Google Pixel 4 and 4 XL review: The biggest upgrade Google has delivered so far
Introduction & design
Note: This review was first published on 22 October 2019.
Wait, that kind of looks like an iPhone
The Pixel 4 and 4 XL contain some of the biggest upgrades that Google has made in a single year to its smartphones. And while the crowning glory of the Pixel series has always been its camera, the Pixel 4 serves up a platter of new features that don't have anything to do with taking pictures, including radar-based gesture sensing and Face ID-style Face Unlock.
The phone's design has also undergone quite an overhaul. One thing I keep hearing from people I've shown the phone to is how much the Pixel 4 resembles the iPhone 11. Google has ditched its signature two-tone back in favour of solid colours, and it also now has a square camera bump located in the top left corner, which – you guessed it – is exactly how this year's iPhone does it. The Clearly White and Oh So Orange models also have a matte glass finish, similar to the bottom half of the Pixel 3.
And as it has done in past years, Google isn't saving any extra features for the bigger XL model. Both the 5.7-inch Pixel 4 and 6.3-inch 4 XL have exactly the same features and camera setup, with the sole differences being screen size, resolution, and battery capacity. For simplicity's sake, I'll be referring to both phones collectively as the Pixel 4 in this review, but most of what I say will apply to the 4 XL as well.
The Pixel 4 does not look like the Pixel 3. In a time where we've gotten used to small, iterative updates to flagship phones, that statement is actually quite a surprising one to be able to make. The huge divisive notch from the Pixel 3 XL is gone now, replaced by good old bezels at the top and bottom. The top bezel is also a lot thicker – almost disproportionately so in fact – because it has to house all the fancy radar tech and sensors need to make Motion Sense and Face Unlock work (more on these two later in the review).
The distinctive two-tone design is gone too, replaced with solid black, white, or orange. The contrasting power buttons are staying though, and you get a white button on the Just Black model, a light orange on the Oh So Orange colour, and what actually looks like the same Oh So Orange shade on the Clearly White phone.
When I look at the Pixel 4, I see a device that places function over form. The Pixel 4 is not a stunner. No design accolades are going to come its way, and it doesn't offer some gorgeous iridescent colour like the Samsung Galaxy Note10. And because of the thick top bezel, the display doesn't feel as immersive as the edge-to-edge display on the Galaxy Note10 or even the OnePlus 7 Pro. There's also none of that fancy curved glass or "waterfall screen" that Oppo has been talking about – the Pixel 4's display is simple, utilitarian, and, well, flat.
I'm not complaining though. Curved edges may look nice, but they don't really serve any real purpose, and they make shopping for a good screen protector a real chore.
The phone is also sandwiched by Gorilla Glass 5 on the front and back. As I mentioned earlier, the Clearly White and Oh So Orange models have a matte finish, which actually feels quite nice in hand. More importantly, they're better at staying clean for longer, unlike the unfortunate Just Black colour, which, for some reason, has a glossy back. You'll be perpetually wiping fingerprints and grease stains off that one, unless you decide to slap a case on it.
That said, there may still be reason to opt for the glossy finish. One downside of the matte surface is that it's pretty slippery, so your Pixel 4 is a lot more likely to fly out of your hand. If you plan on using your phone naked, you might want to think twice about getting one of the matte colours if you're generally careless. In comparison, the glossy back offers much better grip.
The Pixel 4's frame is a matte black aluminum for all three colours. This goes quite well with Google's choice of colours this time around, and it provides a nice contrast with the brighter Clearly White and Oh So Orange models. The Just Black model is, well, just black all around, which you can't really go wrong with.
Having said all that, the Pixel 4 is not without its own charm. It may not have a cutting-edge pinhole camera or anything like that, but something about them just feels fun. The combination of the square camera module and the Oh So Orange (and possibly even Clear White) colour also gives the phone a pretty distinctive look, and I don't think it'd be mistaken for anything else.
Speaking of the camera module – or bump, really – I expect that it'll be a rather polarising aspect of the design. However, it's slightly less conspicuous than that on the iPhone 11 Pro, which shows off its trio of lenses very clearly (and is also the butt of a ton of memes). The lenses on the Pixel 4 show up more as tiny pinpricks, and the most obvious feature about the camera bump is probably the flash at the bottom. Nevertheless, I don't mind the bump at all, and I actually think it gives the phone more character.
Having said that, the way the camera bump rises sharply out of the back of the phone can be a cause for concern as it looks like it might snag onto things easily – like tables – if you are not careful. But seeing that the majority of people do get cases to protect their phones, I don't think it's that big of a problem.
When it comes to build quality, these feel like the best-made Pixels Google has put out so far. You no longer have to agonise over how the glass cutout at the back doesn't perfectly align with the fingerprint sensor. They're ever so slightly thicker and heavier than their predecessors, although that difference isn't really noticeable in hand. Being the smaller phone, the Pixel 4 also lends itself much more readily to one-handed use.
In addition, they are equipped with IP68 water- and dust-resistance and can stay submerged up to 2 metres under water for up to 30 minutes.
Button placement is the same on both the Pixel 4 and 4 XL. You get the power button and volume rocker on the right, nano SIM slot on the left, and the USB-C port at the bottom. And despite the Pixel 4's relatively meagre storage offering – it only offers up to 128GB of storage space where its rivals go up to 512GB – there is no option for expandable storage, and of course, no headphone jack.
At the time of writing, the 128GB Pixel 4 XL in Oh So Orange and Clearly White is already listed as out of stock on the local Google store, so there's clearly more demand for higher storage capacities. If Google wants to position the Pixel 4 as a flagship device in the running for 2019's best smartphone, it should really have offered bigger storage options or, at the very least, the option to increase storage via microSD cards.
To add insult to injury, the Pixel 4 isn't even coming with the usual free unlimited online storage for photos and videos at original quality. With the exception of the Pixel 3a, the ability to backup as many pictures as you want to Google Photos without having to compress them to FHD has always been a big perk of the Pixel line, but that's changing with the Pixel 4. So not only is the storage topping out at 128GB, but Google is also taking away your ability to store your pictures at original quality in the cloud for free, which means you'll have to think twice about deleting your pictures after backing them up if you want to preserve the original resolution.
That seems like a user-hostile move to me, and Google is unabashedly trying to push Pixel owners to pay for Google One, its new cloud storage service. The Pixel 4 will come with a free three-month trial for Google One, after which it'll cost S$2.79/month for 100GB of storage, a monthly fee that goes up to S$419.99/month for 30TB. To be fair, the starting tiers are pretty affordable, so most people who need full resolution cloud storage will probably be happy to pay. However, that doesn't change the fact that this used to be free for Pixel owners, and it's bound to leave a sour taste in the mouth for many.
A word about the accessories...
Normally, this wouldn't be worth mentioning, but the Pixel 4's included accessories, or lack thereof, needs some talking about. Here's what's not in the box – USB-C earphones and a USB-C to 3.5mm adaptor. What do you get? Well, just a USB-A to USB-C adaptor, the 18W charging brick, and a 1 metre USB-C to USB-C cable.
Some territories mandate that earphones be shipped with phones though, so the Pixel USB-C earbuds will be included with Pixel 4s sold in France and Australia. Everyone else is out of luck, however.
Clearly, Google is saying you should go wireless or go home. What's funny is that its new Pixel Buds don't even release till 2020, so Google is offering every other brand that makes wireless headphones a chance to cash in. Personally, I could do without the bundled earbuds since I use my own, and plenty of other people probably do as well. But the absence of the USB-C to 3.5mm adaptor is puzzling and makes it even more troublesome if you're upgrading from a phone that has a 3.5mm jack.
Luckily, Google isn't leaving customers completely out in the cold. It's offering S$200 in online store credits if you pre-order a Pixel 4 or 4 XL on the Google Store by 24 October, so you can easily pick up the necessary adaptor and a pair of earbuds from the Google Store.