As I type this opening sentence on the surprisingly-great Pixelbook Go, I’m subtly reminded of what makes a great piece of hardware. The sweet spot sits somewhere between a finely crafted physical thing that is pleasing to look at, hold or touch and the way that thing goes about getting you to the digital, software-driven things you need, use and enjoy the most. It’s why gimmicks leave us a bit hollow, spec sheets don’t always translate to experience, and why the theoretical best isn’t always the best.
So, let’s talk briefly about the Pixel 4’s hardware (we have a few of the smaller Pixel 4s gifted to us by Google). I love the way it looks, feels, and performs: mostly. See, I love the frosted back and even like the eye-catching camera square that gives away its identity immediately on the orange and white versions. I absolutely love the textured aluminum rail that unabashedly surrounds the phone. It makes it easy to grip and, again, gives the Pixel 4 a distinctive style all its own.
The speakers are great, the screen is gorgeous (if a bit dimmer than other flagships), there’s no notch to speak of and the cameras are, of course, class-leading. We all wish there was a wide-angle lens and I don’t agree with Google that it is less important, but it simply isn’t there. I will concede that most wide-angle lenses in Android phones produce really mushy photos, but Google had a chance to change that and chose not to. That’s a miss.
But we can’t talk about the Pixel’s hardware without talking about it’s massive forehead. The design choice is odd and frankly a bit off-putting. The screen-to-forehead ratio is much better on the large XL, but the non-symmetrical look is just odd. Up in that forehead they housed a full 3D face scanning sensor, front facing camera, and a freaking radar. A radar. The camera is good, but I sorely miss the wide-angle option from last year. We get a wider-than-normal single camera, but the ability to get those wide group selfies was a feature my wife and I used pretty consistently and I’m sad it is gone.
The new Face Unlock feature is great, fast as advertised, and I have no real complaints about it. Motion Sense (that radar chip up top) really aids this speed since it can detect when you reach for your phone and get that face scanning tech ready to roll before you actually need it. Since I rely on Google’s auto-fill service, all the apps that I use my fingerprint on can still be entered with one click, but I greatly prefer forcing a biometric gate on my banking and financial apps. Support for those apps will come eventually, but there’s no real telling when that will happen.
In it’s other forms, Motion Sense feels like a bolted-on gimmick for the time being. While I don’t have much issue registering the swipes to get the next track, I regularly find it jumps tracks when I’m just reaching for a button at the top of the screen. It got so annoying that I turned that part of Motion Sense off. The silencing calls and alarms is nice, but still falls in the gimmick category for me right now.
As for the other notable features, I’ve not been able to leverage the New Google Assistant with its locally-stored voice model and ultra-fast responses since I have a G Suite account on my phone in addition to my personal one. That’s a big fail I hope Google fixes very soon. Since I rely on that G Suite account for real work, there’s no work around right now for me on that front. The live captions are pretty stellar, adding captions to videos in real time whether they are actually captioned or not, and the voice recorder app and its live transcriptions will likely come it very handy for many people.
So where does that leave me? To be honest, a bit underwhelmed. Yes, the cameras new Super Zoom is kinda mind-blowingly good, astrophotography is neat, and the dual exposure/shadows slider in the real-time HDR viewfinder is stellar, but end-result photos aren’t discernibly better than the Pixel 3 XL. I’m sure the New Assistant will be great once I can try it out and I like Face Unlock just fine. But remember what I said in the open about hardware needing to feel great and deliver your needed software? Well, the Pixel 4 does this quite well (aside from the forehead), so what’s my problem?
That Locked-in Feeling
I suppose it stems from a bit of lock-in anxiety for me. I remember thinking how silly it was each year when my friends who used iPhones would eagerly wait for new features during Apple’s keynote and applaude the new stuff while bemoaning the lack of features they really desired. I remember them experiencing this and saying, “Maybe we’ll get (fill in the blank feature) next year.” And I remember being so puzzled by this. Why would you keep sticking with a phone that continues to let you down in the areas you need it most?
Meanwhile, as an Android user, I was always brand agnostic. Based on the newest feature/gimmick, I’d pick up whatever phone had the best spec sheet and see what the experience was like. There was a freedom in that. There was a freedom to know that Android is/was Android and with enough tinkering and tweaking, I could get the phone I wanted that inspired me to have it in my pocket and still have access to the things I needed most. Even back then, however, I pushed back against getting locked in. I avoided manufacturer apps like Samsung’s S-Note app at all costs as I couldn’t take those to whatever phone I moved to next.
I lived like this until the first Pixel phone came out, and I got it because I’d had every Nexus phone that came before. And while I loved those Nexus phones, someone like Samsung, HTC, or LG would push another boundary in mobile phones and I’d always move to hardware that was usually better than what the Nexus line offered: pure Android be damned. By the time the Pixel came out, though, Android has reached a level of maturity that gave most flagship phones a level of parity. Sure, there were little additions here and there I missed while using Pixel phones, but I’ve not felt like I was missing out on much in the past few years as I’ve owned every Pixel along the way.
As this year approached, I came into the new phone season without the usual excitement I am used to. Instead, I had a converstation with Joe after we both realized no one at Chrome Unboxed had pre-ordered a Pixel 4, and we discussed a bit about why. For me, as I talked it out, I realized I was behaving like the iPhone users I used to pity. I was buying whatever Google told me I was going to have this year. As an Android user, I know I have nearly limitless options, but I still felt almost obliged to get the Pixel 4.
We’ve gone over it above: the Pixel 4 isn’t a bad phone. As a matter of fact, it is pretty great at a lot of things and will only get better in the coming months. They deliver the Android experience unlike any other phone maker and they get Google’s services in your palm like no other, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it is the best phone out there for everyone. At the $899 I’d pay for the XL version (the 4 is just too small for me and the battery isn’t great), I’m looking for the best. Whether that’s better hardware or a different take on Android that I like more, I’m looking for the best possible phone experience if I’m dropping that kind of money.
Right now, I’m not convinced that the Pixel 4 is that experience mainly because I’ve not tried much else in the past few years. I’ve had OnePlus phones, but never really given them a shot. I’ve not owned a Samsung phone in at least 5 years, and companies like Motorola and LG haven’t been on the radar for a very long time for me. For me this year, I think I’m going to try a few new things to see what’s out there and stretch my legs a bit. Who knows: I may come running back to Pixel. But I might not, either. I’m afraid that the Pixel 4 is just not the upgrade the majority of user are going to rush out to get their hands on this year. Me included.