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Remembering the Google Pixel 4

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

After a few generations of hit-and-miss Google phones, Android fans had big hopes for the fourth-generation Pixels. Topping wishlists were features that had eluded previous Pixels, like multiple rear cameras and strong, all-day battery life. In the summer of 2019, a tidal wave of leaks helped prepare the ground for the Pixel 4, with many of its major spec points becoming known months ahead of time. Would this be the year Google finally nailed it and produced the best Android phones?

Well, no.

In October 2019, the Pixel pattern continued: The Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL brought excellent new Google features like astrophotography mode and the brand new Assistant — and even live audio transcription supported in every app. Yet with those high-level advancements came more weird hardware compromises.

Motion Sense, a make-or-break feature for the Pixel 4, ultimately flopped.

The fourth-gen Pixels carried over the Pixel 3's battery issues, with small cell sizes compared to the competition, while also lagging behind rivals in terms of charging speeds and storage capacities. Meanwhile, the phones' screens managed neither the fluidity of OnePlus's 90Hz displays nor the brightness of Samsung's top-end 60Hz panels. Valuable internal real estate and hardware budget were also taken up with the gimmicky Motion Sense feature, formerly known as Project Soli. (Soli's front-facing sensor array was housed up in the Pixel 4's sizeable top bezel.)

Source: Android Central (Image credit: Source: Android Central)

Motion Sense was another one of those uniquely Google features, originally developed by ATAP, Google's Advanced Technology and Projects group. Motion Sense used radar to detect gestures at a distance, while also enabling secure face unlock on the first Pixel phones to omit a rear fingerprint scanner. In the run-up to launch, Google watchers were poring over all the impressive Motion Sense demos we'd seen from previous presentations.

The disappointing reality of Motion Sense is that it made for a good party trick but otherwise was mostly useless. The feature could be used to pause music, skip ahead, and dismiss alarms, but any other functionality was threadbare. It worked in a handful of apps, and worked unreliably at that. This hardware decision had huge consequences for the design of the phone, the other hardware which could fit inside it, and perhaps most importantly of all, the countries in which it could be sold. (Because it uses radar, there are strict regulatory requirements in some regions.)

Even if Motion Sense worked perfectly and was seamlessly integrated into all major Android apps, that'd still be an enormous trade-off. As it turned out, the feature was buggy, poorly supported, and largely ignored by third-party developers.

Battery life, though, was the Achilles heel for these phones. During my time with the Pixel 4, I experienced the worst longevity I'd seen in any flagship Android phone. During a short trip carrying both the Pixel 4 and a Huawei Mate 30 Pro, I'd find both discharged at the same rate despite the Mate being actively used and the Pixel mostly idling in my pocket.

And I wasn't the only one disappointed by the phone's battery life. Google hardware boss Rick Osterloh was reportedly unimpressed with, among other things, the Pixel 4's battery power.

Andrew Martonik shooting with Night Sight on the Pixel 4

Source: Hayato Huseman / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Hayato Huseman / Android Central)

The Pixel's camera hardware was starting to show its age.

The Pixel's camera hardware was also starting to look long in the tooth next to more exotic photographic hardware from the likes of Samsung and Huawei. In the spring of 2019, the Chinese firm had introduced its first 5X periscope telephoto camera in the Huawei P30 Pro, while also boasting a supersized 40-megapixel main camera with a unique subpixel pattern to capture more light than ever. Meanwhile, Google was continuing to rely on software processing to prop up camera hardware that had remained largely unchanged since the Pixel 2, with the only hardware upgrade in the fourth-gen Pixels being the addition of a 2X telephoto camera.

The first few generations of Pixel handsets, despite their unique strengths, had always been in some way flawed, and those flaws were often rooted in hardware basics. The first Pixels? No water resistance and an anemic 32GB of base storage. Second-gen? Giant bezels on the Pixel 2 and a lousy screen for the 2 XL. Pixel 3? Memory management issues that persisted throughout the life of the phone, especially on the XL, and dismal battery life in the smaller model.

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Google got the icing right but frequently botched the cake.

It comes down to the question of the fundamentals versus the extras — the icing versus the cake. Google has always gotten the icing right, and the Pixel 4, like its predecessors, offered some tasty icing: Performant cameras, pleasing software, impressive voice recognition, and the genuinely useful Assistant.

But the underlying cake was half-baked. Whether it was the low amount of storage and RAM, or the battery life, or the compromises required for Motion Sense, or the lack of an ultrawide camera, or the slow wired charging, the foundations of the Pixel 4 just weren't as solid as they should've been.

Google Pixel 4 XL long-term review

Source: Apoorva Bhardwaj / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Apoorva Bhardwaj / Android Central)

And while Google was floundering getting the basics right, rivals including Apple, Samsung, and Huawei were chipping away at its lead in important differentiating areas like computational photography.

The Pixel 4 launched to mixed reviews and disappointing sales — just 2 million in six months — and by early 2020, Pixel General Manager Mario Queiroz and camera lead Marc Levoy had parted company with Google, leading to a soft reset of the Pixel series.

A very different Pixel 5 followed in late 2020, coinciding with economic and social upheaval caused by Covid-19. Google's 2020 device line-up would consist of simple phones for complicated times, with much more modest ambitions and lower price tags. After the failed moonshot of the Pixel 4, fans would have to wait another two years for the next true flagship Pixel.

Alex Dobie
Alex Dobie

Alex is global Executive Editor for Android Central, and is usually found in the UK. He has been blogging since before it was called that, and currently most of his time is spent leading video for AC, which involves pointing a camera at phones and speaking words at a microphone. He would just love to hear your thoughts at alex@androidcentral.com, or on the social things at @alexdobie.

17 Comments
  • And how good the 4a is...although only the "4" remains from original Pixel 4.
  • Yes - I've got the 4a 5G and love it!! Best battery life of any phone I've ever used! Perfect size. Light weight. Great camera. Lots of storage. Great screen. What's there not to like about this phone?
  • My Pixel 4 is about to be replaced by a Pixel 6. The article did not mention my favorite feature of the phone, the proximity sensor phone wake and radar face recognition that work flawlessly even in a pitch-dark room, both part of Project Soli, I think. I never bothered with the gestures. Going back to a fingerprint reader on the Pixel 6 will feel like a downgrade compared to that. On the other hand, I think the battery life on the Pixel 6 will be a welcome change.
  • I've had my Pixel 4 since the release and it has performed admirably. It has traveled all over the world with me, taking spectacular photos. I've never had to worry about the battery or performance, but then I'm not loading down my phones with tons of social-media apps and games. I have a Pixel 6 Pro on order and will be replacing the 4, but not because of its usefulness.
  • still rocking the Pixel 4 xl as my side phone. Still great i love it.
  • A lot of those features noted in the article should have been known before purchase if not, the writers problem. When I purchased my 4XL approx. 18 months ago, I knew what cameras it had, then again, that was not a big feature since camera phones (even the latest and greatest on the 6, iPhone, Samsung, etc. do not compare to a DSLR and a lens the size of your hand.
    As for battery life, mine has been good, noticed it is starting to go down a bit, but it is not new.
    From this article sounds best that the write never purchase another google phone unless they look forward to giving their bad review a few years after release so that they have something to write about that might make them look great. (Something I have noted with other so-called writers on this site...however, many do a very good job.) And before calling the Pixel 6 a flagship the writer might want to wait. Reviews are ok, nothing great (other than prices) but give it some time for it to be used by the common folk and the common folk have always been able to test a phone better than any testing facility. As for my 4XL, it has been working great, that is until 12 was forced and that has caused more problems than update in my long android experience; starting with the Droid on Android 2 (or maybe 3...long time ago, not sure).
  • While the battery in the 4 may have been undersized, it is much larger in the 4XL and hasn't been a problem for me. Motion sense isn't as exciting as it promised to be, but it still can be incredibly useful and fun. I've thoroughly enjoyed my 4xl and won't be upgrading to the 6 because I would miss face unlock, squeeze for assistant, Soli and the free storage of compressed photos. I really hope Pixel goes back to some of those features. Until they do, I'll keep my 4 until it starts being less than the great phone it's been.
  • An absolute road crash of a phone....end of.
  • it's like I'm re-reading the reviews from 2019 all over again. Surface-level copy-paste stuff. It actually takes using the phone to know how good it is. Every single reviewer will call motion sense a gimmick if you ask them, but once you find yourself waking up in the middle of the night wanting to know what time it is, you'll be so grateful for having that feature. Cause instead of searching for your phone by feel and blinding yourself by lighting up the entire screen, you can just wave somewhere near your bedside table, and see a dim clock pop-up instead. And if you think that scenario is the definition of niche, it's not for someone who wakes up like this twice or thrice per night, and every single night. The only thing I can complain about is the battery life, because I have to charge my Pixel 4 (the small one) when I come back home at around 4PM, instead of plugging it in before I go bed, but my unit is now over 2 years old, and it's still nowhere near as bad as the reviews make it seem.
  • I love my Pixel 4a , received my pixel 6 today we will see, the fingerprint reader might be a deal break for me..
  • I'm thinking the same thing about my Pixel 4 and the Pixel 6 that is now shipping. The videos I've watched about the fingerprint scanner aren't as bad as what all the naysayers are posting, so I'm expecting to keep the phone. I've never used a fingerprint scanner that wasn't fussy.
  • I absolutely love my face unlock. In fact, it's the biggest reason I'm waiting on the pixel 6. I don't want to go backwards. I don't know why Google abandoned it so quickly. I'm going to be driving my 4xl for a while. Unless a Pixel fold comes out.
  • Google realizes face masks are here to stay for some time. Might as well cut budget on hardware that won't work well right now.
  • Today is my two year anniversary with my Pixel 4 XL. Battery life was always ok. Heavy use with the battery was challenging. Thankfully I own portable batteries with PD charging and since my purchase of a Chromebook, I now have a battery that does PD charging at 65 watts. Photos have always been pixel awesome and I love the 2x zoom. Astrophotography has been okay. While I love the results, the overprocessing by the algorithm has made my images less than ideal. That might be due to the fact that I don't live where there are dark skies. Yesterday I installed the Pixel 6 version of Google photos and now I have magic eraser. I'm staying with the 4XL for now. I wouldn't be surprised if I end up getting the 6 pro early in 2022. While I love Android 12, every beta release and the final release have introduced quirks and bugs that are a bit annoying but hopefully those will be resolved with each security update. Time will tell.
  • This article is merely a paid Pixel 6 ad to get people to upgrade. Pixel 4 is still going strong, and there aren't any really battery or performance issues.
  • I bought a Pixel 4 on release. Had it 2 weeks and the charging port was shot. Warrentied it and the replacement had the same damn thing within a month. After this I was done. Was completely turned off and went to a Note 9 which faithfully ran me to earlier this year as my main phone.
  • Pixel 4 (in that lovely orange) is still my favorite phone for its time. My P6 Pro is definitely a better phone, but I LIKED my P4 better, even if I am not going back from the 6. I know the battery was an issue for many, but as a desk jockey, my phone was only off the charger in the evenings after work, and lasted until bedtime most days. I miss three things greatly while using my P6 Pro:
    1. The size. I didn't want a dinner plate sized phone, but there's no small option.
    2. The squeezy assistant. Used it all the time, much more reliable than the double tap shortcut on the 6.
    3. Soli. Yeah, no one ever went "I'm going to use Motion Sense" now, and a lot of the features, like waving to skip songs, was gimmicky and inconsistent, but the face unlock was fast and accurate, and the presence detection (turns on when I reach for it) was something that you don't really notice until it's gone. What a great little phone that didn't get enough love.