Google is one of only a handful of smartphone manufacturers still making flagship phones that aren’t ginormous beasts, with the new Pixel 4 the cheapest in a while that significantly undercuts the competition.
Priced at £669, the Pixel 4 is £70 cheaper than last year’s Pixel 3 and £60 cheaper than Apple’s iPhone 11. It’s also cheaper than its bigger sibling the £829 Pixel 4 XL. The concern is: which corners have been cut and do they matter?
The 5.7in FHD+ OLED display has the same 90Hz refresh rate as the larger 6.3in version on the Pixel 4 XL. It looks very similar too, with good viewing angles, inky blacks and bold colours and smooth experience thanks to that high refresh rate. But it’s not the brightest screen available, which makes it fine for most things but not quite as bright as I would like in direct sunlight.
There’s the same large forehead containing the sensors for Google’s new Face Unlock and Motion Sense systems. The sides are aluminium, but with a black textured coating, while the glass back is frosted with a texture similar to super-smooth skin. Buy the white or orange version and the contrasting colours make the Pixel 4 stand out.
Combined with its slender proportions of just 68.8mm wide and 162g, the Pixel 4 is one of the smallest, lightest and easiest of top-end smartphones to hold and use. It’s a joy to be able to easily use a smartphone one-handed again. For comparison, Apple’s £1,049 iPhone 11 Pro is currently the best smaller phone available, but it’s 71.4mm wide and 188g, while the £799 Samsung Galaxy S10 is 70.4mm wide and 157g.
Screen: 5.7in FHD+ OLED (90Hz, 444ppi)
Processor: octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 855
RAM: 6GB of RAM
Storage: 64 or 128GB
Operating system: Android 10
Camera: Dual rear cameras (12.2+16MP) with OIS, 8MP front-facing camera
Connectivity: LTE, wifi 5, NFC, eSIM, Bluetooth 5, GPS, 3D face recognition
Dimensions: 68.8 x 147.1 x 8.2mm
Awful battery life
The Pixel 4 has the same 6GB of RAM, 64GB of storage and one of Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 as the Pixel 4 XL and performs identically – fast and fluid, but not quite as speedy as the OnePlus 7T.
Battery life was really poor. The Pixel 4 only lasts just over 14 hours between charges. Remove it from the charger at 7am and it will be dead by 9pm. Turning off the bells and whistles such as the ambient display only added about 40 minutes to the battery life. Anything under 24 hours simply is not good enough, particularly given I didn’t play any games or do anything particularly battery-draining.
That was while using it as my primary device, with 200 or so emails, messages and push notifications, two hours of browsing in Chrome, four hours of Spotify via Bluetooth headphones, 40 minutes of Into the Badlands from Amazon Prime Video, and three photos.
For comparison, similarly sized iPhone 11 Pro lasts 32 hours and the Pixel 4 XL lasts 26 hours under similar conditions, while the majority of smartphones in 2019 can last at least 24 hours with heavy usage.
The Pixel 4 fast charges at up to 18W via any USB-C Power Delivery charger, of which one is included in the box, and wirelessly charges at up to 11W. A full charge via cable took 105 minutes hitting 70% in 45 minutes.
The Pixel 4 is one of the first smartphones to ship with the latest version of Android 10, complete with system-wide dark mode, full theming support for changing colours, icon shapes, typefaces and more, and vastly improved gesture navigation. At least three years of software updates from the phone’s release are included and it will get Android version updates before most other devices.
The Pixel 4 also has the same new on-device natural language processing that was so impressive on the larger Pixel 4 XL. Google Assistant is much faster and works without an internet connection for many tasks. Google’s voice transcription app is equally excellent, as is the Live Caption feature.
The new Assistant still doesn’t work with Google’s own commercial G Suite accounts though, which is a bit of a blunder. Google says it’s still working on a fix.
Motion Sense uses radar to track motions around the phone. It lights up the ambient screen when you’re within 60cm, will silence calls or snooze alarms when you reach for the phone, and skip music tracks when you swipe in mid-air above it. The technology is more impressive than the functionality currently.
Google has dumped the fingerprint scanner for its new Face Unlock using 3D face recognition technology similar to Apple’s Face ID.
It’s seriously fast and worked through polarised sunglasses just fine. Look at the phone and it’ll unlock, skipping the lockscreen and taking you straight back into the last thing you were doing. Although technically you don’t need to actually look at it, as it’ll unlock with your eyes closed, which might be a problem for some. Google says it’ll add the option to require attention at a later date.
The biggest issue is that most third-party apps do not recognise Face Unlock, meaning without a fingerprint scanner they just assume the Pixel 4 doesn’t have a biometric input forcing you back to entering pins or passwords, which is tedious.
To use Face Unlock developers need to update their apps to support the new unified biometric system built into Android, with only a small handful having done so currently. For those that have done, such as LastPass, using Face Unlock is a seamless experience – just as Face ID is on an iPhone.
Given Monzo is saying it will take a while to implement, you can probably forget your traditional banking apps working soon.
Google has made a name for itself with some of the best smartphone cameras on the market, and the new dual-camera system on the back of the Pixel 4 is no different. It’s the same camera as that fitted to the Pixel 4 XL and performs the same.
That is to say it has fantastic still image quality, even in very difficult lighting conditions. Google is still the market leader with its Night Sight ultra-low light mode, but others have caught up considerably. New for this year is the ability to independently adjust the brightness of the background and foreground, which works very well. Portrait mode is improved, as is the up to 8x zoom thanks to the extra camera on the back. The selfie camera is relatively wide angle and pretty good, too.
Not so good is video capture, which caps out at 4K at 30 frames per second, not the 60fps rivals manage.
If you have your phone by your bed at night the ambient screen never shuts off because you’re typically within the Motion Sense bubble all the time
There’s a new Pokemon live wallpaper where you can wave at or pet Pikachu and others using Motion Sense
You only get free “high quality” image and video backup in Google Photos, not the full, original size backup that was included for three years with previous Pixel phones
The Google Pixel 4 costs £669 ($799) with 64GB or £769 ($899) with 128GB of storage.
For comparison, the smaller Google Pixel 4 XL costs £829 ($899), the OnePlus 7T costs £549, the Samsung Galaxy S10 costs £799, the iPhone 11 costs £729 and the iPhone 11 Pro costs £1,049.
The Google Pixel 4 is a potentially great phone hampered by really poor battery life. It doesn’t really matter how good you make a phone if it dies before the day is out.
And that’s a real shame as there aren’t that many manufacturers making fully-featured flagship smartphones in smaller sizes.
The screen is good and big enough. The camera is amazing. Motion Sense is novel and Face Unlock is seriously fast. The on-device natural language understanding is next level and Google’s software magic is thoroughly impressive.
But the Pixel 4 suffers from the same issues with G Suite, limited scenarios in which the screen works at 90Hz, lack of third-party app support for Face Unlock and no gaze-requirement for unlocking the phone as the Pixel 4 XL.
Even a comparatively lower cost of £669 isn’t enough to save the Pixel 4. If only Google had given it a bigger battery the Pixel 4 could have been one of the best smartphones on the market. Instead this feels like Google’s iPhone 7 moment – a great phone ruined by terrible battery life.
Pros: amazing on-device natural language processing, next-generation Google Assistant, brilliant camera, Face unlock, Google Recorder app, Android 10 + fast updates, 90Hz screen
Cons: terrible battery life, poor third-party app support for Face unlock, Face unlock needs eyes-open fix, Google Assistant needs G Suite fix
Best smartphone 2019: iPhone, OnePlus, Samsung and Huawei compared and ranked
Fairphone 3 review: the most ethical and repairable phone you can buy