Google finally released the follow up to the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3a on October 24th, the Pixel 4. Three months later, lets see how the Pixel 4 is stacking up amongst the smartphone competition from Android rivals and Apple.
The Build Up.
The Google Pixel 4 may well go down in history as the worst kept secret in technology. Certainly in quite some time. Analysts and Bloggers slowly but surely chipped away at the features and design of the Pixel 4, leaking significant details to the public. The leaks were so significant that Google decided to confirm the products existence and certain features, well in advance of the product launch event. Four months early to be exact.
The Official Announcement
On October 15th, Google held a special event in Mountain View, California to confirm details of the Pixel 4 and Pixel 4XL. The event was somewhat underwhelming as it served mostly as a confirmation of previous leaks and photos of the new devices. Google did however take the time to talk about the thinking behind the design of the products and showed off some of the new, albeit leaked features such as facial recognition and soli radar gesture controls.
The Key Features
The design of the Pixel 4 is pleasant and appealing. The device is made of premium materials and the device whilst somewhat of a departure from the design language of the Pixel 3, feels like a Pixel phone. The device returns to large top and bottom bezels but this is a marked improvement over the bathtub notch of the Pixel 3.
Google has built a reputation for excellent camera software superior to the competition. This software is paired with decent, although less capable camera hardware than competitors. Googles camera software is so good that in spite of hardware limitations, the cheaper, less powerful Pixel 3a was capable of taking photos that bested much more powerful rival phones such as the iPhone XS. So what does the Pixel 4 bring to the table?
- With the Pixel 4, Google continues that trend of delivering truly excellent computational photography. They have added Astral Photography by using super long exposures and greatly improved super high res zoom.
- Google added a second camera, a 2x telephoto lens that in partnership with the software zoom, delivers stunning distance shots. This is a notable change as Google has previously claimed to able to do what rivals multi lens cameras could do with just one lens.
- 90hz display refresh rate with OLED delivering a smooth and sleek experience. Navigating the UI looks more fluid and feels fresh and modern. I’d expect most manufacturers will ship high refresh rate displays in 2020 so it’s good to see Google ahead of the curve.
- Notably the Pixel 4 has a very small battery capacity of 2800 mAh, the Pixel 4XL 3700 mAh. As a result the phone aggressively dials down the high refresh rate to conserve battery life. The battery capacity is smaller than that of their predecessors, an odd decision.
- Soli radar chip that enables the Pixel 4 to be controlled using hand gestures. You can skip forward a song for example or swipe through photographs. This feature in practice is unreliable, working inconsistently and requires a learning curve that makes it easier to just pick up your phone and tap.
- Face unlock comes to the Pixel 4 and works in partnership with the Soli radar. The Soli radar senses when your hand comes within a certain distance of the phone and triggers the sensors in the phone to start looking for your face and unlock the device. This results in a device that unlocks rapidly but this feature isn’t without its flaws. Unfortunately the Pixel 4 can be unlocked even when the user is asleep as unlike the iPhone, the Pixel 4 doesn’t require the users attention (open eyes).
- Snapdragon 855 cpu. Also a strange choice as flagship devices from rivals that shipped earlier than the Pixel 4 came packed with the Snapdragon 855+, a small but notable speed increase over the 855.
The State of Play.
The Pixel 4 in many ways is a big advancement over the Pixel 3. A display with a higher refresh rate, a move to face unlock rather than a finger print sensor, even better photography capabilities. The problem with the Pixel 4 is that for most of the new feature it offers, it also brings along issues that shouldn’t exist.
- Performance is generally very good but does at times stumble when running more intense apps or editing images. That Google chose a slower processor than rivals that had already shipped is just baffling.
- The face unlock feature brings a major security issue (user attention) that STILL hasn’t been addressed by Google, three months post launch. Heck on January 10th Google released a software update that introduced new security bugs with face unlock. I simply couldn’t recommend anybody use face unlock on this device.
- The 90Hz refresh rate display is beautiful but the brightness is a mere 400 nits compared to 1000 nits on the latest releases from Samsung, Huawei and Apple. Paired with smaller batteries than last year, significant trade offs were made to add the high refresh rate panel.
- Google removed one of the key selling features of the Pixel line, unlimited cloud photo storage at full quality. This is reduced to high quality whilst somebody buying a Pixel 3a today would continue to enjoy full resolution unlimited uploads.
When all of these issues are considered, the initial asking price for the Pixel 4 at $799 was a mistake. Many of the specs couldn’t compete with the offerings of rivals. Even the camera whilst excellent, is no longer the leader in smartphone photography. Competitors spent 2019 catching up and exceeding the Pixel line in photography performance.
The Pixel 4 is the phone Google should have shipped at the end of 2018, not the end of 2019. As we continue on through 2020, what little market share the Pixel 4 has managed to capture (not significant enough to show up in Google’s own reporting), will be eroded by more capable, modern phones from Android competition and Apple’s cheaper iPhone 11.
Google’s shoddy efforts at limiting product leaks sucked out much of the excitement and anticipation for this product. So little remained to surprise potential customers that the ship sailed. When you factor all the issues and the unrealistic asking price, it’s no wonder that you haven’t seen one of these phones out in the wild. Ouch.