A bold new look, substantial upgrades to the camera, and a stunning screen. The Pixel 4 is fighting for your attention, and it’s increasingly looking like it deserves it. I spent some time with the phone at Google’s hardware event in New York City, and here’s what it’s like.

Dawn of a new design

The Pixel 4 looks like no other Pixel phone before it. That’s because the design team wanted to use the addition of a new lens as an opportunity for a complete redesign. How do I know this? I was able to interview two of the designers that worked on the Pixel 4, and they talked in detail about all the changes — you can read the in-depth story here.

Gone is the line separating the two textures typically found on Pixel phones. That means the Pixel 4, which comes in three colors (Oh So Orange, Really Black, and Clearly White), uses only one texture along its back. It’s matte glass on the white and orange models, and glossy glass on the black one.

Google Pixel 4 and 4 XL Hands on
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

What’s distinctive is the Pixel square, which is what the designers call the square camera module housing the dual cameras, as well as the black band around the edges of the phone. The outline nicely frames the phone’s rear design, while also hiding away components like the antenna bands and the speaker grill.

The Pixel square has a black filter layered over so the lenses aren’t so visible, unlike the lenses on the new iPhone 11 Pro. This helps make the square stand out from a distance. The accented power button remains, adding further contrast against the black band.

After dealing with massive bezels and an ugly notch on previous Pixel phones, the Google Pixel 4 looks like Christmas.

I do miss the two-tone look, but I’m quickly warming up to the redesign — especially the black band. I love the contrast it adds, and the phone remains recognizable from a distance. All of this is even more pronounced on the new Oh So Orange color, which looks delightful.

Thankfully, the front of the phone doesn’t look like a crime against nature (I still can’t say the same for the Pixel 3 XL and its hideous notch). There’s no notch, but there is a decently-sized bezel at the top. It houses several critical components as well as the selfie camera, but I don’t think it makes the phone look dated.

The body of the phone is IP68-rated for water and dust resistance, but you’ll still want to slap a case for additional protection as it’s wrapped in Gorilla Glass 5. They feel really nice in the hand, much more so that previous Pixel phones, and I love the matte texture around the sides.

Radar upgrades: Face Unlock and Motion Sense

I’ve been dying to see a proper competitor to Apple’s Face ID on an Android phone, and it looks like Google has come through with Face Unlock. It’s everything I want my biometric authentication to be: fast and secure. It doesn’t just unlock your phone — you can use it to authenticate purchases on Google Play and to log into sensitive apps like the one for your bank.

In fact, it might even be a step ahead of Face ID. The sensors stowed into the thick bezel of the phone utilize Google’s Soli, a radar-based technology that can register 3D objects. These sensors help activate the Face Unlock sensors when the phone senses you reaching for it, priming them and making the unlocking experience dead fast.

Google Pixel 4 and 4 XL Hands on
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

I don’t need to hold the phone up to my face as much as I need to with Apple’s Face ID, and there’s no need to swipe up from the lock screen. It takes you straight to the home screen automatically. I’ll need to do more testing, but I can tell I’m not going to miss the fingerprint sensor.

Another new feature that will require more time to properly test is Motion Sense. This is why Soli technology is in the Pixel 4 in the first place. Wave your hand in the air above the phone, and you can control certain functions. At first, you’re limited to waving to snooze an alarm, silence a call, and change tracks in music apps, but Google said it plans to add more actions and gestures.

The phone understands the gesture quickly and is fast to react. That’s important if Google expects people to use this feature at all. Even more impressive, the gestures work when the phone is in its Always-on Display — the screen doesn’t need to be on for these gestures to work. Fantastic.

I’ll be testing these gestures further to see if they’re a gimmick, as the gestures are on the LG G8 ThinQ, or genuinely helpful, but so far I’m leaning toward the latter.

A smooth screen

The Pixel 4 has a 5.7-inch screen, a small bump over the 5.5-inch Pixel 3, and the Pixel 4 XL has a 6.3-inch panel that’s similar in size as its predecessor. They’re OLED panels with Full HD+ and Quad HD+ resolutions, respectively. Better still, they both have a 90Hz refresh rate.

Like the OnePlus 7T Pro and the Asus ROG Phone 2, the Pixel 4 range is now part of a small club that offers up 90 frames per second (FPS). The phone feels more responsive because you’re seeing more than the usual 60 frames per second. Games that support 90FPS will feel fluid and receptive, but simply moving throughout the Android interface is wonderfully slick.

My biggest worry is the screen’s brightness. I always had trouble seeing the Pixel 3’s screen in direct sunlight, more so than other phones. At the event, I stood by the window, where the sun was beaming down on the screen. I had no trouble seeing the screen, which is promising. Hopefully, this remains the case as I continue to use the phone over the next few weeks.

The speakers have moved to the bottom edge, surrounding the USB-C charging port. I haven’t had a chance to test the speaker’s quality, but I’m expecting to block some of the audio when holding the phone in landscape orientation. Sadly, there’s no headphone jack, despite its return in the more affordable Pixel 3a.

Finally, a second lens

After years of sitting on top, Google was dethroned as the camera king by Apple’s iPhone 11 Pro. It eked out not just in image quality, but also with camera versatility. Google is coming out swinging to win the title back with the Pixel 4, though. There’s finally a second, 16-megapixel telephoto lens accompanying the main 12-megapixel sensor.

It’s disappointing to see there’s no ultra-wide-angle lens, as found on the iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro. An ultra-wide-angle lens would have offered a fresh perspective. That being said, the telephoto lens offers up crisp 2x optically-zoomed in shots, and Super Res Zoom continues to work here, improving digitally-zoomed in photos. Google even said it’s better to pinch in and zoom to take a closer shot, rather than cropping the image after the fact.

However, we’e seeing phones with 3x optical zoom and 10x hybrid zoom, like Huawei’s Mate 30 Pro, so it’ll be interesting to see if Google’s approach can stack up against the competition.

Google says it has improved Night Sight for even better low-light photography — so much so that you can capture photos of the stars if you’re in a dark enough environment. White balance now is learning-based, so it will produce more natural-looking photos in all environments, and Portrait mode is now more accurate, too. Because there are two lenses, you don’t need to zoom in all the way to capture nice portrait shots.

What’s great is Live HDR+, which now lets you preview the final shot before having to tap the shutter button. That means you don’t need to wait for the image to process to see the final result, which helps make it easier to frame the right shot at the beginning.

The additional Dual Exposure mode also offers up some much-needed controls in the barebones camera app, allowing you do adjust highlights and exposure before snapping a shot.

I’ll be testing all these features and doing deep dives to see how the cameras compare against the competition.

Google Pixel 4 and 4 XL Hands on
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

What’s unfortunate is how Google didn’t spend much time talking about the phone’s video capabilities. The Pixel 3’s video recording abilities aren’t great compared to competitors like the iPhone or the Galaxy Note 10 Plus, and it doesn’t seem as though much has changed here on the Pixel 4.

There’s only one front camera for selfies, but Google has opted to use a wide-angle camera here, so you’re getting a similar field of view as the wide-angle second camera on the Pixel 3. That means you can still capture group selfies with ease if you want.

Performance and battery life

Like every flagship Android phone in 2019, the Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL are powered by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 855 processor, and Google has bumped the RAM over last year’s Pixel 3, offering 6GB instead of 4GB. It’s a shame Google didn’t go with the newer Snapdragon 855 Plus chipset found in phones like the OnePlus 7T and the Asus ROG Phone 2, as it boasts slightly improved graphics performance.

Qualcomm is also about to unveil its flagship chip for 2020 — likely called the Snapdragon 865 — and we’ll start seeing smartphones using it early next year. This is a downside to Google’s strategy of releasing phones so late in the year. However, in the brief time I had with the Pixel 4, apps loaded quickly and switching between them felt smooth.

It’s impossible to say what battery life will be like without using the Pixel 4 and 4 XL for longer, but the specs aren’t promising.

Rounding it all up are battery capacities that don’t impress. The Pixel 4 has a 2,800mAh capacity, and the Pixel 4 XL bumps it up significantly to a 3,700mAh. The former is notably smaller than last year’s model, which had a 2,915mAh cell, though the Pixel 4 XL is bigger by 270mAh over the Pixel 3 XL. I’m not a fan of the Pixel 3’s battery life as the phone consistently struggles to get me through a full day of use. It’s impossible to say what battery life will be like without using the Pixel 4 and 4 XL for longer, but the specs aren’t promising.

Phones like the OnePlus 7 Pro have a 4,000mAh battery, a 90Hz screen, and the same flagship processor and it still struggles to last a full day of medium to heavy use. Google’s new Pixel phones will have to be very efficient to match the impressive battery life of Apple’s latest iPhone 11 Pro Max.

Android 10, next-gen Google Assistant

Google’s version of Android 10 is installed, and it’s one of the reasons to buy a Pixel phone. You get fast updates right as Google releases them for three years, and that includes monthly security patches to keep your phone secure. Android 10 isn’t a major update, but it adds a system-wide dark theme, a gesture navigation system, as well as improved transparency and control around apps requesting location data and access to other phone sensors. You can read about all the new features in our roundup.

Google Pixel 4 and 4 XL Hands on
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

The other perks of owning a Pixel come in the form of smart software features. Now Playing is still present, so the phone can tell you the name of the music playing in your surroundings (even without an internet connection); then there’s Call Screen, which screens potential robocalls so you don’t have to talk to a telemarketer.

New on Pixel 4 is an app called Personal Safety, which can detect if you’ve been in a car crash. The app will dial 911 for you (if you’re in the U.S.), and if you set it up beforehand, it can send your location to your emergency contacts as well. This sounds handy, but I hope it doesn’t think I got into a crash if I accidentally drop the phone.

There’s also a new Recorder app, which transcribes in real-time. Unfortunately, it wasn’t working well for me in the hands-on area, so I’m not sure if this is because it was extremely loud or a buggy app. What’s nice is you’ll be able to search through all your transcriptions by looking up words, and you don’t need an internet connection.

The highlight is next-gen Google Assistant, which the company showed off at its developer conference back in May. The user interface looks better, but more importantly, Google is bringing Continued Conversation to Pixel 4, meaning you don’t need to keep saying the “Hey Google,” phrase.

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