I love Pixel. They’ve represented the loftiest of Google’s ideals – from its pure distillation of stock Android to the pioneering of next-generation computational photography. This year, we’ve got ourselves the Pixel 4, and we’ve already covered some of our favourite and least favourite features.
With some caveats, I loved last year’s Pixel 3, but can’t recommend the more affordable Pixel 3a enough. With hands-down the best image quality for stills photography, Google had a great starting point and fan base for the development of their new Pixel 4 devices.
But it’s far from perfect. Reviewers and commentators have piled on the imperfections of the phone. Everything, from spotty Soli radar sensing, to the lack of ultra-wide-angle lens – the Pixel 4 might be one of the most controversial smartphones this 2019.
Unboxing and First Impressions
I got to unbox my Pixel 4 XL in situ at Google’s Singapore HQ just hours after launch. The Pixel 4 is available in three finishes: the shiny Just Black, along with the matte Clearly White and new Oh So Orange. All models feature a unique matte black finish on the metal band surrounding the device.
The matte White and Orange models stand up to fingerprints well, while the shiny black doesn’t fair as well. I received the Pixel 4 XL in Just Black for review, and I was immediately disappointed it didn’t have the same refined matte finish as the other Pixel 4 devices.
Pulling the Pixel 4 XL from the box, the lack of USB-C to 3.5mm audio adapter and earphones is immediately apparent. Instead, all the user gets is a fast-charging brick and USB-C to USB-C cable.
Wireless charging is available at a full 11 watts (versus the 5 watts on the Pixel 3) without being locked into the proprietary Fast Charging Dock like the Pixel 3 was, with wired fast charging at 18 watts.
Of course, digital images are made up of the lowly pixel, and the eponymous Pixel puts an emphasis on photography. That’s where we’ll start.
It’s also hard to determine the characteristics of an image without a point of comparison, we brought on board the venerable iPhone 11 for a good old side-by-side.
Daytime photography on the Pixel is stellar, but pixel-peepers will notice the smoothening applied that reduces detail along with noise. HDR, which kicks in by default on both phones, also appears much more noticeable on the iPhone 11, which balances the bright patches of sky with the shadow-cast underside of the building, especially noticeable in the cropped diptych below.
It’s hard to say if one phone was more accurate than the other – the Pixel 4 XL does show the grey overcast skies more clearly, while the iPhone 11 casts a more saturated, bluish tint over the whole image. The more vibrant take does make the image seem a little more life-like, though.
It’s not always the case, as seen in the pair of images above. Neither accurately represent the colours of the flowers and the leaves accurately, although Pixel seems to deal with the sharpness of close-up images better.
I’ll get it out of the way. Marc Levoy, I’ve long admired your work in computational photography and have binged watched your series of lectures on the topic, but ultra-wide angles are fun, yes, but precisely because they’re fun, they’re more “useful”.
A telephoto lens is fine. Multitudes have survived with it as the sole supplementary shooter on the iPhone 6 Plus, 7 Plus, 8 Plus, X and Xs phones and they’re not traumatised. But the likes of Huawei and Samsung have opened our eyes to ultra-wide photography in our pockets – making its omission look glaringly detrimental.
Even so, the telephoto is a paltry 1.6x zoom, as compared to the 2x of the iPhones and the 3x that seems all the rage now on Huawei and Samsung devices. The aperture at f/2.4 is also more restricted than the iPhone at f/2.0 which would affect low-light performance when zoomed in. Undoubtedly, it’s main application is to aid in data collection for better computational photography so that’s not a big issue.
Night Sight on the Pixel 4 is as good as it gets. It’s almost magical and makes nightscapes seem like they were captured with a really bright moon. Side-by-side, the Pixel and iPhone deliver an almost identical performance, although the iPhone seems to be a little more detailed, contrasty and sharp at the expense of noise.
The other issue is one of ergonomics. Night Sight on Pixel is a separate mode that has to be activated, while Night Mode on iPhone automatically kicks in (with the option to disable or turn up a notch) without any additional user input. Night Sight is also a tad slower, taking on average twice as long as the iPhone, with additional time needed to render the final image.
That aside, there’s no big improvement in camera quality. There’s a new astrophotography mode, which uses artificial intelligence to enhance low-intensity light sources like stars and other celestial bodies.
I had the chance to attempt to capture the stars on a trip to Napa Valley, a few kilometres out of San Francisco city. It was dark enough to see the stars, but the full moon and slight light pollution seemed sufficient to throw the system off – there were some discernible improvements but nothing sufficient to impress.
The iPhone 11 pulled much more stars from the dark sky, while raising the overall exposure and creating a whole load of image noise. The Pixel 4, instead, seems to aim for a more conservative exposure while skimping on the number of stars. Not a fan.
Much has been said and a big deal has been made with regard to the implementation of the “lower-end” Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 chipset on the Pixel 4. Sure, performance won’t be as stellar as the 855+ pedigree Asus ROG Phone II and OnePlus 7T.
Personally, I wasn’t too disappointed. Google’s Pixel devices (unfortunately) aren’t known for their multitasking and powerhouse performance.
I experienced occasional multitasking issues where apps force closed in the background as I switched between other tasks, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as iPhones running iOS 13.2 (13.3 beta still seems to have issues) which have had issues with aggressive RAM management and multitasking.
Hiking up the RAM from 4GB to 6GB from the Pixel 3 to Pixel 4 was a great move on Google’s end, but still isn’t as drastic as the 8GB/10GB on the Samsung Galaxy Note 10/Note 10+ or the 8GB baseline on the OnePlus 7T.
Unfortunately, the Pixel is limited to last-gen UFS 2.1 flash storage, again lagging behind the aforementioned competitors that sport blazing-fast UFS 3.0 storage. That’s a difference a theoretical maximum read speed of 850MB/s on UFS 2.1 to the 2,100MB/2 on UFS 3.0. Write speeds are also improved from 260MB/s to 410MB/s.
AnTuTu places the Pixel 4 XL with a score of 412,946 above the Samsung Galaxy S10+ at 331,252. GPU performance, however, doesn’t do too well with the Pixel 4 XL achieving a score of 49 against the S10+’s 57 on GFXBench Manhattan 3.1 benchmark.
Pixel 4 sports a few notable upgrades to its build. Apart from eschewing the controversial bathtub-shaped (and -sized) notch, the Pixel 4 has also improved the matte glass texture on the backs of these phones. I’m also a huge fan of the new texturised matte black aluminium rails.
But alas, we can’t have it all. Google missed the chance for a potential cult classic fully-matte black device, opting instead to have a glossy black sheep in its herd of colour choices.
The prominent forehead that serves in place of the notorious notch isn’t without fault, either. While more aesthetically unobtrusive than last year’s travesty, it does offset on-screen content while held horizontally. That’s noticeable when playing games in landscape, when on-screen thumb-stick controls are asymmetrically offset from the corners of the device.
A Blip On The Radar
Apart from the supposed improvements to the camera with the addition of a telephoto lens (after mocking Apple and other manufacturers for the same feature) and the incremental upgrades to the RAM and chipset, Google also debuted the Soli radar sensor on the Pixel 4.
Conceptually, Soli is similar in effect to the sensors on the LG G8 ThinQ that allow users to access controls without physically touching their devices. Practically, it’s much better implemented with a higher hit rate (about 9/10).
However, in real life, Soli fails in its implementation. With Motion Sense, Soli only enables audio track navigation, silencing alarms and dealing with calls, which are too-limited use cases to be considered a feature, let alone a killer one.
It does enable blazing-fast Face Unlock by quickly firing up the screen and infrared projector/receiver with unmatched speed. I’m looking straight at you, iPhone swipe-up-to-unlock screen.
Problem: Soli seems to require me to stick my face right up to the Pixel 4 in order to initiate the launch sequence. There’s double-tap to wake or the colourful power button that serves the same purpose, but then again, what’s the point of Soli, then?
Practically, I very much prefer iPhone’s Face ID gyroscopes-and-single-tap-to-wake solution, but Pixel 4 surely has the edge here by eschewing the loathsome swipe-up interface.
Another issue – Face Unlock works with my eyes closed or looking elsewhere, which means it would be easy to gain access to the phone without the user’s knowledge.
Display of Force
Yet another discernible upgrade on the spec sheet is an all-new 90Hz OLED display. It’s a flagship feature I’m glad Google has taken on, and it does make a difference for those who care about refresh rates. Others might not even notice the difference
Personally, I feel that colour accuracy and picture quality are far more important features, and the Pixel 4 already has one of the best displays that delivers those, sans 90Hz refresh rate. There are zero colour temperature issues (but users can still tweak it to their preference) and its resolution makes it a joy to review photos captured by its amazing camera system.
App launch animations and other transitions are marginally smoother (yes, smoother than iPhone side-by-side), but the real difference is in games that support the high refresh rate technology. Vainglory is one of my favourite titles, while Pokemon Go, Alto’s Odyssey and Brawl Stars cover a wide range of other genres users might enjoy.
The main drawback of the Pixel 4 in the display department is the less-than-stellar maximum brightness. At around 400-450 nits, it was a clear step down from the 800-900 nits my iPhone 11 Pro Max dishes out (Apple advertises a maximum 625 nits on the more modestly-priced iPhone 11). This difference was clearest under direct sunlight, which I encounter several times a day given my mobile work demands.
Other AI Smarts
I particularly enjoyed Pixel 4’s live transcription, especially in my role as a journalist. On-device and shockingly accurate, Pixel 4 made churning articles out of interviews a breeze, and most importantly allowed me to enjoy listening to music rather than analyse my embarrassingly shrill voice on playback.
It’s not a headline feature, though, and would likely be coming to other Pixel and Android phones.
Unfortunately, “incremental” would be the word that best describes the Pixel 4 hardware update. Soli was bold, but prevented the Pixel from being sold in some territories. It also has limited use cases aside from proximity sensing for Face Unlock and rudimentary touch-free gesture controls.
Cameras have been upgraded, but not in meaningful ways where improvements are noticeable. I can’t tell images taken on Pixel 3 and 4 apart. More worryingly, stills taken on my iPhone stand up well against Pixel – once the gold standard for photographic performance.
The camera UI has also not been improved, and although usable and effective, was frustrating to use at times. Issues I had while reviewing the Pixel 3 came up again, like not being able to quickly access the last taken photograph due to a software glitch that brought up the previous photo instead.
At 90Hz, and with superb colour accuracy and smoothness, the display on the Pixel is its crowning achievement and likely the feature that would seal the deal for most potential customers looking for an upgrade. Personally, it’s hard to see the difference between 60 and 90Hz displays apart from a repeated side-by-side comparison.
The higher refresh rate only seems to come up during animations on the home screen and between apps, with still-limited support on games.
Starting at SGD 1,119 for the 5.7-inch Pixel 4 and at SGD 1,319 for the 6.3-inch Pixel 4 XL, the 2019 Google Pixel devices are an upgrade from last year’s models – only in some ways that certain individuals might appreciate.