Google announced the Pixel 4 last week at an event in New York City, and now that I’ve had it in-hand for a few days, I want to share some initial thoughts on the new features—the radar, Face Unlock, and the cameras.
Before we get into it, though, I want to clarify: this isn’t a full review. I’ve only had the phone for a few days and don’t think that’s quite enough time to write as thorough a review as I’d like. So instead, I’m opting for this compromise—some initial thoughts focusing on the phone’s new and interesting features.
This will be a bit deeper than my hands-on impressions with the phone, but still not deep enough to call it a “review.” These are simply the thoughts I’ve collected over the last few days and want to share before sitting down to pen the full review.
So yeah, let’s talk about it.
Google Gets Innovative Again
Back in the day, I owned nearly every Nexus phone that existed, and every Pixel device since the series launched, save for one: I skipped the Pixel 3. I’m generally a fan of the XL models, and the massive notch that had absolutely no reason to exist other than “well, the iPhone has one” was enough to make me give that one a hard pass. It was disheartening to see Google make a “me too!” phone just like everyone else.
But with the Pixel 4, ol’ Googly-poo went back to the drawing board and actually thought about what it wanted to do with the phone. So what we have now isn’t a “me too” phone, but an innovative and forward-thinking piece of hardware. It still has everything that Pixel-lovers, well, love about Pixel phones—namely, clean Android and a killer camera—but it’s also new, fresh, and different. Not just compared to Pixels of old, either—compared to the entire Android ecosystem.
The Bezel Makes it Better
Yeah, so the 3XL had that awful notch (and for the record, I’m not a “notch hater;” that one was just bad), and at first look, it would be easy to think that the Pixel 4 is a step backward because it has a full-length upper bezel. There’s this weird notion amongst tech enthusiasts that we’re supposed to absolutely hate bezels for some reason, but I don’t think anyone will disagree that the one on the Pixel 4 is actually useful.
That’s because under that bezel is all sorts of impressive tech. The first is a radar chip that is used for gesture control of the phone without having to touch it. This is the first time a radar has been incorporated into a phone, and Google had to do a lot of work to make it small enough to fit. While its use is still pretty limited, it honestly has the potential to be something rad—something truly useful.
Admittedly, the radar chip is mostly a novelty right now. You can use it to change music tracks or silence alarms just by waving your hand over your phone. When the phone is ringing, the radar will also detect when your hand is coming close and automatically lower the ring volume. But the radar isn’t just a neat way to do things without touching the phone—it also ties into another feature that’s new to Android: Face Unlock.
Okay, okay—I know what you’re thinking: But Cam, Face Unlock isn’t new! And you’re right. The name of the feature isn’t new. The concept as a feature in Android isn’t new. But, for all intents and purposes, this is a new feature. It’s new because this time around, it’s actually secure. It can’t be fooled by a picture or some silly crap like the old “Face Unlock” feature could. Nope—this is Google’s version of Face ID.
It uses the front camera and depth sensors to make a legitimate map of your face, so it knows you. It works when you wear glasses or sunglasses. It works when you’re wearing a hat. It works when you have on a hat and sunglasses. (Also, it happens to work while you’re asleep, which is a bad thing that I hope Google is fixing.) It works because it has a textured map of your actual head. As I said, it’s Google’s take on Face ID.
So, how does that tie into the radar chip? Because Face Unlock goes to work before you even pick up the phone. The radar detects your hand coming towards the device, which wakes it up and causes it to start looking for your face. As you pick it up and raise it, the camera and depth sensors have already done with they do, and the phone is unlocked while it’s in motion. In most cases, it’s ready to go before you are. That’s some mind-reader stuff right there.
And here’s the best part: it works. Like, well. I carry an iPhone XR as my secondary phone every day, so I’m intimately familiar with Face ID and how killer it is. I’ll admit that I was a little bit concerned about whether or not Google could pull off something as smooth, fluid, and just mind-blowingly good as Apple has with Face ID. The good news is that they absolutely nailed it.
Face Unlock is the truth. But it’s also not without its issues…at least for now. Since this is the only form of biometric security on the device, it still feels like a step backward when it comes to app support. Pretty much all secure apps (like banking and financial tools, password managers, etc.) support fingerprint authentication. But the Pixel 4 doesn’t have a fingerprint scanner, and very few apps support the new BiometricPrompt API, which is required for Face Unlock to be used as an authentication method.
The good news is that Google says it’s ready to go, and some developers—like 1Password and Keeper—already support the feature. We were also told that the Android team is working closely with developers to push the adoption of this feature, so hopefully, it will gain traction quickly.
But for now, I will admit that it feels weird as hell to put in a PIN every time I want to log into my bank or LastPass. It’s bizarre how a phone can feel so far ahead and so far behind at the same time.
So yeah, c’mon developers—get on this already.
The Camera Will Blow Your Mind
If there’s one thing synonymous with the Pixel name, it’s killer cameras. The Pixel 4 is no different—it has a better camera than any Pixel before it. And, honestly, probably the best camera on any phone you can buy today, assuming you don’t really want a wide-angle lens.
For the first time, the Pixel has not one but two rear cameras—a 12.2 MP main shooter and a 16 MP telephoto lens. The Telephoto lens shoots a “nearly 2x” zoom, but you can also pair it with up to 8x digital zoom for a feature that Google calls Super Res Zoom. And let me tell you guys, it’s absolutely unreal.
If you’ve ever used digital zoom before, you know that it generally just looks like crap. But with Super Res Zoom—-a feature that was also available on the Pixel 3, but has been optimized and refined for the Pixel 4—Google works some more of its kung-fu computational magic to make an 8x zoom look so damn good. It’s not grainy or washed out; it legitimately looks like you snapped a photo right next to whatever it is you’re zoomed in on. I’ve taken a bunch of photos using Super Res Zoom, and it’s always mind-blowingly impressive. Just take a look (click for big):
I didn’t move at all for these shots—the first one is the main camera, the second is the telephoto lens (~2x zoom), and the third is at full 8x. Google is using computational photography to make the 8x zoom look incredible. Seriously, look at the detail. It’s pretty unreal.
But that’s not the only trick the Pixel 4’s camera has up its sleeve. Night Sight is better, to the point that is capable of astrophotography (taking pictures of stars). It’s pretty unreal. Here are a few examples (left: regular camera; right: astrophotography mode):
And a comparison on Night Sight to Night Sight’s astrophotography mode:
While the new Night Sight Astrophotography mode is legit, it’s worth noting that it takes 3-4 minutes to shoot each one. That means you absolutely cannot do it without a tripod because the camera has to be completely still the entire time. It’s not practical to stand there without moving for four minutes, so don’t even bother trying.
Another interesting thing is how you activate astrophotography mode: you don’t. There’s no user-facing way to activate this mode in the camera—you just enter Night Sight, and when the camera finds it to be dark enough, then it automatically enters astro mode. It’s kind of weird, honestly, and I think it could be problematic if it’s dark out, and you just want to use Night Sight to snap a few pics because there’s no discernable way to disable astro mode once it’s on. Hopefully, Google will implement a toggle or something in a future update.
The Pixel 4 also has dual exposure control—one for brightness and one for shadows. This makes it easier to get the lighting just right on most photos with very little tinkering required. Oh, and speaking of tinkering, the Pixel 4’s new automatic white balance feature makes it even easier to truly point-and-shoot great photos. You don’t even have to tape on various areas of the screen to get the best brightness and contrast now—just open the camera and take a picture. The software does the rest. So good.
There’s More to Come
So like I said earlier, this isn’t a full review. There’s still SO much to talk about—battery life (spoiler: early impressions are not good), display, software, build quality, etc.—but I want more time with the phone before I dive into those. More time to feel it out, to see if there’s anything that makes me go “Oh hell no, that sucks” or “dude, this is brilliant, I can’t wait to tell everyone about it.”
But I also wanted to talk about the biggest features of the phone first. The stuff that immediately stands out and makes the Pixel 4 different (or generally just better). So that’s what this post was all about.
Plus, it gives me a chance to ask you guys: is there anything you want to know about the Pixel 4? Hit me with questions or comments, because I’m all ears. Shout ’em out in the comments or even ping me on Twitter.