Google Pixel 8 and Pixel 8 Pro review: True vision of AI underlying smartphones

Artificial intelligence has been the pitch for many an app and hardware for quite some time now. In varying degrees, the promise follows through with results. It is often subjective too, with specific utility as the definer. But none, at least among smartphones, has wrapped itself as comfortably and definitely in AI as Google’s new Pixel 8 Pro and Pixel 8 phones.

Google Pixel 8 Pro (Vishal Mathur/ HT Photo)
Google Pixel 8 Pro (Vishal Mathur/ HT Photo)

From the outset, as a generational change would demand, they are better than the phones they succeed. They have to, as they’re more expensive. Also, more mature. Google’s big bets already give us a vision of looming goalposts. There’s a reason why we say the goalposts are still some distance over the horizon as we approach it. And not, a here-and-now scenario. That’s because, in addition to what’s already here, more incoming AI features are expected in a few weeks.

They’ll go far beyond the potential already residing within the Pixel 8 Pro and Pixel 8. It is a dual-pronged approach by Google as a definer for this generation of Pixel phones, and that’s its loudest theme. Google Photos, an app you are familiar with already, adds a new layer of AI models. Specifically on the Pixel 8 Pro and Pixel 8. The trick to get them soon-ish is, to leave the phone on charge overnight, whilst connected with Wi-Fi. Post that, all image editing options will be unlocked.

Magic Editor joins an already extensive (and even more so for the Pixel 8 Pro and Pixel 8) Google Photos editing feature set. This is the heaviest implementation of AI, with comprehensive editing controls, that you get access too. With just a tap, you can remove background objects or people, change lighting or tone, resize the subject or reposition the subject. Shadows move too!

Mind you, not all Magic Editor options show up for every photo. Such as an indoor photo with two faces, doesn’t give the option to change lighting. There are presets too, or you can manually edit as you please. Think of this as Adobe’s Lightroom app, but without a learning curve that comes with professional tools.

In our tests, Magic Editor’s tools work best with new photos, clicked by the Pixel 8 Pro and Pixel 8. Such as replicating the texture accurately around a resized or repositioned subject. The sort of detail that comes through, must be seen to be believed.

Not to say it doesn’t have the same impact as your existing Google Photos library, but some photos from an earlier generation of phone cameras don’t always have the sort of detailed data and lighting for AI to truly work its magic with.

The Pixel 8 Pro and Pixel 8’s camera hardware has also evolved. The Pixel 8 Pro has a troika of a 50-megapixel wide, 48-megapixel ultrawide and a 48-megapixel telephoto, at the back. The dual cameras on the Pixel 8 are now a 50-megapixel wide (same sensor as the Pixel 8 Pro) and a 12-megapixel ultrawide. This summarises Google’s differentiation between the Pixel 8 Pro and Pixel 8. There is parity elsewhere, with specs and software.

A feature you’d likely find useful sooner than you think is ‘Best Take’. It pulls in the data from a set of photos clicked in quick succession before and after you tap the shutter button. Behind the photo you think you’ve clicked (and what you see on screen), resides this important data that can potentially add expressions to a photo, which may have been missed in the moment. Open photo -> Edit -> Tools -> Best Take is where this resides. No more closed eyes ruining a photo, I’d guess.

For video enthusiasts, Audio Magic Eraser uses AI to detect unwanted noises in a recording. The whirring of a fan, the din of an air-conditioner or the annoying cacophony of traffic in the distance. There is weightage to a human speaking, at which time, any background sounds can be reduced significantly. We noted that there isn’t absolute elimination, but the reduction is significant.

All this is possible on a smartphone. That’s a summary of how powerful the phones we use have evolved into, and the scope of AI includes more use cases than ever before.

Remember, we mentioned goalposts over the horizon. That’s a specific reference to a feature called the Video Boost. All Google says for now is, it’ll be available “later this year”. The key here is to get powerful data centres up and running. What’ll then happen is, that videos you choose to edit using the Video Boost option, will be uploaded to these servers, processed, and downloaded to your Pixel 8 Pro and Pixel 8 phone. Editing options will include colour, stabilisation, grain control and lighting. Sounds great, but you’ll need sufficiently fast upload speeds, particularly for 4K videos.

Just to leave you with a question to ponder over – AI editing tools most certainly have a wow factor, potentially keeping you regaled for hours. They can also rescue photos that may not look as you’d have hoped they do, but the moment for re-do has since passed. But, with the ability to change around almost everything within a photo you’ve clicked, do memories remain as pure as they perhaps should be? Think about it.

In terms of power, we can simply report that Google’s Tensor G3 chips simply get the job done, as you’d expect from an Android flagship phone worth its price tag. Focus clearly isn’t purely on clock speeds, but the ability to power the thickening layer of AI. It has worked. Underlying performance is better than the already very powerful Tensor G2, though you may find it hard to differentiate between this and a Pixel 7. Except, it’s even more capable with AI implementation.

Previous gen Pixel phones often struggled with the Tensor G2’s inability to stay cool during certain stressful use cases, but that’s a much lesser worry with the Tensor G3. For the most part. This chip does make the back panel decidedly tepid from time to time when you may be stressing it with multitasking or extended periods of camera use (4K videos in particular). But nothing close to previous levels. Improvement nonetheless.

An updated modem also means you’ll get better connectivity on 5G and Wi-Fi, compared with the previous two generations of Pixel phones. The Pixel 8 Pro and Pixel 8 latch onto mobile network signals better (in the same location, for the same operator) than the Pixel 7 series. Wi-Fi handshake is more stable, as you move further towards the outer range of your home Wi-Fi router.

These improvements translate into stable battery stamina too. The Pixel 8 Pro’s 5,050mAh battery returned close to 5 hours and 45 minutes of screen use time, which means it’ll get through a day at work with considerable ease. The Pixel 8’s smaller 4,575mAh battery will do a bit less, clocking just under 4 hours and 45 minutes of screen time. For a quick splash and dash charge, we’d recommend the wired route – that’s 30-watt speeds with a compatible charger, compared with 23-watts using a Qi wireless pad.

Still not the fastest charging among the latest crop of Android phones, but hardly something to complain about.

Not much has changed in terms of design language and relevant footprint, but there are subtle changes, nonetheless. Both phones have flat displays, and no waterfall-esque curves cascading into the spines on either side. Opinions on this, fall within the realm of subjectivity. On the back is a matte glass on the Pixel 8 Pro. Tweaking glass implementation seems to be in vogue – Apple has the colour-infused glass layer on the iPhone 15 Pro phones.

Speaking of which, not much has changed in terms of display real estate. But that’s where continuity ends. The Pixel 8 Pro’s 6.7-inch display is now what Google calls, Super Actua. Brightness thresholds have been increased from 1000 nits and 1600 nits (for peak) to 1600 nits and 2400 nits. Much brighter displays mean greater convenience across different ambient lighting levels. There’s a dynamic refresh rate too, between 1Hz and 120Hz, depending on the content being viewed.

Mind you, the Pixel 8 Pro’s screen now has slightly fewer pixels – 2992 x 1334 resolution compared with 3120 x 1440 resolution on the predecessor.

The Pixel 8 has a satin metal frame, while the Pixel 8 Pro gets polished aluminium. Pixel 8 has more colour options for now, with differing finishes – Rose, Hazel and Obsidian. The larger Pixel 8 Pro has Obsidian (this is essentially black) and Bay (a gorgeous shade of blue that we’d recommend).

A rather fun feature is the temperature sensor on the back of the phone (it sits on the camera module). You must look for in the Play Store an update to the Pixel Thermometer app, which enables this. Good way to know how warm the milk or pizza is, or if the gravy is at just the right temperature. This sensor does not have a health tracking use case yet and isn’t approved for tracking human body temperature. Just objects, with controls within the app, for accurate reading on different surfaces.

A bug miss, with the USB-C port on the Pixel 8 series phones is the lack of display out support. Plug them into an external display, and you’re greeted with nothing happening. This is something Apple is tackling with its eventual switch to USB-C with the new iPhones, potentially unlocking gaming capabilities too in due course.

It is still a bit disappointing to see 128GB storage as the entry spec for the 75,999 priced Pixel 8 and the 1,06,999 valued Pixel 8 Pro. Perhaps Google could have taken a cue from user demand from Samsung’s decision to make 256GB the entry spec for the Galaxy S23+ and the Galaxy S23 Ultra this year. Perhaps even the sort of differentiation Apple has done between the iPhone 15 Pro (128GB as the start point) and iPhone 15 Pro Max (256GB onwards), may have worked better.

Do you buy your tech for the here and now or the future? With the Pixel 8 and Pixel 8 Pro phones, Google is lending considerably to the argument about factoring in what awaits. The AI features for video editing, are a case in point. From the present standpoint, these are Pixel phones that have matured tremendously. There’s enough differentiation between the Pixel 8 and Pixel 8 Pro to make them relevant for different demographics, yet the basics remain consistent.

But it is very clear Google is betting big on advanced AI as a definer for photography, alongside utility that comes through from more AI features such as Assistant voice typing, Translate and Read Aloud. Quite how that shapes up against very capable alternatives, such as Samsung’s Galaxy S23 series and indeed the Apple iPhone 15 for those who aren’t strictly in the Android frame of mind, will be interesting to watch unfold. It may just force more Android phone makers to follow Google’s template, but it wouldn’t be easy to do.

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