Google Pixel 4 review: Shooting for the stars

  • 8 min read
  • Aug 05, 2020

Say hello to Google's fourth-gen home-made Pixel smartphone. Now four years in, the earlier Nexus programme - where third-party manufacturers dictated design or branded the phones with their own logos - seems like a distant memory.

Sure, the Pixel might not be selling like hotcakes for various reasons, but it is now an established brand, capable of showing-off Google's innovation in a way you don't necessarily see in other devices. Whether that's the Soli chip and Motion Gesture controls, or the stunning results achieved from the camera hardware by combining it with the AI capabilities, there's plenty in the Pixel 4 to differentiate it from the rest of the pack.

But the Pixel 4 sits in a spot where the Pixel 3a family exists for far cheaper, while the Pixel 4 XL offers better (but still not great) battery life. And that's without coming to mention its significant competition (Apple, Samsung et al). Is Google's time as a smartphone brand being called into question, or does the fourth-gen Pixel offer more than many are giving it credit?

Unique styling

  • Dimensions: 147 x 68.9 x 8.2mm / Weight: 162g
  • Colours: Black, White, Oh So Orange
  • IP68 water/dust resistant
  • Glass front and back

It's safe to say that in this world of samey-looking smartphones, the Pixel 4 stands out. At least, it does if you get the Oh So Orange or Just White models. It's not often you get a smartphone where the metal edges deliberately contrast with the primary colour on the back. But that's what Google has done. And it looks superb, save perhaps for that massive camera lump.

It's not just about contrasting visuals either: the Pixel 4 in this colour feels different to most phones out there too. Its frosted look is matched by a soft texture that's much nicer to hold than the usual shiny, glossy and slippery glass phones out there. And it's as much about the finish of the metal edges as it is the glass on the back: these have a soft-touch texture to them, all the way around the phone. It therefore doesn't feel cold, rather more welcoming and easy to grip.

More importantly than all of this: the matte-textured finish appears to have a more scratch-resistant quality to it than its shiny counterparts. A few months into our time with it, and we don't see any obvious scratching or scuffs on the edges, or on the back.

Being the smaller model of the two-strong line-up, it's also easy to grip in one hand - not that the XL is overly large. The Pixel 4 is comfortable and ergonomic, almost friendly in its size, shape and texture. Like it wants to be used. Oh, and it has that awesome orange power button on the side, which is just cool. We're totally on board with it.

Around the front and it's quite different to most phones too. Rather than go completely bezel free, or use a minimal notch or hole-punch camera, Google has opted for quite a hefty 'forehead'. As you'd suspect, it's not there for its looks, it's a functional decision.

Within this forehead you'll find an array of sensors and cameras designed for 3D facial recognition and Motion Gestures (more on those later). It's certainly an unusual look, but it's still an improvement on the rather ostentatious notch that featured Pixel 3 XL.

Compared to its predecessor - the smaller Pixel 3 - it looks as though the Pixel 4 has maintained the same excessive top bezel, while significantly slimming down the 'chin' at the bottom. With that said, the chin is still noticeably thicker than the side bezels, so you get this weird sort-of unbalanced look to the whole front. We found it best just to use a dark wallpaper, to help minimise the look.

IR smarts and motion gestures

  • Soli radar chip for Motion Sense gesture control
  • IR-based face unlock system
  • No fingerprint scanner

Rather than go the route of in-display fingerprint scanners, or any fingerprint scanner at all, Google has opted for the aforementioned 3D facial recognition hardware in the Pixel 4 family. It's the only reason the phone has that big forehead.

It's not just about facial recognition though. There's also a Soli chip which is used for Motion Gestures - which you might hear called air gestures - that you make with your hand. That means being able to skip tracks or decline calls, or even interact with some of the live wallpapers by waving at the phone.

In daily practical use, we didn't find it was something we used all that often. And when we did, it wasn't consistent. Some waves it didn't detect, others it would respond in the opposite way to what we meant, skipping tracks forward rather than back. In its current form, it doesn't really feel like something that's necessary either. Given the unreliable nature of it, it's easier just to just tap the buttons on the screen.

The full scope of Motion Sense is yet to be realised - and Google says that this is a system that's just getting started - but as it stands we really can't see that it adds, well, anything. It's not a feature we've been waiting to appear, it doesn't let you do anything you can't already do with voice or a tap of the phone. Some of the Motion Sense gestures might be useful for drivers - but outside of that, we'd need to see a game-changing function before we're sold on the need for it.

Google's move towards advanced facial recognition for security mirrors Apple's move with the latest generations of iPhone. It works well, unlocking the phone really fast. Just pick it up, the phone unlocks, and away you go. You can have it unlock immediately, or require a swipe on the screen to unlock it if you found that too quick and unsettling.

The obvious downside with this 3D face scanning feature is that there aren't many third-party apps to adopt it yet. Since launch, the list has grown slightly, but there seems to be a lack of any significant progress and here, and that means there's a good chance a lot of your password and banking apps will require a PIN unlock, which is nowhere near as quick or convenient.

Small but mighty screen

  • 5.7-inch P-OLED display, 1080 x 2280 resolution, 90Hz refresh

A small phone means a small screen, but a small screen with Full HD+ resolution actually makes for a really good viewing experience, particularly in the Pixel's case. It uses an OLED-based panel, which means you get lots of colour, deep blacks and bright whites. Thankfully, the Pixel 2's display woes are far behind us in the distant past.

Part of it is down to the small size, meaning there are 444 pixels-per-inch, making for a sharp image with nice fine details. Another is that 90Hz refresh rate, which only appears to kick in when the screen is bright. It makes animations seem a tiny bit smoother, although you might not notice in general everyday life, you might if you look closely.

Colours really do pop as well, and looked brilliant when watching the Our Planet series on Netflix. And it's just as great for watching animations like Rick and Morty, or divulging in an afternoon of Mario Kart Tour gameplay action. The lamination also makes it seem like the content is almost floating on the surface - it's that close to the glass.

Now you can change the way colours appear if you want a less vibrant and saturated look. There are three different calibration modes: Natural, Boosted and Adaptive. The last of those is the default. Natural is the more neutral/reference approach to visual which still looks good, but just lacks a little punch when it comes to dynamic range and colour reproduction. Boosted takes things up a notch at all times.

Performance and battery

  • Snapdragon 855 processor, 6GB RAM
  • 64GB or 128GB storage
  • 2,800mAh battery
  • Wireless charging

The Pixel 4 is a small phone by modern standards, which means there's a smaller battery inside. With that you expect a difference in day-to-day performance. But what we found with the Pixel 4 is that it's just inconsistent - and not long-lasting enough much of the time. Even a few months in, we're still not getting a reliable, consistent battery experience.

Some days we'd struggle to get past 5pm before getting that red line in the battery indicator, and not on particularly heavy-use days either. Other days it lasted as we expect a phone to, getting to after dinner fairly comfortably.

We found that particularly on the days where we tested the camera, the battery drain was severe. Similarly, on days when we travelled, the battery seemed to drain heavily too, even without using the phone all that much. On another days, working from home with light to moderate usage the phone got to bed time.

The short version is: if you use your phone a lot during the day, particularly taking photos, you may want to opt for the bigger Pixel, because this probably won't get you through a full day.

The rest of its performance is virtually flawless. The Pixel 4 is equipped with the Snapdragon 855 processor, and that means it's about as powerful as any other smartphone out there. Google could have opted for the even more recent 855 Plus, but we don't think that would have made all that much more difference. But from a purist point of view, it's a shame to see it behind - especially when Snapdragon 865 has been announced just a couple of months after the phone came out.

It almost always feels like Pixel is playing catchup in this regard because of its launch cycle. Not a lot Google can do about this, obviously, but having a phone released with a chip that's reaching the end of its cycle isn't a good look for a flagship device.

Camera champ

  • Dual camera: 12.2MP f/1.7 main, 16MP f/2.4 2x zoom
  • Single front-facing 8MP camera
  • Video to 4K at 30fps

If there's one area where the Pixel has really excelled at in recent years, it's in the camera department. Despite having stuck with a single camera for the first three generations, it was lauded as being one of the best smartphone cameras around. For 2019, Google finally blessed us with a secondary zoom lens. Sorry ultra-wide fans - there's no love for you.

To switch between the cameras, however, Google has made the unusual decision to not provide an easy-to-use button on the screen. With that said, you can double-tap quickly to zoom in 2x, which switches to the telephoto camera quickly, easily and more accurately than if you tried to find the exact "2x" point by sliding the control on the screen or using a pinch-to-zoom gesture. This is arguably the only real irk of using the new camera.

That control blip ignored, the results are otherwise excellent. In daylight you'll get great detail and colours, with fantastic vibrancy. This is thanks to Google's ever-evolving computational smarts that process the image right after its taken.

At night time you can switch to the dedicated night mode. In this mode it takes a few seconds to draw in more light, stabilise any hand-shaking, correct the white balance, and leave you with a photo that doesn't really look like it should be possible with a smartphone camera. It's not a unique feature any more - even the iPhone 11 has it now - but it's still very good.

Google also has a new astrophotography mode (think of this as the next-level night mode). For this particular mode, however, you need a tripod. It kicks in automatically after you've chosen the night mode, providing the phone is completely still.

The only thing we noticed that could be marked down as a negative against the camera is that if you use it for a while, snapping a number of photos, the phone gets noticeably warm. It's never overheated to the point of shutting down the app - something that old Sony phones used to do - but it was a little uncomfortable to hold once the camera app had been open for 5-10 minutes.

More customisable Android

  • Android 10 software
  • Customisable styles: fonts/colours/dark mode
  • Auto-transcribing voice recorder

Stock Android software hasn't always been known for its built-in customisation options. In fact, that's normally something you expect other third-party manufacturers to add in their own flavours of software. But with Android 10 on the Pixel 4, that's changed.

In a move similar to what we've seen from OnePlus over the years, Google's latest Android version lets you choose from a handful of different accent colours and icon shapes. You can choose from four pre-installed themes which change font, colour and wallpaper. Or you can create your own custom one. There's a system-wide dark mode, which can also apply to some of Google's own wallpapers and any apps that support it too.

Plus, there are two new preinstalled apps: Recorder and Safety. The former is a voice recording app which leverages Google's machine learning expertise to automatically transcript voice recordings, and does a pretty remarkable job. The Safety app is used to add in your personal information and medical conditions; it'll also let you send a quick location update to a chosen few contacts when you're in a pickle.

On the whole the software is otherwise very much as you'd expect it to be on a Pixel: clean, smooth and minimal. You don't get lots of bloat, pre-installed apps, nor unnecessary theming or skinning. And the Now Playing feature on the lock screen is as useful as ever, automatically showing you what song is playing without you having to hunt for Shazam.

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