Tech review: Google Pixel 4 scores for display and camera but battery life disappoints

Available in Singapore from Oct 24, the Pixel 4 come in two screen sizes, the 5.7-inch Pixel 4 and the 6.3-inch Pixel 4 XL. Except for the screen size and battery capacity, they are identical in every other way.
Available in Singapore from Oct 24, the Pixel 4 come in two screen sizes, the 5.7-inch Pixel 4 and the 6.3-inch Pixel 4 XL. Except for the screen size and battery capacity, they are identical in every other way.PHOTO: GOOGLE

Google continues to follow Apple's lead when designing its own Pixel 4 smartphones. Available in Singapore from Oct 24, they come in two screen sizes, the 5.7-inch Pixel 4 and the 6.3-inch Pixel 4 XL. Except for the screen size and battery capacity, they are identical in every other way.

Face unlock and motion gestures

Like recent iPhones, the Pixel 4 has built-in sensors above the display for facial recognition.

This face unlock feature replaces the fingerprint sensor, is as fast as Google claims and works in low light. Unfortunately, the Pixel 4 also mistook my younger brother's face for mine, which casts doubts over the security of the feature.

The current implementation also works when the user's eyes are closed, unlike the iPhone, raising concerns that the Pixel 4 can be unlocked while the user is asleep without his consent. Google has said it will add eye detection in a future update to ensure users are looking at the Pixel 4 during unlocking.

The lack of a fingerprint sensor also creates problems in third-party apps. Many Android apps only support biometric authentication for fingerprints. For instance, the DBS and UOB bank apps do not support face unlock yet. Google said several popular password manager apps support face unlock, with more apps in the works.

The Pixel 4's other new feature is Motion Sense, which can detect hand gestures for hands-free operation. Basically you have to flick your hand in a large sweeping gesture. A visual cue - a glowing strip at the top of the screen - lets you know that the feature is active.

It is not the first phone to support such air gestures - LG and Samsung have tried something similar in the past - but Google is the only one using a miniature radar located in the top bezel to do so.

At launch, Motion Sense is limited to skipping audio tracks in media apps like Spotify, silencing calls and snoozing alarms. What I found cool is that the gestures work even when the phone is showing the lockscreen or when the media app is in the background.

 
 
 
  • FOR

    Still has one of the best smartphone cameras in the market

    Display looks great and feels responsive

    Full-screen gesture navigation

    AGAINST

    Face unlock feature lacks app support and eye detection

    Motion sense feature limited in usefulness

    Battery life is poor for the Pixel 4 and average for the Pixel 4 XL

    Middling hardware specs for its price

  • Google Pixel 4

  • SPECS

    Price: $1,119 (64GB), $1,269 (128GB)

    Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 (Single-core 2.8GHz, triple-core 2.4GHz and quad-core 1.8GHz)

    Display: 5.7-inch P-Oled, 2,280 x 1,080 pixels, 444 ppi pixel density

    Operating system: Android 10

    Memory: 64/128GB, 6GB RAM

    Rear cameras: 12MP (f/1.7), 16MP telephoto (f/2.4)

    Front camera: 8MP (f/2.0)

    Battery: 2,800mAh

  • RATING

    Features: 4/5

    Design: 4/5

    Performance: 4.5/5

    Value for money: 3.5/5

    Battery life: 3/5

    Overall: 3.5/5

  • Google Pixel 4 XL

  • SPECS

    Price: $1,319 (64GB), $1,469 (128GB)

    Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 (Single-core 2.8GHz, triple-core 2.4GHz and quad-core 1.8GHz)

    Display: 6.3-inch P-Oled, 3,040 x 1,440 pixels, 537 ppi pixel density

    Operating system: Android 10

    Memory: 64/128GB, 6GB RAM

    Rear cameras: 12MP (f/1.7), 16MP telephoto (f/2.4)

    Front camera: 8MP (f/2.0)

    Battery: 3,700mAh

  • RATING

    Features: 4/5

    Design: 4/5

    Performance: 4.5/5

    Value for money: 3.5/5

    Battery life: 4/5

    Overall: 4/5

It is also used to sense the presence of people. This can be used to prepare the phone for face unlock, or to save power by turning off the always-on display when there is no one nearby.

On top of its limited usefulness, Motion Sense can be frustrating to use initially. In fact, I was so annoyed by failing repeatedly to snooze an alarm with my flailing hand that I was fully awake by the time I succeeded. But there is potential in this feature, if Google adds more functionality, like scrolling. If that happens, I can definitely see myself using it to browse the Web while eating fried chicken.

Dual cameras

Past Pixel phones took excellent photos despite having a single 12-megapixel (MP) camera. Google has upgraded this to two cameras by adding a 16MP telephoto rear camera (2x optical zoom with 8x digital zoom) for the Pixel 4, likely prompted by the camera improvements in other competing smartphones.

An ultra-wide camera, though, would arguably be more useful to mainstream users for group selfies and landscape photos. More so as Google already uses software to good effect in older Pixel phones for zooming. One could even say the Pixel 4's sizeable rear camera bump can accommodate three cameras like its rivals.

In any case, there is no ultra-wide camera. But Google has improved the Pixel 4's camera, such as by having dual exposure controls that let users adjust the highlights and shadows of a scene in the viewfinder before shooting. This feature is easy to understand and use for non-experts and can achieve artistic shots like having the subject in silhouette.

Night Sight remains very good for low-light photos, though it now has serious competition from other phones. Hence, Google has added an astrophotography feature that can take long exposure shots (up to four minutes long) of the night sky. I did not try this because of the lack of time to hunt a suitable location in Singapore that is dark enough. But the sample photos from Google look fantastic.

Google also improved the bokeh effect in Portrait mode while the auto white balance is now more accurate thanks to machine learning. Overall, the Pixel 4 maintains the series' excellent reputation for still photography.

Video recording, though, is another story. The Pixel 4 is still limited to shooting 4K videos at 30 frames per second, unlike rivals that can shoot 4K resolution at 60 frames per second. The Pixel 4's microphone is also not good at filtering out ambient noise.

Smooth but power-hungry display

The Pixel 4 has a smoother than usual display thanks to a higher 90Hz refresh rate. It feels very responsive, especially during navigation or scrolling. Viewing angles are excellent with minimal colour shift. The only downside is that it is not as bright as flagship models from Apple and Samsung, which affects legibility in direct sunlight.

This 90Hz screen, though, consumes more power than a standard 60Hz display. And yet Google has reduced the battery capacity of the Pixel 4 to 2,800mAh from 2,915mAh in the Pixel 3. Unsurprisingly, the Pixel 4 barely lasts an entire work day - you probably have to charge at least once in the middle of the day. In our usual video-loop test, the Pixel 4 lasted 9hr compared to 10hr 14mins for the Pixel 3.

With its larger 3,700mAh battery, the Pixel 4 XL has decent battery stamina. It clocked 11hr 18mins in the same video-loop test compared to 11hr 45 min for the Pixel 3 XL.

I was also disappointed that Google has kept with the paltry 64GB storage for the base model. It is insufficient for me, especially when it also lacks a microSD card slot. My review unit had 48GB of free space left after updating all the preloaded apps.

New Google Assistant

Instead of competing on hardware specs like other Android smartphone makers, the Pixel phones have focused on the software experience. The Pixel 4 has an improved Google Assistant that can better understand the context of your queries. The interface has also been revamped to take up less screen space. However, the new Google Assistant is currently available for English (US) only, with English (Singapore) support to be rolled out later.

Verdict

For mainstream users, Google's Pixel phones offer a clean Android experience with regular software updates and an excellent camera. The Pixel 4 continues this tradition, but its new features, while showing some potential, are hit and miss in their current state. Middling battery life as well as limited storage options also count against the Pixel when compared to other premium smartphones.