every aspect right, with consistency.

However, it does seem to heat up rather quickly—especially when you are recording videos outdoors. This heating issue appears to persist even when gaming—while the Pixel 8 Pro is fantastic at running games smoothly and scaling them up to 120Hz, the quick-heat isn’t very encouraging.

Somehow, the Pixel 8 Pro feels lighter and more compact to hold than the new iPhone. Apple’s use of titanium makes the Pro iPhones feel more premium but you can literally feel the bulk and heft of the iPhone 15 Pro Max. Google’s Pixel 8 Pro does not feel that massive—probably thanks to its rounded edges. Its matte rear glass build, coupled with the new “bay” blue colour option, certainly makes it look less austere—whether you like it or not will depend on personal preference.

To sum up

The Pixel 8 Pro is not a hardware-first smartphone but it is a prototype for the future of AI in phones. It is proof that from a hardware standpoint, the candy-bar form factor of smartphones has hit a ceiling—one that only AI can help breach. Soon, phones will no longer be about how well you can photograph—they will be about how well you can edit. The Pixel 8 Pro even has a virtual call receiving assistant, “Call Screen”, to take calls on your behalf—and hand them over to you only if necessary.

All this comes together to make this a fun Android smartphone—definitely one worth considering. It’s built well—and has flagship hardware and class-leading AI software chops too.

Also read: Google Pixel 7a review: a better deal than the Pixel 7?

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