Tech Guide

Google makes a bold attempt with the Pixel 4, but it still falls short of Samsung and Apple

Key Points
  • Google's Pixel 4 smartphone launches this week and includes new features we haven't seen in phones before, like a radar sensor.
  • While the cameras and software are great, some other parts of the Pixel 4 fall short.
  • Most people should probably consider a Samsung Galaxy phone or the iPhone 11.
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I've been testing Google's new phone, the Pixel 4, for the past week or so. The device marks Google's latest attempt to try to stir interest in its hardware business, which lags behind bigger players like Apple and Samsung.

Android has been a massive success for Google, but its phone hardware business is barely a blip on the radar. According to Counterpoint Research figures from August, the Pixel phones still don't have considerable market share in the U.S., lagging behind established players like Apple, Samsung, LG and Motorola. They're even less relevant on a global scale.

Google Pixel 4
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Google is trying to change that with the $799 Pixel 4 and larger $899 Pixel 4 XL (and even with the Pixel 3a, which hit the market earlier this year). The Pixel 4 is the first Google phone to launch on all four major U.S. carriers — Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile. It tries to stand out against iPhones and other Android phones with unique features, like a radar sensor that lets you control the phone with gestures, and a powerful camera that can capture stars at night.

While I like some parts of the Pixel 4, I think most people should buy a Samsung Galaxy S10, Galaxy Note 10 or an iPhone 11. Here's what you need to know:

What's good

Google Pixel 4
Todd Haselton | CNBC

Three things about the Pixel 4 stand out: the cameras, clean software and a new facial recognition that unlocks the phone quickly when you look at it.

The cameras on the Pixel 4 are great. Sometimes they're better than the iPhone 11 Pro Max. Google paid special attention to using software to clean up images, particularly in zoom and in night shots. When I zoomed in really far on a building on both the iPhone 11 Pro Max and the Pixel 4, the details were much crisper in the shot I took on the Pixel.

Please click each picture to see the complete image.

Here's max zoom on the Pixel 4:

Pixel 4 at max zoom.
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Here's max zoom on the iPhone 11 Pro Max:

Max zoom on the iPhone 11 Pro Max.
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Now check this out. The iPhone 11 Pro Max can pull all the way back with its ultra-wide angle lens:

An ultra-wide photo from the iPhone 11 Pro Max.
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While the Pixel 4 can't capture as much from the same spot:

The Pixel 4 doesn't have a wide-angle lens.
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Colors in portrait pictures, like one of me in a black coat sitting in a park, looked more true to life and richer than similar pictures on my new iPhone.

Here's the Pixel 4:

Portrait mode on the Pixel 4
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And here's the iPhone:

A sample of portrait mode from iPhone 11 Pro Max.
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The Pixel 4 was able to capture really impressive pictures of stars at night using a new "Astrophotography" mode, even with lots of light pollution where I live outside New York City. I can't wait to try it the next time I'm somewhere really dark, like on my annual vacation to Block Island. It works by taking lots of photos over the span of about three to four minutes and then uses computer smarts to combine them together. You need a tripod or something steady for it to work properly. Here's a sample from my backyard:

Astrophotography with Pixel 4.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

Like the cameras, Google's software is another highlight.

Google Assistant, the company's competitor to Siri, is front and center. You can squeeze the Pixel 4 (like earlier versions) to bring it up whenever you want. Google Assistant can tell you the weather, read you the news, launch apps, play music and more.

Google Pixel 4
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It's smarter than Siri and can tap into more apps than Siri, though Apple is starting to get better. Another plus is that Google's version of Android offers clean and quick access to all of Google's software, from Google Docs to Gmail and Google Photos. Some other Android phones, like Samsung's, can be cluttered with other things, like a competing (but worse) assistant named Bixby and duplicate apps.

Google Pixel 4
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There are some exclusive apps that you can only get on a Pixel. A new voice assistant app can transcribe what you're saying in real time, which is really awesome for journalists or others who frequently record people and have to spend hours converting the recording into written text. It worked well, transcribing whatever I said, in real time, and I was able to search back through the text for specific things I said.

The Pixel 4 also has a new crash-detection function that can recognize if you've been in a traffic accident and automatically call 911 for you. I didn't get in an accident during my review period, so I don't know how well it works. It's a neat idea, though.

Google's Pixel phones get the latest versions of Android for at least three years, which isn't true for most Android phones. Most other phones still get monthly security updates, but one benefit to owning a Pixel is getting new features before anyone else. If you care about that, then you should get a Pixel.

Google Pixel 4
Todd Haselton | CNBC

Google added a new face unlock feature that it says keeps the phone securely locked. There's no fingerprint reader. You just look at the screen and it unlocks once it recognizes you, just like on an iPhone with Apple's Face ID. It works really well, in tandem with the radar sensor that can detect your hand reaching for the phone and prepare the camera to recognize your face. It's pretty much instantaneous, like the new iPhones. But, unlike Face ID, it works even when your eyes are closed, which means someone could take your phone and unlock it by holding it over your face while you're sleeping. I don't like that.

The battery life was OK on my Pixel 4. It lasted through the day most times, but it drained particularly fast when I watched a lot of videos with the screen on full brightness, dropping about 20 percent after I watched "Spiderman: Into the Spider-Verse" at my desk. You should buy the larger Pixel 4 XL if you want a bigger battery, but Google at least includes a fast charger in case you need to fill up quickly.

Google Pixel 4
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Finally, the Pixel 4 has a screen that refreshes at 90hz. This doesn't mean much to most people, but it translates into a smoother experience when scrolling through things, like Twitter or websites, and games. You can notice a difference, and phone enthusiasts often say they'd never go back to a regular 60hz refresh rate after using 90hz. While I can appreciate the smoothness, I'm not bothered returning to my iPhone or Galaxy Note 10 after using the smoother screen on a Pixel 4.

What's bad

Google Pixel 4
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I'm not wild about some of the other decisions Google made with the Pixel 4.

The design is a little unappealing, with a big forehead above the screen where Google squeezed the front-facing camera, radar sensor and technology for facial recognition. It's not as clean as the latest Samsung phones, which have just a tiny hole for the camera. I like the orange color of my review unit, though, and that Google still adds a splash of color to the power button, too.

The radar sensor is a bit gimmicky right now, but that might change as Google works on it. It seems as if Google was building the so-called Soli technology and needed somewhere to use it, so decided to just cram it into a phone. It's meant to allow you to control the Pixel 4 with gestures, but it's super limited in what you can do. It was most valuable for detecting my hand approaching the phone and turning on the facial recognition software so that the phone unlocked quickly.

Google Pixel 4
Todd Haselton | CNBC

You can use the Soli radar sensor to snooze or dismiss timers and alarms or skip songs in Spotify. It works if you wave your hand quickly across it, and there's a small glowing indicator at the top of the screen to let you know it sees your hand. But it doesn't work for anything else that might be useful, like scrolling down a website if your hands are dirty and you're reading a recipe, or through photos. Also, this just isn't how I use my phone. I swipe the screen. It's fine.

Google says it's working to add more functions, but as it stands it's pretty uninteresting. Also, Samsung first tried this sort of thing (albeit, I believe, without radar) back in 2013 with the Galaxy S4. No one cared.

Google Pixel 4
Todd Haselton | CNBC

The Pixel 4 also doesn't have a lot of storage or any way to expand it. The entry-level model comes with 64GB and the high-end option has 128GB. 64GB isn't enough in an age where apps like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Hulu and soon Disney+ offer offline downloads. And apps and games are getting larger than ever.

You should buy the 128GB model, but I'm curious why Google didn't add expandable storage, as Samsung does. Or why it doesn't offer 256GB or 512GB options, as Samsung and Apple do for people who need more space. My guess is Google wants you to keep as much of your stuff in its cloud storage as possible.

Google Pixel 4
Todd Haselton | CNBC

Finally, it seems absolutely silly for Google not to include headphones in the box. Or, at the very least, an adapter so that you can use your regular headphones. The Pixel 4 doesn't have a traditional 3.5mm headphone jack, which most phones are removing these days. Google told me it made the decision because it thinks most people already have headphones. But most people who don't use Bluetooth headphones probably don't already have an adapter to use with the USB-C port.

Should you buy it?

Google Pixel 4
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I like the Pixel 4, but I don't love it. Maybe that will change as Google finds more uses for the radar sensor, which is the big thing here that's supposed to make the Pixel stand out from the crowd.

If you want a good camera and a great Google experience, you can save hundreds of dollars and just buy the Pixel 3a. If you want a bit more, check out the $749 Samsung Galaxy S10e or $899 Galaxy S10. You won't get Google's exclusive software or the radar sensor, but you get a better screen, really good cameras and better design. Finally, if you don't know if you want an Android phone or not, or just need a new phone, get the iPhone 11. It's $100 cheaper than the Pixel 4.

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