I’ve been using the Pixel 4 for a couple of weeks now, and there are a couple of certainties: it has the best camera I’ve ever seen on a smartphone, and it has the worst battery life I’ve seen in years. It’s also more than just those two things.
Those are likely two details you’ve seen noted across the board—from review to review, post to post, everyone is either talking about how great the camera is (and oh man, it is) or how terrible the battery life is. And while those things are true, there’s more to this phone than just the high and low.
The thing is, this could be the best phone Google has ever released. Unfortunately, it has the dark cloud hanging over it right now (battery life), which overshadows all the great things about the phone.
As a whole package, it’s an incredible piece of hardware. It’s forward-thinking and proactive, which is more than I can say for the last generation Pixel, which was a “me too” phone and nothing more.
The Pixel 4 is decidedly fresh. It’s a good phone because of what it is, not what it’s trying to be.
The Radar is Neat, but Not All That Useful (Yet)
The Pixel 4’s flagship feature (outside of the camera, of course) is the new radar chip embedded into the upper bezel—it’s the entire reason the phone has a bezel. So thank you, radar chip, for getting rid of the “bathtub” notch on this generation of Pixel phone.
But you may be asking yourself, “okay, why do I want a radar chip in my phone?” The blunt answer, at least for now, is that you probably don’t. But the tech is promising and very efficient, so it’s off to a good start.
For now, the radar has only a few functions: to wake your phone up when you get near it, change songs, and snooze alarms. Google officially calls these features Motion Sense. In my experience so far, they’re hit-or-miss.
For example, the music track controls are just sort of a novelty. You wave your hand above the device to change the song—it works for both going forward and backward in your tracklist—but I honestly can’t think of many scenarios when that’s useful (I’m sure that are some, though).
The only time(s?) I’ve used Motion Sense to change music tracks, it was done accidentally. So yeah, it can be more annoying than useful. On the upside, you can disable this if you want (yay!).
The other uses for Motion Sense, however, are more, erm, useful. When the phone is ringing, and you reach to pick it up, the ringer gets quiet. When your alarm is going off, and you grab the phone to silence it, it gets quiet. These are excellent quality-of-life features that I really dig. If I already know my alarm is going off or my phone is ringing, there’s no need for it to keep blaring at full volume, so this makes good use of the radar’s proximity detection. I love it.
But there’s another huge benefit of the radar: its aid with Face Unlock. Before you ever pick the phone up, the radar detects your hand coming toward it, which wakes the device. That, in turn, enables the 3D dot projector that starts scanning for your face. And that’s all before you even pick the phone up!
Most of the time, the phone was unlocked and ready to go before I was ready to look at it. It’s kind of nuts—in a good way.
Face Unlock Is Legit, but There’s Room for Improvement
If you’ve used any iPhone over the last couple of years, then you already know what Face Unlock is all about on the Pixel 4—it’s basically a clone of Face ID. Instead of using your fingerprint to authenticate that you are, well, you, it uses your face. Because only you look like you! Unless you have a clone, in which case he/she/they also look like you. Just don’t let them have your phone.
But I digress. Just like Face ID, Face Unlock is neat. You pick your phone up, which activates the dot projector, verifies your face, and unlocks. It even bypasses the lock screen so you can do stuff faster. It’s good.
If you’re not into bypassing the lock screen, though, you can turn it off—but I don’t recommend it. Why? Because apps are slow as hell to load from the lock screen. It’s so much faster to skip the lock screen with your pretty-little face, then pull down the shade to get to the notification you’re after.
There’s also the question of security with Face Unlock. It’s not that it’s insecure exactly, but rather that it’s not as secure as it could (and should) be.
With Face ID, there’s a setting called “Require Attention” that requires you to look at the phone before it unlocks. Because, theoretically, someone could grab your phone and put it in front of your face while you’re sleeping (or otherwise unconscious) and unlock it. The issue with Face Unlock is that it doesn’t have such a feature, which makes it less secure.
The good news is that Google is working on the feature. The bad news is that it won’t be available until “the coming months,” which honestly makes no sense. There’s a feature already on the Pixel 4 that uses the front-facing camera to keep the display awake while you’re looking at it. Isn’t that the same thing? Why can’t this just be enabled on the lock screen too?
There’s also another big issue with Face Unlock, at least for now: app support.
Right now, I can use my face to unlock nearly any secure app I want on my iPhone—Simple, LastPass, Chase, etc. But on the Pixel 4, it only works with a handful of apps, most of which I don’t even use (and you probably don’t either). At the time of writing, LastPass is the only app I regularly use that supports Face Unlock.
Quite frankly, that sucks. I mentioned it in my initial impressions of the phone, but it bears repeating: going back to having to input a password or PIN to log in is a significant step backward. So while Face Unlock is a step forward in terms of technology and potential usefulness, right now, it’s more of a hindrance than a help.
That said, there’s some light at the end of the tunnel. The old biometric verification API has been deprecated, and all app developers will be required to support the new BiometricPrompt API starting on November 1st. This API is used for all biometric verification, including Face Unlock, so we’ll hopefully start to see an influx of apps that support Face Unlock in the very near future. Hopefully.
And when that happens, Face Unlock will undoubtedly be great. There’s nothing quite like just looking at your phone to authenticate your login experience for secure apps. I’ve been doing it on my iPhone for over a year, yet somehow it still feels like some next-level feature. The future is now, y’all.
The Display is Gorgeous, but “Smooth Display” Isn’t All That Great
Directly below all the fancy radar and Face Unlock gadgetry is arguably one of the phone’s best features: the display. And it’s great. But let’s be real here—this is the year two-thousand-and-nineteen and the Pixel 4 is a flagship phone. Flagship phones should have flagship displays. So it’s no surprise that the P4 XL’s display is gorgeous—an “A+” rating from DisplayMate, in fact. You now, if you care about that sort of stuff.
Aside from being an incredibly attractive display, it also has another neat trick up its sleeve in Smooth Display. This is what Google is calling the phone’s 90 Hz refresh rate, which is something that I’ve grown to love on recent OnePlus phones like the 7 Pro and 7T.
But here’s the thing: not all 90 Hz display options are created equal. Compared to OnePlus’ 90 Hz displays, I can barely tell when Smooth Display is even enabled on the Pixel 4.
A big part of that is because of how 90 Hz is handled on the Pixel 4. Instead of just being, you know, on like it is on OnePlus phones, it’s toggled on the fly. This depends on a variety of factors, like which app is running and the screen brightness, which honestly makes Smooth Display a barely-there feature.
This has gotten better thanks to an update that Google pushed while I was working on this review, which enables the 90 Hz display in more situations. I noticed a 16 percent jump in the amount of time 90 Hz was enabled over the first 24 hours, which is a good sign.
Still, the decision to limit when 90 Hz is used and when it’s not, has to do with battery life since the higher refresh rate does use more battery (and the Pixel 4 can use all the help it can get when it comes to battery life).
All that said, there is an option in Developer Settings to force 90 Hz in all apps, all the time. I tested that out for a day or so to see if it made a difference, and yeah—it definitely makes a difference. Everything is buttery smooth, but there’s also the unfortunate side effect of making not-great battery life even worse. Ugh.
At Least the Hardware is Sexy…
When I first saw the Pixel 4 (you know, in the dozens of leaks leading up to the phone’s official announcement), I was very off-put by the design—that big ol’ camera block on the back was little more than an eyesore. Fast-forward to today, and my feelings are very different.
After having the phone for upwards of two weeks, I’ve grown to absolutely love the aesthetic. It’s so much better in person than in official pictures. The Clearly White and Oh So Orange models use an absolutely beautiful soft-touch matte glass for the back, which is one of my favorite materials I’ve ever seen on a phone before. It doesn’t hold fingerprints, and it just looks really clean. So subtle and classy.
The black model, on the other hand, doesn’t share this smooth touch, matte back. It uses more traditional glass, so it’s a glossy fingerprint magnet. That’s a real shame because a matte black back would look so damn good next to the glossy camera square. Can’t win ’em all, I guess.
Around the outside of the phone is a matte black aluminum frame, which really looks fantastic on all versions of the phone. Again, if the black model had a matte back instead of glossy, it would be even cleaner, but it is what it is. But the matte black next to the matte white on the Clearly White unit is just so classy.
Finally, there’s the little pop of color on the power button. All models have a uniquely-colored power button, which is also something that I thought I would hate. But I’ve gotten used to it, and I kind of like the whimsy it adds to the phone. I’m not really a whimsical sort of guy, but I appreciate that little bit of playfulness.
…And the Performance Won’t Leave You Wanting…
The Pixel 4 and 4 XL have the Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 chipset, which is fast and fluid enough for any application you could possibly want on a smartphone. I have zero complaints about its performance and what the phone is capable of.
One thing I was slightly concerned about, however, is the RAM situation. I’ve been using phones with 8+ gigabytes of RAM for over a year now, so the Pixel 4’s 6 GBs had me wondering if I’d notice or not. So, have I? To put it, plainly: maybe.
Most of the time, I couldn’t tell the difference, but there was the occasional hiccup with certain apps. For example, I use AccuBattery to accurately gauge battery drain (and where it’s coming from) on every phone I review. It runs in the background and monitors what’s happening on the phone. I’ve never had an issue with it before, but on the Pixel 4 I got “task killer” errors—the app was having a hard time doing its thing because something kept killing it.
But of course, I don’t use a task killer. That means the phone was killing the app, even after I removed it from the battery optimization list. The thing is, I can’t be sure if it’s the limited RAM or just overly-aggressive task management on Android’s part. Would this still happen if the phone had 8 GB of RAM? Or is 6 GB fine, and Android just needs to calm the hell down when it comes to killing off background tasks? Hard to say, really.
Aside from that one little issue, though, the Pixel 4’s performance is solid. Top-notch. Stellar. It’s fine, even.
…But the Battery Might
Here we are, at the point that where I want to tell you that the claims of the Pixel 4’s terrible battery life have been exaggerated. Like, I really want to be able to say that.
But I can’t. The battery life is just poor, especially on the small model.
And it’s not just a “man I wish this thing would go for two days without needing a charge!” non-issue. It’s a real issue. Like, it’s 3:00 PM, better put my phone on charge bad. I forgot what battery anxiety is until now bad.
And really, that’s what the headline of this review is all about: between having to input PINs or passwords to log into apps and the terrible battery life, it feels like the old days of Android while simultaneously offering futuristic features that allow you control your phone by waving your hands around. Seriously, it’s so disjointed. Is this what happens when the past and future collide? I think so.
The biggest thing here is that the PIN and password thing can (and will!) be fixed in the future. More and more apps will support Face Unlock for secure authentication, and eventually, it will be as ubiquitous as fingerprint login is now. But the battery? That’s a different story altogether.
Really, it doesn’t feel like there’s anything Google can do to fix this—the battery in the Pixel 4 is just too damn small. But there’s a bright side: battery life on the XL model is noticeably better (but still average).
I was able to get my hands on an XL after about a week and a half with the smaller Pixel 4, and it was like a breath of fresh air. It’s still not what I’d call “great,” but it’s damn sure better than the little one. It’s serviceable. At the very least, I don’t have battery anxiety with the larger model.
It’s also worth pointing out that early battery life reports are often skewed because of Adaptive Battery. This feature “learns” how you use your phone to optimize the battery life, and that process takes a couple of weeks at a minimum.
In my time with both the Pixel 4 and 4 XL, I did see battery life improvements after the first two weeks, though I wouldn’t call them significant. Marginal improvements are still improvements though, so I’ll take it. If you get a Pixel and are disappointed in the battery life initially, give it some time—it’ll get better, even if only slightly.
So, about the “hard numbers.” Like I said earlier, I use Accubattery on every device I review. It keeps historical data on the phone’s battery status: charge and discharge times, which apps are eating the most battery, average usage, time in deep sleep…all the good metrics one needs to monitor the battery.
But also like I said earlier, Android kept killing it. That means I didn’t get any of the data that I usually rely on for reviews. So here’s what I can tell you: on average, I’d guess I got about four and a half hours (or so) of screen-on-time with the XL, and perhaps about three and a half to four out of the smaller model. And that’s really pushing it.
Idle battery life isn’t great on either model—as you can see from the image above, the Pixel 4 XL shows that a full charge lasts about 21 hours and 30 minutes. That’s…not great.
In a world where my iPhone XR is still sitting at 56 percent with more than four hours of screen on time, there’s no reason why we should accept having to hit the charger after just a few hours of use. It’s definitely the lowest of low spots for the Pixel 4, and something that I think will be a major dealbreaker for a lot of people.
So here’s the bottom line on battery life: if this is something you care about, get the bigger phone, and you should at least be satisfied. It’s the only way to go.
The Camera is Unreal
If the battery is the low point of the phone, the camera is the high point. It’s phenomenal, and honestly the biggest redeemer of the entire package. Because if you want the best camera, you can get in a smartphone, this is it—Deep Fusion be damned.
That’s what makes it so hard to hate the Pixel 4 (not that I want to hate it—I want to love it) because the camera is just so impressive it begs you to take the handset with you and snapshots of…everything. Between the killer Night Sight and astrophotography features, the computationally-enhanced 8x zoom, dual exposure controls, and absolute simplicity of just pointing-and-shooting when you don’t want to mess with any of that crap, this camera will blow your mind.
In fact, I took almost every picture in this review with the Pixel camera—all the pictures of the XL model (the black one) were taken with the smaller Pixel 4, and all pictures of the Pixel 4 (the white one) were taken with the XL. So while you were reading this, you were also judging camera quality without even knowing it. Surprise! The one exception is, of course, the shots with both together, which was taken with…a different phone. Can you guess which one?
But I digress—all past Pixels had great cameras. But I think the Pixel 4 is the biggest leap we’ve seen yet in image quality. The computational photography gains here are more apparent than any phone before it.
An example of the Pixel 4’s zoom capabilities: 1x, 2x, and 8x.
The Pixel 4 is the first Google phone with multiple rear cameras, too. It has a 12.2 MP primary shooter alongside a 16 MP telephoto lens for zoom shots. Transitioning between the two cameras is seamless, which is different than most other Android phones.
For example, when you double-tap the display to 2x zoom, it automatically transitions to the telephoto lens, which happens to be right at 2x. Additional zooming stays on the telephoto lens; then computational photography takes over to make the 8x zoom look not like crap. It’s all pretty neat, and once you figure out that you don’t have to switch lenses at all, super intuitive. I imagine it’ll be a simple transition for users who aren’t used to multi-lens devices.
As good as the camera is, however, there’s a bit of a dark cloud looming: the Pixel 4 doesn’t get unlimited photo storage at full resolution like past Pixel phones have. That was a big selling point for a lot of users, as they could store unlimited pictures in their Google Photos account without any modification to the source files.
But with Pixel 4, that’s gone. You can still upload photos at original quality, of course, but now they’ll take up space in your Google Drive. Alternatively, you can use the same “high quality” storage option that all Photos users get, which uses Google’s compression tools to shrink the size. You get free unlimited storage with this option.
A lot of users are upset about the change, which makes sense, but to be honest, I can’t tell a huge difference (if I can even tell one at all) between an original image and Google’s compressed image. So honestly, I think this is fine overall—it is one less perk you get for buying a Pixel though, which hurts. I get it.
The New Assistant is Smarter and Dumber at the Same Time
The Pixel 4 has a new version of Google Assistant, and it’s great. It’s more intuitive, more conversational, and less intrusive on the screen. You can ask it what the weather is, then ask it to share that with your spouse, and it understands what “that” is. It’s very cool.
But you can go deeper than that. You can ask it to open Twitter. You can ask it to show you Jimmy Butler on Twitter. You can ask it to show you photos from a specific place—-want to see pictures from Orlando? Ask. What about Disney World? Ask. Magic Kingdom? Yep—ask. This new, more powerful Assistant is better, faster, stronger than ever before. It’s awesome.
But—and this is a big but for some people—it doesn’t work if there’s a GSuite account on your phone. It doesn’t even have to be the main account, either. If you have a GSuite account signed in on the phone, the new Assistant won’t work. It’ll default back to the old one. And man, that’s just annoying.
Of course, if you don’t use GSuite, it’s no big deal! But if you do (and a lot of people do for work), it’s stupid. What’s worse is that it isn’t clear what this is even an issue—Google just says it won’t work. It will eventually, but that eventuality isn’t now.
The Onboard AI is Smarter, Too
Google Assistant isn’t the only AI that got an upgrade on the Pixel 4, either—there are several other AI-based tools that offer small quality-of-life improvements.
For example, the new Recorder app takes voice transcription to the next level. It records and transcribes audio, so you can save all recordings and easily search for specific text later. If you find yourself recording conversations, lectures, interviews, etc. often, then it’s a killer tool. And best of all: it works offline.
Everything the Recorder app needs to process human language is right there on the phone, so it doesn’t need a constant connection to the internet to understand you. That’s also why the new Assistant is so much faster.
Along the same lines as Recorder is a similar kind of feature called Live Caption. This is a system-wide feature that transcribes audio on the fly. So, if you’re watching a video and enable Live Caption, it will automatically transcribe all spoken word from the video and show it on the screen. The best part is that it’s crazy-accurate, too. I was very impressed while I was playing with it. While this is a cool feature to use when you can’t listen to a video you’re watching, it’s game-changer for any user who is hard of hearing.
Also new to the Pixel 4 is the Safety app—an app that is capable of detecting a car crash, asking if you’re okay, and even automatically calling 911 for you. That’s some next-level detection if it’s accurate, but it’s super cool. Your phone could literally save your life.
Safety does more than just detect crashes, though—it also holds your medical info and allows you to specify contacts to share a message with in case of an emergency. The main page of the app has a big “Start message” button that, when tapped, generates a quick message that reads, “I’m in an emergency. Here’s my location.” In just two quick taps, it lets important people in your life know something is wrong, and where you are so they can send help. That’s great.
Finally, there’s the Call Screening feature. While this Pixel-exclusive feature isn’t new, it’s still worth talking about, because, man, it’s so cool. Basically, when you get a call, you have three options: answer, deny, or screen.
When you choose to screen the call, an Assistant-like voice answers, telling the caller that you’re using a screening service provided by Google. The caller can then tell you why they’re calling—something you can listen in on in realtime, of course—and then you can choose to answer if you want. Once you’ve used Call Screening, it’s hard to go back to a phone without it.
Conclusion: The Best Pixel with the Worst Battery
It seems like every year, there’s a launch issue with Pixel phones. This year, it’s the battery, which is a real shame. Because other than the average-at-best battery life, this is the best Pixel I’ve ever used. The camera is better than ever, the interface is great (gesture navigation, especially now that it works with third-party launchers like Nova, is a high point in the new interface), the body is sleek and ultra-sexy…it’s just a damn good phone.
And really, I’m not sure you should let the battery dissuade you from at least considering the Pixel 4 for your next phone. Like I said in the battery section, if you do get one, I suggest the XL model since it does get better battery life, but if you’re dead set on the smaller model, just go into it knowing that the battery isn’t great. Carry a portable charger, keep wireless chargers around, whatever—just be ready for it.
Because if you can get past the battery issues, you’re going to love this phone. Everything else about it is nothing short of amazing.
Here’s What We Like
- Insanely good cameras
- Beautiful display
- Face Unlock is fast and fluid
- The best Android experience
- The "new" Google Assistant is powerful, smart, and useful
And What We Don't
- Average-at-best battery life
- Motion Sense is still sort of gimmicky
- Using PINs in apps that don't support Face Unlock (most) feels like a huge step backward
- Smooth Display isn't nearly as cool as it could be
- Face Unlock still isn't as secure as it could be