There weren’t many surprises at the Made by Google event because there were so many leaks in the weeks and months leading up to it, but now that the Pixel 4 and 4 XL are here it’s clear that there are some highlights and some disappointments.
For first impressions, check out our hands-on with the Pixel 4 and 4 XL — our full reviews are in the works. The story of Google’s design overhaul is fascinating and I like the new look; the general consensus suggests the new Pixels look better in person than in pictures and videos. It’s also good to see that the Pixel 4 and 4 XL will be available from all the major U.S. carriers and quite a few smaller ones, too. But what features immediately jump out and where has Google let us down?
Gamers know all about the benefits of a high refresh rate for your screen and the Google Pixel 4 kicks things up a notch from the standard 60 frames per second to 90 frames per second. Not only is this great for reducing blur during gaming action it makes everything feel just a bit smoother and slicker.
Gaming phones led the move to a higher refresh rate screen, and OnePlus was the first major manufacturer to adopt it in its flagship range, but I’d like to see this trend continue to spread and it’s good to see Google adopting it.
If you’ve spent any time with a Face ID-equipped iPhone as your daily driver, then you’ll know how good face unlock can be. You may think that you’ll miss having a fingerprint sensor, but you won’t. The only thing I’ve never liked about Face ID is the fact that you have to slide to unlock after it recognizes your face — why can’t we just jump straight into the home screen?
Google has done it right with a fluid, fast, and secure face unlock system that kicks in the moment you reach for your Pixel 4, and has the phone unlocked and ready to use by the time you get it into position. It works in the dark and it can be used to authenticate payments, too.
For me, the Achilles’ heel of the Pixel 3 was the battery life. Few phones have given me such battery anxiety and I have gotten into the habit of taking portable chargers with me everywhere. For some reason Google has decided to shrink the battery in the Pixel 4, from 2,915mAh to 2,800mAh. Considering Google has also added a lot of sensors that are constantly pinging and a higher refresh rate screen, I’m seriously worried that the battery life is going to suck.
The weird thing is that Google has bumped up the battery in the Pixel 4 XL to 3,700mAh from the Pixel 3 XL’s 3,430mAh battery. Frankly, I think everyone would rather have a slightly thicker phone if it meant good battery life — and the designers told us they would always make the phone thicker if it meant a better battery experience — so I can’t see any good reason for this reduction and it could seriously hamper the device.
The idea of gestures to control your phone is far from new, but we’ve yet to see anyone do it right. Project Soli has been running for years and Google has finally decided it’s ready to roll out with the Pixel 4. It’s essentially a radar system that employs a sensor array above the screen that gives the device spatial awareness and enables it to see and interpret your hand movements. Google is calling the new feature Motion Sense and it’s starting out with the basics, so it can see when you’re approaching or leaving and turn the screen on or off accordingly.
If there’s an incoming call, it will drop the volume as soon as you reach for it and you can dismiss with a wave. You can wave left and right to change music tracks in a variety of supported apps — this even works when the screen is off — and you can snooze alarms with a wave gesture as well. The functionality will grow over time and it’s a big sign of where Google wants to go — towards a hands-free future.
When companies do something right, it’s no surprise that others copy them. I don’t care who was first to roll out a great new feature, I just want it in my next phone. But the smartphone industry works the other way too — when big companies do something wrong, others see it as an opportunity to follow suit. There’s no point in resurrecting the headphone jack debate, but it’s a prime example of a move that’s all about the manufacturer — it inconveniences customers and no one, literally no one, was calling out for it to go.
I’m not surprised that there’s no headphone port in the Pixel 4, though Google did include one in the more affordable Pixel 3a and 3a XL, but where’s the dongle? I don’t have an issue with manufacturers not including earphones in the box anymore, because I think they often remain there and don’t get used, but no adapter with an $800 phone is not cool. It wasn’t cool when Apple did it and it isn’t cool when Google does it. The company likely wants you to buy its upcoming Pixel Buds 2, but those cost $179. At least Google is offering $100 launch promo credit for purchases on Google Store, so people can buy the accessories they want.
Ever since Google demonstrated the next version of Google Assistant back at Google I/O, I’ve been excited about it. I speak to Alexa, Siri, and Google Assistant frequently and there’s no doubt that Google is still well ahead of the competition here; the new capabilities just open up an even bigger gap.
Google Assistant is much faster than before and capable of understanding context and taking follow up questions or commands without you having to say “Hey, Google” again every time. Not only can it now dip straight into apps for you, for example, opening a specific person’s Twitter profile or composing an email at your behest, the Pixel Neural Core allows it to understand spoken English without having to be connected to the internet. There’s also the new Recorder app, powered by the same technology, which can transcribe in real-time; I realize that’s probably not as exciting for the average person, but for journalists, it’s a big deal.
It doesn’t seem that long ago that we were bemoaning 16GB phones, then 32GB wasn’t enough, now I’m not satisfied with 64GB. The base model of the Pixel 4 and 4 XL has just 64GB of storage and, of course, there’s no MicroSD card slot for expansion. Your mileage will obviously vary here, but as someone who plays a lot of games, 64GB can fill up alarmingly quickly.
I don’t like having to delete stuff to install a new app. Most other manufacturers, including Samsung, Huawei, and LG, offer 128GB as standard and so should Google. It’s especially concerning now as Google is no longer offering free, unlimited backup of full-resolution photos for the Pixel 4.
It’s too early to tell whether Google will claim the best camera phone title back from Apple with the Pixel 4, but the improved camera seems very fast and the new modes and improvements are enticing. I’ve captured some of my favorite photos, particularly of family and friends, with the Pixel 3, so I’m excited about the potential of the Pixel 4.
The real-time preview is now more indicative of the final result, there’s a dual exposure function that lets you adjust brightness and shadows separately, and the telephoto lens allows for much more powerful zoom. Google claims a host of improvements have been made to existing portrait and night modes, so this could be an exceptional camera and it’s certain to be a highlight of the phone.
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