Google’s new Pixel 4 phones will reach stores this week. Apple’s new iPhone 11s debuted last month. The question is: Will you be able to tell the difference between the smartphones?
It used to be easy to distinguish them. While the Pixel’s hardware features were never as impressive as those of other high-end devices, Google stood out by leveraging its prowess in software and artificial intelligence to meet — and sometimes exceed — its competitors in areas like smartphone photography.
But this year, rivals have caught up with Google’s camera software. The latest iPhones, for instance, have added Google-esque capabilities like a night mode for shooting better photos in the dark.
That’s bad news for Google, underscoring some of the Pixel’s weaknesses.
When evaluated in a vacuum, the Pixel 4, which comes in two screen sizes, is a solid all-around device. It has a second camera lens, making Google’s already excellent camera system slightly more capable than last year’s. It has incorporated an iPhone-like face scanner and new software that mimics the swipe-gesture controls for using an iPhone. The screen looks rich and bright. It’s also cool that Google’s voice recorder can automatically transcribe audio clips.
But Apple and Samsung phones now have triple-lens cameras, which are more versatile for taking photographs. The iPhone’s face scanner is also more secure than the Pixel’s.
So dollar for dollar, it’s tough to recommend a Pixel 4, which costs $800 or $900, when you can get a new iPhone for $700 to $1,100, or a Samsung Galaxy S10 for $900.
The Pixel 4 is the best at one thing: integrating Google’s software and internet services into a mobile communications device. Unlike other Android phones, Pixels aren’t cluttered with clunky software and confusing interfaces. But for most people, that won’t be enough.
I tested a $900 Pixel 4 XL side by side with Apple’s new $1,000 iPhone 11 Pro for about a week. Here’s what I found.
A flawed face scanner
The most notable new feature on Google’s Pixel is also the most flawed part of the device.
Google decided to go all in on face-scanning as a way of unlocking the Pixel 4. When you set the phone up, you scan a 3-D model of your face. From there, whenever you pick up the device, it will unlock as soon as it verifies your mug.
The face scanner is part of a new system that Google calls Motion Sense, which is an array of sensors including infrared and depth-sensing cameras and a miniature radar. The radar senses when someone reaches for the phone and activates the infrared cameras so they can scan your face in less than a second.
The problem? BBC News reported last week that the face scanner would unlock even with a user’s eyes closed, which I confirmed in my tests. This is a major security flaw. If you’re asleep, all someone has to do to get access to your personal data is take your phone and hold it up to your face. That makes the face scanner, in some ways, a weaker security feature than a fingerprint sensor.
Google said in a statement that it would release a software update in coming months adding the option to require a person’s eyes to be open before unlocking the phone. In the meantime, the company said, people could temporarily disable face unlock and use a PIN, pattern or password instead.
In contrast, the iPhone requires that its owner look toward the screen before it unlocks. Apple also claims that the likelihood of bypassing its Face ID scanner with the incorrect face is one in a million.
I asked Google what the false-acceptance rate was for the Pixel 4’s face scanner. Google would say only that the biometric requirements exceeded its standards for Android phones in general.
For now, Google’s face unlock looks like an unfinished security feature that doesn’t feel safe to use, and releasing it in this state suggests that the search giant treats device security as an afterthought. This is a bad look for Google in a time when many people are concerned about their digital privacy.
Losing its edge in camera software
To compare the Pixel 4 camera with the iPhone 11 Pro camera, I tested them in a challenging nighttime environment: an outdoor Thom Yorke concert at the Greek Theater in Berkeley, Calif.
Both cameras produced decent photos in low light. But night shots taken from the iPhone looked consistently better. The low-light pictures from the Pixel 4 often looked overexposed compared with the iPhone’s. This was especially pronounced in a photo in which dozens of members of the audience turned on their phone flashlights as a form of applause.
To test the cameras in daytime, I took the phones to a dog park in San Francisco. Both cameras excelled. Photos of my dogs looked crisp and clear with pleasing colors.
But in several shots, the Pixel phone’s portrait mode, which sharpens the foreground and gently blurs the background, unintentionally created an ugly digital mask around my corgi, Max. Google said this happened when the camera’s depth map didn’t perfectly follow the outline of the subject.
The iPhone 11 Pro wasn’t perfect with portrait mode, either. Occasionally it left parts of a subject blurred when they should have been sharpened.
Still, I was more disappointed with the Pixel 4 camera in this area. The phone is supposed to be better at portrait shots than last year’s model thanks to its second camera lens, but I didn’t notice a marked improvement.
Lastly, Google left out a feature that Apple and Samsung just introduced on their phones: a so-called ultrawide lens. The company said it felt that making the zoom ability of the camera better was more important. In my tests, zoomed-in shots looked great on the Pixel 4.
But the ultrawide lens on other phone cameras is useful for taking photos with a broader field of view in some situations, like a shot of the Grand Canyon or a large group gathering for Thanksgiving dinner — an effect that the Pixel 4’s software cannot replicate. The lack of this special lens on the Pixel 4 is not a deal breaker, but it diminishes its value.
The bottom line
The Pixel 4 has a few intriguing features, like the transcription feature built directly into its voice recorder, which worked well in my tests. The screen also has a higher refresh rate, which makes motion look smoother.
But over all, these perks did not make up for the Pixel 4’s weaknesses, and I was disappointed that Google didn’t do more to distinguish its premium phone from competitors. With its rivals catching up on sophisticated photo software, Google looks behind the curve in hardware.
Recently I revised my smartphone upgrade criteria to include advice on when people absolutely must jump to a new phone. For those with older Pixel phones, I recommend taking a wait-and-see approach before considering an upgrade. All the older Pixels, including the original model from 2016, are still getting software and security updates, so there is no rush to buy. The Pixel 4 will be a nice upgrade only if Google meaningfully strengthens the security of the face scanner.
In the meantime, people who enjoy Google products have a good option: the $400 Pixel 3A, the budget version of the phone that was released in May. It lacks frills of higher-end phones like wireless charging and waterproofing, but it includes Google’s smart camera and a nice screen. It’s the best Android phone you can get at that price.
In other words, if Google doesn’t step up its efforts in the premium hardware market, the low end may become the only place where it stays relevant.