Pixel 4 Reviews: A(nother) Google Fail?

I used to be a big fan of the Nexus line of Google phones.

They were fairly middle-of-the-road in terms of specs, but they were also (until the Nexus 6, at least) also middle-of-the-road in terms of price.

Most importantly (to me), though, they were missing all the bloatware that phone OEMs and carriers would regularly install on other phones. I remember loving the form factor and stylus features of the Note 2 I had many years ago, but I was constantly annoyed by the many Samsung apps that were permanently installed on the phone. So annoyed, in fact, that instead of upgrading to a new Note, I jumped ship to the Nexus 5 (and then the defective 6P).

All that is to say that when Google killed the Nexus line and moved their phones under the Pixel hardware umbrella, there were two things that should have happened:

  1. The hardware and software quality should get much better.
  2. The prices should go way up.

Judging by the reviews of Google’s latest Pixel phone, the Pixel 4 (and Pixel 4 XL), only one of those things has happened. At least according to two sites that I trust most regarding Android hardware reviews.

AnandTech – Hardware Deep Dive

Anandtech has the most intense deep dives into the hardware that I’ve found. The reviews are long, and there’s quite a bit of it that I don’t understand, but they are incredibly thorough from a hardware perspective.

Their take on the Pixel 4 hardware has been echoed by many:

Overall, the Pixel 4 frankly feels more like a device that would have been extremely successful if it had been released in 2018.

The hardware problems are many and varied, and Anandtech goes over just about all of them.

The display is average:

The display panel itself is good, although it’s definitely not an “A+ grade” as Google wants to promote it as.

The camera is good, like all Pixel phones in the past:

The camera on the Pixel 4 is inarguably its main selling point. Google has made definitive improvements to the camera quality with the newer generation sensor and the new HDR+ algorithm…

But even that comes with caveats:

…I have a hard time actually really differentiating the Pixel cameras to what other vendors are offering. Google has some edges here and there in the processing, but sometimes also falls behind. Generally, I feel that Google hasn’t caught up with Samsung, Huawei and Apple in the capture experience.

Since the camera has been a primary selling point of Pixel phones, this is a big hit. It’s also worth noting that Google has both ended the free, full-quality photo storage for the Pixel 4 and kept the base storage size at 64GB (there’s also a 128 GB for $100 more). Additionally, video recording has not kept up with the competition:

Video recording on the Pixel 4 is a relatively simple topic as Google hasn’t changed much to the formula other than the inclusion of the new telephoto module. Even this one addition isn’t quite fully supported by the cameras as Google’s 60fps recording mode is only available for the main camera sensor. Another omission, is the lack of a 4K60 recording mode.

While the Motion Sense provided by Project Soli is an interesting idea, it isn’t really encouraging either:

Project Soli, other than facillitating the face unlock function response time, feels like a gimmick…Google’s promotional videos of Project Soli certainly aren’t representative of how it’s implemented in the Pixel 4, and its uses are extremely limited.

The biggest negative, though, arguably the most important part of any smartphone – the battery:

Finally, the biggest draw-back of the Pixel 4 series in our testing was the battery life…In our testing with the 4 XL, the absolute end results are still somewhat adequate and the phone is still useable, but it just doesn’t compete with any other 2019 flagship. The regular Pixel 4 is likely a disaster.

Ars Technica – Software Masking Compromises

Ars Technica strikes a nice balance between looking at both the hardware, software and how they work together (arguably the most important consideration)

Ron Amadeo writes most of Ars’ Android reviews, and I’m a fan of his work. He has a firm love of Android but is willing to call out poor choices by Google, and he pulls no punches here.

Just the title of the review: Google Pixel 4 review—Overpriced, uncompetitive, and out of touch tells you how it’s going to go.

Ron is critical of both the hardware and software, but his overall thesis is brutal, considering the historical positioning of Google’s Pixel line:

This year, the Pixel 4 feels like a bunch of software decisions designed to prop up hardware that has been cost-cut to death.

While you can lament Apple’s very expensive phones (and many have), I don’t know many reviews that have complained of the hardware quality having the impression of cost-cutting. Certainly, Apple makes a handsome profit on every phone sold, but the impression for (most) users is that you get what you pay for. If Google’s top-of-the-line phone feels like it’s cutting corners, that spells bad news for the program’s longevity (especially since Google loves axing programs and hardware).

The software decisions Ron is talking about include the numerous screen limitations (90Hz mode unavailable in certain apps, 90Hz mode requiring 75% or higher brightness, overall max brightness) that appear to cover up both 2nd-tier displays and a small battery:

According to Ron, face unlock, although using (in part) the new Project Soli radar, feels like a regression from the fingerprint sensor in previous Pixel phones:

In reality, the Pixel 4’s face unlock is slow, inconsistent, and frustrating to use. Security issues were discovered almost immediately. It’s an across-the-board regression compared to a fingerprint reader and a big downside to the Pixel 4.

Ron also mentions the small on-board storage and the removal of the free cloud storage:

Before, photos uploaded from a Pixel phone to Google Photos would be stored at “original” quality for free, with none of the space counted against your Google account storage limit. This offer is gone from the Pixel 4, which now only offers unlimited storage for compressed “High-quality” photos. This stinginess works against the design of the Pixel 4, which puts one of the industry’s best cameras on a phone with small storage options and no options for expandable storage.

And of course the Project Soli:

If it’s not clear by now, even these very limited gestures for Project Soli feel terrible. The sensor only notices my arm waving about 75% of the time, and that’s just an unacceptable failure rate for an input device. No one would use a mouse, touchscreen, or keyboard that worked 75% of the time (well, maybe Macbook users), especially when you have a giant 6-inch touchscreen in front of you that can accomplish the same task more accurately and with less effort.

Even one of the headline software features, the “next-gen Google Assistant” isn’t quite as great as it first appears:

Regardless of the actual hardware, is the next-gen Google Assistant a revolution in voice command speed? After all, local processing has to be faster than a round-trip to the Internet, right? After a lot of side-by-side testing, the answer is a resounding “no.”

The main issue Ron has is that, while the on-device processing may be faster, most things that you’ll need to do will still require a trip to a server (play streaming music, look up the weather, etc.) so while it may respond a few milliseconds faster, it’s not a revolutionary change.

He is a fan of the camera, but even here, the cost-cutting is evident:

As for the normal camera, I don’t think much has changed. In testing, the Pixel 4 traded blows with the Pixel 3, which makes sense given that they have the same sensor. The Pixel 4 camera is still one of the best smartphone cameras, but the lack of improvement is disappointing.

Ron ends his review with a long section asking “What is the point of the Pixel line?” and after reading his thoughts, it’s a fair question to ask.

It’s (sort of) obvious what they want to do, but if a company with the resources of Google is dropping the ball on both strategy and execution, then the problem must be something internal to the company.

Ron’s final paragraph pretty much puts the nail in the Pixel 4 coffin (for me, at least):

The amount of compromise required by the Pixel 4 is completely unacceptable in this price bracket. If Google is going to charge a top-tier price, it needs to deliver top-tier hardware, and the company just doesn’t seem capable of doing that. This is the first Pixel phone I have no interest in using as a daily driver. It feels like Google has been standing still for four years, and as a result the competition has finally passed Google by.

The Alternatives

If you’re looking for an Android phone now, I wouldn’t touch this phone. But Android is a big pool, so there are some options (although they may not be exactly what you want).

If you want a Pixel phone, the Pixel 3a has most of the software features, and while it’s less-capable hardware, it’s also much less expensive.

If you want an Android phone, Samsung S10 or OnePlus 7T are probably your best options. They may have more bloat than the Pixel, but their update cycles are almost as fast, they come with double the storage for $100 less, and the support is just as good (which, for all Android phones, is average to bad).

If you’re looking at a first-time smartphone user, or you’re thinking of jumping ship (I did, and I am very happy!), then the iPhone 11 has a bigger screen and battery than the Pixel 4, and it also starts at $100 less than the Pixel. I’m also still using an older iPhone 8 very happily, and given the support life of iOS, the Pixel 4 and iPhone 8 may stop getting updates at about the same time!