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Google Pixel 4 review: A great camera isn’t enough to justify the high price

There's no denying the Pixel 4 has one of the best cameras around. But with limited storage and plenty of affordable alternatives, it's pricey for what it is.

Lynn La Senior Editor / Reviews - Phones
Lynn La covers mobile reviews and news. She previously wrote for The Sacramento Bee, Macworld and The Global Post.
Lynn La
11 min read

Update, Aug. 17, 2021: Google has unveiled the Pixel 5A with 5G, which we have reviewed. Original story follows.

The Good

The Pixel 4's dual rear cameras take brilliant photos and its display's high refresh rate makes navigating silky smooth. The phone will get prompt software updates and its face unlock works really fast.

The Bad

The phone doesn't come with earbuds, it has no expandable storage option and its battery life is mediocre.

The Bottom Line

The Pixel 4 has one of the best cameras around, but it's expensive given its limited amount of storage. If you want more storage and a comparable camera, consider the OnePlus 7T or Galaxy S10, or the Pixel 3, which is only $500 right now.

Update, Aug. 7, 2020: Google has discontinued the Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL phones. This follows the launch of the Pixel 4A, which we have reviewed. Original story follows.

In the Pixel 4, Google  has delivered a great camera boosted with software wizardry. The company's first telephoto lens is top of its class (don't take our word for it: here are 24 photos taken with the Pixel 4). It makes portrait shooting a breeze and it's no longer impossible to zoom in on distant objects and take a decent photo. I didn't get a chance to check out the camera's new mode for taking pictures of stars because they weren't visible in the area I was testing.

But for all the camera's brilliance, the Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL (these phones are nearly identical except in size and battery) are expensive given the amount of storage included: The Pixel 4 starts at $800, (£669, AU$1,049) while the Pixel 4 XL costs $900 (£829, AU$1,279). They only come with 64GB at those prices, with no option to expand. If you want 128GB, you'll need to tack on $100 more.

True, other premium phones land in the same price range. But the iPhone 11 , which also has dual rear cameras and doesn't have expandable storage, starts at $699 (£729, AU$1,199) for 64GB -- $100 less than the Pixel 4 -- and the 128GB version is $150 cheaper than the 128GB Pixel 4. The Galaxy S10 costs $900 (£799, AU$1,349) but it has expandable storage, and the $950 Note 10 (£899, AU$1,499), which doesn't have expandable memory, at least has 256GB on board.

When it comes to affordable Android options, we live in a world of plenty. There are about, oh, a million Galaxy S10 options you can choose from that have comparable cameras. The Galaxy S10E, though not as premium as the Pixel 4, costs $750, has expandable storage and has two cameras. And then there's the dark-horse OnePlus 7T .

To compensate for its limited storage, Google is banking on Pixel owners using Google Photos for storing photos and videos. But if you're like me and you like onboard storage, syncing all your stuff with the cloud isn't appealing. Google also changed its policy so that Pixel 4 users don't have unlimited photo storage at original quality. Instead, you can upload content at high quality, which is a lower resolution with less detail.

If you're happy to use Google Photos and have the budget, consider the Pixel 4. It does have some nifty captioning software with its Android 10 update, and you'll have one of the best cameras around. But if you want to get the most for your money, consider the Galaxy S10, the Note 10, the OnePlus 7T or even the discounted Pixel 3 from last year. All of these phones have longer battery life than the Pixel 4 too, and the Pixel 3 costs only $499, has a fantastic camera and can update to Android 10. 

Pixel 4 and 4 XL: Industrially chic in glowing orange

See all photos

Take a deeper dive into Pixel 4 comparisons: Here's how the Pixel 4 differs from last year's Pixel 3how it stacks up against the Galaxy Note 10 and all the Pixel 4 specs versus the iPhone 11, Galaxy S10E and OnePlus 7T.

Update, Nov. 1, 2019: Adds battery test results and final scoring.

Pixel 4 gets two rear cameras, astrophotography

The Pixel 3's most compelling feature was its excellent camera, and we were impressed by how well it captured beautiful photos using just a single rear camera at a time when its competitors needed two or more. On the Pixel 4, however, Google added a second telephoto camera (though that's still fewer than other phones that wield three or even four rear cameras). Google says it went with a telephoto camera instead of a wide-angle because it felt it was more important to zoom. The iPhone 11 Pro , Huawei Mate 30 and Note 10 phones have wide-angle cameras though, which can fit more content in each frame.

The second telephoto lens allows the camera to take better portrait shots. It also does a better job at smoothing out tricky areas like hair and fur than before. (A challenging photo of me, shot on a particularly windy day, did have patchy areas though.) You can also take portrait photos from farther away now.


Google added a telephoto camera to the Pixel 4.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The camera's HDR Plus feature, which compiles multiple images to give you a single picture with the best exposure, can be viewed in real time. This is helpful, but I don't like how you can't turn off HDR in general. I'm not always a fan of the effect, on any phone really, because it can make photos look unrealistic or overly processed. While I can tweak images with the two new sliders for shadows and highlights, it's not intuitive how to use these sliders for the effect I want. I often just randomly played around with the sliders with no real idea what the photo would look like.

Pixel's low-light mode, Night Sight, is still impressive, brightening up and sharpening dark scenes. It's so good that you can use the Pixel 4 to take photos of a starlit sky -- a process that usually requires a DSLR, a tripod and a lot of patience. I couldn't test the astrophotography mode because I was in New York and couldn't get to an area dark enough to take star shots, but I did include a pic below taken by my colleague, Juan Garzon. The photo is quite impressive in that a phone can capture starlight at all. Stars aside, the Pixel 4's low-light mode still impresses me each time I press the shutter.

Pictures from the Pixel 4's camera

See all photos

The Pixel 4 takes sharp and vibrant photos with great contrast. The camera's combination of telephoto and digital zoom works great and I was able to take steady shots of objects that were far away. Though zoomed images still showed digital artifacts, it was impressive how clear the images came out. The camera's handling of white balance is also spot-on: Photos I took under yellow, warm lighting would come out as if they were taken in white light. So far, the Pixel 4 has one of my favorite cameras to use on any phone.

Photos taken on the front-facing camera weren't as crisp and sharp as from the rear shooter and in dim lighting faces were muddled around the edges. But with ample lighting, pictures were sharp and colors were true to life. 

One small quibble -- Google hid basic photo settings, such as the flash and timer, so you now have to tap on an extra arrow on the camera's interface to call these tools up. Though it declutters the interface, I find it annoying to tap around for something as basic as the flash.

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The Pixel 4 easily handled this sunny day in Inwood Hill Park.

Lynn La/CNET
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Though there are some patchy areas around Jessica's hair, portrait mode still did a good job handling the blur effect.

Lynn La/CNET
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Taking a photo of stars with the Pixel 4's new astrophotography feature.

Juan Garzon/CNET
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Zooming in on a crane with the phone's 8x digital zoom.

Lynn La/CNET
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The previous photo, zoomed out.

Lynn La/CNET

Pixel 4's radar-assisted face unlock and Android 10

Equipped with a sensor chip Google dubbed Soli, the Pixel 4 allows you to do a few new things like use your face to authorize digital payments and navigate your phone with touchless gestures. This suite of features is called Motion Sense, and you can toggle it on in Settings.

Motion Sense uses radar for motion tracking, and it can sense your hand when you reach for your phone to unlock it (the face unlocking itself is carried out by an infrared camera, just like Face ID on the iPhone). This combo of readying and then firing up the tech makes face unlock faster. I don't have to tap to wake the screen or press any buttons beforehand, nor do I have to swipe afterward to use my phone. It's all just one fluent, cohesive process.


Google's face unlock uses a combination of radar and infrared sensors.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Note that while face unlock is secure enough to authorize digital payments, it's not 100% infallible. Google acknowledges that someone who looks like you, such as a twin, can unlock your phone. Face unlock also works with your eyes closed or when you're sleeping, which is a big vulnerability. (I can already imagine my friends being able to fool around with my phone if I'm caught napping around them, and there are much more serious possible scenarios.) Face ID for the iPhone only works if your eyes are open, and at one point it looked like Google would offer the same choice to users, according to the BBC. But it seems the company removed the option, and no one knows why. (Google did not reply to a request for comment but promised to fix the problem with a patch. The Eyes Open feature became available in April 2020.)

Waving my hand to skip songs and silence timers and alarms felt gimmicky at first, and it reminded me of the terrible beak-shape puppet I had to make with my hand to quit apps when the LG G8 ThinQ employed similar technology. But because Motion Sense is more responsive to subtle hand motions than the G8, the feature works surprisingly effortlessly. I also liked that alarm sounds quieted down as I reached for the phone, which is intuitive and less disruptive.

The Pixel 4 runs Android 10 and comes with Dark Mode, new phone navigation gestures and a refreshed Google Assistant that works faster. The phone has a safety app and in some countries, this app detects car crashes and automatically calls 911 if you're injured. 

One app I find especially useful as a reporter is the recorder. The app transcribes live as you record audio. The Pixel 4 can also live-caption audio from the phone. For instance, I recorded a quick video of myself speaking and when I played the video back with live captioning on, I could see what I had said written out. It's not perfect but it gets about 95% of things right. It's also relatively fast and works offline. 


Skipping a track with a wave of my hand.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Pixel 4 design: A prominent camera bump and a silky display

The Pixel 4 is like the phone embodiment of Casual Friday. I know the phone packs the hardware to do its job, but because it doesn't have the lustrous glass finish of the iPhone 11 or Galaxy S10, it doesn't look as elegant. Instead, the Pixel 4's informality (like the pop of color on the power button or the matte finish I couldn't stop petting with the Clearly White model) makes it come off rather, well, "fun." As a small-handed human with frustratingly tiny jean pockets, I found the Pixel 4 small and comfortable to hold. The Pixel 4 XL is lightweight compared with other phones its size. The phones are rated IP68 for water resistance.


The Pixel 4 XL has thick bezels compared with the Note 10 Plus.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Google did away with the signature two-toned back on both phones and scrapped the screen notch on the Pixel 4 XL. In its place is a back-to-basics top bezel. This makes the phone look dated compared with the thinly bezeled iPhone 11 and the Galaxy S10, which have a notch and hole-punch camera, but it's nice to watch videos or play games on a straightforward, uninterrupted display.

Speaking of the screen, the Pixel 4's display refreshes at a rate of 90 times a second, while most phones refresh 60 times a second. This isn't totally new -- the OnePlus 7T and the Razer Phone 2 have a 90Hz and a 120Hz display, respectively. But because it refreshes more often, things like playing games and scrolling through webpages and apps feel fluid, as if there's a spring in the Pixel's step. I hope more phones adopt this.

Heads up that the Pixel 4 doesn't come with any type of earbuds or a dongle for its USB-C port. Considering the phone's high price and the fact that the Pixel 3 came with one, this is a major drag.

One thing I'm not a fan of is the big square camera bump on the back. It caught everyone's eye when Google released the first images of the Pixel 4 and it's still one of the first things people notice when I show them the phone (though since I did have the white variant, the black camera bump stood out more). It's about the size of a postage stamp and protrudes enough that when I tap on the phone while it's on its back, I can feel it rock back and forth. It's not a deal-breaker but it's ugly, and I find Samsung's handling of multiple rear cameras on the Galaxy S10 phones to be more pleasing.


The Pixel 4.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Pixel 4 performance and battery

Qualcomm's Snapdragon 855 processor powers the Pixel 4. Though it's not as advanced as the Snapdragon 855 Plus chipset (which is nearly identical but aims to improve mobile gaming and is in the OnePlus 7T, for example), it had no trouble with day-to-day tasks such as launching the camera, opening apps and captioning audio. The Pixel 4 also felt faster than the Pixel 3 at rendering Night Sight and Portrait photos and firing the front-facing camera's flash screen. In terms of benchmark results it's comparable to other Android phones. The OnePlus 7T pulled ahead of the Pixel 4 by a bit on every test, but the iPhone 11 edged out all. (Note: The Galaxy S10 Plus and S10E have the same processor. We were also unable to run 3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited on the OnePlus 7T.)

But there were a couple of times when I had to wait a beat or two after taking a portrait shot for the camera to activate its shutter button again. The body of the Pixel 4 also got warm quickly after I took the camera out for a spin for a half hour or so. It was unsettling, but performance didn't seem to be affected.

3DMark Slingshot Unlimited

Google Pixel 4 7,714Samsung Galaxy S10 Plus 7,818OnePlus 7T 8,678Apple iPhone 11 10,505
Note: Longer bars indicate better performance

3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited

Google Pixel 4 74,684Samsung Galaxy S10 Plus 57,320OnePlus 7T N/AApple iPhone 11 97,199
Note: Longer bars indicate better performance

Geekbench v.5.0 single-core

Google Pixel 4 713Samsung Galaxy S10E 716OnePlus 7T 787Apple iPhone 11 1,338
Note: Longer bars indicate better performance

Geekbench v.5.0 multicore

Google Pixel 4 2,462Samsung Galaxy S10E 2,518OnePlus 7T 2,879Apple iPhone 11 3,436
Note: Longer bars indicate better performance

As for the battery, anecdotally the Pixel 4 lasted a workday without a charge. But the battery drains notably faster than other premium phones I've handled recently. After using the phone all day with medium to high usage, for example, I was at less than 50%, and one time I noticed the battery had drained just from being on standby for 30 minutes. 

During our battery tests for continuous video playback in Airplane mode, the Pixel 4 averaged only 10 hours. Considering that the Pixel 3 lasted 15 hours last year, the iPhone 11 lasted roughly 15.5 hours and the Note 10 lasted a whopping 18 hours, this is mediocre in comparison.

Pixel 4 vs. the competition

Pixel 4 vs. Pixel 3: Deeply discounted at $500, the Pixel 3 has many things the Pixel 4 has, for a lot less, including prompt software updates (such as to Android 10), water resistance and a camera that still holds up in 2019. In addition, if you buy a Pixel 3 you'll get unlimited photo storage at original quality until Jan. 31, 2022.

Pixel 4 vs. Galaxy S10 and Note 10: With their stylish design, great cameras and monster battery life, the Galaxy S10 and Note 10 are two solid alternatives to the Pixel 4. At $900 and $949, respectively, they may start out more expensive than the Pixel 4. But they have more storage, bilateral charging and, in the case of the Note 10, a smart S Pen inside. 

Pixel 4 vs. OnePlus 7T: Like the Pixel 3, the OnePlus 7T runs Android 10 out of the box and has a springy 90Hz display. It also has three rear cameras (a telephoto and a wide) that can take great night shots and excellent battery life (over 16 hours in our tests). But the true kicker is that it only costs $599 -- and that's with 128GB of storage.

Pixel 4 vs. iPhone 11: If you're OS-agnostic, the Pixel 4 and iPhone 11 both offer great dual cameras (and unseemly camera bumps!), wireless charging and face unlocking. The iPhone 11, however, is cheaper and there's a 256GB model if you're interested in having even more storage. 

Pixel 4 vs. other phones

Google Pixel 4Samsung Galaxy S10OnePlus 7TGoogle Pixel 3iPhone 11
Display size, resolution 5.7-inch OLED6.1-inch AMOLED; 3,040x1,440 pixels6.55-inch AMOLED; 2,400x1,080 pixels5.5-inch OLED; 2,280x1,080 pixels6.1-inch LCD Liquid Retina; 1,792x828 pixels
Pixel density 444ppi550ppi402ppi443ppi326ppi
Dimensions (inches) 2.7x5.7x0.3 in5.9x2.77x0.31 in6.34x2.93x0.32 in5.7x2.7x0.3 in5.94x2.98x0.33 in
Dimensions (millimeters) 68.8x147.1x8.2 mm149.9x70.4x7.8 mm160.94x74.44x8.13 mm145.6x68.2x7.9 mm150.9x75.7x8.3 mm
Weight (ounces, grams) 5.7 oz; 162g5.53 oz.; 157g6.70 oz; 190g5.2oz; 148g6.84 oz; 194g
Mobile software Android 10Android 9 with Samsung One UIAndroid 10 with OxygenOSAndroid 9 PieiOS 13
Camera 12.2-megapixel (standard), 16-megapixel (telephoto) 12-megapixel (wide-angle), 16-megapixel (ultrawide-angle), 12-megapixel (telephoto)48-megapixel (standard), 12-megapixel (telephoto), 16-megapixel (ultrawide-angle)12.2-megapixel12-megapixel (wide), 12-megapixel (ultrawide)
Front-facing camera 8-megapixel10-megapixel16-megapixel8-megapixel (standard), 8-megapixel (wide)12-megapixel
Video capture 4K4K4K4K4K
Processor 2.84GHz octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 855Octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 8552.96GHz octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 855+Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 (2.5GHz + 1.6GHz octa-core)Apple A13 Bionic
Storage 64GB, 128GB128GB, 512GB128GB64GB, 128GB64GB, 128GB, 256GB
RAM 6GB8GB8GB4GBNot disclosed
Expandable storage NoUp to 512GBNoNo No
Battery 2,800-mAh3,400-mAh3,800-mAh2,915-mAhNot disclosed, but Apple says it will last 1 hour longer than iPhone XR
Fingerprint sensor NoIn-screenIn-screenBack coverNo
Connector USB-CUSB-CUSB-CUSB-CLightning
Headphone jack NoYesNoNoNo
Special features Soli motion sensing and touchless gestures; 90Hz display; water-resistant (IP68); dual-SIM capabilities (nano-SIM and e-SIM); wireless chargingWireless PowerShare; hole punch screen notch; water-resistant (IP68); Fast Wireless Charging 2.090Hz display; dual-SIM; Warp Charge 30TWater-resistant (IPX8); wireless charging support; Pixel Buds USB-C headphones in the boxWater-resistant (IP68); dual-SIM capabilities (nano-SIM and e-SIM); wireless charging
Price off-contract (USD) $799 (64GB), $899 (128GB)$900$599$799 (64GB), $899 (128GB)$699 (64GB), $749 (128GB), $849 (256GB)
Price (GBP) £669 (64GB), £769 (128GB)£799Converted: About £485£739 (64GB), £839 (128GB)£729 (64GB), £779 (128GB), £879 (256GB)
Price (AUD) AU$1,049 (64GB), AU$1,199 (128GB)AU$1,349Converted: About AU$890AU$1,199 (64GB), AU$1,349 (128GB) AU$1,199 (64GB), AU$1,279 (128GB), AU$1,449 (256GB)

First published on Oct. 21, 2019.  


Google Pixel 4

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 8Performance 8Camera 9