❤ Google Pixel 4

 

 

It wasn’t with much excitement that we met the reveal of the Pixel 4 duo – Google’s lack of effort to contain early leaks meant that not only were the specs unremarkable, but we also knew them in advance. We already had the 4 XL for review and we have more than a general idea of this gen’s pros and cons, but now we set out to discover how the small Pixel 4 performs and how it stands in the context of its own specific competitors.

 

 

 

 

 

The Pixel 4 is essentially the same phone as the 4 XL, only scaled down in a couple of ways – display and battery. Where the XL packs a 6.3-inch QHD+ panel, the small phone stays at 5.7 inches (FullHD+ resolution, but that’s fine at this size). Both are OLEDs too. Then there’s battery – if the XL’s 3,700mAh capacity sounded on the meh side of okay, the 2,800mAh figure in the Pixel 4 specsheet is downright worrisome.

 

 

Google Pixel 4 review

 

 

The rest is all the same. The soon-to-be-replaced springtime Qualcomm top-dog of a chipset, the lowest amount of RAM of any current flagship, with low base storage and low maximum storage – it sure sounds exactly like Google’s way of doing phones. That also means Android 10 in a flavor no one else has and if you’re looking at a Pixel, you clearly enjoy that.

 

 

Google Pixel 4 review

 

 

This generation of Pixels come with radar-based Motion Sense for gestures and a front ToF camera for 3D depth mapping, but is missing a fingerprint reader of any sort. It’s got no ultra wide-angle camera either, but conversely, the small Pixel is one of the more affordable ways to get a telephoto from one of the big names – neither the iPhone 11 nor the Galaxy S10e has one.

 

Google Pixel 4 specs

  • Body: Texture-coated aluminum frame; Gorilla Glass 5 back (soft texture on the Clearly White and Oh So Orange color schemes, glossy on the Just Black); 147.1×68.8×8.2mm, 162g.
  • Screen: 5.7″ P-OLED display, 90Hz variable refresh rate, 1080x2280px (~444ppi), 19:9 ratio, Gorilla Glass 5.
  • Chipset: Qualcomm Snapdragon 855, octa-core CPU (1×2.84GHz Kryo 485 + 3×2.42 GHz Kryo 485 + 4×1.78GHz Kryo 485); Adreno 640 GPU.
  • Memory: 6GB RAM; 64/128GB storage, non-expandable.
  • OS: Android 10.
  • Cameras: Main: 12.2MP, 1.4µm pixel size, 28mm equiv. focal length, f/1.7 aperture, dual pixel PDAF, OIS; Telephoto: 16MP, 1.0µm, 45mm, f/2.4, PDAF, OIS; LED flash; Nigh Sight; Live HDR viewfinder; Super Res Zoom; Video recording – 720p @ 240 fps, 1080p @ 120 fps, 2160p @ 30 fps.
  • Selfie cam: 8MP, 1.22µm, 22mm, f/2.0; ToF 3D sensor.
  • Battery: 2,800mAh Li-Po; 18W USB Power Delivery charging; 11W Qi wireless charging.
  • Connectivity: Nano SIM + eSIM; Wi-Fi a/b/g/n/ac; Bluetooth 5.0 + LE; NFC; Wi-Fi direct; GPS, Galilleo, GLONASS.
  • Misc: Face unlock; radar-based Motion Sense; stereo loudspeakers.

 

 

The Pixel 4 that arrived at headquarters has a more conventional package with the phone printed on it as opposed to the colorful ‘P 4’ markings on our US-bound XL unit. The contents are all the same, however.

 

 

Google Pixel 4 review

 

 

You’re getting an 18W USB Power Delivery adaptor, essentially the same one that shipped with the original Pixel (1), and a USB-C-to-C cable to go with it. There’s also a USB-C-to-A adapter for plugging in thumb drives. There is no USB-C-to-3.5mm dongle, so if you want to hook up conventional wired headphones, you’d need to provide your own. And, speaking of headphones, there aren’t any in the box.

Pixels have never exactly been good-looking phones. Perhaps the lowest point was last year, when the 3 XL had the mother of all notches, though the small Pixel 3 remained a non-hideous alternative. With the fourth generation, the notch on the big one is gone and the two sizes look very similar.

 

 

Google Pixel 4 review

 

 

One of the Pixel 4‘s defining design traits is the forehead. Housing a whole bunch of stuff other than a mere selfie cam, the Pixel 4‘s has a distinctly top-heavy look – you’ve sort of been conditioned to seeing phones with chins more than foreheads.

 

 

Google Pixel 4 review

 

 

Left to right, the cutouts are home to a 3D ToF camera, the regular selfie camera, the ambient light and proximity sensors, the earpiece/second speaker and, lastly, the radar tech for the Motion Sense gestures.

 

 

Google Pixel 4 review

 

 

Now, if we have to scrutinize the Pixel 4‘s bezels, well, it’s not a flagship look. It’s not bad, strictly speaking, it’s just that we’ve been spoiled by more recent Galaxies, for example, and the Pixel’s meatier display outlines are a bit unimpressive. Having said that, an iPhone 11 is hardly superior in terms of bezels (plus, that notch), and a Galaxy S10e has an unsightly cutout in its top right-hand corner, so it’s not like the Pixel 4 is necessarily uglier than its immediate competition.

 

 

Google Pixel 4 review

 

 

The Pixel 4 does have some nice design quirks that make it stand out. Key among those is the accented power button – Oh so orange Pixels 4s like our review unit have a pinkish power buttons, the Clearly white back goes with an orange-red accent, and the Just black color scheme has it in a contrasting white.

 

 

Google Pixel 4 review

 

 

Mind you, the black version comes with a glossy back, while the other two have a frosted matte finish. The black version is where fingerprints go to stay, while the matte options are not at all prone to smudge retention, though they are remarkably slippery. Neither is ideal, but while we’re debating which is better (matte is), we can’t help but wonder why they couldn’t all have the same finish.

Matte or gloss, the glass panel on the Pixel 4‘s back is Gorilla Glass 5, as is the sheet on top of the OLED display up front. All glued up nice and tight, the phone is IP68 rated for dust and water protection.

 

 

Google Pixel 4 review

 

 

Another of the signature design choices is the square block of a camera assembly on the back. We’re not saying it’s pretty, it’s just recognizable. The two camera modules are placed side by side, a dual LED flash under them and a spectral/flicker sensor above. An extra mic is also around these quarters.

 

 

Google Pixel 4 review

 

 

All three color options (that are the same across both sizes) do come with the same matte black aluminum frame. All hail the return of the panda – the Clearly White color scheme with the white back and the black frame is a throwback to the Pixel 2 XL’s two tone paintjob, now available on the size S model as well.

As has been the case with all previous Pixels, the fourth generation has a button layout that’s somewhat different than most other phones – both the power button and the volume rocker are on the right side, with the power button above the volume rocker. If you’re coming from an older Pixel, you’ll be instantly familiar, otherwise it might require a brief adjustment period.

 

 

Google Pixel 4 review

 

 

With the reassessment of the bezel situation from 3 to 4, the new Pixel has its bottom speaker relocated – it’s no longer facing forward, but is ported on the bottom instead. There is a slit on each side of the USB-C port, but only the right one has a speaker behind it, the left one is for the primary mic and is only as big as the other one for symmetry.

 

 

Google Pixel 4 review

 

 

The SIM card slot is high on the left side of the phone, a small tray only accepting a single nano SIM. Technically, you can have a dual SIM Pixel 4, but your carrier needs to support eSIM – the phone only accepts one physical card. There’s no microSD slot either, nor has there ever been on a Pixel.

Up top, a pinhole for the secondary mic is the one thing breaking the frame’s continuity.

 

 

Google Pixel 4 review

 

 

The Pixel 4 measures 147.1×68.8×8.2mm making it one of the more compact high-end phones you can buy. If we count the Galaxy S10e as a main competitor, the two feel very similar in the hand, but the iPhone 11 is massive in comparison, both in footprint and weight. Meanwhile, an Xperia 5 is about the same width and thickness as the Pixel 4, but is a full centimeter taller.

The Google Pixel 4 is equipped with a 5.7-inch display that has a 1080x2280px resolution in a 19:9 aspect ratio. Pixel density then works out to 444ppi – more than enough, but not quite the 4 XL’s 537ppi of its QHD+ 6.3-inch panel.

 

 

Google Pixel 4 review

 

 

Both Pixel 4 phones use P-OLED panels, the ‘P’ standing for plastic. That is, the substrate below the display is plastic as opposed to glass. In that sense, a P-OLED is no different from a Samsung AMOLED which also has a plastic underlying layer (both are also active-matrix, the ‘AM’ in AMOLED).

That minor detour dealt with, we measured a maximum brightness of 423nits on the Pixel 4, a dozen nits lower than the XL and marginally lower than the Pixel 3 as well. As with other Pixels, the 4 lacks an auto (‘Adaptive’) brightness boost that you’d find on most other brands of phones, whether they use OLED panels or not. As a result, the Pixel 4 can’t get as bright as a Galaxy S10, LG G8X, Xperia 5, or a OnePlus 7T. That last one can be 100nits brighter than the Pixel even when adjusting the slider by hand, while the iPhone 11 Pro reaches as high as 800nits in manual mode. Even so, the Pixel 4‘s screen poses no usability issues when viewing outdoors, though it’s not as good under direct sunlight as a Galaxy S10, for example.

 

Display test 100% brightness
Black, cd/m2 White, cd/m2 Contrast ratio
Google Pixel 4 XL 0 436
Google Pixel 4 0 423
Google Pixel 3 0 426
Google Pixel 3a XL 0 451
Samsung Galaxy S10 0 396
Samsung Galaxy S10 (Max Auto) 0 820
Samsung Galaxy S10e 0 389
Samsung Galaxy S10e (Max Auto) 0 803
Apple iPhone 11 Pro 0 805
Apple iPhone 11 0.428 644 1505
Xiaomi Mi 9 0 428
Xiaomi Mi 9 (Max Auto) 0 620
LG G8X ThinQ 0 330
LG G8X ThinQ (Max Auto) 0 603
OnePlus 7T 0 525
OnePlus 7T (Max Auto) 0 743
Sony Xperia 5 0 353
Sony Xperia 5 (Max Auto) 0 574

 

The Pixel 4 has a two-way approach to handling color reproduction. The baseline is set by the display mode, where you can select between Natural, Boosted, and Adaptive modes, the default being Adaptive. Then there’s the Ambient EQ, which adapts the colors to the ambient light – think Apple’s True Tone.

With Ambient EQ disabled, we explored the different color modes, comparing the output against the usual target color spaces. Expectedly, ‘Natural’ mode got us very close to the true reproduction of sRGB content – we measured an average DeltaE of 2.3 and a maximum of 3.9 – a pretty good showing, marred slightly by the fact that the 3.9 is for point white. The Boosted mode is there for your DCI-P3 content, and it’s accurate to within an average DeltaE of 2.4 (4.5 maximum goes to Cyan), while in Adaptive we measured a 2.6 average for DCI-P3.

The Pixel 4‘s display is HDR capable, and YouTube and Netflix happily stream HDR content.

 

Google Pixel 4 battery life

One of our main concerns about the Pixel 4‘s overall performance as a smartphone stemmed from its battery capacity – the 2,800mAh number is tiiiny, while similarly sized Galaxy S10e and Xperia 5 have cells in the 3,100mAh ballpark.

Our testing proved that our concerns were well-founded. The Pixel 4 couldn’t make it to the 10-hour mark in web browsing and lasted us a little over 11 hours of looping videos. The S10e can do an hour and a half longer on the web and 4 hours more, while the Xperia adds even more minutes on top. The iPhone 11, on the other hand, clocked a whopping 15:29 of running our web script and 18:43h of video playback. In all fairness, we did run the Pixel 4 in its 90Hz mode, though it does have its own concepts of when to kick in and when not to.

Anyway, the Pixel 4 was also good for almost 21 hours of 3G voice calls – as much as the s10e, 3 hours more than the iPhone, and about 8 hours short of the Xperia’s time. Adding the standby draw into the mix, we calculated an overall Endurance rating of 62 hours for the Google Pixel 4 – far from impressive.

 

 

 

 

Topping up the Pixel 4‘s battery with the included 18W USB Power Delivery adapter took us 1:27h with 49% showing in the battery indicator at the half-hour mark. It’s not the best of results, particularly when accounting for the small capacity and the comparatively low endurance that you’d get out of the 49% that a half-hour charging session will get you.

 

Loudspeaker

The Google Pixel 4 has a stereo speaker configuration, in which there is a main loudspeaker on the bottom and the earpiece doubles as the second channel. As far as such setups go, the Pixel 4‘s is among the least disbalanced when it comes to the two speakers tonal range and loudness – while the earpiece isn’t quite as loud as the speaker on the bottom, it does punch harder than competitors’ earpieces.

 

 

Google Pixel 4 review

 

 

In our testing, the 4 couldn’t quite match the 4XL’s numbers for loudness, but was more than loud enough, easily placing in the Excellent bowl after our three sample tracks. It beat the iPhone 11 and 11 Pro and S10e (but not the S10), though it couldn’t threaten the OnePlus 7T for loudness. The 7T does also sound a bit better, but the Pixel 4 still does output full and balanced tunes.

 

 

Speakerphone test Voice, dB Pink noise/ Music, dB Ringing phone, dB Overall score
Apple iPhone 11 70.8 72.3 76.0 Very Good
Sony Xperia 5 68.1 73.8 79.5 Very Good
Apple iPhone 11 Pro 71.2 73.8 80.7 Very Good
Xiaomi Mi 9 70.1 74.2 81.6 Very Good
LG G8X ThinQ 69.8 73.2 83.7 Very Good
Samsung Galaxy S10e 71.2 76.8 80.6 Excellent
Google Pixel 3 77.5 71.7 81.1 Excellent
Google Pixel 4 79.1 71.8 83.9 Excellent
Samsung Galaxy S10 82.2 74.9 85.5 Excellent
Google Pixel 4 XL 80.1 78.1 88.1 Excellent
Google Pixel 3a XL 79.3 77.1 91.1 Excellent
OnePlus 7T 79.8 77.4 91.6 Excellent

 

Audio quality

We now move on to testing the Google Pixel 4 audio performance via its audio jack. With it lacking a dedicated 3.5mm jack, we had to resort to a USB-C-to-3.5mm adapter for the test. Since Google doesn’t even supply one in the retail package, we used the official adapter than the company is selling. So fair warning – your mileage might vary if you use a different adapter.

When hooked to an active external amplifier the Pixel 4 came somewhat short of our expectations for a 2019 smartphone, let alone a flagship. Its signal-to-noise ratio was disappointing, and so were its stereo separation and general volume level.

Headphones caused a small spike in intermodulation distortion and a further increase in stereo crosstalk – no big deal on its own, but when you are starting as low as the Pixel 4, this means a mediocre overall score. Oh, and loudness dropped further, so don’t even think of hooking your high impedance headphones to this one.

 

 

Test Frequency response Noise level Dynamic range THD IMD + Noise Stereo crosstalk
Google Pixel 4 +0.02, -0.12 -71.5 83.0 0.0024 0.029 -69.8
Google Pixel 4 (headphones) +0.06, -0.24 -69.2 80.8 0.0058 0.163 -52.2
Google Pixel 4 XL +0.02, -0.19 -93.9 93.9 0.0018 0.0084 -94.1
Google Pixel 4 XL (headphones) +0.17, -0.12 -94.0 94.0 0.0042 0.104 -53.1
Google Pixel 3 +0.02, -0.12 -71.7 83.2 0.0031 0.032 -70.1
Google Pixel 3 (headphones) +0.15, -0.15 -68.4 80.2 0.0066 0.193 -61.1
Sony Xperia 5 +0.02, -0.02 -93.0 92.8 0.0012 0.007 -89.4
Sony Xperia 5 (headphones) +0.25, -0.30 -91.8 91.7 0.0045 0.312 -57.3
Samsung Galaxy S10e +0.03, -0.04 -92.9 92.7 0.0015 0.0074 -89.4
Samsung Galaxy S10e (headphones) +0.05, -0.05 -92.7 92.5 0.0017 0.037 -73.0

 

 

Google’s own Android 10

While we’ve seen several phones with Android 10 out of the box, it’s the Pixels that showcase Google’s vision of what the OS should look like and how it should behave. We did experience that already on the XL, and the small Pixel 4 is barely any different.

Major changes to the interface in this version include a new Face unlock system, overhauled gesture navigation, and a new appearance for Google Assistant. At the event, Google also demonstrated that it could process vocal queries much quicker as it can store voice-to-speech transcription locally on the device in a much smaller database.

 

 

Google Pixel 4 review

 

 

When first starting it up, you are prompted to register your face for security. At this point, you might realize there is no longer a fingerprint scanner, and this is because Google replaced Pixel Imprint in favor of the more generically named “Face unlock.”

This was a significant change back when Apple dumped Touch ID for Face ID, and it’s a significant change for Google now. Both use IR dot projectors and an IR camera to create and detect a depth map of the user’s face.

In practice, Face unlocking works accurately and quickly. With the Motion Sense feature, it wakes the phone and triggers face detection while you’re reaching for your phone so you can get in quickly. Just like any other phone with face unlock, it’s more difficult to unlock while it’s laying on a table. On the upside, Face unlock works from any angle, even upside down.

As Google has noted in the Face unlock intro screen, the phone will authenticate and unlock even with our eyes closed. Google has since confirmed it will update the feature to not be such a liability, but that update is still not here on our units.

Another hurdle with Face unlock is support from banking institutions. It took years before fingerprint authentication could be used with banking and payment apps, among others. Currently, Google Pay works with Face authentication, but banking apps that once supported fingerprint to log in need to be updated to support Face unlock. Right now, only a handful of apps support Face unlock, but they are mostly password management apps.

After setting up Face unlock, the setup will quickly teach you how to use Android 10’s new gesture controls. Google’s 2-button nav gestures are gone (and we’re glad), and the nav bar has been replaced with a slimmer home bar, much like a new iPhone. You can summon Google Assistant by giving the Pixel a squeeze.

Swiping up will go Home, swiping in from the edge will go Back, and swiping up from either corner will open Google Assistant. Multitasking is done by swiping up and holding, but you can easily switch between apps by swiping horizontally on the home bar.

Since there’s no longer a fingerprint scanner to pull down the notification shade, you can now swipe down from any part of any home screen will pull the notification shade down, so there’s no longer a need to reach up to the top edge. Not that having a fingerprint reader in itself meant the swipe on homescreen action couldn’t be implemented, but never mind.

The homescreens are what we’ve come to expect from a Pixel. Swiping up gets you to the app drawer with the top-most row dedicated to the five frequently used apps.

Apart from wallpapers, the Pixel launcher now allows for more customization in the settings. The Style tab in the wallpapers menu lets you change the shape and color scheme of both app and quick setting icons. You can also set a system-wide accent color and font.

There is a new category of live wallpapers labeled “Come Alive,” and they all subtly respond to hand gestures over the Motion Sense detector. There’s even a Pokemon wallpaper designed to promote Nintendo’s Pokemon Sword and Shield game titles.

When Project Soli was first announced back in 2015, it was presented as a breakthrough in motion-sensing technology with the ability to detect and interpret precise hand motions like sliding a finger and thumb to scroll through settings and then tapping the fingers together to select.

Motion Sense is Google’s first implementation of Project Soli in a major consumer product and the result feels both half-baked and gimmicky.

There are only a handful of useful things you can do with Motion Sense. Several music apps are supported to skip back and forward between tracks, even when music is playing in the background or if the display is turned off. You can also snooze alarms or silence timers and incoming calls by waving over the screen. That’s about it for useful features and nothing like the initial promo video for Project Soli.

Motion sense can detect when you’re reaching for the phone and fire up the Face unlock hardware to swiftly detect the user’s face and unlock the phone. We noticed it often triggers when its placed on a computer desk, in proximity to someone actively working with a mouse and keyboard. If you decide to turn this feature off (you might save some battery by doing so), you can still double-tap the display to quickly glance at the time and notifications, and you can still ‘lift to wake’ it.

By default, you’ll skip seeing the lockscreen entirely if you enable Face unlock, but there is an option to disable that so you can glance at your notifications and manually swipe in.

The Always On Display feature is enabled by default. This screen will display icons for missed notifications, a small weather widget, the time, battery percentage left, and a couple of lines are dedicated to contextual information such as anticipated traffic or upcoming calendar events.

With Android 10, both permissions and notifications offer finer and more transparent control. Starting with Notifications, the pull-down shade’s order is priority-based. For example, if you receive notifications from a messaging app, they are a high priority, and a little bell icon appears. Otherwise, when you get notifications from less important apps like games or persistent app notifications, they’ll show up as “Silent notifications” and take up less space.

Android 10 now shows you an average of the daily and weekly number of times an app triggers notifications in a dedicated Notifications menu. This gives users the information needed to decide which apps are inundating them with useless pings and prioritize more important notifications.

Android 10 brings the much-hyped “Dark theme,” and it can be accessed from the Display settings. It darkens all menus, pop-up windows, Google Assistant, and even the Google Search Bar. Some apps will also automatically switch to their respective dark scheme, as long as the app supports following the system-wide setting.

Two new applications are debuting on Pixel 4. The first one is the Safety app that organizes the emergency features of the new Pixels. The app lets you organize and fill out your medical information and assign emergency contacts in an emergency.

Finally, thanks to Google’s new transcription app, it enabled a new voice recorder app from Google that can transcribe voice notes in real-time, and it doesn’t require an internet connection. This app debuts on the Pixel 4 and 4 XL, and it enables a new way to keep track of voice recordings.

 

Synthetic benchmarks

The Pixel 4 is powered by the Qualcomm Snapdragon 855, a chip that was hot when it launched but that was in early Spring. Most of the Fall releases have at least opted for the slightly higher-clocked 855+, but not the Pixels. There’s the added concern that a new chipset is coming in a few months, but after all, with Google and Qualcomm’s release schedules arranged like that, the Pixels are always going to be in a less than ideal position in terms of silicon. That’s not to say the Snapdragon 855 isn’t powerful enough; it’s more of a sour feeling that you’re paying top-dollar and superior hardware is around the corner.

 

 

Voice recorder - Google Pixel 4 review

 

 

The Pixel 4 comes with just 6GB of RAM, and there are no other options when it comes to that. Android flagships typically have at least 8GB these days, though the Galaxy S10e does come with 6 gigs in its base trim (8GB version is still available, though). The Pixel’s 64GB base storage is too little in our option and so is the 128GB maximum if you decide you do want to spend extra to have more.

There’s another peculiarity when it comes to Pixels, and it’s that they tend to perform a notch below competitors for the given hardware. That’s mostly the case with the Pixel 4 as well. It’s towards the bottom of the pack under both single-core and multi-core loads in GeekBench 5, with a Note being the only phone on this shortlist to fall behind the Pixel in multi-core, and the Realme X2 Pro oddly dropping the ball in single-core applications despite having the superior S855+ inside.

 

Wide and tele, ultra wide missing

Google has been stubbornly fitting a single cam on the back of its Pixel amidts the recent multi-cam craze that the past couple of years have been but has finally given in and equipped the Pixel 4 with a telephoto next to the regular cam. What is still missing is the ultra wide-angle module.

 

 

Voice recorder - Google Pixel 4 review

 

 

The setup of the Pixel 4 is identical to that of the 4 XL – alongside an optically stabilized 12.2MP main camera with large 1.4-micron pixels, and f/1.7 aperture is a 16MP telephoto camera (also stabilized) with 1.0-micron pixels and an f/2.4 aperture lens. Technically, the two lenses don’t have a 2x ratio in their focal lengths (28mm and 45mm equivalents, if you go by the FoV angles Google specifies vs. 27mm and 43mm if you trust the EXIF data) but since the tele starts off with 16MP and produces 12MP images, they just about pull off the 2x zoom.

There is, of course, Google’s Super Res Zoom, which the company claimed was good enough on its own on the Pixel 3, negating the need for a telephoto back then. Also, both cameras benefit from Google’s HDR+ algorithms for improving image quality.

The industry has already moved past dual cameras and are already established with triple cameras, including the latest iPhone 11 Pro. So Google’s decision to go with a telephoto camera instead of an ultra-wide – which many makers have been adding to the mix – raised many eyebrows. This depends on personal preference, and the kinds of environments people tend to shoot, but Google believes that the average consumer is more likely to take zoomed photos over ultra-widened snapshots. We are not going to take a side here in favor of one type of camera or the other, but we’d just say that many manufacturers are happy to provide all three without the need for compromise.

Having said all that, while the Pixel 4 XL is indeed underequipped compared to its all-out flagship competitors, the small Pixel 4 is in a bit of a different position. Going by the assumption that it competes against the iPhone 11 and the Galaxy S10e, the most affordable high-end offers from the two main rivals, the Pixel 4 offers a different setup, not an inferior one. End of philosophical musings.

 

 

Voice recorder - Google Pixel 4 review

 

 

Google has introduced a few new features on the Pixel’s camera this generation. The first is Live HDR+, which aims to show you what your final image is going to look like in the viewfinder before you’ve taken the shot and the phone has finished processing it.

Before that, especially in more demanding situations, the live viewfinder was only really used to compose your shots, then you’d only see the resulting HDR+ photo in the camera roll. We’re glad to see this change implemented as it makes a huge difference in the picture-taking process.

Another new feature is dual exposure controls – baked right into the camera UI. Now you can manually adjust the shadows and highlights as you are composing a shot, useful if you want to get a more artistic photo like the silhouette of a person against a bright background. Or you know, if you want to alleviate to some extent the Pixel’s slight tendency towards dark shadows and brighten them up a bit.

Since Google doesn’t offer full manual controls on the Pixel, this is a welcome feature. It combines well with Live HDR+, so you see the photo’s exposure before you hit capture.

Apart from improvements in Night Sight and portrait mode – thanks to the second camera, “learning-based automatic white balance” is available in all shooting modes where it was previously only used in Night Sight.

The camera interface is mostly unchanged from the Pixel 3. You can swipe between shooting modes, and the most important ones are easily accessible: Night Sight, Portrait, Camera, Video, and a More tab containing Panorama, Photo Sphere, Slow Motion, Time Lapse, Playground, and Lens.

To make the viewfinder less cluttered, Google put the flash, timer, and Motion settings in a drawer, opposite the shutter button. It’s an extra step to reach the Flash settings, but Google did mention at its presentation that it hopes you never need to use the Flash. Still, the drawer makes it easier to focus on the viewfinder.

Even with the drawer open, you can still hit the shutter key, so you don’t miss the shot. Hitting the shutter does hide the drawer so you can keep snapping away.

 

Daylight image quality

We found daylight image quality out of the main camera of the Pixel 4 to be a slight improvement over the previous generation mostly due to marginally better noise handling. The Pixel 4 still takes recognizably ‘Pixel’ photos with wide dynamic range, particularly in the highlights – that’s where HDR+ prioritizes its efforts. If you want to liven up the dark-ish shadows, the sliders we mentioned in the software section are the way to go.

Color rendition is generally spot-on, which means the Pixel takes slightly cooler and not quite as saturated photos as, say, a Galaxy. Again, that’s the Pixel ‘look.’

The telephoto camera does take ‘2x’ shots even though its lens’ focal length isn’t strictly ‘2x’ – the coverage matches the 50-ish millimeter equivalent of the iPhone and Galaxy’s 2x teles. Telephoto shots come out with slightly warmer color reproduction and are missing some of that finest micro contrast when you zoom in up close. That’s mostly nitpicking, however, and we really like the Pixel 4‘s 2x shots – dynamic range is nice and wide, and the detail is there too.

 

Low-light

Low light photos out of the Pixel 4 are already great without going into Night Sight, unless it’s too dark when it doesn’t expose brightly enough. They do end up a little noisy, more so than what you’d get out of a Samsung phone. Additionally, on occasion, you may get blurry shots if it’s too dark and the phone isn’t comfortable with the ISO needed to get a fast enough shutter speed.

Night Sight does make a considerable difference in a lot of ways. It recovers highlights somewhat, but more importantly, lifts the shadows in a more dramatic way, particularly in dark settings. Indoor shots with a lot of colorful lights specifically benefit immensely from Night Sight.

Another characteristic Night Sight trait that Google’s kept is the overall bleaching of photos with certain warm light sources

Unlike competitors, if the Pixel 4 is set at ‘2x’, it’s using the actual tele camera, and that’s that – there’s no light threshold below which it’ll switch to a zoomed-in view from the main one. Zoom shots in low light are okay – not spectacular, but not bad either. They are noisy, but no more than ordinary, and they’re reasonably well detailed, plus colors are preserved nicely. Night Sight takes away some of the saturation of warmly-lit scenes but does make for overall superior images.

 

Portraits

Portraits are nothing short of amazing coming out of the Pixel 4. Subject isolation is very proficient, and the algorithms do an excellent job of blurring areas both behind and in front of the subject, just as a real camera would.

The processing works just as well on non-human subjects letting you isolate and bring the viewer’s attention to just the thing you want in the frame.

Mind you, the Pixel 4 has two main zoom levels it can take portraits in. The 1x gives you a moderately zoomed-in the image compared to the main cam’s usual perspective, same as the Pixel 3 did, while the 1.3x matches the FoV of the telephoto cam but still uses the main module. Either mode outputs 12MP shots as if there’s no trickery going on. The 1.3x magnification mode has a particularly upscaled look to it, though still reasonably detailed. The 1x shots are better in per-pixel detail. Aside from keeping a comfortable distance away from your subject, we’re not seeing the point behind this 1.3x mode.

8MP Selfie camera
Google’s been doing a weird back and forth with its selfie cams and after fitting a couple on last year’s Pixels, it’s back down to one on the Pixel 4. Only now, there’s a ToF module too to help with depth mapping. The actual camera is an 8MP unit with an f/2.0 aperture lens that sadly doesn’t have autofocus – another step back from the AF-ing primary selfie cam of yesteryear.

 

 

Google Pixel 4 review

 

 

The Pixel 4 may only have a single cam on the front, but it offers a wider than most field of view – the 90 degrees correspond to about a 22mm equivalent, placing it in between last year’s 28mm and 19mm snappers. It’s marginally wider than the iPhone 11’s 23mm unit and more noticeably so than the 26mm module of the current Galaxies.

Selfies have nice colors and wide dynamic range. Detail is good too, but it’s just that we’ve been spoiled by higher pixel-count selfies and these are merely okay.

That’s about what we can say of the Pixel 4‘s selfie portraits. They do come in with a slight crop, like the ones from the main cam, but google has somehow managed to mess up the processing/depth mapping and we often got imperfections along the border between subject and background.

 

Video

Admittedly, not many of us around here record video at 4K in 60fps, so the fact that the Pixel 4 is missing that mode isn’t hurting us, personally. That said, if every other high-end phone can do 4K60, the Pixel 4 should as well. The phone does have the rest of the important modes covered – 4K at 30fps and 1080p at both 30 and 60fps, and it does so with both cameras. Electronic video stabilization is available across the board too.

Video quality out of the main cam in 4K is quite good. The Pixel 4 captures a lot of detail, though there’s also a fair bit of noise in the footage. We are noticing some excessive sharpening halos around high-contrast details – it’s not a very natural look. Colors are on point, however. 1080p footage has essentially the same properties, be it in 30fps or 60fps, with perhaps a touch less noise in 30fps.

 

 

 

 

 

The telephoto camera’s 4K footage is slightly softer, like its photos, and is also a little warmer and more saturated than what you’d get out of the main module. The processing is quite different too, and… we’re inclined to like the telephoto’s laid back approach to sharpening better. 1080p is okay too, the 60fps mode noticeably softer and less detailed than 30fps.

 

 

 

 

 

 

What the Pixel 4 excels at is stabilization. There’s no discernible difference in its greatness regardless of mode when you’re shooting with the main cam – it’ll iron out walking induced shake, and it starts and stops just right when you’re panning. Meanwhile, the telephoto will stay planted in the direction you’re pointing it at, though it does have slightly weird behavior at the beginning and end of a pan.

 

 

 

 

 

Competition

We’ve been less than excited about the Pixel 4 duo since day one (or day minus 120, if you count the early leaks), but after spending a few days with the small version and devoting a bit of time to deliberation, a case could be made for its existence. Okay, maybe not strictly at its launch price of $800/€750/£670, but Pixel discounts do pop up often, and they’re often better than most other discounts.

 

 

Google Pixel 4 review

 

 

Apple, on the other hand, doesn’t do discounts and whether it’s launch day, Black Friday, or Christmas, the iPhone 11 runs for $700/€800/£730 – so the ‘budget’ Pixel is cheaper than the ‘budget’ iPhone even at list price unless you’re in the US. The Google phone scores some points for its higher-res, higher refresh rate OLED display next to the iPhone’s notched LCD, but the 11 does have the upper hand in battery endurance. And just as the OSes will have buyers divided, so too will the cameras – do you want a tele (Pixel), or do you want an ultra-wide (iPhone)?

It’s the same dilemma if you pit the Pixel 4 against the ‘budget’ Galaxy. Admittedly, the S10e is much more competitively priced, being some 8 months old now, and things aren’t looking good for the Pixel 4 at its MSRP. Aside from the camera conundrum, the Galaxy has battery life going for it, and a display which, while not 90Hz, is generally superior to the Pixel’s. The S10e is also available across the globe, but every Pixel across the globe will get Android 11 and 12 the moment these are out, which isn’t quite guaranteed on the Galaxy.

Mind you, for the Pixel 4‘s list price you could grab a galaxy S10 proper, and then you’ll get all the cameras and a higher-res display.

The OnePlus 7T retails comfortably below Pixel money ($600/€600/£550), yet it offers most of the Google phone’s advantages, and then some. A no-compromise 90Hz display, battery life to spare, superior performance, twice the storage at base price, and best of all – a trio of cameras. It’s missing an official IP rating and, recognizable as OnePlus may have become across the world, the brand is no Apple or Samsung.

 

 

 

 

Verdict

We know that deep down you feel disappointed by the Pixel 4 – it’s the prevalent sentiment around the office too. There’s little excuse for the poor battery life, the one-camera-short attitude that Google is sticking with, the only-sometimes-90Hz display, things like that. Plus, the Pixel 4 isn’t exactly priced to sell, and much better deals are available, even from the big names.

 

 

Google Pixel 4 review

 

 

Having said that, Pixels get discounted, heavily so. At the right price (say $200 below MSRP), Pixel 4 makes a lot of sense – the 90Hz display is great, whether it’s at 90Hz or 60, and no iPhones or Galaxies offer a high refresh rate yet anyway. Their most affordable high-end offers don’t have telephotos either, so that’s another one in favor of the Pixel 4, plus the specific way Google does image processing might be just your thing.

To sum it all up, if you happen to see the Pixel 4‘s price slashed at a time when you’re looking for a phone, by all means, get one. But pursue it at all costs.

Pros

  • Google’s showcase of how Android should look and feel.
  • 90Hz display among 60Hz competitors.
  • Telephoto camera while others have ultra wides and no telephoto.
  • Overall great picture quality, superb portraits, okay selfies.
  • Spectacular video stabilization.

Cons

  • No fingerprint, thus biometric authorization not available in some apps, gimmicky radar-based gestures.
  • Odd limitations in the 90Hz display behaviour.
  • Battery life is at the bottom of the charts in the class.
  • Benchmark performance on the low end of the spectrum for the hardware.
  • Well, no ultra wide angle camera while others have them.
  • No bundled cable earbuds or an adapter.
  • Limited market availability (even more so due to the Motion Sense radar).