Dear Google: We expect these Pixel 4 upgrades if you want to compete with Apple and Samsung

These six things are on pretty much on everyone’s phone wish list, so Google better step up to the plate.

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
6 min read

The Pixel 3 from 2018.

Sarah Tew/CNET

At the Oct. 15 Made by Google event, Google will officially unveil the Pixel 4 and 4 XL. This is Google's opportunity to step up to the plate, especially since competitors like Apple took the wraps off its iPhone 11, 11 Pro and 11 Pro Max phones for 2019, and Samsung is well underway selling its gazillion versions of the Galaxy S10 and Note 10 Plus phones. Samsung recently relaunched its novel Galaxy Fold phone as well.

Because the Pixel 4 will serve as Google's ultimate take on its Android OS, which is also the most popular OS in the world, the phone must stand above its rivals. But competition is fierce -- the iPhone 11 has a superb camera with a new ultrawide-angle lens and the S10 is packed with useful features like a long battery life and bilaterial charging. 

Knowing all we know about the iPhone 11 and the Galaxy S10 phones, as well as the information that Google released about the Pixel 4 ahead of its launch, we have a better idea of what the company needs to do for its next flagship to remain competitive and stay ahead of the curve. These are the features the Pixel 4 has to have to be a hit.

Read more: Our Google event wish list: Upgrades to Nest, Google Home Mini

Watch this: Google spills the beans on the Pixel 4

Better Night Sight

One of the most compelling Pixel 3 features is its Night Sight mode. At the time, the camera mode felt a bit like magic -- it was able to brighten and take clear photos of some of the dimmest and darkest scenes I tested. 

While it remains impressive, other phone makers have started to catch up since then. (Their secret? Something called computational photography.) The OnePlus 7 Pro has its own Nightscape mode that, at times, captures low-light images better than the Pixel. Apple also jumped into the game, adding Night Mode to its trio of iPhone 11 phones. While we haven't compared it with the Pixel 3 side by side, the iPhone 11's Night Mode takes impressive photos so far. If Google doesn't improve Night Sight, it'll become part of the status quo instead of the bleeding edge. We know from Google's official images that the Pixel 4 will have multiple rear cameras, so perhaps the new setup will improve Night Sight even more.

Pixel 3's Night Sight brightens tough low-light scenes

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Better video recording

As mentioned above, we love how the Pixel 3 handles photos, and it's the best all-around camera for stills. But when it comes to video, the Pixel is lacking. During our video shootouts between the Pixel 3 and the iPhone XR and XS, Apple's iPhones beat it, hands down.

In low light, the Pixel 3 didn't maintain focus as well, and its transitions between different lighting exposures weren't as smooth. That means videos shot in the dark, say at a bar or at a concert, look much better on the iPhone. The Pixel 3's fused video stabilization system can look surreal and dronelike, which isn't a huge problem exactly, but the slight Jell-O-like effect whenever the camera moves can look unnatural. 

For slow-motion recording, the Pixel 3 can only film in 720p and it records 4K video at 30fps. The iPhones, however, can record slow motion in 1080p (so video is sharper) and 4K video at 60fps (which is smoother). And while all three phones record in stereo, we found the audio on the two iPhones was richer and fuller.

If the Pixel 4 wants to remain competitive against the iPhone, it needs to raise its own bar for video recording. This means it has to improve audio quality, low-light recording and bump up its resolution and frame rate options.

Read more:

Compare these Pixel 3 and iPhone XS photos

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More storage, please

Google offers unlimited Google Photos storage at original resolutions for Pixel owners, but the Pixel 4 should still come with more internal storage. Last year's Pixel phones only came in 64GB and 128GB capacities, with no option to expand. In an era where there are so many popular graphics-intensive games and apps and people are taking tons of photos and recording videos (at times in 4K!), having more onboard memory isn't just a good perk, it's becoming a necessity. Especially since not everyone is comfortable saving their content to a digital cloud.


The Pixel 3.

Angela Lang/CNET

The Pixel 4 isn't the only phone that could benefit from this. CNET staff writer Eli Blumenthal believes that Apple should do away with a 64GB base model iPhone altogether: "Not only is 128GB now the standard among iPhone 11 and 11 Pro rivals like the Samsung Galaxy S10 and Note 10 lines or the OnePlus 7 Pro, but the higher capacity has become the baseline for cheaper midrange devices. Motorola's new One Zoom, which retails for $450, starts at 128GB."

If Google wants to stay ahead of Apple and be as competitive as Samsung, OnePlus and Motorola, it needs to either bump up the Pixel 4's storage or add expandable memory.

Secure 'Face ID' 

Despite Google's touting the Pixel 4's facial recognition tool in a promo ad (the same ad also previewed gesture controls, powered by its Soli radar technology), we don't know much about what the feature is capable of. But if Google wants to compete with Apple's Face ID, the feature needs to be private and secure. That's because Face ID can authorize digital payments, which isn't very common despite the fact that many Android phones do have some form of facial scanning. We hope that in addition to unlocking your phone's homescreen, Google's face unlock is secure enough to be used for payments as well.


Facial recognition on the Pixel 4.


Long battery life to compete with Galaxy S10

Last year's Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL lasted an average of 15 hours and about 16 hours and 49 minutes, respectively, in our battery tests for continuous video playback in Airplane mode. While those are objectively great numbers and both phones can survive a whole workday without a charge no problem, Galaxy phones often outpace their rivals in terms of battery life.

This time around, the Galaxy S10 and Galaxy S10 Plus clocked in at 18 and 21 hours, respectively. All that juice is useful when you're running around using your phone all day without a charger -- and it also comes in handy when the Galaxy phones charge other accessories directly. We're not saying the Pixel 4 has to have bilateral charging, but having fantastic battery life would make it even more competitive.

Read more: Phones with the best battery life

Cheaper price or competitive trade-in policies

At launch, the Pixel 3 started at $799, £739 and AU$1,199 and the Pixel 3 XL cost $899, £869 and AU$1,349. If Google prices it similarly, the Pixel 4 will be cheaper than the $999 iPhone 11 Pro and the $900 Galaxy S10. However, both Apple and Samsung now have phones in the same family that are cheaper: The iPhone 11 is $699 and the Galaxy S10E is $750.

Google does have a midrange line, which launched this year. The Pixel 3A costs $399 and the 3 XL is $479 -- much lower than all the aforementioned phones. But if people want something new and affordable, it's rough of Google to make us wait for the (presumed) Pixel 4A all the way until next year. A better strategy would be to make the Pixel 4 more affordable to begin with.

If that's not possible, then an aggressive trade-in policy with its online store and carrier partners is a viable solution. In addition to the various discounts and gift card promos for the iPhone 11 that are available, US carrier T-Mobile, for example, is offering half off the iPhone 11 to current customers. Verizon customers can save up to $700 with a trade-in and Apple is offering up to $600 if you hand in an older device.

Google does have a trade-in program for Pixel phones, but the most you can get back is $400. If that weren't enough, rival phone maker Samsung offerd the full amount of money back if you trade in a Pixel for a Galaxy. Yikes.

Pixel 3 struts a polished and compact design

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