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Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff
Nice pocketable size
The screen feels cramped
Design is a bit bland
Headphone not included
Google Pixel 4 is an excellent Android 10 phone with exciting, cutting-edge features like gesture control and stunning astrophotography. We'd love to see future versions with an edge-to-edge display and a bit more design panache.
I miss the old Google Pixel. The first edition of this “let’s show them how it’s done Android phone” was quirky and original. The design had a certain 1950s panache and it was squeezable. We all want to throttle our phones sometimes, but who would’ve ever thought of really letting us squeeze the device to get a response?
In Google’s Pixel 4, the squeeze remains, but liveliness is largely gone. From a distance, it would be hard to spot the Pixel 4 among a lineup of other popular slab phones. And without that extra bit of curious style, the Pixel 4’s other omissions become more apparent.
At 5.7-inches, this is one of the smaller handsets on the market (even a hair smaller –in some ways – than the 5.8-inch iPhone 11 Pro), but the 5.7-inch, OLED screen seem smaller because it stops well short of the top edge. That can make the experience feel a bit cramped.
Despite all this, I like the Google Pixel 4, mainly because it combines an excellent Android 10 experience with a handful of truly cutting-edge innovations, and possibly some of the best mobile photography I’ve seen on a smartphone.
At 68.8 x 157.1 x 8.2 mm, the Google Pixel 4 is slightly taller and thicker than the iPhone 11 Pro, but it’s also narrower and, at 162 grams, considerably lighter.
Carrying it around for a week reminded me a bit of why I still like smaller phones. Sure, I miss the battery life and substantially larger screens, but a tiny lightweight phone like this slips into the pocket and is quickly forgotten.
My test unit came in the shiny “Just Black,” piano black finish. It has a white power/sleep button and volume rocker on one side and on the other side is the nano sim slot (it also includes eSIM technology). At the bottom is a USB-C charging port that also supports fast charging. There’s no 3.5 mm headphone jack and, somewhat surprisingly, the phone does not ship with a headphone of any type.
There’s Gorilla Glass 5 on the front and back. I was very careful with the phone and yet it still ended up with some substantial scratches. Isn’t Gorilla Glass supposed to be stronger than this? Of course, the iPhone with its own hardened glass is just as easily scratched, so perhaps we need a reassessment of this material.
At least the phone is also IP 68 rated, which means it’s up for a quick jump in the pool or drop in the toilet.
The OLED screen is bright and sharp, offering 444 pixels per inch (compared to the iPhone 11 Pro’s 458) and has a 100,000:1 contrast ratio. It’s a good screen, but certainly doesn’t rival what I’ve found on the iPhone 11 Pro, though it compares favorably to the iPhone 11’s 6.3-inch Retina LCD display. The Pixel's screen also has a 90 Hz refresh rate display, which means smoother action, especially on games. Now Google admits that most times, to preserve battery life, the display is running at 60 Hz. This is a nice-to-have, but not really necessary feature.
I’m not thrilled that Google choose to leave such a large “forehead" of black above the display, but at least it squeezed in some eye-popping technology. Alongside the competent 8 MP selfie camera there's a radar that can take note of when you’re near the phone and track your gestures.
The sensor makes the phone seem somewhat more alive. It can come to life and ready itself for face unlock when you come near the phone and in a handful of apps and wallpapers, it can respond to basic gestures.
For now, it only appears to recognize right or left waves in front of the screen. There’s the default “Come Alive” wallpaper, for example, with elements that shift left or right depending on the wave, and Pokémon wallpaper with a character that will dance around happily when you gesture at it.
Gestures also work sparingly in some third-party apps. I could use it to skip forward on Spotify songs, but since I was using a free account, I was limited in the number of times of could skip past a song. The top edge of the screen glows and follows my hand movement as I waved it back and forth, which is honestly kind of cool.
There’s also the Headed South game that lets you wave to basically boost an animated bird’s flight south. I could also use gestures to stop an alarm at the end of a timer sequence. Gestures even worked in direct sunlight. Not bad. Overall, it’s a neat tool that has tremendous but, obviously, still unrealized potential.
There’s no longer a fingerprint reader on the Pixel phone. Instead, the Pixel 4 relies on PIN numbers or facial recognition for unlocking. It was easy to register my face and unlocking it with my mug is generally effective, though it did struggle a bit when I wore a hat. Oddly, as reported, it happily unlocked even when I had my eyes closed. A fix may be available by the time you read this.
I kind of wish Google has added an under-the-screen fingerprint reader, but that might've made the Pixel 4 a little thicker and I do not think Google wanted to overload the phone with redundant features. So, I guess I have to applaud its restraint.
People have been raving about Google Pixel cameras for years and, for the most part, no one will be disappointed in what the Pixel 4 brings to the photographic table. Oddly omitted are a higher resolution selfie camera and an ultra-wide lens on the back, but the two main cameras (which live in a raised square similar to what you’ll find on an iPhone 11), and Google’s impressive computational photographic capabilities, basically make up for those deficits.
The cameras you do get are:
As a straight shooter, the Google Pixel 4 takes excellent photos. The colors, clarity, and detail can be stunning. I also like the latest camera controls, especially the double tap to enable 2X zoom. It’s more intuitive than taping “2X” on a screen. I think the addition of dual exposure controls is smart, thought I have to wonder why the sliders on brightness and shadows seem backwards. Why am I sliding left to raise the brightness and shadow levels?
Google made a big deal out of the live HDR+, which lets me see exactly what the HDR+ shot will look like on screen before I shoot it. Because there’s no easy way to see how the shot would look without HDR+, I barely noticed this feature.
In side-by-side tests with the iPhone 11 Pro, I struggled to decide which one had taken the better photos.
Both produce accurate colors and tremendous detail. There, were, though, some instances where the iPhone 11 Pro did a better job in the color truth space, especially in the photo of my shed where the white paint has taken on a somewhat gray hue. The iPhone 11 Pro picked it up and the Pixel 4 basically white-washed the paint.
Portrait mode is good, and I can even adjust the bokeh effect in edit, though Google has a bad habit of hiding these features under too many menus. Also, portrait mode is still quite fallible. I picked up anomalies in many all the portrait images I produced, especially those I captured with the selfie camera.
The rear cameras did a much better job.
Google updated Night Sight photography so that it’s now automatically capable of something called astrophotography, basically photographing the stars. You can do the same thing with the iPhone 11 Pro’s new automatic night mode. With either phone, you'll only get the best results when you use a tripod and take photos by setting the timer.
In this space, though, Google has unlocked something fresh. Even in my challenging light-polluted suburbs, the Google Pixel 4 took a 4-minute exposure, applied some impressive algorithmic calisthenics, and showed me more stars that I have ever seen with the naked eye. It’s truly a amazing achievement, and, yes, it did a better job than Apple’s automatic night mode. Now, I wish I could travel somewhere out in the wilderness where I’d have a real chance of photographing galaxies.
Google’s programming also changed the way I shoot telephoto photography. Obviously, the Pixel 4 is limited to a 2X optical zoom, but that does not stop it from zooming in up to 8X digitally.
Normally, I try to shoot no more than 2X and then crop in later to get the detail I’m after, especially since I figure that anything, I shoot above 2X will be a muddy, digitally-enhanced mess. With Google’s Super Rez zoom, I was able to pinch and zoom to 8X and get surprisingly sharp images. Again, this is software magic, adding visual information that shouldn’t really be there, but somehow is. It’s not leaps and bounds beyond what the iPhone can do, but it’s good enough that I can notice the difference.
All the cameras take gorgeous, stable video up to 4K.
Google Assistant, Google’s home-grown digital assistant, is baked in throughout the Pixel 4. I could access it with a hands-free call of “Hey Google (or “OK Google”) and engage in a vocal back and forth where I set a calendar appointment. Assistant remains the smartest voice assistant in the genre. It’s hard to stump Google Assistant and it does stand ready to access and activate may Pixel 4 functions. If I say, “Hey Google Take a Selfie,” it’ll open up the front-facing camera and count down to a selfie photo.
In addition to squeezing the phone to access Assistant or simply taping the mic icon in Google, there are now two live hot corners on the phone. To get Assistant listening, all I have to do is sweep my finger up and in on the screen from either the lower left-hand or right-hand corners.
While it’s not surprising that Google’s newest phone would launch with Android 10, it is worth noting that this is Android’s most polished and comprehensible update ever. I don't miss the classic Android controls. Swiping up from the bottom to quickly return to the home screen seems perfectly natural (and yes, quite similar to iOS), as does swiping halfway up to the screen to access all the open apps.
Like virtually every other new Android phone on the market, the Pixel 4 is running a Qualcomm's Snapdragon 855 CPU, in this case backed by 6 GB of RAM. The phone certainly feels fast and responsive across a wide variety of activities. It’s a decent gaming system, handling all the fast action in Mortal Kombat.
The chip and software are also quite good at AR. At one point I placed a live, 3D hamburger character in the middle of Times Square. No one else noticed him, but he looked quite real to me.
I’d say you can see the hardware and software at work in some of the new real-time audio capabilities. First of all, there’s a new feature called Live Caption that let me caption YouTube and my own videos. To do so I simply played a video and then taped the volume down button to access a caption menu in the volume control menu. As soon as I turned it on, live captioning appeared on my videos (stuff I shot on the phone). The transcription is not flawless. In one video, Live Captioning interpreted “portal” as “Puerto.” Even so, I’ve never seen anything quite like this.
Battery life on the 2,800 mAh battery is quite good with a single charge lasting at least a day of almost constant use. It also supports fast charging and wireless charging with Qi-based chargers, but not wireless PowerShare for sharing power between two devices. The Pixel 4 does ship with a beefy 18W charger.
I really like the Google Pixel 4, but not without caveats. I think the design is clean if no longer distinctive. I like the size, but wish the screen was larger. I’m impressed with gesture control but need it to work in more ways and in more places. The camera system does some amazing work but is not entirely consistent. Night Sight, though, is amazing. The Pixel 4 is, even without an included headphone, a great value for $799, but does disappoint a bit with just 64 GB to start.
If you are an Android fan, this is an excellent, pure Android 10 experience with some of the best Google Assistant integration on the planet. The Google Pixel 4 raises the bar with true touch-free gesture control and sets a new standard for mobile astrophotography. I think Pixel fans will be very pleased.