Here's why the Pixel 4a will be a better phone without Soli

Google Pixel 4 XL long-term review
Google Pixel 4 XL long-term review (Image credit: Harish Jonnalagadda / Android Central)

When Google launched the Pixel 4 and 4 XL last year, it spent a considerable amount of time showing off Motion Sense, a gesture system that lets you control the phone by waving your hand over the display. While that sounds incredibly cool, the final implementation was far from perfect. All you could do with the feature was dismiss calls, snooze alarms, and control media playback on select streaming services.

Motion Sense is still very limited in its capabilities, and there just isn't a good enough reason to use it.

Three months after its launch, Motion Sense is still limited in its capabilities. There isn't any compelling reason to use the feature, and that makes it all the more frustrating because it was due to Motion Sense that Google didn't launch the Pixel 4 in India.

Motion Sense relies on specialized radar hardware that Google developed over the last four years — called Soli — and because it works over the 60Hz frequency, Google needed to get permission from global markets. It failed to do so in India and ultimately decided to not launch the phone in the country. That's not all; Motion Sense is geo-restricted, so regardless of where you buy the Pixel 4, the feature is automatically disabled the moment you start using the phone in a country where it isn't available.

I used the Pixel 4 XL for over a month in the U.S., and I wanted to see what it was like to use the phone in a country where Motion Sense doesn't work. One thing, in particular, stood out in the two weeks I used the Pixel 4 XL in India: battery life. The battery life on my Pixel 4 XL was horrid, but with Soli disabled, I'm consistently getting a day's worth of use without any issues.

Soli is Google's Bixby — the Pixel 4a will be a better phone for not having the radar hardware.

That brings me to the crux of my argument: By focusing so much on getting Soli to work, Google once again ignored key areas where it could have improved the hardware. For all of its advances in computational photography, Google continues to lag behind its rivals in basic hardware features like biometrics, charging technologies, and memory configurations.

I'm now looking forward to seeing what Google does with the mid-range Pixel 4a. If recent leaks are any indication, the Pixel 4a will have a similar design aesthetic as the Pixel 4, but with a single camera at the back and a hole-punch cutout up front. The presence of a traditional fingerprint reader at the back all but confirms that Pixel 4a will not feature Soli hardware, and that means the phone has a shot at launching in more markets around the world.

Lately, I've been more interested in Google's mid-range efforts than its flagship offerings. Google doesn't have a shot against Samsung and Huawei in the premium segment — the Pixel 4 XL is just not worth $900 — but it could carve out a niche for itself in the mid-range category. We've already seen that with the Pixel 3a series, and Google now needs to deliver meaningful updates with the Pixel 4a to continue its momentum in this segment.

Google Pixel 4a: News, Leaks, Release Date, Specs, and Rumors!

Harish Jonnalagadda
Senior Editor - Asia

Harish Jonnalagadda is a Senior Editor overseeing Asia at Android Central. He leads the site's coverage of Chinese phone brands, contributing to reviews, features, and buying guides. He also writes about storage servers, audio products, and the semiconductor industry. Contact him on Twitter at @chunkynerd.

  • Agreed, and a good article, thanks. After having the first 3 generations of Pixel XL’s and skipping the disappointing 4’s, I’m eagerly awaiting the 4a’s.
  • I enjoy Soli on my 4 XL. I don't use it all the time but it's nice when I need it. You can always easily turn it off for when you need more juice from your battery. Same with forcing 90hz refresh rate, you don't need it but it's nice that you have the option. And in the end, aren't options what makes Android the best?
  • I tend to disagree with this article. Comparing Pixel 4 XL and Pixel 4aXL are apples to oranges. What makes the Pixel 4XL a premium device is that it "offers" the Soli device. While some think it "gimmicky," I personally find it quite useful. For example, without Soli radar, silencing my somewhat loud alarm clock in the morning on my Pixel 3XL was somewhat cumbersome at best. Having to quickly open my eyes, try to see the phone, reach for it and swipe the screen to silence the screen is definitely more difficult than just swinging my hand over the light of the phone screen. I don't even have to open my eyes really. Also, having Soli radar recognize I'm reaching for the phone and preparing Face Unlock to scan for my face is what makes the Pixel so much faster than the iPhone at unlocking the phone. Do I wish Google would add additional features such as gestures for adjusting the volume? Absolutely, but I'm sure those gestures are coming at some point, but I recognize that Google needs to concentrate of perfecting what it can do right now before adding any additional gestures. As for battery life, I'm not really having any difficulties getting my Pixel 4 XL through the day on a single charge. As with any phone, battery life is dependent upon the user and what they are doing with hit. Taking lots of pictures/videos or playing lengthy games will eat up any battery on any device.
  • I think what the author is getting that is the cost and benefit of Soli is pretty poor. Soli doesn't do much at all and impacts battery life pretty significantly. Not to mention, Google decided to focus on a half-baked feature rather than what was important to the user. They shrunk the battery capacity this year while iPhone's got rid of the somewhat gimmicky "Force-Touch" in favor of a larger battery adding 4+ hrs. Face Unlock is "so much faster than iPhone" because of how insecure the feature is. Not having to blink or open your eyes is a huge security risk. I am also not sure if which model of iPhone you are comparing to. In testing, iPhone 11 was just as fast a Pixel 4 and this was without the upcoming patch from Google to detect an open eye. You don't need to have radar to detect your hand approaching it if your unlock tech is already near instantaneous. We have a test Pixel 4 here in our labs and Soli is not intuitive at all. If you give a person a Pixel 4, they end up looking like an idiot swiping back and forth above the phone trying to get it to do something. Testers here have found the gesture recognization to be flakey at best. I also am on the fence about having the ability to silence the screen by swinging my hand over the light. I personally feel like it's way too easy to dismiss that I'd oversleep.
  • Bad article. How can you compare solo to bixby? PIxel 4 has best bimoetrics apart from apple. How can you say that it doesn't have best biometrics? Do note 10 have best biometrics? The in display fingeelr print scanner fails 50 % of the time. Pixel 4 is definitely premium as u currently get it for 200 $ less.
  • The reference to Bixby was a way of saying that Soli is a feature that does not make the product better for most people. In terms of biometrics, the Pixel 4 is in third place behind Apple and HTC.
  • Do you have a Note 10 to say that the in display finger print scanner fails half the time? Also, I couldn't help but notice you said the Pixel 4 is "definitely premium" and that it cost $200 less. If it's so premium why is there such a steep discount? Wouldn't it maintain that premium quality?
  • I doubt the Note 10 has a 50% failure rate unless your hands are very bad. It depends on your fingers: Some people have few problems with it, and some have a lot. That being said, our Note 10+ often takes multiple attempts to get it to unlock.
  • "Lately, I've been more interested in Google's mid-range efforts than its flagship offerings. Google doesn't have a shot against Samsung and Huawei in the premium segment — the Pixel 4 XL is just not worth $900 — but it could carve out a niche for itself in the mid-range category." This! Google, just like HTC and Sony, just don't have the chops to compete in the High end market. Google is better off doing Midrange and Upper midrange phones that people actually desire and will sell like hotcakes. The Pixel 3a is an excellent example of that.
  • Woha! Pump the brakes there a bit. HTC and Sony don't have the chops to compete in the high end market? Sony makes the camera sensors in just about ALL the high end market devices. Their own phones are held back by internal competition with their camera division, but they make great sensors. And since you brought up HTC... Did you know Samsung tried to mimic HTC's buttonless technology, and did not have the manufacturing precision? Apple tried desperately to make sapphire screens, and they can't. HTC can make and mass produce full sapphire screens, on their own. Now let's take the S10+ and do the unthinkable: compare it to... hold on, I think it's under the bus here somewhere.. oh yeah, the HTC U12+. And I'm speaking right now, both on the table, no holds barred.
    Which one wins in performance? U12.
    Which one captures more detail in still photos? U12.
    Which one has better telephoto? U12.
    Better night mode? S10+
    Headphone audio? U12
    Speakers? U12
    Fingerprint reader? U12
    Face unlock? U12.
    Screen? S10+, but not by as much you'd think when you have them side by side. Better blacks versus better whites, and the U12+ display won't get murky after a few years. See a pattern here? It's not a case of them not competing, it's a case of people being TOLD they can't compete, and everyone goes along with it like lemmings.
  • Hit the nail on the head there Altema! HTC make fantastic devices. Its just they were given the shaft by the paid shills for samsung.
  • I had an option of getting either Pixel or OnePlus. I chose the latter. I think the price point is great for Indian markets. Pixel *A doesn't make sense when OnePlus offers far superior features hardware wise for the same price.