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Google Pixel 7 Pro review: Viva la (hardware) evolution

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Google’s new Pixel 7 Pro is part of a new crop of gadgets that benefit from their boringness. The Nintendo Switch OLED is boring; Microsoft’s latest Surface Go is boring; even the iPhone 14 is boring. That may come off as harsh, but all it means is that Google, like those other tech giants, eschewed fancy-but-unnecessary changes to its hardware and software and focused on incremental improvements that prospective Pixel owners would appreciate.

This is Google’s flagship smartphone and it’s one of the few you should seriously consider upgrading to if you like the purest Android operating system experience. While other Android phones beat the Pixel 7 Pro in specific areas—the Asus ROG Phone 6 is better for gaming, the Galaxy S22 Ultra has a better camera system—Google’s smartphone offers one of the best all-around experiences. Even iPhone owners (myself included) would come away a little envious, even if it doesn’t push us to migrate.

Unlocking the Google Pixel Pro 7’s features

The toughest part about reviewing the Pixel 7 Pro was the lack of a single marquee feature. There’s no “Dynamic Island” like on the iPhone 14 Pro models, no totally new form factor like the upcoming Pixel tablet. Instead, at a first glance, the smartphone looks nearly identical to the one it’s replacing. The differences between them are subtle even when you take a long look under the surface. 

The Pixel 7 Pro offers the same 120Hz, 6.4-inch, 1440p screen as the Pixel 6 Pro and immediately feels good in the hand. It’s a little taller than the iPhone 14 Pro Max but 40 grams lighter, which made a bigger difference than I expected. When you’re reading a long article or holding your phone while watching a video, every gram counts. On the backside of the Pixel 7 Pro, you’ll find the raised camera “bar,” which extends from the left side of the device all the way across to the right. 

Google fully embraced the camera “bump” with last year’s Pixel 6 Pro, turning it into a distinctive feature of the smartphone’s design. I still pine for the days of smartphones with cameras that are flush to their case but, while I personally hope that they return in the far-off future, I know it’s not going to happen. So, it’s nice that Google turned its smartphone’s camera system into a signature part of its look. The Pixel 7 Pro has an edge-to-edge screen, with a hole punch-shaped cutout for the front-facing camera. The camera has a slightly lower megapixel count compared to last year’s model (10.8MP down from 11.1MP), but it can be used for more than just taking selfies. 

The Pixel 7 Pro supports facial recognition, which allows you to unlock the smartphone by looking at it and swiping up on its screen. This worked very quickly in my testing, even when trying it in areas with low light. Some earlier Pixel generations had this feature but it’s been absent for the past couple of years. If the idea of facial recognition makes you uneasy, the Pixel 7 Pro has an under-the-display fingerprint reader and the option to use a password. All three methods of unlocking the phone worked well, so feel free to mix and match.

Reading long-form stories on the go is easier because of the Pixel 7 Pro’s large, high-resolution display. Brandt Ranj / Popular Science

An arms race with Apple

Last year, Google introduced the Tensor chip, a custom-designed processor developed specifically for use in Pixel phones. The Pixel 7 Pro features the Tensor G2, which is slightly faster on paper but powerful and energy efficient in practice. The move from an off-the-shelf part to a bespoke one paid off as the Pixel 7 Pro runs Android 13 flawlessly. Tapping, scrolling, pinching, zooming, switching between apps all felt remarkably smooth, with not a dropped frame or second-long stutter to be found. The phone didn’t even run hot during a stress test that involved running video at maximum brightness for multiple hours. 

Google may have been playing catch up with Apple, a company that began designing the iPhone’s custom silicon over a decade ago, but the effort has paid off handsomely. Pixel 6 Pro owners may not notice a big year-over-year improvement if they decide to upgrade. Anyone coming from a smartphone that’s two or three years old, however, will pick up on the difference immediately when opening apps, taking pictures, or even adjusting system settings like the phone’s screen resolution or wallpaper. While I’ve only had the opportunity to check out a few Android devices in my career, this is certainly the cleanest (and, yes, most iPhone-like) experience yet.

The Tensor G2’s biggest on-paper improvement compared to Google’s last-generation chip is a 60% increase in its machine-learning capabilities. This enables some of the phone’s most helpful features, like parsing speech to show you a tappable menu while going through a phone tree and helping you find exactly which emoji to pick while dictating messages. These are tangible benefits—who remembers the last time a smartphone’s phone experience improved?

With all of this power under the hood, it’s disappointing that Google has promised that the Pixel 7 line of phones will get only three years of software updates and five years of security updates. That’s good for an Android phone but Apple’s newly released iOS 16 operating system runs on phones going back to 2017. As Google unifies its hardware and software ecosystems, it’s important that they prioritize longevity.

Mighty morphin’ mega pixels

One of the biggest reasons to get a new smartphone is camera improvements and the Pixel 7 Pro is no slouch. Its three-lens rear-facing camera system features a 12MP ultra-wide camera, 48MP telephoto camera, and a 50MP wide camera, which can all record 4K HDR (high dynamic range) video at up to 60 frames per second. The megapixel count on the cameras hasn’t changed in the past year, but the ultrawide camera has a wider field of view and the telephoto lens has a slightly narrower field of view. In the Pixel’s camera app, you can select between four predetermined focal lengths: .5x, 1x, 2x, and 5x, and frame your shot accordingly.

My tests—conducted indoors and outdoors in various lighting conditions—show that Google’s relentless investment in computational photography continues to pay off, especially in an era when it makes its own chips. There’s a lot of fancy processing work happening behind the scenes, so all I needed to do to get a great photo was framing my shot and hitting the shutter button. A visual guide showing whether I was shooting my photo off-angle helped a bit but I mostly let the smartphone do all the work. I would consider the Pixel 7 Pro’s camera to be restrained. It brightened up low-light photos without blowing them out or muddying details and did a good job at color-balancing shots with a lot of dynamic range. 

More often than not the Pixel 7 Pro’s photos didn’t need editing, especially if you’re primarily interested in posting quick snapshots to Instagram. I compared the Pixel 7 Pro’s camera directly to an iPhone 14 Pro Max under a challenging circumstance: a lit fire pit in a dark backyard from a distance of about two feet. Both phones were set to their 1X camera settings, and the results (below) speak for themselves.

iPhone 14 Pro Max (left) vs. Pixel 7 Pro (right) Brandt Ranj / Popular Science

Smartphone photography has gotten a lot better over the past few years. Google is further leveraging the Tensor G2 to help you transform shots that almost turned out correctly into usable pictures through a feature called “UnBlur.” Tapping this button uses machine learning to digitally fix blurry photos, whether they were taken on the Pixel 7 Pro or not. This feature was hit-and-miss in my testing but, when it works, the before-and-after difference can be pretty significant. There are plenty of reasons for a blurry photo, from a shaky hand to an overactive subject, so it’s good to know your smartphone camera has your back in challenging situations outside of your control.

You can see the work of the Google Pixel 7’s UnBlur feature below; it’s not perfect, but the difference in usability is undeniable. Google has historically improved the quality of its machine-learning photography technology through software updates, so I expect UnBlur to get a lot better. This feature’s most impressive quality so far is the ability to apply it to any picture in your Google Photos library. UnBlur will be most effective when it’s applied to newer photos (specifically those taken on a Pixel 7 series device), but it can save older ones, too.

Original photo (left) vs. UnBlurred photo (right) Brandt Ranj / Popular Science

It just keeps going (and going and going) …

If you’re considering upgrading your smartphone because of its declining battery life, I can wholeheartedly recommend the Pixel 7 Pro. A full charge had no problems surviving a day of messaging, video watching, and social media browsing. I thought I’d put the battery through a stress test leaving a YouTube video playing continuously with the screen brightness at 100%—three hours later the phone said it still had over one day’s worth of juice left in the tank. 

Everybody’s workload is different and your mileage may vary if you’re recording hours of 4K video, editing it, and posting it on social media from your device. In those cases, it’s helpful to know that the Pixel 7 Pro supports 23W fast charging with a cable or on a wireless charger. The smartphone also supports reverse wireless charging, which means you can use it to top up other devices in a pinch.

Believe your eyes and ears

I mentioned the Pixel 7 Pro’s display specs earlier in this review but it’s worth noting just how good the screen is. Photos and videos look vibrant (without looking artificial) and text looks crisp. Google allows you to switch the smartphone’s display resolution between 1080P and 1440P depending on whether you’d like to see more information or want a slightly larger interface (bigger icons, larger text, etc.). In either case, the screen’s high refresh rate and immaculate color reproduction make a big difference, especially if you’re viewing high-resolution content. Even silly things, like the way an app icon pops against the phone’s background, stand out. It’s unfortunate that such a great screen was paired with such so-so speakers. 

When listening to audio in landscape mode, the Pixel 7 Pro will switch from mono to stereo, using its bottom speaker and receiver as the right and left channel respectively. Neither one is particularly good but the receiver is noticeably weaker than the phone’s speaker. This makes sense but is unfortunate given how well the iPhone sounds with this same general setup. The Pixel 7 Pro’s speakers stand out in a bad way even when watching videos or casually listening to podcasts in the background. If you want to seriously listen to music or watch streaming content on the Pixel 7 Pro, you should immediately pair them with good wireless earbuds or headphones (you can’t go wrong with the Bose QuietComfort II Earbuds or the Sony WH-1000XM4 headphones, to name just a couple options). The Pixel 7 Pro supports Bluetooth 5.2 with SBC, AAC (LC/HE), and aptX/aptX HD codecs (for the best sound experience, look for flagship gear supporting aptX HD, like the Focal Bathys).

The Pixel 7 Pro’s power efficiency allows you to watch long videos without experiencing battery anxiety. Brandt Ranj / Popular Science

So, who should buy the Pixel 7 Pro?

If you’re in the market for a new Android phone, the Pixel 7 Pro should be on the shortlist for consideration. The overall quality of its hardware—especially the Tensor G2 processor, which you won’t find anywhere else—cannot be overstated. And it’s paired with Android 13, an operating system designed to run perfectly on Google’s hardware. It may not have the whiz-bang cool factor of Samsung’s foldables, or the familiarity (to many) of the iPhone, but Google has continued to prove itself as a top-tier smartphone maker. The company’s dedication is especially impressive given how little its hardware has sold relative to its main competition, though some new reports suggest that trend could be changing. 

The conventional wisdom when an iPhone owner wants to upgrade their device is “get the newest iPhone.” The Pixel 7 Pro makes a compelling case to become a similar recommendation to anyone on the Android side of the aisle, even if it’s a little boring. The Google Pixel 7 Pro comes in Hazel (olive green), Snow (white), and Obsidian (black), starting at $899 for a model equipped with 128GB of storage and going up to $1,099 for the maxed-out version with 512GB of storage. The smartphone is available now in all storage sizes and colors.

Source : Popular Science

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