Google Pixels are, somewhat inexplicably, the most-leaked Android phones. That is, if you're assuming desire for leaks of a new phone is based on its popularity, and its popularity is rooted in prior sales sales numbers — which would put Pixels way down the list. But despite their lack of retail success, seemingly everyone clamors to learn about the new Pixels — leaks flow, and hype builds, even though on average very few people will actually buy one.
But all of the leaks, and the historically low sales, don't make the Pixel 4's official unveiling superfluous. There are plenty of things that we didn't know about, and plenty more that don't fully reveal their importance until we've actually used the phones.
Google has the ability to do things no other Android manufacturer can. And I generally agree with its philosophy on phones. Google cares about the user experience, the simplicity of how everything works, and focusing on a handful of super-powerful features to differentiate. The Pixels generally represent an under-served part of the Android world: one that focuses on the holistic view of the phone rather than individual specs or getting as many buzz-worthy features as possible into a single device.
The Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL are Google's latest attempt. Here's how it all comes together.
Google Pixel 4 Hardware and cameras
So first, the basics: Google unveiled a 5.7-inch Pixel 4 and a 6.3-inch Pixel 4 XL, with both being roughly the same physical size as their predecessors. Like last year's Pixels, both have flat displays — a boon for screen protector fans. But unlike last year's XL, both now have notchless screens, because there's a lot more going on in a complete top bezel. For the Pixel 4, you're looking at a Full HD panel, for the Pixel 4 XL, it's Quad HD — both with an 18.5:9 aspect ratio.
The 90Hz refresh rate screens are every bit as smooth as phones like the OnePlus 7 Pro.
But the most significant upgrade in these screens is that they're smoother than before, with a silky 90Hz refresh rate. It's every bit as smooth as phones like the OnePlus 7 Pro and 7T, and makes the Pixel interface a joy to use.
The design, this time around, is quite a departure from earlier Pixels. There's no two-tone back panel, instead just a painted metal frame and a single sheet of matte-textured, frosted glass around the back. Both phones come in three colors: black, white or orange. And even though I'm only just getting to grips with these phones, the stand-out orange is definitely the one to get — though I also enjoy the more subdued white version, which contrasts nicely with the black side walls and camera modules. One thing that's worth emphasizing regarding colors: the black model uses glossy glass on the back, like most phones, and it offers both more grip and considerably more fingerprint retention in the process. Even though the orange and white models are clearly cleaner looking, there's something to be said for the extra grip the gloss provides.
The design is quite a departure from earlier Pixels.
The hand feel and aesthetics are pretty different compared to just about every other phone out there — and yes, I do include the iPhone 11 in that. Comparing renders side-by-side is one thing, but in the hand the Pixel very clearly has its own unique style. The matte-textured side walls are pretty grippy — similar to the back of a Pixel 2 XL — and when you combine this with the frosted glass back and color-accented power key, it's a really unique look. It feels very Googley, and runs contrary to the shiny, glossy finishes you'll find on rival devices. In fact, the Pixel 4 is the least shiny phone, least fingerprinty phone I've used in years.
I am a little disappointed to see the end of the old two-tone Pixel style, but in dropping that look, the Pixel 4 definitely has a stronger design identity.
The storage situation is somewhat questionable, but Google's never played a big spec game.
On the inside, the Pixel 4 series has most of what you'd expect from an Android flagship in 2019. It's powered by a Snapdragon 855 processor, and there's 6GB of RAM in every Pixel 4 configuration — which is fine, if not particularly generous — and 64 or 128 GB of storage. The storage situation is my biggest initial beef with the new Pixels, but when you consider the lower-than-expected starting price, that's probably fine. I can live with 64, especially on a Pixel with free Google Photos backup. But many will want to step up to 128.
Battery capacities are also a bit of a question mark. The Pixel 4 XL has an ample 3700mAh cell — although given the 90Hz panel, even that's a little on the small side. But the smaller model has a meager 2800mAh cell, which is a worrying figure for any Android phone in 2019. We'll see how they stack up in our full review.
The Pixel 4's camera setup sees Google moving to a dual rear lens configuration for the first time, with a secondary telephoto camera bringing digital zoom up to 5X. If you're into specs, the main camera has a 12MP sensor behind an f/1.7 lens; the telephoto is a 16MP dealie behind an f/2.4 lens. There's no ultrawide, which is frankly a disappointment, but telephoto should at least bring a boost to the Pixel's already great portrait capabilities. We'll put the cameras through their paces in our full review, but needless to say I'm eager to try out the Pixels' updated Night Sight capabilities and the new astrophotography feature, considering how phenomenal the Pixel 3 was in night-time shots.
Not having an ultrawide camera is frankly a disappointment, but let's see what Google did with the software.
Around the front there's just a single selfie camera (compared to the pair on the Pixel 3), but with a wider field of view to help with selfies the Pixel 3 was so great at. Like the last generation of Pixels, it's an 8MP sensor behind an f/2.0 lens.
On paper the Pixel 4's camera hardware isn't anything to write home about, but then that's always been the case with Pixel phones. The magic comes in the excellent HDR+ processing that Google brings to the table, and four generations in, it looks stronger than ever.
Sitting alongside the Pixel's selfie camera is the extensively leaked Project Soli sensor for aerial gestures. The Pixel's initial setup explains how this works and walks you through what it can do — and right now it's pretty limited. You can use it to skip songs and control alarms without touching your phone, by waving over the gesture area at the top of the phone. It's also part of the Pixel's lock screen, waking the phone as you approach it. We can't talk too much about how this works just yet, but one initial pain point is the fact that there are some geographical restrictions on where you can use it.
You might've also noticed there's no fingerprint sensor on the Pixel 4, and that's because Google's gone all in on face unlock. Setup is super quick, and handled when you first start up the Pixel 4. Unlike other implementations on Android, this face unlock is secure enough to handle payments through Google Pay and log you into apps, again thanks to the Pixel 4's forehead-based array of sensors that's far more advanced than using just a camera.
Google Pixel 4 Software and experience
The major draw of a Pixel is its simple and useful software — let's just hope the speed holds up over time.
So that's the hardware. The major draw for a Pixel phone, however, has always been the software. And this year brings ever more Googley features to a clean, fast Android 10 experience. The obvious counter-argument is that of course the Pixel 4 is quick out of the box — but Pixels are known to slow down with time. We'll have to see in the coming weeks and months whether the bit rot that afflicted earlier Pixels will claim two new victims in the 4 and 4 XL. Hopefully, with a year of extra optimization and an extra 2GB of RAM, that won't be the case.
On the visual side, the new Pixels have a neat loadout of new live wallpapers, plus the old Pixel back catalog available to download. There are new theming options too, giving Pixel owners the chance to change fonts and colors to suit their style. The redesigned Google Camera app brings welcome changes as well, including more reachable settings via a swipe gesture. And the new Pixel safety app provides a central location for emergency contacts and medical info, and controls the new car crash detection feature on offer in some countries.
Meanwhile, the new Pixel recorder app offers realtime, offline, transcription for your meetings, which could be a game-changing feature for some people.
Running Google Assistant locally is a big improvement.
Most important of all, there's also the newest iteration of Google Assistant — a major feature which unfortunately is only available in U.S. English at the moment. Like Recorder's offline transcription, the new Assistant runs locally on the phone, thanks to the power of the Snapdragon 855. That means Pixel 4 buyers can enjoy even quicker responses since Assistant isn't as reliant on your connection speed. Like before, Assistant can be activated with a voice command, home screen swipe or a full-phone squeeze ... and we'll be able to get into how well it works in our full review. Google really wants to remove the pain points for using Assistant, and faster recognition should go a long way towards a smoother experience.
Otherwise, this is the Pixel interface we've come to love over the past few years. A Google-centric experience that'll be a great fit for anyone who's fully bought into the Google ecosystem. And naturally, it's a Pixel, so there are lots of little hard-to-quantify extras like consistently excellent haptics to experience.
Google Pixel 4 More to come
It's always the case that the initial hands-on with a new phone leaves a lot on the table to be examined and discovered. But that's particularly true with the Pixel 4 and 4 XL. For three straight generations, the Pixels have launched with incredible fanfare and high praise, only to be subsequently let down by lackluster execution. As they say, "it's the little things" — how does the battery hold up? Will performance deteriorate over time? Is the software stable and consistent? Does the hardware and display quality meet initial impressions? These are all questions that take time to answer, and have also been the weak points of previous Pixels.
The biggest questions in Google phones are the ones that take the most time to figure out.
It comes as no surprise that the Pixel 4 and 4 XL present well right at launch. Google has a compelling pitch. These are beautiful phones with good enough specs, clean and fast software, some great Google-exclusive features, impressive camera capabilities and all-new standouts like advanced face unlock and Motion Sense gestures. It all looks great at the start, and always demos well — but Google hasn't been the best at execution, and has regularly skipped over a lot of the "basics" that are standardized across the competition.
Those basics and that execution are the foundation that needs to be there before we can really assess the value of all the extras. First impressions are absolutely important, and the Pixel 4 and 4 XL present themselves well. I really hope the good feelings carry on after days and weeks of use.
Google's new Pixel 4 is, in many ways, an impressive upgrade over last year's Pixel 3. It comes with a smooth 90Hz AMOLED panel that boasts a 90Hz refresh rate, a motion-sensing Soli chip that enables the face unlock and Motion Sense features, Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 chipset, 6GB of RAM, and a 12MP + 16MP dual camera setup at the back. The phone also offers an improved Night Sight mode with an astrophotography mode as well as live HDR+ previews.
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