Saturday, September 28, 2019

The Pixel 4 Wins by Being More Human

Some phones look to impress with an abundance of tech, while others promise simplicity and a tightly knit ecosystem. But when it comes to Pixel phones, Google leans on its expertise in software. Last year, it felt like things finally came together on the Pixel 3 thanks to features like Night Sight, Call Screen, Now Playing song identification, and more. But for the new Pixel 4, Google has put a twist on its typical software-first approach by creating a smartphone that responds to you less like a computer and more like a human.

Google’s drive to make interacting with gadgets feel more natural and intuitive is something you can see across its entire portfolio of gadgets, from smart speakers that support conversational speech recognition to a map app that can warn you about traffic jams before you even get in your car. But on the Pixel 4, Google has taken that directive to a whole new level.

The best example of this is the Pixel 4's Motion sense, which uses tiny radar chips (called Soli) embedded into the phone’s top bezel to detect nearby objects. At its most basic level, the Pixel 4 uses Soli to detect if anyone is nearby (up to 0.6 meters away), so it can do things like disable the phone’s always-on display to help save battery life when no one’s around. This might sound like a very simplistic use case, but that’s mostly because it mimics natural human behavior. After all, if you were talking to someone and they walked out of the room in the middle of a conversation, you wouldn’t keep babbling away unless you had some way of knowing they were still paying attention, would you?

Then moving one level up is the Pixel 4's ability to sense a nearby hand. It uses this to wake up the phone’s 3D dot projector, so that the Pixel 4 can recognize your face and unlock the phone just a bit faster. It also uses this ability to reduce the phone’s ringer volume after you reach to answer a call. The phone has gotten your attention, so there’s no need to continue making a scene. Only an asshole would keep yelling in your face after they’ve made their point.

Finally, there’s Soli’s gesture recognition, which currently is limited to detecting broad swipes of your hand above or in front of the phone, allowing you to skip songs, silence calls, or snooze alarms. But even with this small number of supported actions, it drastically changes the way you use the device. Listening to music and suddenly Lil Pump comes on? Just slap the air above the Pixel 4 and delight as “Esskeeit” gets nexted into oblivion where it belongs.

It’s like the Pixel 4 understands the kneejerk response that is “Nah” like a good friend managing your playlist. And if you have the phone sitting in a charging stand or mounted to the dash on your car, things work even better, allowing you to dismiss annoying alarms or songs without ever really having to think about it. That said, while Google’s Motion Sense accuracy isn’t perfect, in my experience, the Pixel 4's hand tracking and swipe detection worked 9 out of 10 times. It makes similar gesture recognition systems like LG’s Air Motions seem like they’re playing JV ball.

The Pixel 4's sense of humanity even extends to features like Live Captions (which can be toggled on and off from an icon in the phone’s volume controls) and the Recorder app’s Live Transcribe feature, which are incredible examples of natural language recognition. It doesn’t matter if you’re listening to a podcast, watching a documentary on Netflix, or recording an interview, the Pixel 4 can understand spoken word almost as well as a regular person. For someone who’s been trained to carry a dedicated audio recorder for recording interviews, the Pixel 4's Recorder app is a revelation.

Though when you do need some outside help, the new version of the Google Assistant is ready and waiting. Thanks to improved contextual language recognition, after asking about today’s weather, you can simply follow that up by asking, “How about the rest of the week?” to get a longer forecast, instead of having to rephrase the entire question. The Google Assistant is also better at retrieving things like concert dates or finding the right pic from your recent photos. And in case your hands are busy elsewhere, you can even ask the Google Assistant to open specific apps or toggle settings like Bluetooth on or off. (Note: This is something everyone’s least favorite digital assistant Bixby has been able to do for years.)

In some ways, even the Pixel 4's design feels more human. For a device that’s made out of metal and glass, it doesn’t feel like that at all. The Pixel 4's glass back features a lovely soft-touch finish that resists fingerprints and the coldness of normal glass. The phone feels more like leather—or dare I say—human skin. Meanwhile, the matte finish on the band around the outside of the phone feels closer to unglazed ceramic than metal, which gives the phone a somewhat earthy, organic texture.

Also, regardless of which Pixel 4 you choose—either the standard 5.7-inch model or the 6.3 Pixel 4 XL—you get a lovely 90Hz screen that makes pretty much everything look smoother. By default, the Pixel 4's 90Hz refresh rate doesn’t apply to every single app (though you can force 90Hz all the time via a hidden developer setting). Most videos still top out at 60 FPS, which means you wouldn’t see a benefit either way. But thanks to its 90Hz screen, even little things like swiping up to open the app drawer feels snappier. It also adds newfound joy to timewasters like Candy Crush or more intense games like Dota Underlords.

And then there’s the Pixel 4's camera. Not only is there a handy new drop-down that makes tweaking settings like flash, timers, and video modes easier to access, Google has also incorporated Google Lens right into the Pixel 4's viewfinder, so there’s no need to flip between apps. If you see something and want to know more, just press and hold on the object and the phone will dig up everything it can, or read the text on something so you can copy and paste it that info somewhere else.

That last part feels like a dream because for so long, the frustration of a computer not recognizing text made by another computer simply because that info came from a camera instead of a digital file didn’t really make sense. You know what it says, the computer that printed displayed or printed out the text knows what it says, but because the format was wrong, that thing suddenly gets lost in translation.

And this is all before we talk about the Pixel’s new 16-MP 2x telephoto camera (alongside its 12-MP main cam), new camera modes, and improved image quality. Starting with standard HDR+ shots, the Pixel 4 continues to impress, pumping out photos with excellent details, rich colors, and wide dynamic range compared to both the iPhone 11 and Galaxy Note 10.

But for me, the bright spot is Google’s new dual exposure controls, which allow you to independently adjust the brightness of the foreground and background in your pics. For years, I’ve been hoping Google would add manual photo controls to the Pixel’s camera. However, after talking to Marc Levoy earlier this year—the head of Google’s computational photography team—I learned that because of the way Google’s HDR+ stacks multiple images on top of each other, simply adding dials for traditional settings like shutter speed and ISO doesn’t really make sense. That makes dual exposure controls the next best thing, allowing Pixel 4 owners to take advantage of HDR+, while also giving you the freedom and control to tweak images as you see fit.

As for the Pixel 4's new 2x optical zoom lens, I pitted it against the reigning kind of smartphone zoom in the Huawei P30 Pro to see how optical zoom plus Google’s Super Res Zoom really holds up. On its own, it’s really impressive what Google can do, using digital enhancement in tandem with a dedicated zoom lens to shoot images with a 5x zoom. However, when compared side-by-side against the P30 Pro’s true 5x optical zoom, it’s clear that really good optics still can’t be beaten.

My one major disappointment with the Pixel 4 is that in the five days I’ve had the phone, I haven’t been able to test its new astrophotography mode. In theory, enabling Night Sight and then pointing the phone at the night sky should automatically trigger the phone’s astrophotography mode. However, because it’s been cloudy and I deal with a lot of light pollution from a big city, I get nothing. That means, depending on where you are, you may need to go out of your way to take advantage of this feature.

However, as great as all of the Pixel 4's new software and second camera are, I really wish Google paid more attention to the rest of the phone’s hardware. There’s no getting around this, Pixel 4's lack of an ultra-wide-angle camera feels like a major oversight. Not only does it put the Pixel 4 a step behind its biggest competitors in the iPhone 11 and Galaxy S10, but also on unequal footing compared to flagship phones from LG, OnePlus, Huawei, Motorola and more, which all released phones with triple rear camera modules in 2019. There’s really no excuse.

The Pixel 4 also suffers from mediocre battery life, particularly the standard Pixel 4 and its 2,800 mAh battery. With a time of 10 hours and 38 minutes on our video rundown test, the standard Pixel 4's battery life is two hours shorter than the average battery life of every phone I’ve tested in 2019. That 10:38 number is closer to mid-range phones like the Moto G7 than it is to similarly priced competitors like the Galaxy S10 (14:45) or the OnePlus 7 Pro (13:36). Thankfully, the Pixel 4 XL fares slightly better with a time of 12:36, though that’s still not really a number worth bragging about.

Now I must add that for a typical user, both phones are certainly capable of lasting throughout a full day’s use. But this also means that anyone who even remotely labels themselves a power user or is someone that gets anxious about running out of juice, the Pixel 4 XL is your only choice. Sorry small phone fans.

In fact, the Pixel 4's general specs don’t fare well against its competitors. That’s because while the Pixel 4 has a Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 processor like almost every ether Android flagship in 2019, it only gets 6GB of RAM (2GB less than a base Galaxy S10) and a base 64GB of storage (compared to GS10's 128GB of base storage). Furthermore, storage can only be upgraded to a total of 128GB, while companies like Samsung, Apple, and others offer configs with 512GB or more, which feels even worse when you remember the Pixel 4 doesn’t support microSD expandability.

While some might say this specs race isn’t all that important, it actually affects other areas of the phone, like the Pixel’s video recording. Unlike pretty much every other high-end phone, the Pixel 4 can only record 4K video at 30 FPS, not 60 FPS, which Google claims is to help prevent videos from taking up too much space on the phone. But if there was more storage to go around, support for 4K 60 FPS video wouldn’t be a problem in the first place.

Still, despite all of its shortcomings, the Pixel 4 is an amazing and sometimes even a jaw-dropping phone. Between features like Live Transcribe and Google Lens integration, the Pixel 4 is smarter, more thoughtful, and more human than any other phone on the market. And if you’re not someone who typically gets bogged down with specs, I’d argue the Pixel 4 is the best pocket computer—or should I say pocket companion—to buy right now.

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