NEW YORK— There really aren’t many surprises left, but Google went through the motions today and unveiled the Pixel 4. The P4 is possibly the most-leaked smartphone of our lifetimes, with the previous record holder being the Pixel 3.
Anyway, everything you’ve heard is true. The Pixel 4 is Google’s first smartphone with a dual rear-camera setup, and the front has a 90Hz display and a lopsided design with a big top bezel. That top bezel is packed with sensors housing both an iPhone-style 3D sensing face unlock system and Google’s Project Soli technology for radar-based air gestures. The main thing we wanted to confirm at this event was the price, which hasn’t changed. The Pixel 4 starts at $ 799, and the Pixel 4 XL starts at $ 899. Pre-orders are now live, and the phone ships on all major American networks starting on October 24.
The Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL both come with a Snapdragon 855, 6GB of RAM, and options for 64GB or 128GB of storage. (Pay $ 100 more for either phone’s larger capacity.) The smaller Pixel 4 comes with a 5.7-inch OLED display and a positively tiny 2800mAh battery. The bigger Pixel 4 XL has a 6.3-inch OLED display and a 3700mAh battery. Both displays are 90Hz, which means the UI should run smoother and faster at 90fps than the 60Hz phones that currently dominate the market. The displays also feature “Ambient EQ,” a Google version of Apple’s “True Tone” display, which updates the screen color temperature to match your surroundings—and promises to automatically intelligently reduce the 90Hz refresh to preserve battery life as well.
The camera is always a highlight for the Pixel line, and this year the phones have a dual camera setup for the first time ever. Google has been sticking with a single camera while other phones have had two, three, or four rear cameras, but now the company is capitulating to market trends and adding a 16MP telephoto alongside the standard 12MP main camera.
The face unlock system is set up just like an iPhone X, with an IR grid that is projected onto the user’s face, and a camera—a pair of cameras, actually—views the face in 3D to authenticate the user. Google’s addition of a face recognition system also means the removal of the fingerprint reader. That’s right, there’s no back or in-display reader; it’s face unlock or nothing.
The Soli-powered air gesture feature is called “Motion Sense” and lets you wave your hand over the device to do things like skip music tracks, silence alarms and phone calls, or wave hi to, er, Pikachu. That sounds pretty underwhelming, considering similar gestures were tried years ago in devices like the second-gen Moto X and
Galaxy S4, and these air gestures were not considered useful or popular enough to survive in future iterations of these devices. Google says this is just the beginning for Motion Sense, though, and it’s opening the feature up to third parties with an SDK. (Speaking of gestures: yes, you can also still squeeze both models as an interaction.)
Update: There is no public SDK, only certain third-party developers in a special preview program got access to the Soli sensor.
There’s more to a phone than just the spec sheet, but you can get better specs from almost any other vendor, often at a lower price. The OnePlus 7T and Samsung Galaxy S10 both come with more RAM (8GB versus 6GB) and more storage (a baseline of 128GB compared to the Pixel’s 64GB) than the Pixel 4. The battery on the smaller Pixel 4 is microscopic, at only 2800mAh, while the smaller Galaxy S10 packs in 3400mAh in a similar size. Google’s top-tier pricing of $ 799 and $ 899 doesn’t help matters, either. The OnePlus 7T, which is comparable in size to the $ 899 Pixel 4 XL, gives you a bigger 90Hz screen, more RAM, more storage, more battery, and a faster SoC for $ 300 less.
Google hopes to make up that price deficit with software. The company is still offering the best Android update program out there, with three years of major OS updates and three years of monthly security updates. (It’s still not as good as Apple’s five-year track record, though.)
The headline feature of the software this year is a next-gen version of the Google Assistant. This feature, which was announced at Google I/O, is finally launching on the Pixel 4. Google says the new Assistant features “completely new speech recognition and language understanding models, bringing 100GB of models in the cloud down to less than half a gigabyte.” The dramatically smaller voice data footprint means the Google Assistant can now run locally, on the phone, instead of requiring a round trip to the Internet. Google says the local processing will result in voice processing with “nearly zero latency, with transcription that happens in real-time, even when you have no network connection.”
If you’re worried about the price of the Pixel 4, it’s worth noting that last year, the Pixel 3 saw significant discounts on Black Friday, which was before the phone was even a month old. Those discounts still don’t make the phone price-competitive with something like the OnePlus 7T, but with the release being so close to the holiday season, it may be best to wait.