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Hands-on with Pixel 4 and 4 XL: Google's new phones only have minor differences

It's Google's turn to take the phone spotlight, and the Pixel 4 has improved cameras and a new design.

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Like the iPhone 11, the Pixel 4 has a square camera array that houses the two rear cameras.

Angela Lang/CNET

It's official: On Tuesday Google formally announced the Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL. Finally! (Read our in-depth Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL reviews.) The Pixel 4 is one of the most leaked-about phones in recent memory. In fact, Google itself teased a photo of the 4 and the 4 XL back in June on Twitter. The new Pixel phones pack dual rear cameras, a 90Hz display, radar-powered face unlock process (here's how the Pixel 4's face unlock compared to the iPhone 11's Face ID when we tested both in four typical scenarios) and a slew of unique features like car crash detection and live video captioning.

In an Amazon-style autumnal windfall of products, also unveiled at the 2019 Made by Google event in New York were the Pixel Buds 2 wireless earbudsPixelbook Go Chromebook, Google Nest Mini smart speaker and Nest Wifi smart router.

The Pixel 4 starts at $799 (£669) for a 64GB version and $899 (£829) for the Pixel 4 XL. Both are available in black, white or orange, which Google calls "Oh So Orange." In the US, you can upgrade either phone to 128GB for $100 more. Preorders are live and the phones ship starting Oct. 24. And for the first time, you can buy the Pixel 4 directly from all major US carriers.

While it's Google's turn to take the phone spotlight, the 2019 stage is already full of new competitors, including Apple's iPhone 11 and 11 Pro and Samsung's Galaxy Note 10 and relaunched Galaxy Fold. The iPhone 11 and Galaxy S10E are two of the better-matched rivals to the Pixel 4 and both are $100 cheaper. Then there's the OnePlus 7 Pro, which packs a 90Hz screen like the Pixel 4 but costs $130 less. And of course there are last year's Pixel 3 phones, which Google has chopped $300 off.

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Pixel 4 vs. Pixel 4 XL

Not a whole lot is different between Google's two newest phones: They both come in the same three colors, with the same "Smooth Display" (more below) and, most importantly, the same cameras. The Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL do differ on a handful of specs, namely the size and price. (Plus, here's how the Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL compare to last year's Pixel 3 phones.)

  • Price: The Pixel 4 XL is going to set you back $100 more than the Pixel 4. The phones start at $799 (£669, AU$1,049) and $899 (£829, AU$1,279), respectively, for the 64GB base model, up to $899 for the Pixel 4 and $999 for the Pixel 4 XL if you upgrade to the 128GB version.
  • Dimensions: The Pixel 4 XL is slightly bigger and heavier than the Pixel 4, measuring 6.3 by 2.9 inches to the Pixel 4's 5.7 by 2.7-inch body. (The two phones have the same 0.3-inch (8.2mm) depth.) 
  • Weight: The Pixel 4 XL's larger size makes it a bit heavier at 6.81 ounces (193 grams), while the Pixel 4 weighs only 5.71 ounces (162 grams).
  • Display: The Pixel 4 features an FHD display with 444 pixels-per-inch density, and the Pixel 4 XL is higher definition, with a QHD display and a pixel density of 537 ppi. But again, both phones feature a 90Hz OLED Smooth Display. 
  • Battery: The last big difference between the two phones is the battery. The Pixel 4 uses a 2,800-mAh battery (which is actually even lower capacity than its predecessor, the Pixel 3), while the Pixel 4 XL has a 3,700-mAh battery.

A new industrial design

The Pixel 4 comes with a new design and square camera element all belted in neatly around the sides by a slick-looking aluminum band. Good news: The Pixel 4 XL loses the Pixel 3 XL's ugly notch and instead has a forehead bezel that houses the selfie camera and face unlock sensors.

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On the left, the Pixel 4; on the right, the Pixel 4 XL.

Angela Lang/CNET

The new Pixels are just a millimeter or so bigger and a tad heavier than last year's Pixel 3 and 3 XL, giving the 4 and 4 XL a more robust feel than previous Google phones. There's Gorilla Glass 5 on the front and back, and the phones are rated IP68 for dust and water resistance. Both phones have a Snapdragon 855 processor, 6GB of RAM and wireless charging. On the bottom you'll find stereo speakers and a USB-C port.

Curiously, the batteries on the Pixel 4 and 4 XL are lower-capacity than the ones on the 3 and 3XL. Android 10 should help maximize the battery's efficiency, but I look forward to seeing how the phones handle in real life, especially with that high-refresh-rate screen.

Pixel 4's Smooth Display has a 90Hz refresh rate

Some of the biggest changes are on the front, with the Pixel 4's new 90Hz OLED Smooth Display. Like the OnePlus 7 Pro and last year's Asus ROG Phone, this screen refreshes 90 times a second, making graphics and animations look smooth and text appear sharp. For reference, the majority of phones sold today have a 60Hz display, including the latest phones from Apple and Samsung. I should note that Asus recently released the ROG Phone 2, which has an OLED screen with a 120Hz refresh rate, the first on any phone.

Depending on what content is onscreen, the Pixel 4 will automatically switch between refresh rates to best optimize performance and reduce battery drain. So if you're reading an email message, the display might drop down to a refresh rate of 60 times a second, but if you're scrolling through Instagram it might bump up to 90 times a second. You can keep the Pixel 4's display at a constant 90Hz if you choose.

The Pixel 4 has a 5.7-inch screen, which is larger than the 5.5-inch one found on the Pixel 3, while the Pixel 4 XL has a 6.3-inch display, the same size as last year's Pixel 3 XL.

The new displays also have a feature called Ambient EQ that adapts the screen's color temperature to make colors look more natural under different lighting situations. It's similar to Apple's True Tone displays on the iPhone and iPad. By the way, you can turn Ambient EQ on or off.

Motion Sense radar for fast secure face unlock

But it's the feature located above the screen that's really impressive. It's called Motion Sense and it uses a mix of sensors, infrared and a tiny radar to let you unlock the Pixel 4 with your face. The Pixel 4 and 4L are the first Android phones with face unlock that's secure enough to be used for payments with Google Pay as well as with password apps. That's a good thing, because Google nixed the fingerprint scanner on the Pixel 4 and 4 XL.

When I demoed face unlock it was quite fast. Part of that speed comes from the fact that the phone's radar detects your hand as you reach for it and preps the infrared cameras to unlock. Motion Sense can also be used in other instances. If you're listening to Spotify, for example, you can swipe through the air above the Pixel to skip to the next track. Google also has live wallpapers that react to your hand motions. You can even swipe your hand through the air to dismiss a call or an alarm. In the demos I was shown, it worked consistently well.

The Pixel 4 has two rear cameras and can photograph stars

Perhaps the most obvious design change is to the rear cameras. (Here's what photos from the Pixel 4 camera look like.) And yes, that's cameras plural. All previous generations of the Pixel only had a single rear camera, but the Pixel 4 has two cameras nestled into its square camera array. The main camera is the same 12-megapixel one found on the Pixel 3 and has the same f/1.7 wide angle lens. The new f/2.4 "telephoto" camera has a 16-megapixel sensor and provides 2x optical zoom.

When I asked Google why it opted for a telephoto camera instead of the more trendy ultrawide-angle camera like ones found in the Galaxy S10 family and the new iPhones, a spokesperson said they thought that zooming in on a subject would be more important to Pixel owners.

The dual camera system brings a bunch of improvements and new features. Night Sight, which launched on the Pixel 3 and captures a series of images to make low-light photos brighter, is now capable of taking photos of stars. Yes, that's right. You can now be an astrophotographer using nothing more than your phone.

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The square camera array on the back of the Pixel 4.

Angela Lang/CNET

When taking HDR Plus pictures, the Pixel 4 now shows a live preview of what the photo will look like before you take it. On the Pixel 3, you had to wait a second or so for the phone to process the data before seeing how your final image turned out. Google also added dual sliders that let you adjust highlights and shadows independently in the viewfinder preview instead of just the overall exposure.

Portrait mode photos are now created using both rear cameras. Google claims that this improves the cut and edge blur of subjects over previous Pixel phones. You now also have the option to take wide-angle portrait mode pics. All these improvements are powered by a new Neural Core chip that processes everything locally on the Pixel 4.

The dual selfie cameras of the Pixel 3 are gone, with Google opting for a single 8-megapixel camera with a wider default field of view. Video largely remains the same but now is capable of live real-time audio transcription that adds captions to your videos as you record them. In fact, Google launched its first audio recorder app built upon the same technology for instant audio transcription. Sorry. Otter.ai.

Google Assistant is better integrated throughout

There's a new version of Google Assistant that's better integrated throughout the phone. You can still trigger it by squeezing the sides of the phone or by saying, "Hey, Google," but you can also activate it by swiping up diagonally from one of the bottom corners of the phone. Google says that voice commands are improved and that the phones have better app control, contextual commands and sharing options.

Car crash detection with the Safety app

The Neural Core that powers the cameras is also used by the Pixel 4 to detect car crashes. The feature is part of the Safety app, which is currently only available in the US. If you've been in a serious car accident, car crash detection will automatically call 911. Google said that fender benders shouldn't trigger it.

Check back with CNET as we test the Pixel 4 and 4 XL for our upcoming in-depth review.

Pixel 4 specs vs. Pixel 4 XL, Pixel 3, Pixel 3 XL, OnePlus 7 Pro


Pixel 4 Pixel 4 XL Pixel 3 Pixel 3 XL OnePlus 7 Pro
Display size, resolution 5.7-inch FHD+ 90Hz OLED 6.3-inch QHD+ 90Hz OLED 5.5-inch OLED; 2,280x1,080 pixels 6.3-inch OLED; 2,960x1,440 pixels 6.67-inch 90Hz AMOLED; 3,120x1,440-pixels
Pixel density 444 ppi 537 ppi 443ppi 522 ppi 516ppi
Dimensions (inches) 5.7 x 2.7 x 0.3 in 6.3 x 2.9 x 0.3 in 5.7 x 2.7 x 0.3 in 6.2 x 3 x 0.3 in 6.4 x 2.99 x 0.35 in
Dimensions (millimeters) 147.1 x 68.8 x 8.2mm 160.4 x 75.1 x 8.2mm 145.6 x 68.2 x 7.9mm 158 x 76.7 x 7.9mm 162.6 x 75.9 x 8.8mm
Weight (ounces, grams) 5.71 oz; 162g 6.81 oz; 193g 5.2 oz; 148g 6.5 oz; 184g 7.27 oz; 206g
Mobile software Android 10 Android 10 Android 9 Pie Android 9 Pie Android 9.0 with OxygenOS
Camera 16-megapixel (telephoto), 12.2-megapixel (wide) 16-megapixel (telephoto), 12.2-megapixel (wide) 12.2-megapixel 12.2-megapixel 48-megapixel (wide), 8-megapixel (telephoto), 16-megapixel (ultrawide)
Front-facing camera 8-megapixel 8-megapixel Dual 8-megapixel Dual 8-megapixel 16-megapixel
Video capture 4K 4K 4K 4K 4K
Processor Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 Qualcomm Snapdragon 855
Storage 64GB, 128GB 64GB, 128GB 64GB, 128GB 64GB, 128GB 128GB, 256GB
RAM 6GB 6GB 4GB 4GB 6GB, 8GB, 12GB
Expandable storage None None None None None
Battery 2,800 mAh 3,700 mAh 2,915 mAh 3,430 mAh 4,000 mAh
Fingerprint sensor None (Face unlock) None (Face unlock) Back cover Back cover In-display fingerprint sensor
Connector USB-C USB-C USB-C USB-C USB-C
Headphone jack No No No No No
Special features IP68; Qi-certified wireless charging; 18W fast charging IP68; Qi-certified wireless charging; 18W fast charging IPX8; wireless charging support; Pixel Buds USB-C headphones in the box IP68; wireless charging support; Pixel Buds USB-C headphones in the box Warp Charge 30T feature; quick charging
Price off-contract (USD) $799 (64GB), $899 (128GB) $899 (64GB), $999 (128GB) Now down to: $499 (64GB); $599 (128GB) Now down to: $599 (64GB); $699 (128GB) $669 (128GB/6GB); $699 (256GB/8GB); $749 (256GB/12GB)
Price (GBP) £669 (64GB) £829 (64GB) £739 (64GB); £839 (128GB) £869 (64GB); £969 (128GB) £649 (128GB/6GB); £699 (256GB/8GB); £799 (256GB/12GB)
Price (AUD) TBD TBD AU$1,199 (64GB); AU$1,349 (128GB) AU$1,349 (63GB); AU$1,499 (128GB) Converted: AU$960 (128GB/6GB); AU$1,000 (256GB/8GB); AU$1,080 (256GB/12GB)

Originally published Oct. 15.