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Google’s Pixel 4 Dominates the Smartphone Camera Battle — But Otherwise it’s Pretty Boring

8 minute read

After years of pretty dull smartphone design, we’re finally getting some interesting ideas, like foldable phones, that recall the weird, early days of rotating, flipping and docking devices. The new $799 Google Pixel 4 and larger $899 4 XL, however, are definitely in the “boring” category, at least on first glance. But that’s because everything special about these phones lies under the hood.

The Pixel 4’s standout feature is its software, which closes the gap between itself and the competition, along with an improved pair of cameras that will show you everything your heart desires, even the stars in the night sky. No, really, this phone can take pictures of stars, as long as you’re in the right place at the right time. The Pixel 4 (and, in this particular review, the 4 XL) feels at times like the most incremental revision imaginable, one that could’ve been made with a software update. But a bit of new hardware gives the Pixel 4, and Google’s AI-powered services, more to work with, and enough to make you say “wow!” after you snap a photo you didn’t think was possible.

If you think the Pixel 4’s design looks like a lazy tweaking of its Pixel 3 predecessor, you’re not alone. Not much has changed in terms of general looks. The new, somewhat rough black aluminum band running along its perimeter contrasts nicely with the smooth Gorilla Glass exterior completely covering the rear (colors include white, black and orange). That band is pressure-sensitive, and a quick squeeze will activate Google Assistant, sparing you from uttering wake words to get your device’s attention.

There’s no more fingerprint sensor, replaced with Google’s Face Unlock feature (or your traditional passcode). Yes, there’s a thin bezel on this already tall smartphone, but when placed side by side with its predecessor, you’ll appreciate the uninterrupted display. The Pixel 4 XL also ditches the controversial “notch” that housed the Pixel 3 XL’s front-facing camera and sensors, giving you all the pixels you paid for in lovely HDR for more accurately reproduced colors.

The boosted screen refresh rate — up to 90 times per second — makes the Pixel 4 XL’s 6.3-inch display feel smooth as silk. That QHD+ display beats the iPhone 11 Pro Max’s 6.5-inch screen when it comes to resolution, though the latter does support both the improved HDR10 and Dolby Vision.

There’s a new radar sensor embedded into the front of the Pixel 4 as well. That enables Google’s new Motion Sense feature, which detects when you’re approaching the Pixel 4 and lets you swipe through music, dismiss alarms, and silence calls by waving at your screen.

Motion Sense, combined with Google’s Face unlock, makes getting into your phone ultra-quick. In fact, the phone might be too eager to open up — the Pixel 4’s Face unlock feature works whether you’re staring at your phone or not. That means someone could grab your phone in the night, point it at your sleeping face, and get all up in your apps while you dream your little dreams. Google says it’s working on a fix that will require both your eyes to be open to unlock the device.

The Pixel 4 lacks a headphone jack, and doesn’t include USB-C headphones in the box. That’s a glaring omission by Google, though it’s offering $100 in credit for accessories if you purchase the device through its Google Store. Battery life is also an issue. At the end of the day, I’d often find myself nearly out of juice as I arrived home, and was surprised at how quickly it drained just sitting there, doing nothing.

What you’ll notice on the back is the large camera square, similar to the iPhone 11’s equally prominent bump. The new camera setup puts a 16-megapixel telephoto lens and 12-megapixel wide-angle lens in the mix, a necessary change after Google went with a single lens powered by Google’s software-based magic in the previous model.

For photographers, the Pixel 4 goes head-to-head with any other smartphone, no matter the lens count. Its night photography feature is nearly unbeatable (by standing still for a few seconds, you can turn low-light photo conditions into perfectly adequate Instagram-worthy posts), and the new astrophotography mode makes impossible shots of the night sky easy (you’ll need a tripod or some other stable place to prop your phone as it stares at the night sky for a few minutes, adjusting for the earth’s rotation to eliminate apparent movement in the stars). The Pixel 4’s front-facing 8-megapixel camera offers a wider viewing angle, plus a zoom functionality enabled by its software-powered Super Zoom Res feature. You can shoot in photographer-friendly formats like RAW, and quickly access exposure settings to tweak your shot before you hit the shutter (or tell Google to hit it for you).

In a head-to-head photo comparison, you’ll be hard-pressed to determine which standard-issue shot is from which smartphone (though the Pixel 4’s images tend to be cooler in tone than those from the iPhone 11). The Pixel 4 matches the competition when it comes to your standard array of pet photos, people portraits, and whatever else catches your eye. But thanks to Google’s software, it pulls ahead of the competition when it comes to more challenging photo situations. Take zooming in, for instance. Google’s newly included telephoto lens combined with Android’s updated Super Zoom Res feature means your Pixel’s 8x zoom shots will be pretty clear compared to an identical cropped-in image from other high-end smartphones. There are far fewer artifacts, sharper lines, and more detail overall (as long as you keep very still). Unfortunately, it’s difficult to manually swap between one lens or the other, unlike other devices that make switching as simple as swiping.

If you’re looking to use the Pixel 4 to shoot a few videos, you may be slightly disappointed. Compared to the iPhone 11, which shoots in 4K at 60 frames per second on both front and rear cameras, the Pixel 4 only shoots 4K video at 30 frames per second on its rear camera, with the front-facing camera limited to filming in 1080p. It’s not a dealbreaker, but those looking to record high quality video using Google’s fancy software improvements and dual camera setup may want to look elsewhere for more fidelity.

Where the Pixel 4 really shines is in its software, Android 10. It’s Google’s best effort yet, one that borrows some visual ideas from Apple’s iOS while adding its own assistant-powered twist. For the Pixel 4, the software comes first, the device merely being a vehicle for delivering all those smarts that take the headache out of your most monotonous tasks. Slick apps like the new Recorder transcribe audio in real time, no Internet connection required. The same tech powers its Live Caption feature, which does exactly what it says on the tin for any audio or video playing on your phone.

Still, even this latest version of Android isn’t perfect. Yes, Android has grown more polished in recent years. Yes, Google Assistant is more capable than Siri. But there are still bugs, a confusing amount of settings to pore over, and a seemingly perpetual dearth of quality apps and games that keep it from trouncing the competition. The company’s new Game Pass feature, for example, is a far cry from its competition in the form of Apple Arcade, and only serves to highlight the relative lack of polish when it comes to sections of the Android experience, in this case the Google Play Store. Still, Android is getting a lot better, and fast.

So what does the Pixel 4 do that its competition can’t? Besides taking fantastic photos, using new gesture-detecting radar, and giving users an improved software experience thanks to advancements in AI and machine learning, not much. Its miserable battery life does it no favors, and basics like USB-C headphones are nowhere in sight. But the Pixel 4 pushes the boundaries when it comes to the capabilities of Android and Google’s Assistant. Whether that’s enough to get someone to pony up for a new smartphone when last year’s version is still pretty good, however, is a tough sell, especially for such an aggressively bland device.

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Write to Patrick Lucas Austin at patrick.austin@time.com