Very Very Early Pixel 4 Impressions

I had pre-ordered a Pixel 4XL earlier this year and when it didn’t actually arrive on the day the phone came out (or several days after that), I cancelled the pre-order, on the basis that I was willing to pay the pre-order premium because I would get the phone as soon as possible, and Google had fucked up that part of the deal. Having cancelled the pre-order, I waited for the inevitable price drop that would come as part of “Black Friday” sales. Those arrived earlier this week, so I ordered the Pixel 4 (the smaller version) in the limited edition “Oh So Orange” color. This time the phone arrived in two days. Doing better, Google.

So how is the Pixel 4? Some very early impressions:

* First and perhaps most importantly, there were some very deep concerns about the battery life of the Pixel 4 phones, the smaller edition in particular, which actually has a smaller battery than the same-sized Pixel 3 a year previous. Now having the smaller Pixel 4, and having sucked down 37% of its total capacity in three hours of my typical sort of usage, I can confirm its battery life is indeed actual trash, and if battery life is super important to you that you should either pick up the XL-sized version or look at another brand entirely.

Why am I willing to tolerate the crappy battery life? One, I actually played around with the 4 XL in a Verizon store and found it almost comically large, larger than I would have been comfortable with as a daily driver, whereas the form factor of the Pixel 4 is, for me, close to perfect. Two, I am a super-heavy user of my phone in any event, and experience shows that I drain batteries down to their nub regardless of their size, so I always carry an external battery with me (a 5,000mAh one the size of a credit card), which alleviates a lot of my personal range anxiety. Three, when I’m home — which I usually am — charging isn’t problem, and when I travel for work (i.e., will be away from home for several days), I have a larger 20,000mAh battery that’s in my computer bag. So, meh. I recognize I am weird on this score and everyone’s else mileage will vary significantly.

* The Pixel 4’s face recognition works as advertised, very fast and seamless. It also has yet to be updated to address the security concern that you’ve probably heard of — your eyes can be closed, so someone could theoretically open your phone while you sleep — so if you’re the sort of person who doesn’t trust the people you sleep with, and you have a Pixel 4, maybe don’t use the face unlock (or if you do, restart it before you go to bed, so it requires a PIN or password to open). I understand theĀ  face update is coming soon, so there’s that at least. I didn’t use my fingerprint scanner much for specific apps on my phone (yes, I am mildly paranoid on that score), so it doesn’t bother me too much that lots of Android apps haven’t updated their biometrics to include face scan yet. Again, your mileage here my vary.

I do already miss the ability to see notifications by pulling my finger down the fingerprint scanner. That was a neat trick and I wish there had been a way to retain it.

* I wanted the Pixel 4 for its camera improvements, and having now played around with the phone just a bit, I can say, yes, the camera is better, particularly using zoom (because the Pixel 4 has a telephoto lens, which the 3 and earlier Pixels did not). I took a picture of one of my backyard trees at 3.5x and 7x zoom with both cameras; in both cases the Pixel 3 turned the tree into an impressionist painting, while the Pixel 4 did a much better job of capturing details, particularly at 3.5x (7x was still impressionist, but rather less so than with the 3). Better detail capture is important to me because I do use zoom a lot with my cell phone photos, particularly with pets.

Google got some stick for not including an ultrawide lens along with its zoom lens; this is a controversy I find I don’t care about because a) I don’t take a lot of ultrawide photos anyway, and b) when I want to, there’s both a panorama mode and Photoshop’s “photo merge” function, so, again, meh. If Google was going to have to choose between telephoto and ultrawide — and apparently they did? — they made the right call, or at least, the right call for me, which is what I care about. I will say that if the second lens had been an ultrawide and not telephoto, I probably would have sat out this Pixel upgrade cycle.

(Speaking of ultrawide, Google did get rid of the wide-angle lens on the selfie side of the Pixel 4, but widened the framing of the single lens on the front to be almost as wide as it was with that second lens, so…. again, meh?)

I haven’t gotten a chance to check out the astrophotography mode of the Pixel 4 yet, because it’s not yet night and also it’s going to be overcast for the next several days at least, but given how well it works on the Pixel 3, I’m not terribly worried that it will disappoint. I did try out the in-camera ability to balance shadows and highlights, and it’s pretty nifty, although less of a draw for me since I already edit extensively in Photoshop as it is. Portrait mode seems to do a slightly better job at artificial bokeh and figuring out where hair is, although if that’s really important to you, you should get a camera that gives you actual depth of field.

I’ll need to play with the camera more to give any sort of real verdict, but the early indications are that it’s a better camera with better software capabilities, and it’s better in ways that are important to me as someone who takes lots of pictures. Whether these improvements are important to you is, well, up to you. I think if you’re a casual and/or primarily selfie photographer and you own a Pixel 2 or 3, you could probably wait to upgrade. If you’re a more serious photographer (and like having the most capable phone camera), the upgrade is worth considering.

(Yes, I know, it’s weird to talk about the camera without posting pictures — I’ll post pictures in a separate entry when it’s not gray and gloomy and totally depressing outside.)

* The Pixel 4 has a “Live Caption” function which listens to what the phone hears (or is playing, if it has people talking on a video or podcast) and then does a live transcription, which it can do because it does it directly on the phone rather than sending it out to a server farm to be processed. I turned it on for the most recent “Binging With Babish” video and, well: Holy fuck, y’all, this thing is amazing. Not only did it very accurately transcribe with was being said (up to and including words like “anthropomorphize”), it mostly kept up with Andrew Rea’s fast-talking cadence.

Likewise, I used the Pixel 4 recorder app, and recorded myself with the captioning on. It kept up with me as I spoke, and when I saved the recording (and it was processed), it pretty accurately added punctuation to the transcript. Also, just to mess with it, I spoke-sang “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” from Mary Poppins at it, which it handled, including spelling that ridiculous word accurately — probably more accurately than I just did. This is deeply impressive (it doesn’t handle actual songs very well, but I’m willing to cut it some slack there).

* The phone also has a 90Hz screen, sometimes (i.e., when it’s bright enough and/or the phone decides you need it) and this seems to be a plus to some people and a negative to others (not the least because it’s a drain on the phone’s already unimpressive battery). Having now seen the 90Hz screen myself, I’m not especially impressed with it — I see what it’s doing and it is smoother, but it’s not a huge differentiator for me personally, and I don’t think I would miss it or notice much if the phone just chugged along at 60Hz most of the time. Otherwise the screen is fine; basically what it was on the Pixel 3. Reviewers have noted it’s not the brightest screen in daylight, and it’s not, but it’s fine (and I’m mostly indoors anyway).

Otherwise the phone seems pretty speedy and capable. It got a memory upgrade from last year and is now up to 6GB of RAM, which is less than other high-end phones but (again!) meh, it’s handling everything I’m throwing at it, so. In terms of storage, I have the 128GB version, which matches what I had last year in the Pixel 3, and inasmuch Google allows one to offload lots of stuff into its cloud, I never came anywhere close to filling up the phone, nor do I expect to do so this time around. Obviously this won’t work if you’re paranoid about Google knowing your shit, but I long ago decided that Google was the company that gets to know everything about me, so, yeah.

* Other notes: The overall look is fine — I think at this point you either love or hate Google’s design language, and I like it just fine. The “oh so orange” color is a kind of goofy, but that’s why I got it and also it will make it easy for me to find my phone in a crowd. The speakers are nice and loud, if not especially full of bass, so if you need your phone to project, this will do the trick (but please please please use headphones in public, none of the rest of us want to hear your music or your phone conversation or whatever bullshit Facebook video you happen to be watching, don’t be that asshole). And as with other Pixels, you get the most updated stable uncluttered version of Android as a matter of course, which is a definite plus.

Overall, I’m liking the Pixel 4 so far, and my only real thumbs down for it is its trash battery — but since I knew about the trash battery going in, I’m not going to hold it against the phone too much. If you want a Pixel 4 and can handle a trash battery, the smaller version is perfectly good! If you want a Pixel 4 and don’t want to carry around an external battery everywhere you go, and don’t mind a tablet-sized phone, the Pixel 4 XL (which save its larger size and a higher resolution screen is functionally otherwise the same as the smaller version) is probably the way to go.

More thoughts about the Pixel 4 in the future if warranted, and definitely more pictures to come.