Google Pixel 4 and 4 XL review: The biggest upgrade Google has delivered so far
Display, audio & software
The Pixel 4 has gotten quite a nice upgrade on the display front, and Google has certainly come a long way from the blue shift issues that dogged the Pixel 2 XL. For starters, the Pixel 4 XL nabs DisplayMate's Best Smartphone Display Award, sharing the spotlight with the iPhone 11 Pro Max. DisplayMate also gave the Pixel 4 XL's display an A+ rating, the same as the OnePlus 7 Pro and Galaxy S10.
According to DisplayMate, the Pixel 4 XL's screen is also 10 per cent brighter than the Pixel 3 XL and has a much higher absolute colour accuracy and better power efficiency. These numbers aside, I can say that the display on both the Pixel 4 and 4 XL look very, very good. They're plenty bright, when you're indoors that is, and I seldom use them at maximum brightness. Things like text appear sharp and crisp, and colours are nice and vivid. Direct sunlight is another matter though, and it can still become a little difficult to view the display.
Like the Pixel 3, the Pixel 4 also has an Adaptive brightness toggle that can learn your preferences over time and adjust the screen brightness to fit the light around you. So if you tend to manually adjust the brightness to a certain level when you're at home, the phone will learn what you prefer and apply that in similar lighting conditions.
The Pixel 4 has three different colour profiles, including Natural, Boosted, and Adaptive. It ships in Adaptive mode by default, and I think this is the setting that most people will find the most pleasing. It's got the most vibrant colours compared to the other two, and I was happy to stick with the default setting.
The display is also one of the main differentiating factors between the Pixel 4 and its bigger sibling. Here's an overview of how they compare:
- Pixel 4: 5.7-inches, 2,280 x 1,080 pixels, 444ppi
- Pixel 4 XL: 6.3-inches, 3,040 x 1,440 pixels, 537ppi
Both phones are equipped with P-OLED panels, and the resolution has gone up slightly compared to the Pixel 3 devices. However, the most significant changes come in the form of the higher 90Hz refresh rate and Ambient EQ, which is Google's version of Apple's True Tone display.
The higher refresh rate consumes more battery, but it also makes scrolling through apps and articles on Chrome feel extra smooth. Furthermore, text remains slightly sharper while scrolling. Personally, I didn't think that the difference is super big coming from a 60Hz display, but some of my colleagues disagree. That said, it's definitely noticeable if you care to look for it, especially if you set the Pixel 4 down beside a phone with a lower refresh rate screen. Other than gaming-oriented phones like the ASUS ROG Phone II and Razer Phone 2, there still aren't many phones with 90Hz refresh rates or higher. Right now, your choices are mostly limited to the OnePlus 7 series phones and Oppo Reno Ace, in addition to other lesser known models.
Then there's Ambient EQ, which is supposed to dynamically change the screen colour temperature to match your surroundings. Google first introduced this feature on its Nest Hub, and it's now bringing it to its Pixel phones. In the few days that I've spent with the phone, it seems like the colour shift isn't as drastic as I've noticed on the iPhone's True Tone display, but it may be that I simply haven't had the chance to use the phone under the right lighting conditions. Still, colours are visibly warmer than what I was used to on the Pixel 3 XL, which appears cool in comparison.
Elsewhere, the Pixel 4 comes with HDR support and is UHDA-certified. However, while Google didn't specify HDR10 support, the Pixel 3 and 3 XL are listed on Netflix's website as supporting HDR10 playback. It stands to reason that the Pixel 4 and 4 XL would eventually be added to the list as well. In fact, they did make an appearance in September prior to being launched, although they ended up being removed later.
Finally, I also must mention the bezels, which are making a return this year with a vengeance. The bottom bezel is relatively slim, but the Pixel 4 has a significantly thicker "forehead". It's really not unlike that on the Pixel 2 XL, which came out in 2017. You'd be forgiven for thinking that the Pixel 4 looks a little dated when viewed from the front, especially considering that many of its rivals have long ditched bezels in favour of edge-to-edge screens punctuated by relatively slim notches, including some in the shape of a teardrop. And there's also the hole-punch camera, which makes for a really immersive user experience.
I can hardly say that I'm surprised by Google's approach though. The company has never been on the cutting-edge of design, often preferring to go for a functional look that simply works. At the very least, the top bezel isn't as gratuitous as the notch on the Pixel 3 XL. The latter didn't serve any real purpose, and the Pixel 3 had exactly the same front camera and sensor setup without the notch. But this time around, the bezel houses some serious hardware, including sensors and cameras for the radar-based Motion Sense feature and Face Unlock.
The picture below shows the camera and sensor layout, which clearly take up quite a bit of space. It probably wasn't possible to cram all that into a shorter notch, so Google's decision to go with a top bezel makes some sense.
So while the top bezel may not look the best, I can live with it since it serves a purpose. I'll also say that it wasn't as much of an eyesore as I was expecting it to be, and it certainly helps that everything else about the Pixel 4's display is pretty great. With the notch and its chunky status bar gone, the Pixel 4 can also display more of a certain web page than the Pixel 3 XL, and that's something I can definitely get behind.
The Pixel 4 comes with stereo speakers, comprising one at the top and a bottom-firing unit. There are two grilles on either side of the USB-C port, but the one on the left is just there for symmetry and doesn't actually put out any sound.
The speakers get plenty loud and you'll be able to fill a small room with them. However, there's noticeable sibilance and harshness at maximum volume, and I thought the sound tended to lack body. In other words, it's perfectly serviceable but if you care about audio fidelity, you'll want to invest in some wireless speakers.
One of the best things about the Pixel phones has always been the software. They ship with stock Android 10, which is Android as Google intended it to be, and also the latest and best version of Google's mobile OS. Pixel phones are the first in line to get the latest software updates and security patches, so that's one big advantage over other manufacturers who normally have to wait months for major OS updates.
Android 10 comes with several new features, most notably new navigation gestures, a native dark mode (or theme, as Google calls it), and more robust privacy protections.
The biggest user-facing change is probably the new gestures. It's the first thing you'll notice when firing up the phone, mostly because the usual buttons at the bottom are now gone, replaced by a simple white bar. That's similar to what you get on the iPhone, and many of Google's gestures remind me of how you navigate in iOS.
Here's a quick rundown of what you can do now:
- Swipe up from the bottom bar to go to the home screen
- Swipe in from either the left or right edge to go back
- Swipe up and hold down to go to the overview screen and see a horizontal pane of your recent apps
- Swipe toward the right on the white bar to switch to a recent app, and then to the left to go to older apps
- Swipe up from anywhere on the home screen to go to the app drawer
- Swipe up, or diagonally, from the bottom corners to access Google Assistant
The ability to swipe across the bottom bar to switch apps is particularly useful if you need to copy and paste text quickly between apps, among other things. The new gestures to go back are also good for one-handed use, and I was able to get used to it pretty quickly despite having used the back button for the longest time. Furthermore, the fact that it'll work from either side of the screen is great news for left-handers. However, this does introduce one problem with apps that have a side menu that you would normally swipe out from the left to access. This is the case with apps like Gmail, Google Maps, and even Discord. To get around this, you can of course just tap the hamburger menu, but you can also swipe up diagonally from the left to pull it out. A two-finger swipe out from the left works too, but I found this gesture unreliable and really hard to get right.
Overall, I like the new gestures and how the absence of the bottom navigation bar frees up more screen real estate. They were a breeze to adapt to, and I'm someone who tells iOS users that the worst thing about it is that it doesn't have a dedicated back button. Well, I stand corrected. If you get the Pixel 4, I'd definitely recommend giving the gesture navigation system a spin. But if you decide it's not for you, there's still the option to switch back to the old 3-button navigation system in the Settings menus.
The system-wide Dark Theme switches over the UI and select apps to Dark mode, but support at the moment is spotty at best. Apps like Google Drive, Files, Gmail, Calendar, Instagram, and the Play Store switch over to Dark Theme, but there are also glaring exceptions like Facebook and Maps. For some reason, I also had to manually enable Dark mode in the Messages app, despite having already enabled Dark Theme at the system level.
Elsewhere, Android 10 adds new limits on what apps have permission to do. The most visible change is a new option that pops up when you install and launch an app for the first time. Android 10 now prompts you to choose whether you want the app to be able to access your location at all times, or only when the app is in use, a similar approach to the iPhone. Before this, it was only a choice between giving location permissions or disallowing it entirely.
The last couple of features I want to talk about are Live Caption and the bundled Recorder app. These are part of Google's touted accessibility features, where Live Caption automatically creates captions for any audio or video playing on your phone. It'll work with the volume set to zero too, and could prove really useful for users who are hard of hearing. That said, I tried it out with a handful of YouTube videos, and while it was reasonably fast and accurate, YouTube's own closed captioning feature was faster and worked better. But that aside, Live Caption could still come in handy for videos that don't have their own subtitles. It's also easily accessible from the volume rocker, no fuss needed at all.
Finally, the Recorder app lets you record and transcribe speech in real time, even when there's no internet connectivity. It's a competitor to something like Otter, which I've relied on in the past. All the recording functionality happens on the phone itself, so you don't have to worry about sensitive conversations being sent to Google. It doesn't transcribe everything perfectly, but it was still spot on most of the time, and I can see this replacing Otter for me the next time I need to record an interview. In addition, you can easily export your transcriptions to Google Drive or search the text for key words.
Google's next-generation Assistant, which it first unveiled at its I/O developer conference earlier this year, is also 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 talk to the cloud to translate what you say to it. All speech-to-text processing happens on the Pixel 4, so you get much quicker responses, no internet connection required.
Part of this is thanks to the new coprocessor called the Pixel Neural Core, which also plays a role in Google's new Recorder app.
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 if your friend asks you what time your flight gets in, you can tell Assistant to look up your flight info and text it back to your friend.
Another new feature is Continued Conversations, which lets you have a conversation with Assistant without saying "Hey Google" before each question. It allows for much more natural interactions, and the microphone stays open for around 8 seconds after each question to check if you have anything more to add. A colourful, flowing bar at the bottom of the screen indicates that Assistant is still listening, but you can end the conversation sooner by tapping the bottom bar or saying "Thank you".
However, Singapore customers may have to jump through a few hoops to access this newer version of the Assistant. At the time of writing, you'll need to meet the following conditions on the Pixel 4:
- The Google app, version 10.73 and up
- Google Play services
- A Google Account that’s not through your work or school.
- The Assistant language set to "English - United States."
- Navigation mode set to Gesture navigation
The key point to note is the fourth one, which specifies that you need to set your Assistant language to US English. If you buy your Pixel 4 through local channels, it'll probably be set to "English - Singapore" by default, as it was on my review unit, so be sure to change that in the settings. This means you'll lose certain benefits of the localised Assistant, but if this XDA Developers article is anything to go by, the next-gen Assistant should be coming to Singapore eventually.
The new Assistant also has a couple of other quirky limitations. For some reason, it'll only work with the new Gesture navigation system, so you're out of luck if you want to go back to the old three-button layout. What's more, it doesn't work with G Suite accounts, a requirement which had me scratching my head for a while. I was wondering why I couldn't seem to get Continued Conversations working, but the second I removed my work account, I was prompted to download an update for Assistant the next time I launched it. Only then was I able to properly use the next-gen Assistant and take advantage of its speed improvements.