Google Pixel 8 Review: The best ‘small’ Android phone

The Google Pixel 8 might just be the best Android flagship available

Google Pixel 8
Google Pixel 8 Review
Bottom Line
For those who don't want a larger phone, Google's Pixel 8 offers a true flagship-level experience in a smaller size. And you get all of that for a very reasonable price.
Premium build
Terrific cameras, both from hardware and software
Strong performance
Beautiful display
One of the best security and upgrade guarantees in Android
Battery life isn't the best
The AI-powered editing features don't always work as well as you'd like
The large camera bump on the back can be a little awkward

After almost a decade of Pixel phones, we still sometimes wonder what Google is up to, especially when hardware is never going to be what drives their business.

Are Pixel phones supposed to compete with the likes of Samsung directly? Or are they to be reference phones that show the rest of the Android world what a good Android phone should look like? Or, a showcase for Google’s latest technologies, perhaps? For the first time, with the Google Pixel 8 and Google Pixel 8 Pro, the answer to all three is a resounding yes.

We got some time with the Google Pixel 8 – the smaller Pixel 8, but not always the lesser – and we’re awfully impressed with what Google has put together. It’s a flagship Pixel that gets all the essentials right, but as we all know, smartphones live and die by their camera quality these days, and thanks to some impressive AI-powered processing features exclusive to the new Pixel, Google might just be leading the way soon.

But, as we’ll see in our Google Pixel 8 review, there’s room for growth – those AI features don’t always work as well as you’d like. Still, even in the hiccups, you can see the potential of what Google is building.

Google Pixel 8: Build quality

Pixel 8 in obsidian

The Google Pixel 8 is a 6.2″ phone with a solid aluminum frame that feels sturdy in hand, with rounded edges – Google got this part of the design just right because the phone is pretty comfortable to hold. Part of that might be thanks to the size. One difference between the Google Pixel 8 and the Google Pixel 8 Pro is the screen size – the Pro is a 6.7″ device in a class that really pushes the limit of what feels comfortable in hand and pocket.

With the smaller size of the Pixel 8 (weighing 187 grams), nothing ever jumped out at me as uncomfortable while using it, which is all you can ask for! Well, almost. No discomfort, but I did have one little problem that I suspect at least a few other folks will have. On the back of the phone, a pretty sizeable bar runs across the phone where the cameras are housed – it’s more of a camera ledge than a camera bump, which becomes a little annoying when I have my phone in my pocket.

I sometimes carry cards in my pocket without a wallet, and if I put the Pixel 8 in my pocket camera side down, my metro card or credit card would end up sitting on that ledge, making it easy for it to take a ride on the phone out of my pocket.

It’s a problem I solved by putting the phone in my pocket camera side up, but I don’t really want to have to think about how I’m pocketing my phone if I don’t have to. It’s a niche problem, but if you’re like me and find yourself with loose metro cards or credit cards in your pocket, it’s worth keeping in mind.

Camera ledges aside, the Google Pixel 8 is built to last. Google didn’t skimp on durability, with the Pixel 8 getting an IP68 rating, making it dust-proof and waterproof. On top of that, Corning Gorilla Glass Victus (not the second generation you’ll find on the Pixel 8 Pro) protects the Pixel 8’s screen to make sure you’ll avoid screen cracks far into the future – and thanks to security and upgrade guarantees that we’ll talk about later, this is potentially a phone you’ll be using for a very long time.

The Pixel 8 comes in hazel, obsidian, and rose, which translates to grey, black, and light pink.

Google Pixel 8: Display

The Google Pixel 8 has a 6.2″ 1080p OLED display with a 120 Hz refresh rate and support for HDR10+ – Google calls it their Actua display. The Pixel 8 Pro does edge out the standard Pixel 8 here, featuring an LTPO OLED display with a peak brightness of 2,400 nits, compared to 2,000 nits on the Pixel 8.

The Pixel 8 display is what you’d expect from an OLED panel – terrific color contrast and range that makes watching videos and playing games a delight. But, for a phone that leans so heavily on camera features, it’s even more important to have something that can faithfully display those beautiful shots you’re taking.

It’s the max brightness that makes the phone shine, figuratively and literally – a peak brightness of 2,000 nits allows the phone to hit contrast levels that support the new Ultra HDR format introduced in the Google Pixel 8 series, which we’ll talk about in the camera section. And, of course, that brightness makes the phone work very well in direct sunlight.

The Pixel 8 Pro’s brighter screen, I’m sure, does so even better, but after 2,000 nits on a smartphone display, the improvements are going to be harder and harder to notice.

Google Pixel 8: Battery life

The Google Pixel 8 features a 4,575 mAh battery. While that would usually do just fine, that super bright display does a number on the battery. We’ve gotten used to flagship and mid-range phones that last well over a day – almost two days in some cases – and the Pixel 8 isn’t that.

I wouldn’t expect more than a day if you’re watching a fair amount of video, using the camera heavily, or gaming. Sometimes, you might run into some battery anxiety in the evening. I made it back OK most days, but on a couple of heavier-use days, I found myself having to find a place to charge up for five or ten minutes to get a little extra juice. Fortunately, that was all I needed, but I would’ve preferred to have a Pixel 8 I could rely on to make it through the whole day.

When I watched an hour straight of video indoors with adaptive brightness on, the phone lost 7 percent battery, which isn’t too bad – I’ve seen phones perform worse there. But something about gaming kicks the phone into another gear because the battery ran down 21% after an hour of playing Genshin Impact under the same conditions.

As we’ll talk about later, it’s a good thing that many of the Pixel 8’s most impressive camera features are processed in the cloud because there’s no way this phone would have the battery power to handle that processing on the device.

I’d give the Pixel 8 a satisfactory grade on battery life, but if it’s something you need to prioritize – perhaps you don’t always have access to charging at the end of the day, or you use your phone more heavily than most – the Pixel 8 might not be the phone for you. It’s a worthy trade-off for most folks to get the brighter screen and the contrast it enables.

The Pixel 8 also supports wireless charging up to 18W, but you’ll need a second-gen Pixel Stand to take full advantage of that. The Pro offers up to 23W charging, which I’m not sure will move the needle too much.

Google Pixel 8: Performance

Like the Pixel 6 and Pixel 7, the Pixel 8 runs on a Google-designed Tensor chipset, in this case, the Google Tensor G3, with 8GB of RAM (12GB on the Google Pixel 8 Pro).
It’s important to remember why Google uses its own design AI. It’s Google’s main advantage over other Android phones, and it shines more than ever thanks to the Pixel 8’s camera features. While the Tensor G3 does make those camera and editing features possible, it’s admittedly not the best in other areas.
The Pixel 8 is by no means the smoothest flagship in terms of scrolling and web browsing. However, it’s largely good enough – no hitches or inconsistencies foul up the user experience. Interestingly enough, more intensive tasks like photo editing and gaming are more on par with other flagships in terms of performance – I didn’t notice any dropped frames when playing Genshin Impact. And while the phone warmed up a little, it never got uncomfortably hot.
The Pixel 8 offers 128GB or 256GB storage options, which is fine. Still, one gets the sense that Google would love for you to lean on their cloud storage instead – especially considering some of those fancy new camera editing features require you to back up your photos to use them. Unfortunately, that means there’s no microSD card slot here to expand physical storage, either.
Like last year’s Pixel 7 and Pixel 7 Pro (and the iPhone 15 Pro and iPhone 15 Pro Max), the Pixel 8 supports eSIM and physical SIM cards. I was traveling while testing out the Pixel 8, which gave me a chance to test out eSIM functionality – for those new to the technology, it allows you to set up cellular service on the device without the need for a physical SIM card.
The Pixel 8’s connectivity settings make it super easy to set up Nomad’s eSIM service, which worked the whole time I was away without a hitch. It is a great feature for folks who travel frequently, and it’s good to see that Google went out of its way to make setup easy for folks using eSIM for the first time.

Google Pixel 8: Camera

The Pixel 8 and Pixel 8 Pro differ in camera hardware. The Pixel 8 has a dual-camera array that includes a 50MP sensor with a f/1.7 25mm wide angle lens, dual pixel phase detection autofocus, laser autofocus, and optical image stabilization and a 12MP sensor with a f/2.2 126-degree ultrawide lens and autofocus.

Unlike the Pixel 8 Pro, the Pixel 8 lacks a telephoto lens, meaning you’re limited to 2x optical zoom instead of the Pro model’s 5x. There’s a 10.5 MP sensor on the front with an f/2.2, 20mm ultrawide lens, and phase detection autofocus.

There’s the usual suite of capture features – a night mode, a portrait mode, and so on. One strange omission on the Pixel 8 is a suite of pro camera controls that allow you to adjust camera settings manually. A Pro mode is available on the Pixel 8 Pro. Still, there’s no hardware reason why Google couldn’t have included it on the Pixel 8, and it wouldn’t have hurt anything to include it. Choosing to omit it is a curious choice.

Then again, maybe the idea is that you don’t need to play around with the settings much because the Pixel 8 camera takes some very good point-and-shoot photos. Shots come out crisp and clear in virtually all situations – low light, full daylight, sunset, with 2x zoom, you name it. Portrait mode hits just the right balance, focusing the subject without making the background look blurry in an overly processed way.

The night mode improves low-light shots, but even shots at night without night mode turned on looks great. If you do use the night mode, you’ll have to hold the phone still for a couple of seconds to get the best results, so hopefully, you have a steady hand to stabilize the camera.

Ultra HDR helps these photos shine, too. Ultra HDR is a new format that includes HDR mapping data in the metadata of an otherwise normal .jpg – the photo should look normal on devices that don’t support Ultra HDR but look gorgeous on devices that do.

Unfortunately, not much supports Ultra HDR at the moment – currently, just the Pixel 8, the Pixel 8 Pro, and the Google Chrome browser. Hopefully, the standard gets picked up by more folks soon, but for now, you can at least enjoy the results on your phone!

For video, the Pixel 8 can take 4k video at 24, 30, and 60 fps, and 1080p video up to 240 fps, with video also benefiting from optical image stabilization. The videos come out equally crisp, and I am quite pleased with the performance of the optical image stabilization.

I made no attempt to hold the phone steady while walking through a rose garden, but the OIS kicked in and made things look surprisingly smooth. But, as all of Google’s Pixel 8 ads will tell you, it’s the AI editing features that set the Pixel 8 apart. Portrait blur can add a background blur to a shot in case you take a photo and wish you had taken it in portrait mode. It works pretty well – you have to look closely to notice some fuzziness around the edges of the subject.

There’s also a blur reduction feature, which is great if you take night shots of people and can’t quite hold the phone steady enough while using night mode. The Magic Eraser can outline and remove objects from your shots – the most common use case being removing passersby from a wide shot of a city or a landscape. AI will fill in the gaps, a la Photoshop, but there are limits. Basically, the larger the object you remove from the picture, the more obvious it is that the photo was altered, with noticeable blurriness as the AI tries to fill in larger and larger blanks.

There’s also a sky editing feature, which is my least favorite. It allows you to replace the sky in your shot, replacing a sunny day with a stormy one or a sunset. In practice, I found that the replacement skies generated didn’t fit the part of the world I was in when I took the photos. The results always look wrong, and I’m not sure that’s what you want if you take photos to remember places you’ve been.

The most popular editing feature will probably be Best Take, especially with parents of younger kids who show little reverence for family picture time. Wisely assuming that people taking photos of groups of people will jam on the capture button and take like 7 pictures in quick succession, Google will automatically detect multiple group photos and bring up a menu of faces for each person in the group so you can pick each person’s best take from the batch and merge them into one photo.

Like most editing features, how well it works depends on how large the subjects are in the frame. If you’re trying to do this on a close-up portrait of a group of people, you’ll notice where Google tries to edit in a face. The farther the subjects are from the camera, the less you notice those little imperfections.

The Magic Editor is the marquee feature here, but you’ll need to back your photos up to Google Photos to use it. Why? Because it uses more intense AI processes that you can’t do on the phone itself – instead, those photos are edited in the cloud (which raises the question of whether this feature needs to be limited to the Pixel 8 and Pixel 8 Pro at all, but that’s another discussion).

The Magic Editor takes the Magic Eraser one step further – instead of detecting and erasing objects; the editor can detect objects and allow you to move them around the frame or even resize them. You can make two people standing together look like they’re standing apart, move a statue to the side of the frame, move someone around the frame, anything you can think of.

The same rules apply – the more significant the change, the more noticeable it is that you’ve altered the photo. No amount of AI magic can make a resized object look natural in a photo, and moving an object or person around in a frame never seems quite right. I think it’s because the AI still isn’t great at figuring out what should be background and what should be foreground, throwing off perspective in most cases.

Again, small changes work wonderfully, and big ones stick out like a sore thumb. Worth mentioning: The Magic Editor does take a few seconds to process, so don’t expect immediate results! You can always undo or discard changes if you don’t like what you waited for.

The good news is that all of this can be improved. Because this feature exists on Google’s servers rather than on the device, Google can continue to enhance the Magic Editor on their end, and no hardware limitation on the Pixel 8 will prevent you from enjoying those future improvements.

Here’s one last thing to remember when using these editing features – using them will disable Ultra HDR on the photo you edit. Because Ultra HDR relies on metadata from the image file as it was at the time of capture, any editing will prevent the Ultra HDR metadata from working properly. So, that’s a choice to keep in mind.

Last but not least, a cool video editing feature lets you clean up background audio – something you might want to use when voices are drowned out by wind or traffic sounds. I tested it against the latter, and the Pixel 8 did a solid job of quieting the traffic sounds without affecting my voice.

In the past weeks, Google announced that Magic Editor will soon be available for video, too, but not yet – something to keep an eye on if you do snag a Pixel 8.

Google Pixel 8: Software

Well, this is where we would usually complain about all the unnecessary features added to Android, but you won’t find that here! Getting a Pixel phone means you get unaltered, stock Android – no bloatware and no hit to performance. Add in the editing features unique to the Pixel 8, and you’ve got the best possible Android experience.

On top of that, Google has added face unlock just by using the front camera, without needing to include an IR sensor. That gives you one more option to unlock your phone, and it’s one secure enough to use with mobile payments. Of course, you can still just set a PIN or use the on-display optical fingerprint sensor.

I found both face unlock and the fingerprint sensor to work consistently and quickly, as long as you give the fingerprint sensor a press and hold rather than a quick tap. There’s also the potential for Google Assistant to improve with the Bard AI tool significantly, but time will tell how that plays out.

Google Pixel 8: Sustainability

We always love to see companies go out of their way to use sustainable materials in their phones. While you don’t see anything special in that area from the Pixel 8, Google did nail the most crucial sustainability initiative – ensuring the phone doesn’t wind up in the dump after only a year or two.

On top of the durability features we discussed earlier (IP68 rating and Corning Gorilla Glass Victus), Google says the Pixel 8 will get seven years of guaranteed updates (including new features), security upgrades, and support for spare parts. That’s one of the most generous guarantees we’ve seen, and it’s easier for Google to make it.

Part of the problem with other device makers is that they put their own skin on Android, which requires developer support when Google pushes out Android updates. There is no such issue when you use stock Android, as the Pixel 8 does. But, guaranteeing new features helps prevent folks from feeling like they’re missing out by not getting a newer phone before their current one is dead, and that will go a long way towards ensuring that folks will use the Pixel 8 for as long as possible.

Google Pixel 8: Price and availability

The Google Pixel 8 starts at $700, but you can currently purchase it directly from Google for $550, which is an astounding deal – it’s almost as if maybe Google doesn’t care if they lose money on selling the Pixel, something more hardware-dependent companies don’t have the luxury of doing.

Whatever the case, $550 for something that is flagship quality (save perhaps for the lack of a telephoto camera) is an easy call. That price is for the 128GB model – moving up to 256GB will run you $760 usually, currently discounted to $610.

Should you buy the Google Pixel 8?

At $550? Yes, for sure. If you’re in need of a new phone and want the best of the best, plus you get stock Android. Even at the regular price of $700, the Pixel 8 is still a solid deal, but $550 for this good phone is almost too good to pass up.

That’s not to say it’s perfect – the camera ledge design can be annoying, the AI editing features have their flaws, and the battery life certainly isn’t the best in class.

However, if you want a phone that takes excellent point-and-shoot photos that you can spruce up with some cool AI tricks and handle any games you throw at it, the Pixel 8 should be at the top of your list.

The Pixel 8’s display helps to take full advantage of gaming and looking over photos, too, making the Pixel 8 the complete package for video and images. The Pixel 7 series was a step in the right direction, but Google leveraging its AI prowess has made a big difference this year with the Pixel 8.

While the Pixel 8 Pro offers a telephoto lens, a pro camera mode, and a larger display, those who prefer a smaller device and don’t mind sacrificing those features might find the Pixel 8 to be the best value in smartphones as of the time of this publishing.

Google Pixel 8
$699.00 $549.00

The Pixel 8 is the ultimate Android phone. You get the best-of-stock Android, top-tier performance, and excellent point-and-shoot photos. Even at its regular $700, the Pixel 8 remains a solid deal, but at $550, it's a steal.

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12/19/2023 02:54 pm GMT
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