Google's smartphones have long been renowned for their cameras, but the best thing about the Pixel 4 is that it's about so much more than the photos you can take with it.
Nonetheless, Google has produced yet another class-leading camera phone with the Pixel 4. But there are other aspects to be excited about, too, like an intuitive, time-saving, secure Face Unlock system and a tantalizingly smooth 90-Hz display. Yes, photography is still the headliner of this show; it's just not the only act worth sticking around for.
And yet, even though the Pixel 4 resembles the most forward-thinking and ambitious handset Google has ever made, it still repeats too many of the company's tired missteps. The phone's battery is small and doesn't last particularly long, which is why some should consider the larger Pixel 4 XL instead. Base storage is a concern, and the screen, while very pretty, is very dim when you put it next to the best offerings from Apple and Samsung.
It's those foibles that are the most frustrating, because the Pixel 4 is otherwise incredibly close to perfection. It's yet another master class in doing more with less and building a phone that's far greater — and smarter — than the sum of its parts. The Pixel 4 is the kind of device Google excels at making, and it's easily one of the best smartphones of the year, annoyances aside.
Update Nov. 5: Google has just pushed out the November security patch for the Pixel 4 and 4 XL, which enables the 90 Hz refresh rate in more circumstances, including when display brightness is below 75%.
Pixel 4 price and availability
The Pixel 4 starts at $799 for a 64GB model, and you can get a model with double that storage for $899. For the first time, Google is offering its phone through all major carriers in the U.S. — Verizon, T-Mobile, AT&T and Sprint — as well as some discount and regional providers, like Visible, U.S. Cellular and, of course, Google Fi.
You could also buy an unlocked phone and take it to practically any carrier. With support for both GSM and CDMA bands, the Pixel 4 is widely compatible with all U.S. networks that permit you to bring your own device.
Google's flagship phone comes in two sizes: the 5.7-inch Pixel 4, which is the subject of this review, as well as the 6.3-inch Pixel 4 XL, which packs a significantly larger battery to match its bigger, higher-resolution screen. Otherwise, both models have the same specs and cameras, and are available in the same selection of colors: Just Black, Clearly White and limited-edition Oh So Orange.
Pixel 4 specs
|Display (resolution)||5.7-inch OLED with 90-Hz Smooth Display (2280 x 1080)|
|Rear cameras||Dual: 12.2-MP primary wide (ƒ/1.7); 16-MP telephoto with 2x optical zoom (ƒ/2.4)|
|Front camera||8 MP (ƒ/2.0)|
|CPU||Qualcomm Snapdragon 855|
|Colors||Just Black, Clearly White, Oh So Orange (limited edition)|
|Size||5.79 x 2.71 x 0.32 inches|
Pixel 4 design: Daring to be different
2019 has treated us to phones with motorized, pop-out selfie cameras; entire displays that slide down to reveal lenses; the narrowest of bezels; and exotic, dazzling exterior finishes.
If these are the things you're looking for in your next handset, you should probably look elsewhere, because the Pixel 4 has none of them.
In fact, much like its predecessor, the Pixel 4 rejects most of the tech industry's notions of what constitutes thoughtful design. For starters, there's that eyesore of a square camera module on the rear. And while the bezel below the display has been trimmed to iPhone 11-esque proportions, the bezel above it is about as prominent as the Pixel 3's. (At least this time around, there are technical justifications for the bulky forehead, but we'll dive into those later.)
On the backside, you won't find glass polished to look like metal that catches spectrums of light in hypnotic rays — just plain old solid colors. In fact, the rear of this Pixel seems especially sparse now that Google has ditched the capacitive fingerprint sensors of previous iterations in favor of Face Unlock.
All this is to say that some might call the Pixel 4's über-minimalism and lack of an edge-to-edge screen ugly, and I can sort of understand that sentiment. When Samsung pushes the limits of packaging with devices like the Galaxy Note 10 — which manages to cram in three cameras, a stylus compartment and a generous battery — the Pixel 4 can't help but look a little humdrum.
But these things are all a matter of taste, and personally, I dig the Pixel 4's unique aesthetic. I like the playful, lighthearted contrast of the Clearly White colorway, which combines a frosted Gorilla Glass 5 back with a powdered black aluminum frame and a traffic-cone orange power button. These things shouldn't go together, but against all odds, the funkiness has grown on me.
And funky is the best way I can articulate the Pixel 4's vibe. The iPhone 11 Pro is, unquestionably, a more luxurious handset, with a noticeably heftier build and surgical-grade accoutrements. Then again, at $999, it should be. The Pixel 4's design doesn't match Apple's, but it is delightfully weird — and damn, if there isn't space in this oversaturated market for weird.
At 5.7 inches, the smaller Pixel 4 is also relatively accommodating for those who prefer compact handsets. While it's about a tenth of an inch taller than the 5.8-inch iPhone 11 Pro, Google's offering is also narrower by the same margin, making the Pixel slightly easier to reach across with your thumb. And in keeping parity with last year's phone, this one is also rated as IP68 water-resistant, meaning it should withstand 5 feet (1.5 meters) of submersion for up to 30 minutes.
One more thing on the design front: While there are only three color options for the Pixel 4, Google deserves kudos for sweating the details and differentiating materials between them. Only the white and orange variants sport matte finishes on the back. That's in stark contrast to the all-business black version, which employs a glossier, stealthier and more slippery sheen. Personally, I prefer the matte version, but I can't deny the premium flair of the shiny option.
Pixel 4 display: Smooth, but far from the brightest
The Pixel line has rarely been praised for its displays, but Google's fourth-generation handset goes a long way toward changing that reputation. The Pixel 4 is the first Google device with a screen capable of refreshing at 90 Hz — a feature the company has dubbed Smooth Display.
Smooth Display is on by default, and it essentially means the Pixel 4's 5.7-inch, 2280 x 1080 OLED panel updates on-screen content more frequently than the 60-Hz displays in the majority of phones. A higher refresh rate translates to silkier animations that react to your inputs more immediately, in turn making the entire experience of using your phone snappier.
Upon the Pixel 4's launch, Smooth Display mode was set to fall back to 60 Hz when the brightness is set below 75%. This wasn't necessarily a bad idea; after all, differences in refresh rate become harder to see when the screen is dim. However, 75% was a rather high cutoff, so Google reduced the threshold in the device's November security patch, making the 90 Hz mode active more often.
Still, when it works, the fluidity of 90 Hz makes conventional displays feel sluggish. The Pixel 4 isn't the first handset with a panel like this; the OnePlus 7T, also released this month, is one of several other phones that offer similar tech. But its inclusion is nevertheless appreciated and reinforces that 90 Hz should be the standard for flagships in the future.
The refresh rate isn't the only improvement, though. The Pixel 4 has a new Ambient EQ feature, which modulates the white balance to suit lighting conditions. It's similar to Apple's True Tone system, and it works just as well in this implementation.
While watching the trailer for Netflix's adorable and breathtaking stop-motion series Rilakkuma and Kaoru, I was impressed most by the dynamic range of the Pixel 4's display. The titular bear's fur was rendered with striking clarity in the highlights and shadows alike. I noticed that Google's device exhibits a warmer cast than the iPhone 11 Pro, even when Ambient EQ and True Tone are each turned off. Yet I liked the effect, and users who fancy a more realistic tint can switch to the Natural or Boosted color profiles in the Pixel's settings.
In terms of numbers, the Pixel 4 didn't disappoint — at least, not out of the gate. Google's 130.1% coverage of the sRGB spectrum is a bit higher than the iPhone 11 Pro's 118.6%, indicating slightly more saturated hues on the Pixel. What's more, the Pixel 4's Delta-E color accuracy score of 0.34 is very close to the iPhone's 0.28, so you'd be hard-pressed to tell the difference. (Numbers closer to zero are better.)
However, the Pixel 4's display came crashing back down when we measured its peak brightness. At just 429 nits through our light meter, Google's flagship is merely a candle compared with the white-hot intensity of the iPhone 11 Pro's category-leading 752-nit reading. The Galaxy Note 10 also far outmatched the Pixel 4, registering 674 nits.
Indoors, you're less likely to mind a display that isn't the brightest. But step outside on a sunny day, and you'll have a much harder time reading the Pixel 4's screen. And when you're paying upward of $800 for a phone, that's not a nuisance you should have to tolerate.
Pixel 4 camera: The smartest shot
What's new with the Pixel 4's camera? In a word, everything.
Sure, the main sensor is still rated at 12.2 megapixels (though now it's tied to an ƒ/1.7 lens). But there's a second shooter now — a 16-MP, ƒ/2.4 telephoto lens — that, when combined with Google's Super Res Zoom technology, gives the Pixel 4 incredible range: up to 8x with limited loss of quality.
Super Res Zoom is a microcosm of Google's entire imaging strategy with the Pixel 4: to use a mix of computational photography and artificial intelligence to do what hardware alone cannot. Take the new AI white balancing, for example, which automatically color-corrects strongly tinted images using a machine-learning model trained on thousands of similar scenarios. Then there's Live HDR+, which processes your optimized HDR output in real time through the viewfinder so you know what the final product will look like before you tap the shutter button.
Because the Pixel 4 works so much of its magic in the background, without user intervention, it's never easy to tell precisely the difference any one feature is contributing independently. All you can really go on are the results — and they speak for themselves.
Case in point: this stunning scene inside the New York Public Library, which the Pixel 4 painted with brilliant contrast and a nuanced touch, especially in the highlights. The iPhone 11 Pro struggles to rein in the light breaking through the window underneath the ornate ceiling. Apple's device also dials down the shadows to an almost unnatural level while applying a warm cast. Some onlookers might be put off by the relative darkness of the Pixel's shot, but I love how Google's optics capture the richness of the cherry tones in the carvings and pillars adorning the walls.
Outside the library, we dialed the zoom up to 2x on both handsets to capture a close-up on a pair of street signs. For a phone with a secondary telephoto lens, the Pixel 4's approach is unconventional. There's no tapping to enable optical at 2x power as there is on the iPhone 11 Pro or Samsung's range-topping Galaxy handsets. The camera UI encourages users to zoom continuously, as if they were using a single lens, rather than switching between wide and telephoto perspectives. There's a seamless interplay between the optical advantage of that second camera and the moment when Super Res Zoom kicks in.
Super Res Zoom works well, using natural hand movement to collect additional data points for a crisper photo. When we enlarged both images, it became clear that Google levies significant noise reduction on solid colors, particularly within the signs themselves. On the flip side, that leads to oversmoothing in places, compared with the iPhone 11 Pro. Apple's rendition is also brighter, with more eye-catching specular highlights on the metal screws at the center of the pole. The edges of the Fifth Ave. and West 41st St. signs also reflect the light with more pronounced contrast, which helps to convey texture.
Next, my colleague Phil and I took to Bryant Park on a chilly, dreary fall day to snag a pair of portraits using each phone's bokeh mode. The Pixel 4 doesn't draw quite as close to the subject as the iPhone 11 Pro can, so Phil's hair, skin tone and blue sweater appear slightly blurrier through Google's lenses. Meanwhile, Apple's software punches up the saturation too much, especially in Phil's cheeks, which don't look particularly realistic either. Ultimately, neither device gets this one totally right, but the iPhone 11 Pro is closer to the ideal.
You'd never believe these two photos were taken at the same time of day based on the difference in lighting. Once again, the iPhone 11 Pro plays up the warmth well beyond the actual ambient lighting conditions. It might make for a cozier, more picturesque scene, but I wouldn't call it true to life. The Pixel 4 doesn't manipulate the white balance as heavily, but it does double down on the shadows, leaving less detail in darker regions of the frame.
Night Sight on the Pixel 4 produced a striking scene elsewhere in the park, exposing the tree trunks, the bed of green beneath them and the faces of nearby buildings more clearly than the iPhone 11 Pro could manage. Perhaps the Pixel 4's rendition is a bit cooler than it should be, but everything's a bit better focused compared with the image produced by Apple's Night Mode, which comes off slightly blurry and dim by comparison.
To test out the limitations of Super Res Zoom, I closed in on carvings adorning the library's facade. Sure, the Pixel 4's 8x attempt isn't perfect, but it's worlds better than 8x from the Galaxy S10, which doesn't benefit from the same kind of AI-based sharpening as Google's zoom shots. Add in that this photo was taken in the dark, using Night Sight, and it's remarkable how Google has been able to overcome hardware limitations that have quelled the rest of the industry using computational photography pretty much alone.
And yet there's more you can do with the Pixel 4's cameras. New Dual Exposure controls allow you to adjust highlights and shadows independently while shooting. As with Live HDR+, you'll see the results in real time, which makes the whole experience more intuitive. Although I did play around with Dual Exposure, I found that Google's HDR system usually knew how to get the best shot — so, in most situations, it won't be particularly relevant. That said, I suspect professionals will love the potential for creativity.
Pixel 4 Face Unlock and Motion Sense
You'd hope the Pixel 4's three-dimensional Face Unlock system would work well, because there's no fingerprint sensor to fall back on. Much like Apple's Face ID technology, Google's system unites an array of infrared cameras, a flood illuminator and a dot projector to identify your face reliably.
Theoretically, Google's Face Unlock is secure enough to be used for mobile payments, too. I say "theoretically" because it's not yet supported in any of the banking apps I use, which previously worked with fingerprint sensors. That's an issue Google admits it must solve quickly, though it's mostly the responsibility of third-party developers.
In practice, however, Google's first crack at Face Unlock works well and offers a few advantages over Apple's approach. It works when the Pixel 4 is lying flat, and it even registers when the device is held in landscape orientation. The iPhone 11's TrueDepth camera can't match either claim.
Face Unlock on the Pixel 4 even works while your eyes are closed, though Google has come under scrutiny for this; the company is working to deliver an optional setting in an update that forces the phone to confirm attention before unlocking.
Overall, the system is very fast, which brings us to the Pixel 4's other party piece: Motion Sense. Built upon Google's Project Soli radar technology, Motion Sense allows the Pixel 4 to monitor midair gestures and other movement around it.
You can wave your hand above the phone to skip tracks in apps like Spotify and YouTube or snooze alarms. When you do either, you'll see a subtle glow move across the top edge of the display, indicating that the Soli radar sees your hand and recognizes its placement.
But the way Motion Sense enhances Face Unlock is probably Google's cleverest use of the feature. The Soli chip knows when you reach for the Pixel 4, even when the phone is sleeping. Once it realizes you're motioning to use your device, it fires up the Face Unlock stack so it's ready to identify you before you wake it.
Those gestures are surprisingly intuitive, but there's a slight learning curve. There's some muscle memory you'll have to ascertain, particularly with that waving shortcut. Fast, passing motions are preferred; slower actions seem to confuse the radar.
One Motion Sense annoyance is that, when you're skipping a succession of songs, the Pixel 4 sometimes erroneously registers movement back to your hand's starting position as an intentional gesture. In other words, if you wave your hand from right to left to go forward one track and then move your hand back to the right to do it again, that return motion will trigger a skip in the opposite direction unless you're really careful about keeping your hand away from the device.
Motion Sense isn't perfect, and Google still has work to do. But it's not the fundamentals or usability that have me concerned but that there's so little you can do with Motion Sense right now outside of controlling media playback and snoozing alarms. The functionality feels pretty limited at launch, similar to Google's Active Edge squeezing feature, which returns from last year's model and once again has little use outside of summoning your Assistant. Motion Sense has potential, but for now, it feels like a well-intentioned idea without a defining purpose.
Pixel 4 performance: About more than numbers
The flagship Pixel gets a noticeable performance bump for 2019, moving to Qualcomm's Snapdragon 855 chip and gaining another 2GB of RAM compared with the Pixel 3, for a total of 6GB.
Those are necessary improvements, but they still leave the Pixel 4 behind other premium Android phones — not to mention Apple's latest A13 Bionic-powered iPhones, which remain the best-performing smartphones.
In Geekbench 5, which evaluates overall system performance, the Pixel 4 delivered a multicore score of 2,329. The $599 OnePlus 7T, which utilizes Qualcomm's slightly faster 855 Plus chip and has 8GB of RAM, finished well ahead, at 2,759. The iPhone 11 demolished both, at 3,251.
Graphics crunching didn't end much better for the new Pixel, with Google's phone notching 4,923 in 3DMark's Sling Shot Extreme OpenGL ES 3.1 test. That's serviceable yet behind the Note 10 (5,374), which utilizes the same processor but has more RAM. And unsurprisingly, it trails the iPhone 11 Pro (6,163) by an even larger margin.
The numbers aren't record-setting, but Google's phones have never been about raw performance. Rest assured that the Pixel 4 still feels snappy in regular use and handles demanding games, like Asphalt 9 and PUBG Mobile, about as well as other flagships. And just like its rivals, the Pixel 4 starts to heat up when you ratchet the battle royale shooter's graphics up to HDR quality with anti-aliasing.
What the benchmarks don't tell you is that the Pixel 4 has an all-new coprocessor — the Pixel Neural Core — joining the Visual Core and Titan M security chip. As the name suggests, it's the Neural Core that is tasked with accelerating machine-learning tasks and handling Google's on-device language models, allowing many Assistant tasks to be conducted locally.
As a result, Google Assistant feels really fast on the Pixel 4, with commands deciphered at a pace I've never witnessed on another handset. That includes the iPhone 11 Pro, which took nearly 10 seconds to respond to a simple alarm command. In contrast, the Pixel 4 clapped back with an alarm set for 5 p.m. almost instantaneously.
Pixel 4 battery: Not good enough
Between the 90-Hz display, Soli radar and all the sensors and projectors necessary for Face Unlock, the Pixel 4 packs a lot of additional power-sipping components the Pixel 3 did not. So you'd imagine Google would have increased the size of the battery, right?
Actually, quite the opposite. At 2,800 mAh, the Pixel 4 has a smaller battery than the 2,915-mAh unit in the Pixel 3, and a much smaller one compared to the 3,700-mAh Pixel 4 XL. That doesn't sound encouraging, and well, the results weren't, either.
In Tom's Guide's battery test, which forces the device to endlessly refresh web pages while set to 150 nits of screen brightness, the Pixel 4 called it quits after an average of 8 hours and 3 minutes, across two tests. One additional session, run with the display adjusted to a less-energy-consuming 60 Hz, produced a slightly better time of 8 hours and 36 minutes.
How does that compare to other flagships? It's not only worse than the Pixel 3 (8:27) butwell off the longevity of the iPhone 11 (11:16), iPhone 11 Pro (10:24) and Galaxy S10 (10:19). In an age when high-end phone makers are finally listening to consumers and sacrificing some thinness for much-needed endurance, Google is still inexplicably reluctant to follow suit.
During one day of moderate use — no photography or gaming, but lots of browsing, flipping between apps and messaging — I made it from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. with 23% of the battery left. That's not much better than the Pixel 3 I've been using for a year now.
At least the packaged 18-watt USB-PD charger helps the Pixel 4 juice back up rather quickly; it got to 47% capacity in exactly 30 minutes in our testing. It's the same adapter that came with the Pixel 3 and the Pixel 3 XL, so no improvements have been made there. Additionally, the Pixel 4 again supports wireless charging, either over third-party Qi pads or Google's own Pixel Stand.
Pixel 4 software and special features
Like you'd expect from a Google phone, the Pixel 4 launches with Android 10 and will be supported with updates until 2022. Three years of major version upgrades is more than the two that most flagship phones get, and because they're coming directly from Google, you won't have to wait six months before Android's newest features trickle down to your device.
If you're interested in a deep dive into the Pixel 4's operating system, you can head over to our Android 10 review. In a nutshell, it adds some small, noteworthy improvements but feels unfinished in many areas, particularly with Google's piecemeal approach to Dark Theme and the absence of Live Caption.
That last point is critical, because the Pixel 4 marks Live Caption's debut. The feature is like omnipresent subtitles across your phone. No matter what's on screen or what app you're using, if there's speech, Live Caption will spell it out, on the fly. There's a short delay between the audio and the caption, because the Pixel 4's Neural Core is transcribing what it hears in real time. It even modifies earlier words and punctuation based on contextual cues that become evident later.
Live Caption is a powerful tool that leverages the Pixel 4's artificial intelligence in a useful way. But it does expend a lot of battery power, as Google points out the moment you switch on the feature (which, conveniently enough, you can do right from the volume slider). So you won't want to leave Live Caption on indefinitely.
The intelligence that powers Live Caption has also been extended to Recorder, Google's built-in voice recording app. With the power of machine-learning-aided transcription that's remarkably accurate, the Pixel 4's recording software has instantly become my favorite way to record interviews. (And fortunately, it's already been isolated as an APK that can be sideloaded on other handsets.)
Previous Pixels came with unlimited original-quality photo storage in Google Photos for several years, but surprisingly, Google has eliminated this hugely beneficial perk. Images captured on your Pixel 4 count against your Google Photos storage cap if stored at full quality, just like on any other device. If you're low on space, you can back up content at "high" quality, but those pictures and videos will be compressed.
It's a very disappointing decision, given the Pixel 4's phenomenal imaging. Google clearly wants to move customers to cloud storage subscriptions, as evidenced by the free three-month trial of Google One that the company includes with this device. But losing this bonus makes the Pixel 4 not only a less-compelling value but a less-attractive mobile camera.
The Google Pixel 4's subpar battery life is a shame, because Google's flagship is an otherwise great all-around device with clever software features; useful differentiators, like Face Unlock, Motion Sense and the 90-Hz screen; and the finest cameras we have ever seen on a phone.
And yet, a state-of-the-art handset doesn't mean much if it doesn't last long enough on a charge, has a display that's too dim to read outdoors and offers limited storage without the fallback of a cloud-based solution. The Pixel 4 XL could be the answer for people concerned about battery life, but at 6.3 inches, it will put off anyone smitten by the regular model's more pocketable size.
It's ironic, because Google is executing all the high-level, machine-learning stuff far better than its contemporaries. Yet, in doing so, Google forgot to execute all the basics.