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

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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 ($847 at Walmart) 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 gestures for navigation 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 live transcribes 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 exactly what I said written out. It's not perfect but it gets about 95% of things right. It's also relatively fast and works offline. 

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Skipping a track with the 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 finishes of the iPhone 11 or Galaxy S10, it doesn't look as elegant. Instead, the Pixel 4's informality (like the pop of color in 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 to other phones its size. The phones are rated IP68 for water resistance.

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The Pixel 4 XL has thick bezels compared to 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 to 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 ($350 at Amazon) have a 90Hz and a 120Hz display, respectively. But by refreshing 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 eyes 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 (again, I did have the white variant so 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 the most pleasing.

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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 on 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. On paper, benchmarks results are 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 ($1,000 at Amazon) 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 Pixel 4 also warms up 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

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance

3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance

Geekbench v.5.0 single-core

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance

Geekbench v.5.0 multicore

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 about less than 50%, and once I noticed the battery drained just from being on standby for 30 minutes. 

During our battery tests for continuous video playback on 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 compared to others.

Pixel 4 vs. the competition

Pixel 4 vs. Pixel 3: Deeply discounted at $500, the Pixel 3 has many things the Pixel 4 has, at a lot less, including prompt software updates (including to Android 10), water resistance, and a camera that still holds its weight 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 or 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 an excellent battery life (over 16 hours in our tests). But the true kicker is that it only costs $599 -- and that's with 128GB.

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 4 Samsung Galaxy S10 OnePlus 7T Google Pixel 3 iPhone 11
Display size, resolution 5.7-inch OLED 6.1-inch AMOLED; 3,040x1,440 pixels 6.55-inch AMOLED; 2,400x1,080 pixels 5.5-inch OLED; 2,280x1,080 pixels 6.1-inch LCD Liquid Retina; 1,792x828 pixels
Pixel density 444ppi 550ppi 402ppi 443ppi 326ppi
Dimensions (Inches) 2.7x5.7x0.3 in 5.9x2.77x0.31 in 6.34x2.93x0.32 in 5.7x2.7x0.3 in 5.94x2.98x0.33 in
Dimensions (Millimeters) 68.8x147.1x8.2 mm 149.9x70.4x7.8 mm 160.94x74.44x8.13 mm 145.6x68.2x7.9 mm 150.9x75.7x8.3 mm
Weight (Ounces, Grams) 5.7 oz; 162g 5.53 oz.; 157g 6.70 oz; 190g 5.2oz; 148g 6.84 oz; 194g
Mobile software Android 10 Android 9 with Samsung One UI Android 10 with OxygenOS Android 9 Pie iOS 13
Camera 12.2-megapixel (standard), 16-megapixel (telephoto) 12-megapixel (wide-angle), 16-megapixel (ultra wide-angle), 12-megapixel (telephoto) 48-megapixel (standard), 12-megapixel (telephoto), 16-megapixel (ultra wide-angle) 12.2-megapixel 12-megapixel (wide), 12-megapixel (ultra-wide)
Front-facing camera 8-megapixel 10-megapixel 16-megapixel 8-megapixel (standard), 8-megapixel (wide) 12-megapixel
Video capture 4K 4K 4K 4K 4K
Processor 2.84GHz octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 Octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 2.96GHz octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 855+ Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 (2.5GHz + 1.6GHz octa-core) Apple A13 Bionic
Storage 64GB, 128GB 128GB, 512GB 128GB 64GB, 128GB 64GB, 128GB, 256GB
RAM 6GB 8GB 8GB 4GB Not disclosed
Expandable storage No Up to 512GB No No No
Battery 2,800-mAh 3,400-mAh 3,800-mAh 2,915-mAh Not disclosed, but Apple claims it will last 1 hour longer than iPhone XR
Fingerprint sensor No In-screen In-screen Back cover No
Connector USB-C USB-C USB-C USB-C Lightning
Headphone jack No Yes 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 Wireless PowerShare; hole punch screen notch; water resistant (IP68); Fast Wireless Charging 2.0 90Hz display; dual-SIM; Warp Charge 30T Water resistant (IPX8); wireless charging support; Pixel Buds USB-C headphones in the box Water 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) £799 Converted: About £485 £739 (64GB), £839 (128GB) £729 (64GB), £779 (128GB), £879 (256GB)
Price (AUD) AU$1,049 (64GB), AU$1,199 (128GB) AU$1,349 Converted: About AU$890 AU$1,199 (64GB), AU$1,349 (128GB) AU$1,199 (64GB), AU$1,279 (128GB), AU$1,449 (256GB)

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