Google Pixel 4, Pixel 4 XL Review: Smart Phones, Dumb Decisions

Google Pixel 4, Pixel 4 XL Review: Smart Phones, Dumb Decisions


I’m a Pixel fan. While I test a lot of phones, the Pixel range has been my daily driver ever since it launched. With Pixel 4 that’s unlikely to change, this is one of the smartest smartphones you can buy. But for everyone else, a series of truly dumb decisions means I find it almost impossible to recommend to most users. 
Google’s Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL – super-smart phones compromises by dumb decisions
Note: this review will cover both the Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL, but I will only name them separately when referring to their differences. And there is one huge one in particular. But first…
Design – Beautifully Boring
The second most controversial thing about the Pixel 4 is its design (for the most, jump to the Battery Life section). While the square camera hump on the back has its detractors for being an iPhone 11-wannabe, I think it’s fine. It isn’t as seamlessly integrated into the chassis as the iPhone 11 range but it doesn’t protrude as much, and the matt edges and white and orange finishes feel great in the hand. Just avoid the black, it’s a non-sensically glossy finish and a fingerprint magnet (Dumb Decision #1 – we’re going to be keeping count). 
Pixel 4 has smart, matt edges which add grip and distinctive style (but you’ll put a case on it … [+] anyway)
The front is a different matter with the large top bezel for the new facial recognition system and surprisingly thick bezels on all other sides. This is more iPhone 11 than iPhone 11 Pro (an issue we’ll get to later). There’s also no headphone jack, no front-firing speakers (good news: yet somehow they’re even louder than last year, so well done Google) and the same dual sim (one physical, one eSim) as previously but they actually support dual standby now (finally). 
Google removed the front-firing speakers but, somehow, Pixel 4 speakers sound better than ever
It is a nice looking phone? This polarises opinion. For me, it’s ok though nothing more. Build quality is great, but it looks plain rather than the styling Scandi-minimalism Google seems to shoot for these days and that top bezel is going to be a deal-breaker for some. 
Here are their respective sizes:

Biometrics – Smartly Stupid 
So what do you get for that thick top bezel? A lot of smarts, with less intelligent integration. 
The biggest arrival is facial recognition which is, um… ok. Yes, it’s extremely fast and yes, it’s better than any rival Android phone but it isn’t better than Face ID on the iPhone. It isn’t as secure because it unlocks if your eyes are closed (an update is coming but at launch that’s Dumb Decision #2), it has a slightly narrower field of vision and it doesn’t unlock if it’s close to your face as it might be when you’re in bed. 
Google’s Pixel 4 facial recognition is smart but compromised
Is it better than a fingerprint reader? Not for me. Facial recognition makes unlocking a conscious process (“…and now look at your phone”) which muscle memory means it never is with fingerprint readers and from a usability and security perspective, having both would make a lot more sense. The two have different strengths and weaknesses and combining dual biometrics is painless for important things like banking and mobile payments (touch the fingerprint reader and look at your phone). Apple will bring this to iPhones next year so why not beat Apple for once Google, rather than belatedly follow in its footsteps (headphone jack, dual cameras, Face ID, dual standby sims). 
As for Soli, the smart radar system it’s the perfect example of the Pixel’s smart/dumb problem. The tech itself is stunningly smart. It’s a miniaturised radar which uses proximity awareness speeds up facial unlocking because it knows you’re reaching for the phone. It also lets the display shut off when you’re not near to save battery life (we’ll get to that…). But the air gestures are a mess. They’re both limited in movement (wave left, wave right) and functionality (skip tracks, silence alarms/calls), unreliable and no quicker than a voice command to make the same requests. 
The underlying tech may be great but releasing it in such a dumbed-down manner has led to ridicule and history shows Google would rather kill off things that struggle (see: Killed by Google) than persist with products/services which are poorly received at launch. Releasing Soli in 2019 may have already sealed its fate and, for tech that Google has spent years developing (it was first unveiled in 2015), that’s Dumb Decision #3. 
Display – 90Hz… 90 Hurts
DisplayMate heaped praise on the Pixel 4’s display but I’m not so taken with it. It’s clear, sharp, and has perfect blacks like all OLEDs but – despite being 10% brighter than the Pixel 3 panel – I find it a little washed out and it isn’t as bright as rivals which can be an issue outdoors. It’s also almost impossible to get white to be, well, white unless you’re on maximum brightness. This bugs me. 
Pixel 3 Vs Pixel 4 (right) – whites are rarely white at anything other than maximum brightness on … [+] the Pixel 4
But the headline act is the Pixel 4’s 90Hz refresh rate and, unfortunately, it leads us to Dumb Decision #4: 90Hz only works at a brightness of 75% or more which – using Google’s adaptive brightness – is almost the entire time you’re indoors. Google promises to address this in a fix, but a variable rate would never have been needed in the first place had a larger battery been fitted (Dumb Decision spoiler alert!). 
Tip: enable developer options (Settings >  About Phone – tap repeatedly on Build Number), navigate to Settings >  System > Advanced >  Developer Options and switch Force 90Hz Refresh Rate to On. You’ll take a battery hit, but only about 20 mins of screen-on time, which you’ll get back by putting the phone in Android 10’s new Dark Mode (something everyone should do anyway). 
Performance – Silky Smooth, For Now
With 90Hz forced on, the Pixel 4 is a gloriously smooth device. It’s OnePlus 7T-fast and that’s a serious compliment. Pixels have always been fast out the box, but they have never felt this gloriously slick. It’s the standard every phone should adopt and it’s jarring going back to a 60Hz display, even the Pixel 4’s when I tried it again with the default 90/60Hz variable refresh rate. 
The caveat in all this is Pixels slow down quickly. At least every one to date has. One year on, my Pixel 3 feels painfully slow, taking up to 10 seconds to open the camera, stuttering and stalling when scrolling and generally janking its way through life. 90Hz should eliminate many of these problems (it’s a brute force solution) but I do still fear for the Pixel 4 long term because – Dumb Decision #5 Google under cooked the specs. 
Forcing 90Hz mode on transforms the Pixel 4 experience, for a small battery hit
Sure, 6GB RAM is fine for now but rivals have 8/12GB which gives them greater future-proofing. The Snapdragon 855 is fine but it’s 10 months old, so this phone will spend most of its life a generation behind the main competition and then there’s the superior 855+ which is fitted into cheaper phones like the Asus ROG Phone II, Xiaomi Black Shark 2 Pro, Nubia Z20, Meizu 16s Pro and OnePlus 7T. 
Google wants to compete with smart software optimisation but smart software optimisation shouldn’t be an excuse to make hardware shortcuts. Give us truly top-spec hardware and smart software as well. It isn’t too much to ask at (another spoiler alert) these prices. 
(See speed tests: iPhone 11 Pro Max Vs Pixel 4 compared to iPhone 11 Pro Max Vs Galaxy Note 10+)
Side note: the Pixel 4’s Recorder app is excellent, using more super-smart algorithms to accurately transcribe audio and video in real time. This is a boon for journalists and students, but seems niche for anyone else other than a warring couple. Google has also confirmed it will come to older Pixels.
Cameras – Brilliant But Self Defeating
Do you know what’s the best thing on the Pixel 4? The camera. Do you know what’s going to hurt sales of the Pixel 4 the most? The camera. 
Google Pixel 4 camera discussion is as much about its missing ultra-wide camera as its quality
In news everyone expected, Google has nailed the primary camera. It takes glorious photos with class-leading dynamic range, colour accuracy and detail. Colour balance does get thrown off at times, but a fix is coming.
Google’s Pixel 4 primary camera is glorious with the best dynamic range of any smartphone
As for the new telephoto lens, at 2x it seems modest but – in typical Google style – results over-deliver thanks to software. Google’s ‘Super Res Zoom’ super-smart image processing gives this phone zoom capabilities to compete with the 5x zoom in the Huawei P30 Pro and pinch-to-zoom is no longer what your grandad does wrong when taking photos, it’s how you get a brilliant shot with the Pixel 4. 
Google’s Pixel 4 zoom is a match for any camera on the market
Google’s Pixel 4 Super Res zoom
Pixel 3 zoom results show a noticeable difference
Dumb Decision #6: Google could’ve changed the game with a 5x optical zoom lens and Super Res Zoom but it instead chose to use this software witchcraft to merely align with the best. Unleash this software Google, give it the hardware to dazzle. 
Which brings us to Dumb Decision #7: no ultra-wide camera. Software can’t compensate for this (no, Panorama Mode isn’t the answer) and with the iPhone 11 camera, in particular, being close-enough in almost all shooting situations, the lack of an Ultra-wide will cost Google sales. It’s a completely nonsensical decision and while Google claims a telephoto lens is ‘more useful’ that should be for customers to decide. Personally, I can compensate for zoom by walking closer in most situations but I can’t compensate for an ultra-wide-angle by walking away. That’s why Apple picked ultra-wide not telephoto for the dual-camera iPhone 11. 
Pixel 4 Panorama shot: inherent distortion and stitching show why it is no match for a dedicated … [+] ultrawide lens
A return to the Pixel 4’s smart-smart comes with Astrophotography mode. The phone detects when it’s in night mode (aka Night Sight), completely still (tripod or propped up) and can see the sky. It then actives Astrophography mode, which delivers 2-3 minute long exposures to capture the stars.
The Pixel 4’s Astrophotography mode can take super-long exposures of up to 4 minutes. But will you … [+] use it?
The results are incredible and a real differentiator. Whether you’ll ever use it, however, is another matter entirely. 
Google Pixel 4 night mode looks ok…
…but it is blown away by Astrophotography mode
As for the front camera. It’s good but more limited than last year. Gone is the nice choice between 70 and 120-degree ultra-wide lenses for a single fixed-focus 90-degree lens. Results are an improvement on the Pixel 3 but it also has more distortion (something others have noticed as well – 1, 2). Here is an example: the Pixel 4 takes the better shot but it has lengthened and straightened the roundness of my face while the Pixel 3 gets it right.
Self cameras: Pixel 4 (left) takes a better photo, but Pixel 3 (right) shows my correct face shape
Side note: I read some grumbling about Google fitting a fixed focus camera in the Pixel 4 but it makes sense because selfies have a fairly consistent focus range and it helps the camera take sharp photos in low light where auto-focus lenses can struggle. 
But here’s Dumb Decision #8: video. Just like the ultra-wide lens, Google thought 4K 60fps recording is something we don’t need so it isn’t included (we now know it was pulled at the last minute). Let us be the judge Google.
What we can shoot is 1080p 60fps / 4k 30fps and results are better than last year, but colour reproduction and particularly audio are still far behind the levels achieved by Samsung and Apple. Pixel video has been lagging behind for four generations now, so I can only assume Google has little interest in half its cameras’ functionality. Which is bizarre, to say the least. 
Dumb Decision #9 Google Photos. Google has removed free unlimited, original quality photo and video storage for the Pixel 4. So this is a phone which emphasises its camera capabilities but then compresses the results, unless you take out an additional monthly Google One storage plan (a service which is also unavailable to G Suite users). Hmmmn. 
Battery Life – Dumb Decision #10
And here we reach the dumbest decision Google has made with the Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL and it shows the company at its worst: a stubborn refusal to learn from past mistakes. Numbers alone which show you the problem:

Yes, despite the increased demand of their 90Hz displays, Soli radar technology and dual cameras, Google has fitted the Pixel 4 with a smaller battery than both the Pixel 3 and the $399 Pixel 3a XL. This is an astonishing lapse in judgement because Pixel 3 battery life was already poor and only got worse with time. 
Consequently, the Pixel 4 never lasted me a full day for me (read: dead by 4/5pm) and screen-on time rarely passed above 3 hours. This is simply unacceptable in a premium smartphone and a deal-breaking mistake in a year when Apple massively increased battery life so all iPhone 11 models deliver well over 6 hours of screen-on time (the iPhone 11 Pro Max tops 7 hours). For me, this is a recall-level bad decision and I’d suggest Google relaunches the Pixel 4 with a much larger battery.
Pixel 4 battery life is truly awful
As for the Pixel 4 XL, it’s better but still not great. In my experience it mostly lasts a full day (circa 14 hours) and I get about 5 hours of screen-on time. This may be ‘enough’ at purchase but, as the battery degrades, there will be problems in 12-18 months because there’s no margin for drop-off here. 
Google’s battery decisions with the Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL are baffling and bone-headed in the worst possible way, given the remarkable intelligence that has gone into so many parts of these phones. 
Pixel 4 XL battery life is considerably better than the Pixel 4, but still far behind rivals
As for charging, it’s solid but unremarkable. Wireless charging is finally Qi-compatible this year at up to 11W, though rivals like Samsung can hit up to 15W. Meanwhile, wired charging is limited to 18W (circa 90 mins for a full charge) which is ok but still off the pace in a year when 45W and even 65W smartphone charging has caught on.
Price and Storage – Too Much For Too Little
Having made the best value smartphones on the planet earlier this year, sadly Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL pricing is Dumb Decision #11.  

Yes, both phones are overpriced and under capacity. Samsung made 128GB its entry-level capacity this year and both Samsung and Apple offer phone capacities up to 512GB. Then there’s this:

Whichever way you slice it ($100 cheaper than a 64GB Pixel 4 or 256GB for $50 less than a 64GB Pixel 4 XL), Google’s new phones look poorly priced. Yes, the iPhone 11 Pro and Pro Max cost more but, apart from their OLED displays, the Pixel 4s spec sheets and design (dual cameras, thick bezels, face unlock) tie more closely to the iPhone 11 while having shorter battery life. With Google hoping to ramp up smartphone sales this year, that’s a problem.  
Google’s Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL are super smart-phones ruined by dumb decisions
Bottom Line – I’ll Buy It, You Shouldn’t
Google appears to have outsmarted itself with the Pixel 4 and consequently made a lot of dumb decisions. The root of it seems to be a philosophy that its software/machine learning is so smart that the company can afford to cut corners with hardware and convince us it doesn’t matter. It does and, at these prices, it’s unacceptable. Google’s cutting edge software should be the Pixel 4’s differentiator, a special sauce sprinkled on top of cutting edge hardware, not used to compensate for a litany of bad hardware decisions (no ultra-wide camera, an ageing chipset, lower RAM, weak storage options, small battery capacities – are just the main ones). 
And this is extremely frustrating. Specs should be the easy part. The OnePlus 7T and Asus ROG Phone II deliver cutting-edge specs for knockdown prices but they aren’t smart like the Pixel 4 is smart. Google only needed to make its version of these phones and add its superlative software smarts on top to have a huge hit. But that isn’t what we’ve got. 
Instead, we have a glorious camera which will be remembered for not having an ultra-wide lens, a 90Hz display which isn’t on half the time, restrictive storage which forces users to buy Google One subscriptions and chipset and RAM restrictions which suggest – like previous Pixels – these phones won’t age well. What I do love (Astrophotography mode, the potential of Soli and, as a journalist, Recorder) are niche features which don’t compensate for the everyday flexibility of a third lens and a big, fat battery. 
So who would buy a Pixel 4? Well, me actually. I love stock Android, I want the absolute best camera in most shooting conditions (I’ll use Astrophotograpy mode) and a 90Hz display which I can afford to force on all the time because I am able to charge my phone regularly throughout the day. The Pixel 4 is still a write-off, but the Pixel 4 XL is just about the best phone for me. 
If this sounds like you, great. Go buy one*. For everyone else, stay away. 
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(*wait for Black Friday sales. You’ll save $200-300 off the price.)
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