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Pixel 4 Hands-On Review: The Smartest Phone Just Got More Clever

Face Unlock, 90Hz screen, mid-air gesture recognition and more

(Image: © Tom's Guide)

Our Verdict

The Pixel 4 continues Google's tradition of putting AI-powered features at the heart of its smartphones.

For

  • Secure Face Unlock
  • Motion Sense gestures are responsive
  • New telephoto camera
  • Improved portrait mode and Live HDR+
  • 90Hz refresh rate

Against

  • Starts with 64GB of storage
  • Motion Sense limited in use cases
  • Thick upper notch may put off some
  • No more unlimited, original-quality photo storage

No longer the stuff of leaks, the Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL are official. Google announced both smartphones at its Made By Google hardware event today (Oct. 15), ahead of the phones' release later this month. Both devices are available for preorder now, and for the first time, the Pixels will be sold on every major carrier in the U.S.

The key highlights for the Pixel 4 are dual rear cameras, which includes a telephoto lens, as well as several other computational photography upgrades. You also get new Motion Sense gesture controls, Face Unlock, a faster Google Assistant and plenty of smart software, including a Record app that can transcribe your voice recordings in real time.

You can read our Pixel 4 XL hands-on for a look at Google's larger smartphone, though apart from screen size and battery, it has a lot in common with the Pixel 4. Here are some early impressions of Google's 5.7-inch phone.

Pixel 4 price and release date

The Pixel 4 and 4 XL are priced the same as the Pixel 3 series last year, with the smaller, 5.7-inch Pixel 4 starting at $799 for 64GB of storage, and the larger, 6.3-inch Pixel 4 XL at $899. Upgrading to 128GB of storage tacks another $100 onto each. The phones begin shipping Oct. 24, and you can reserve yours now.

Verizon, T-Mobile, AT&T and Sprint will all carry the Pixel 4 in the U.S. That's quite a coup for Google, given that previous Google handsets were primarily Verizon exclusives (though you could always opt for an unlocked model and take it to the carrier of your choosing). Follow our Pixel 4 deals guide for the best offers from networks and retailers alike.

Pixel 4 cameras

Both the Pixel 4 and Pixel 4XL pack dual cameras on the back — Google's first multi-lens rear imaging system ever — partnering a primary 12-megapixel sensor with a 16-MP telephoto shooter for 2x optical zoom. And thanks to Google's Super Res Zoom technology, you'll be able to crop in 10x without losing as much detail as digital zoom typically does.

Google has stepped up its camera game big time as expected, offering machine learning-based white balancing as well as a new Live HDR+ feature which presents the optimized final result in the viewfinder, before you press the shutter button. Additionally, improvements to Night Sight mode allow it to take even better photos of starry skies. 

Dual exposure controls let you tweak the brightness and shadows in real time via sliders on the display, and there's an improved Portrait Mode that leverages the telephoto lens.

Pixel 4 (left) and Pixel 4 XL

Pixel 4 (left) and Pixel 4 XL

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Pixel 4 Motion Sense and Face Unlock

This year's Pixel flagships are about more than their cameras — much more. Just as Google teased months ago, the Pixel 4 can read hand gestures in mid-air using the phone's new Soli radar chip. Google has dubbed the functionality Motion Sense, and it allows you to navigate some elements of the interface without physically touching the device.

Pixel 4 Specs

(Image credit: Google)

Price: $799/$899
Display (resolution): 5.7-inch Full HD+ OLED with 90Hz refresh rate
Rear camera(s): 12MP Dual Pixel wide and 16MP telephoto
Front camera(s): 8MP
CPU: Snapdragon 855 with Pixel Neural Core
RAM: 6GB
Storage: 64GB/128GB
microSD Slot?: No
Battery: 2800 mAh
Security: Face unlock; Titan M Security Module
Colors: Just Black, Clearly White, Oh So Orange
Size: 5.7 x 2.7 x 0.3 inches
Weight: 5.7 ounces

We've only had short hands-on time with Motion Sense, though early impressions are positive. Right now, the Pixel 4 exclusively employs the feature for skipping songs and silencing alarms, which is obviously quite limited. We hope to see that roster of commands expand in the future. That said, Soli and Motion Sense were surprisingly responsive when I made a passing gesture with my hand above the display to move to the next track of a Spotify playlist. 

There's a slight learning curve to Motion Sense — I've found the system is better at detecting fast, sweeping motions rather than slow, deliberate ones. But at first blush, it's leagues more intuitive than the wonky media playback gestures on the LG G8 ThinQ.

The Pixel 4 and 4 XL are also the first Google phones to support face unlock, using a sophisticated, depth-sensing system not too dissimilar from Apple's Face ID. The Face Unlock array melds data from a cluster of sensors housed in the phone's top bezel, and leverages the Soli radar to prepare the phone for recognition as you make your approach.

Pixel 4 XL (left) and Pixel 4

Pixel 4 XL (left) and Pixel 4

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Because the Pixel 4 is engineered to ready Face Unlock in advance, it feels very snappy in practice. Tom's Hardware's Andrew Freedman, who typically uses an iPhone 11 Pro Max, remarked that Google's implementation felt "a hell of a lot faster" than Face ID on his device. I too was impressed with the speed — not just in terms of recognition, but also in how quickly I was able to set Face Unlock up.

As Google points out, Motion Sense and face data never leave the Pixel 4's Titan M security chip.

Pixel 4 display and design

Both the full-HD+ OLED panel in the Pixel 4 as well as the quad-HD+ one in the XL variant pack 90Hz refresh rates for super smooth animations and scrolling. The refresh rate also scales dynamically, depending on what's on screen, to lessen needless power drain. It looks great in person, and if you've never seen a 90Hz panel in action on a phone before, you're going to be blown away.

From a design standpoint, the Pixel 4 feels like an evolution — almost like the Pixel 3, but without the bottom bezel. The lower of the stereo front-firing speakers has been relocated to the bottom edge, and now flanks the USB-C port. Meanwhile, the Pixel 4 XL loses the Pixel 3 XL's obtrusive notch, so both models look identical, just with different proportions.

Once again, there are three colors on offer — Clearly White, Just Black and Oh So Orange — with the latter being a limited edition. The Clearly White model opts for a matte texture on the back glass panel, while Just Black sports a glossier, more mirrored finish. The Pixel 4 can recharge wirelessly over Qi induction, and is rated IP68 water resistant, just like its predecessor.

(Image credit: Future)

Pixel 4 battery

Interestingly, the Pixel 4 packs a battery that is slightly smaller than the one inside last year's model: 2,800 mAh, versus 2,915 mAh in the Pixel 3

That's a little concerning, given that the Pixel 3 didn't have the best battery life to start with, and the new phones now utilize a 90Hz display, which is likely to sap more power than the 60Hz panels of old. We won't know for sure how long the Pixel 4 lasts until we're able to run Tom's Guide's custom battery test on it, but based off the specs sheet, we'd be surprised to see a noticeable improvement where longevity is concerned.

Outlook

The Pixel 4 may look familiar from the outside, but Google has clearly done most of its tinkering under the hood. Motion Sense, three-dimensional Face Unlock and the faster refresh-rate display are useful new features that differentiate the newest Pixels from their competitors on the market.

The camera seems better across the board, thanks to a combination of new hardware and even more advanced software. And for those who prefer smaller phones, the 5.7-inch Pixel 4 strikes the sweet spot — it offers a roomy screen that doesn't make the device too cumbersome to hold or carry.

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

As for pricing and availability, we're on the fence. $799 certainly isn't terrible, but 64GB of storage is scant these days — especially now that Google has nixed the free, unlimited original-quality photo storage it used to offer for its phones. The three-month trial of Google One that Pixel 4 buyers get feels like a bad joke by comparison.

That said, it's great to see Google expanding carrier partnerships, so that anyone in the U.S. can get their hands on a Pixel if they so choose. Limited availability between networks always seemed to hold Google's handsets back, so we expect to see an uptick in sales if only for that reason alone.

The one big question mark is the new phone's battery life. It's actually quite concerning that the Pixel team made no mention of it being an area of focus during Google's launch event. Stay tuned for our full review of the Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL in the coming days.