Sunday, 3 November 2019

Google Pixel 4 - Initial Thoughts

Here's the brand new Pixel 4 (the little one) and I shall start my initial thoughts from where I did last year with the Pixel 3 and 3a, on pricing. Looks like it got better with the 64GB version of the 4 being £669 and 128GB, £769, £70 less all-round. This makes the pricing certainly more attractive than the 3, but maybe not in the context of the 3a. I hope to discover here whether or not the additional features are worth the hike.

The natural thing here is to compare the new 4 with the 4XL, but that's a little pointless as apart from the physical size, screen resolution and battery, there's no difference. This brings the choice largely down to physical size in the hand and age of eyes! I'll come back to battery as it seems this is the fly in the ointment for many out there during these first weeks of release. There's also the issue of this Google PR unit, grateful as I am for the opportunity, only having 64GB of storage, which I've constantly kicked against in lieu of at least 128GB. I did, however, go through a convincing myself stage, so I shall re-adopt my principles!

Pixel Comparison
I'm more keen to compare these differences with the Pixel 3, 3a, maybe even the 2 - and what the 4 brings to the table which is better or worse. (My thoughts on the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3a from last year.) On sizing, I have been using my Pixel 2XL now as my main phone for a couple of months, since the Android 10 Beta came along, and although loving the clean experience I still find the device just a tad too big for me - but sadly, finding the 2's screen just too small. In terms of Google's handsets, the Nexus 5X was just the perfect size for me but since then they've gone too far one way, and the other. Still, at least it's not as tiny as the Samsung Galaxy S10e which I recently reviewed, or the likes of the iPhone SE. I've now compared the Pixel 4 with Pixel 3 in-hand and can confirm that the 4 is the tiniest tad bigger in each dimension, but is certainly fatter and 10% heavier. The Pixel 3a stands out here as taller, but with less visible screen than the 4 - and the 3 has the smallest screen-space of the three. So, if you want more to grab onto then the 3a is the one, more screen, the 4 and more dinky and less fat, the 3. The point is that these 'little' Pixel phones are truly pocketable and easily facilitate one-handed use, unlike their bigger brothers.

Construction
The Pixel 4 is beautifully constructed, like the 3 and 2 before it, and feels very much like an Apple phone in many ways. The version supplied by Google PR here is the Oh So Orange one, which means that the back is a pastel shade of orange with a power button to match. There are Clearly White and Just Black for those who prefer 128GB, as the orange is only being made (much like the 3a series) in 64GB. Both sides are Gorilla Glass 5, though the back looks like it's matt plastic. It's got a beautiful finish in this orange with only a 'G' down below and the Huawei-style camera square-island top-left. The island sticks out but usually with a good quality case, it becomes protected. PSC has been supplied with an Olixar Sentinel case by MobileFun, who have a good range of options available on their website for all sorts of phones including the Pixel 4. This one also comes with a glass screen protector, so protection all-round for those inevitable drops! The phone is the same IP68 dust/water resistant as the Pixel 3, so up to 1.5m for 30 mins in clean water.

Around the Phone
Around the rim, we have the aluminium band, making the phone pebble-like in the hand and the glass front and back just slightly 'dip' at the edges to meet it and retain continuity. On the right, we have the aforementioned power button and underneath, volume rocker. I think they're metal, but even if they're not, they're firm to the touch, solid and not in any way floppy like some. On the left, we have the SIM Card Tray which takes a Nano SIM of course, with support in the phone for eSIM as well. On the bottom there's the USB-C port flanked by two symmetrical holes, one a speaker and the other a microphone inlet. Styled for symmetry and design, not practicality. Active Edge remains a feature, where a squeeze gets you the Google Assistant, even if the screen is off (optionally) and also to silence alarms, timers and calls. I've covered all this before. I very rarely use Google Assistant at all and to be honest, forget about this feature mostly - which is odd as during my recent review of the LG V50, which has a dedicated side-button for the same, I was using it a lot.

Soli Radar and Friends
On the front, we have the new array of sensors up-top, which it's almost impossible to make out through the black glass, beyond a camera lens and speaker. We know from the diagram which has been doing the rounds that there's a Soli Radar Chip in there though, Face Unlock IR camera x 2, Ambient Light and Proximity Sensor, Face Unlock Dot Projector and a Face Unlock Flood Illuminator! No wonder there was no room for a notch! Most of this works together to ensure that Google's Motion Sense works as it should and that users can interact with their phone in many ways without touching it. First voice and now gestures. Brain-power-control is next! In Google's own words, "small motions around the phone, combine unique software algorithms with the advanced hardware sensor to recognise gestures and detect when you’re nearby. As you reach for Pixel 4, Soli proactively turns on the face unlock sensors, recognising that you may want to unlock your phone. If the face unlock sensors and algorithms recognise you, the phone will open as you pick it up, all in one motion. Better yet, face unlock works in almost any orientation - even if you’re holding it upside down.”

Motion Sense
I suppose Motion Sense then is one of the headline features here, making use of the Radar. It's clear that if this is to be pursued, development is needed beyond the very few functions it has right now. To be fair, it seems to do what it's supposed to and I have not have any problems skipping tracks in Google Play Music and YouTube Music, but not in any of my favourite 3rd party Music apps. Apparently Amazon Music, Deezer and Spotify amongst some others do work. In the settings you're able to switch the direction of the swipe - seems strange to me that the default position is right-for-back, the far-east way, which Google always held out against with navigation! Where this is live and available you get a subtly blue-wavy line at the top of the screen. A teething problem for Google seems to be that it's too sensitive, so if, for example, you reach out the the phone to swipe down the notification pane to look at what's coming in whilst listening to music, it often picks up that hand motion reaching in and interprets it as a swipe, so changes the music track forward/back. Work to do and it's very tempting to turn Motion Sense off for now! As long as you use the Google-supplied Calendar and Clock apps, you can snooze alarms and silence incoming calls with the same gesture and it'll detect your presence as you approach the phone and fire up the lock-screen (though that's a bit pointless if the AoD is engaged). It certainly doesn't work anything like Moto Approach. Then there's all the current hoo-har about Face Unlock working with eyes closed, which they're going to fix soon, and the fact that there's no support for banking transactions and Google Pay without unlocking the phone in some other way. With no fingerprint scanner, you're down to code, PIN or pattern! My 2015 Marshall London can do that! Much development needed and future support in the months ahead.

Face Unlock
Yes, Face Unlock has replaced the capacitive fingerprint scanner and is the only means of biometric authentication. It's a copycat move following Apple of course, but unlike the latter who have done it right, here it feels like there are gaping holes, with no interim solution on offer (see above, regarding banking). To be fair, the basis of Face Unlock and Approach seem to work most of the time. However, it doesn't seem smart enough to open up the home screen when it 'sees me' from flat on a desk, rather the pesky lock screen looking for confirmation. If the phone is in-hand it does much better, in fact near-100% of the time, bypassing the lock screen and getting down to business. I thought that the radar would ensure that the phone didn't need to be moved or tapped to open things up, but clearly I'm wrong and 'flat on a desk' doesn't work. Motorola still have that sewn up! I've now perched it in a stand, looking at me and it still doesn't wake up. It seems to me that you have to, in some way, physically move the phone to wake it up before all this fancy radar stuff kicks in - which is not supposed to be the idea. Tapping the screen does it, but still not from my desk, only cradle. I'll keep testing, but at the moment it seems to be that smart is almost dumb!

Smooth Display
The screen is the same P-OLED panel as before, 1080p, very slightly bigger and longer, filling more of the front and is 19:9 instead of the 3's 18:9 because of that. It returns pretty much the same ppi at 444. I'm finding the screen just as bright on manual 100% as the 2XL, though it is 'warmer' and not so 'blue' as the latter. I've checked it outside in bright daylight and I have no problem using the phone. Maybe in blazing African sun this would be different, but I can't emulate that in November in the UK! Natural or Boosted colours can be set in Display Settings, or if you are happy with Google automating it, use Adaptive and throw the switch for Ambient EQ ("a new visual experience that dynamically adjusts the colour temperature and brightness of your display to create a non-intrusive smart display experience"). I've allowed all that and Auto-Brightness and am happy with the system learning from my usage and manual adjustments.
I've been using Razer Phones for the last two years now and for my eyes, I can't tell when 120Hz is on or off, so I have no chance with the Pixel 4's 60/90Hz Smooth Display over the 3's 60Hz. This is pretty much automatically controlled by the system by default - kicking in the higher screen refresh-rate when needed and when the screen is bright enough for appreciation or needed for use, like, presumably in gaming, for example. You can switch it in Developer Settings to always be on 90Hz but it seems a bit pointless to risk more battery use if, at least for my eyes, I can't tell the difference! Still - maybe younger eyes will devour and delight.

Always on Display
The Always on Display is pretty much just like it was before. The clock numbers are bigger and brighter than they are on the 2XL, but not by much. I can't seem to control the brightness of this (Samsung-style) in any way on any Pixel - it's supposedly tied to the screen brightness and ambient conditions - but as I say, it's better now than it was and nothing new to report in terms of content. Now Playing is such a great feature to have and it's almost worth switching to Pixel just for that! Love it!

In The Box
Accessories in the box include a USB-C to USB-C cable, USB-C to USB-A adapter, no 3.5mm to USB-C dongle, 18W 2A power brick for fast charging, pokey-tool for SIM Tray and no earphones! The usual boring Google white box with no frills, though it is reported that some are being delivered in a fun cereal box!

Under the Bonnet
Android 10 is onboard out of the box of course - and the peachy thing about Pixel, as we know, is that we'll be first with everything that Google are up to! Those of us who've been playing with the Beta releases don't really get any surprises - it's all been evolved along the path and the most interesting aspect for me is the gesture control with full-side swipes from either side for Back. Particularly on a one-handed dinky device like this, holding the phone in either hand and using the thumb anywhere down the side is a fabulous feature. There's loads more for those coming to 10 cold, but we've reported on that on Phones Show Chat as we've gone along over the months so I won't go over it all again here.
The SnapDragon chipset has been raised from 845 to 855, but comparing that with the Pixel 3, I don't see much difference in real world use. Everything is blazingly fast across the UI and the increase of RAM from 4 to 6GB likewise, I don't see any difference. Test-bench pushing will no doubt highlight the technical differences but I see nothing I'm using being shut down - or it inconveniencing me in any way on the 3 or 4, with 4GB or 6! I sometimes think that hardware is updated for marketing purposes, not real world benefit.
A quick word on software, Live Captions and Recorder functionality is present, utilising Google's new Pixel Neural Core which helps AI to perform real-time stuff like transcription in these apps, all executed on-device and not in the cloud. It's great fun to watch in action of course and although it's currently leaning accuracy towards American-English, it'll roll out as time passes in other flavours. It provides live captions for viewers watching videos, for example and the Recorder's transcription is great for anyone needing to turn spoken word into text. I have tested this a fair bit and, although not perfect, it's by far good enough to be useful for cut/paste into where the text is needed. Students in lectures comes to mind or nearer to home, podcast scripts! As always, Google tinkering with ideas and letting us in on them as they evolve. This makes some feel like they're guinea pigs, whilst the rest of us just enjoy the thrill and ride!

Storage
Storage options are poor. They remain at 64GB or 128GB and no microSD expansion. I was really hoping for a big-capacity unit but clearly Google are continuing to drive the 'cloud' agenda and convincing everyone that it's really OK to be near-completely dependent on having a connection of some kind to access one's data and media wherever they are - and swallowing the subsequent cost. I disagree! However, I'm happy that the next best thing works in the shape of USB OTG and my tests with FAT32-formatted microSD Cards and even my 2TB Extreme SSD. I can easily plug in for accessing stored media and data.
There seems to be a story developing around HDMI-Out in that the hardware can support this feature and although it doesn't work now - I've tested - it will, if Google throw a switch server-side for software. Why they're not doing it is not clear, except that they're working on a DeX-style desktop experience and maybe will only switch it on when that's ready - denying for now people like me wanting to plug my phone into the TV or monitor for a bigger picture. Watch that space!
I'm getting used to living with 64GB here, as supplied for the review unit. It just requires a shift in mentality and, for me, carrying data on cards/drives. Many people of course will have data plans and 'inclusive' wifi at home and work and most places they go, so will just jump on the cloud an not think about it. I guess I'm just old fashioned wanting a pocket-computer with my stuff on it and not depend on another company's service to get to it!

Stereo Speakers and Sound
Stereo speakers are retained, but they (apparently) remain 'faux' stereo with split frequencies and directions. The 'right' speaker is bottom-facing and I'd expect, as I did with the Samsung Galaxy S10e, that this would disfigure and disrupt the sound. I'd be wrong! The sound is very well balanced from the two speakers and unusually, it also feels like the lower frequencies are actually being favoured by the top speaker/call speaker. This is usually arranged the other way, as we know, firing bass from the bottom, bigger aperture. I'd almost be convinced that this is not 'faux' stereo at all as it's so very close to proper stereo - and if the listener is that unsure if it is or is not, then Google have done a great job building this unit. The stereo separation is marked, as long as the phone is held about 12" in front of the head - well, this is a small phone - what did you expect?! It doesn't feel like the bottom speaker is downward-facing, so again, they've done a good job balancing the sound for general usage. The speakers don't switch round the stereo channels like some, so 'bottom' is always right and 'top', left. More importantly though is that the sound is fabulous. I really thought that my 2XL would blow it away, based on previous little Pixels, but no - this is better, louder, richer, more defined and when placed on a table resonates the sound quite superbly for medium-sized room coverage. I'm impressed! My Razer Phone 2 is off having a new screen fitted just now so I can't compare directly, but my gut feeling is that it's not far away and certainly challenges the latest from Samsung, even without any Dolby shenanigans.
There's no return of the 3.5mm audio-out socket yet, after the inclusion with the Pixel 3a's, so I've tested my reference 'phones with a simple dongle and the output is pretty ordinary. A very flat sound with no personality and decidedly low volume. An enhanced-DAC dongle is highly recommended for those wanting to wire-in headphones. The sound pushed out via Bluetooth 5 however, supporting aptX HD, is excellent, high quality, loud and rich. Maybe they were right, after all, pushing consumers that way!

Cameras
As usual, I'm going to point you at Steve Litchfield's developing coverage of the cameras at The Phones Show 379 and for some zoom comparisons, his AAWP Imaging Showdown (these for 4XL, but 4 is equipped with the same). Unlike much of the current competition, Google have not provided a wide-angle option but have added a 2x optical zoom which, as you can see from Steve's tests, works excellently well beyond 2x, producing hybrid optical/digital results up to 5x (and in my tests, beyond - to 8x). It's all getting very clever, as for speakers, and results year-by-year continue to challenge stand-alone cameras even taking into account their much smaller size. Computational software coupled with what can be physically fitted into small phones in terms of optics get better and better. We're not far away from crossover as phones challenge even mid-range compact cameras.
We have a 12.2MP f/1.7 main camera with dual pixel PDAF and OIS, supported by the 16MP f/2.4 2x optical zoom, again with OIS with Super-Res Zoom. Many have complained about the lack of a wide-screen option when others are adding it now - and I have to agree that it's a great addition to the kit-bag. Maybe that'll come with Pixel 5 - I can see it now, the all-new Pixel 5G with 5 cameras and 5G (you saw it here first)! There's lots of automation going on with the Pixel - whereas the LG V50 boasted geek-dream manual knobs and dials for every eventuality - Google want the photographer to place their photo-taking experience in their hands. And generally get excellent results. People have been playing with astrophotography, for example and auto-detecting night modes and so forth. It's clear that Google are having fun pushing the AI boundaries, though be sure to invest in a tripod if you want to join them!
Automation in Portrait mode works well and night mode pulls out details previously that could only be hoped for, by use of multi-shots and computation - leaving the software to work out what you're up to, what your subject is - and giving you the best result. There is now a quick-share swipe-up from the last-taken-shot icon and up to 3 venues can be assigned to that. Tapping the screen in shooting mode gets you a highlights/shadow control (sliders) so you can indeed apply some manual adjustment. Double-tapping the screen gets you the zoom slider and depending on what you set on that will depend on which of the cameras the system uses and how much optical/digital is applied. As I say, I've tried 8x zoom using this hybrid system and am getting better results than the 2XL with the supplied 10x.
Lastly, on the front there's an 8MP f/2 Selfie but with TOF 3D but no AF. On the Pixel 3 however, there were two 8MP Selfie cameras, an f/1.8 'normal' view twinned with an f/2.2 'wide-angle', again with no AF. There was no optical zoom on the rear camera, the only camera on the back being the much-praised 12.2MP f/1.8 with OIS. To be fair, I never had any complaints about the shots produced by the 3 or 2XL but (in some ways) the 4 pushes things forward for zooming.
There's loads more to say about the camera setup, but I'll leave it to Steve as he uncovers the potential and capacity of Google's system. Stay tuned to The Phones Show and Phones Show Chat in the coming weeks and months.

Battery
This is the big one which everyone is moaning about out there, so I'm here to contentiously report that the 2,800mAh battery on this unit is surprisingly good! I've been doing my usual testing scheme but this time I've tested it both with Motion Sense on and off. Some have been believing that the fancy sensor array at the front driving all the clever stuff, including the Soli Radar have been hitting the battery needlessly (for the benefit gained in functionality). My tests show that firstly, Motion Sense being on or off makes little, if any difference. Bear in mind that I'm not on a test-bench here, just my real-world testing which is applied across all devices at which I look.
The 10% Reading Test returns me 1 hour and 20 minutes. This sits right in the middle of the poorest results from smaller units and big leaders, including the Pixel 2XL which scored 1 hour 46 minutes. So, far from the worst but far from the best - however, not the dreadful that some are recording. Real World use for my usual pattern across an average day, again, gets me somewhere in the middle, regardless of Motion Sense on or off. A full charge is giving me about 20-24hrs and 5-7hrs SoT. Usual conditions apply, adaptive brightness and battery engaged.
For the small size of the device and the AI stuff going on in the background, I really don't think that's anything to complain about. Yes, of course, you can do better from a bigger device (look at the Pixel 2XL, above) but for a dinky pocket-phone with technically a very small powered battery, it's performing well. Don't forget that there's also Qi Charging here, so with chargers dotted around the place (which I have not been used during testing, obviously) it's going to get topped up through the day anyway - so it's almost always fully charged when heading out and about. Needless to say, if you cane it in any way with shooting video or streaming Netflix you're going to kill it, but that's true of pretty much every device out there. Carry a PowerBank! Or the Fast Charging plug/cable. I often wonder if reviewers are very unfair reporting battery performance and not reflecting real-world, but constant relentless use during testing.

Interim Verdict
These have been initial thoughts as it really feels like I still need my SIM Card in another device to use as my daily main phone - particularly for payments, which seems like we've gone back five years! There are always missing and evolving features that we'll complain about of course. Tech develops, new angles are tried out, decisions made, sometimes reversed! It's all good fun, but the best thing about a Pixel is being close to the beating heart of Google, for me. The fastest updates and new features. Can't beat it!
It's a terrific little bundle of tech with much work for Google to do in the coming months. We know that they are likely to do so and bring new features and tweak the ability of those present. It's just about big enough for me with the increased screen-space over previous little Pixels, but I'd still maybe just like a tad more! The camera tech is, by any standards in mobile phones, excellent and the vast majority of users won't be able to complain about their results. The speakers are amazingly good for the size, and so on. Evolution of components giving us better and better performance.
As for price, well yes, it's not cheap. It is cheaper than last year's offering but still a sizeable chunk of cash for those not getting a contract upgrade. The good news there is that the Pixel 3 will soon be available cheaper and, you could argue, is perfectly good enough for a couple more years. I can't recommend this phone for anyone to use as their only and main phone just now, but I will soon! We'll keep updating our views as we go through the months ahead so it really is a case of watch this space.

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