Google Pixel 4 review: Great camera, boring everything else

Still no iPhone or Galaxy killer.

Google Pixel 4 review
Ryan Houlihan / Input

Google doesn’t want you to think of the Pixel 4 as just a smartphone. Instead, the Android phone’s just one of the company’s many Assistant-powered “ambient computing” devices which can be called on to help get stuff done.

Google says ambient computing is designed to make its services available on any device with any input, whether that’s typing, touch, voice, etc. Hardware is merely a vessel now.

And Google may end up correct — Chrome is a perfect example of accessibility trumping the device it runs on — but the Pixel 4 is still a smartphone living in a world dominated by iPhones and Androids.

A more intelligent Assistant and an admittedly very useful Recorder app that transcribes in real time show off Google’s continued advancement of AI and machine learning. But the Pixel 4’s core phone stuff — stuff people really care about, like cameras and battery life — can’t compare to the iPhone 11 or 11 Pro. Apple’s got Google beat this year.

Stuff I like

I’ve never been the biggest fan of Google’s Pixel design choices and the Pixel 4 is no different. I’ve been testing the regular Pixel 4 with 5.7-inch OLED display and while I think the thick forehead bezel is ugly, I love the screen’s 90Hz refresh rate. Like the OnePlus 7 Pro and 7T/7T Pro, the Pixel 4’s 90Hz screen makes scrolling and animations incredibly smooth. 90Hz is a nerd feature like OLED, but once you’re spoiled by it, it’s tough going back to slower refresh rates.

The limited “Oh So Orange” and “Clearly White” versions both have soft-touch matte glass backs. The “Just Black” has a glossy glass back. Coupled with the matte metal frame and slightly narrower body, the Pixel 4 is easier to grip and use with one hand than my iPhone 11 Pro. It’s a really great size, especially since I prefer smaller phones.

The Pixel 4 is easier to hold in one hand than the iPhone 11 Pro.Ryan Houlihan / Input

I still like the “Active Edge” feature that lets you squeeze the phone to summon the Assistant and Android 10 runs mostly hiccup-free. Android 10’s gestures are a blatant ripoff of the iOS’s for iPhone X (and newer), but you know the saying: “Good artists copy and great artists steal.”

The new Recorder app is really dope, especially for journalists like myself. The real-time transcriptions are fast, accurate, and work offline and on-device. Transcribed voice recordings are also searchable. Every reporter is going to want this app in their bag. Google just “sherlocked” the Otter app and anyone providing transcription services on places like Fiverr.

Stuff I don’t like

Others will bitch about the lack of a headphone jack or an included dongle in the box, but I’m more annoyed there are no wired USB-C earbuds included in the box. Wireless headphones and earbuds are the future, but even Apple includes Lightning EarPods with every iPhone. It doesn’t help that Google’s own wireless Pixel Buds aren’t launching until spring 2020.

Another feature I think is lame: the Project Soli radar tech. The radar sensor is built into the top bezel and is used for face unlock and gesture controls.

Some tech reporters have gushed about how fast the face unlock is — the Pixel 4 is unlocked by the time you bring it up to your face — but I wouldn’t say it’s the fastest. It’s a little quicker than Face ID since you don’t need to swipe on the screen, but face unlock on OnePlus phones are way speedier. Kudos to Google for making it work in landscape mode, though.

The Pixel 4 has a thick "forehead" bezel.Ryan Houlihan / Input

Worse than the speed is the security. The Pixel 4’s face unlock works even if your eyes are closed. As I pointed out on Twitter, that means anyone like a stranger or maybe a partner you haven’t shared your passcode with yet can unlock your phone with your face while you’re sleeping. If law enforcement wants access to your phone’s data against your will, they can just point it at your face. You can’t even refuse to open your eyes like you could with any iPhone with Face ID.

After the initial backlash, Google says it’ll release a software udpate “in the coming months that adds a setting to require your eyes to be open for face unlock.

And as if that wasn’t bad enough, the Pixel 4’s face unlock is used to authenticate Google Pay and passwords just like Face ID. This means, anyone who looks like you — again, with their eyes closed — could run up your credit card if they were to get ahold of your phone. Other Android phones don’t have this problem because they have a fingerprint sensor for mobile payment authentication.

Project Soli’s also used for “Motion Sense” — hand gestures you can perform above the Pixel 4 so you don’t need to touch it. I had big hopes Motion Sense would be better than the many previous attempts by other companies — Samsung’s tried “Air Gestures” and LG’s tried “Air Motion” — but it’s not. The controls are limited to simple things like changing music tracks, and in my opinion, air gestures are not more useful or responsive than touching the screen or using voice control. Motion Sense definitely falls under gimmicks.

Google promised us more granular hand-based controls, like this video below:

In reality, what we have in the Pixel 4 is Kinect-like waving. So lame.

Lastly, the Pixel 4’s battery life is pretty average. On days where I wasn’t shooting a lot of photos or streaming much Spotify, I got a full day with about 10-15% juice still left in the tank. But on most heavy days, the Pixel 4’s puny 2,800 mAh battery couldn’t cut it.

Even with me managing the battery life with features like adaptive brightness and battery saver mode, the Pixel 4 couldn’t compete with my iPhone 11 Pro’s stamina. Taking it off the charger at 8 a.m., the Pixel 4 would usually need to be recharged by 4 p.m. Sure, the iPhone 11 Pro is a little heavier, but I think most people will accept the tradeoff for longer battery life.

On most heavy days, the Pixel 4’s puny 2,800 mAh battery couldn’t cut it.

Great cameras, but where’s the ultra-wide?

If you’re expecting the Pixel 4’s cameras to blow the iPhone 11 and 11 Pro’s away, I have some bad news: they don’t. Sometimes the Pixel 4 takes better photos, but not always. Apple’s really narrowed the gap this year.

Google’s beefed up the Pixel 4’s camera hardware in a few ways: the main 12.2-megapixel camera has a very slightly improved f/1.7 aperture versus f/1.8 on the Pixel 4 and there’s a secondary 16-megapixel 2x telephoto zoom camera. But Google also took a step back by removing the wider secondary selfie camera on the Pixel 3. So much for group selfies!

No ultra-wide camera on the Pixel 4 is disappointing.Ryan Houlihan / Input

The problem isn’t merely that Google is just now adding a telephoto lens when every other phone has had one for years, but that the Pixel 4 also doesn’t have an ultra-wide lens. In 2019, an ultra-wide camera is a staple feature for premium smartphones and arguably a more useful and fun camera to shoot with than a telephoto.

My disappointment with the cameras extends to the software. Mainly, the camera app doesn’t have a 2x button to switch between the main camera and the 2x telephoto (you can only pinch and zoom to get a range of 1-8x optical and digital zoom). Google’s explanation for the lack of a 2x button is that it wants the two cameras to work as if they’re one zoom lens.

Though Google’s greatly improved the Pixel 3’s “Super Res Zoom” feature that enhances digitally-zoomed shots — in my tests, the digital zoom is superior to the iPhone 11 Pro’s — I hated not being able to jump directly to the telephoto camera for a simple 2x zoom. At 2x, I have high confidence I’ll get an optically-stabilized shot, but at like something like 2.3x or 6.7x zoom it’s a total leap of faith.

The Pixel 4's 8x digital zoom is sharper than the iPhone 11 Pro's.Raymond Wong / Input

Whether the Pixel 4 or the iPhone 11 Pro has a better camera comes down to the details, which to be honest, on Twitter and Instagram don’t mean much because of image compression.

Google talked a big game about using its AI and machine learning to correct white balance, capture stars in night photos, take even better DSLR-like portrait-style photos, and show real-time HDR in the viewfinder.

For the most part, the Pixel 4’s cameras impress. Photos are really sharp, contrasty, and portrait photos look great. But so are the Pixel 3’s cameras. In my test shots, I can’t say there’s a big gulf between photos taken with Pixel 4 and Pixel 3. They’re really similar.

The differences are in the details. But on Instagram, who cares?Raymond Wong / Input

Personally, I prefer the iPhone 11 Pro photos over the Pixel 4. I know a lot of people like the Pixel 4’s sharpened and contrasty photos, but I prefer the iPhone 11’s more natural-looking and color-accurate pics. The iPhone 11 Pro cameras produce shots that aren’t as saturated; the Pixel 4’s colors aren’t as saturated as on a Samsung Galaxy, but the blues and reds still look more dialed up versus iPhone.

The sky is slightly bluer and the bricks are a shade more red on Pixel 4.Raymond Wong / Input

Below, you can see how the purple in the neon sunglasses is punched up to look bluer instead of uniform like on the iPhone 11 Pro.

The Pixel 4 saturates colors more than the iPhone 11 Pro.Raymond Wong / Input

Color balance is hit or miss. Sometimes the Pixel 4 takes a warmer and more realistic photo — that is, it looks exactly like what my eyes see — but it usually spits out images on the cooler side. Again, it’s a preference thing, but I like the iPhone 11 Pro’s warmer tones.

The Pixel 4's machine learning corrected the white balance to look warmer, even though that's not what it looked like in reality.Raymond Wong / Input

Above, the iPhone 11 Pro photo is sharper, but the Pixel 4 used new machine learning techniques to autocorrect the white balance to look more pleasing. Most people I asked preferred the Pixel 4 image, but the warmer color is actually fake — the fluorescent lighting from overhead was blue in real life so, technically, the iPhone 11 Pro took the more accurate photo.

Portrait selfies on the Pixel 4 tend to look more red.Raymond Wong / Input

The real test of the cameras is night photography. Google’s Night Sight led the way for computational photography, giving the Pixel 3 the ability to literally illuminate complete darkness, and I thought the Pixel 4 would again blow by iPhone, but I was surprised by the details.

In almost all cases, the iPhone 11 Pro’s superior to the Pixel 4 for low-light photography, with and without night modes.

Look at the below comparison pics without night modes turned on. The iPhone 11 Pro’s exposes all of the chandelier’s lights with fine detail, but the Pixel 4 doesn’t. The white balance is also true to life; New York City’s Grand Central Terminal is not that blue.

The iPhone 11 Pro produces more accurate color balance and exposure, especially around the chandelier lights.Raymond Wong / Input

Zooming in on the chandeliers reveals the iPhone 11 Pro’s more intricate low-light exposure versus Pixel 4.

The iPhone 11 Pro (right) nails the color and the exposure better than Pixel 4.Raymond Wong / Input

And here’s another set taken about 30 minutes after sunset without night mode. The Pixel 4 sharpens and brightens up the image, but the iPhone 11 Pro preserves the night mood better with darker blacks and shadows.

Whereas the iPhone 11 Pro takes more natural-looking photos, the Pixel 4 photos look more artificial, like lighting has was brought in to illuminate the scene.

This shot was taken about 30 minutes after sunset without any night modes.Raymond Wong / Input

Most people are going to prefer the brighter Pixel 4 photo. However, looking in the details, you can see the blacks aren’t as inky compared to iPhone 11 Pro:

The blacks are deeper on the iPhone 11 Pro.Raymond Wong / Input

With Night Sight turned on, the Pixel 4 pleases with impressive photos at first. But the results can be inconsistent.

The iPhone 11 Pro's Night Mode preserves more of the low-light mood of a scene.Raymond Wong / Input

Night shots, with and without night modes on, are again a little more saturated, brighter, and crisper, but there’s also more image noise. Compared to the iPhone 11 Pro, the Pixel 4’s image noise is blockier. The sky in the below comparison is a perfect example; you can see stars in the iPhone 11 Pro shot, but not in the Pixel 4 pic.

The Pixel 4 photo is brighter, but the image noise in the sky is blockier.Raymond Wong / Input

There is sometimes vignetting when shooting night skies with night mode on iPhone 11 Pro, like this pic below, but I still prefer it over the noisier and more saturated Pixel 4.

The Pixel 4's Night Sight looks more artificial than the iPhone 11 Pro's Night Mode.Raymond Wong / Input

And, no surprise, the Pixel 4 takes better zoomed in night mode shots. The iPhone 11 Pro’s photo isn’t technically a night mode pic; it’s a cropped version of a zoomed in night mode image taken with the main camera.

The Pixel 4's 8x digital zoom is superior to the iPhone 11 Pro's even at night.Raymond Wong / Input

I didn’t get a chance to test both phones with a tripod so I can’t say how these kinds of photos look. However, for astrophotography, the Pixel 4 beats the iPhone 11 Pro. The Pixel 4’s photo (saturated as it is) at least captured the stars with Night Sight. Meanwhile, the iPhone 11 Pro with Night Mode just shot gray? Neither is color accurate, but the iPhone 11 Pro failed spectacularly for pure star pics.

Neither is color accurate, but at least the Pixel 4's shot isn't overexposed.Raymond Wong / Input

For more photos taken with Pixel 4, follow me on Twitter @raywongy. I’ve been sharing a lot of samples there.

Google’s still not serious about phones

The Pixel 4 is yet another reminder Google doesn’t really care about making killer phones. The 90Hz screen is wicked smooth, but I could get a OnePlus 7 Pro or 7T for less. Same for Android 10: the 7T ships with it.

The cameras are great, but everyone’s now got an ultra-wide camera and the Pixel 4’s dual lenses just aren’t enough.

Battery life (on the Pixel 4 — I can’t speak for the 4 XL) is average and nothing to brag about. 64GB of storage of base storage is a crime, not just on Pixel, but on iPhone, too.

As a smartphone — one that starts at $799 — the Pixel 4 is as bland as it gets, which probably means it will remain a phone for the most diehard Google fans. But even for them, there’s better Android phones to get.

Google may not care if its Pixels ever compete with the iPhone or Samsung Galaxy — after all, the Pixel 4 is just a container for its “ambient computing” dream — but real people want to see they’re in the game to win, not to just to casually mess around, which is honestly what they’re doing… again.