Google has been selling smartphones for more than a decade at this point, but it’s only on the fourth generation of Pixel phones. The Pixel era is when Google got serious about building a cohesive product that married hardware and software rather than just a vehicle for the latest stock version of Android. With the Pixel 4, it’s clear that Google has learned a lot from the last three generations of Pixels, but I worry it hasn’t learned all the right lessons.
The Pixel 4 has an incredible, industry-leading camera, and the software experience is thoughtful. Google also nailed 3D face unlock on its first try. At the same time, Google doesn’t provide as much storage or battery capacity as similarly priced phones. The shortcomings are something that I can forgive, but that won’t be the case for everyone. After four generations, the Pixels still get some of the basics wrong, and we should be holding Google to a higher standard.
Design, hardware, what’s in the box
Google’s Pixel phones have used a two-tone back design for the last three generations, but that’s gone with the Pixel 4 and 4 XL. Now, there’s an unbroken glass panel on the back—glossy on the black model and matte on the white and orange. The glossy black gets covered in fingerprints almost immediately, but the matte glass looks and feels much better. The texture is also smoother and less prone to scuffing than the matte glass on the Pixel 3. The large, square-ish camera module sticks out on the back, but it actually looks rather striking in a minimalist way.
The aluminum rim on all three Pixel phones is black and has a delightful “eggshell” texture that’s just the right amount of grippy. This is the first glass phone I’ve used that isn’t begging to go in a case. The buttons are all on the right edge, and they feel more sturdy than the Pixel 3’s buttons. The power button also has that trademark pop of color we’ve seen on past Pixels.
There have been complaints about the design of every Pixel phone—the bezels are too big, there’s a notch, the finish isn’t right, or whatever else. This year, some have rolled their eyes at the large top bezel on the Pixel 4, but I’ve found it doesn’t bother me very much now that I’m using the phone. It’s slightly smaller than the top bezel on the Pixel 3, but the bottom bezel is almost non-existent. That means one speaker (the earpiece) is front-firing, and the other is facing down. I’d prefer two front-facing speakers and a symmetrical bottom bezel, but the sound quality and balance of the Pixel 4 speakers are improved from the last-gen.
The Pixel 4 XL
One of the reasons for that big top bezel is that Google needed someplace to put all the face unlock hardware. This is a make-or-break feature for the Pixel 4 because there’s no fingerprint sensor. I do miss having a fingerprint sensor, but I don’t hate Google’s Face Match system. In fact, some people will probably prefer it to a fingerprint sensor. The IR face sensors wake up before you even touch the phone, and recognizing your face takes about as long as it takes for a fingerprint to register on the Pixel 3. That is to say, it’s plenty fast. The phone’s field-of-view is better than I expected, too. You can hold the Pixel 4 at a very natural angle while unlocking, and the range is at least an arm’s length (which is realistically all you need). It “just works,” to borrow an old marketing term. Yes, the phone unlocks even if your eyes are closed—this is something Google will address in the coming months. It’s silly we need to wait that long, but I don’t consider this a deal-breaker.
The Pixel 4 has a 5.7-inch 1080p OLED, and the XL steps up to a 6.3-inch 1440p panel. Both phones support a 90Hz refresh rate, which looks fabulous—anyone who has used a recent OnePlus phone can attest that it’s hard to go back to a 60Hz screen. However, 90Hz isn’t enabled all the time unless you poke around in developer settings to force it on. These are excellent panels, too. The brightness isn’t as incredible as Samsung’s latest phones, but the Pixel 4 and 4 XL are totally usable outdoors. In a dark room, you also won’t notice many crushed blacks. The Pixel 3 and Pixel 2 XL had issues there because of its middling LG OLED. This year, both phones perform to the same high level. However, I am a little concerned about the oleophobic coating, which is already showing a little wear. I hope we’re not looking at another Pixel 2 XL situation here.
The Pixel 4’s packaging is surprisingly barebones—Google doesn’t include several accessories that came with the Pixel 3. All you get in the box is the phone, USB-C cable, charging brick, and a USB adapter for syncing other devices during setup. There are no USB-C headphones or even a 3.5mm adapter. Pretty lame, Google.
Software and performance
Google’s phones have always been about the software, but the approach to Pixels is vastly different than it was for Nexus devices. These phones aren’t just “stock” Android; Google develops custom experiences to set the Pixels apart. The Pixel 4 doesn’t come pre-loaded with a bunch of junk software, and most of Google’s changes are useful. For example, there’s a collection of great wallpapers with customization options. You can also change the system theme without jumping through hoops. Standard Android 10 features like dark mode and gesture navigation are on display as well. It’s simply the best version of Android you can get on a phone right now.
This year’s big Pixel exclusive is the Project Soli radar scanning that powers “Motion Sense.” Opinions on this feature differ among the AP team, but I lean slightly positive. Motion Sense is, unfortunately, very limited in what it can do right now. However, what’s there seems functional. Motion Sense supports swipe gestures to change tracks while listening to music. It works when the phone is asleep or while you’re using other apps, and sometimes it can feel genuinely futuristic. Swipes also cause Google’s “Come Alive” wallpapers to jiggle, which is fun to play with. The Pixel 4 also uses Soli to detect when you reach for the phone, allowing it to wake up the face unlock sensors. Finally, the phone can turn off ambient display if it doesn’t see you nearby for a little bit.
Reach out and touch the radar
Currently, Motion Sense is a gimmick that barely justifies the fancy new radar sensor. Google says more features will come to Motion Sense later, and that’s the true test. If we don’t get any new capabilities in the coming months, Motion Sense will be a flop. I wouldn’t blame anyone for disabling Motion Sense right now because, let’s face it, the functionality is very limited and it’ll probably save you a little battery. Even without Motion Sense, face unlock works just fine because the phone wakes up when you lift it.
I have basically nothing negative to say about the Pixel 4’s performance. This phone is blisteringly fast, and the 90Hz display really shows off the animation smoothness. I’ve never found myself waiting for the phone to do something, save for a handful of bizarre crashes or hangs that I’d attribute to the pre-release software. It remains responsive even during the deluge of notifications that come when disabling airplane mode after a flight. The step up to 6GB of RAM seems to have solved the memory issues that plagued the Pixel 3, too. I can count on apps to stay in memory, even if I switch over to the camera to snap some photos.
Google has never prioritized battery capacity in Pixel phones—the Pixel 4 and 4 XL have small-ish 2800 and 3700mAh batteries, respectively. It probably won’t come as a surprise that these phones will get you through the day but not much more. With the 4 XL, I have no trouble getting five or six hours of screen time over 20-22 hours off the charger with moderate to heavy use. I’d consider that acceptable though not impressive. The smaller phone is weaker, eking out barely four hours of screen time in 14-16 hours of heavy use. You will get range anxiety with the small Pixel 4. Battery life is similar to last year’s phones, but Google really should have aimed to improve this aspect—its competitors are pushing substantially larger batteries, and Google looks like it’s standing still by comparison. If you need a phone that lasts two days on a charge, the Pixels aren’t for you.
This year’s Pixels have finally added a second rear camera, and it was worth the wait. Google isn’t just adding a zoom module and calling it a day like most OEMs. In fact, there’s no way to simply flip between the main 12MP camera and the 16MP (treated as 12MP) 2x zoom sensor. Google wants you to compose your shot without worrying about which camera is capturing the photo because the phone can sharpen photos by stacking multiple exposures. The results are extraordinarily impressive, even at up to 8x zoom (see below). I know Google stressed this is all just physics during the announcement, but the Pixel 4’s camera still feels magical.
8x zoom captured on Pixel 4
HDR+ processing is noticeably faster this year, and Google has pulled back on some of the aspects that could make Pixel photos look a bit “overprocessed.” Pixel photos still have incredible dynamic range and color accuracy, though. I’ve noticed a few bad shots crop up with the pre-release software, but almost everything I’ve taken on the Pixel 4 comes out looking phenomenal. If I had to call out a flaw, I suppose some photos have overly bright shadows, but that’s fixable. Google has added some more fine-tuning in the camera UI in the form of dual exposure sliders. By fiddling with the sliders, you can control the highlights and shadows in your image to get some cool artistic effects. You’ll even be able to accurately gauge the final product thanks to the new live HDR+ viewfinder. This isn’t usually an exact preview of what you get after processing, but it’s in the ballpark.
Night Sight takes a few seconds to capture frames and then merges them together to make the final image. Night Sight seems even more capable this year with jaw-dropping de-noising of low-light scenes. Perhaps the most exotic feature of the Pixel 4’s camera is the new astrophotography mode, which activates automatically when you switch to Night Sight and point the device skyward. Astrophotography works in a similar way to Night Sight, but it can take several minutes to get all the required exposures (you’ll need a tripod). Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to test this feature much because of a combination of poor weather and light pollution—we’ll try to get some samples soon.
For as interested as Google is in providing a class-leading still photo experience, it seems surprisingly disinterested in video recording. The Pixel 4 shoots passable video, but it’s missing features like 4k60 and HDR that other flagship phones have had for the last few years.
Should you buy it?
Google Pixel 4 and 4 XL
Maybe, as long as performance, software, and photography are more important to you than long battery life. Google’s aggressive optimization and the new 90Hz OLED make using the Pixel 4 an absolute delight. I also have come to quite like the hardware design. The smooth matte glass on the back and the textured metal frame look and feel great, and the camera module stands out in all the right ways. The asymmetrical bezels are annoying when you first lay eyes on the phone, but they eventually fade into the background and you won’t care.
Maybe you’ll disagree that the phone looks good or that the 90Hz display is worth the battery impact, but no one can dispute that the Pixel 4 has an amazing camera. Google always adds a few new camera tricks each year, and this time the headlining features are superzoom and astrophotography. I’m totally blown away by Google’s zoom photos, which look surprisingly sharp even at 8x zoom. You can even fake a macro shot from a couple of feet away from your subject. It’s so freeing to know you can just compose your photos the way you want without worrying about the zoom level.
The Pixel 4
The Pixel 4 is hands down the best way to experience Android 10, and that alone will make it appealing to some. I just wish I could enjoy using it for a bit longer. Google’s refusal to cram in larger batteries is starting to wear thin. While the 4 XL has sufficient battery life, the smaller phone is a bit below average. Spending almost a thousand dollars on a phone that barely makes it through a day is not awesome, and Google needs to understand that if it wants to sell more devices.
The Pixel 4 is not a bad phone, but it should be better than it is. If you’re planning to pick up a Pixel, I’d say get the 4 XL in either white or orange. It’ll last through the day more easily, and the matte glass is superior to the fingerprint-y mess you’d get with the glossy black phone. As for whether or not you should order it now, that’s a tough call. You might want to wait a few weeks and see what sort of deals Google runs this holiday season.
Buy it if…
You care about having the latest, greatest Android software and camera features.
Don’t buy it if…
You spend a lot of time away from power outlets or you don’t take a lot of photos.
Where to buy
Two weeks later
I’ve been using the Pixel 4 and 4 XL full time for the last few weeks, and I’ve got a bit more to say about them. I’ll start of by noting that the 4 XL is most likely going to be my daily driver going forward. It’s not a perfect phone, but it’s the right phone for me. It might not be the right phone for you, but hear me out.
Let’s address the elephant in the room: battery life. The smaller Pixel 4 is okay for me because I don’t spend all day away from power outlets. That said, I don’t blame anyone for being disappointed here. The battery life on the Pixel 4 is below average, and Google has no business putting out a below average product when it’s targeting Apple. I wouldn’t recommend buying the small Pixel right now.
So, bummer, right? Well, there’s an easy remedy for Pixel fans who want a new phone: get the 4 XL.
The 4 XL has a bigger battery than the 3 XL did, and I don’t really have a problem with its longevity. It makes it through a whole day—24 hours and then some—with a healthy 4 or 5 hours of active use. That’s with all the default features turned on and 90Hz forced on in developer settings. I’ve experimented with disabling Soli, but it doesn’t make a major difference. You might burn 5-ish percent of your battery on Soli. It’s not class-leading battery life, but I don’t have range anxiety with the 4 XL. The screen brightness is average, but the display reflectance is extremely low. So, outdoor performance has been fine for me.
I still miss the fingerprint sensor, but I’m adjusting to Face Match. There have been times in the last two weeks when I picked up other phones and just stared at them, waiting for something to happen. Then, I remember they don’t have Face Match, and I find the fingerprint scanner. I really wish this phone had both, but I know that’s not realistic, and I like Google’s face unlock for what it is. It’s fast, and it even works for me when I’m lying in bed at a weird angle. I’m not personally worried about the eye detection issue, and the hysteria strikes me as bizarre. How many phones are shipping with insecure 2D camera-based face unlock? Google is adding eye detection, so I consider this a non-issue.
The camera is still fantastic. I’ve grown to like not fretting about the zoom level when I take photos. However, I haven’t used the dual exposure sliders as much as I thought I would. I have been able to try Astrophotography mode a bit, and it is very cool. It’s not a game-changer for mobile photography because you need to have a tripod handy, but it’s a nice bonus for an already phenomenal camera.
Live Caption is something I didn’t talk much about in the original review, but I’ve been using it quite a lot as of late. I leave my phone muted most of the time, but Live Caption can still transcribe speech. It’s useful if I just want to get the gist of a video without making noise.
So, should you run out and but a Pixel 4 XL? The answer is pretty obviously “no.” We now have good evidence Google is going to offer big discounts on the new Pixels this coming Black Friday, so you might as well wait. It’s not like Google hit this one out of the park anyway. I like the Pixel 4 XL, but Google is making too many compromises while at the same time trying to position the Pixel as an iPhone competitor. Google can, and should, do better.