The Pixel 4 arrived on the market as one of the most leaked, most talked about smartphones of 2019. This year, Google seems like it is really trying to find something unique to offer, with new features like the Google-developed “Motion Sense” radar gesture system, face unlock, a 90Hz display, the next-gen Google Assistant, and a new astrophotography mode.
At the prices Google is asking, though, the Pixel 4 is hard to recommend. The company saddled the phone with an ultra-premium price tag, but the Pixel 4 can’t compete with ultra-premium phones. The phone falls down on a lot of the basics, like battery life, storage speed, design, and more. The new additions like face unlock and Motion Sense just don’t work well. It seems like Google just cut too many corners this year.
The strongest feature of the Pixel line—the camera—hasn’t really gotten better, either. The camera sensor is the same as last year, and the big new software feature, astrophotography mode, is also available on older Pixel devices and the much cheaper Pixel 3a.
The Pixel 4 isn’t bad in a vacuum, but the rest of Google’s Android competition gets better every year, while Google stands still. This year, Google turned in a weak, timid update to its flagship smartphone, and I’m not sure who to recommend this to at $800 or $900. Google just can’t do premium right. So, when can we have the Nexus line back?
Table of Contents
- Design and build quality
- The Pixel 4’s terrible value proposition
- Face unlock—Slow, unreliable, and frustrating
- Motion Sense with Project Soli—Not at all what was promised
- The next-gen Google Assistant
- Camera—Pretty much the same as the Pixel 3
- What is the point of the Pixel line?
- The Good
- The Bad
- The Ugly
Design and build quality
We’ll start with the best part of the Pixel 4: the back. The Pixel 4 is, as usual, a glass and aluminum sandwich, with a Gorilla Glass 5 front, an aluminum frame exposed along the sides, and a glass back. When we talk about the rear design of the Pixel 4, note that between the three available colors, there are two totally different finish options that greatly affect the feel of the device.
The black version has a standard glossy glass back that uses Gorilla Glass 5, and the black version feels like the usual slippery fingerprint magnet that all glass phones are. The white and orange colors use a different glass panel that isn’t Gorilla Glass, though, and these get a special soft-touch treatment. While this soft-touch glass back might be reminiscent of the soft-touch back on the Pixel 3 last year, this year there have been a number of improvements.
|SPECS AT A GLANCE
|Pixel 4 XL
|2280×1080 5.7-inches (440 ppi)
OLED, 19:9 aspect ratio
|3040×1440 6.3-inches (523ppi)
OLED, 19:9 aspect ratio
|Eight-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 855
Four Cortex A76-based cores (One 2.84GHz, three 2.41Ghz) and four Cortex A55-based cores at 1.78GHz
|64GB or 128GB
|802.11b/g/n/ac 2×2, Bluetooth 5.0 + LE, GPS, NFC, eSIM
|GSM: 850, 900, 1800, 1900
UMTS/HSPA: 1, 2, 4, 5, 8
|USB Type-C 3.1 Gen 1
|Rear: 12MP main camera, 16MP telephoto (x2)
Front: 8MP camera
|USB-PD quick charging, face unlock, IP68 dust and water resistance, Active Edge, Pixel Neural Core, Titan M security module
First, the new soft-touch backs can no longer be dented by a fingerprint, and they feel noticeably more durable than the soft-touch coating on the Pixel 3. Second, while the Pixel 3 coating tended to absorb and hold onto fingerprint grease, the Pixel 4 hides fingerprints very well. The soft-touch Pixel 4 back looks and feels clean all the time, and I’m not compelled to scrub it down with soap and water every five minutes like with the Pixel 3.
I’d rather we just not make phones out of glass at all, but if we have to, the soft-touch coating on the white and orange Pixel 4 really is the best in the market. The back provides an agreeable amount of grip that you don’t get with regular glass. It looks great, it stays clean, and it seems durable. This is one of the few parts of the Pixel 4 that is different and better than the competition, and I hope other manufacturers copy the soft-touch implementation here.
The entire back of the Pixel 4 is great, actually. This year, Google jumped on the multi-camera bandwagon and added a 16MP telephoto lens. The whole camera assembly—which includes an LED flash, microphone, and spectral/flicker sensor—now lives in a big black square tucked neatly into the corner of the phone. It’s a similar solution to the iPhone 11, but I daresay Google’s camera block looks better. In person the black interior does a good job of hiding the clutter of the camera hardware, which I think looks cleaner than the purposefully highlighted lenses of the iPhone 11. People love to imagine shapes in these camera assemblies, so if the iPhone 11 Pro camera block looks like a stovetop or fidget spinner, the Pixel 4 looks like a shocked robot or Pikachu face. Thanks to the black interior, though, the Pixel 4 is considerably more subtle about it.
The black camera block provides a pleasing contrast to the white or orange backs, and the black ring around the perimeter of the phone ties it all together pleasantly. The back really is handsome. While the sides are eventually aluminum, you won’t be touching any bare metal when you hold the Pixel 4. The sides have what Google calls a “matte finish hybrid coating,” which just feels like a hard plastic shell. It doesn’t seem any grippier than anodized aluminum, so I’m not sure why Google bothered.
As usual, the front design for the Pixel line looks dated this year. The Pixel 4 has a sizable bezel only on the top of the device, which gives the phone a lopsided, top-heavy look. Most phones have aimed to reduce the bezels as much as possible, going for only a minimal camera blemish or, sometimes, no blemish at all. But not Google. The Pixel 4 design reminds me of the Galaxy S8, a phone that came out two years ago, and the stats back that up. The Pixel 4 has an 81.3% screen-to-bezel ratio, while the Galaxy S8 has a more efficient use of space, with an 83.6% screen-to-bezel ratio.
The top bezel might look like something from 2017, but it is being put to use, as Google is packing the top of the phone with sensors and features. Besides the normal 8MP selfie camera, earpiece, and ambient light/proximity sensor, there’s a whole system for 3D face unlock, which uses two IR cameras, an IR dot projector, and an IR flood illuminator. There’s also a Google-developed Soli radar sensor, which is used to detect air gestures above the phone as well as the user’s presence.
Among the biggest upgrades in the Pixel 4 this year is the addition of a 90Hz OLED display. Faster refresh-rate displays are quickly becoming the new trend in smartphone design, with Razer, Asus, OnePlus, and a few other Chinese brands getting in on the action. We loved the 90Hz displays on the OnePlus 7 Pro and 7T, where the higher refresh rate and FPS made scrolling, animations, and navigation feel buttery smooth.
If we were huge fans of the OnePlus’ 90Hz display, then we have to be huge fans of Google’s 90Hz display, right? Well, not so much, as Google’s 90Hz display doesn’t run at 90Hz all the time. Like many new features on the Pixel 4, the 90Hz display sounds good on paper, but in reality, it comes with myriad gotchas.
Not running in 90Hz all the time is justifiable in some cases. If you’re running a full-screen video at 24fps, 30fps, or 60fps, a 90Hz refresh rate won’t do anything other than burn battery. Some games are not compatible with 90Hz, so limiting the display there is appropriate, too. The Pixel 4 goes much further than this, though, and turns off 90Hz any time you use Google Maps, Waze, WhatsApp, and Pokémon Go. Pokémon Go is a game that is limited to 30fps, so that’s fine. WhatsApp was blacklisted by Google “due to poor performance under 90hz” according to an Android commit. Google Maps and Waze, Google’s two mapping apps, don’t really have an explanation attached as to why they are limited to 60fps on the Pixel 4. We can only assume it’s because Waze and Maps are already battery-heavy apps, and Google is worried about the Pixel 4’s battery life.
The second big refresh rate issue is that the 90Hz mode is tied to the phone’s… brightness? Shortly after the phone hit the market, users discovered that, depending on the ambient light, the Pixel 4 would run in 90Hz mode when above 75% brightness and drop to 60Hz when below 75%. Google PR responded to this discovery, saying the behavior was “preserving battery when higher refresh rates are not critical.” XDA did some digging and found the Android source commit for this behavior, which explains that “Due to [a] hardware limitation, flickers are seen when switching between 60 and 90Hz at low display and ambient brightness.” Apparently any time you’re in the dark, switching from 60 to 90Hz mode would be noticeable, so Google turns off 90Hz mode completely.
You can opt out of Google’s 90Hz shenanigans by digging into the hidden-by-default developer settings, which you can access after entering Android’s version of the Konami code (go to Settings -> About Phone and tap on “build number” seven times). In here, you’ll find an option to “Force 90Hz refresh rate” all the time, which then makes the Pixel 4 work like every other 90Hz phone.
With this developer checkbox on, the Pixel 4 matches the buttery smooth performance we’ve seen from other 90Hz phones: the animations, scrolling, and transitions are all faster and smoother feeling. With this checkbox off, eh, it’s a crap shoot. The Pixel 4’s brightness and ambient light requirements for the 90Hz mode are very high, and this seems to require bright overhead light. Just keeping the display on and wandering around my house in the daytime is enough to have it ping-pong between 60 and 90Hz. The very brightly lit bathroom with the overhead lights? That’s good enough for 90Hz. The moderately lit bedroom with the lamp in the corner and light coming through the window? That’s going to drop to 60Hz. Even just something like my head casting a shadow over the light sensor from an overhead light is enough to have it drop to 60Hz.
You know how auto brightness is totally crazy and unreliable? Now imagine that technology being used to control the refresh rate of your device. It is just all over the place based on the tiniest light fluctuations. You won’t necessarily notice every drop from 90Hz to 60Hz, but the end result is that it happens so frequently that the Pixel 4 doesn’t feel as fast or fluid as other 90Hz phones in the default mode. It really is detrimental to the experience. It’s great that you can turn all these half-measures off, but the overwhelming message from Google is that its 90Hz phone doesn’t have a big enough battery to support 90Hz mode all the time.
Google issued a patch in November that made the 90Hz mode work in slightly brighter conditions, but the end result has not changed much: the Pixel 4 runs in 60Hz mode most of the time.
The display on the Pixel 4 XL looks great in indoor lighting, but it’s not very bright, and you might have issues in sunlight. There’s actually a hidden high-brightness mode that was recently discovered by XDA. The display has a sunlight mode, but Google chose not to expose it to users. I would guess this is because it would use a ton of the device’s limited battery.
This year the Pixel 4 supports “Ambient EQ,” a display white balance adjustment that changes based on the surrounding light. It’s basically the Google version of Apple’s True Tone. Ambient EQ previously appeared on the Google Home Hub, which came with a special hardware color sensor and aggressive automatic brightness and white balance controls. I was a big fan of the Home Hub implementation, which was so aggressive that it allowed the display to blend into the environment, completely removing the glaring, blasting light that normally comes out of a display panel. The Pixel 4 doesn’t have the special color sensor and only lightly tweaks the display based on the surrounding light. It’s subtle enough that it doesn’t make a huge difference, and I could take it or leave it. I’m still very interested in seeing what a Home Hub-style implementation would look like on a smartphone, though.