Google decided to jump ahead of leakers today and post a very early photo of the Pixel 4. It’s a basic shot, just showing the back of the phone, but there’s a lot we can tell just by looking at it: it confirms this will be the first Pixel with dual rear cameras, it confirms that Google is significantly changing the Pixel’s design language, and it offers a handful of other details about what to expect from the phone.
Here’s what we can see so far.
Let’s start with the biggest one: there are two cameras very clearly positioned in the middle of that bulbous square popping out of the back of the phone. Google has made a point in recent years of differentiating the Pixel by sticking with a single rear camera, yet still managing to pull off impressive tricks like portrait mode shots. But just about every high-end competitor now has two (if not more) cameras on the back of their flagship phones, and there are some things — like focal length — that just can’t be precisely recreated using software magic.
What we don’t know yet is what Google will do with that second lens, hardware or software wise. Apple gave the iPhone’s second camera a telephoto lens, offering further zoom capabilities and enabling portrait mode; but lately, phone makers have been adding ultra-wide lenses, to let their devices capture even more of a scene at once. One isn’t necessarily better than the other (just kidding, I’ll take the telephoto lens any day) and it’s just not obvious which one Google might strategically see as more important in 2019. On the front of the Pixel 3, for instance, Google added a secondary ultra-wide lens to make group selfies easier.
The more interesting thing may be what software tricks Google does with the new lens. Google has already implemented some impressive AR features with just a single lens, building augmented reality “stickers” into the camera app that you can place around a room, and then film as they continue to float around.
But Google has shown even more impressive AR tech in the past by combining multiple cameras (and additional sensors) into Google Tango, its now-defunct AR mapping and gaming project. Apple has been making big leaps in AR in recent years and demoes one AR game or another at nearly every keynote, so it’d be a surprise if Google didn’t push the Pixel’s AR abilities forward in one way or another.
A mysterious third sensor
Above the two camera lenses is a smaller third something. You can just barely make out that something is there in the photo Google posted, but if you brighten the image a little, it’s clear that there’s a cutout.
What’s completely unclear is what that extra sensor might be.
Last night, Unbox Therapy correctly reported that the Pixel 4’s camera bump would have a sensor above the two cameras, which the show’s host, Lewis Hilsenteger, identified as a “spectral sensor.” It’s entirely possible that’s what we’re looking at: the Pixel 3 already has a spectral sensor — Google also calls it a “flicker sensor,” and it’s used to help the camera deal with strobing lights or screens.
But the spectral sensor on the Pixel 3 looks a little bit smaller than this. It’s possible that sensor is getting an upgrade (spectral sensors can be used to analyze everything from color to the makeup of food, though neither of those things have been done inside a phone before). It’s also possible that I’m wrong, it’s the exact same size as before and doing the exact same things, and it’s just hard to tell because of the tiny photo we’re looking at.
It could also be that this is just a different sensor. Huawei, for instance, recently made very good use of a time-of-flight sensor, which measures distance by tracking how long it takes light to bounce back. On the P30 Pro, it allowed Huawei to create far more realistic portrait mode shots, by more accurately representing the falloff of background blur by using real depth data, instead of interpreting it from the difference between two cameras.
There’s a dual flash and another sensor in the corner
Like every other Pixel to date, the camera will be accompanied by a dual flash system. You can also see another sensor in the corner (it’s just a small dot), though there aren’t any obvious clues as to what it’ll be. In the past, Google has included an additional microphone, laser autofocus, and a spectral/flicker sensors beside Pixel cameras. The Pixel 3 just includes the spectral sensor, but the only thing we can potentially take off the table here is this being used for laser autofocus, since Google has in the past used two separate sensors to achieve that, while there’s only one dot here.
No rear fingerprint sensor
This had been rumored, and now it’s official: this’ll be the first Pixel to go without a rear fingerprint scanner. What’ll Google use instead? Initial speculation was on an in-display fingerprint sensor, since those have been trendy in Android phones this year. But last night, Unbox Therapy suggested Google would instead go with a facial recognition system, like the iPhone X. Unbox Therapy correctly identified that there would be a third sensor above the two cameras, so there’s reason to buy into this.
Contrast power button on the black model
This is a small detail, but it’s a nice change: for the past two years, Google has made the power button a contrasting color on all but the black models of its phones (so the current pink Pixel, for example, has an orange button on the side, while the black model has a black button). The contrast button adds a nice, subtle pop to the phone, and it looks like the black model will finally get that too, with a white power button this time around.
A very different rear design
Google has had a fairly consistent design across its first three Pixel generations, setting the phone apart with a glossy glass section on top and a larger matte section below. It helps to set the Pixels a little bit apart in a world where phones can look awfully generic, but for some reason, Google seems to be totally leaving that design behind with the next generation.
It’s not clear to me from this image whether the back will be matte or glossy, but there’s clearly only one texture here, except for the camera bump. The next iPhone is expected to have a similarly shaped camera bump and a similarly plain back, so it’s possible these two phones will end up looking quite a bit alike.
Otherwise, we can’t tell too much on the hardware front from this perspective. It doesn’t let us see the port or speaker situation on the bottom; and we can see that the Google G is staying nice and monochrome on the back. There are likely going to be other color options, too — Google really teased the most basic and obvious option here. One other outstanding question: what’s that gleaming ring around the edge of the phone? It’s not clear if that’s a metal band (which would be new for the Pixel) or just some fancy lighting in the photo.
Everything we’re waiting on
Google may have had some fun playing into early leaks for the Pixel 4, but it really hasn’t given away much here. If what Unbox Therapy reports is correct, the front of the phone may be far more interesting — supposedly with five sensors on top for selfies and face detection and a decently sized upper bezel (but no notch).
There’s also the internal hardware; we’re expecting a Snapdragon 855 and likely a RAM upgrade, but details have been limited. Plus, software tricks, rather than standout hardware, have always been Google’s forte, and there have been few leaks to that effect so far.
The Pixel 4 is still expected to come out in October, like previous generations. But if the pace of early leaks (and past years’ leaks) is anything to go by, we’ll know a lot more about this phone much sooner.