Since 2016, Google has each year released a pair of flagship Pixel smartphones designed to showcase the very best of Android. This year saw the debut of the Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL, which ship running Android 10. But what’s unusual this time around is that the duo’s hardware is perhaps just as compelling as their software.

There’s a lot to unpack with respect to the Pixel 4 series, including a host of AI-related features alongside the usual design elements, feature upgrades, and hardware tweaks.

A refined design

The Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL ditch their predecessors’ signature design for an aesthetic that’s more refined — and more functional. Gone is the two-tone rear cover that featured prominently on the original Pixel, Pixel 2, and Pixel 3 series, replaced with polished and grippy Corning Gorilla Glass 5. It’s easier to grasp than that of the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL, and it’s better able to resist oily fingers and pocket lint.

The Pixel 4 series is IP68-certified to withstand up to five feet of water for half an hour, which puts it on par with the outgoing Pixel 3 series. But both the Pixel 4 and the Pixel 4 XL are a good deal heavier than the Pixel 3 (5.71 ounces versus 5.2 ounces) and Pixel 3 XL (6.8 ounces versus 6.49 ounces), perhaps owing to the curved aluminum frame running the length of the former pair’s sides.

The Pixel 4 series’ frame is coated with a soft-touch material that’s jet black on all three of the colorways — Clearly White, Just Black, and the limited edition Oh So Orange. The haptics, which Google characterizes as “sharp and textured,” feel great. Linear resonant actuator (LRA) motors sit snugly against the outer casing, allowing for fine-grained vibrations triggered by gestures like Active Edge.

Google Pixel 4

Active Edge, which debuted on the Pixel 3 series, invokes Google Assistant when you squeeze the left and right bezels. It’s handy in a pinch, but we found that activating it required a vice-like grip even after we turned down the threshold slider.

The Pixel 4 phones trade the visor-style camera housing of the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL for a square module that juts out from the top left. They pack a Sony 12.2-megapixel sensor (f/1.7 aperture, 1.4 μm pixel width, 77-degree field of view) with autofocus and dual pixel phase detection that’s both optically and electronically stabilized. (It’s complemented by a spectral sensor, which bolsters color accuracy, and a banding-reducing flicker sensor.) Alongside the primary camera is a 16-megapixel telephoto camera (f/2.4 aperture, 1.0 μm pixel width, 52-degree field of view) with autofocus that’s also Sony-made. Like the 12.2-megapixel camera, it can zoom up to 8 times (2 times optical), thanks to a combination of optical zoom and Google’s Super Res Zoom technology.

Google Pixel 4 Night Sight

Above: Night Sight on the Pixel 4, which uses AI to boost image brightness.

Image Credit: Kyle Wiggers / VentureBeat
Google Pixel 4 Night Sight

Above: Night Sight disabled.

Image Credit: Kyle Wiggers / VentureBeat

Are two cameras better than the Pixel 3 series’ one? Google certainly believes so. It says the 16-megapixel sensor produces 12-megapixel photos captured from the center portion of the sensor, enabling greater zoom reach at higher quality than is achievable with the 12.2-megapixel sensor alone. The company further claims the physical gap between the two cameras enhances the Pixel 4 series’ depth perception, which principally derives from the 1-millimeter separation between the subpixels contained within each sensor.

Pixel 4 camera sample

Above: A picture taken with the Pixel 4 from a dimly lit bar.

Image Credit: Kyle Wiggers / VentureBeat

Read our impressions in a holistic review of the camera, its computational photography, and the other AI features that the Pixel 4 phones offer.

Google has done away with the fingerprint sensor on the Pixel 4 phones, relegating authentication to Smart Lock (which keeps the Pixel 4 unlocked when it’s on your person, in a geofenced location, or connected to a trusted device) and facial recognition. It’s a perplexing decision, given the effort invested in Pixel Imprint, a security feature of the Pixel 2 series and Pixel 3 series that became more accurate the more it read fingers. But Google argues that facial recognition, in particular, is a faster means of password-free authentication.

Google Pixel 4 portrait photo

Above: A portrait photo taken with the Pixel 4’s front-facing camera.

Image Credit: Kyle Wiggers / VentureBeat

Flipping the Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL around brings you to the curved Gorilla Glass 5-shielded displays and sensor arrays, which is where the face-detecting and gesture-sensing magic happens. The volume rocker is on the left side of the phones, as is the power button, which is curiously accented bright orange on the Clearly White version. On the opposite side is a SIM card, which complements an eSIM (Embedded SIM) that can be used simultaneously with a physical SIM in dual standby mode for calls, texts, or data.

A responsive display

The Pixel 4 series phones ship with OLED screens that are roughly the same resolution as last year’s Pixel models — Full HD+ (Pixel 4) and Quad HD+ (Pixel 4 XL). The Pixel 4’s screen measures 5.7 inches diagonally (up from the Pixel 3’s 5.5 inches) and has a pixel density of 444 pixels per inch (versus 443 pixels per inch). By contrast, the Pixel 4 XL’s screen is 6.3 inches — the same as the Pixel 3 XL’s — with a pixel density of 537 pixels per inch (compared with 523 pixels per inch on the earlier model).

Minor differences aside, Google says both handsets’ panels have a 100,000:1 contrast ratio and full 24-bit depth (or 16.77 million colors). They’re also certified by the UHDA Alliance to display high dynamic range (HDR) videos, TV shows, and movies, which boast improved brightness, wider color gamuts, and better contrast than their non-HDR counterparts. Unfortunately absent is compatibility with Dolby Vision — Dolby’s proprietary HDR specification — which has slightly more luminosity per square meter and 12-bit color instead of the standard 10-bit.

One of the screens’ headlining features is Smooth Display, which dynamically boosts their refresh rate from 60Hz to 90Hz, depending on the content. Google doesn’t spell out the criteria, unfortunately, but there’s a noticeable improvement in overall responsiveness when it kicks in. Scrolling through apps like Twitter and Gmail and pinching-to-zoom in on photos and webpages feels smoother than on the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL, which max out at 60Hz. Other high refresh-rate handsets include the OnePlus 7, OnePlus 7T, Asus ROG Phone, Asus ROG Phone 2, and Razer Phone 2.

The Pixel 4 series also features Ambient EQ, a carryover from Google’s Nest Hub that automatically optimizes the display’s white balance for ambient lighting conditions. You’ll get a correspondingly warmer color temperature when sunlight streams into your bedroom, for instance, and blue tones when your phone is in a place that registers cooler on the spectrum.

Ambient EQ is subtle enough that you may not notice it if you’re not looking for it, but from our experience, it makes normally blindingly white content like webpages a bit easier on the eyes (particularly at night). That’s doubly true when it’s used in combination with the Night Light setting, which tints the screen amber during a predefined time window to minimize circadian rhythm-interrupting blue light.

The Pixel 4 and 4 XL offer further display customization with three color modes: Adaptive, Boosted, and Natural. Google describes the first as “designed to provide a vivid yet natural rendition of colors that most users prefer,” while Boosted is slightly more saturated compared to the neutral Natural.

Stereo audio, but no headphone jack

The Pixel 4 series sports three microphones to better pick up voices by canceling out noise in loud environments, and the phones’ display is an earpiece that sits opposite a bottom-firing speaker. They’re in stereo like the Pixel 3’s front-facing speakers but deliver “clear[er]” and “[more] spacious” sound, according to Google. Both indeed seem crisper and clearer to our ears, but there’s a slight imbalance between the two that we chalk up to the earpiece’s smaller resonance chamber.

For better or worse, the Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL follow in their forebears’ footsteps and omit a 3.5mm headphone jack. Google bets buyers will opt for wireless earbuds or headphones that play nicely with the phones’ USB-C 3.1 Gen 1 ports, and that may be a decent bet. The Pixel 4 series has a Bluetooth 5.0 Low Energy chip and support for hi-fi codecs, including Qualcomm’s AptX and AptX HD, as well as Sony’s LDAC.

Google Pixel 4

To be clear: Neither the Pixel 4 nor Pixel 4 XL come bundled with wired headphones or a 3.5mm-to-USB-C adapter. That’s ostensibly because “extra in-box audio accessories [often] end up going to waste,” according to Google, but ditching the adapter seems to us legacy headphone owners like an arbitrarily egregious move.

A reliable workhorse

Both the Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL are packing Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 855 system-on-chip (SoC), the same SoC inside Samsung’s Galaxy Note10 and last year’s LG V40.

This variation supports Wi-Fi 2.4GHz/5GHz 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac 2×2 MIMO, and it’s faster than the long-in-the-tooth Snapdragon 845, thanks to a 64-bit ARM Cortex design based on Qualcomm’s in-house Kryo 485 processor. Four cores handle the heavy lifting — one prime core clocked at 2.84GHz and three performance cores at 2.42GHz — while four efficiency cores running at 1.8GHz handle less performance-intensive tasks.

Both handsets have 6GB of RAM (which is 2GB more than the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL) and pack both a next-generation Pixel Visual Core and a Pixel Neural Core, which are Google-designed coprocessors that crunch millions to trillions of operations per second. The Pixel Visual Core accelerates the Pixel 4 series’ HDR+ feature, as well as Zero Shutter Lag and Rapid and Accurate Image Super-Resolution (RAISR) technologies.

Google Pixel 4

Zero Shutter Lag eliminates the delay between triggering the phone shutter and the moment the photo is actually recorded. As for RAISR, it uses machine learning to produce high-quality versions of zoomed-in images and speeds up tasks like always-on listening, gesture detection, face unlock, and selected camera features like Top Shot and Frequent Faces.

The Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL put all that hardware to good use. They’re multitasking maestros, capable of whizzing through day-to-day tasks. During our testing, apps and webpages rarely reloaded after we switched away from them — a problem that plagued the Pixel 3 series and the budget-oriented Pixel 3a series. And bootup was consistently swift, with reboots clocking in at around 15 seconds or less.

In Geekbench, our benchmarking app of choice, the Pixel 4 scored 3,148 and 10,169 single-core and multi-core scores, respectively. That’s slightly behind the LG G8 (3,458 single-core and 11,101 multi-core score) but head and shoulders above the V40, which achieved a multi-core score of 8,841 in our testing. And it beats out the Vivo Nex S, Samsung Galaxy S9, G7, and Galaxy Note9.

Suffice it to say that the Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL are a good deal faster than the outgoing models on paper, but they’re a mixed bag on the battery front.

Google Pixel 4

The Pixel 4 has a 2,800mAh battery, which is 115mAh smaller than the Pixel 3’s (2,915mAh), while the Pixel 4 XL’s battery is larger than the Pixel 3 XL’s at 3,700mAh (up from 3,430mAh). The good news is that they both support fast charging (up to 18W) and wireless Qi charging accessories (up to 10W), including the Pixel Stand that was released last year.

Both the Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL make it through a full day on a single charge — a solid 10-16 hours on average. The Pixel 4 predictably has shorter legs, lasting around 12 hours on a charge with light usage (i.e., browsing the web, checking email, and responding to messages). But we managed to eke out several additional hours by switching off Smooth Display and enabling Battery Saver, which reduces network pings and kicks on the system-wide dark theme.

Facial recognition

Beneath the Pixel 4’s and Pixel 4 XL’s display is a loudspeaker and a USB-C port, and above it (near the top) are a proximity sensor, ambient light sensor, flood illuminator, infrared camera, and dot projector. Together, they power the phones’ facial authentication and gesture recognition features.

The Pixel 4 series is the first to ship with Google’s facial recognition feature, which can authenticate faces from any portrait or landscape angle. There’s a brief calibration step that involves making a rolling motion with your head as the phones’ sensors learn your facial geometry, but once that’s finished, unlocking the phones takes no more than a glance in the front-facing sensors’ direction.

Google Pixel 4

The Pixel 4 series’ facial recognition flavor supports app sign-in, as well as payments, much like Apple’s Face ID. Google Play Store transactions can be authorized with a quick face scan, as well as in-app and web purchases through Google Pay. But that’s all at your own risk — Google notes that the tech could be fooled by someone who looks a lot like the phone’s owner (e.g., an identical twin).

Motion Sense

At Google’s I/O developer conference four years ago, the company’s Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP) team unveiled Project Soli. The technology taps high-speed radar sensors and algorithms to detect motion. The Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL are the first consumer devices on the market with built-in Soli technology, which in the phones has been branded as Motion Sense.

On its face, Motion Sense might seem like an incremental improvement over LG’s Air Motion — and similar in that it’s able to recognize gestures to skip songs, snooze alarms, and silence phone calls. But Motion Sense can recognize when you reach toward the Pixel 4 or Pixel 4 XL and switch on the screen, and its “skip song” action is compatible with Google Play Music, Apple Music, and Spotify out of the box.

Google Pixel 4 Motion Sense alarm

Above: Silencing an alarm with Motion Sense on the Pixel 4.

Image Credit: Kyle Wiggers / VentureBeat

Our first impressions of Motion Sense are positive, though not overwhelmingly so. It quickly wakes the Pixel 4 from sleep upon detecting a hand or face, as advertised, and it registers music-controlling, call-silencing, timer-dismissing, and alarm-snoozing swipes across the screen from up to a foot away. The trouble is that’s about the extent of its capabilities at present. Google promises that more sophisticated Motion Sense commands are on the way, but mum’s the word on when and which.

For more on the tech behind Motion Sense, as well as impressions of the software supported out of the gate, check out our piece on Project Soli.

Live Caption, Recorder, and the new Google Assistant

Google has historically used the Pixel series as a pedestal for its latest natural language understanding (NLU) advances, and the Pixel 4 series is no different. The speech recognition model underlying Google Assistant — Google’s intelligent voice assistant that can summon an Uber, pull up a podcast, perform a search for local businesses, and control thousands of smart home devices from hundreds of brands — has shrunk in size from 100GB to less than 0.5GB. It now works offline, cutting down the latency to “near zero” and speeding the average response by up to 10 times, according to Google.

Google Assistant on the Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL features a colorful overlay near the bottom of the screen that pops up when you invoke it, showing recognized words and phrases floating in front of a blurred foreground. Support for Continued Conversations eliminates the need to repeat the “Hey Google” hotword after Google Assistant responds to a query, and Google Assistant now integrates more tightly with first-party apps like Google Maps and Photos. For instance, a question like “Where can I find sugar nearby?” prefills Map’s search bar with “eggs nearby,” while a request like “Show me photos from California” surfaces relevant pics from within Photos.

Google Pixel 4 Google Assistant

Above: Google Assistant on the Pixel 4 compared with the LG V50.

Image Credit: Kyle Wiggers / VentureBeat

We peeled back the covers on the new Google Assistant in a previous piece, but here’s the skinny: While it’s wicked fast, it’s not consistently faster than its predecessor. Compared with Google Assistant running on one of our test devices, the LG V50, utterances like “Show me photos from last week” process in about half the time. But responses to other questions, like “Where’s the nearest grocery store?,” “How many calories are in an apple?,” and “How far is it to Toronto from here?” pop in at roughly the same time.

The new Google Assistant has a leg up when it comes to transcription, however. Words appear onscreen the moment they’re sussed out by the offline language model, which is typically instantaneously. It’s also more contextually responsive in apps like YouTube and Google Maps, such that a request like “Search for Italian restaurants nearby” when Maps is running surfaces in-app results straightaway.

Google Pixel 4 Live Caption

Above: Live Caption on the Pixel 4.

Image Credit: Kyle Wiggers / VentureBeat

The Pixel 4 series’ real-time transcription prowess is evident elsewhere, like in Live Caption. With a tap of the Pixel 4 or Pixel 4 XL’s volume rocker and the corresponding on-screen shortcut, Live Caption provides real-time continuous U.S. English speech transcription in a moveable overlay for apps like YouTube, Google Podcasts, Google Photos, Amazon Prime Video, and Netflix (but not phone calls, voice calls, or video calls). The customization options are pretty limited — at least at the moment — but you’re able to hide profanity, show labels for sounds (like laughter, applause, and music), and expand the overlay if you so choose.

Live Caption worked flawlessly in our testing, but we’d hesitate to call it a selling point, considering that it’s coming to the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3a series in December.

Google Pixel 4 Recorder app

Above: Google’s new Recorder app on the Pixel 4.

Image Credit: Kyle Wiggers / VentureBeat

There’s also a new Recorder app that features automatic transcription (again in U.S. English) and audio search for words and phrases, neither of which require an internet connection. It produces a searchable transcript and automatically suggests file titles based in part on your location, and it recognizes audio events like applause, birds, cats, dogs, laughter, music, roosters, speech, phones, and whistling.

Recorder is a strictly on-device affair, which makes it somewhat less useful than its online competition. (Otter lets you share a link to real-time transcriptions with others, for example.) But that was a conscious design decision — Google tells us that sensitive data doesn’t generally leave the Pixel 4 or Pixel 4 XL, like that pertaining to speech recognition and facial recognition. It’s instead secured with a custom-engineered Titan M security chip containing a purpose-built micro-controller and network controller chip that borrows from server security tech.

Software and messaging

Google’s Personal Safety app makes its debut with the Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL. It lets you quickly share your location and a brief message describing your current situation with multiple contacts. Using location and sensor readings, it’s able to dial 911 automatically if it detects that you’re involved in a car crash, which is a neat idea that’s evidently a work in progress. Google notes that Personal Safety might not be able to detect all crashes, that “high impact” activities could trigger calls to emergency services, and that crash detection is available only in the U.S. for now.

Google Pixel 4 Safety app

Above: Google’s new Safety app.

Image Credit: Kyle Wiggers / VentureBeat

Now Playing is a feature that leverages machine learning to listen for millions of tunes in the background and surface matching metadata. It debuted on the Pixel 2 series, but it has improved with the Pixel 4 series, which aggregates the counts of songs recognized across devices to take into account song popularity by region. Matches appear both on the lockscreen and in a list within the settings menu (Settings > Sound > Now Playing).

Rounding out the Pixel 4 series’ features list is Call Screen, which transcribes calls in real time so that you can decide whether to pick up, and Google Duplex, which dials eligible U.S. restaurants in nearly all territories and states to make reservations on your behalf. Also worth spotlighting is Google Lens, Google’s AI-powered search and computer vision tool, which on the Pixel 4 offers suggestions (in English, Spanish, German, Hindi, and Japanese) within the camera app to translate languages, scan documents to PDF, and copy and paste text.

Google Pixel 4 Call Screen

Taking a page from Apple’s online personal setup service, Google now offers one-on-one support sessions — Pro Sessions — through the Google One app in English in the U.S. and Canada.

But it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. Unlike all previous Pixel phones, which came with unlimited lossless photo and video storage in Google Photos, Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL owners get only compressed “high quality” image backups. It’s an apparent effort to drive Google One sign-ups. That’s a real shame — unlimited uncompressed photo backups have been a major incentive for purchasing Pixel phones since the series’ inception.

In another discouraging development, the Pixel 4 doesn’t support RCS messaging — which adds features like typing indicators and higher-quality attachments to apps that support it (like Android Messages) — on major U.S. networks like Verizon and T-Mobile. There’s nothing precluding RCS messaging support from arriving in the next few months, but those hoping for a seamless day-one experience will be disappointed.

Android 10

The Pixel 4 series ships running Android 10, which by default swaps previous versions of Android’s dedicated navigation keys for iPhone-style gestural controls. A swipe upward from the bottom of the display brings up the home screen, while a swipe from the left or right edge triggers the back action button. Swiping up and holding brings up the multitasking menu — a carousel of preview windows representing apps recently run or actively running. A swipe in from the corner summons Google Assistant.

It all sounds simple in theory, but the execution is a different story. If you fail to swipe up far enough before you hold, the multitasking menu won’t launch properly. And apps with hamburger menus (which slide out from the right- or left-hand side of the screen) can be tricky to use without fancy fingerwork. Long-pressing near the bezel of the display where the menu resides or swiping at a roughly 45-degree angle sometimes works, but not always.

Perhaps anticipating the frustrations of users new to Android 10, the Pixel 4 series allows you to revert back to three-button navigation and adjustment of the back gesture’s sensitivity via a slider. But the inclusion of those options suggests Google is aware that gestural navigation needs refining.

Android 10 Pixel 4 gestures

Above: Android 10 gestures on the Pixel 4.

Image Credit: Kyle Wiggers / VentureBeat

It’s not all bad news where Android 10 is concerned. System-provided Smart Replies appear directly in messaging app notifications by default, such that alerts from Hangouts and Facebook Messenger prepopulate with messages generated by AI (e.g., “Sure thing,” “Okay,” and “Sounds good”). What’s more useful is that Android 10 recommends actions informed by context; if a friend asks you out to dinner, it will pull up directions right in Google Maps.

In a somewhat related development, Android 10 boasts an improved copy-and-paste experience, which it calls Smart Copy/Paste. It detects and extracts telephone numbers and addresses from lengthy chat messages. If a chat message makes reference to placing a call and includes a number, for instance, Smart Copy/Paste will edit out the text surrounding the relevant phone number automatically.

Additionally, Android 10 introduces a system-wide dark theme, which swaps Android’s traditionally light color palette for black backgrounds and white text. The quickest way to activate it is from a Quick Settings tile, or from the Settings menu (Display > Dark Theme). Alternatively, it can be auto-triggered when Battery saver mode is switched on (Battery > Battery saver >Turn on now).

Android 10 dark theme

Above: Android 10’s dark theme.

Image Credit: Google

Apps must explicitly support the dark theme, but a number do already, including Google’s YouTube, Google’s main app, Medium, Reddit, Instapaper, Pocket, iBooks, Kindle, Google Maps, Waze, Slack, and Twitter. Beyond the spiffy look, dark mode should extend the battery of the Pixel 4 series and other phones with OLED screens, because the pixels are self-illuminating. We’ve seen evidence of that so far anecdotally, but sussing out the quantitative difference will require more testing.

Another, less obvious, nice-to-have is Project Mainline, which promises to keep Android 10 devices up to date with code changes delivered via Google Play. Google says it will enable manufacturers to upgrade specific OS components without requiring a full system update by downloading modules in the background that load the next time the device starts up.

Android 10 Pixel 4 permissions

Above: Android 10 offers greater transparency with respect to location permissions and sharing.

Image Credit: Kyle Wiggers / VentureBeat

On the privacy side, Android 10 affords you greater control over when apps can request your location. Apps ask for permission, but now you’ve got more say over when to allow access to your location — such as only while the app is in use, all the time, or never.

Conclusion

There’s plenty we didn’t mention about the Pixel 4 series, both great and not-so-great, like the improved sharing tool in the camera app that lets you quickly send photos via third-party apps. The Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL will soon join the ranks of devices supporting a location-enhancing version of GPS called dual-frequency GNSS. And unlike Apple’s iPhone 11 series, the Pixel 4 series lacks support for the latest Wi-Fi standard — 802.11ax, or Wi-Fi 6.

But Pixel phones have never been about rocking the boat. They’re flagship handsets, sure, but their specs don’t approach those of the Galaxy Note10, for instance. Still, they are packed with every new feature Google has to offer and serve to showcase the latest in Google’s machine learning expertise.

Few phones this past year came close to besting the quality achieved by the Pixel 3 series’ camera, and the Pixel 4 series appears poised to repeat history (although Apple’s Deep Fusion tech might give it a run for its money). To our knowledge, the Pixel 4 series’ real-time offline transcription capabilities are without equal among smartphones. And while Project Soli is still in its infancy, it has the potential to usher in novel ways of interacting with apps (and perhaps more excitingly, games) through gestures.

The question is whether those refinements justify the premium price tags — $800 for the Pixel 4 (64GB) and $900 for the Pixel 4 XL (64GB), the same as last year’s Pixel 3 series. The Samsung Galaxy S10e and OnePlus 7 Pro, the latter of which features a 90Hz display and OnePlus’ excellent OxygenOS skin, can be had for less than $700.

That’s all to say the Pixel 4 series targets those on the hunt for no-nonsense, performant phones with appreciable (but not earth-shattering) quality of life improvements. It commands a premium for AI features at the expense of specs, which won’t sit well with every prospective buyer. But those unconcerned with specs and willing to pay the Google tax aren’t likely to be disappointed with their purchase.