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Hands-on with the Pixel 4: Damn, Google

Pixel 4
Justin Duino

Google unveiled the Pixel 4 (among other things) today at a press event, and it’s the best, most powerful, forward-thinking Pixel to date. I was able to spend some time with the phone after the event, and man, it’s so good.

The Pixel 3 XL was a pretty polarizing device, mostly because of the huge and completely unnecessary notch. The good news here is that the notch is gone on the Pixel 4 and Google is making use of the bezel along the top of the device by absolutely packing it with new tech. Like, new tech—not just “new to Pixel” tech.

I’m talking, of course, about Project Soli and the Pixel 4’s new radar chip. This new chip detects motion near the phone, allowing you to do things like skip tracks or dismiss alarms by simply waving your hand over the phone. But that’s not even the real value in the radar chip—the best part is that it’s part of the Pixel 4’s Face Unlock feature that lets you unlock your phone just by looking at it.

This isn’t Google’s first attempt at letting users unlock their phones with their faces, of course—-Face Unlock has been around for a long time. But here’s the thing: it used to be, well, bad. Like, unusably bad. It could be fooled by a picture and it really wasn’t secure at all. It was a gimmick.

But Face Unlock on the Pixel 4? Nah, man. This ain’t your grandma’s face unlock (lol, does your grandma even know what face unlock is?); this is new. This is Google take on Face ID, which, let’s be honest here, is pretty badass. But I might argue that Face Unlock on the Pixel 4 is badasser. To use it is to love it, believe me.

Pixel 4's camera hump
Justin Duino

And that’s a good thing, because the fingerprint reader is gone—no in-display jankiness, and the Pixel imprint sensor on the back is no more. I know that’s going to be a hard hit for some of you, but trust me, it’s for the best. Face Unlock is the truth.

That also makes for a cleaner overall aesthetic. The back is flat and smooth…for the most part. There is the big ol’ camera bump to house the dual rear shooters—a 12 MP main camera and 16 MP telephoto lens—but otherwise, it’s just a seamless piece of glass. The Clearly White and Oh So Orange units have a “soft touch” glass back, while the Just Black model is polished and shiny. They all look really good in person, though the contrasting color around the camera module takes some getting used to on the White and Orange models.

The Pixel 4 has a 5.7-inch 1080p panel, while the larger XL model packs a 6.3-inch 1440p display. Both are using Google’s new “Smooth Display” feature, which will push the refresh rate “up to 90 Hz.” Having used 90 Hz displays on both the OnePlus 7 Pro and 7T, I can tell you that this is something that you want, but I’m slightly bothered by the “up to 90 Hz” wording. That indicates that the display doesn’t always run at 90 Hz, but somehow intelligently manages when it bump the refresh rate and when to bring it back down.

There is, however, a setting in Developer Options that will force the display to always run at 90 Hz, though I’m sure that will come at the expense of battery life (again referencing my experience with recent OnePlus devices). I’ll have to spend more time with the phone and its default settings to see if I can tell when it ramps up or down, then do further testing with the feature enabled all the time. You can expect to see those results in the full review.

Pixel 4 and 4 XL
Justin Duino

Otherwise, we’re looking at standard fare for hardware—the Snapdragon 855 processor, 6 GB of RAM, and either 64 or 128 GB of storage.

On the software side, it’s basically just Android 10 on a Pixel phone. If you’ve used the 3 or 3a, then you’ve used the 4 as far as software is concerned, at least for the most part. There are some necessary hardware-specific changes, of course, mostly in the camera and settings menu. Otherwise, standard features.

Speaking of the software, let’s talk about Google’s special sauce in the camera. It’s the stuff that has made Pixel phones the best cameras available on phones for a few generations now, and it’s unreal on the Pixel 4. Even with pretty standard hardware, Google is leveraging computational photography to do even more amazing things with 4. It’s real.

Pixel 4 camera samples
Justin Duino

Here’s a quick rundown of some of the changes in the Pixel 4’s camera:

  • Live HDR+: Realtime HDR previews
  • Dual Exposure Controls: You can not only control the brightness, but also the shadows using sliders.
  • Smarter Automatic White Balancing: Phones have used automatic white balancing for a while, but the Pixel 4 takes it a step further with smarter and more realistic white tones, especially in extreme situations (like snow).
  • Better Portrait Mode: It now works with bigger objects (like motorcycles) and people who are farther away.
  • Night Sight Improvements: Night Sight was already legit, but now it’s better. You can even use it to take pictures of the moon and stars. It’s wild.

Overall, my first impressions of the Pixel 4 are pretty damn positive. I’ve used every generation of Pixel phone, and while some of the decisions along the way have been questionable (like, you know, the Pixel 3), the Pixel 4 feels like a return. The return to what makes Pixels special in the first place—an innovative phone that set trends, not one that follows fads just for the sake of it.

Cameron Summerson Cameron Summerson
Cameron Summerson is Review Geek's former Editor in Cheif and first started writing for LifeSavvy Media in 2016. Cam's been covering technology for nearly a decade and has written over 4,000 articles and hundreds of product reviews in that time. He’s been published in print magazines and quoted as a smartphone expert in the New York Times. In 2021, Cam stepped away from Review Geek to join Esper as a managing Editor. Read Full Bio »