Hands-on with Pixel 4 and 4 XL: Google's new phones only have minor differences
It's Google's turn to take the phone spotlight, and the Pixel 4 has improved cameras and a new design.
Patrick HollandManaging Editor
Patrick Holland has been a phone reviewer for CNET since 2016. He is a former theater director who occasionally makes short films. Patrick has an eye for photography and a passion for everything mobile. He is a colorful raconteur who will guide you through the ever-changing, fast-paced world of phones, especially the iPhone and iOS. He used to co-host CNET's I'm So Obsessed podcast and interviewed guests like Jeff Goldblum, Alfre Woodard, Stephen Merchant, Sam Jay, Edgar Wright and Roy Wood Jr.
Patrick's play The Cowboy is included in the Best American Short Plays 2011-12 anthology. He co-wrote and starred in the short film Baden Krunk that won the Best Wisconsin Short Film award at the Milwaukee Short Film Festival.
The Pixel 4 starts at $799 (£669) for a 64GB version and $899 (£829) for the Pixel 4 XL. Both are available in black, white or orange, which Google calls "Oh So Orange." In the US, you can upgrade either phone to 128GB for $100 more. Preorders are live and the phones ship starting Oct. 24. And for the first time, you can buy the Pixel 4 directly from all major US carriers.
Not a whole lot is different between Google's two newest phones: They both come in the same three colors, with the same "Smooth Display" (more below) and, most importantly, the same cameras. The Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL do differ on a handful of specs, namely the size and price. (Plus, here's how the Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL compare to last year's Pixel 3 phones.)
Price: The Pixel 4 XL is going to set you back $100 more than the Pixel 4. The phones start at $799 (£669, AU$1,049) and $899 (£829, AU$1,279), respectively, for the 64GB base model, up to $899 for the Pixel 4 and $999 for the Pixel 4 XL if you upgrade to the 128GB version.
Dimensions: The Pixel 4 XL is slightly bigger and heavier than the Pixel 4, measuring 6.3 by 2.9 inches to the Pixel 4's 5.7 by 2.7-inch body. (The two phones have the same 0.3-inch (8.2mm) depth.)
Weight: The Pixel 4 XL's larger size makes it a bit heavier at 6.81 ounces (193 grams), while the Pixel 4 weighs only 5.71 ounces (162 grams).
Display: The Pixel 4 features an FHD display with 444 pixels-per-inch density, and the Pixel 4 XL is higher definition, with a QHD display and a pixel density of 537 ppi. But again, both phones feature a 90Hz OLED Smooth Display.
Battery: The last big difference between the two phones is the battery. The Pixel 4 uses a 2,800-mAh battery (which is actually even lower capacity than its predecessor, the Pixel 3), while the Pixel 4 XL has a 3,700-mAh battery.
A new industrial design
The Pixel 4 comes with a new design and square camera element all belted in neatly around the sides by a slick-looking aluminum band. Good news: The Pixel 4 XL loses the
Pixel 3 XL
's ugly notch and instead has a forehead bezel that houses the selfie camera and face unlock sensors.
The new Pixels are just a millimeter or so bigger and a tad heavier than last year's
and 3 XL, giving the 4 and 4 XL a more robust feel than previous Google phones. There's Gorilla Glass 5 on the front and back, and the phones are rated IP68 for dust and water resistance. Both phones have a Snapdragon 855 processor, 6GB of RAM and wireless charging. On the bottom you'll find stereo speakers and a USB-C port.
Curiously, the batteries on the Pixel 4 and 4 XL are lower-capacity than the ones on the 3 and 3XL. Android 10 should help maximize the battery's efficiency, but I look forward to seeing how the phones handle in real life, especially with that high-refresh-rate screen.
Some of the biggest changes are on the front, with the Pixel 4's new 90Hz OLED Smooth Display. Like the
OnePlus 7 Pro
and last year's Asus ROG Phone, this screen refreshes 90 times a second, making graphics and animations look smooth and text appear sharp. For reference, the majority of phones sold today have a 60Hz display, including the latest phones from Apple and Samsung. I should note that
recently released the ROG Phone 2, which has an OLED screen with a 120Hz refresh rate, the first on any phone.
Depending on what content is onscreen, the Pixel 4 will automatically switch between refresh rates to best optimize performance and reduce battery drain. So if you're reading an email message, the display might drop down to a refresh rate of 60 times a second, but if you're scrolling through Instagram it might bump up to 90 times a second. You can keep the Pixel 4's display at a constant 90Hz if you choose.
The Pixel 4 has a 5.7-inch screen, which is larger than the 5.5-inch one found on the Pixel 3, while the Pixel 4 XL has a 6.3-inch display, the same size as last year's Pixel 3 XL.
The new displays also have a feature called Ambient EQ that adapts the screen's color temperature to make colors look more natural under different lighting situations. It's similar to Apple's True Tone displays on the iPhone and
. By the way, you can turn Ambient EQ on or off.
Pixel 4 and 4 XL: Industrially chic in glowing orange
But it's the feature located above the screen that's really impressive. It's called Motion Sense and it uses a mix of sensors, infrared and a tiny radar to let you unlock the Pixel 4 with your face. The Pixel 4 and 4L are the first Android phones with face unlock that's secure enough to be used for payments with Google Pay as well as with password apps. That's a good thing, because Google nixed the fingerprint scanner on the Pixel 4 and 4 XL.
When I demoed face unlock it was quite fast. Part of that speed comes from the fact that the phone's radar detects your hand as you reach for it and preps the infrared cameras to unlock. Motion Sense can also be used in other instances. If you're listening to Spotify, for example, you can swipe through the air above the Pixel to skip to the next track. Google also has live wallpapers that react to your hand motions. You can even swipe your hand through the air to dismiss a call or an alarm. In the demos I was shown, it worked consistently well.
The Pixel 4 has two rear cameras and can photograph stars
Perhaps the most obvious design change is to the rear cameras. (Here's what photos from the Pixel 4 camera look like.) And yes, that's cameras plural. All previous generations of the Pixel only had a single rear camera, but the Pixel 4 has two cameras nestled into its square camera array. The main camera is the same 12-megapixel one found on the Pixel 3 and has the same f/1.7 wide angle lens. The new f/2.4 "telephoto" camera has a 16-megapixel sensor and provides 2x optical zoom.
When I asked Google why it opted for a telephoto camera instead of the more trendy ultrawide-angle camera like ones found in the Galaxy S10 family and the new iPhones, a spokesperson said they thought that zooming in on a subject would be more important to Pixel owners.
When taking HDR Plus pictures, the Pixel 4 now shows a live preview of what the photo will look like before you take it. On the Pixel 3, you had to wait a second or so for the phone to process the data before seeing how your final image turned out. Google also added dual sliders that let you adjust highlights and shadows independently in the viewfinder preview instead of just the overall exposure.
Portrait mode photos are now created using both rear cameras. Google claims that this improves the cut and edge blur of subjects over previous Pixel phones. You now also have the option to take wide-angle portrait mode pics. All these improvements are powered by a new Neural Core chip that processes everything locally on the Pixel 4.
The dual selfie cameras of the Pixel 3 are gone, with Google opting for a single 8-megapixel camera with a wider default field of view. Video largely remains the same but now is capable of live real-time audio transcription that adds captions to your videos as you record them. In fact, Google launched its first audio recorder app built upon the same technology for instant audio transcription. Sorry. Otter.ai.
Google Assistant is better integrated throughout
There's a new version of Google Assistant that's better integrated throughout the phone. You can still trigger it by squeezing the sides of the phone or by saying, "Hey, Google," but you can also activate it by swiping up diagonally from one of the bottom corners of the phone. Google says that voice commands are improved and that the phones have better app control, contextual commands and sharing options.
Car crash detection with the Safety app
The Neural Core that powers the cameras is also used by the Pixel 4 to detect car crashes. The feature is part of the Safety app, which is currently only available in the US. If you've been in a serious car accident, car crash detection will automatically call 911. Google said that fender benders shouldn't trigger it.
Check back with CNET as we test the Pixel 4 and 4 XL for our upcoming in-depth review.
Pixel 4 specs vs. Pixel 4 XL, Pixel 3, Pixel 3 XL, OnePlus 7 Pro