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On Pixel 4 battery, Google’s various teams don’t see pixel-to-pixel

Despite all its machine learning prowess, Google doesn’t learn.

Look at my Google Pixel phone reviews, from the original in 2016 and the Pixel 2 in 2017 to the Pixel 3 XL and the latest Pixel 4 XL: You’ll notice the constant pain point in every review has been battery life. How is this a hard problem to solve?

Almost every Android manufacturer has been outfitting flagship phones — and even budget devices — with large battery cells upward of 4,000mAh to keep them powered for a full day and a little more. This year, we’ve seen Huawei’s P30 Pro last more than a full day easily, and Samsung’s Galaxy S10 Plus manages to get to the end of a day with relative ease. It makes sense to prioritize improving battery life as countless surveys show how U.S. adults are spending more time on a mobile device than watching TV.

Even Apple has joined the club. The company went so far as to make its latest iPhone 11 Pro and iPhone 11 Pro Max thicker than predecessors to fit beefier batteries, and the results are glorious — phones that can still have 20% remaining at midnight after a heavy day of use.

Pixel 4 XL iPhone 11 Pro Samsung Galaxy Note 10 Plus
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

The Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL, with their respective 2,800mAh and 3,700mAh batteries? Not so much. I frequently hit 30% around 5:30 p.m. with medium to heavy use, and the phone itself would often claim that it would die around 10 p.m. based on my average usage. I felt as though I needed to turn on battery-saver mode toward the latter half of most days to ensure the phone would last. Sure, I can wirelessly charge it during the day or carry a portable battery charging pack, but what if I’m not near a desk or if I forget my charger? I rely on my phone for work and so when I’m out and about, turning the phone off isn’t a convenient solution either.

The answer, in reality, is simple: Google needs to use bigger batteries in its Pixel phones.

Why hasn’t it yet? It’s unclear, but the design team told me it won’t compromise on battery life just to make the phone thin, and the hardware team said otherwise. Are they pointing fingers at each other?

Wires crossed

Ahead of the Made By Google event on October 15, I interviewed the Pixel 4 designers and got a chance to learn about the process of designing Google’s newest phone. It was fascinating, but I also had to ask whether or not the team had any influence on battery life — perhaps they didn’t want to make Pixel phones too thick?

Max Yoshimoto, director of industrial design at Google, told Digital Trends that Google’s phones are designed to deliver “beyond 9-to-5” battery life and that his team works with the hardware engineers to understand the required power draw for each device.

“We want to really get everybody kind of a full day of use,” Yoshimoto said in a prior interview. “So if it has to be a little thicker, we’ll make that call. Obviously, we don’t want it to be too thick. But once again, we do want to deliver a great experience so we’re not going to compromise that part of it.”

“To maintain a great fit-in-hand, we shrunk the battery slightly from the prior Pixel 3 device.”

Is the baseline 9-to-5 battery life? If so, Pixel phones achieve that as they most certainly require a recharge if you intend to use them after work hours. Should it be the baseline? Absolutely not. People use their phones well after they leave work.

I recently asked Google if it has any specific battery claim it provides people looking to buy the Pixel 4, and the company said, “Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL’s battery can last through a regular day of use.” That’s not really helpful.

Apple offers up tons more detail here on its product page for the iPhone 11 Pro, listing video playback time (streamed and local playback) as well as battery life for audio playback. Google’s claim is nowhere to be found on its Pixel 4 tech specs page, and there isn’t even a spotlight on the battery in its main splash page talking about all the Pixel 4’s features. Contrast this to Apple’s splash page, where you’ll see a dedicated section talking about the improvements to the iPhone’s battery.

Apple

Here’s the rub: The Pixel 4, a $799 smartphone, has a smaller battery than the Pixel 3 as well as the Pixel 3a, a $399 phone. Considering all the new technology inside the Pixel 4, from a 90Hz screen to radar-sensing tech, who thought that was a good idea? I asked Google why the battery capacity dropped.

“To maintain a great fit-in-hand, we shrunk the battery slightly from the prior Pixel 3 device,” a spokesperson told Digital Trends. “We then leaned more heavily on software to deliver all-day battery, and designed features accordingly.”

Confusing. One team said they reduced the battery capacity for a more comfortable fit in the hand, yet the design team said it wouldn’t compromise on battery life, even if it meant a thicker phone. That must mean all parties think the Pixel 4’s battery life is sufficient, but our testing quite easily shows otherwise (as does our history of reviewing Pixel phones). Google put a little too much faith in its ability to use software optimizations to improve efficiency; that or the hardware team doesn’t fully understand the power requirements for the phone.

And even if you look at “fit-in-hand,” the Pixel 4 is 8.2mm thin; the iPhone 11 Pro is 8.1mm, and has a 3,046mAh cell. Google isn’t even winning points here for being the thinnest.

Look, I really like the Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL. They have excellent cameras, slick screens, and helpful software features. All I want is to be able to use this phone — at varying levels of intensity — without having to worry about it dying. I can do that on competitor phones like the iPhone 11 Pro, and if Google’s trying to mimic features from the iPhone like its new Face Unlock system, I hope it’ll take a cue and add bigger batteries in the Pixel 5.

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Julian Chokkattu
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Julian is the mobile and wearables editor at Digital Trends, covering smartphones, fitness trackers, smartwatches, and more…
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