Google’s Pixel 6 and 6 Pro: Their Maker Gets Serious About Smartphones. For Real This Time.

Riddle: I’m the best Android smartphone but no one buys me. What am I?

Answer: A Google Pixel.

With less than 2% of the North American smartphone market, Google’s very own smartphone line almost evokes pity. Almost. If it weren’t designed and sold by a trillion-dollar tech behemoth.

But maybe, just maybe, that riddle may have a different answer this time next year. On Tuesday, the company formally announced the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro after months of teasing. With them, it says it’s now serious about competing in the smartphone market. One sign that’s true: It made its own processor, Tensor.

“We see this as the moment that we have really developed the Google phone,” Rick Osterloh, Google’s senior vice president of devices and services, told me. “When we were finished with Tensor we thought it would be the right time to really start to grow our share of the market and try to scale the business.”

Like Apple, Google decided to optimize its software and hardware right down to the silicon. The chips are built for on-device artificial intelligence, so it can deliver things like faster, more accurate speech recognition and better image processing.

“What was being built outside the company wasn’t necessarily the perfect platform for the future—or the distant future,” Mr. Osterloh said.

But fancy chips alone won’t sell smartphones. What will sell them are all three big U.S. cellular carriers— AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon —a first ever for a Pixel launch. The company also has major TV ad campaigns lined up as well as a big partnership with the NBA. The company has boosted production for the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro, and while the chip shortage has affected other Pixel models, including the Pixel 5a, Mr. Osterloh said the company thinks these will be OK.

“It’s not the easiest thing to switch phones or ecosystems,” said Mr. Osterloh. “We know and recognize we have a lot of work to convince people this is a good choice for them.”

Both phones go on sale on Tuesday and hit shelves Oct. 28; the Pixel 6 will start at $599 and the Pixel 6 Pro at $899. What do you get for that? I’ve been trying them out, so here’s the rundown:

New Designs

The Pixel 6 Pro, left, has a 6.7-inch screen and three cameras, while the Pixel 6 has a 6.4-inch screen and two cameras.

Photo: Google

The phones come in two sizes: Big and Bigger. The 6.4-inch Pixel 6 loses the “just right” size that its predecessor had, but it is slightly more manageable than the 6.7-inch Pixel 6 Pro.

The screens aren’t just bigger, they’re better. The Pro has a 120-hertz refresh rate, which like the screens on the latest iPhone 13 Pro models, is smoother for scrolling, gaming, really everything. The phones have fingerprint sensors embedded into the display. I have found it can often take more than one try to unlock. So has my colleague Nicole Nguyen, who is also testing the phones.

Possibly the best thing about these phones? You can actually tell them apart from other phones. Google has given them cutesy color names, like Kinda Coral and Sorta Seafoam, but the multicolor design with the horizontal black camera bar is distinct and elegant. And if color-matching your software—everything from app icons to menu tray—to your hardware is your thing, well then Android 12 makes that real easy.

New Cameras

The Pixel 6 and 6 Pro share the same wide and ultrawide cameras. The wide, specifically, has a new sensor that captures 150% more light. However, the Pro goes one more step up with a third camera: a telephoto. From my early tests, the photos look great.

But it’s those cameras in combo with the new Tensor processor that enable cool new photography tricks. Motion mode lets you capture fun action shots and creates a blurry long-exposure effect. With Real Tone, the company says, the phone can “represent all people and skin tones beautifully and accurately.” (I haven’t had a chance to test it.)

New Speed

With its new Google-designed Tensor chip, the Pixel 6 phones can translate languages faster on the device, without relying on the cloud.

Photo: Google

Up to 80% faster than the performance on the Pixel 5, according to Google, Android 12 runs smoothly on the phones. But the Tensor chip’s real benefit is doing processing on the device that would otherwise be done in the cloud.

Voice typing and transcription are all done on the device and the experience is insanely quick and smart, picking up contextual cues from the conversation itself, including names, and inserting emojis when you name them.

A new calling assistance feature deals with any automated calling system—say a credit-card customer service line—and will transcribe the menu options to you. You don’t have to remember if pressing 1 takes you to paying bills or reporting a lost or stolen card.

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Language translation and the live interpreter mode, which translates languages in real time, is faster, too, and is all done on the device—a nice trick if you happen to be traveling to another country with no cell service. (Just make sure you download local languages before your journey.)

Are the features cool? For sure. But enough to persuade people after years of buying Samsung and Apple to change to something new?

“There are two players at the moment because they have done a terrific job historically. We hope to burn our way into that grouping,” Mr. Osterloh said. “But it’s going to take a long time.”

Hey, if the phones stay so bright and colorful, at least we’ll be able to look at a crowd and see if his plan is working.

Write to Joanna Stern at joanna.stern@wsj.com

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