Google Pixel 4 review: A phone so speedy and smart you forget how spectacular it is

This is a curiously mature phone, packed with hidden innovations and quietly unusual decisions

Andrew Griffin
Monday 21 October 2019 13:26

The Google Pixel 4 knows where you are. And – it seems – it knows just about everything we want out of a new phone.

The company's new phone packs in a variety of new features: a radar sensor, an extra camera lens, a neat new design and a vastly improved display. They fold together to make a phone that once again takes the crown of the best Android phone, and challenges the iPhone in just about every possible way.

This is not a spectacular update: there is no grand, weird new tool that you can show off, and many of the new features build on the handset's strong foundation rather than offering anything dramatically new. That is fitting, given we are now four years into Google's reinvigorated and very successful project to build its own phones; the Pixel line should be fairly mature by now, and that's how it feels.

In many ways, this phone is everything you should have expected. Almost everything about it leaked in advance, with even Google opting to spoil its own announcement by unveiling some of the headline features. Even if it hadn't, it would have been fairly easy to guess what would appear in the Pixel 4: an improved camera, facial unlocking, a faster processor and a better Google Assistant.

In other ways, it's a disappointment. In a year when almost every other premium phone has added a wide-lens camera, Google mocked the very idea during the introduction of the phone; there are a number of other issues that range from the curious to the concerning.

Battery life, for instance, is not fantastic: the context of a review is of course a terrible time to test it out, since it looks nothing like actually using the phone, and any number of hours is only going to be an estimate, but it is considerably less long than the iPhone. Android's clever battery estimate features – which tell you how long the phone will last if you continue using it as you have been – reduce the anxiety of feeling like your phone could be about to run out, but it is still frustrating to be left without charge during the day.

The design of the Pixel 4 is quietly odd. When it's turned off, it's a beautiful piece of work: matte, metal sides around the back give the phone a premium – and decidedly non-slippy – feel around the sides, and the now distinctive pops of colour on the side buttons give the phone a sense of fun that doesn't compromise its hefty, luxury approach.

But turn it on and you'll see that Google has been forced to push a substantial number of components over the top of the display, in order to make room for the extra sensors required for the radar features. It isn't symmetrical, so the forehead is much bigger than the chin, and the phone can appear lopsided.

Just like the bunny ears that have appeared on every phone including the iPhones, however, the novelty of that quickly wears off. The top of the phone might be large but it doesn't get in the way of content or make the handset particularly bulky – and it makes way for the phone's really revolutionary, if constrained, change.

That forehead contains all of the systems needed to power the radar motion sensing feature, which can very precisely track the movements of people around the phone. And it allows for a variety of different ways to control the Pixel 4, ranging from the novelty to the truly novel.

It is using that radar feature – which finally brings the Soli motion detecting technology Google has been working on for years into a consumer product, and in a way that grants a variety of new features – that everything about this phone clicks into place. All of those curiosities and concerns drift away as you realise: this is a phone built for the way you live, and to improve it, not one overly occupied with looking good on a spec sheet.

There are some things that feel silly, both to include and to do. You can wave your arm in front of the phone to make it skip between tracks, for instance, which actually takes longer than just pressing the screen and like some of the other gestures seems as if it was made as a proof of concept or an introduction rather than anything you'll come to use regularly.

Much more meaningful is the way the phone can literally see you coming: when it spots your arm moving towards it in a way that suggests you might be about to pick it up, the phone gets to work waking up. That means that by the time you're actually in a position to use the phone, it has whirred into life and has fully prepared itself.

The face unlock, which triggers at the same time, is so lightning fast that very often you're already looking at the phone's home screen before you're even ready to do anything. This may sound like an exaggeration, but it really is not: this is a phone that is so aware of you that it never actually feels like it is off, and is so fast that you actually forget the Pixel 4 locks itself when you are not using it.

(Security concerns have been raised about the fact that the phone doesn't require you to be looking at it to unlock it – that the scanner could still be used if you are asleep or otherwise incapacitated. Google has promised this will be added in a forthcoming update.)

Once the phone is awake you can finally take in that dazzling screen, with its fast refresh rate and blazing colours that make just about everything pop out of the display. The liquid motion that the improved display adds is exactly the kind of feature you might never realise you wanted in a phone; use it and go back to another handset, however, and you'll realise that everything feels a little jittery and juddery.

As with other phones, squeeze the sides of that display and the Google Assistant comes to life. As well as a new, fresher look, the assistant is even smarter and can now pull up a variety of information and let you navigate through it naturally in speech: you can ask for concert dates, then check them in the calendar, then send them to a friend, for instance.

Although it's a separate feature, the Recorder app requires its own note simply because it demonstrates the impressive performance that underlies the assistant and everything else in this phone. It will not only take a voice memo, but transcribe that with dazzling accuracy; that same feature can be used just about anywhere in the phone to provide subtitles for just about any content. It might not make a difference to many people, but it's likely to be a huge breakthrough for those that will come to rely on it.

It all adds up to a phone that is not spectacular precisely because it is so smart: all of the new features are at their best when they don't shout, but quietly let you lead a better life with your handset. It is precisely because it is so quick and so clever that it's possible to forget that not all phones are this way, and overlook the dazzling computing power and innovations that allow it to work this way.

There is good reason to say this is without doubt the best Android phone you can buy right now; certainly, like every Pixel before it, it is the phone best placed to make the most out of Android. It has borrowed from the best of its challengers and added more smarts on top.

It is also a bona fide iPhone challenger, despite being substantially cheaper than Apple's top-end models. Every point that Apple takes pride over in the iPhone – its design, its camera, the ease of its software and the quality of its hardware – are made manifest in this handset too, and Google has even built in a camera square that looks remarkably familiar. The main problem and question to ask about switching from the iPhone remains the same: how much of your life is bundled up in Apple's ecosystem, and could you deal with a new world of green bubbles and different services?

The Pixel 4 is good enough that you forget how good it is. At a time when the grind of phone upgrades takes so much time and effort, and when handsets can sometimes seem like portals into a tiring world of anxiety and depression, it is deeply impressive that Google have created a phone that impresses precisely by not trying so hard to impress you, and instead improve your life.

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