Google looks to continue its dominance in the world of smartphone cameras with the Pixel 4. The search giant finally caved and added a second camera on the Pixel 4 this year, but was it enough to regain the camera king crown? That’s not all that Google has in store with the Pixel 4 though. It has also brought in some new features that are actually pretty cool. Like Motion Sense. But the real question is, do these changes warrant paying $799 or more for a Pixel 4 in 2019? Let’s find out in our full review of the Google Pixel 4.
Ditching the notch
Thankfully, Google decided to ditch that terrible bath tub notch that was on the Pixel 3 XL last year. I’m sure that all of the negativity and complaints about the notch helped influence that decision. And that’s perhaps the biggest reason that the Google Pixel 4 XL is better than the Pixel 3 XL, without even reading the rest of this review. But there are some other design changes here.
The design is still no perfect, and it’s not flashy. In typical Pixel fashion.
It’s actually a pretty big departure for Google from the design that it has used on the previous three Pixel smartphones. This, however, could be because it’s the first flagship that the HTC team built entirely by themselves (the “Taiwan team” also built the Pixel 3a earlier this year). That’s likely why we no longer have that two-toned back, and a difference camera setup, not to mention the removal of the front-facing speakers.
The Pixel 4 sports a pretty large forehead that is not symmetrical to the chin. That doesn’t really both me a whole lot, as I’ve totally forgotten about that, within the first day of using the Pixel 4. But it does look a bit odd. Though, I’d rather have that then the gigantic notch on the Pixel 3 XL. So far, not everyone agrees, which is fine. As everyone is entitled to their own opinion.
To be honest, the design of the Pixel 4 looks rather boring and utilitarian. And I love it. Why do we need a flashy design on our smartphones, if we are just going to slap it in a case? I also really like the feel of the Pixel 4. It feels really good in the hand, thanks to the matte backside and matte frame. I must say, this is the least-slippery smartphone I’ve used all year. And it’s still glass. The fact that the screen and the backside are not curved, using 2.5D glass, is actually a relief. A flat backside makes it easier to hold onto, and less slippery.
Now, many will say that Google copied the camera module layout from Apple, and while they do look alike, Google’s looks better. For starters, Google didn’t give the camera bump its own camera bump. The module is also darker, so you really can’t see the lens. The only thing that you can really see is the flash. There’s no bevel to the module either. It just goes straight up. It’s not a super thick camera bump, but it would still be nice for Google (and other OEMs) to make the camera flush on the back of the phone, by making the phone a bit thicker – and giving us more battery capacity.
The frame is still curved, but don’t get that confused with a curved backside. The back is flat with the frame being curved, making it fit better in the hand. It’s a really good look, especially since it is a matte black bumper now on all three colors. Giving the white model a more of a panda look, rather than just being completely white. Of course, the colored power button also looks rather nice on the Pixel 4. Though an orange power button on the white model seems a bit strange – since there is an orange Pixel 4.
This OLED display is simply incredible
Shortly after Google announced the Pixel 4 series, DisplayMate came out with the results of the test. It gave the Pixel 4 the highest score it has ever given any smartphone. Which means that this OLED display is the best in the business. But a bunch of lab tests doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s the best, when using it in everyday circumstances.
But, I must say, this screen is pretty incredible. The last few phones I’ve used and reviewed have all had the best OLED displays, until the Pixel 4 came out. That included the Galaxy Note 10+ and the OnePlus 7T. And you can really tell the difference between those and the display on the Google Pixel 4, when you compare them side-by-side like I have for this review.
The colors are bright and contrasty. It’s a real treat to watch movies and videos on this phone too. So if you watch a lot of YouTube, this is definitely a good pick up. Using the Pixel 4 outside is also a treat, as it gets plenty bright for direct sunlight. Though, it’s been mostly overcast here, since I received the phone.
We can’t forget about the 90Hz refresh rate on this one. Now, since I’m coming from the OnePlus 7T to the Pixel 4 XL, I’m not noticing a big difference with this 90Hz panel. But Google is also making it dynamic, so it will switch to 90Hz when the operating system supports it, and stick with 60Hz the rest of the time. So it’s not 90Hz all of the time. This can be turned off too, if you think its eating too much battery.
There’s really no complaints about the display on the Pixel 4. There’s no interruptions on the display – hole-punch, notch, etc – and there’s also no curved edges here. Making it easier to use and hold onto.
Battery life is good, despite the small battery
When Google did finally announce the Pixel 4, and we all saw that the battery capacity was pretty small (it actually decreased on the smaller Pixel 4), we thought battery life would be terrible. Especially with that high refresh rate display on-board. But it turns out, we were wrong. Now, we can only talk about the Pixel 4 XL, since we don’t have the standard Pixel 4 in our hands. And the Pixel 4 XL actually got a battery capacity bump, while the Pixel 4 decreased from 2900mAh to 2800mAh.
The Pixel 4 XL has a 3700mAh capacity battery, that’s up from the 3430mAh in the Pixel 2 XL and Pixel 3 XL smartphones. So we expected battery life to be similar, on the Pixel 4 XL. While it is larger capacity, there is that 90Hz display too. But it turns out to be a little bit better.
We were able to get six plus hours of on-screen time out of the Pixel 4 XL battery pretty consistently. On the Pixel 3 XL, I was never able to pass about five hours of on screen time. And that was with me really pushing it to get as much as possible. It’s not a battery champ, but you probably won’t have any issues with it lasting throughout the day.
Google did not opt for the super fast charging technology on the Pixel 4. We’re still stuck with 18W fast charging, which, to be honest, is fine. We’d love to get 30W or even 45W like the OnePlus 7T and Galaxy Note 10+, but that also means we need to buy new chargers. Sticking with 18W means that virtually any USB-C PD charger will charge the Pixel 4 pretty quickly. And you’ll still be able to top it off pretty quickly too.
Wireless charging is still here too. It’s fast at 10W, Google has not gone past 10W just yet. But it does look like Google has opened up its fast wireless charging to more wireless chargers. With the Pixel 3, you could only use the Pixel Stand and a few others to get fast charging on the Pixel 3, even if the charger supported 10W. This makes it super simple and convenient to charge your phone at night or while you’re at your desk.
Sound is a mixed bag
On the Pixel 4, the sound is a bit of a mixed bag. The speakers sound great, even though there’s no more stereo front-facing speakers. There are still stereo speakers, just not front-facing – it’s the earpiece and then a downward-firing speaker on the bottom. It actually sounds much better than the Pixel 3’s speakers, because they are better balanced. Though, I do wish Google had added Dolby Atmos to the Pixel 4.
Where it becomes a mixed bag is when it comes to headphones. Google has stopped putting the dongle in the box, and there is also no USB-C headphones in the box this year. Both of which were in the box last year with the Pixel 3.
Android 10 is the best version of Android yet
Android 10 is new, but not that new. Google launched the stable version of Android 10 back on September 3, and we’ve seen other phones launch with it already – like the OnePlus 7T. So we’ve had quite a bit of time to check out and use Android 10, even more time than we’ve had with the Pixel 4. And we can comfortably say that this is the best version of Android yet.
Ideally, it should be the best version. Seeing as it should get better each year. But the past few releases of Android have been pretty mediocre, and brought in some changes that made the user experience worse. With Android 10, however, it has made the user experience better, and the OS is smoother than it has ever been.
Of course, our (and everyone else’s) favorite feature is dark mode. System-wide dark mode was one of the big features with Android 10, and it looks amazing on the Pixel 4. Thanks to that OLED display. It does also improve the battery life a bit, also thanks to that OLED display.
Now, we don’t need to rehash Android 10. We already know what to expect with Android 10, so let’s get to the new parts for the Pixel 4.
One of the new features that Google showed off was the new Recorder app. It’s a voice recording app. Sounds pretty lame and boring right? If you said, yes, you’re wrong. With this new Recorder app, it will actually transcribe what is being said, in real-time. And it works really well. This is all done offline, so it’s not going to Google’s servers to transcribe and then coming back. On top of that, the recordings are now searchable. So if you’re looking for something specific, you can do that, and see which recordings have that word. And the app will show you where that word was said. It’s like CTRL+F on your computer, but on steroids.
There’s also the new version of Google Assistant available on the Pixel 4. This is the lightning-fast version that Google showed us back at I/O in May. It’s super fast now, and this is thanks to the speech processing being done on the device, rather than in the cloud, on Google’s servers. Continued Conversations also works really well on the Pixel 4, with Google Assistant, and it does it while using less battery. That’s always a good thing.
Motion Sense isn’t a gimmick
While it looks like Motion Sense might be a gimmick, it actually isn’t. And it works pretty well.
But let’s back up a minute and talk about what Motion Sense actually is. It’s radar that is built into the Pixel 4. It’s the radar chip that Google’s ATAP division was working on. It was called Project Soli. And it allows you to do different gestures, like waving away a call, swiping back and forth to change the song and so on. This is similar to what LG did earlier this year, and what Samsung did way back on the Galaxy S4, six years ago.
However, Motion Sense is not all that this chip is used for. Which is why it’s not a gimmick. But Motion Sense works very well in my testing. There were only a handful of times where I needed to actually do the gesture a second time, because it missed it, or I messed up.
The feature that I really like, is having the phone quiet down when your hand gets closer. This works on phone calls and alarms. So as your hand gets closer to the phone while it’s ringing, it’ll start to quiet down, and you can swipe it away.
This chip also works for Face Unlock. Which is insanely fast on the Pixel 4. And that’s a good thing, since the fingerprint sensor is gone now. It works really well in daylight and at night. It also works well with and without glasses. Though I did notice that when I had my glasses off, I did need to hold the phone further away to get it to recognize my face properly.
It works well, but I do still miss the fingerprint sensor. The lack of the fingerprint sensor really made this Google Pixel 4 review tough.
The best camera just got better
The Pixel line of smartphones have always had some pretty insane cameras. The Pixel 3 is still one of the best cameras on a smartphone, even a year after it launched. So how can Google top that with the Pixel 4? Astrophotography.
That’s just one of the few new features on the Pixel 4’s cameras. But the big difference between the Pixel 4 and Pixel 3 camera, is the fact that there is now a dedicated telephoto lens. So there’s finally two cameras on the back of the Pixel 4, though it did lose that wide-angle lens on the front. Which, I’m not too upset with. Since the Pixel 4’s front-facing camera is a bit wider than the Pixel 3 standard lens was. It’s right in the middle of the two.
With that second lens on the back of the Pixel 4, Google is able to do some more pretty incredible things with this camera. For starters, it can do even better zoom, though it was already pretty impressive on the Pixel 3. So Super-Res Zoom is still here, and it’s much better than before. Allowing for up to 8X Zoom, without it looking muddy. Actually it’s really impressive, for how good it looks, when it is zoomed in that much.
Though one of the big features of the Pixel 4’s camera this year is Astrophotography. Basically, Google is building on Night Sight that it launched last year, and allowing you to photograph the night sky, and even see the stars. It’s really impressive, and something that no other smartphone can do. Let alone, do it at this quality. Obviously, this is not a feature that you’re going to use every single day, or probably more than once or twice to show off to your friends. But the fact that a smartphone can do this is pretty impressive.
Portrait Mode, while not new, Google continues to improve it every single year. And this is impressive. Because Google was already beating every other smartphone on this front, with the Pixel 3. But now with the Pixel 4, it’s doing even better, somehow. Google says that the Pixel 4 is going to be better with hair and facial features like ears and glasses, that might get blurred out normally. And that seems to be the case for us. I took a few selfies as well as photos of my dog, and it did a good job at not blurring my glasses (most phones will blur the corner of my glasses) and at not blurring my dog’s hair. It can sometimes blur some of hear floppy ears.
Now Portrait Mode is still not perfect, it would be good to see it do a bit more foreground blur, and really isolate the subject. But that is going to take a lot more work, unsurprisingly.
While working on this review of the Google Pixel 4, we were able to take quite a few photos with the Pixel 4. None of these have been edited, and have been uploaded to Flickr in their original quality. You can review the photos we took with the Google Pixel 4 at the Flickr link below.
I’m not a professional photographer, so I won’t be getting super deep into the technicals on these photos and this camera. But as someone who has used every flagship smartphone for the past seven years, I have taken plenty of photos. And the Pixel 4 camera is really impressive. I would say it is the best smartphone camera out there, especially for those that are not looking to take a photography class to learn how to use manual mode.
Now, when it comes to video, it’s just okay. Google hasn’t really done much with the video recording aspect of the camera, though hopefully that changes next year. One of the major complaints with the Pixel 4 is how it is lacking 4K 60fps video recording. Which would be a nice feature to have, but other than YouTubers, I’m not sure anyone is going to care about that. I’ve recorded some video on this Pixel 4 at 4K 30fps and it seemed to be pretty good. The one video feature I would like to see though, is slower slow-motion video. Right now it only drops down to 240fps. While Sony, Samsung and others are doing incredibly slow 960fps.
The Pixel 4 camera just works. And I have yet to take a bad picture while working on this Google Pixel 4 review.
Similar to what we said last year, when we were wrapping up the Pixel 3 review, the Pixel 4 is a no-nonsense phone that just works. It has an incredible camera, decent battery life (perhaps not the case on the Pixel 4 standard), and of course stock Android. Google did opt to change some things this year with the Pixel 4, like eliminating the unlimited original quality Google Photos storage, but overall, after writing this review, this is a phone I can recommend.
It doesn’t stand toe-to-toe with other flagships when it comes to specs, but it is just as fluid and fast, if not faster, than other phones on the market like the OnePlus 7T and Galaxy Note 10+.
Those that want a phone with a great camera, and a great user experience, this is going to be the phone to get.
The Pixel 4 starts at $799 and the Pixel 4 XL at $899. You can add another $100 for more storage – bumping up from 64GB to 128GB.