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Google Pixel 4 and 4 XL hands-on: It's about more than just the camera

By Koh Wanzi - 16 Oct 2019

Google Pixel 4 and 4 XL hands-on: It's about more than just the camera

Google Pixel 4

New features that aren't just about the camera

Google today unveiled its latest Pixel smartphones, but they held few surprises for anybody. The Pixel 4 and 4 XL may be among the most-leaked devices in recent memory, and most of us probably knew most of what there was to know about the phone before the keynote even started. However, that's not to say that the Pixel 4 is boring or bad. Quite the contrary in fact – the Pixel 4 comes packed with a bunch of new technologies, making it perhaps the most exciting upgrade the Pixel line has gotten to date. 

When I say exciting, I mean this mostly from a technological standpoint. This isn't a phone that you're going to clamour after because of its looks. After all, bezels are back again, including a rather thick top bezel at that. But unlike last year's much-decried notch, there's a good reason for the bezel this time. It houses the cameras and sensors necessary for two of the new technologies I mentioned above, namely Face Unlock and radar technology based on Google's Project Soli.

The Face Unlock technology is similar to Apple's Face ID, relying on an IR flood emitter and dot projector, and it's secure enough to be used for payments and authentication purposes as well. In fact, it's the first Android smartphone to offer a Face Unlock feature this secure. And just like the iPhone, the Pixel 4 is also bidding goodbye to the fingerprint sensor.

Dubbed Motion Sense, the radar-based gesture sensing tech will also let you interact with the phone without ever touching it, so you can simply swipe to silence your alarm in the morning or navigate your playlist. Furthermore, it'll work even when you're not actively using the phone, so you can easily switch tracks even when you're at the always-on display. In a touch of whimsy, you can use this to play with one of five Pokémon that you can set as your wallpaper, including an adorable Pikachu. Wiggle a couple of fingers in the air to tickle them, or wave at them to elicit a similar greeting.

Google Pixel 4

Motion Sense seemed to work quite well for me, and there's a bright flowing line at the top of the screen that serves as a useful visual indicator for when your gestures are detected. However, for Motion Sense to work well, it also needs to know when to ignore unimportant gestures, such as when you pass a cup or some other object over your phone. It seems to do that by detecting the acceleration of your gestures and perhaps your fingers, and I was only able to swipe to the next track if I performed a fast, deliberate action instead of a slow, half-hearted wave. In the Settings menu, you'll also be able to choose if you want to skip to the next track by using a left-to-right or right-to-left movement, so you can pick whichever feels more natural to you. 

When it comes to silencing your alarm, the phone will start to quiet down as your hand approaches it –Google says this is more "polite" – before you muffle the alarm for good with a swipe.

Google Pixel 4

Google is hardly the first to enable gesture detection on a phone, but it is the first to do so with radar technology. It may also be the most reliable and accurate implementation of it yet, and I'm looking forward to seeing more use cases for it. The radar tech also means that the Pixel 4 has proximity detection capabilities built into it, so it can sense when you're approaching the phone and get the Face Unlock sensors ready to scan your face. This makes unlocking your phone quicker, and unlike on the iPhone, it sends you straight to your home screen without having to swipe up again. And if you walk away from the phone, Motion Sense will know and turn off the always-on display. 

I was told the proximity sensing is good for up to roughly 0.6m, and that you can gesture at the phone from up to 30cm high.

The other big new feature on the phone is the high refresh rate 90Hz Smooth Display. No doubt this is good news if you play a lot of games on your phone, since it helps everything feel slightly more fluid, but the 90Hz refresh rate comes into play when scrolling through web pages and menus as well. Granted, it's not a night-and-day difference from a regular 60Hz screen, and I wasn't immediately blown away when I picked up the phone. However, the differences may be small, but they're there if you care to look out for them in the form of ever so slightly sharper text while scrolling through the UI. 

Google Pixel 4

The Pixel 4 is also getting the Google version of Apple's True Tone display. Ambient EQ is supposed to dynamically change the screen colour temperature to match your surroundings, but I'll have to spend more time with the phone to say how well it works.

Finally, Google's next-generation Assistant, which it first unveiled at its I/O developer conference earlier this year, is coming to the Pixel 4. According to Google, the new Assistant is based on "completely new speech recognition and language understanding models", which enabled the company to reduce around 100GB worth of models in the cloud to less than half a gigabyte. Assistant now has a small enough footprint to run locally on your phone, which means it doesn't have to send your query to the cloud for processing. This means much faster processing with supposedly "near zero latency", which doesn't even require an internet connection.

Part of this is thanks to the new coprocessor called the Pixel Neural Core. The coprocessor also plays a role in Google's new Recorder app, which can transcribe speech in real-time without needing to send any data to the internet. It could be a good alternative to something like Otter, which I've previously relied on. 

On top of that, this next-gen Assistant has a better understanding of context, which should make it easier and more natural to issue commands to it. For example, if you ask to see pictures of New York, and then narrow the search down to Central Park, Assistant will understand that you're referring to pictures taken in Central Park in New York City, and not some other patch of greenery.


And now for the specs

Pixel 4 XL Just Black

Google's official spec sheet confirms the previously leaked specifications of the phone, including a Snapdragon 855 processor, 6GB of LPDDR4 RAM, and either 64GB or 128GB of storage. The Pixel 4 will have a 5.7-inch flexible OLED display, while the Pixel 4 XL bumps that up to 6.3 inches. Other features include stereo speakers, a USB-C port, and support for Qi wireless charging. Oddly enough, battery capacity on the Pixel 4 has taken a slight dip coming from the Pixel 3, but it has increased on the Pixel 4 XL. The Pixel 4 now has a 2,800mAh battery (2,915mAh on the Pixel 3) while the 4 XL has a 3,700mAh unit (3,430mAh on the Pixel 3 XL).

The phones are also sandwiched by Gorilla Glass 5 at the front and back and boast an IP68 rating for water and dust resistance. Unfortunately, the upgraded dual SIM capabilities that were rumoured haven't come to pass, and the Pixel 4 will support a nano SIM card and an eSIM.

Design-wise, the Pixel 4 looks quite different from last year's Pixel 3. The square camera bump is reminiscent of the iPhone 11 (even though it was really the Huawei Mate 20 that had it first), and Google has ditched its signature two-tone look in favour of solid-coloured backs. The Pixel 4 is available in three colours – Just Black, Clearly White, and a limited edition Oh so Orange – all of which are ringed by a striking black aluminum frame.

Google Pixel 4

In terms of build quality, the Pixel 4 feels really well made, and I particularly like the matte glass back on the Clearly White and Oh so Orange models. They also pair really well with the black frame, thanks to the contrasting colours. The contrasting power buttons make a return here as well, and they remain one of my favourite parts of the Pixel 4's design. Inexplicably though, the Just Black model has a glossy glass back, and it wasted no time picking up a ton of fingerprints from eager journalists on the demo floor. It just seems like a matte black back would have looked really nice, and I'm not sure why Google opted for a glossy finish here. 

Google Pixel 4

 

What about the camera?

Last but not least is the Pixel 4's camera. The Pixel series has a well-deserved reputation for having among the best, if not the best, smartphone cameras around, and Google will be hoping that that remains the case this year. 

The camera is getting a couple of big upgrades, most notably the addition of a second 16-megapixel telephoto lens with an f/2.4 aperture. This joins the 12.2-megapixel camera from last year, with both cameras offering a combination of optical and electronic image stabilisation. Google resisted adding a second camera for years, arguing that it could do the same with software what other companies needed two or more cameras to do, but I'm glad to see a meaningful hardware upgrade this year. The telephoto lens has been used to improve Google's Portrait Mode, where it's supposedly better at detecting tricky outlines comprised of hair or fur now. In addition, it's been used to enhance the Super Res Zoom feature first introduced on the Pixel 3, and Google now says you'll get a better quality image from zooming as opposed to cropping a full-resolution picture.

Google Pixel 4

But while Google added a camera at the back, it removed one from the front as well. The Pixel 4 now only has one 8-megapixel selfie camera, but it does have a wider 90° field-of-view so you won't miss last year's wide-angle lens too much. 

The camera app is getting dual-exposure sliders as well, which should help in scenes with challenging lighting by allowing you to separately manipulate the shadows and highlights. There's also white balance adjustments that rely on machine learning so whites in your pictures don't incorrectly show up as yellow or some other colour.

Google Pixel 4

The other significant upgrade is called Live HDR+, which lets you preview your picture in HDR in the viewfinder so you don't incorrectly change the exposure settings. Night Sight is getting better too, and Google is also adding a dedicated astrophotography mode for capturing stars on a clear night. With a four-minute total exposure time though, you'll want to bring a tripod along for that.

 

Price and Availability

Google Pixel 4

Prices start at US$799 for the Pixel 4 and US$899 for the Pixel 4 XL. Both phones are available for pre-order starting today, with shipping slated for 24 October. 

For those residing in Singapore, from 24 October you will be able to purchase the new Pixel devices through official retailers COURTS and Challenger as well as the Google Store. The phone will be available in three colours - Just Black, Clearly White and the limited edition Oh So Orange - and in two sizes at the following prices:-

  • S$1,119 for the 5.7-inch Pixel 4
  • S$1,319 for the 6.3-inch Pixel 4XL

The Pixel 4 devices will also be available exclusively through StarHub as the official launch telco partner from 26 October. Apparently, you can enjoy an extra 10GB of mobile data per month over two years when you sign-up with their mobile plans and free weekend data when you purchase it online. We'll be sure to update more details closer to the date of availability, including phone prices and any further promotional details.

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