Pixel 4 is a gorgeous smartphone… when viewed from behind
Google Pixel 4 Review • From £669
- FOR – Smooth 90Hz display • Best-in-class cameras • The fastest facial unlocking in any smartphone • Google’s Android experience is packed with features
- AGAINST – Disappointing battery life • No ultra wide-angle camera • Dated design (from the front) • Motion Sense is hit and miss
The Pixel 4 is Google’s latest stab at creating a phone that holds its own against the latest iPhone and the best Android rivals.
Unlike every other Pixel before it, the Pixel 4 is not just leaning on its stupendous camera system to tempt buyers, but on a number of other nifty hardware improvements. Google has banished the OLED with ludicrous amounts of blue shifting, the seismic notch from the 3 XL, and memory management issues that prevented Pixels from taking – or saving – photos. These are all a thing of the past.
As you’d expect, the Pixel 4 is Google’s most refined smartphone yet. But is that enough to make this the new default Android smartphone? Here is Express.co.uk’s full review.
Just a quick side note, this review will focus primarily on the larger Pixel 4 XL, but of course everything we say about the phone’s camera, performance and features all apply to the smaller Pixel 4, too.
Google Pixel 4 XL review: Design, Display
Pixel 4 is a gorgeous smartphone… when viewed from behind. The device ditches the Pixel’s signature two-tone design in favour of an all-frosted glass back that feels undeniably premium. This only applies to the Clearly White and Oh So Orange finishes, as Just Black has a glossy rear case – making it easily the dullest of the three.
Oh So Orange is our favourite Pixel 4 colour. It’s not quite as striking as McLaren’s signature papaya orange, instead its aesthetic is more subdued. Even still, it contrasts excellently with the handset’s pitch-black square camera bump and matte borders.
Intentional or not, Google has always seemed to value function over form. And Pixel 4 is no different. Despite being made from the same premium materials as most other smartphones in its price range, the matte aluminium borders around the Pixel 4 leave it looking more like a Fisher-Price toy than a premium handset.
If there’s one saving grace, it’s that the matte borders feel better in the hand than some of the Pixel 4’s slipperier rivals.
The only thing more disappointing than Pixel 4 XL’s missing ultra wide-angle lens is the battery
As for the display, Google hasn’t exterminated the bezels around Pixel 4’s screen à la OnePlus 7 Pro, but the curbed border at the top of the device does look better than last year’s wonky Pixel 3 XL.
The biggest problem with the Pixel 4’s display is its asymmetry. The top bezel is so much thinker than the bottom, so you can’t help but be drawn to it like a gruesome wart. Thankfully, beneath that wart, the display itself is mightily impressive. Although it’s certainly not the brightest panel on a smartphone, it does boast a pixel-packed resolution of 1440×3040, which works out at a density of 537-pixels-per-inch. In a nutshell, this means you’ll have a hard time locating individual pixels without gazing incredibly close at your phone and drawing awkward attention.
Resolution isn’t even the biggest reason the Pixel 4’s display will have Android fans giddy with excitement. The screen has a 90Hz refresh rate, so its animations and transitions run smoother than the 60Hz panels you’ll find on the likes of iPhone 11, P30 Pro, and Galaxy S10 to name a few.
If you haven’t used a 90Hz refresh rate display before then you’ll be in a for a treat when you pick up the Pixel 4. The panel not only makes navigating across Android 10 more of a pleasure, but it also makes the Google phone feel faster and slicker as a result.
Google hasn’t exterminated the bezels around Pixel 4’s screen à la OnePlus 7 Pro
Google Pixel 4 XL review: Performance
Mystifyingly, the Pixel 4 isn’t powered by Qualcomm’s newest chipset. The US semiconductor manufacturer announced its shiny new Snapdragon 855 Plus processor back in July – a beefed-up version of its regular Snapdragon 855 that’s better suited for fast-paced mobile games.
Instead, Qualcomm’s plain ol’ Snapdragon 855 keeps the Pixel 4 XL ticking along. Performance is rapid, but we can’t help but feel Google’s phone would have longer legs if it leveraged the newest tech on the market.
If you’re planning to hold onto the Pixel 4 XL for three or four years, it’s definitely something to think about.
Another potential concern is how stingy Google has been with RAM this year. The Pixel 4 XL is fitted with 6GB of RAM – 2GB more than the Pixel 3, which famously suffered memory management issues. Sure, 6GB is better… but it isn’t close to its Android rivals that launch with 8GB, 10GB and even 12GB of RAM.
In a nutshell, the camera on the Pixel 4 XL is great
Of course, more RAM doesn’t necessarily mean better performance, but it does ensure a device is more likely to keep apps suspended in the background while you’re doing other things. During our time with Pixel 4, we noticed the phone was generally able to open up about 12 apps before it started having to re-launch them. It’s not quite Pixel 3 levels of bad, but it’s certainly not going to match the likes of the OnePlus 7 Pro anytime soon, either.
The biggest new feature on the Pixel 4 comes from the new sensors housed in its obnoxiously large display forehead. This allows the device to deliver speedy unlocking on a smartphone (if you don’t mind the fact it’ll unlock even when your eyes are closed).
Not only does the Pixel 4 have typical equipment required to perform this kind of recognition like a dot projector, flood illuminator and proximity sensor, but it also comes with a built-in radar chip, too.
Dubbed Soli, the technology allows the Pixel 4 to detect motion like no other smartphone on the market. That means as soon as you bring your hand close to the Google flagship it already gets its system ready to recognise you, coupled with the fact it launches straight to the home screen (there’s no swipe to confirm like on the iPhone), this is comfortably the fastest secure face unlock on a smartphone.
This is by far the most useful benefit of Soli. Everything else is extremely gimmicky.
The Pixel 4’s top bezel is so much thinker than the bottom
Google has been trumping up the radar’s ability to detect gestures, like a swipe from the left to right to skip songs on Spotify for instance. While this seems like a good idea, it only has to fail once for you to give up on it entirely. It’s hard to justify frantically swiping your hand around the device when there’s a traditional button on the display willing to perform the same function for you hassle-free.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Pixel phone without improvements to the Google Assistant. Just like on the Pixel 2 and Pixel 3 before it, the Pixel 4 allows you to quickly summon the chatty helper by squeezing the device. Two years later, this still feels like the most intuitive way to leverage it.
Google has souped-up the Assistant especially for the Pixel 4 this year. The AI now responds much faster to all commands, so you’re much more likely to want to use it for quickly jumping to apps, sending messages and more.
Then there are a bunch of other features unique to Pixel 4, at least for now. The first is a feature called Live Caption that, as the name suggests, provides subtitles for any video being played on the device. Not only is this great for anyone with a hearing impairment, but it can come to the rescue if you’ve forgot your headphones for the morning commute but still want to binge on a bit of YouTube.
Google has also introduced its first in-house recording app for Pixel devices. The app records audio as you’d expect, but it also translates entire recordings on the fly. Journalists rejoice!
This can even be done without an internet connection as all the software magic is performed locally on the device. Lastly, you can search through entire audio clips just by typing in any word that featured in the conversation. It’s not something you’ll use every day, but boy is it handy when you do need it.
Oh So Orange is our favourite Pixel 4 colour
Google Pixel 4 XL review: Camera
Right, to the reason you probably clicked on this story: the camera.
In a nutshell, the camera on the Pixel 4 XL is great. It would probably be the best on any smartphone right now… if it had an ultra wide-angle lens.
Although Apple’s iPhone 11 Pro really gives the Pixel 4 a stern challenge – even besting it in a number of side-by-side tests – in most cases, we still prefer the contrast-heavy, crispily sharp shots from Google’s camera. That’s certainly not a criticism of Apple’s flagship – both phones are truly in a league of their own when it comes to smartphone photography.
Pixel 4 photos are bursting with detail, great white balance and superb dynamic range. That’s not because of the 12.2-megapixel main sensor or 16-megapixel telephoto, it’s Google’s software working in the background.
Pixel photos have a look. Typically, that’s striking photos with more contrast than its rivals. Most of the time, Google manages to produce that aesthetic from whatever you’re pointing at… and it looks great.
Pixel 4 comes with a 2x telephoto camera that combines with Google’s Super Res Zoom to allow the handset to take quality shots at an 8x zoom. While the phone doesn’t come close to eclipsing the Huawei P30 Pro here (that has a five-times optical periscope lens), Google has still made massive strides forward.
The additional telephoto camera also allows the Pixel 4 to gather more depth information overall, meaning its portrait mode photos are significantly improved over the Pixel 3. For the most part, the phone does a great job of applying bokeh behind tricky subjects, like fluffy dog or a wacky hairstyle.
Two major improvements to the Pixel 4’s camera come in the form of new exposure settings and the new astrophotography mode. The former is fairly straightforward – the device allows you to change how both the light and dark areas of a shot will appear in a photo. This makes it much easier to capture shareable shots in tricky lighting conditions such as a sunset for instance.
Meanwhile, astrophotography allows Pixel 4 to shoot detailed images of individual stars in the sky. You’ll need patience, a tripod and a clear night to get the most out of it, but trust us, the results are worth it. Pixel 4 is by far and away the best phone on the market for anyone that likes taking photos of the night sky.
The only thing holding Pixel 4 back is its frankly bizarre omission of an ultra wide-angle camera. In fact, Google is now the only premium smartphone vendor not selling a flagship with a triple-camera system.
Pixel 4’s lack of ultra wide means the iPhone 11, OnePlus 7 Pro, P30 Pro… the list goes on, all have a huge bragging right over it that can’t be made up for with any amount of software trickery.
Pixel 4 photos are bursting with detail
The Pixel 4 comes with a dual camera system on its rear
Put simply, the Pixel 4’s camera simply isn’t as diverse as the competition, and that prevents it from being a smartphone we can wholeheartedly recommend to anyone that dabbles in photography. The Pixel 4 can’t take photos its closest rivals can.
Disappointingly, the Pixel 4 doesn’t come with two selfie sensors on its front (once again you’re missing an ultra wide). That was a brilliant feature introduced with the Pixel 3 series and it seems baffling that Google would ditch something it made such a song and dance about just 12 months ago.
That said, the front snapper has a pretty good field of view and can take gorgeous photos in both day and low-light conditions thanks to its support for Night Sight. But it’s not quite the selfie stick-killing ultra wide option seen last year.
Video is still an area in which the Pixel lacks behind its competition, namely the iPhone 11 series. The phone can record in 4K at up to 30-frames-per-second, meaning you simply can’t capture pixel-packed footage at a buttery smooth rate like you can with Apple.
Google Pixel 4 camera sample
Google Pixel 3 camera sample
Huawei P30 Pro camera sample
iPhone 11 Pro camera sample
OnePlus 7T Pro camera sample
Google Pixel 4 main camera sample
iPhone 11 Pro ultra wide-angle camera sample
Google Pixel 4 XL review: Battery
The only thing more disappointing than Pixel 4 XL’s missing ultra wide-angle lens is the battery life. On paper, the phone’s sizeable 3,700mAh cell should carry it through an entire day, but in reality, we’ve never been able to take it past 4pm before the phone starts crying out for more juice.
The 90Hz refresh rate display is no doubt responsible for gobbling away at the 3,700mAh battery cell, even though it does dynamically adjust back to 60Hz in some circumstances (when the screen brightness drops below a pre-determined threshold or when using certain apps that Google has deigned to be “inefficient”, like its own Google Maps).
Simply put, the battery life on Pixel 4 isn’t good enough, especially when compared to competition from the likes of Apple and Huawei that both offer flagships that can be used for two days on a single charge.
Although you’ll want to stock-up on an external battery pack when spending the whole day away from a wall plug, Pixel 4’s battery isn’t quite a complete deal-breaker, especially if you’re someone who works with a wireless charger by their side.
The Google Pixel 4 XL comes with a 6.3-inch OLED display
Google Pixel 4 XL review: Price
Google has priced the Pixel 4 XL to compete directly with the likes of the Huawei P30 Pro, iPhone 11 Pro and Samsung Galaxy flagships. But unlike all those rival flagships, the Pixel 4 isn’t pushing the boundaries forward when it comes to design, battery life, or even camera diversity.
Pixel 4 XL starts at £829, and that’s for a stingy 64GB of storage. The 128GB model is the one you want, and that’s £929 – Google’s newest flagship is too expensive.
The price of the handset is even harder to swallow when you remember it doesn’t come with free unlimited original resolution storage for Google Photos, a headline feature for the original Pixel, Pixel 2 and Pixel 3. So every portrait mode photo, 4K video and astrophotography image will eat away at your precious storage unless you decide to cough-up a monthly cloud service fee.
Google Pixel 4 XL review: Verdict
Ever since the first leaks around the Pixel 4, we’ve held our breath – expecting a real game-changer from Google. With the Pixel 3, the company created a smartphone camera that was light-years ahead of the competition and with face unlock and a design from the team behind some of HTC’s greatest hits… surely the Pixel 4 was a shoe-in for the Phone Of The Year gong? Alas, that’s not quite what we got.
Make no mistake, we adore the Pixel 4 XL. However, there are just way too many asterisks holding it back from greatness. It’s got a great camera (but there’s no ultra-wide… unlike every one of its rivals), the 90Hz display is gorgeous and smooth (but it steamrollers the battery life to the point that you can’t count on it to last your entire 9-to-5), and the Oh So Orange colour is fun (but the front of the Pixel 4 looks like a flagship from five years ago and the lack of symmetry is a slap in the face).
Despite setting out to build the default Android smartphone for most people, Google’s efforts have always been overshadowed by some baffling self-inflicted wounds, like the Pixel 2 XL’s muddy display, and Pixel 3’s severe memory management issues. Another year, another attempt.
But sadly, Pixel 4 is no different.