Fountains of virtual ink have been spilled over the Pixel 4’s stamina and how the phone’s battery life isn’t all that it could be.
Me? After living with the Pixel 4 for a few weeks now, I’m not quite as down on its staying power as some folks were whilst working up early reviews of the device. I think somewhere between “okay” and “borderline acceptable” sums up my experience with the phone’s endurance thus far: I’m consistently making it through what I’d call full typical days for me, at this point, but I’m sometimes cutting it closer than I’d like by the end of the day — something that certainly doesn’t inspire confidence about how the phone might fare when I’m traveling or having another sort of day with unusually high usage.
I’ve heard from quite a few folks who bought the Pixel 4 and are having similarly adequate experiences in the stamina department — part of the inevitable variance that comes with battery life, given the differences in how we all use our phones, and perhaps also the effect of Android’s Adaptive Battery system kicking in as the software starts to optimize its power consumption — but still, I don’t think anyone would describe the device’s battery life as exemplary. And I’d say there’s little real question that it could, and arguably should, be better.
Well, something came to my attention with the phone’s power-related performance this week, and I can’t help but wonder if it’s at least part of the problem.
It’s all about the Pixel 4’s standby power consumption — the way the phone burns through battery life when it’s idle and you aren’t actively using it. And it’s really quite baffling.
Since 2015’s Android 6.0 Marshmallow release, y’see, Android has had a power management system called Doze in place. Doze is designed to make sure your phone uses the absolute minimum amount of power required whenever it’s unplugged, completely still, and with its screen off. It basically puts your phone into a deep sleep when it’s idle and allows only critical, high-priority tasks to take place.
When Doze first came around, the difference was incredible. Instead of losing a considerable amount of power overnight, phones were suddenly shedding little to none of their charge during those unused hours. You could set your phone down before going to bed and then wake up to find it with almost the same percent of power as when you left it — or maybe with a drop of a point or two at most.
With the Pixel 4, I’ve been seeing the phone drop by as much as 16 percentage points while it’s sitting completely still and unused overnight. That, suffice it to say, is a massive loss of battery life — a drop reminiscent of the pre-Marshmallow, pre-Doze days. And most vexing of all, it seems to be happening for no valid reason.
My observations with this certainly aren’t scientific, but they’ve been remarkably consistent across several days and two different Pixel 4 devices I’ve been using. And my setup on the phones is quite standard, without any unusual apps or anything (even Facebook) that’d logically be keeping the system awake. I keep the Always-On Display option deactivated, which means the screen is completely dark and inactive during the overnight hours. What’s more, when I look at the specific breakdown of what apps and services consumed battery power during that period, the only item that ever shows a meaningful increase in usage from night to morning is “Phone idle,” which usually goes up by a few points during the night. “Android System” and “Wi-Fi” both also typically bump up by a single percentage point each. Nothing else changes.
Just to be thorough, I tried checking this on a few nights with a Pixel 4 that had been freshly factory-reset, had barely been used, and had nothing on it other than the default apps that came preinstalled on the phone. The drop was slightly less extreme on that device but still significantly more than you’d expect to see in a post-Marshmallow, Doze-enabled world, with the phone losing 8 to 13 percentage points while sitting unused overnight.
And while this isn’t the type of thing most people would pick up on, signs suggest I’m not the only one. I’ve heard from a few Pixel-4-owning readers who have experienced similar levels of overnight power loss with the device. A search of the XDA Developers forum — a website popular with Android enthusiasts — also turns up multiplereports of similar behavior, as does a perusal of Pixel-relatedsections of Reddit. All considered (and particularly with the factory-reset, no-apps-added phone in the mix), it’s enough to make it seem like more than just a fluke thing or a setup-specific anomaly.
Oh, and one more thing: For further comparison, I took the same night-to-morning battery measurements with my wife’s Pixel 3a phone (which, in case you were wondering, earned me an exasperated sigh along with the now-standard “What are you doing to my phone now?” response). Her phone saw a drop of only 3 percentage points during the same time period — a number that’s more in line with what you should see from a Doze-enabled Android device.
Now, I know what you must be thinking: This is surely all because of Motion Sense — the Pixel 4’s radar-based hand gesture system — right? That certainly seems like a logical conclusion; after all, the radar chip is always watching for movement around the phone, so it’s only sensible that it could eat away at power even when the phone isn’t in use.
I thought that might be the case, too, but I tested the Pixel 4’s overnight power drop with Motion Sense completely disabled — and guess what? Absolutely no difference. The phone experienced the exact same drop for me, with or without the radar system running (a 16-point decrease on two consecutive nights with the same number of hours and the presence of Motion Sense acting as the only distinguishing variable). That makes it seem pretty clear to me that Motion Sense isn’t a meaningful factor in the Pixel 4’s idle-time power consumption.
But it also seems pretty clear to me that something funky is going on — and that the Pixel 4 is losing more power than it oughta be when it’s resting and inactive. And it’s hard not to wonder if that same pattern might, on some level, also be responsible for the accelerated depletion the phone seems to experience during the day. I’ve often noticed that the battery life falls a surprising amount even when I’m not actively using it — like just now, when I set it down on my desk and didn’t touch it for 90 minutes, and yet the battery level had dropped by 3 percentage points by the end. Not a single app or service had been active, and the only items in the battery stats that had any form of elevated usage were “Android System” and “Phone idle.” I saw similar results when repeating that experiment with the just-reset, almost-nothing-on-it Pixel 4 as well. What’s going on?
I reached out to Google early this week to see if anyone could offer an explanation or even an assurance that, yes, something seems to be amiss and that a software update could resolve this. The company has been looking at bug reports that I captured and submitted and thinks the problem may be at least in part related to something peculiar happening with the phone and the Google Cast system, as one of the devices was evidently kept awake by a curiously high amount of inexplicable Cast-related activity during the night. I’ll update this page if I receive any additional info.
For now, it seems safe to say that something is up with the Pixel 4’s standby power consumption — something that’s absolutely affecting the phone’s overnight stamina and quite possibly affecting its overall staying power to some degree as well. The issue may or may not be limited to the Pixel 4 — and it may or may not be affecting all Pixel 4 units — but given my observations and the observations from others noticing similar patterns, it sure seems likely that there’s some connection. (And we know, at the very least, that the Pixel 3a doesn’t appear to be affected.)
If it’s something that Google can pinpoint and resolve, the Pixel 4 might just go from being “okay” to being “pretty decent” with stamina, at least for people like me whose usage isn’t exceptionally demanding.
Pixel phones have a bit of a reputation for being rough around the edges in their first couple months of existence and then getting smoothed out and more commendable after a round or two of fixes. Let’s see if the Pixel 4 and its stamina saga follow that same pattern — or if the device’s current level of staying power is simply as good as it gets.
Sign up for my weekly newsletter to get more practical tips, personal recommendations, and plain-English perspective on the news that matters.
Face Unlock is one of the Google Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL’s flagship features. But if the facial recognition is a form of biometric security you’re uncomfortable with, you can delete your face data right off the phone. Here’s how.
Start by jumping into the Settings menu. The easiest way to do this is by swiping down twice on the home screen until the quick tiles are exposed. From there, tap on the gear icon.
Alternatively, you can swipe up on the home screen to open the app drawer. Scroll down and select the “Settings” app.
Next, tap on the “Security” option.
Finally, locate and tap on the “Face Unlock” button. To proceed, you’ll need to enter your screen lock, whether that be a password, PIN, or pattern.
In the Face Unlock menu, scroll to the bottom of the page and tap on the “Delete Face Data” button.
The Google Pixel 4 or Pixel 4 XL will verify you want to disable Face Unlock. Confirm that you want to remove your face data by tapping the “Delete” button.
With the data deleted, Face Unlock will be disabled on your phone. The screen lock will remain in place, ensuring your device stays secure.
A ton of super cool Pixel 4 and 4 XL cases are already on the market in just about every style and form factor. Just know that the cases listed in this article are all from reputable brands, they’re all gentle on your phone, they all have raised bezels to protect your display, and they work with wireless charging. Any other details are mostly aesthetic.
So let’s get into it. Here are six killer cases for your new Pixel 4 or Pixel 4 XL.
Soft and Stylish: The Official Google Pixel 4 Case
Google’s official Pixel 4 or 4 XL fabric cases are badass (especially the coral-colored one). They’re made of a durable nylon fabric that you can clean by hand, they have a microfiber interior to protect your Pixel’s backside (that resale value), and they have raised edges to reduce impact on the screen when you inevitably drop your phone. Plus, they look super cool, and they work with wireless chargers.
Affordable and Customizable: dbrand Skins and Cases
Always check dbrand before buying a phone case. dbrand sells cool skins for just about every device imaginable, and the company’s Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL offerings are exceptionally cool (you can even customize the “G” logo’s color). These skins are super affordable, they look awesome, and they work with wireless chargers. What’s not to love?
If you really want the protection of a case, you could always customize one of dbrand’s Pixel 4 or Pixel 4 XL cases—you can even put the company’s skins on the back of the case for a bit of extra customization.
It Holds Money: Maxboost mWallet Case
If you’re more of a wallet case kind of person, then you should check out Maxboost’s wallet case for the Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL. It’s a magnetic-latched case that has room for three credit cards (or some cash). It can also act as a kickstand and works with wireless charging if you’re into that kinda thing.
Wait, if you usually use a wallet case, then how have you been carrying your money around since buying a Pixel 4?
It Holds Money
It’s Basically Invisible: Spigen Ultra Hybrid Clear Case
What if there was a phone case that didn’t look like a phone case? The Spigen Ultra Hybrid clear case for the Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL is basically an invisible case. It’s clear, it’s slim (0.11 inches thick), and it only costs $10. It also works with wireless charging, which makes sense because a wireless charger can’t see the clear Spigen case (that’s not actually how this works).
By the way, Spigen also sells a clear Liquid Crystal case for the Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL. It’s slightly thinner than the Ultra Hybrid case, so it’s a good option for anyone who wants to get as caseless as possible.
It’s Basically Invisible
Strong and Beefy: UAG Monarch Series Case
All right, we’ve had fun looking at pretty (and invisible) phone cases. Now it’s time to look at a big, beefy phone case. The UAG Monarch Series case for the Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL is made from super grippy rubber, has screen-protecting edges, and meets the “Military Standard for drop and shock protection.” It also works with wireless charging, which is good to hear.
Plain Jane: Speck Presidio Pro Basic Case
We’ve covered all kinds of styles and form factors, but sometimes it’s nice to just go back to the rudiments. Speck’s Presidio Pro case for the Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL is super basic. It’s a dual-layer rubber case with a raised bezel for your display, it’s black, it’s soft, and it works with wireless charging. And that’s really all there is to it. Does this case even have a logo on it?
Google’s Face Unlock feature on the Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL automatically bypasses the lock screen once it authenticates your identity. Unfortunately, this means you can’t check notifications prior to entering the phone. Here’s how to disable the Skip Lock Screen feature.
Begin by heading into the handset’s Settings menu. The easiest way to do this is by swiping down on the home screen to view your notification shade and then swiping down again to access the quick tiles. Next, tap on the gear icon to enter the Settings menu.
Alternatively, you can swipe up from the home screen and open the “Settings” app from the app drawer.
Scroll down and select the “Security” option.
Now locate and tap on “Face Unlock” in the Device Security section. You’ll need to authenticate yourself using whichever form of lock screen security you have set up (password, PIN, or pattern).
Lastly, toggle off the “Skip Lock Screen” option.
With the Skip Lock Screen feature off, you’ll need to swipe up on the lock screen to enter your Google Pixel 4 or Pixel 4 XL. Although it removes the almost-instant unlocking process, you can now view and interact with your notifications without completely jumping into your handset.
The new Pixel 4 and 4 XL are wonderful smartphones, in part because of their support for third-party 11-watt wireless charging. Here are some wireless chargers that’ll actually reach those impressive speeds.
Hold on, is this actually a new feature? Kind of. The good old Pixel 3 does support fast wireless charging, but only with the official (and expensive) Pixel Stand. The new Pixel 4 and 4 XL are special because they can charge at 11-watts on wireless chargers that aren’t made by Google.
Before Buying a Wireless Charger
Wireless chargers come in all shapes and sizes, which is why some are better for the Pixel 4 than others. We’ve narrowed things down to just five wireless chargers, but they all have their quirks, so it’s important that you know what you’re looking for in a charger before you start shopping.
Here’s what to look for in a wireless charger:
Speed/wattage: The wireless chargers that we’re covering today support 10- or 15-watt charging. While 10-watt wireless charging is by no means “slow,” you’ll need a 15-watt wireless charger to reach the Pixel 4 or 4 XL’s maximum wireless charging speed.
Style: Wireless charging kickstands make it easy to use your phone (or watch Netflix) while catching a charge. But they’re not as portable or stealthy as wireless charging pads.
Additional features: Some wireless chargers double as power banks or morph your Pixel into a smart display. If you’re keen on these extra features, then you’ll have to go beyond the typical charging pads and stands.
Now that you know what to look for in a wireless charger, let’s get right into it. Here are our favorite wireless chargers for the Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL.
Best Overall: CHOETECH 15-Watt Stand
For its price, the CHOETECH 15-watt wireless charging stand is one of the best wireless chargers on the market. It’s an attractive stand that’s powerful enough to charge your Pixel 4 at 11 watts, and it even comes with a USB cable and power brick (to ensure you’re actually getting the full wattage out of this charger).
Just keep in mind that the CHOETECH wireless charging stand doesn’t have some features of the official Pixel Stand, like ambient lighting alarms or automated Do Not Disturb features. It’s just a super-fast charging stand.
Best Premium Pick: Official 10-Watt Pixel Stand
Looking for something special? The official 10-watt Pixel Stand goes above and beyond the responsibilities of a wireless charger. It essentially turns your Pixel 4 or 4 XL into a smart display, with automatic Nest integration, photo slideshows, and alarm features. The Pixel Stand even has a built-in ambient light that can gently wake you up in the morning, and it can set your phone into “Do Not Disturb” mode automatically.
Oh yeah, it also works as a wireless charger. At 10 watts, the Pixel Stand is close enough to your Pixel 4’s 11-watt charging speed, and it comes with a USB cable and power adapter.
Best Budget Option: LETSCOM 15-Watt Charging Pad
For under $15, the LETSCOM 15-watt charging pad is a fantastic wireless charger. It’s got more than enough speed for your Pixel 4 or 4 XL, and it’s only about an eighth of an inch thick, so you could easily keep it in a bag or use it for a low profile charger on your bedside table.
This LETSCOM charging pad comes with a USB-C cable, but it doesn’t come with a power adapter. You’ll need to use a USB-C adapter that supports at least 15-watt charging, so you can always use the one that came with your Pixel 4.
Best for Cars: ELEGIANT 15-Watt Charging Car Mount
Don’t play with cables while you drive. If you want to safely charge your Pixel 4 in the car, try using the ELEGIANT 15-watt wireless charging mount. It’s a reasonably priced charger that can mount to your car’s windshield, dashboard, or air vents. It even comes with a USB-C cable.
It’s worth mentioning that the USB ports in cars tend to run at a low power (like 5 watts). Unless your car happens to have high-speed USB ports, you’ll want to use the ELEGIANT wireless charger with a cigarette lighter adapter.
Best for Cars
Best Portable Option: HOKONUI 10-Watt Wireless Power Bank
Looking for a wireless charger that doesn’t have to plug into the wall? The HOKONUI 10,000 mAh portable power bank actually works as a 10-watt wireless charger, and it even has a USB-C port and two USB-A ports for wired charging.
With its 10,000 mAh capacity, this battery can charge a Pixel 4 (2,800 mAh) about three times. Or it can charge a Pixel 4 XL (3,700 mAh) about two times.
Google ditched the fingerprint sensor and instead went with facial recognition on the Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL. If you didn’t enable Face Unlock during the phone’s setup process, here’s how to configure it from the Settings menu.
To get started, swipe down on the home screen twice to expose the quick settings tiles. Tap on the gear icon to jump into the Settings menu.
Alternatively, you can swipe up on the home screen to view the app drawer. From there, scroll down and select the “Settings” app.
Next, scroll down and tap on the “Security” option.
Before you proceed, make sure you have a screen lock enabled. If you don’t have a password, PIN, or pattern set up to unlock your Pixel 4 or Pixel 4 XL, you’ll need to tap on “Screen Lock” and follow the on-screen instructions.
With your handset now secure, tap on the “Face Unlock” option to set up the facial recognition feature.
Your phone will now explain how Face Unlock works along with a warning that the feature works even if you’re not directly looking at the device. Tap on the “Next” button to proceed.
The Pixel 4 will now walk you through how to hold the phone and rotate your head while setting up Face Unlock. Select the “Start” button to start the setup process.
Select the “Setup for Limited Vision or Head Motion” option if either of those things pertains to you. Doing this will provide you with more accessible instructions for setting up Face Unlock.
Follow the on-screen instructions for setting up Face Unlock. Continue rotating your head until all of the blue boxes have disappeared.
Once complete, Face Unlock should be set up and ready to go. Hit the “Done” button to jump out of the installation process.
You can now test Face Unlock by hitting the power button and locking the Google Pixel 4 or Pixel 4 XL. Tap the display or press the power button again and watch the handset unlock almost instantly.
The inclusion of Soli’s radar technology brings hands-free gestures to the Google Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL. Some of the included features allow you to silence calls, skip songs, wake the phone, and more. Here’s how to tweak Motion Sense.
To get to the Motion Sense menu where all of the available features are located, you’re going first to need to head into the Settings menu. To do this, swipe down twice on your homescreen and then tap on the gear icon.
Alternatively, swipe up on the homescreen and select the “Settings” app from the app drawer.
From the Settings menu, scroll down and tap on the “System” option.
Lastly, select the “Motion Sense” button to gain access to all of the available features.
Completely Disable Motion Sense
Before we start enabling, disabling, or tweaking the Pixel 4’s various Soli gestures, the first option in the menu is to turn off Motion Sense completely. Doing so won’t break any of the phone’s functionality, and doing so can potentially help save battery life.
If you want to turn off the radar feature, tap on the toggle next to the “Motion Sense” listing.
Skip and Repeat Songs
One of the most advertised Motion Sense features is the ability to skip between songs. If you don’t use it (or find that it doesn’t work well), you can disable the feature.
First, select the “Skip Songs” option.
Next, tap the toggle next to the “Skip Songs” item. Doing this will altogether disable the ability to swipe between songs hands-free.
The other option in this secondary menu is the ability to change the swipe direction. By default, you have to wave your hand right to left to skip to the next song. Reverse this by selecting “Swipe Direction” and changing the setting so that the next song selection uses a left to right gesture.
Silence Interruptions Such as Alarms and Calls
Similar to the music controls, you can silence alarms, timers, and calls with a wave of your hand. If you don’t want to snooze your alarm while still being half asleep accidentally, you can turn the feature off.
Start by tapping on the “Silence Interruptions” option in the Quick Gestures section.
From there, select the toggle next to the “Silence Interruptions” listing. Now, moving your hand in front of your Pixel 4 won’t silence any ongoing notifications.
Reach to Check Phone
One of the most helpful but also potentially annoying Motion Sense features is Reach to check phone. When enabled, the Google Pixel 4 or Pixel 4 XL will wake the screen and turn on Face Unlock the moment Soli detects nearby motion.
Although this feature is useful when picking up the handset to unlock it, reaching up to scratch your nose or take a sip of water can trigger the device to wake up.
To disable the Motion Sense feature, first, tap on the “Reach to Check Phone” button.
Next, select the toggle next to the “Reach to Check Phone” option. With it off, you will need to tap on the display or hit the power button to wake the phone and launch Face Unlock.
One of the Google Pixel 4 and 4 XL’s key features is its 90Hz display. But if you’re trying to save battery life, you can turn off the high refresh rate. Here’s how to keep the phone’s screen at 60 Hz.
How to Disable the 90Hz Display
To begin, swipe down on your home screen twice to move past the notification shade and into the quick tiles section. Tap on the gear icon to open the Settings menu.
Alternatively, you can swipe up from the home screen to open the app drawer. From there, locate and select the “Settings” app.
Scroll down and tap on the “Display” option.
Select the “Advanced” button to expand the menu.
Locate and tap on the “Smooth Display” option.
Select the toggle next to “Smooth Display” to disable the 90Hz display. As the Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL will be locked at 60 Hz, you should experience a slightly better battery life.
How to Force 90Hz Refresh Rate
If you’re not worried about battery life and want the Google Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL to always run at 90Hz, you force the better-looking display. We don’t recommend this as it will run down your battery faster.
Before you can access the option to force the higher refresh rate, you have to enable Developer Options. To do this, swipe down on your display twice to access the quick settings tiles. Tap on the gear icon to open the Settings menu. Alternatively, open the “Setting” app from the app drawer.
Scroll down to the bottom of the menu and select the “About Phone” option.
Locate the “Build Number” item at the bottom of the page and rapidly tap on it. After a couple of seconds, you will be asked to authenticate yourself using the lock screen passcode (password, PIN, etc.).
Now that the setting is enabled hit the back button and select the “System” option.
Scroll down and tap on “Advanced” to expand the full menu.
Locate and select the “Developer Options” button.
Either use the search tool to locate “Force 90Hz Refresh Rate” or scroll down and tap on the option within the “Debugging” section.
Select the toggle next to “Force 90Hz Refresh Rate” to turn the feature off.
Again, we don’t recommend you for the 90Hz refresh rate. Almost everyone that has used the Google Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL has commented on the phone’s poor battery life. Forcing the higher refresh rate will make the device die faster than usual.
Well, this has sure been an interesting week, hasn’t it?
Now, hang on: I’m not talking about that other news going on in the good ol’ U.S. of A. right now. That’s a different column for a different publication. No — here in the land o’ Android, the high-stakes debate revolves around the Pixel 4 and whether Google’s latest flagship phone is a device worth buying.
And you know what? The more you think about that question, the more you realize just how prickly of a situation Google’s currently facing as it works to turn its phone from niche-level, enthusiast darling into mainstream success.
I often find historical parallels to be a useful tool for making sense of present-day situations. And while “historical” may be a relative term when it comes to mobile technology, it suddenly dawned on me that the story we’re seeing play out with the Pixel 4 right now has an awful lot in common with a major milestone in Google’s past.
Put on your thinking caps, gang. It’s time to get philosophical.
The Pixel 4 philosophy
We’ll come back to that historical connection in a minute. First, we need to think through what actually makes the Pixel 4 special — what qualities it possesses, regardless of whether it’s a phone you’d personally purchase or not, that are truly exceptional and noteworthy in the field of Android options.
It’s a trickier question than you’d expect to answer. I mean, think about it:
The Pixel 4’s camera is spectacular, without a doubt, but let’s be honest: We’re reaching a point where other device-makers are catching up enough in the field of photography that the difference between one commendable phone’s pictures and another is almost academic. Unless someone spends a ton of time taking photos of the night sky — or devotes an unusual amount of energy to studying the fine detail in side-by-side comparisons, as reviewers alone tend to do — are the Pixel 4’s photography-related advantages really going to be that meaningful for most people? I’m not so sure.
The Pixel 4’s radar-based hand gesture system is certainly quite novel — and genuinely practical, I’d contend, in certain limited circumstances (both in enhancing the convenience of the phone’s face unlock system and in providing a way to control certain phone functions with minimal fuss and interruption). But for now, at least, it’s more of an interesting added nicety than anything that’ll truly convince someone who isn’t already sold on the Pixel brand that they need this device.
The phone’s presently exclusive new Assistant setup is a welcome enhancement over the standard Assistant implementation, but it really is more of an evolutionary change than a revolutionary one — and, again, it strikes me as more of a nice little enhancement than a broadly marketable selling point.
So what is it that makes the Pixel 4 special, then, if not those outward-facing qualities that Google itself is emphasizing in its presentation of the phone?
Let me end the suspense: It’s the overall user experience — a fancy way of saying the big picture of what the device is like to use in the real world and how it’s likely to hold up in the years that you own it. That’s the area where Google achieves something no other Android manufacturer can provide and the area where the Pixel 4 offers an unmatched level of quality and value. And that, unfortunately for Google, is something that’s extraordinarily difficult to impress upon the average phone purchaser — because you really have to live with a device in your day-to-day life for a good long while to appreciate it.
As almost anyone who uses a lot of Android phones will tell you, the experience of using a Pixel phone is markedly different from the experience of using most other Android devices. It’s not about all the little bits and pieces; it’s about how they all come together to create a complete and cohesive-feeling whole. It’s about how Google’s services blend seamlessly into Google’s software and everything exists together in a native-feeling, consistent environment.
And that’s to say nothing of how the experience evolves over time, with the Pixel being the sole Android device to come with a guarantee of three full years of timely and reliable operating system and security updates (both of which really do matter, on a variety of levels — including, most critically, privacy, security, and performance).
It’s all about the forest, in other words — not the trees. And it’s no wonder such a quality is difficult to convey. After all, a flashy phone exterior or low-bezel design catches your eye and makes a device seem exceptional on the surface. Big numbers on a spec sheet are easy to quantify. But over the two to three years that you’re likely to own a phone, it’s hard to argue that those factors will have the same impact as the device’s software and the experience it creates.
And therein lies the pickle: How do you get a typical habit-following phone buyer to understand or appreciate qualities that are so intangible? How do you convey the notion of a device simply being more pleasant to use, in an abstract sense — or the significance of knowing your phone will receive software updates as they’re released instead of six to 12 months later (or sometimes never)? How do you explain that with Android in 2019, the factors that tend to have the greatest impact on you over time aren’t the ones that are easiest to measure or see with a passing glance?
It isn’t easy. And it isn’t made any easier by the fact that the Pixel 4 comes with some big buts attached — especially the one about the device’s unexceptional battery life. Google isn’t helping itself by adding that kind of asterisk onto an already challenging-to-sell picture.
And that brings us back to the past.
Hello (again), Moto
The year was 2013. Google had just come out with what was technically its first self-made phone, though with a very different set of circumstances surrounding it.
The device was the Moto X — the result of Google’s short-lived marriage with Motorola and a phone whose saga suddenly seems relevant again today.
The Moto X, as you may recall, didn’t have the flashiest appearance or the best specs in the land. Lots of folks looked at the phone and said, “Pshaw! Why should I pay this much for a phone that runs that processor and has only that many gigawatts when I can get Fancy Flagship A and its superior specs for the same price?”
All right, so I’m paraphrasing. But you get the idea: On paper, the Moto X wasn’t the most exciting player on the field. It didn’t have the best specs, it didn’t have the showiest design, and — here’s the real déjà vu moment for ya — its stamina wasn’t exactly exemplary.
If you’re looking for specific isolated pieces of technology … the Moto X probably isn’t the phone for you. It’s by no means a perfect device, and there are absolutely individual areas where other smartphones come out ahead.
But if you’re looking for a thoughtfully designed phone with genuinely compelling features — and, most important, a cohesive and outstanding overall user experience that’ll delight you from the moment you pick it up — you’ll be hard-pressed to find another product that matches what the Moto X provides.
That all sounds strangely familiar, doesn’t it? Now, let’s be real: It’s obnoxious that after all this time, Google still hasn’t figured out how to make a phone with better-than-middling battery life. It’s a shame that, in 2019, the company’s fully self-made flagship still comes with asterisks attached and issues to be ironed out at the time of its launch.
But just like with that original Moto X in 2013, the Pixel 4 offers an overall user experience no other device comes close to touching — even in spite of those irritating asterisks. Its value is less tied to the type of processor inside or the amount of included internal storage (which, really, is far less significant with an Android phone today than most people make it out to be) and more about the device’s difficult-to-quantify differentiators.
At the same time, of course, the most important of those differentiators are also all present in the now-deeply-discounted Pixel 3 as well as in the midrange Pixel 3a, so take from that what you will. (And yes, there’s another interesting Google-Moto parallel lurking in there.)
Putting it all together…
The Pixel, as I first contended following the original model’s launch three years ago, is the rebirth of Google’s unrealized Motorola dream — an even more ambitious attempt to create what the company tried to achieve with the Moto brand years ago but couldn’t quite pull off with its 2013 realities.
Unfortunately, that also means the same core challenge that was present in 2013 remains a hurdle today — the challenge of translating a device’s intangible strengths into significant sales that stretch beyond the enthusiast domain. Even if the various asterisks weren’t present, that’d be a difficult hurdle to overcome.
At the end of the day, it’s always easier to focus on the trees than to step back and consider the forest around them. To its credit, Google’s come an impressively long way with hardware over the past few years, particularly when it comes to visibility and availability of its Pixel phones — and it’s already created a standard of comparison to which other devices, Android or otherwise, are being held. That’s no small feat.
But regardless of what progress has been made, the company’s clearly still got its work cut out for it. And on some level, it’s hard not to feel like we’ve seen this story before.
Sign up for my weekly newsletter to get more practical tips, personal recommendations, and plain-English perspective on the news that matters.
Look, I’ll just come out and say it: I’m a big believer in buts.
Now, hang on a sec: You haven’t accidentally stumbled onto the world’s last remaining Sir Mix-a-Lot fan site. (If only!) No, the buts of which I speak at this particular moment are the single “t” variety — as in, the contradictory kinds of statements that are so frequently missing when we talk about technology.
You know what I’m talking about, right? Here in these tribal times of 2019, it’s all too easy to fall into a pattern of seeing a certain sort of product or type of device as being either “awesome” or “inferior,” with little gray space in between those extremes. You’ve used this kind of smartphone for years now, damn it, so it has to be the best! And that other company’s devices are, like, obviously awful. They’re from the competing team! They could never be worth your while.
That mindset is supremely silly, of course. Every product, no matter who made it or what strange sense of loyalty you may feel toward its manufacturer, has its fair share of pros and cons. And forgive me for being cheeky, but almost any statement about a phone’s strengths can be balanced out with a nice, firm “but” attached to it.
Having lived with Google’s new Pixel 4 for several days now, I think five big buts in particular can sum up a lot of important things about the device and what it’s like to use. Let’s explore ’em together, shall we?
1. The Pixel 4’s new face unlock feature is fantastic — but missing a fingerprint scanner still kinda sucks
Eight years after first introducing a face unlocking system (here’s lookin’ at you, Ice Cream Sandwich), Google has finally updated its standard and come out with a version of the system you’ll actually appreciate — and want to use.
The Pixel 4’s face unlock feature is every bit as fast and accurate as Google has promised, and it has a hidden trick up its sleeve: the tiny radar chip tucked away inside the phone that senses when you’re reaching for it and then turns the screen on for you. The combination of that and the near-instant recognition system for identifying your mug makes for a seamless, thought-free unlocking process: Basically, anytime you reach for your phone, it’s on and at your home screen (or whatever screen you were using last) by the time you have it in front of you.
The system’s so good, in fact, that it spoils you for anything else. Once you get used to things, ahem, just working in this way, going back to any other setup feels annoyingly cumbersome, inconvenient, and — dare I say it — even a little dated.
And that brings us to our first but — a multipart but, in this case: That whole radar-enabled, screen-turning-on-automatically thing works only when the phone can sense you reaching for it. And for now, at least, that means it works only when you’re picking the phone up from a surface, like a table.
I don’t know about you, but at least half the time on any given day, I tend to grab my phone out of my pocket — not off of a table. And in that situation, the Pixel 4’s radar doesn’t detect you. The same would hold true for grabbing it out of a purse or any other sort of bag.
Now, this is very much a first-world quibble, but what that means is that when you’re picking the phone up in such a scenario, the device’s screen doesn’t turn itself on and automatically authenticate you, as you’ve grown accustomed to having happen. Instead, you have to press the phone’s power button to manually kick-start that process.
It really isn’t that big of a deal, all considered. The problem is mostly that you get used to one sort of interaction — the “just pick it up and, whoa, wouldja look at that, everything happens automatically!” variety — and so then it’s that much more jarring when you pick up the phone in a different moment and that same thing doesn’t happen. Every time I pull the Pixel out of my pocket, I can’t help but think how nice it’d be to have the option to rest my finger on the phone’s back side as I grab it (ooh, baby) and then have the thing be unlocked by the time I’m looking at it.
Face unlock is fantastic, in other words, but having a fingerprint sensor alongside it — especially one as thoughtfully placed and immaculately reliable as what previous Pixel phones have provided — would be even better.
There’s one other instance where it’s hard not to feel that same sentiment: when using apps where authentication is required. As of now, y’see, hardly any Android apps seem to support the face unlock system — and with no fingerprint sensor on the Pixel 4, that means you’re left with no choice but to manually type in your full credentials every time you need to access such utilities.
That’s been the case thus far with my banking app (Bank of America), my two-factor authentication app (Authy), and my password management app (LastPass). Instead of simply tapping my finger to the back of my phone like I used to, I have to type in my complete password every single time one of those services comes up. It’s irritating, to say the least, and a serious step backward in usability.
In theory, this should be a short-term problem: Google is requiring all developers to update their apps to target the Android 9 (yes, Android 9) version of its programming interfaces by November 1st — which, somehow, is apparently now just over a week away. And the up-to-date interface that’ll let apps work with facial security systems has actually been in place since Android 9, believe it or not. So once apps switch over from the old fingerprint-specific system and onto the newer Android-9-and-up-level all-purpose biometric authentication system, this shouldn’t be an issue.
In the meantime, however, it’s pretty obnoxious.
Oh, and as for all the uproar over the fact that the Pixel 4’s face unlock feature will function even when your eyes are closed — something Google says it’ll address with a software update “in the coming months” — it’s true that it isn’t entirely ideal, particularly if you sleep near and/or are frequently passed out around people who are angling to access top-secret info in your phone. (Side note: You lead a much more exciting life than I.)
But it’s also worth keeping this in context and remembering that the same exact thing could just as easily occur with a fingerprint sensor. We’re approaching pretty theoretical ground here, at least for those of us who aren’t living a Bond-caliber existence. And for anyone who does have genuine concerns about this sort of stuff, well, if you’re that worried about security and keeping your phone locked down when you’re unconscious, you should really be using a PIN or password instead of biometric authentication, anyway — no matter what advanced methods your phone may offer.
2. The Pixel 4’s camera is spectacular — but the lack of unlimited original-quality Google Photos storage is a bit of a bummer
No two ways about it: The Pixel 4’s camera, much like that of its predecessors, is incredible. It does everything past Pixel phones have done in the photography department and then some — and the countless image galleries around the web this week tell the story far better than any words possibly could. (I’ll spare you another such gallery filled with awkward images of my mundane surroundings.) Plain and simple, it doesn’t get much better.
But if you owned a previous Pixel phone, you may be disappointed to learn that this latest model breaks from its predecessors in one noteworthy way: The device no longer comes with free unlimited storage of your images and videos in Google Photos at their full, original resolution.
Now, let’s be clear: You will still have unlimited “high-quality” photo and video backups, just like anyone else who uses Google Photos. But that means all of your images and videos will be compressed when they’re backed up instead of being stored in their original, full-resolution form — something that wasn’t the case with past Pixel devices.
Does that really, truly matter? In the vast majority cases, probably not: For most practical purposes, the difference between full-res images and “high-quality” images in Photos is not at all noticeable. But even so, you never know when the need might arise for a full-res version of a photo or a video in the future, and there’s something to be said for hanging onto your media in its original and highest-possible-quality form.
More broadly, as we discussed in my newsletter last week, having the full-res backups was just a nice little perk of Pixel ownership — one that seemed like a natural fit with the whole “best of Google” concept the Pixel phone embodies. And so seeing it go is a shame.
3. The new Google Assistant is a welcome evolution — but it’s not quite the revolution it looked like it might be
When we watched the demos of Google’s new and improved version of its Google Assistant service — which features a new type of on-device processing that allows it to be significantly faster and more responsive than what we’ve seen before — it was hard not to issue a Keanu-caliber “whoa.” The stuff this thing could do just looked downright transformational.
Our first look at the new Assistant, back at Google’s I/O developers’ conference in May, showed a supercharged system that made it seem like you’d never need to touch your phone’s screen again. I mean, just look at this thing:
The truth is that the new Assistant does work pretty much as demoed. The interface is immensely improved, with a sleek new bottom-of-screen response setup that lets you see when you’re talking to Assistant without having it take over your display. Simple answers also now appear in a small box on top of whatever you’re viewing instead of shooting you over to a whole other process — something that makes so much sense, you’ll wonder why it hasn’t always been that way.
Assistant is noticeably faster now, too, particularly when it comes to tasks like opening apps and moving around your phone. And speaking of apps, the new Assistant can interact with apps in some interesting new ways — like letting you share something from one app to another with a single voice command.
These are all very nice, very welcome improvements. But realistically, they aren’t going to reinvent the way you interact with your phone, as the early demos seemed to suggest. You’re still gonna be tapping on your screen most of the time. You’ll just have an easier, more efficient way to do a handful of specific tasks with your voice, if and when you remember. And you might actually want to use Assistant on your phone more often than you do now.
4. The Pixel 4’s radar-based hand gestures are an interesting addition — but they’re still pretty limited in what they’re able to accomplish
One of the Pixel 4’s most intriguing features is its radar-based system for detecting hand gestures. I’ve personally been excited about this element since we first heard about its presence in the Pixel 4 — because we’ve seen the technology behind it several times in the years it’s been under development, and it really seems like it has the potential to do some incredibly interesting stuff.
Back when we last talked about the radar system, I mentioned three specific reasons why I hoped it would prove to be more than just a gimmick:
Its accuracy. The radar technology, as previous demos have shown us, can track the tiniest hand movements — “micromotions,” like the rubbing or tapping of your thumb and index finger together — and then respond accordingly.
Its distance. The system is able to sense such motions from as far as 49 feet away, even when you aren’t directly in the associated device’s line of sight.
Its ability to detect through materials. The chip can interpret hand movements even through fabrics — meaning it could respond to your gesture commands when the device itself is tucked away in a pocket or purse.
Pretty wild stuff, right? But here’s the downer: In this initial implementation, at least, none of those advantages is actually put to use. The Pixel 4’s Motion Sense system, as it’s called, responds only to a couple of broad hand movements — waving your hand in either direction above the phone in order to move back or forth in a playlist or to snooze alarms, dismiss timers, or silence incoming calls. What’s more, it responds only when your hand is within half a foot or so of the phone’s face. And it doesn’t respond when the phone is behind a layer of fabric and not in your direct sight. (Yes, I tried. Numerous times. And looked incredibly silly as a result.)
Google has said it deliberately limited the system’s capabilities because it wanted to give everyone a chance to get used to the new method of interaction, since it’s almost like learning a new language — and the company promises what we’re seeing now is just the beginning and that more capabilities will be appearing in “the coming months” (which is apparently Google’s favorite unit of time measurement).
And you know what? There might actually be something to that. It really does take a little while to get the hang of using the Pixel 4’s Motion Sense system in a natural-feeling and consistent way. (The trick is to hold your hand perpendicular to the phone — with your palm facing to the side — and then to wave all the way across its face, starting before its left edge and finishing after its right edge (or vice-versa). Once you figure that out, it actually works quite consistently, in my experience.) And learning a bunch of different gesture commands probably would be a lot to take in at once.
For now, Motion Sense is best thought of as a limited-use added convenience — though one, I’d argue, that does have legitimate practical value. If I’m streaming music from my phone while cooking or even just whilst sitting at my desk, it really is quite handy to be able to skip a track without having to swipe around on the screen (or even turn the screen on, for that matter). If I’m playing audio while doing other stuff on my phone, it’s useful to be able to change songs without having to interrupt what I’m doing and swipe down on the notification panel to find and futz with controls. And if I’m at my desk or on the couch and a call comes in, it’s nice to be able to quite literally wave it away without having to so much as pick up the phone. (Not that I’d ever do that with your call, of course.)
It’s a relatively little thing that makes the phone a teensy bit nicer to use — and that’s certainly not nothing. But it’s hard not to feel slightly frustrated at what the system can do right now compared to what we know it has the potential to do.
5. The phone itself is a treat to use — but its battery life should really be better
In general, I’m a firm believer in valuing a phone based on the real-world experience it provides and not the numbers listed on its spec sheet. Who cares what processor a phone is packing or how much RAM it has under its hood as long as it’s working well and giving you the best all-around experience for your needs?
And by and large, the experience of using the Pixel 4 truly is sublime. The phone, as we discussed last week, shows off the sort of value Google alone can deliver by having total control of both the hardware and the software and allowing its various services to shine in a native-feeling environment. Things are just pleasant to use in a way that’s difficult to define but that’s conspicuously absent on many other Android devices, where it frequently feels like you’re caught in the middle of a tug-of-war between Google’s vision and that of another company trying to achieve an unrelated and often conflicting set of goals.
There’s one major asterisk, though, and it’s a significant one: The Pixel 4’s battery life just isn’t what it oughta be. The phone’s stamina hasn’t been as dismal for me as what some reviewers have reported, but it certainly hasn’t been exceptional — far from it. I’d call it decidedly mediocre: Discounting the first day I got the phone, when I started with an incomplete charge and performed an unusual amount of downloading as I set up the device, I’ve made it from morning to night on typical days of use for me. But by the end of the day, I’ve consistently been cutting it much closer than I’d like, and that’s slightly worrisome to see.
What happens when I have an atypical day of use — when I’m traveling or using my phone as a hotspot or stuck at the mechanic and staring at my screen for an extra couple of hours? I don’t know that the Pixel 4 would make it through the day in such a scenario, and while it’s rare for me to go long periods of time without having access to a charger (or having a spare battery pack in my bag), it’d sure be nice to not have to worry about such matters.
And the truth is, battery life is very much all relative. Neither my style of smartphone use nor the amount of time I’m using my device on an average day is the same as everyone else’s. Some people have loads of apps with heavy background processing that burn through power. Some people have five or six hours of active screen-on time every day or rely on their phones as hotspots as a regular rule. There’s a huge spectrum of smartphone usage habits, and for anyone who falls more on the heavy side of things, the Pixel 4 may well present a daily top-off-requiring problem.
For a phone that’s otherwise so exceptional, that’s an unfortunate asterisk to have to stick onto the story. And it’s one that, in 2019, sure seems like a “but” we shouldn’t have to waste our energy thinking about anymore.
But here we are.
The real question with any phone is simply which buts matter the most to you and which trade-offs you’re willing to accept — because at the end of the day, even in 2019, you can’t avoid buts. Every phone’s got ’em. All you can do is pick the buts you’re willing to live with and the ones that come with the kind of all-around package you prefer.
Sign up for my weekly newsletter to get more practical tips, personal recommendations, and plain-English perspective on the news that matters.