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Google Pixel 4 and 4 XL hands-on: this time, it’s not about the camera

Face unlock, new screen tech, faster voice commands, and radar

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If you follow tech, you probably already know about the new features in Google’s Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL. They’re the most-leaked phones perhaps in history, and there’s only a tiny handful of things I can tell you about them that haven’t already been documented somewhere.

However, after spending an hour talking to Google’s product managers and playing around with the Pixel 4, I have learned a few things that could only come from directly using the phone. I know what it’s like to see the high refresh rate screen keep text readable as I scroll. I know that it feels better-made than any Pixel before it. I know what it’s like to tickle a pokémon just by waggling my fingers in the air.

Most of all, I know that Google is finally starting to get more ambitious with the Pixel phone.

Available for preorder today and shipping on October 24th, the Pixel 4 is finally going to be available from all four major carriers at launch. It starts at $799 for the smaller one and $899 for the bigger one, and you can spend $100 on top of either to jump from 64GB to 128GB of storage. I can’t tell you if Google really means to sell this phone at volume, though. When I say Google has a higher level of ambition, I mean it from a technical perspective.

Usually, you get one or two new pieces of technology in a new phone. With the Pixel 4, Google is trying to nail four new innovations at once: face unlock, a high refresh rate screen, a faster Google Assistant, and spatial awareness using radar. It also is introducing a new design language that’s a departure not only from previous phones, but from any hardware Google makes.

Plus, the Pixel 4 needs to keep up in the camera department. The iPhone 11 Pro has just taken the “best smartphone camera” crown away, and we don’t know if the Pixel can take it back.

I won’t judge whether Google has truly succeeded at any of those things here. That will wait for the review. Instead, I’m going to run through some of what’s new in this phone and give just a few impressions.

Hardware design

Ever since my colleague Vjeran Pavic said the Pixel 4 looked like “the hipster version of the iPhone 11 Pro,” that’s been cemented in my mind. It has the same big square camera bump, the same matte-glass rear panel, and the same rounded metal rails on the sides. (On the Pixel 4, they’re aluminum.) The black version of the Pixel has a glossy back, for whatever reason.

Most phones these days follow some variation on the two panes and metal sides formula, but the similarities between the new iPhones and the new Pixels are remarkable.

The Pixel distinguishes itself from the iPhone by being more willing to have contrasting colors. The white and (limited edition) orange have back camera bumps and rails, giving them a chunky eyeglasses kind of look.

They also weigh noticeably less than the iPhone 11 Pro and Max — probably in large part because the Pixels don’t have especially large batteries inside. I’m just going to put it out there that I’m a little worried about battery life, especially on the small Pixel.

The main thing I’ll say about the hardware is that they aren’t as elegant as a Galaxy S10 or even an iPhone, but the design does feel self-assured in its own way. Even though it feels lighter than many phones, it looks heavier, if that makes sense. As usual with Pixel phones, it looks much worse in leaked photos than it does in person.

The Pixel 4 charges via USB-C (of course) and doesn’t have a headphone jack (of course). Strangely, Google isn’t including USB-C earbuds or even an adapter in the box in most markets. The company tells me it will be offering a $100 Google Store credit to buyers, which is a pretty good sign you’ll find some new earbud options there soon.

Face Unlock

I won’t beat around the bush: face unlock on the Pixel 4 is quite possibly the fastest I’ve ever used. By the time you’ve picked up the phone and are looking at it, it’s unlocked. I did this a dozen times in a few minutes in that well-lit room, and it unlocked that quickly every time, jumping straight into whatever screen was last open on the phone without requiring me to do anything but pick the phone up and look at it.

It is so fast that it’s blink, and you’ll miss it. It’s so fast that Google employees who were testing it demanded they add a setting to allow them to unlock into the lock screen (like the iPhone) instead of directly into the phone. You set it up in very much the same way you set up Face ID on an iPhone, but Google has you sort of clear out blue sections in a hemisphere to indicate that it’s learning your face.

I should note that I can’t speak at all to how easy it is to trick. The Pixel 4 has similar components to what Apple uses for Face ID, but Google says it works a little differently on a technical level. It is the only biometric authentication on the phone, and it fully replaces the fingerprint sensor for things like password vaults, banking apps, and to confirm purchases.

Photo by Vjeran Pavic / The Verge

I’ll admit, it was a little jarring. Every phone I’ve ever used had some sort of secondary action between picking up the phone and getting into it: a tap on a fingerprint sensor or a swipe on the screen. With the Pixel 4, it’s like there isn’t a lock screen at all because you almost never get a chance to see it.

I’ll have to do some actual timing in the review because it’s 100 percent possible that this speed is more perception than reality. The phone begins its unlock procedure before you even touch it, using that Motion Sense radar to detect you’re reaching for it. (More on that below.) It also feels faster because it jumps right into the last thing you were doing instead of requiring a second action with no animation that I could detect.

Screen

All of the Pixels lack notches at the tops of their screens and instead have large bezels because they’re fitting in the extra sensors that enable the face unlock and other features. It does make the front of these phones look a little unbalanced, but it’s no weirder than the bunny ears you get on notched screens.

Google tells me that these OLEDs should be of the same quality across both sizes of phones. The company has definitely learned its lesson after the Pixel 2. I can’t speak to their overall color accuracy or brightness yet, but the headline feature is a big deal, and when you use one, you’ll see it.

I’m talking about the new 90Hz refresh rate, which Google calls “Smooth Display.” We’ve seen other Android phones with high refresh rate screens before, so it’s not exactly a revolutionary thing, though I’m not aware of any phones with a screen as small as the Pixel 4’s. But it is a very nice thing. You can tell it’s there when you’re scrolling text.

Google says that it has done the system-level work in Android it needs to make the screen only jump up to 90Hz when called for. Otherwise, it drops down to a more normal 60Hz. That should help limit the impact it has on battery life, but as I said earlier, I’m still a little nervous — especially since battery life on the Pixel 3 isn’t great.

The other new feature on the screen also has a corny brand name: “Ambient EQ.” It’s the technology that adjusts the color temperature of the screen to match the room, much like Apple’s iPads or the Google Nest Home Hub (which is where Google’s version of the tech originated). I never really got a chance to see the color shift in action, mainly because the conference rooms where Google showed me the phone were evenly lit.

Motion Sense

If I had to pick a single flagship feature on the Pixel 4 besides face unlock, Motion Sense is it. I’ll have more to say on this feature in a separate piece based on interviews with the team that created it, but the short version is this: the Pixel 4 has radar.

That’s not a metaphor. It’s a literal radar chip at the top of the phone. It creates a hemisphere of spatial awareness about two feet in diameter around the Pixel when it’s sitting on a table. It’s a piece of tech Google has been developing for years called Project Soli. Right now, Motion Sense doesn’t actually do that much, though. Google says that it needs to start with the basics to get users used to it, then it can build on what it can do later.

The main thing Motion Sense does is pay attention to whether you’re even near the phone or if you’re reaching for it. If you walk away from it, it detects that and turns off the always-on display. If you reach for it, it activates the screen and face unlock.

Motion Sense lets you skip forward or back when music is playing, too. But the best feature is dismissing alarms and calls. When you simply reach for the phone, the volume drops when the phone sees your hand. Then you can simply wave to dismiss the call or snooze the alarm.

To train you up on how to use it, Google did whatever deal it needed to in order to make a mini-game with pokémon. Pikachu can teach you how to use the gestures, then you can have a pokémon become your wallpaper; there a few that can cycle through. You can wave at the pokémon, and they’ll get excited and wave back, or you can tickle them. They go to sleep at night, and Google also tells me that “when you charge it, it does cool stuff.”

Is any of this really necessary? You can achieve many of these effects with an accelerometer or a camera or, you know, by touching the screen. I can’t decide if these are gimmicks or not, but Google’s hope is that there are enough subtle improvements here to make the overall experience feel a little nicer — or at least a little more charming.

Camera

Beyond taking a few snaps in a conference room, I didn’t get a chance to really use the camera. We can’t know yet if Google has a shot at taking the crown of best smartphone camera back from Apple. The camera app did open quickly — that’s been a bugaboo for the Pixel 3 — and there are a few new features to talk about, though.

First and foremost, Google finally added a second camera to the back of the phone. It resisted for years, arguing that it could do more with one lens than other companies could do with two or more. But now there are two: a 12-megapixel main sensor and a 16-megapixel “2X” telephoto.

Google says it went with a telephoto instead of an ultra-wide because it thinks customers will get more use out of it. The team in charge of the phone tells me that it essentially supercharges the superzoom technology that Google developed for the last Pixel. We’ll see if that’s the case. It also uses the telephoto lens to improve portrait mode.

There’s only one selfie camera now, but Google set it to a 90-degree field of view. The Pixel 3 had 75-degree and 97-degree FoV lenses, for comparison.

Night mode remains the same and remains a separate mode you need to switch into. But the camera app has been improved in some ways. Now, when you tap to set exposure, two sliders will pop up: one for overall brightness and one specifically for shadows. (It also gives you a horizon line.) When you snap a pic, you can tap on the little image preview bubble to bring up a mini-share list of apps to send it directly into.

The biggest improvement to the camera app is that it does a better job showing you a real-time preview of what your final image will look like after it’s been run through Google’s computational photography algorithms. That applies to HDR+, but I don’t know if it also applies to portrait mode.

One note of caution: the Pixel line has always lagged behind both Samsung and Apple when it comes to video quality, and Google didn’t have much to say about whether it’s improved here. It still caps out at 4K at 30 fps, which is lower than the 4K60 footage the other phones can capture.

As for the computational photography models themselves, Google says that it has put some work into improving colors to make them a little more natural, so it may be that the results will be less dramatically contrasty than previous Pixels. We’ll obviously need to wait until we’ve reviewed the phone to say more.

Pixel Neural Core

The reason the Pixel 4 is able to show those real-time previews is a new coprocessor Google created, the Pixel Neural Core. It takes the place of the Pixel Visual Core from last year. The reason for the switch is evident in the name: it needs to do more than just improve photography.

The other big function of the Neural Core is understanding spoken English. Google has reduced the entire model for transcribing English speech down to a size where it can fit on the Pixel 4’s internal storage, which means that it can convert speech to text without needing to send anything to a server.

This enables two main features. The flashy one is in Google Assistant. You can ask Assistant to do things that are local to your phone, and they’ll happen near-instantaneously. Opening up apps, composing emails, and searching within apps all happens locally.

The “New Assistant,” as Google calls it, is much faster and needs to rely on Google’s servers much less. It’s also able to repeat the context-keeping tricks Google is particularly good at. In one demo, I watched somebody ask to see a Twitter profile, and Assistant jumped right into it. Then the person said “now YouTube,” and Assistant knew it should go look for the channel that belonged to that person. Or rather, it was supposed to; the demo broke down because YouTube had been open to another page.

The other feature this local model enables is a new app: Recorder. It’s a voice recorder, but it also does real-time transcription right there as it records without needing to send anything to the internet. In a couple of tests, I found it to be much more accurate than the other real-time transcription app I’ve used, Otter. You can also do searches for anything in those transcripts later.

There are more features in the Pixel 4 I haven’t gotten to. For example, it can do automatic car crash detection, offering to call emergency services if it detects a serious crash and doing so automatically if you don’t respond. We’ll get into much more in the full review, including and especially the camera. (But I probably won’t crash any cars.)

All of those leaks made everybody feel familiar with the Pixel 4 before it was released — and sometimes, familiarity breeds contempt. I haven’t spent enough time to argue that the Pixel 4 is a great phone, but I do think that it is a much more ambitious phone than previous Pixels.

If there had been zero leaks and if Google hadn’t teased some of these features itself, I think the reception of all the new stuff Google has added to the Pixel line would have been much more dramatic. Google has added a high refresh-rate screen, face unlock, radar, and a much faster voice assistant.

Does all that add up to $799 of value? I won’t answer that now, but I’m excited to see how it holds up to competing Android phones — and the new iPhones — in the review.

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