Face Unlock is a fast and secure system that works a lot like the iPhone’s Face ID, powered by IR cameras, a dot projector and a flood illuminator. I’ve found it very consistently recognises my face and opens in less than a second when I pick up the phone, no other input required. You literally don’t have to think about it.
On the rare occasion the facial recognition does fail to fire (for example if you’ve just locked the phone and want to unlock again straight away), you can just prod the screen with a finger and Face Unlock will kick in. But while it’s better than fingerprint and Face ID in most ways, Face Unlock does have a couple of drawbacks at this early stage.
First, since it works in the dark and doesn’t require you to open your eyes, it’s easy to imagine someone forcing the phone open by holding it to your face. If you have the presence of mind to activate it before you sleep in a weird place or have your phone taken from you, there is a Lockdown mode to combat this that is very easy to activate.
Second, apps that are usually authenticated by fingerprint do not automatically work with Face Unlock. Developers first need to update their software to work with a particular Android API which was introduced last year. If your password manager or bank hasn’t updated its app yet, you’ll be stuck typing PINs or passwords until it does.
The other bit of tech hiding under that big forehead is a radar chip powering Motion Sense; a feature which lets the phone detect movement nearby.
You can wave your hand in front of the screen to skip songs and snooze alarms, which works, but the most useful part is something you don’t really see; when you reach for the phone it pre-emptively readies Face Unlock, which is why unlocking is so fast and friction-free.
On the screen itself there’s a quicker 90Hz refresh rate that kicks in when you’re navigating the phone — or scrolling through books, the web and social media apps — which keeps text and images from juddering and makes movement a lot more responsive.
You might not be aware of it at the time, but switch to a standard 60Hz phone and it will suddenly feel choppy and sluggish.
Then there’s Ambient EQ, which matches the screen’s temperature to the lighting in the room. This is most noticeable at home in dim yellow-ish light, where the phone adjusts to eliminate the usual harsh blue tinge.
Otherwise, this is the same lovely OLED at HD+ or QHD+ resolution, for the Pixel 4 and 4 XL respectively. The larger phone retains a 6.3-inch screen size while the smaller is bumped up slightly to 5.7 inches.
The camera experience has always been a highlight of the Pixel line, driven by Google’s smart and proactive software, and the Pixel 4 delivers a familiar package in that regard.
The main shooter is a 12.2MP wide angle similar to last year’s, but this time it’s joined by a 16MP telephoto lens at 2x zoom. The telephoto doesn’t do anything flashy, enhancing Google’s ability to separate subject and background for portrait shots and helping with the existing computational cropping (which Google calls Super Res Zoom), resulting in sharper pics at distance.
The HDR+ algorithm is now so fast that it can apply adjustments in real time; it doesn’t have to wait for you to take a photo to combine a bunch of exposures. So while you’re taking a photo you can independently adjust brightness and contrast, to make sure you’re getting the detail in the bits you care about, which is great when your subject is backgrounded by the sky. Still, even if you don’t touch any of the controls the Pixel’s autofocus and colour accuracy is phenomenal.
Night photography is still better here than on any other phone and, as ever, it will fill in colours and even take pictures of the stars to create bright and accurate images in low light. But new this time is a dedicated astrophotography mode that only kicks in when it’s exceptionally dark. It takes 30 seconds to take one of these photos, so you’ll need a way to keep the phone still, but over that time the Pixel takes multiple long exposures that stitch together into impressive night sky shots.
The Assistant’s camera tips are even bolder than before, both when you’re reviewing shots and proactively as you take them. For example you’ll get prompts suggesting you raise your arm as you’re taking a selfie, presumably to help you avoid the double-chin look. Both models of phone now sport just a single front-facing camera; the same 8MP wide angle as on the Pixel 3.
Elsewhere the latest Assistant software is quick and light, with myriad ways to summon it and minimal fuss whether you’ve asked for a certain song, a particular web page or to share a selfie with your partner. Google says a lot more of its smarts are contained locally on the phone this time, meaning fewer tasks need to be run through cloud servers, and it shows with the increase in speed.
Most impressive is that the Assistant’s entire English speech-to-text capability is now on-device.
You can turn on auto-generated captions that work on any media from podcasts to movies, and they even work on videos you’ve taken yourself (though my family’s Australian accents gave it a bit of trouble). Additionally a new Recorder app automatically transcribes spoken English in real time, making audio recordings readable and searchable even if you have no internet connection. It works astonishingly well.
Google’s given Android 10 a few new touches specific to the Pixel 4, but not many. There’s an expanded selection of animated wallpapers (including an adorable “Pokemon Sidekick” that responds to the local weather and detects waves and tickles using Motion Sense), and a new style editor that gives you control over system fonts, icons and colours.
In terms of hardware there’s a Snapdragon 855 processor and 6GB of RAM, which is standard 2019 smartphone stuff and makes for a very sprightly device.
The battery on the standard Pixel is smaller than last year, while on the larger phone it’s a bit bigger, but I found longevity was acceptable (not exceptional) on both. After 18 hours of use on the first night battery was around 20 per cent, but on subsequent nights — perhaps due to Google’s adaptive battery software — the tank was a lot fuller by the end of the day. If you need to go longer than one day there are of course the usual battery saver modes, and features like the radar chip and 90Hz display can be turned off.
Overall these are great evolutions of Google’s Pixel smartphones, adding a number of new hardware elements that don’t revolutionise the experience but refine and streamline it in various ways. It’s still the Android phone to get if you’re wedded to the Google ecosystem and like to have the latest Android software as soon as possible, though owners of a Pixel 3 or those looking for a less-expensive upgrade might find many of the features trickle down in the coming months.
The Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL are out on October 24, starting at $1049 and $1279 respectively.
Tim is the editor of The Age and Sydney Morning Herald technology sections.