Last week Google announced the Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL. The phones are scheduled to go on sale later this week and their initial reviews are out. Pixels are always known for their camera and performance which is why many iPhone users also consider switching to them. So what do major publications think about the Pixel 4 series? Find out in our review roundup.
If you were hoping that the Pixel 4 is going to be an iPhone 11 Pro killer, well prepare to be disappointed. The Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL delivers on a lot of fronts but fail badly in other areas which makes them tough to recommend. The battery life is a major issue with the phones as they struggle to make it through a day of regular use.
On the build quality:
The shape and materials of the Pixel 4 XL match up well with its size. It’s just a tad larger than the Galaxy S10+, smaller than the Note 10+ and OnePlus 7 Pro, and roughly the same size as the Pixel 3 XL. The rounded sides nestle in my palm well, and the instances of the phone just feeling too big were few and far between — due in part, I think, to Android 10’s new back gesture that lets you swipe in from either side rather than reaching down to the bottom of the screen. And of course, there’s little to complain about in terms of size when there’s also a standard Pixel 4 available, which is downright small in comparison.
On the new Soli-based Motion Gestures:
Enabled by the new “Soli” sensor in the top screen bezel, you can make touchless hand gestures over the phone to perform actions. Unfortunately, you can only do two things right now: skip forward and back on audio tracks (in some apps), and dismiss calls or alarms. Once you figure out the right way to swipe — which is with your hand more perpendicular to the phone rather than parallel — it works pretty well. But it’s definitely not 100%, and when it doesn’t work, you feel (and look) stupid waving your hand over your phone when you could have just tapped the screen and been certain of what would happen.
Face unlock in third-party apps:
Despite how awesome face unlock is, it has limitations that are incredibly frustrating. The technology is clearly sound and secure. But face unlock’s problem isn’t technology, it’s app developers. In order for an app to be unlocked with the Pixel 4’s face unlock, it has to be using the latest “BiometricPrompt” API — any app that uses the old API for just fingerprint sensors will not be aware of face unlock, meaning it falls back to prompting you to log in manually with a username and password.
The biggest issue with the Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL is the battery life:
On these typical weekdays, I was making it just 13 to 15 hours — aka 8 to 10 p.m. in my scenario — and hitting 5% battery, even with Battery Saver on at 15%. That’s while leaving all of the phone’s settings on their defaults, which includes using Ambient Display, auto screen brightness, 90Hz screen refresh, Motion Sense, etc. On a heavier travel day, I killed the 4 XL in under 12 hours. I had to use Battery Saver for some portion of every day during my review period.
The Pixel 4 redeems itself based on its camera performance…
Coming from what was already arguably the best camera out there, the Pixel 4 has improved colors, brightness, textures, and sharpness in all situations. The colors and brightness, in particular, are important, because one of the Pixel 3’s (few) flaws was its tendency to under-expose and produce somewhat dull shots — those instances are further between and less dramatic now. The Pixel 4 more consistently hits the exposure, and ups the colors to be pleasing to the eye without being over-saturated. I was consistently happier with what I got right out of the camera on the Pixel 4 than the 3 — even though there are still instances where a quick hop into Google Photos for an “Auto” adjust is very useful.
…but are you going to use a smartphone just for its camera performance?
I think this part of the review nails it what I feel about the Pixel 4.
While the Pixel 4 is good and has plenty of promise, it still falls short of expectations. This is not to say it’s a bad phone, it’s actually really great in several areas. It’s just a bit disappointing, because while it brings some innovative technical marvels, a pedestrian necessity like battery life is still left unaddressed. And while Google typically gets a pass because it’s Google, the Pixel 4 is nowhere near as competitive as what other manufacturers offer. The simplest way to put it: the Pixel 4 feels like a phone designed for Google engineers rather than the average consumer.
Mixed opinions on Motion Sense:
While I found Motion Sense on the smaller Pixel 4 to be accurate and reliable, working around 95% of the time, David had a very different experience on the larger Pixel 4 XL, with it barely ever working as advertised. I didn’t have any luck with his Pixel 4 XL unit either. Perhaps he got a defective unit, but I’ve heard similar gripes from other reviewers. Perhaps Google can fix this in an update, but I wouldn’t recommend buying a Pixel 4 for this feature alone. It’s much better than a gimmick in my experience, but it needs to work reliably for everyone before I give it the credit I think it’s due.
In this day and age where every smartphone is focusing on battery life, Google went the other way around:
Google desperately needs to start focusing on the Pixel battery, especially when Apple’s new iPhone 11 series made the battery a primary focus. There’s no point adding a radar, 90Hz display, and long-exposure camera if using them means you’ve got zero chance of making it through a full day. We should be far beyond the days of having to gimp our phones just to get through 24 hours of normal usage.
The camera is once again the highlight of the Pixel series:
The Pixel 4 manages to capture more detail than the Pixel 3, handles white balance even better thanks to a machine learning-based algorithm, and improves on HDR, portrait mode, and selfies. We did note selfies occasionally left some subjects looking a little plasticky while others were fine. Portrait mode cutouts were more accurate and bokeh was slightly more realistic.
You can use Motion Sense to change tracks on the Pixel 4 but is it really useful?
The most obvious way Motion Sense is being used on the Pixel 4 is to let you wave your hand above the screen to skip tracks when music is playing. And, unfortunately, this feature is the flakiest. I’ve figured out that it works best when the phone is sitting flat on the table. It can only read swipes that are perpendicular to the top of the Pixel, where you’ll see a very subtle light bar at the top of the screen that serves as the only visual indicator that you’re doing it right.
Once I figured out that it requires a clean sweep across the entire top of the phone, though, I really liked using it. As I’m sitting here right now typing on my laptop, I can simply swing my left hand out quickly to skip tracks without having to look for the right button.
The still camera performance might be impressive but the video performance is not.
The most notable difference in this and in every single comparison shot I’ve taken is in the color balance. The Pixel 4 still tends towards more contrast and more blue tones — though it’s much less dramatic than the Pixel 3 was. The Pixel 4 has a “look,” and it gets that look very consistently.
Finally, Google continues to miss the boat on video. It disappoints on the spec sheet, where it maxes out at 4K at 30FPS, but it also disappoints in use, where the video it produces is passable but not remarkable. Apple is far ahead here, but Samsung and several other Android makers aren’t much behind. I know there are only so many things a company can focus on improving year-over-year, but at some point Google needs to move video to the top of that priority list.
So yeah, the Pixel 4 is not the iPhone 11 Pro killer you were hoping for. The iPhone 11 Pro is a much better package as it has a more versatile camera setup with better video recording, offers longer battery life, better display, more storage, and more. Are you still inclined to buy the Pixel 4 over the iPhone 11 Pro? If so, why? Drop a comment and let us know!