Google Pixel 4 Hands On

I got a little me time with Google's latest Android 10 smartphone

Google Pixel 4 held in a hand at the Google Event
Holding the Google Pixel 4.

 Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

Slim, sharp, fast, powerful. Google’s new Pixel 4 checks all the right boxes, so why am I not more excited?

Google gets the blame or credit, depending on your perspective. It purposely broke the product launch mold by leaking images of its own products weeks in advance of Tuesday’s big reveal in New York City.

We all knew the basic look, including the new square camera module. Even during the launch, Google seemed hell-bent on not “announcing” anything as it showed you everything it was going to talk about for the next hour in a pretty group shot and then, with little-to-no-fanfare, revealed its new Android 10 handsets: the 5.7-inch Google Pixel 4 and the 6.3-inch Pixel 4 XL (aside from screen size, battery capacity, and price, there is no difference between the Pixel 4 and the Pixel 4 XL).

Even though the Pixel 4 and a host of other new products, including:

  • Google Pixel Buds
  • Pixelbook Go
  • Nest Mini
  • Nest Wi-Fi

were featured throughout the press event, Google eschewed the kind of stage-craft Apple’s honed over almost two decades of product events. There were probably too many behind-scenes videos with Baratunde Thurston at Google’s product labs learning how Google built these new gadgets and not enough “hold onto your hats” video product reveals. It was like watching a performance of Chicago that didn’t use “jazz hands.”

With a Wave

Without the breathless promises and product excellence exultations I’m used to, I looked at the Pixel 4 with, perhaps, clearer eyes. For the most part, I liked what I saw.

Google Pixel 4
Google Pixel 4's back is covered in brushed Gorilla Glass.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

Clad in Gorilla Glass, which is brushed to a pleasing finish on the back, the Pixel 4 feels good and solid in the hand. There’s a large, slightly raised, square camera module that houses just two cameras (12 MP wide and 16 MP 2X optical zoom), a sensor, and the LED flash. Yes, I was surprised that Google didn’t squeeze a third camera into the mix. Most of the oddball design touches of previous Pixels are long gone, with the exception of the colorful power/sleep button.

There's no fingerprint reader on the body or even under the screen, but it does have face unlocking.

Google Pixel 4
Google's Pixel 4 is looking more and more like every other smarpthone on the market.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

The device’s Quad HD OLED display reaches to the bottom and side of the phone but stops well short of the top edge. In that blank forehead space is a wide-angle 8 MP selfie camera and a radar. That’s right, I said a radar.

This is the first smartphone ever with a built-in radar. It can see gestures and apply those waves to native- and third-party apps.

It was also the first thing I tried out on the new phone. First, I launched Spotify and tapped the play button. Then I waved my hand from right-to-left over the screen and Spotify skipped to the next song (waving left-to-right did not make Spotify go back one track). This worked well until I reached Spotify’s free-service skip-ahead limit.

Also, I couldn’t tell if it was a feature of the Spotify App or native to the phone’s gesture feature, but I could see a blue light running back and forth across the top edge in unison with my hand waves. I was honestly shocked at how closely it tracked my movements.

Pixel 4 Gestures
Watch me wave my hand and change Spotify Tracks.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

Later, I squeezed the phone to access Google Assistant (a wonderful legacy feature) and set a timer for 20 seconds. When the timer went off and the alarm sounded, I simply waved my hand over the screen like 21st Century Jedi and the alarm stopped. I’m sure you can imagine how this might work in the morning. No more blindly tapping the screen, hoping to hit snooze. Just wave your sleepy hand in front of the phone.

I did try out one of Google Pixel 4’s other highlighted features, the new Pixel Recorder app. It’s supposed to transcribe your recorded voice in real-time, but the demo area was so loud, the phone only managed to capture the first portion of my soliloquy.

Lead Image

Google spent significant time walking us through the Pixel 4’s new photographic capabilities, much of it enabled through software or, as they termed it, “computational photography.”

Google Pixel 4
The Pixel 4's new camera module. It;s a square with just two cameras.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

Like many other smartphones, Google’s Pixel 4 can use HDR to quickly snap multiple images and process them for a single, better-exposed, low noise image, even in the most challenging situations. However, with HDR+ Live, Google can show you in real-time how the processed image will look before you shoot the picture. Google also added better white balance (no more off-color snow) and the ability to adjust brightness and shadows using two separate sliders during photography. My guess is most people will still just use the phone on auto exposure and edit later.

Smartphone night photography took a major leap forward this year with virtually all the major updates across brands not only enabling low-light photography, but night-sky image capture as well. Google followed suit with an impressive Night Sight update that can capture the stars or a person standing in almost total darkness.

Pixel 4 Night
Google Pixel 4's Night Sight does a very good in ultra-low-light conditions.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

Google set up a special, heavily curtained room where we could try almost no-light photography. As with Apple and Samsung’s Night Mode, you do need to stand still for a moment or (for star photography) use a tripod. The results I saw were impressive, though it’s too soon to say if they surpass what Apple and Samsung can do.

Google Pixel 4
I pinched and zoomed (to 8X) on the Google Pixel 4 screen until I could clearly see the little red bi-plane hidden in the rafters.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

I also tried out the zoom camera, which worked fine, and took a portrait mode selfie that I mailed to myself so I could share it on Twitter. When I took a closer look at that photo later, I noticed that the Pixel 4’s Portrait Mode algorithm had made a few odd errors. In particular, the face of someone directly behind me remained perfectly sharp so that it looked as if I had a tiny smiling person growing out of the side of my head.

Lance Ulanoff
I took this Portrait mode shot with the Google Pixel 4's selfie camera. Note the guy's face right behind my head.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

It’s What’s Inside

As always, Google Pixel phones are the purest Android experience on the market. There’s no third-party interface overlay or third-party editions of “Mail” or “Web Browser,” and Google will deliver the Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL pre-loaded with Android 10.

Google loaded the Pixel 4 with Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 855 CPU, 6 GB of RAM and 64 GB of storage. In addition, this is Google’s first 90 Hz screen. A faster refresh rate should mean smoother video, games, and app interactions, but I don’t know if average users will notice. In general, my brief experience using the device was good. It didn’t stutter or pause through any operation and was generally a pleasure to use.

Google Pixel 4
The Google Pixel 4.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

As I said, Google Pixel 4 is a good, pure Android/Google experience, but the Pixel has never led in design or, aside from photography, overall features. This phone does go a big step further with gesture capabilities (which are also present in Android 10 for other supported devices), but it also hews pretty closely to Google’s strategy of pushing the envelope strategically without trying to run away with the ball.

By steering clear of shock and awe, Google put the science and technology behind features like Gesture Control, HDR+ Live, and Night Sight in the spotlight. Maybe it did suck a little excitement out of the day, but, ultimately, the Google Pixel 4’s performance will speak for itself.

Google Pixel 4 (starting at $799) ships on Oct. 24 and will be available on all major carriers.