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

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MSRP: $799.00

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.

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8.2 Overall
  • Design 8
  • Features 8
  • Performance 9
  • Camera 9
  • Battery 7

Review Sections

With 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 just 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 -- 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 ($699 at Amazon), 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 is $150 cheaper at 128GB. 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 onboard.

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 ($699 at Amazon).

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 to 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 lives than the Pixel 4 too, and the Pixel 3 costs only $499, has a fantastic camera, and can update to Android 10. 

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

Originally published Oct. 21.
Update, Nov. 1: 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.

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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, known as 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 given that a phone can capture starlight at all. Check back with CNET, as we will more thoroughly test this in the coming days. Stars aside, the Pixel 4's low-light mode still impresses me each time I press the shutter.

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 super far away. Though zoomed images still showed digital artifacts, it was impressive how clear the objects 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 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.

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

Lynn La/CNET

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

Lynn La/CNET

Taking a photo of stars with the Pixel 4's new astrophotography feature.

Juan Garzon/CNET

Zooming in on a crane with the phone's 8x digital zoom.

Lynn La/CNET

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 after to use my phone. It's all just one fluent, cohesive process.

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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. (There are much more serious scenarios possible, but I can already imagine my friends being able to fool around with my phone if I'm caught napping around them.) 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 immediately reply to a request for comment but has promised to fix the problem with a patch.)

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