The Pixel 4 could be a breakout hit for Google

Daniel Howley
Technology Editor

Google's (GOOGGOOGL$799 Pixel 4 and $899 Pixel 4 XL smartphones hit store shelves Oct. 24, and when they do they'll be going toe-to-toe with Apple's (AAPL$699 iPhone 11 and Samsung's $749 Galaxy S10. And like its competitors, Google is putting much of the focus on its new phones' photography chops with a slew of new features.

To be sure, the Pixel has never been a volume seller for Google. The company doesn't even break out its hardware sales in its quarterly earnings report. Instead, it falls under "Other revenue" and is lumped in with app sales and Google Cloud subscriptions.

But with the company's decision to finally bring its phones to all of the major U.S. carriers rather than relying solely on Verizon, Google could finally have a breakout hit on its hands.

Pixel 4 cameras

The biggest improvements to the 5.7-inch Pixel 4 and 6.3-inch Pixel 4 XL come in the form of their new wide-angle and telephoto cameras. Yes, Google has finally added a second camera to its phone and both are fantastic.

Once again, Google is touting its computational photography capabilities, which is a fancy way of saying there's a lot of machine learning and software magic going on behind the scenes that enhances your shots.

The Pixel 4 is a fantastic Android smartphone, despite some small flaws. (Image: Daniel Howley)

The company has brought back its Super Res Zoom, which takes multiple shots when zoomed in on a subject and combines them to improve clarity and cut down on that grainy pixelation you get when using software zoom on a phone. In my testing, the feature allowed the Pixel 4 to pull off impressive shots while zoomed in to 10x. Compared to the iPhone 11 Pro's shots, the Pixel 4's were clearer and offered more detail.

New to the Pixel 4 is Google's dual exposure control, which lets you adjust both an image's brightness and shadows in real-time. As a result, you can pull off some truly artistic shots, though it takes a bit of practice to figure out how to dial in the right level of light and dark. Google's improved white balance also helps ensure your photos' colors reflect real-world colors.

The Pixel 4 sports two cameras: a wide-angle option, and a telephoto lens. (Image: Daniel Howley)

In a demonstration, Google reps showed how snow can look blue when you take a photo of it, because of how it absorbs light. The white balance feature on the Pixel 4, however, corrects that, ensuring that snow looks pure white.

Finally, there's the return of Google's Night Sight. The standout feature from the Pixel 3, Night Sight put Google's Pixel line on the map as the best camera phone available. Apple has since caught up with its own low-light photo mode in the iPhone 11, but Google still has the edge.

A shot I took of a Halloween display using the low-light mode on the Pixel 4 and the iPhone 11 showed how the Pixel 4 is able to better brighten scenes that would otherwise appear too dark. Google even added the ability to use Night Sight for astrophotography, ensuring you can take pictures of the stars and galaxies by simply keeping the Pixel 4 stable on a tripod or even a rock and shooting in Night Sight mode. Apple showed off a similar feature during its iPhone 11 reveal.

Overall, I found the Pixel 4's camera tended to take darker photos than the iPhone 11. Both produced crisp images with sharp details, and vibrant colors, but the iPhone's pictures were a hair brighter overall.

This is all a bit of nitpicking, though, as both phones truly capture gorgeous photos. It really comes down to which brightness level you appreciate more between the two.

My main issue with the Pixel 4 is that it includes a telephoto camera rather than ultra-wide option. Apple's $699 iPhone 11 also has two cameras, but instead of a telephoto camera, it has a wide-angle camera and ultra-wide angle lens.

The iPhone's low-light shot is stunning, but the Pixel 4 pulls in just a bit more light. (Image: Daniel Howley)

Both the iPhone 11 Pro and Samsung's Galaxy S10, meanwhile, sport three lenses, a wide-angle camera, ultra-wide angle camera, and telephoto camera.

The Pixel 4's Night Sight feature is a true standout. (Image: Daniel Howley)

While it's good to see Google has finally added a second camera to its smartphone after claiming it could produce the same results as a second lens via software tricks, it's a letdown to see the company chose a 2x telephoto lens over an ultra-wide angle option.

Google says it did so because it believes the telephoto lens is more important. But after using the iPhone 11 Pro for weeks, including on a vacation during which I took hundreds of photos, I found myself using the 0.5x ultra-wide angle camera far more often than the telephoto camera. It's simply more practical for taking shots of things like buildings, artwork, groups of people, and more.

That said, the cameras that are on the Pixel 4 are among the best on the market right now.

Design and display

The Pixel 4 and 4 XL look exactly the same except for their size difference. Google is offering the phones in three different colors this time around: white, black, and orange, which is easily the best of the bunch.

Rather than the two-tone rear panel Google has included on its previous Pixel devices, the back of the Pixel 4 is one solid color. It's a nice departure, and makes the handset more appealing, but neither phone can top Apple or Samsung in the design department. Sure, the Pixel is a good-looking phone, but Apple and Samsung seemingly craft their devices to truly stand out, while Google's design aesthetic makes its devices simply blend in with the crowd.

Up front, the Pixel 4 gets a full-HD+ 5.7-inch OLED display, while the Pixel 4 XL gets a 6.3-inch QHD+ OLED panel. Both screens produce fantastic colors and offer sharp details, but it's their 90hz refresh rate that makes them stand out.

The refresh rate is how quickly the screen receives and displays new information. The faster the rate, the smoother movement on screen looks. At 90hz, the Pixel 4 and 4 XL's panels make it feel like you're swiping through apps on a true piece of glass, and makes other phones' displays feel slow by comparison.

Google Assistant and performance

While hardware is obviously important to a smartphone, Google is always keen to push its software bonafides, and that's no different with the Pixel 4. The company is specifically pointing to the impact of its Pixel Neural Core, which is capable of performing all sorts of AI wizardry.

Google says the Neural Core allows for more machine learning functionality. That's most on display with how the Google Assistant is now able to offer auto reply capabilities in the Android Messages app. Google Assistant is also smarter about working with apps, so you can now ask it to open Maps and search for Indian restaurants, and it'll be able to do just that.

Google has also made live captions available across Android, regardless of the app you're using. Any media you watch will automatically begin producing captions that are largely accurate and easy to follow.

The Pixel 4 has a built-in radar that can track your hand movements, but it seems more like a gimmick than a fully fleshed out feature. (Image: Daniel Howley)

The Neural Core is also what helps power the new Face Unlock feature on the Pixel 4. Like Apple's Face ID, Face Unlock uses a series of sensors and cameras to scan your face, ensuring no one else can unlock your phone. Google has even combined the feature with its built-in radar sensor to enable the phone to detect when your hand is moving to pick up your Pixel and prepare the cameras so that the phone will unlock the minute you look at it.

Face Unlock was certainly fast, but it also worked with my eyes closed, unlike Apple's Face ID. That means an especially nosey person could unlock your device while you're asleep, and you wouldn't know about it. Hopefully Google fixes this.

The Pixel 4's built-in radar isn’t just for Face Unlock. It also powers the phone's motion sensing technology. The feature, which feels more gimmiky than useful at this point, lets you do things like change songs in Spotify by waving your hand above the screen left or right. You can also interact with a special Pokemon wallpaper, which lets you pet and wave at Pikachu and other pocket monsters. I found the feature to be rather hit or miss in terms of recognizing my hand movements.

My Pixel 4 XL, which packs a 3,700 mAh battery, lasted throughout the day and into the night without needing a charge. After about 15 to 16 hours of heavy usage including streaming music, watching videos, scrolling Instagram, and receiving more notifications than seems possible, I finally had to plug the phone in.

Should you get it?

The Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL are fantastic smartphones with truly exceptional cameras; vibrant, smooth displays; and plenty of Google smarts built in. At $799 and $899, respectively, they're also considerably less expensive than rival flagship smartphones.

While I wish Google included an ultra-wide angle camera, it's certainly not a deal breaker that it doesn’t. I also hope that that Google addresses Face Unlock's ability to unlock the Pixel 4 even if a user's eyes are closed. It's just a little too unsafe for me.

Beyond that, the Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL once again prove that when it comes to making the ultimate Android smartphone, Google is king.

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