Pixel 4 thoughts: a good phone let down by Google's bad bets

Watching the reviews and general response to the Pixel 4 devices, I’ve had these thoughts for a while but they are now clear after getting my hands on one and using it.

While the Pixel 4 is a good phone (maybe even a great phone) there are three bets Google made this year which just didn’t work. Compounding the impact of these missteps is that for each bet Google got wrong, Apple got it right.

Google Bet #1: Pixel 3 series battery life would be sufficient for the Pixel 4

The battery life on the Pixel line has never been spectacular; but they have gotten a pass previously because of the user experience and camera quality. For the Pixel 4, Google bet that matching the previous year’s battery figures would be good enough.

However in a year where Apple doubled down on battery life (specifically with the 11 Pro series) it really put the spotlight on the average battery life on the Pixel; despite it being no worse than previous years.

Google Bet #2: Improving the camera system strengths instead of fixing its weaknesses

Two key camera features Google improved on for the Pixel 4 were the two functions it already was leading the field in: Super Res Zoom and Night mode. While it is an improvement and technically impressive, they have limited value to new customers let alone existing Pixel owners.

Where Apple has made a giant leap in photo quality to make a valid argument for the best photography crown; Google choice not to improve in other areas seems like a miss. The existing Achilles heel of Google’s camera system, video, remains virtually unchanged in the face of Apple’s increasing lead in the category.

Google Bet #3: Soli radar as the Pixel 4 exciting new feature
Technically this is really cool, but in reality there aren’t many reasons to be excited about using gestures instead of just your touch screen. It’s a solution looking for a problem, not helped by the fact that it’s execution seems under cooked at launch.

Apple’s new feature this year: Ultra wide photography. Taking a key item people buy smartphones for and adding new functionality and capability in line with the current photography trends.

In addition to these bets gone wrong, this year’s Pixels also seem like a deviation from previous models. Instead of feeling like Google’s version of the iPhone, focusing on experiences instead of features; it feels like a development phone for Google’s hardware and software ambitions.

In many ways this phone doesn’t feel like a Pixel, but a Nexus. If they had priced in the spirit of the old label, the reception would have been far more positive.


I agree, a cheaper and non soli 4a would be a better choice

I actually don’t think a 4a is coming. A non-soli 4a means they need to add back a fingerprint sensor. Adding the second tele camera is just unnessassary cost on a budget product so it would just be a copy of the 3a.

A review of the price levels on the Pixel 4 would change the conversation despite the decisions made this year though

this is a good point. I’d be okay with just a sightly upgraded 3a as well though.


fair argument/points. :fist_right:t4:

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This is a thoughtful response to Google’s new Pixel 4. I’ve owned every Google flavored phone since the Nexus 4, including all of the Pixel iterations and I plan to trade in the 3 XL for the 4 XL.

I don’t know if I’m just deluding myself or not, but I’m willing to ride the Pixel train a little longer. It’s funny Rick Osterloh was also the CEO of Motorola during the Moto X time, because this reminds me of it. Both the Moto X and the Pixel line are more than the sum of their specs. Let me tell you why I’m a little heartened with each of those three “bets” Google is making.

Google Bet #1: Pixel 3 series battery life would be sufficient for the Pixel 4
I think most of us look at the underwhelming specs in battery and compare it to bigger batteries in other phones. But from what I’ve read, the battery is “good enough” and the adaptive battery software is more than just hype. Android learns your usage habits and adjusts power consumption accordingly. Would I take a bigger battery? YES! But since Google is a software company, I’ve got a feeling they will choose to make the battery life better through software. Which means you need to use the Pixel a week before making final judgments about the battery. It could still be weak. My 3 XL wins no longevity awards. But it’s okay.

Google Bet #2: Improving the camera system strengths instead of fixing its weaknesses
Video is the real problem here. It’s noisy and washed out. Stabilization is still superior to most other phones, which also hasn’t changed. I’ve watched beautiful video from the iPhone 11 Max Pro and marveled at the detail, but almost tossed my cookies at the stabilization. I think Google should update the Pixel to 4k 60 in software because it was able to do that pre-launch. The pitiful memory options are a black eye to the Pixel series, both in RAM and its storage. Memory is at an all time cheap price. This they should have fixed.

As for the ultra wide camera…personally I’m more often trying to get pictures of my kids rather than the background, so I honestly appreciate Google’s focus on telephoto. That said, adding a third camera module would have been competitive. But if they had to choose one (and they didn’t), I do agree telephoto is more useful.

However, addressing your original criticism, I think Google should definitely improve its strengths. I buy these phones to tell my family’s story, and there’s never a time when I want them to stop stomping the accelerator on camera quality. The iPhone is excellent, but the Pixel is still king and I don’t see a time when they can ever afford to take their eyes off that prize. I love that iPhone is breathing down their necks. This is a bet they need to keep. It’s table stakes that Google is the camera king for stills. Now they need to spread the love to other parts of photography.

Google Bet #3: Soli radar as the Pixel 4 exciting new feature
I think this is a 1.0 product, but I really do see this as the future of not just Pixel, but Google. Soli is much more powerful hardware limited by what the software currently does. But make no mistake, this is Google making sense of your context without touch. Stopping a timer with your hand or going through a playlist are parlor tricks. Counting how many people are in a room, knowing the composition of your shirt based on density, helping you avoid a car accident, measuring the size of a room, or calculating your child’s height are some of the other applications. Put this chip in a home screen, your wifi router, your doorbell, your thermostat, and now Google can help you with the context of your daily life. I think Soli is being undersold. Again, it’s a 1.0 product. But this is Google reaching beyond the screen and your eyeballs. It’s capturing and organizing your contexts. There’s definitely a “creepy” potential. But there’s a tangible benefit to this technology to users reaching far beyond the two applications it’s touting now.

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Disclaimer: I am going to get the 4XL anyway, just holding out for a discount come the sales Friday - am hoping

  1. In real life usage, will the Pixel 4 have a lower battery life? What I have noticed from running a Pixel 2XL is that Pixel phones don’t do well in short term usage reviews, their strength is in the software and actual real world strength not specs

Take the storage size of 128GB that gets people complaining a lot on reviews, in the real world, what takes up space the most ? With free cloud storage, that was not a problem on my 2XL.

  1. Is wide angle a must have? I went ahead and got the Moment Wide Angle lens for my 2XL, I use it once in a while and I have not really been in a situation where I missed the wide angle so much to make it a deal breaker, of course, others may have a different use case for their photo needs. Maybe…

  2. Am fence sitting on this one, I hope the ease of turning off alarms will not make me sleep more!

Good points you raised though.

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This piece makes me think of the discussion I have with folks that ask if they should buy the new mirrorless camera or a DSLR.