The Pixel 4 Has Really Basic Problems, And Google Seriously Needs To Try Harder

The Pixel 4 Has Really Basic Problems, And Google Seriously Needs To Try Harder
Image: Google

Every phone maker has their issues, with certain things that are always problematic about their stuff. For Apple it’s the fact that they’re so expensive, and have different-shaped cables to every other phone. Samsung flagships are also almost as expensive. OnePlus stubbornly refuses to offer wireless charging and more concrete water resistance ratings. I could go on all day really, but eventually I’d get to Google. Google’s Pixel range always seems to be missing important features – and it’s the kind of thing we can’t really excuse from a company as rich and powerful as Google. Especially not when it’s trying to make premium phones.

Pixel phones are generally really good as a whole, but there’s always something that’s off about them. The Pixel 3 range only had 4GB of RAM, for instance, at a time when damn-near all premium Android phones were starting to think 6GB wasn’t enough. Plus the 3 XL had that great big honking notch that put other notches to shame. The Pixel 2, among other things, had a myriad of display issues that plagued the device for ages, and the original Pixel had a myriad of problems – the most obvious of which was that it was a significant price jump from the more-affordable Nexus range.

The Pixel 4 continues that tradition, and it’s about time that Google cut the bullshit and actually put some effort into making a premium phone worth of being called premium. Because wrapping up your phone in a glossy chassis and throwing in a bunch of software features on the camera just isn’t cutting it anymore.

The Forehead

Google can’t seem to get the top of its phones right. Last year the Pixel 3 XL had a huge notch, that made even the most unsightly of notches look petite in comparison. The 3 and 3XL both had whopping big chins too, contrary to the trend of all-screen displays that we’ve seen elsewhere.

Then this year it did away with the notch, but left a really quite noticeable thick black bar at the top of both phone. A forehead, if you will, that just makes the phone look ‘off’. It’s asymmetrical, and frankly a bit unsettling.

I think I preferred the Pixel 3 XL’s notch, for all the design issues it had. At least then the system icons had their own little space and didn’t use up more of the phone’s display than necessary.

There’s probably a good reason why the Pixel 4 went for a bar and not a notch, which is all the extra tech. Not only does it include the usual things like the speaker, ambient light sensors, and the front-facing camera, it also has room for the face-unlock components and the Soli radar chip (though this was so small iFixit had a lot of trouble finding it).

The facial recognition uses a dot sensor, much like Apple, and there needs to be room for that, and that’s why there’s a forehead and not a fancy whole-screen display. Sadly, Google probably could have done a much better job of making it look nice. Then again, this situation is a no-win situation. People don’t like notches, foreheads, or hole-punch cameras, and you can’t squeeze all this in without at least one of those options. Not unless you opt into some sort of sliding mechanism like the Oppo Find X.

Unremoveable Widgets on the Homescreen

This is a nitpick really, but considering one of Android’s advantages over iOS is the option to customise the homescreen as you see fit, not being able to remove certain things is a huge let down. The Pixel Launcher comes with a bunch of stuff on the homescreen, but two things stay there and cannot be resized or removed entirely – a weather/clock widget, and the Google search bar. If you like these things the way they are then that’s great. But if you don’t, they stick out as a constant reminder that you can’t get rid of them without installing a brand new launcher.

Obviously being able to swap for a new launcher is still in line with that whole ‘customisable Android’ thing I was talking about, and gives Pixel owners an option they wouldn’t have if they bought an iPhone. That said, it’s an extreme measure for a problem that shouldn’t be there in the first place. And the fact that the weather widget is broken and keeps displaying the temperature units in Fahrenheit (despite the setting being set to Celsius) is just another issue. Sometimes it’ll display as Celsius, as it should, but the majority of the time it doesn’t.

The Battery, By All Accounts, is Shit

A common problem for Google hasn’t really figured out that people like batteries that last a long time – at the very least a single day of solid use. By all accounts the Pixel 4 can not do this, with near-universal reports that it ends up needing a recharge by late afternoon/early evening. It certainly doesn’t help that the 4’s battery is smaller than that of the Pixel 3, which wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows to begin with. The Pixel 4 XL battery, which is a good 900mAh larger than the 4, tends to fair much better – but not that much better. Tom’s Guide’s testing clocked it at lasting roughly 115 minutes longer than the regular 4, though that’s still lower than the Galaxy S10 and the iPhone 11 range – which is frankly rather embarrassing.

My battery tests involved streaming a 2h17 minute film from Netflix with maximum brightness. I found that the Pixel 4 would lose 20 per cent of its battery by the end, which the Pixel 4 XL would lose a slightly more reasonable 15 per cent. There are phones that have come out with worse battery drain, though they were all much cheaper and had smaller batteries. In other words, not the kind of things you’d be looking at if you were in the market for a premium phone.

There are serious questions that need answering there. For one, why does the Pixel 4 have such a small battery? Especially with all the fancy tech like 90Hz refresh rate and a literal radar module. And are they what’s causing the drain on the much larger Pixel 4 XL?

No 4K/60FPS

4K video recording is available on the Pixel 4, but it’s limited to a frame rate of 30 frames per second, and people have not been happy about that. Especially not since most other flagships offer that functionality.

Long gone are the days where daft people would take to the comments sections of the internet to argue that 30FPS was fine, and that the human eye could only see 30 frames per second anyway. These days not offering 60FPS is basically a cardinal sin, especially when you’re dealing with higher resolutions.

In fact there’s code to suggest that Google was going to include that particular mode on the Pixel 4, before abandoning it for some reason. But still the question is why?

Google’s explanation for not offering 4K/60FPS is what you can see above: the company focused on improving 1080p video, also citing the fact that hi-res/hi-framerate would use up a lot of storage. That last part is key, since the Pixel 4’s base model only has 64GB of storage and none of them offer any form of microSD expansion.

Which itself is part of a bigger issue (see below). While there has been some speculation that 4K/60FPS could decrease the phone’s already-sketchy battery life, that storage would certainly have been a problem. But since Apple and Samsung have shown, 4K/60FPS can be compressed without loss of quality. They both used HVEC, so why didn’t Google?

The Storage

Some people might be fine buying a 64GB phone, after all there are plenty of them out there. The difference is the majority come with microSD card support, whereas the Pixel 4 does not. Sure, there is a 128GB option available, but it seems Google is really pushing the 64GB option. Two of the big UK networks only offer the 64GB option, and the new fancy orange colour is only available with the lower storage option. 12GB of which is set aside for system files.

A few years ago 64GB (or, more realistically 52GB) might have been acceptable, but in the same way that 32GB, 16GB, and 8GB storage options all faded away as being too small so should 64GB. On its own that is: if you can expand that storage with a physical card then that’s not as big an issue.

The microSD read/write times might not be as fast as with on-device storage, but it does give you the option to have as much or as little storage as you need – without having to pay up for pricier cloud storage subscriptions. Maybe if Google was a bit more open to more flexible storage options then there would be room to film and store 4K/60FPS video.

Obviously it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the two most notable companies that have avoided expandable phone storage are Google and Apple – both of whom have a lot of money to make charging people for storing their stuff in the cloud. They’re never going to come out and admit it, but anyone who denies that’s on the cards is a fool.

The Biometrics

Like the iPhone, Google has ditched the fingerprint scanner in the Pixel 4 to rely on a form of facial recognition as the only biometric authentication. The problem is that unlike Apple’s FaceID, which has generally held up to scrutiny where security is concerned, the Pixel 4’s has not. That’s a problem, especially since people are now so used to quick and easy access with biometrics.

It still has a dot protector, which means it’s more secure than facial recognition that doesn’t use that, but the fact that it still unlocks when your eyes are closed (or you’re sleeping) is a huge flaw – no matter how much Google says it’ll be fixed. Really that’s the kind of thing that should have been tested and fixed before the phone was released. That’s just completely sloppy.

The thing about Android has always been the choice factor. Choice of brand, the option to alter the design to your liking, and so on. Scrapping a fingerprint sensor in favour of facial-only biometrics is counter to all that. Especially when the facial recognition is as insecure as has been proven.

But hey, at least it doesn’t let anyone unlock the phone if there’s a screen protector in the way.

No Ultra Wide Angle Lens

Last year Google famously claimed that the Pixel 4 could use software to offer camera capabilities other phones needed extra camera lenses to provide. Then this year it’s scrapped that pledge and decided that it can do even better with a mix of software and a telephoto lens.

But there’s no ultra-wide angle lens to be found. It’s not the biggest loss in the world, but admittedly it is nice to be able to ‘zoom out’ with a UWA and get a it more detail that you can’t get with the main camera.

As weak as the argument of “everyone else has one” may be, it’s still an odd feature to skip – especially now that Google has decided there is something to this whole multi-lens fad. Maybe next year?

The 90Hz Brightness Issue

One of the more recent Pixel 4 flaws is that when the brightness drops below 75 per cent, the refresh rate drops below the 90Hz maximum that Google proudly bragged about during the phone’s launch event. And again we have to ask, what’s up with this?

There is a workaround if you activate the developer options, but it’s been warned that this may put even more strain on the already weak battery life. Because the better refresh speed does drain the battery, it really comes back to the whole question as to why Google bothered to release a phone with such a crap battery in the first place – especially when it means all these fancy features have to be limited to help preserve it.

Of course other 90Hz phones (like the new OnePlus 7T) don’t rigidly stick to the 90Hz limit, as a OnePlus spokesperson told Engadget. It fluctuates depending on what you’re doing, the image you’re looking at, and whether the app in question actually supports the 90Hz refresh rate. Presumably the Pixel 4 does this as well, though tying it to brightness makes no sense.

The Pixel 4 Still Has its Good Points

Despite all these really weird flaws, the Pixel 4 still has a lot of good stuff in it. It’s unfair to say that it’s a bad phone because, battery life aside, it’s not. It’s just been put together in a really really weird way that doesn’t make sense when you look at the phone as a whole.

The astrophotography mode is pretty impressive, and thanks to what I can only assume is AI it’s capable of working out when it’s appropriate to switch on the extra-long exposure. In with my testing it only worked with a tripod, and after I have the camera enough time to recognise it was looking at the night sky.

Image: Tegan Jones / Gizmodo Australia

As you can see the final result is quite impressive, assuming you’re in a place where the exposure isn’t ruined by light pollution on the horizon like I am.

Frankly Google has put a lot of energy into the Pixel camera over the past couple of years, and it does show. Obviously a lot of energy has gone into the software side of things, rather than just sticking in new lenses and sensors, a trend it really kicked off with the Pixel 3. We have improved night shots, SuperZoom, and HDR on by default, along with new features like dual exposure controls and the aforementioned astrophotography feature. The general consensus of the situation is that the camera is one of the Pixel 4’s best features as a result.

While software can’t make up for everything hardware can, as our testing of the new hybrid zoom showed, the fact that the camera still performs this well shows where Google’s priorities really lie. And it makes sense, I suppose. Almost all, phone companies focus on the camera because that’s how people use their phones. Sure, it’s a media player, web browser, and actual telephone, but it’s also pretty much replaced the standalone digital camera. You have your phone on you all the time, so why would the casual user bother with an extra device unless you needed to?

We also have auto-transcription, which is a default feature in the Pixel 4 right now. I don’t need to transcribe audio notes very often, which I’m quite grateful for, because the whole process is a huge pain. Automatic transcription services exist, and these days some of them aren’t extortionately expensive or complete garbage. Now Google comes along and releases its own version that does everything inside the Pixel 4, and it’s all free without caps on how much transcription you’re allowed to do. Oh, and it’s done on the device itself, not requiring cloud processors or servers to handle the burden of transcribing and organising a recording in real time.

It’s pretty spectacular really, even it isn’t completely original and won’t be the kind of feature that makes people spend nearly $1,000 on a specific phone. Sadly this won’t be a Pixel 4 exclusive for long, so anyone with a Pixel 3 (or possibly a 2 and 1) have lost one extra reason to upgrade.

The big gimmick this time are the motion controls, but this is a gimmick that actually works. In other words, the way it’s supposed to – and in the phone world that doesn’t happen very often. Just look at the Galaxy Fold’s teething problems and you’ll see what I mean. Hands-free gesture control is another one of those things that isn’t new, and I remember using an app for that at least five years ago, but as a whole it’s been pretty crappy. It relies on the front camera for one, and the recognition was spotty at best.

And that’s why Google’s version succeeds, with its own micro-sized Soli radar chip. It uses actual radar to map your movements and improve the gesture navigation the Pixel 4 has to offer. Among other things, because activating it also can help speed up the facial recognition process by switching on the facial scan when you pick it up – and that’s a nice touch, even if face unlock still isn’t what it could be.

But of course we have to wonder how this will be used in future, and what impact it’s having on the battery life. Because something is draining it.

Now the front of the phone has more than its fair share of design issues, but the back of the phone seems to have been done quite well. This is assuming that you ignore the camera bump, though these days most premium phone makers seem to think this is a totally acceptable bit of design. Otherwise, it’s got a nice smooth finish, the colours are pleasant to look at (for what that’s worth), and from the back it makes the Pixel 4 look like a genuinely nice piece of kit. Shame it’s ruined by the front. And all the other issues.

Overall you have to ask whether the Pixel 4’s problems are actually worth spending $1,000+ on this phone. Most of the issues will be pretty inconsequential to a lot of people, though that doesn’t really change the fact that Google should know better than to release a phone with so many stupid flaws. then there’s the battery, which is a cardinal sin all in itself. If there’s any reason not to buy the Pixel 4, the battery is the one you should be really concerned about. The rest are just extra kicks in the crotch.

This post originally appeared on Gizmodo UK, which is gobbling up the news in a different timezone.