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Pixel 4 vs. Galaxy Note 10: Biggest letdowns and best killer features right now

The Galaxy Note is one of the best phones you can buy right now. Is it time to switch allegiance?

pixel-4-note-10

The Note 10 may not be alone at the top for long.

Sarah Tew/CNET

A few weeks ago, I gave the Galaxy Note 10 a CNET Editors' Choice award, calling it out as one of the best phones for most people. It's sleek, powerful, has excellent battery life and -- while it's missing a headphone jack and a microSD card slot -- the benefits far outweigh the trade-offs, especially for the $950 price. But here comes Google's Pixel 4 ($800), which ups the ante with impressive camera claims and innovative new motion-control software that helps make the brand-new face unlock feature work.

Read more: 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.

If you'll be shopping for a phone before 2019 is out, these two are absolutely in the running, along with the standard and extra-large models (the Note 10 Plus and Pixel 4 XL). 

The Pixel isn't as stunning to look at as the Note 10, but in many ways, it has an edge on Samsung's formidable competition. Now that the Pixel 4 will sell across all major US carriers, Google has a chance to get the word out about its less expensive, feature-packed phone.

We're still testing the Pixel 4, so while we don't have a final determination yet, we do have a good idea of how these two phones match up.

Now playing: Watch this: Pixel 4 and 4 XL hands-on: Dual rear cameras, radar face...
5:31

The Note 10 is far easier on the eye

There's no way around it: The Pixel 4 looks like a brick compared to the slick Note 10. Google's phone lacks a fancy design, but compared to the Pixel 3, it's a major redesign that loses a signature glass panel bisecting the back.

While the matte backing in white, black and orange looks dull alongside the Note 10's deep, glossy finish, the Pixel 4 is less of a fingerprint magnet without its case. The camera cluster on the back stands out more, but also looks less original, mimicking the iPhone 11 Pro and Huawei Mate 30

I'm not a fan of the slightly textured coating along the frame, but if you're putting a case on your phone anyway, eye candy design matters much less.

Screen vs. screen: How important is a 90Hz display?

The Note 10's 6.3-inch display dwarfs the Pixel 4's 5.7-inch screen, even though it's slightly thinner. But Google includes a software setting to refresh the screen rate at 90Hz, which makes scrolling, transitions and gaming smoother. This screen feature wouldn't be a reason to buy the phone, though it might make you like using it a tad better.

A 90Hz refresh rate also is also known to drain the battery faster, but you can always turn this off in the settings, or turn it on again when and if you want it. Some devices, like the ROG Phone II gaming phone and  OnePlus 7 Pro and OnePlus 7T, also have a 90Hz screen. Samsung phones don't -- at least not yet.

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The OnePlus 7T also has a 90Hz screen.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Pixel 4's face unlock beats the Note's in-screen fingerprint scanner

Google's secure face unlock feature is important because it totally does away with the fingerprint scanner and helps create a momentum around face unlock that hasn't existed in Android phones. Sure, the Android OS includes face unlock by default, but that flavor of it isn't secure enough for mobile payments. On the Pixel 4, it is.

Unlocking the Pixel 4 this way is fast and you don't have to lay a finger on the device to use it, which can take some of the pressure off your digits if you find yourself unlocking the phone scores of times a day. It's also (so far) more accurate than the Note 10's in-screen fingerprint reader, which needs you to deliberately place your print on the screen, further gumming up the glass.

We'll need to spend more time with face unlock to ferret out any of its quirks before we can declare face the winner over thumb for sure.

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The in-screen fingerprint reader so far hasn't lived up to the hype.

Angela Lang/CNET

Some Pixel 4 gesture controls fall into gimmick territory

A small chip in the Pixel 4's face, called Soli, is what helps trigger the phone's face unlock process, but it's also responsible for more. Google uses the radar generated by the Soli chip to support a handful of gestures. Together, Google calls the feature Motion Sense.

Gesture navigation has been around on phones from time to time and usually uses the camera to see where you are. Radar doesn't need to see you, it senses you, which gives you better range for your gestures.

Some seem actually useful so far, like waving your hand to dismiss an alarm or a phone call, and reaching toward the phone to make those sounds quieter before you flick the notification away. But other gestures to advance a musical track or go back rehash other brand's gestures that never felt like they fit into daily life -- not mine, anyway.  

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You can't do this on the Pixel 4.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Note 10's stylus gives you more tools to use

I have to mention the stylus, because that's what makes the Note the Note. Mainstream buyers don't necessarily need to pay extra for the Note 10 just to have the stylus, but if you have it, there's a lot you can do. This is just one way that the Note reminds you it's a premium device.

Camera showdown: Night mode will tell all

For the first time, the Pixel gets a second camera on the back that adds 2x telephoto capabilities. The Note 10 has three of them, tossing in a third, wide-angle lens. 

I really like having wide-angle because it can add drama to shots, but when push comes to shove, it'll be the quality of the low-light and zoom photography that could take the Pixel further. There are other camera features besides, like dual exposure controls for harder-core shutterbugs, and an astrophotography mode that automatically kicks in so you can take clearer pictures of the stars.

We'll be thoroughly comparing the Note 10 and Pixel 4 cameras, from auto shots and portraits to selfies and night photography, so stay tuned for those results.

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Google's Pixel 4 camera could be its rabbit in the hat.

Angela Lang/CNET

Pixel 4 is stingy on battery life and storage

Battery life and storage are a phone's bread and butter. It's never the star of the show, but if either one is weak, you'll know. The Pixel 4's battery actually shrinks compared to the Pixel 3 (2,800 versus 2,915 mAh). For reference, the Note 10 has a 3,500-mAh battery.

The Pixel 4 XL's battery life should go much further, at 3,700 mAh, compared to the Note 10 Plus' 4,300-mAh ticker. Of course, the Pixel phones are smaller than the Notes, but battery life on Samsung's phones is excellent.

Storage gives you the same story. Google holds back both Pixel 4 models at 64GB and 128GB options, while the Note 10 comes with 256GB of onboard storage right out of the gate. Neither phone has a microSD card slot. If you level up to the $1,100 Note 10 Plus, you'll get the option to buy a storage card to go along with the 256GB and 512GB configurations.

Now playing: Watch this: Should you upgrade to the Pixel 4?
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The Android advantage

One of the Pixel's most important selling points has always been its deep Android ties. Pixels are the first to get new versions of Android and security patches. Experimental features often come to Pixels first, too, well before they're integrated into Android.

For example, Pixel 4 has Android 10 right out of the box, and owners can start using features like systemwide dark mode right away. The Note 10 runs on Android 9, and likely will for some time. It's not unusual for Samsung phones to lag six months behind on Google's Android updates while Samsung's engineers make sure the new software works with its interface for Galaxy phones.

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Every Android 10 advantage comes to Pixel phones first.

Juan Garzon / CNET

Who they might be for and what comes next

We're still reviewing the Pixel 4, but so far it's setting itself up to be a compelling phone for people who want to pay a little less than premium for a suite of camera tricks and a no-fuss phone. Face unlock could well become a deciding factor for people who are intrigued by the iPhone's Face ID. 

However, the Note 10 is for those who want as large a screen as possible and true all-day battery life. The built-in stylus doesn't hurt, and I use the wide-angle camera lens more often than I figured I would.

For more on the Pixel 4, read on to see how the phone compares to even more rivals, and get to know all of the Pixel 4's new camera tricks.

Pixel 4 and 4XL vs. Note 10 and 10 Plus


Google Pixel 4 Samsung Galaxy Note 10 Google Pixel 4 XL Samsung Galaxy Note 10 Plus
Display size, resolution 5.7-inch OLED; QHD screen, pixels TBD 6.3-inch AMOLED; 2,280x1,080 pixels 6.3-inch OLED; QHD screen, pixels TBD 6.8-inch AMOLED; 3,040x1,440 pixels
Pixel density 444 ppi 401 ppi 537 ppi 498 ppi
Dimensions (inches) 5.7 x 2.7 x 0.3 in. 5.94 x 2.83 x 0.31 in. 6.3 x 2.9 x 0.3 in. 6.39 x 3.04 x 0.31 in.
Dimensions (millimeters) 68.8 x 147.1 x 8.2 mm 151 x 71.8 x 7.9 mm 75.1 x 160.4 x 8.2 mm 162.3 x 77.2 x 7.9 mm
Weight (ounces, grams) 5.7 oz.; 162g 5.93 oz.; 168g 6.8 oz.; 193g 6.91 oz.; 196g
Mobile software Android 10 Android 9.0 Pie Android 10 Android 9.0 Pie
Camera 12.2-megapixel (standard), 16-megapixel (telephoto) 12-megapixel (wide-angle), 16-megapixel (ultra-wide angle), 12-megapixel (telephoto) 12.2-megapixel (standard), 16-megapixel (telephoto) 12-megapixel (wide-angle), 16-megapixel (ultra wide-angle), 12-megapixel (telephoto), 3D depth (HQVGA)
Front-facing camera 8-megapixel 10-megapixel 8-megapixel 10-megapixel
Video capture 4K 4K 4K 4K
Processor 2.84GHz octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 processor, or Samsung Exynos 9825 2.84GHz octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 processor, or Samsung Exynos 9825
Storage 64GB, 128GB 256GB 64GB, 128GB 256GB, 512GB
RAM 6GB 8GB 6GB 12GB
Expandable storage No No No Up to 1TB
Battery 2,800 mAh 3,500 mAh 3,700 mAh 4,300 mAh
Fingerprint sensor No In-screen No In-screen
Connector USB-C USB-C USB-C USB-C
Headphone jack No No No No
Special features Soli motion sensing and touchless gestures; 90Hz display; water-resistant (IP68); dual-SIM capabilities (nano-SIM and e-SIM); wireless charging S Pen stylus; Wireless PowerShare; hole punch screen notch; water-resistant (IP68) Soli motion sensing and touchless gestures; 90Hz display; water-resistant (IP68); dual-SIM capabilities (nano-SIM and e-SIM); wireless charging S Pen stylus; Wireless PowerShare; hole punch screen notch; water-resistant (IP68)
Price off-contract (USD) $799 (64GB), $899 (128GB) $949 $899 (64GB), $999 (128GB) $1,099
Price (GBP) £669 (64GB), £769 (128GB) £899 £829 (64GB), £929 (128GB) £999
Price (AUD) AU$1,049 (64GB), AU$1,199 (128GB) AU$1,499 AU$1,279 (64GB), AU$1,429 (128GB) AU$1,699

Originally published earlier this week.