Google’s Pixel phones have been steadily improving over the years. Pixel 2 caught up with tall-screened phones while the Pixel 3 cemented Google’s regency over cameras. The latest Pixel 4 (See it at Amazon) is all about grabbing headlines with its new 2x telephoto camera, motion sensing features, and 90Hz adaptive display.

Unfortunately, none of these features are new and almost every one of them hasn’t been implemented in a best-of-class fashion or seemingly for good reason. Additionally, the Pixel 4 misses some of the most important smartphone fundamentals when it comes to battery life, a dim display, and water-proofing. This makes it hard to unequivocally recommend this year’s Pixel phone, although it continues to offer the best Android OS experience and camera.

Google Pixel 4 Review

Google Pixel 4 – Design and Features

With the Pixel 4, Google has taken a sharp turn away from the two-tone matte and glossy glass design the Pixel phones have had since their inception. Now the phone’s most notable characteristic is the prominent black bumper that wraps around the edges of the device.

I like the new design. It stands out from all the completely glass-backed phones with a polished finish made to look like metal. It’s a simple and stylish. The powdered black aluminum frame helps make the colors of the Clearly White and Oh So Orange models pop—less so for the glossy black version. The black band also smartly hides the strange, acrylic-looking edges inherent to glass with a matte finish. It’s a nice design detail I appreciated.

The Pixel 4 also feels so much grippier thanks to the matte finish on both the band and glass back adding a bit of rubbery texture. Unfortunately, the fingerprint sensor and its divot are gone. Google is fully betting on its new face-detection system.

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Speaking of which, unfortunately—or fortunately depending on how you feel about it—the Pixel 4 still has a sizable forehead to make room for a speaker, a new 8MP front-facing camera, dual Face unlock IR cameras, Face unlock Dot Projector, an ambient light sensor, and a new Soli radar sensor.

That’s a lot of sensors crammed into one spot, but let’s first talk about Google’s take on FaceID.

One thing that differentiates Google’s implementation is you won’t have to swipe up to unlock your phone. The phone will automatically unlock as soon as it recognizes you, which technically makes it faster than FaceID—if only by a moment. The Pixel 4 also uses its Soli sensor to start scanning for your face as soon as you pick the phone up or bring your hand close to it, so you don’t need to touch the screen or any buttons at all.

More impressively, you can use face unlock from any orientation, including landscape or totally upside down. That’s a big improvement over FaceID, which only recognizes you in portrait orientation.

While Google’s face unlock is impressively fast, Android’s app ecosystem has yet to evolve around it. LastPass and all the banking apps I would typically sign in using my fingerprint have yet to adopt face recognition as valid biometric identification, which lead me to put in my passwords and pins more often than I’ve ever done in the past three years. While this isn’t the Pixels’s fault, it is something to keep in mind.

Soli searching

At its heart, Soli is designed to use its radar capabilities for motion sensing, similar to the Magic Leap or Kinect. With a simple wave you can skip through songs or turn off your morning alarm—simply hovering your hand near the phone will lower the volume too.

It’s a pretty neat set of tricks, though this is hardly a new idea since Samsung introduced Air Gestures with the Galaxy S4. Soli seems to register gestures more reliably than Samsung’s implementation. You can watch the sensor working in real-time as a pip of light on the top edge of the display perfectly traces your hand moving near the screen.

Unfortunately, Soli is a novel feature, but it isn’t very intuitive or useful right now

By default, Soli register swipes from right to left as skip forward in Google Music and other audio apps, which can be changed to left to right motion in settings.

Turning off your morning alarm without having to grab your phone might seem appealing, but you can only snooze it with a hand wave. So, you need to manually disable your alarm clock later, which just ends up adding more steps when you could’ve reached out an inch further and tapped the touchscreen. This is probably designed to stop you from waving off your important alarms in the morning, but I’d like the option of swiping at the Soli to disable alarms, and as implemented now it simply doesn’t improve your life or routine in any way.

I hope Google will make the radar features on the Pixel 4 more practical. Right now, Soli is just a novel but underutilized feature.

When it comes to the screen, Google is hardly reinventing the wheel. In fact, the company is arguably going against the grain with a flat, non-curved display without a notch. At the very least the display keeps up with the times with a tall 19:9 aspect ratio.

It’s also relatively sharp at a 2,280 x 1,080 resolution on the regular 5.7-inch Pixel 4 and a larger 3,040 x 1,440 screen on the 6.3-inch Pixel 4 XL. Still not nearly as impressive as the 5.8-inch iPhone 11 Pro’s 2,436 x 1,125-pixel or 6.5-inch iPhone 11 Pro 2,688 x 1,242 Super Retina XDR though.

The Samsung Galaxy Note 10 Plus, iPhone 11 Pro, and OnePlus 7T have all spoiled me with extra bright screens ranging between 1,300- and 1,000-nits. To come back to the Pixel 4’s lower than average screen brightness of roughly 450-nits (according to DisplayMate) is just disappointing.

The display needs to be at 75% screen brightness or higher in order to switch the display into 90Hz mode

That said, Google has one thing over Apple and Samsung, and that’s a 90Hz refresh rate mode called “Smooth Display.” The screen isn’t constantly displaying at a high refresh rate though. To save on battery life the Pixel 4 will stay at 60Hz and automatically speed up the display whenever you’re scrolling through images, browsing your apps drawer, or playing games.

The higher refresh rate makes certain parts of this phone feel smoother simply by way of speeding past some of Android 10’s jankier animations. Unfortunately, Smooth Display’s own implementation has a few issues of its own due to being inexplicably and intrinsically tied to your screen brightness.

Basically, your . While you might think this was due to a bug, this limitation was put in place to also help preserve battery life. The good news is Google will release an update in the next few weeks that will allow Smooth Display to engage at a greater range of brightness conditions.

Google Pixel 4 – Performance and Gaming

Looking past the Pixel 4’s small hardware and software issues, this is still the most full-featured Android experience you can get.

The single biggest thing you get on the Pixel 4 over any other Android phone is the new Google Assistant, which is much faster now that most of the speech recognition process is happening on the phone itself. Better yet you can ask it a string of questions and it’ll keep the last few questions you ask in context to your next one—a feature that’s been only been on Alexa until now.

If you’re hard of hearing or just need subtitles, the Pixel 4 has a whole suite of transcription services. The new Live Caption feature converts almost any audio it hears and spells everything out for you onto a live closed-caption box. It’s reasonably accurate and there is a little bit of a delay, but it’s a godsend anytime I’m watching a video or listening to a podcast on a noisy subway platform.

Far more impressive is Google’s new voice recorder app. Yes, it’s finally here after years of having to download a third-party recorders bloated with ads. Better yet, Android 10’s new Recorder app has Live Transcription built into it so you can get a full-text document of any interview or conversation you’re recording.

You can also search for specific words in all of your recordings if you’re looking for a specific quote or point in the conversation you want to jump back to.

When it comes to gaming, the Pixel 4 is a better device than its predecessor. Not only does it have a 90Hz display that makes games look more fluid, it’s also equipped with 6GB of memory to ensure they run better as well.

Call of Duty: Mobile felt amazingly snappy on the Pixel 4. The Pixel 4 also performed admirably with playing Microsoft’s xCloud game streaming service, though, once again I would go for the Pixel 4 XL if you plan to do some serious mobile gaming on this device. The regular-sized handset’s 5.7-inch display is just a little too small for any games not designed with large touchscreen graphics.

Google Pixel 4 Image Samples

Google Pixel 4 – Cameras

Big camera squares on smartphones are the theme of 2019 and the Pixel 4 has joined the party. It looks especially large on the smaller Pixel 4, but as soon as you start turning the phone onto its side the camera bump almost virtually disappears.

In terms of straight camera specs here, you’ve got a main 12.2MP wide-angle camera—same as the Pixel 3—and now it’s joined by a 16MP 2x telephoto camera. Personally, I was hoping the second camera would have been an ultrawide because it’s impossible to fake. Meanwhile, Google already introduced “Super Res Zoom” on the Pixel 3 a year ago to simulate optical zooming.


Pixel 4

Pixel 3

Pixel 4 vs Pixel 3

When you look at these two images taken with Pixel 4’s new 2x telephoto lens versus the Pixel 3 with Super Res Zoom, they’re almost indistinguishable. If you zoom in a few time you might notice there’s some distinct over-sharpening from Google’s older phone, but hardly any smartphone users will actually inspect photos this closely.

The new telephoto lens does add slightly more optical reach, and the narrower field of view that goes with this longer focal range.

Google Pixel 4 Lenses

More often I find myself needing more than a 2x zoom, so I often use Super Res Zoom to take a picture with up to 8x zoom to capture really far away objects or for a tighter framing in my final image.

To Google’s credit, I would never even think about using the digital zoom on a smartphone camera, but the company’s image processing is just too good. With this 8x zoom I can use the Pixel 4 to shoot as if I had a long lens attached to a DSLR or mirrorless camera.

The Pixel 4 also continues to hold its ground as the best smartphone for portraiture photography. It’s frankly stunning how well Google’s algorithm can distinguish the edges of hair where other handsets would smooth over textures and clip out parts of the image. I was also amazed by how Google’s portrait mode was able to keep up with dynamic subjects such as the very excited and distracted dogs at the NYC Halloween Dog Parade.


Pixel 4

Pixel 3

Pixel 4 vs Pixel 3

Google’s latest flagship also has a slight edge in Night mode photography over last year’s model. The Pixel 4 does a much better job of preserving details in the darkest parts of the image. On the shot taken with the Pixel 4 you can see metal near the top of the crane is corrugated whereas the Pixel 3 matted this texture into an off purple color full of noise.

For the most part, the Pixel 4’s images look better overall over its predecessor simply because the white balance is more accurate, and you can thank Google’s machine-learning tuned white balance for this.

Google Pixel 4 – Battery life

One thing that had me worried about the Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL was battery life. Google’s smaller phone moved down to a 2,800mAh battery from the Pixel 3’s 2,915mAh capacity cells. I can’t fathom a reason for why Google decided to do this because the Pixel 4 is actually thicker than its predecessor, so there should have been at least some room for a larger battery.

Still Google claims you can get full-day battery life out of its newest handset, and this is technically true. I end most days with somewhere between 10% and 15% battery life left, and that’s with busy days of watching video, listening to podcasts, using GPS to navigate to events, reading up on news, and generally getting distracted by social media.

This smartphone will give you constant battery anxiety

Unfortunately, it’s not a huge improvement from my year-old Pixel 3 that usually has a 5% or 10% charge by the end of the day. What’s worse, is by the time I sit down for work at 10 AM the Pixel 4 is usually already down to 60% charge and that’s only after using the phone for 15 minutes after waking up, listening to a podcast or music for 25 minutes and watching video for 40 minutes on my morning commute.

If you’re set on getting Google’s latest phone and you’re just as worried about battery life, you’ll be better off with the XL version, which has seen a capacity upgrade from 3,430mAh to 3,700mAh.

Purchasing Guide

The Google Pixel 4 retails at a starting price of $799 and the Google Pixel 4 XL costs $899. Both of these base spec phones come with 64GB of storage and 6GB of memory.

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Google Pixel 4 XL

On Amazon