5 big buts about the Pixel 4 phone

Google's Pixel 4 phone has an awful lot to offer, but — well, every story has two sides.

Google Pixel 4 Phone
JR Raphael, IDG

Look, I'll just come out and say it: I'm a big believer in buts.

Now, hang on a sec: You haven't accidentally stumbled onto the world's last remaining Sir Mix-a-Lot fan site. (If only!) No, the buts of which I speak at this particular moment are the single "t" variety — as in, the contradictory kinds of statements that are so frequently missing when we talk about technology.

You know what I'm talking about, right? Here in these tribal times of 2019, it's all too easy to fall into a pattern of seeing a certain sort of product or type of device as being either "awesome" or "inferior," with little gray space between those extremes. You've used this kind of smartphone for years now, damn it, so it has to be the best! And that other company's devices are, like, obviously awful. They're from the competing team! They could never be worth your while.

That mindset is supremely silly, of course. Every product, no matter who made it or what strange sense of loyalty you may feel toward its manufacturer, has its fair share of pros and cons. And forgive me for being cheeky, but almost any statement about a phone's strengths can be balanced out with a nice, firm "but" attached to it.

Having lived with Google's new Pixel 4 for several days now, I think five big buts in particular can sum up a lot of important things about the device and what it's like to use. Let's explore 'em together, shall we?

1. The Pixel 4's new face unlock feature is fantastic — but missing a fingerprint scanner sometimes kinda sucks

Eight years after first introducing a face unlocking system (here's lookin' at you, Ice Cream Sandwich), Google has finally updated its standard and come out with a version of the system you'll actually appreciate — and want to use.

The Pixel 4's face unlock feature is every bit as fast and accurate as Google has promised, and it has a hidden trick up its sleeve: the tiny radar chip tucked away inside the phone that senses when you're reaching for it and then turns the screen on for you. The combination of that and the near-instant recognition system for identifying your mug makes for a seamless, thought-free unlocking process: Basically, anytime you reach for your phone, it's on and at your home screen (or whatever screen you were using last) by the time you have it in front of you.

The system's so good, in fact, that it spoils you for anything else. Once you get used to things, ahem, just working in this way, going back to any other setup feels annoyingly cumbersome, inconvenient, and — dare I say it — even a little dated.

And that brings us to our first but — a multipart but, in this case: That whole radar-enabled, screen-turning-on-automatically thing works only when the phone can sense you reaching for it. And for now, at least, that means it works only when you're picking the phone up from a surface, like a table.

I don't know about you, but at least half the time on any given day, I tend to grab my phone out of my pocket — not off of a table. And in that situation, the Pixel 4's radar doesn't detect you. The same would hold true for grabbing it out of a purse or any other sort of bag.

Now, this is very much a first-world quibble, but what that means is that when you're picking the phone up in such a scenario, the device's screen doesn't turn itself on and automatically authenticate you, as you've grown accustomed to having happen. Instead, you have to press the phone's power button to manually kick-start that process.

It really isn't that big of a deal, all considered. The problem is mostly that you get used to one sort of interaction — the "just pick it up and, whoa, wouldja look at that, everything happens automatically!" variety — and so then it's that much more jarring when you pick up the phone in a different moment and that same thing doesn't happen. Every time I pull the Pixel out of my pocket, I can't help but think how nice it'd be to have the option to rest my finger on the phone's back side as I grab it (ooh, baby) and then have the thing be unlocked by the time I'm looking at it.

Face unlock is fantastic, in other words, but having a fingerprint sensor alongside it — especially one as thoughtfully placed and immaculately reliable as what previous Pixel phones have provided — would be even better. (Update: I've discovered that activating the phone's "Lift to check phone" feature largely mitigates this part of the problem by forcing the phone to wake up from a pocket-based pickup — which then allows the face detecting mechanism to kick in without the need for any further action. So that's one thing resolved, even if via an indirect and not entirely obvious way. Progress!)

There's one other instance where it's hard not to feel that same sentiment: when using apps where authentication is required. As of now, y'see, hardly any Android apps seem to support the face unlock system — and with no fingerprint sensor on the Pixel 4, that means you're left with no choice but to manually type in your full credentials every time you need to access such utilities.

That's been the case thus far with my banking app (Bank of America), my two-factor authentication app (Authy), and my password management app (LastPass). Instead of simply tapping my finger to the back of my phone like I used to, I have to type in my complete password every single time one of those services comes up. It's irritating, to say the least, and a serious step backward in usability.

In theory, this should be a short-term problem: Google is requiring all developers to update their apps to target the Android 9 (yes, Android 9) version of its programming interfaces by November 1st — which, somehow, is apparently now just over a week away. And the up-to-date interface that'll let apps work with facial security systems has actually been in place since Android 9, believe it or not. So once apps switch over from the old fingerprint-specific system and onto the newer Android-9-and-up-level all-purpose biometric authentication system, this shouldn't be an issue.

In the meantime, however, it's pretty obnoxious. (Another update: LastPass started testing support for the system within its Android app's beta channel around the same time as this article's publication. More progress!)

Oh, and as for all the uproar over the fact that the Pixel 4's face unlock feature will function even when your eyes are closed — something Google says it'll address with a software update "in the coming months" — it's true that it isn't entirely ideal, particularly if you sleep near and/or are frequently passed out around people who are angling to access top-secret info in your phone. (Side note: You lead a much more exciting life than I.)

But it's also worth keeping this in context and remembering that the same exact thing could just as easily occur with a fingerprint sensor. We're approaching pretty theoretical ground here, at least for those of us who aren't living a Bond-caliber existence. And for anyone who does have genuine concerns about this sort of stuff, well, if you're that worried about security and keeping your phone locked down when you're unconscious, you should really be using a PIN or password instead of biometric authentication, anyway — no matter what advanced methods your phone may offer.

2. The Pixel 4's camera is spectacular — but the lack of unlimited original-quality Google Photos storage is a bit of a bummer

No two ways about it: The Pixel 4's camera, much like that of its predecessors, is incredible. It does everything past Pixel phones have done in the photography department and then some — and the countless image galleries around the web this week tell the story far better than any words possibly could. (I'll spare you another such gallery filled with awkward images of my mundane surroundings.) Plain and simple, it doesn't get much better.

But if you owned a previous Pixel phone, you may be disappointed to learn that this latest model breaks from its predecessors in one noteworthy way: The device no longer comes with free unlimited storage of your images and videos in Google Photos at their full, original resolution.

Now, let's be clear: You will still have unlimited "high-quality" photo and video backups, just like anyone else who uses Google Photos. But that means all of your images and videos will be compressed when they're backed up instead of being stored in their original, full-resolution form — something that wasn't the case with past Pixel devices.

Does that really, truly matter? In the vast majority cases, probably not: For most practical purposes, the difference between full-res images and "high-quality" images in Photos is not at all noticeable. But even so, you never know when the need might arise for a full-res version of a photo or a video in the future, and there's something to be said for hanging onto your media in its original and highest-possible-quality form.

More broadly, as we discussed in my newsletter last week, having the full-res backups was just a nice little perk of Pixel ownership — one that seemed like a natural fit with the whole "best of Google" concept the Pixel phone embodies. And so seeing it go is a shame.

3. The new Google Assistant is a welcome evolution — but it's not quite the revolution it looked like it might be

When we watched the demos of Google's new and improved version of its Google Assistant service — which features a new type of on-device processing that allows it to be significantly faster and more responsive than what we've seen before — it was hard not to let out a Keanu-caliber "whoa." The stuff this thing could do just looked downright transformational.

Our first look at the new Assistant, back at Google's I/O developers' conference in May, showed a supercharged system that made it seem like you'd never need to touch your phone's screen again. I mean, just look at this thing:

The truth is that the new Assistant does work pretty much as demoed. The interface is immensely improved, with a sleek new bottom-of-screen response setup that lets you see when you're talking to Assistant without having it take over your display. Simple answers also now appear in a small box on top of whatever you're viewing instead of shooting you over to a whole other process — something that makes so much sense, you'll wonder why it hasn't always been that way.

google pixel 4 new assistant JR

The new Google Assistant prompt, at left, and overlay-style answer card, at right — as seen over the Chrome browser.

Assistant is noticeably faster now, too, particularly when it comes to tasks like opening apps and moving around your phone. And speaking of apps, the new Assistant can interact with apps in some interesting new ways — like letting you share something from one app to another with a single voice command.

These are all very nice, very welcome improvements. But realistically, they aren't going to reinvent the way you interact with your phone, as the early demos seemed to suggest. You're still gonna be tapping on your screen most of the time. You'll just have an easier, more efficient way to do a handful of specific tasks with your voice, if and when you remember. And you might actually want to use Assistant on your phone more often than you do now.

4. The Pixel 4's radar-based hand gestures are an interesting addition — but they're still pretty limited in what they're able to accomplish

One of the Pixel 4's most intriguing features is its radar-based system for detecting hand gestures. I've personally been excited about this element since we first heard about its presence in the Pixel 4 — because we've seen the technology behind it several times in the years it's been under development, and it really seems like it has the potential to do some incredibly interesting stuff.

Back when we last talked about the radar system, I mentioned three specific reasons why I hoped it would prove to be more than just a gimmick:

  1. Its accuracy. The radar technology, as previous demos have shown us, can track the tiniest hand movements — "micromotions," like the rubbing or tapping of your thumb and index finger together — and then respond accordingly.
  2. Its distance. The system is able to sense such motions from as far as 49 feet away, even when you aren't directly in the associated device's line of sight.
  3. Its ability to detect through materials. The chip can interpret hand movements even through fabrics — meaning it could respond to your gesture commands when the device itself is tucked away in a pocket or purse.

Pretty wild stuff, right? But here's the downer: In this initial implementation, at least, not a single one of those advantages is actually put to use. The Pixel 4's Motion Sense system, as it's called, responds only to a few broad hand movements — most notably waving your hand in either direction above the phone to move back or forth in a playlist or to snooze alarms, dismiss timers, or silence incoming calls. What's more, it responds only when your hand is within half a foot or so of the phone's face. And it doesn't respond when the phone is behind a layer of fabric and not in your direct sight. (Yes, I tried. Numerous times. And looked incredibly silly as a result.)

Google has said it deliberately limited the system's capabilities because it wanted to give everyone a chance to get used to the new method of interaction, since it's almost like learning a new language — and the company promises what we're seeing now is just the beginning and that more capabilities will be appearing in "the coming months" (which is apparently Google's favorite unit of time measurement).

And you know what? There might actually be something to that. It really does take a little while to get the hang of using the Pixel 4's Motion Sense system in a natural-feeling and consistent way. (The trick is to hold your hand perpendicular to the phone — with your palm facing to the side — and then to wave all the way across its face, starting before its left edge and finishing after its right edge (or vice-versa). Once you figure that out, it actually works quite consistently, in my experience.) And learning a bunch of different gesture commands probably would be a lot to take in at once.

For now, Motion Sense is best thought of as a limited-use added convenience — though one, I'd argue, that does have legitimate practical value. If I'm streaming music from my phone while cooking, during a workout, or even just whilst sitting at my desk, it really is quite handy to be able to skip a track without having to swipe around on the screen (or even turn the screen on, for that matter). If I'm playing audio while doing other stuff on my phone, it's useful to be able to change songs without having to interrupt what I'm doing and swipe down on the notification panel to find and futz with controls. And if I'm at my desk or on the couch and a call comes in, it's nice to be able to quite literally wave it away without having to so much as pick up the phone. (Not that I'd ever do that with your call, of course.)

It's a relatively little thing that makes the phone a teensy bit nicer to use — and that's certainly not nothing. But it's hard not to feel slightly frustrated at what the system can do right now compared to what we know it has the potential to do.

5. The phone itself is a treat to use — but its battery life should really be better

In general, I'm a firm believer in valuing a phone based on the real-world experience it provides and not the numbers listed on its spec sheet. Who cares what processor a phone is packing or how much RAM it has under its hood as long as it's working well and giving you the best all-around experience for your needs?

And by and large, the experience of using the Pixel 4 truly is sublime. The phone, as we discussed last week, shows off the sort of value Google alone can deliver by having total control of both the hardware and the software and allowing its various services to shine in a native-feeling environment (and that's to say nothing of the three full years of timely and reliable updates you know the phone will receive — quite a contrast to pretty much every other Android device out there). Things are just pleasant to use in a way that's difficult to define but that's conspicuously absent on many other Android devices, where it frequently feels like you're caught in the middle of a tug-of-war between Google's vision and that of another company trying to achieve an unrelated and often conflicting set of goals.

There's one major asterisk, though, and it's a significant one: The Pixel 4's battery life just isn't what it oughta be. The phone's stamina hasn't been as dismal for me as what some reviewers have reported, but it certainly hasn't been exceptional — far from it. I'd call it decidedly mediocre: Discounting the first day I got the phone, when I started with an incomplete charge and performed an unusual amount of downloading as I set up the device, I've made it from morning to night on typical days of use for me. But by the end of the day, I've consistently been cutting it much closer than I'd like, and that's slightly worrisome to see.

What happens when I have an atypical day of use — when I'm traveling or using my phone as a hotspot or stuck at the mechanic and staring at my screen for an extra couple of hours? I don't know that the Pixel 4 would make it through the day in such a scenario, and while it's rare for me to go long periods of time without having access to a charger (or having a spare battery pack in my bag), it'd sure be nice to not have to worry about such matters.

And the truth is, battery life is very much all relative. Neither my style of smartphone use nor the amount of time I'm using my device on an average day is the same as everyone else's. Some people have loads of apps with heavy background processing that burn through power. Some people have five or six hours of active screen-on time every day or rely on their phones as hotspots as a regular rule. There's a huge spectrum of smartphone usage habits, and for anyone who falls more on the heavy side of things, the Pixel 4 may well present a daily top-off-requiring problem.

For a phone that's otherwise so exceptional, that's an unfortunate asterisk to have to stick onto the story. And it's one that, in 2019, sure seems like a "but" we shouldn't have to waste our energy thinking about anymore.

But here we are.

The real question with any phone is simply which buts matter the most to you and which trade-offs you're willing to accept — because at the end of the day, even in 2019, you can't avoid buts. Every phone's got 'em. All you can do is pick the buts you're willing to live with and the ones that come with the kind of all-around package you prefer.

Think carefully. 

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[Android Intelligence videos at Computerworld]

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