For the past week, I’ve been testing out Google’s new Pixel 4 and its larger sibling, the Pixel 4 XL. Unless I’m talking about a specific model, I’ll use Pixel 4 for
features the two phones have in common, which is everything besides the screen size and battery capacity.
Both phones feel good in the hand and both have excellent screens. This is Google’s first phone with a 90Hz refresh rate, which translates to crisper text, smoother images and smoother games and videos. The difference isn’t great, but it is noticeable if you look closely. The phone also has a matte glass back (in white, orange or black) which looks good and is a bit less slippery than the Pixel 3. Having said this, most people should and do put their phones in a case, which makes me wonder why some reviewers make such a big deal over a phone’s fit and finish.
Hardware and battery life
Other hardware upgrades include a bit more RAM (6 GB vs. 4GB on Pixel 3), which — in addition to the faster Snapdragon 855 processor — makes the phone a bit faster, although most modern phones are fast enough in most cases.
Google has also added a radar chip which is designed to sense movement, even if you’re not touching the phone. It can detect your hand reaching for the phone, which can help it wake up faster. Google and Pokémon collaborated on a simple little game that lets you interact with Pokémon characters by waving your hands above the screen. Cute, but boring after about five minutes.
Another big change is that Google dropped the fingerprint reader in favor of facial recognition. On the positive side, facial recognition, when it works, is very fast, especially if the radar detects you reaching for the phone. I find it works most of the time, but it’s failed me in a few situations, including in a dark room when I had to enter in my four digit PIN after it couldn’t see my face. The other problem with facial recognition is that it doesn’t yet work with most third-party apps like my bank’s app, which let me log in with my fingerprint but not yet with my face.
Samsung’s Galaxy Note 7 has both a fingerprint reader and facial recognition — the best of both worlds.
Google has long built great cameras into its phones, and the Pixel 4 takes it a step further with a 2x optical zoom. However, unlike the latest iPhones, there is no ultra wide-angle lens. Google’s claim to fame is it low-light photography that was good on the Pixel 3 and slightly better on the Pixel 4. Google has also improved portrait mode, which can blur the background in portraits of people. Except for the lack of an ultra wide-angle lens, it’s certainly as good if not better than the iPhone 11 camera.
For me — and I suspect most people — battery life is one of the most important specifications. Unfortunately, the smaller Pixel 4 has an even smaller battery (2800 mAh) than its predecessor, the Pixel 3 (2915 mAh). However, the Pixel 4 XL has a larger battery than its predecessor (3900 mAh vs 3430 mAh) and lasts a lot longer than the smaller Pixel 4. One of the added challenges to battery life is the 90 Hz OLED screen that uses more energy than the 60 Hz screen on the Pixel 3. Of course that’s true for the XL as well, but the larger battery helps a lot.
The other advantage to the XL is, of course, the larger screen. Extra screen real estate not only makes it more enjoyable when watching video, looking at pictures or reading, but allows for larger text and — perhaps most important — a larger onscreen keyboard which helps cut down on typos. I watched the same Netflix video on the 4 and the 4 XL and strongly preferred the larger screens.
So, between better battery life, bigger text and images and bigger video, I strongly recommend spending an extra $100 on the 4 XL over the 4. The only other upgrade you can buy is additional storage. On either phone you can go from 64GB to 128GB for an extra $100. Personally, I’m OK with 64GB. It’s more than enough for plenty of apps and a reasonable collection of photos. Videos take up a lot of space but, unless you want to download them to watch offline, you can generally stream them without having to take up any space. Even photos can be viewed online via the Google photo app rather than stored on the phone.
Software and services
To begin with, all Pixel phones get the latest version of Android while phones from other companies can take months or even years before they see an upgrade. Also, Google has the cleanest interface of any Android phone maker.
Samsung and most other Android phone companies add apps or swap out their own apps for the ones designed for Google. I spent a few weeks using Samsung’s new Galaxy Note 10 and was frustrated by its inferior phone dialer (no easy way to hang up a call, for example) and other apps. I also hated that its own digital assistant — Bixby — kept on showing up even though it’s inferior to Google Assistant, which is on all Android phones (including Samsung’s).
Google spends an enormous amount of time and money building, testing and upgrading its apps, and I’ve never seen a non-Google app from another phone maker do a better job. Google also does a better job with the basic launcher and other operating system functions. Samsung, for example, by default groups apps by category rather than alphabetically and makes you scroll left to right instead of up and down. It’s arguably OK but feels different for the sake of being different.
The Pixel features Google Assistant, which you can use by typing or speaking. With the Pixel 4 (and earlier models) you can squeeze the phone to bring up the Assistant or just say “Hey Google.” It’s smarter and more robust than Apple’s Siri, able to launch apps, play music or answer anything you care to ask Google. It can also control phone functions and even delete unwanted data from your phone and Google’s servers via voice commands. You could say “Show me Barack Obama on Instagram,” and it will bring up his profile. Likewise you could say “Play Lady Gaga on Spotify” or “Play Orange is the New Black on Netflix.”
The phone has Google’s new Recording app which not only records your voice, but transcribes it to text in nearly real-time on the phone. It doesn’t upload anything to Google and works even if the phone is offline.
The Pixel 4 now has a car crash detection app which can call 911 in the event of a crash. Fortunately, I haven’t had the opportunity to test this in real life but there is a demo on the phone’s Safety app that makes a loud sound in the event of the crash and lets you call 911 or cancel if it’s a false alarm.
As with the new iPhone 11, the Pixel 4 does not support 5G. Google makes the argument that 5G isn’t ready for widespread consumer adoption, but that might change in a year, so if you buy a Pixel 4, you might have to upgrade to a new model in a year or two if you want to take advantage of the 5G networks.
Of course, high-end phones come at a price. The Pixel 4 starts at $799 and the 4XL starts at $899. But, if you’re on a budget, consider Google’s Pixel 3A. It sells for $399 and — once upgraded to Android 10 — does most of the things the Pixel 4 does at about half the price.
Despite Samsung’s success with its Galaxy line of phones, I strongly prefer Pixel phones. My favorite phones continue to come from the same companies that make their operating systems — Apple and Google.
Disclosure: Larry Magid is CEO of ConnectSafely.org, a nonprofit internet safety organization that receives financial support from both Google and Facebook.
Published at Wed, 23 Oct 2019 10:00:12 +0000