Google Pixel 4 Review: Pixel Imperfect


The Pixel range – the closest thing to a ‘pure’ Android experience out there – has become known more than anything else for its phenomenal cameras. But in a year that’s seen ballooning megapixel counts, extreme telephoto zooms, and Pixel-rivalling night modes from almost every phone manufacturer out there, what can Google do to stay a step ahead?

The answer apparently is to do the one thing Google said it never needed to do: throw in a second lens. That’s the first of several major hardware changes to the device, which also throws in radar-based motion controls, a whole new face unlock, a 90Hz display, and an upgraded on-device Google Assistant.

All of which sounds great, and should be a recipe for a phenomenal flagship. But none of those five big changes is quite as good as it should be – and once you throw in the frankly abysmal battery performance the regular Pixel 4 becomes a very difficult phone to recommend anyone actually buy.

Price and availability

Both the Pixel 4 and the larger Pixel 4 XL launched together on 24 October, so you can grab either right now from Google.

For the first time in the US the Pixel 4 is available from all the major carriers – AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile, Xfinity, Spectrum, and Google Fi – and there’s a similar spread in the UK, where you can get the phone from Vodafone, EE, O2, or Three – or from anyone through Carphone Warehouse.

If you want to buy it outright, the smaller Pixel 4 starts from £669/$799 for a 64GB model, with 128GB for £769/$899. For comparison’s sake, the larger model starts at £829/$899 for 64GB and £929/$999 for 128GB. Both phones are cheaper than last year’s models in the UK at least, which started at £739/$799 for the Pixel 3 and £869/$899 for its bigger brother. Oh, and for reference, neither Pixel 4 ships with headphones included.

It’s pretty competitive pricing, but the transatlantic disparity means in the UK the Pixel 4 undercuts the £729/$699 iPhone 11 – itself fairly aggressively priced, at least by Apple standards – but in the US costs $100 more than Apple’s device.

You can spend less on a OnePlus 7T, but with the Huawei Mate 30 entirely Google-free and the Samsung Galaxy Note 10 starting at an eye-watering £899/$949, the Pixel 4 is poised to be Google’s most competitively priced flagship yet.


Design and build: Pixellated

Google has chosen not to reinvent the wheel with the Pixel 4, and it’s immediately identifiable as a Pixel – even as a surprising number of smaller touches have changed along the way.

There are the cutesy colour names – Clearly White and Just Black, joined this year by Oh So Orange, a vibrant finish that sits somewhere between a peachy pink and the neon orange that the name implies. The black model has a glossy rear, while the orange and white models use frosted glass for a slightly more matt effect.

As before, the power button offers a flash of contrasting colour, but this time it sits against a matt black aluminium border that runs round the edge of the device and helps the colourful touches pop that little bit more. The border is hard to notice on the black model, but on the others it gives the whole phone a chunky, almost toy-like aesthetic – but in a way that works, and doesn’t feel as cheap as that makes it sound.

The big change on the front is the move to drop the notch entirely. The Pixel 3 used a big bezel while the 3 XL had an infamously chunky central notch, but this year both models are identical except for their dimensions, with a top bezel hiding the single selfie cam, face unlock & radar sensors, and earpiece. It means the bezelling around the front of the phone is uneven, but you get used to it pretty quickly.


On the back there’s a little more that’s changed. The two-pane design is gone (and with it the fingerprint sensor, sadly) leaving a single block of colour interrupted only by the small indented ‘G’ logo and the new boxy camera cutout. It’s a change that makes the black model a little dull, but makes the white and orange phones all the more striking.

Since 2019 is apparently the year of chunky camera, Google is joining Apple in introducing a square camera array (the shape of… a pixel?), with the two lenses, flash, and autofocus sensor all packed into a single black box. I’ll admit, I miss the look of the single lens, but at least the new design keeps the rest of the phone’s rear clean and uninterrupted.

It’s a design that feels decidedly modern, with the unfortunate exception of the big ol’ bezel on the front. Not everyone minds a bezel of course – and anything’s better than the Pixel 3 XL’s giant notch – but when even budget phones now come with fullscreen displays, it’s hard not to resent that lost screen real estate.


Camera: Star-spangled camera

Still, Pixel phones have never led the market on their looks. It’s what’s inside that counts.

First up, let’s talk camera, since that’s always the first thing on anyone’s mind with a Pixel. For the first time on these phones, Google has thrown a second camera lens onto the rear: a 16Mp telephoto, which Google says is ‘about 2x zoom’, though it actually kicks in when you hit 1.9x.

The Pixel 3 already delivered phenomenal digital zoom, and with the help of a telephoto lens things have only gotten better. The phone actually uses both lenses for zoomed in shots, and lets you use its full suite of computational tools with the second lens, including both Night Sight and Portrait mode.

In good lighting, the telephoto delivers astonishingly crisp, sharp zoomed shots, with natural-looking images free of artifacting. The tighter f/2.4 aperture on the telephoto means that the colours aren’t always consistent between the two lenses, and zoomed in shots, especially those taken outside, occasionally feature more muted colours thanks to different exposure.

Google Pixel 4 camera test

The main lens is similar to last year’s from a hardware perspective (12.2Mp, f/1.7) but Google’s continued to improve things on the software side – though for the most part photo quality is on a par with the Pixel 3, with the same distinctive Pixel tone and slight blue-leaning colour palette. For one, the HDR Plus effect is now applied to the viewfinder – not just the final shot – so that what you see as you line your photos up will be a much closer approximation of the end result.

This ‘Live HDR’ is one of those wonderful quality of life features that you’ll forget about as you get used to the phone, but helps make the Pixel 4’s camera even better if you just want to point and shoot and know what you’re going to get. It doesn’t apply to the Night Sight or Portrait modes sadly – the former because it relies on long exposures, and the latter because Google says the live previews aren’t good enough yet, but I’d be surprised if it doesn’t appear as an OTA update or in next year’s probable Pixel 5.

Even better is Dual Exposure, which adds a second brightness slider to the main camera. While one handles overall brightness the other only brightens shadows and dark areas, letting you dynamically alter exposure in the simplest possible way. It lets you manage light levels in shots with a high dynamic range, either to fine tune the algorithm’s suggestions or to go to extremes to get arty silhouette shots straight out of the main camera app.


Then there’s Night Sight, the crown jewel of Google’s camera app, and the target of extensive imitation over the last 12 months. It’s been tweaked subtly – mainly to improve white balance – but the biggest addition is an astrophotography mode that will take up to 15 successive long exposure shots of the night sky, in a process that will take up to four minutes.

It’s a remarkable promise, but take it with a pinch of salt. First, if you live in a city (like me, making it impossible to even test this feature) you’re not going to get much use out of it at all – thanks, light pollution. Secondly, those long exposures will require either a tripod or a good rock to lean the phone on, as your hands are not gonna be steady enough. Finally, even if you live in the country with beautiful stars and great rocks, how often are you really likely to use this? This is a very, very cool feature that you should absolutely not buy a whole phone for.

So that’s everything that the Pixel 4 camera does. But it’s just as important to talk about what it doesn’t. First of all, the ultrawide elephant in the room. At the launch event Google execs claimed that the company opted for a telephoto over an ultrawide for the second lens because it’s more “useful”. And that may be true – but why not both? If Google was finally willing to admit the benefit of additional lenses, there’s no good reason it couldn’t go all in and throw in an ultrawide too.

Besides – the Pixel’s digital zoom was already good enough to do a solid approximation of a telephoto. What the Pixel can’t do, with any amount of computational trickery, is zoom out to an ultrawide, or create the unique fisheye and macro effects a wide-angle lens delivers. Sure, the Pixel 4 doesn’t need a wider lens, but it didn’t need a telephoto either – and I know which I would have preferred.


It especially stings since the phone actually just lost a wide-angle lens. Last year’s 3 and XL featured a second wide-angle selfie lens, which has been dropped here. Instead the main selfie camera will be a bit wider than normal at 90 degrees – similar to the cheaper Pixel 3a earlier this year – to somewhat negate the need for the proper ultrawide lens, though I’m sure the omission will still be disappointing to some.

Then there’s video. The Pixel 4 shoots both 1080p and 4K video, but the latter is capped at 30fps. Google attributes the choice both to file sizes (funny, it’s almost like 64GB base storage with no MicroSD card support doesn’t cut it any more…) and the fact that most people only shoot in HD. That’s probably true, but most people don’t buy Pixels, and those that do are almost invariably there for the camera first and foremost.

I still think that stills are far more important to most users than video, and Google’s right to focus on its core photography strengths. But at this point it is lagging far, far behind on video and at some point it’s going to have to catch up.

The end result? The Pixel 4 isn’t the best phone camera around. It might just be the best stills camera for standard shots, and it’s in the running when it comes to telephoto. But when the iPhone, Samsung Galaxy, and Huawei phones offer both of those, plus an ultrawide, plus far better video recording, anyone who wants to do more than just point-and-shoot would probably be better off elsewhere.


Specs and features: On-device intelligence

As I said earlier though, for once on a Pixel the biggest developments aren’t really in the photography. Instead the main focus is on Google Assistant, which is now baked directly into the Pixel operating system with the help of a new Pixel Neural Core chip devoted to on-device AI.

That means it can open and interact with any app on your phone, and do so incredibly quickly. You could ask the assistant to ‘show Beyonce on Instagram’ and it will immediately open the Instagram app and go straight to Queen B’s profile – and with the introduction of continuous conversation to phones for the first time, you can dart between apps just as quickly.

It is impressively fast, so much so that for the first time I could actually see myself using the Assistant to navigate my phone (at least when there’s no-one around to hear me), but it comes with two major caveats. Firstly, for the moment it’s US-only. You can access it elsewhere in the world, but you’ll have to switch your Assistant language to US English, which will give you the American-accented Assistant across all your Google devices.

Secondly, for some unfathomable reason it doesn’t work with G Suite, Google’s corporate productivity tools. And I don’t just mean you can’t use a G Suite account as your primary phone account: if you’re signed in with a G Suite email address on the phone at all you won’t see the new Assistant, meaning that in my case I’ve had to choose between using the faster AI or checking my work emails. Sorry for the late replies, everyone.

You can also now access the Google Assistant with a new touch gesture – a swipe up from the corner of the screen – but the ‘Hey Google’ wake word and the pressure-sensitive side sections (Active Edge) are both still options too.

In terms of brute specs, the Pixel 4 packs a Snapdragon 855 (not the newer 855+, curiously) along with just 6GB of RAM and a choice of either 64 or 128GB storage. Bearing in mind that there’s no microSD card slot and the OS itself takes up 13GB, the 64GB model might be a touch limiting for most – it only gives you 50GB of actual storage for all of your apps, music, photos, and videos, so you’ll struggle unless you’re committed to that cloud life.

Then there’s the battery, the single biggest reason to steer well clear of the Pixel 4.

After reviews of last year’s Pixel 3 criticised the battery life you’d think Google might try and make amends, but instead it’s doubled down, actually fitting an even smaller 2800mAh battery into the Pixel 4. While it got a middling result in our battery benchmark, in real-world usage it’s almost comically poor, just barely delivering a day’s light usage, typically managing a little over three hours of screen-on time before giving up the ghost.

I’m not exaggerating when I say that this is the worst phone battery I’ve tested in years, and the main reason I can’t recommend this phone. 2800mAh just isn’t good enough, and no amount of Adaptive Battery software will get around that. I intend to keep using the phone for a few weeks to see if the Pixel’s software learns my usage enough to optimise apps and improve performance, and will update this review after my testing – though since the battery itself will also degrade over time, I have very serious concerns about the long-term battery life of this phone.

At least things are a bit better when it comes to charging. 18W USB-C fast-charging topped up 48% of the battery in 30 minutes (from empty), and for the first time Google has moved to fully support the Qi wireless charging standard, with speeds of up to 11W on any compatible charger.


Gesture controls: Stop Motion Sense

That isn’t the only novel gesture in the new phones. Google has followed in the footsteps of LG and others by introducing hands-free gesture controls, something that manufacturers keep trying despite the protestations of, well, almost everyone. Google claims that its iteration is better because it’s based on radar, rather than a camera, which is part of why we’re stuck with that bonkers bezel.

Even so, for the most part it’s still limited to the same stuff LG offered: waving your hand to skip songs or silence an alarm. For the most part it works well, but it’s still rare that a gesture control feels faster or easier than the screen, and about half the time I set my phone down on the table after starting a song it would accidentally register my hand moving away from the phone as a swipe to skip the track, meaning I’ve missed an awful lot of first tracks on albums this week.

Not every app will be compatible with gesture controls – though Spotify at least is, so there’s some third-party support – but a faint glow at the top of the screen lets you know when gesture controls are supported, to save you from waving your arm round in vain.

There is more interesting stuff that the radar is used for, but you’re less likely to notice. One option sees it detect your presence, turning off the always-on display to conserve battery if it can tell you’re not near the phone. This works well, and is a neat idea, even if it’s occasionally annoying when you want to glance at your notifications from a little too far away.


Then there’s the face unlock. The radar detects when you reach to pick up the phone, turning on the face unlock sensors so that it’s ready to recognise you straight away. It’s a slightly cheeky way of making this the fastest face unlock on the market, but it does work – it feels so instant that I usually didn’t even have to think about unlocking the phone, and Google has even included an option to stop it skipping straight into your last app because otherwise you might never even see your lock screen.

There are caveats though, as with everything on the Pixel 4. For one, the reach gesture only works reliably when picking the phone up from a table – grabbing it out of a bag or pocket rarely worked for me, so I’d still have to tap the screen to unlock it. With no fingerprint sensor at all, you’ll also be stuck using your PIN or pattern when the face unlock fails – which is rare, but does still happen – or for secure apps that require it, such as most banking or credit card apps.

That wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t for the fact that plenty of people are still (rightly) unsure about the security of facial biometrics. Concerningly, the Pixel 4’s face unlock doesn’t even care if your eyes are open or closed, meaning someone could unlock your phone without you even knowing while you’re asleep. Google says it’s working on a fix to require alertness, as Apple does, but that could take a while.


Display: Smooth criminal

There’s one final major upgrade to the hardware: the display, which jumps up to a 90Hz refresh rate. This is handled dynamically so that the phone will only activate 90Hz ‘for some content’, trying to save battery by running 60Hz the rest of the time, in tech Google has dubbed ‘Smooth Display’.

The result is…well, smooth. Animations and graphics feel more fluid, with the result that the phone as a whole just feels faster to use. The Pixel 4 isn’t the first phone to use 90Hz – OnePlus included it in the 7 Pro and the more recent 7T, while it’s been in gaming phones since the first Razer Phone – but it remains one of the single biggest upgrades an Android phone can get right now.

The company has been vague about how and why it triggers the 90Hz mode, but enterprising Redditors figured out that Google’s software only activates the 90Hz refresh when either display brightness is above 75% or the ambient light is very bright, presumably on the basis that it’s harder to spot the refresh rate differences in dimmer light. Don’t be put off by that though – it honestly is hard to spot the transition, and at no point in using the phone have I noticed it drop to 60Hz or thought it felt sluggish.

As for the rest of the display, it’s a 19:9 flexible FHD+ OLED with HDR support and Ambient EQ – tech first shown off in the Nest Hub that adjusts brightness and colour temperature to match ambient conditions, similar to Apple’s True Tone. Together with the high refresh rate, the result is a panel that’s pretty lovely to look at all round, and one of the high points of the phone.

Verdict

The Pixel 4 packs in a deceptive number of major hardware changes – the second lens, 90Hz display, new face unlock, radar sensor, and Neural Core chip – but each of them comes with some sort of compromise in performance or usability that holds them back from their full potential.

Throw in bugs like the lack of support for G Suite accounts on the new Assistant, or the fact that Face Unlock works with your eyes shut (not to mention dropping the fingerprint entirely) and the Pixel 4 becomes harder to recommend again.

Then there’s the battery life – unquestionably the worst in any phone around this price point, and the single biggest reason that the Pixel 4 is difficult to recommend.

Yes, the camera is absolutely phenomenal (as long as you don’t care about video or ultrawide) and the Pixel operating system is still about as good as Android gets. But plenty of phones have just as good cameras, and Samsung and OnePlus give the Pixel a real run for its money on the software side.

There’s little the Pixel 4 does that you can’t find elsewhere, and enough compromises and irritations throughout – whether in design, software, or battery – that this phone is only for the faithful.



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