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Google Pixel 4 and 4 XL Review: A small step forward

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The Pixel 4 and 4 XL, Google’s latest flagships, are here.

After months of leaks and speculation, the most highly anticipated and intensely scrutinized Android handset of the year is about to be available.

Despite how much we knew about the devices before Google revealed them, there’s still an essential unanswered question surrounding the devices.

From the camera to the design, are this year’s Pixel devices the ultimate Android smartphones?

While we aim to address this question, what we can confidently say is this: the Pixel 4 is good. It’s a step forward for Google’s smartphone line, but by no means is it a significant leap. Whether steady progress is worth the upgrade is up to you.

Note: Throughout the review, we’ll refer to both devices as simply ‘Pixel 4’ since almost everything applies to both devices. Where necessary, we’ll point out the differences and make it clear which of the two phones we’re discussing.

You really have to hold it

After the controversy surrounding the Pixel 3 XL’s notch, Google opted to launch the Pixel 4 and 4 XL with no notch at all — take that critics. However, while the notchless Pixel 4 might please those who despised the 3 XL notch, it also sparked new controversy surrounding the phones’ large top bezel.

The Pixel 4 sports a hybrid design that mixes the look of last year’s smaller Pixel 3 with Samsung’s Galaxy S10e. The Pixel 4’s side and bottom bezels are impressively slim, while the top bezel retains the thickness of the Pixel 3.

The trade-off enables features like ‘Motion Sense’ and face unlock, but gives the device a top-heavy look.

While critics will likely point to this as a design failing, in all honesty, it’s an acceptable compromise and preferable to the Pixel 3 XL. Plus, after using the Pixel 4 for a few days, you’ll likely forget the top bezel is there.

With the more controversial design decision out of the way, let’s talk about the best parts of the Pixel 4 — the colours and textures.

Google launched a new, limited edition ‘Oh So Orange’ colour alongside the classic panda-like ‘Clearly White’ and the simple ‘Just Black’ colours. Both the orange and white variants sport a lovely matte texture on the back that feels great when you’re holding the phone. It’s similar in feel to the Pixel 3, but more pronounced. The smartphone’s textured sides make the Pixel 4 one of the best devices to use without a case (although you should still use one since the phone is made of glass).

The same can’t be said about Just Black, which forgoes the matte texture on the back for a glossy, mirror-like finish. While it looks great, the in-hand experience is less satisfying than the other Pixel 4 colours.

Another polarizing part of the design is the square camera bump. As with most camera bumps, it looks better in person than in photos. Google said it chose the design to highlight the new camera. It gives the white and orange devices a unique look as well, while on the black Pixel 4 it blends into the glossy back and is less noticeable overall.

Ultimately, the Pixel 4 is one of the best feeling smartphones out there. While some may grumble about the aesthetic decisions, holding and using the Pixel 4 is a pleasure. Unfortunately, that alone is not enough to push the latest Pixel ahead of other phones.

90Hz or bust

The Pixel 4 XL’s OLED display looks stunning and is comparable in quality to all other Android flagships that launched this year. Likewise, the smaller screen on the Pixel 4 was excellent, despite the lower resolution. Videos and images are crisp and made better due to the device’s 90Hz display.

Despite the buttery-smooth feeling of the 90Hz screen, there were still some odd issues. When Android 10 did stutter — usually after opening the multitasking view — it seemed more noticeable because of the higher refresh rate.

The 4 XL displayed colours accurately and blacks were sufficiently dark with help from its OLED panel. However, our Pixel 4 unit had an odd display calibration issue. When using apps with a grey background at around 25 percent brightness, the top right corner of the display took on a darker, almost red tint while the left corner appeared greenish and brighter. The issue wasn’t as noticeable at different brightness levels and wasn’t present at all on the Pixel 4 XL.

Another welcome addition with the display was ‘Ambient EQ,’ which adjusts the screen based on surrounding light. It’s very similar to Apple’s ‘True Tone’ on the iPhone but is less aggressive. Overall, Ambient EQ was a welcome respite for the eyes without turning the Pixel 4 display orange like ‘True Tone.’

Google moved its speaker from the bottom bezel to the bottom of the device, flanking the USB-C port. Some might worry that the Pixel 4 is quieter than the 3 series due to the lack of dual front-facing speakers. However, despite the different speaker placement, the Pixel 4 is loud and offers booming sound.

Interestingly, if you cover the downward-firing speakers with your hand, it doesn’t noticeably decrease volume. Unless you try hard to block the speakers, you don’t have to worry about accidentally covering them while holding the phone horizontally.

The Pixel 4 feels fast and we haven’t experienced any issues with the device freezing at any point during our time with the device.

The device handles apps pretty well, even after opening 15 apps the phone doesn’t seem to close them, at least not for a while. After 15 apps you’ll notice that the apps you haven’t opened in a while will close. However, with the Pixel 4 apps open so quickly that it’s barely an issue.

Motion Sense: Not quite there

‘Motion Sense’ is the Pixel 4’s party trick that you’ll show off to impress people and then never use again.

Powered by Google’s Soli radar chip, Motion Sense utilizes radio waves to detect motion and gestures.

Google talked a big game about how radar and Motion Sense would change the way we use phones. Nanda Ramachandran, the global director of Google’s Pixel business, positioned Motion Sense as a “bubble” of contextual awareness around the phone. In this regard, Motion Sense excels.

It enables two main methods of interaction: passive and active.

The contextual awareness bubble is part of the passive interaction. A prime example is how Motion Sense works with the Pixel 4’s new face unlock feature. When users reach for the device, Motion Sense wakes it and looks for the face so that by the time you’ve picked up the phone, it’s already unlocked. It works far better than you’d expect and sometimes it works too well.

The active implementation of Motion Sense is not nearly as polished. This includes tasks like dismissing alarms or silencing phone calls with a wave of your hand or skipping songs in Spotify or YouTube Music.

Motion Sense worked well with some apps, but in most cases the feature wasn’t reliable. In nearly all cases, we found the feature didn’t warrant enough convenience over just touching the phone.

Ramachandran said that Motion Sense would get better over time. He also suggested that the current Motion Sense implementation was at “phase one” and that people “need to get adjusted” to using it. In other words, we can expect Google to launch more features and improve Motion Sense in time.

For now though, Motion Sense is mostly a gimmick, despite Google’s desire for it to eventually become more than that.

It may be a gimmick, but it’s a fun one

With all that said, Motion Sense is still fun. One of the best things about the feature is the free Pokémon live wallpaper. You can wave hello to Pikachu and his Pocket Monster friends, as well as pet them.

Currently, the only other smartphone in the Canadian market with some form of air gestures is LG’s G8 ThinQ. Samsung’s Note 10 also features similar gestures powered by the device’s S Pen. LG’s ‘Air Motion,’ a feature that lets users perform actions on-device by waving their hand over the infrared sensors, is gimmicky and unnecessary. However, it worked. In Dean’s review of the G8, he mentioned that Air Motion takes too long and it was quicker just to pick up the device to change songs or adjust the volume.

However, the active use cases for Google’s Motion Sense are finicky and work even less than the G8 ThinQ. Motion Sense also works with fewer apps. LG’s Air Motion can open two of your favourite apps, adjust the volume, pause or play music, take screenshots, snooze or dismiss alarms and accept or decline phone calls.

Face unlock: faster than iOS, but the jury’s out on security

One of the other standout Pixel 4 features is the device’s new face unlock functionality. Unlike past Android face unlock options, the Pixel 4’s take on the feature is supported by hardware. It works similarly to what you’d find in an iPhone with Apple’s Face ID, but with two IR sensors, a dot projector and a flood illuminator.

What sets the Pixel 4 apart is Motion Sense, which gives the phone a level of awareness that helps speed up the process. As mentioned above, the Pixel 4 recognizes when you’re reaching for the device and immediately looks for your face.

In practice, it works well and the smartphone unlocks quickly. It was often quicker than Face ID, but not significantly faster. It also works well for people of colour.

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However, Google’s face unlock has another issue: it’s not as secure as some of the other offerings out there. What we’ve found the most concerning about face unlock is that it doesn’t require you to be looking at the device. Unfortunately, the Pixel 4 will unlock even if your eyes are closed. The angle doesn’t seem to have much impact on face unlock either.

On several occasions, we’ve noticed that the phone will unlock even when you’re putting it down on the table.

This can lead to the user accidentally unlocking their device, which could be bad in a variety of situations. A partial remedy is disabling the option to open the phone immediately. This leaves the Pixel 4 on the lock screen until a user swipes up, which doesn’t add much security, but is better than nothing, or not using face unlock at all. Google says it plans to fix this issue “in the coming months.”

Handsets like the iPhone 11 will only unlock if you’re looking at the device, which leads to fewer accidental unlocks and is way less of a privacy concern.

Some app developers aren’t on board yet

Another issue with the Pixel 4’s face unlock is app support. Unfortunately, this isn’t a problem Google can really fix.

Several apps that offer biometric authentication, such as banking apps, don’t support the Pixel 4’s face unlock. Others have said Google Pay authentication doesn’t work either, but we haven’t experienced issues with this on our review devices.

That said, many apps do support it. Password managers like Dashlane and 1Password, as well as purchases through Google Play, work with face unlock. There’s also a possibility app compatibility with the feature might improve in the coming weeks.

With the banking apps, uptake of support for the new face unlock will likely be slow.

Unfortunately, this is because Google doesn’t have the same level of control over developers as Apple does. App developers who want to use biometric authentication on iOS apps must plug into an API — they don’t get into the nitty gritty. Because of this, when Apple first released Face ID, it quickly worked with every app that used Touch ID, since those apps hooked into the API, which worked with both versions. While Google has a similar API, not every app uses it. Banking apps, for example, don’t yet work with the feature. That’s why some apps already work with Pixel 4 face unlock (they use the Android API) and others don’t.

Ultimately, the Pixel 4’s face unlock is excellent for quickly opening your phone, but leaves several gaps in the user experience that may make the feature a non-starter for most people.

It’s worth mentioning here that both face unlock and Motion Sense utilize Google’s new Pixel Neural Core. While Google was coy about the chip when asked for details, the company did say that it handles many of the new features in the Pixel 4 and helps the device learn with more usage.

It also helps with the new Assistant and takes on the work of the Pixel Visual Core included in past devices.

Camera: Small improvements

Google’s Pixel 4 camera comes with a couple of cool new tricks. First, there are two cameras on the back for the first time ever in a Pixel smartphone. There’s a 16-megapixel telephoto shooter with three-times optical zoom alongside a 12-megapixel wide-angle lens that is similar to what was already available with the Pixel 3.

The most noticeable update to the Pixel 4’s camera is the dual exposure functionality. Typically smartphones only have one exposure slider but the Pixel 4 features two sliders. These let you manually adjust the highlights and lowlights of your photo before you take it.

We found this to work well when a certain part of an image is overexposed or underexposed. The dual exposures work in portrait, ‘Night Sight,’ telephoto and with the selfie camera, which is very useful.

Dual exposure, also helps with Night Sight. Brightening up the shadows while keeping the rest of the image relatively dark improves night pictures. The Huawei P30 Pro’s ‘Night Mode’ was definitely superior to the Pixel 3’s. However, the Pixel 4 with dual exposure and improved Night Sight is comparable in performance.

Google’s 16-megapixel telephoto camera features 8x digital zoom and 3x optical zoom. At three times optical zoom, pictures lose their details and their crispness. While the whole image looks fine, details like letters and numbers are not completely clear. That said, this is an improvement over not having a telephoto lens at all.

Huawei’s P30 Pro with 5x optical zoom does this a lot more proficiently with images remaining crisp and well detailed.

At the Pixel 4’s 8x zoom, words are still legible. However, other detail is lost in the image.

Similar to the Pixel 3 series, the 4 does a great job at taking portrait pictures. Google uses software to blur the background of the image and highlight the foreground. In all honesty, there isn’t much of a difference in quality between this feature with the Pixel 3 and the Pixel 4. That said, I think the overall camera experience is made better by the dual exposure functionality.

The Pixel 4 series also features an astrophotography mode that keeps the exposure open long enough to take pictures of the moonlit sky. Unfortunately, we didn’t get the chance to test it out due to the light pollution that comes with living in a big city like Toronto. However, if you’re ever camping or going to a more rural area with the Pixel 4, remember to take shots of the night sky.

In general, images are detailed and colours are accurately portrayed and true-to-life.

Selfie-wise, the Pixel 4 is barely better than the Pixel 3 series. Even though Google got rid of the 97-degree wide-angle lens, the Pixel 4’s single 90-degree lens makes up for it. Some pictures turn out better on the Pixel 3, while on the other hand, there are instances where photos turn out better on the Pixel 4. Camera performance is nearly identical, but the Pixel 4’s dual exposure helps out with selfies as well.

Sometimes, things like hair and fur lose detail in selfies, which is an issue the Pixel 3 experienced as well.

Finally, many are likely wondering which has a better camera, the Pixel 4 or the iPhone 11 series. While the Pixel 3 had a superior camera when compared to the Phone XS, the Pixel 4 and iPhone 11 are very comparable. It’s difficult to say which camera is better because the quality of photos snapped at night, during the day and even in portrait mode are all nearly the same.

The iPhone 11 has a wider crop and is able to take wide-angle pictures, but the Pixel 4 features a telephoto lens (the iPhone 11 Pro Max also features a telephoto shooter). Additionally, when taking portrait pictures, the Pixel 4’s background blur looks more artificial when compared to the iPhone’s ‘Portrait Mode.’ The Pixel 4 is also able to capture a wider range of colour than the iPhone 11, but only slightly. Further, Night shots with Apple’s iPhone 11 series don’t illuminate the subject as much as the Pixel 4, though they retain more background detail.

(iPhone 11 pictures are on the left, Pixel 4 pictures on the right)

In the end, the deciding factor regarding which smartphone takes the better image comes to personal preference.

Keep an eye out on MobileSyrup for a deeper look at the camera and how it stacks up to other devices in the coming weeks.

Battery

Though Google increased the battery size with the Pixel 4 XL, battery life is not impressive. Without using any of the battery saving features, and with adaptive battery and brightness turned on, the device came in at 16 hours of battery life, but with only a bit more than five hours of screen on time. This included one hour of Spotify, 46-minutes of Netflix, over an hour on Instagram, 20 minutes of mobile gaming and watching a few videos on YouTube.

This device takes about two hours to charge from zero to 100 percent, but can provide 30 percent battery life within 20 minutes, in our testing.

With the regular Pixel 4, the battery was also disappointing. It featured similar battery life to last year’s Pixel 3 despite its slightly smaller battery. Average usage included about an hour of listening to Spotify or a podcast, playing a bit of Pokémon Go and browsing social media. This left the Pixel 4 needing a charge around mid-afternoon on most days with about three hours of screen-on time.

Canadians don’t get the full Pixel experience

Another unfortunate reality with the Pixel 4 is that the Canadian experience is just not as good.

At launch, some of the prominent name features, like the improved Assistant and car crash detection, aren’t available in Canada. Aside from vague assurances that the features will arrive “some time soon,” we don’t know when Canadian Pixels will get them.

It’s a bummer, really. After seeing the new Assistant in action at the Made by Google event in New York, it was one of the highlights of Pixel 4. Not having the next-gen Assistant makes the Pixel 4 feel incomplete.

And while car crash detection is a feature one hopes they’ll never have to use, it’s still disappointing not to have.

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