Google has launched its fourth generation of Pixel smartphones, and much has been written about the Pixel 4 XL. I've been using the smaller of the two new Google flagships to see if it can stand up to the competition. In a world where compact smartphones are a dying breed, does this represent the best choice for Android fans?
- Smooth 90Hz display
- Top performance
- Compact design
- Excellent camera
- Atrocious battery life
- Motion Sense limited
- No more unlimited cloud storage
Google Pixel 4 release date and price
The Google Pixel 4 was presented along with its bigger XL brother at a Made by Google event on October 15 and went on sale officially on October 21. You may have already seen some out in the wild.
The smaller Pixel 4 starts at $799 for the version with 64GB of internal storage. The version with 128GB of storage will cost you $899. In the United Kingdom, those prices are £699 and £829 respectively. Storage is important on the Pixels this year, because Google has scrapped the unlimited cloud storage perk that used to come with its flagship phones.
The Pixel 4 comes in three colors: Just Black, Clearly White and a new limited edition Oh So Orange. It is not yet known when the orange one will leave the Google Store, but if you really want it, it is probably better to act sooner rather than later.
Compact, clean design
The Pixel 4 was once again this year one of the most leaked smartphones ahead of its release. Still, the design has been worked on and Google has delivered a smartphone that looks a bit more contemporary than it has done in the past. There are none of the bells and whistles we've become accustomed to in 2019 such as a curved display, a pop-up selfie camera, or even a notch. With the screen off, the Pixel 4 looks similar to an iPhone X from 2017.
The old 18:9 format is gone and the Pixel 4 now uses a 19:9 aspect ratio. It's a small difference, but it makes the Pixel 4 sit just that tiny bit more comfortably in your hand. There's a fairly massive bezel at the top of the 5.7-inch display to house the new Soli Radar chips, the facial unlock technology and the front-facing camera. It's packed with sensors, but more on that later.
Aside from that those who purchase a new Pixel 4 will be happy to find a well-made smartphone that's all metal and glass. The aluminum sides have this textured black coating on all three color variants and it feels lovely to the touch. Interestingly, the Clearly White and Oh So Orange feature a rather nice matt finish on the rear glass, similar to the new iPhone 11 series. It feels fantastic. The Just Black version I tested, however, has a regular fingerprint magnet glossy surface. Why? I have no idea!
You won't hear any other complaints from me about the design of this smartphone though. I'd prefer it if the camera bump didn't stick so far out from the back of the device, but that's my only real gripe. I love compact smartphones, and even in a world where we have almost everything on hand in our editorial office, I still find it difficult to truly fall for a phone that does not fit comfortably in my trouser pocket. The Pixel 4 is just 68.8mm wide and only weighs 162g. Try finding those numbers elsewhere in the Android world, at any price point!
Silky smooth display, if you pay the price
The display on the Pixel 4 is a 5.7in FHD+ OLED with a resolution of 1080 x 2280 pixels (444ppi) . As mentioned before, it's now in a 19:9 format compared to the 18:9 that we saw on the Pixel 3 phones. It's a flat display with no curved edges or side sensitive features or fancy gimmicks. There's no notch, and no hole punch. You get Gorilla Glass 5 on the front and it can still be always-on.
The key feature of the display this year, however, is the 90 Hz refresh rate. We've seen this on gaming smartphones and more recently on the OnePlus 7 Pro, 7T and 7T Pro. I've written before about how I'm a huge fan of displays with a 90 Hz refresh rate, so I was excited to see how this one compared to what OnePlus is doing. However, Google has kind of mucked up the implementation of what should be a key feature of the display.
The 90 Hz refresh rate is, by default, set to an adaptive setting. The software decides when you need to make the most of the 90 Hz refresh rate and when 60 Hz will be just fine. The problem is that it doesn't really do a very good job of it. I found myself stuck in 60 Hz when I wanted 90 (you can see the difference easily when you are switching between the two frequently) and it definitely feels like Google is prioritizing energy consumption over the smoothness of the display more often than not.
Fortunately, you can force the Pixel 4 to stay in 90 Hz mode permanently via a toggle switch in the developer options. Switch on the Force 90Hz option and you'll get a silky smooth display that is very easy on the eye. The price you'll pay, however, is that your battery life will be obliterated. This is not a choice that OnePlus forces you to make.
Motion Sense is still just a concept
New for the Google Pixel 4 this year is the Soli Radar chip , developed with Infineon, that sits in the top bezel alongside the new IR sensors for Face Unlock - Mountain View's answer to Apple's Face ID. There are several advantages to having a radar chip in a smartphone, and Google has been able to utilize the tech for a new hands-free control system called Motion Sense. I have already written about the new feature in detail, and you can read about it in the article below:
The long and short of it is that the technology behind Motion Sense is way more interesting than the implementation at this stage. I believe that in the future we will interact with our smartphones in more ways, and probably with a combination of voice and motion controls using this kind of radar technology, but right now Motion Sense feels like a proof of concept rather than a fully finished feature. Skipping tracks on Spotify and snoozing alarms is cool, but the use cases are still very limited. While I sit patiently waiting for software updates to expand Motion Sense, you have to worry about how keen third parties will be to embrace this, and if Google will even let them.
Android 10 with added Pixel perks
The new live transcribe feature for the voice recorder app is an absolute dream for journalists or students conducting interviews that eventually have to be converted to the written word. The fact that the transcription is searchable is really useful, and the security-conscious will be delighted to hear that all of this processing is done on the device, and not on Google's servers.
During my testing, live transcribe was perfectly usable. I read Rudyard Kipling's epic poem 'If' to the Pixel 4, and the software managed to accurately transcribe about 90 percent of the text. You will still need to tidy up the text if you are using the feature for a professional interview, but it's still easily the best tool available for this kind of work available on a smartphone today.
Aside from that the Pixel 4 comes with Android 10 out of the box. We've covered the latest Google software extensively already, so I will divert your eyes to our dedicated articles if you are still keen to learn more.
Snapdragon 855 SoC from Qualcomm
The Google Pixel packs a Snapdragon 855 SoC from Qualcomm. There's no Snapdragon 855+ that we've seen in some of the other top smartphones this year. Still, Google's software and hardware optimization means that you will have no complaints when it comes to performance. The 64GB of internal storage, however, is woefully small considering Google has withdrawn the unlimited storage perk for putting your photos and video in the cloud uncompressed. You're stuck with either paying for more cloud storage or getting the 128GB storage option. Either way, you'll be out of pocket.
Google Pixel 4 benchmark comparison
|Samsung Galaxy Note 10
|Google Pixel 4
|3D Mark Sling Shot Extreme ES 3.1
|3D Mark Sling Shot Vulkan
|3D Mark Sling Shot ES 3.0
|3D Mark Ice Storm Unlimited ES 2.0
|Geekbench 5 (Single / Multi)
|704 / 2283
|610 / 2396
|786 / 2825
Same great camera as its bigger brother
Google's Pixel smartphones have always had a (justified) reputation for having the best cameras in the smartphone world, but with the launch of the new iPhone 11 Pro and Pro Max, Apple has closed the gap this year. That's not to say that the Pixel 4 has lost its top spot.
Google has worked on the camera once again and new features such as Dual Exposure are really fun to use. The camera on the smaller Pixel 4 is the same as its bigger brother. Google's decision to go with a telephoto sensor instead of a wide-angle for the second shooter is still a bizarre one, but that's the way it is. For those who just want to point and shoot, however, the Pixel 4 is still one of the best phones you can buy for high-quality photos with little effort.
Our photo and video expert, Stefan, shared his thoughts on the Pixel 4 camera in our full review of the Pixel 4 XL. You can read those comments at the link below:
Appalling battery life
The battery is, without doubt, the Achilles heel of the smaller Pixel 4. When you combine a 2,800 mAh battery with a 90 Hz display, the Soli Radar technology and some new software features such as live caption that work constantly in the background, you have a recipe for appalling autonomy.
Unfortunately, this bears true in everyday usage. The PC Mark battery score for the Pixel 4 returned a result of 9 hours and 10 minutes. I often found myself getting even less than that, too. Admittedly I had the display running at 90 Hz permanently, but I stand by my decision on that one. If you are going to offer a silky-smooth display, don't take it away from me on a whim because the battery is suffering.
So you will barely have enough battery to get through your commute and a full day at work in most cases, and that's just with normal usage. If you play games or start taking lots of photos you might need to reach for the charger before your lunch has even settled. Compared to the battery improvements Apple made with the iPhone 11s this year, Google has gone the opposite way.
Fast charging is done at 18W and any USB-C Power Delivery charger will give you that. A full charge takes about 100 minutes and you can hit 75 percent charge in about 45 minutes. If you buy a Pixel 4 this year, you will soon become familiar with these numbers, trust me.
Google Pixel 4 technical specifications
Still the best compact Android phone
The Pixel 4 is a smartphone that, as a professional reviewer, I struggle to recommend. From a technical point of view, it's impressive. The radar-based Motion Sense stuff is cool, but it's half baked at the moment and what you are really investing in here is the future potential rather than the functionality you get out of the box today. Add to that the pathetic battery life, which is not going to satisfy even those who stick to moderate usage, and the decision to cancel the unlimited cloud storage for full-resolution photos and videos for Pixel owners, and I'd be ridiculed in our editorial office if I suggested you go out and buy this for 800 bucks.
And yet, despite all of that, I am going to keep using the Pixel 4 as my daily driver. I loved the Pixel 3a, and the latest flagship still represents the best compact Android smartphone in my opinion. In terms of performance and the camera, it has everything I need and I am converted to 90 Hz displays to the point of no return. Sure, I will be charging the thing twice a day and probably ignoring Motion Sense for now, but I'm not ready to put it back in the box yet.
It says a lot about the death of compact Android phones that even this Pixel 4, with all its flaws, is still top of the class.