It was a very good year for Google, but especially for its mobile division. The jury’s still out on whether hardware sales will match the quality of its latest phones but in all cases the phones we saw from Google in 2021 deserve respect.
Google’s custom-developed chip Tensor is probably the company’s biggest win. It enables advancements in machine learning and computational photography that Google wouldn’t have been able to achieve by using an off-the-shelf Qualcomm chip.
The processor has two Cortex-X1 cores, instead of the usual one, which means the Tensor is plenty powerful.
Biggest of all, the TPU (Tensor Processing Unit, after which the whole chip is named) has a machine learning engine that is built for “where ML engines are heading, not where they are today.” This component of the Tensor chip handles new camera features, including the new HDRnet algorithm for shooting video and an updated language model used by Google Assistant that enables improved translation speed and accuracy.
This model also enables the new Live Translate features built into Pixel 6 and 6 Pro. There’s also a “Context Hub” which handles background tasks or “ambient experiences” like the always-on display and Now Playing features without draining power.
But most importantly, Tensor is another differentiator for the Pixel line of phones, like Android 12, which makes them stand out among the Galaxies, iPhones, Redmies, and Realmies of the world.
Winner: Pixel 6
The €599 Pixel 6 is one of the easiest phone recommendations in 2021 (even easier during its pre-order when bundled with free premium headphones). It’s equipped with the Tensor chip, has the new 50MP Samsung-made camera, the new Pixel design, wireless charging, IP68 element protection, and a higher refresh rate display – 90Hz.
That main camera especially proved a superb performer in our review – day or night, moving the Pixel firmly back in the high echelon of cameraphones.
A bit smaller at 6.4-inch (though at 207g it isn’t really small), the Pixel 6 also has a say in the ‘more compact phone’ conversation.
And, the Pixel 6 offered great battery life as well.
Winner: Pixel 6 Pro
The Pixel 6 Pro added a bigger display and battery, higher refresh rate – 120Hz vs 90Hz – and a 4x periscope zoom.
It’s also a lot cheaper than direct rivals from Samsung and Apple, which was further exasperated during the Pixel 6 Pro’s pre-order period when it was bundled with free headphones.
However, many people would likely forgo the €200 premium and go for the close Pixel 6 instead, but that’s still a win for Google.
Winner: Android 12
Android 12 rolled out to the Pixel line in early October and it brought a lot of improvements – the new theming system, the new Material You design language, new widgets, the better performance, and a whole new focus on foldables.
Google’s vision for Android 12 is colorful, simple, and well thought out. But it will look nothing like it when you get it on your Samsung, Motorola, or OnePlus. Each maker has its own style and outside of a few new widgets, or the option to match the accent color to the wallpaper, little of what the Pixel’s Android 12 looks like will make it to any non-Pixel phone.
Winner: Pixel 5a 5G
The Pixel A line of phones is usually well-received in the markets it sells. Especially in the US, where at the time of writing the Pixel 5a 5G is at a lower $399 price. For that, you get a good retail package with an 18W charger, USB-C cable, and a USB-A to USB-C adapter, excellent battery life, solid image quality, and water resistance. Not to mention a place in the first line of software updates.
Unless you’ve got a better deal on a Samsung Galaxy A phone, or live in a place where Redmi and Realme sell phones, the Pixel 5a 5G is tough to beat.
Winner: Pixel Buds-A
The Pixel Buds-A are just €99/$99, which gives them a leg up on rivals from Apple and Samsung. They sound great and have adequate, if not awe-inspiring endurance.
Paired with a Google phone the Pixel Buds-A offer tighter integration, like hands-free Assistant access, real-time translations, notifications read in your ears, or real-time navigation.
Loser: Pixel Fold
Google was confirmed to be working on a foldable phone. It was supposed to show how Android 12 works on the form factor and to have a big, possibly 7.6-inch, inner display, a hideaway selfie camera, and of course – good cameras and Tensor.
But Google reportedly decided against releasing the Pixel Fold, because it didn’t think the phone would be competitive. Sad.