The Pixel 4 and 4 XL sit among the stars of Android phones

Jacob Krol, CNN Underscored
Updated Mon October 21, 2019

Believe it or not, the Google Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL are here. Yes, the original Pixel launched in October 2016, but a lot has changed since then, both with Android and the smartphone industry as a whole.

So what can the Pixel 4 and 4 XL do for you? Sure, they have new camera tricks, a better display and a stronger processor, but Google has always been focused on the features and following the "what can it do for you" angle. That doesn't change with the fourth generation, and if anything, it became more important with the introduction of the Pixel 3a this past summer.

Yes, the Pixel 4 and 4 XL start at $799 and $899, respectively, but there's also the Pixel 3a, which starts at just $399.

Let's talk Google Pixel 4 and 4 XL, and most importantly, how they fit in an incredibly packed smartphone market.

A refreshed look that ditches the notch and keeps a bezel

With last year's Pixel 3 and 3 XL, only the larger variant adopted the notch, aka that teardrop or rectangle that extends into the display. For Pixel 4, the notch is gone and a decent sized top bezel has entered.

The good news is that the bottom bezel has disappeared as the speakers have been moved to the bottom of the device. I'm a big fan of all-display smartphones, or ones that at least minimize the bezels, so this is a big plus. The forehead was a little annoying at first and might make the Pixel 4 seem unbalanced. However, I found that after a few days, this didn't bother me too much.

Another factor that played into the design of the front is that the top incorporates the earpiece for calls, a front-facing camera, the SOLI sensor for gestures and Face Unlock, along with other sensors. So, it's not like space is going to waste. It's enabling features. Still, I look forward to the day of the bezel-less Pixel.

Google also removed the fingerprint sensor. It seems it's pushing Face Unlock, which is the only other way to unlock the phone without using a pin or passcode. With no fingerprint sensor on the back, it's clean. I've been using an Oh So Orange Pixel 4 and a Clearly White Pixel 4 XL. There's a "G" logo near the bottom of the back and the main camera unit sits in the top left corner. It's similar to an iPhone 11 or 11 Pro, but the camera housing is smaller.

The back is also a fully matte finish that goes nicely with the rims of the device. There's a black rim around both of these and the power button adds a pop of color on the right side. The volume rocker sticks to black, though. Your sim card slot is on the left side, while the bottom edge has speakers and a USB-C port. There's no headphone jack, and you won't find USB-C headphones or a dongle in the box.

Both the 4 and 4 XL feel comfortable in the hand and slightly heavier than the 3 and 3 XL. It's similar to what Apple did on the 11 and 11 Pro. Similarly, the Pixel 4 is about the size of an 11 Pro and the 4 XL matches up with the 11 Pro Max.

As a whole, it's not a full redesign, but the Pixel 4 feels more squarish and has rounded edges. It's a nice look and I'm a big fan of Oh So Orange. Although it might look like a salmon pink in some light, it's a way to have fun with your phone and provides a great pop of color.

And like most smartphones, that camera housing on the back means the 4 and 4 XL won't lie flat on a surface. A case is a simple solution, and I'm a big fan of the first-party options from Google this year.

The display is really smooth

The wait is over: 90Hz is coming to the masses. With Smooth Display, Pixel 4 and 4 XL will intelligently manage the refresh rate of the display. It's good to keep in mind that most phones top out at 60Hz. Even Samsung's latest Galaxy devices and iPhones only hit 60Hz. The end result on the 4 and 4XL is a smooth experience, and ultimately, that's better for your eyes.

As opposed to other 90Hz-capable devices, Smooth Display can only be turned on or off. You can't set the Pixel to always be on 90hz, and you likely shouldn't, as it could have a negative impact on battery life. Instead, Smooth Display intelligently switches between 60hz and 90hz to make the experience more optimal without demolishing the battery life.

Quickly scrolling through a webpage like Google Images or a long news article will have it switch to 90Hz, to present you with a better experience. You'll notice fewer frame rates dropping, and it will also help for gaming on the go. A higher refresh rate is always better.

And this is just a feature on each respective display. Notably, the Pixel 4 gets a 5.7-inch FHD+ flexible OLED at 444 pixels per inch, while the 4 XL gets a 6.3-inch QHD+ flexible OLED at 537 pixels per inch. Both have a 19:9 ratio, a layer of Corning Gorilla Glass 5 for durability, meet HDR certifications and are always on. The displays are on par, although the 4 XL can get brighter.

The one last feature that makes a difference for you will likely be Ambient EQ. It's similar to Apple's TrueTone technology, but the Pixel 4's measure the environment around you to give you a better user experience. Essentially, it matches the color temperature in the room or outdoors to make the screen easier on your eyes. It's a nice touch.

Face Unlock is really fast, but has one issue

So Face Unlock is finally arriving in the Pixel 4 and 4 XL, but it has one issue. I've been able to unlock both the 4 and 4 XL with my eyes closed. This is a big security issue, as a partner or someone could theoretically gain entry into your phone while you're sleeping. We've reached out to Google and they let us know that a forthcoming update will let you enable "require eye attention" to unlock the Pixel.

Other than the fact that you can unlock it with your eyes closed, it's a remarkably fast experience to unlock your device. It's also good to note that with SOLI and Motion Sense, the Pixel will start the authentication process when you reach for the phone. The result: It's ready to unlock as soon as it sees your face.

Motion Sense also enables gestures throughout Android

Google is not the first (and likely won't be the last) to enable gestures on a smartphone. With Motion Sense on the fourth-generation Pixel, you can swipe to interact with Pokèmon and your wallpaper, move ahead on a playlist and even stop alarms. Sure, some of these feel like gimmicks, but it's yet another way to interact and control your phone. It's also supported by a variety of apps at launch.

I was accessed the music control with Google Play Music, YouTube Music and even Spotify. Best of all, you can use this wherever you're in the operating system. You don't need to have the specific app open front and center.

It also works when the core display is off, and this is nice if you have it paired with the Pixel Stand accessory or if it's just on your desk.

So Motion Sense is kind of a two in one feature. Either way, it's using a new sensor and radar to intelligently pick up when someone is approaching the device. It looks to Face Unlock to quickly authenticate and grant access or for a gesture to do something with the operating system. Believe me, I was amused by waving at and petting Pikachu while I had him as my wallpaper, but that's not a thrill that will last forever. Being able to skip ahead, end an alarm and send calls to voicemail actually changes the game.

I'm also eager to see how and where this will be adopted throughout the operating system, and Google has promised more features in the coming months.

Android is still strong and smooth on the Pixel 4

Those going for a Google Pixel are likely going for its ease of use, deep integration with Google and for the Assistant. I really like it for the clean Android experience. You're not cluttered with Bloatware and (what can be) a clunky user interface on top of Android.

None of that is ever a question on the Pixel. The 4 and 4 XL run Android 10 and will receive updates for three years, at a minimum. So yes, these will get Android 13 when it arrives.

The Pixel 4 and 4 XL are powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 processor with 6 GB of RAM. All of that is paired with a Titan M Security Module, Pixel Neural Core and an Adreno 640 graphics processing unit. It's slightly less in terms of processing power and RAM than other Android phones, but it's still fast and capable of running a plethora of apps. It doesn't stick out as the fastest Android smartphone — most other flagships are carrying at least 8 GB of RAM, with the Galaxy Fold getting 12 GB. Something to keep in mind.

On Geekbench, the Pixel 4 scored a 609 and 2,391, alongside the 4 XL, which got a 636 single-core and 2,480 multi-core. It's a good score, but not the fastest. What is good, though, is the experience I've had with both phones. They've been fast and smooth, and I've been enjoying using them with the Smooth Display.

It can handle Fortnite, Call of Duty Mobile, Instagram, Outlook, Slack, Facebook, Twitter, several tabs in Chrome and much more, with ease. I also didn't experience many, if any slowdowns, once the device was fully set up. Even with slightly less than top-tier chips or RAM, it performs well.

The Google Assistant is also fully integrated, quite deeply, across the whole experience and has a new graphic that appears on the bottom. I dig it, and it's nice to see the rainbow bar appear as it is listening to the request. You can be more specific, have it open specific items within apps and it will intelligently navigate you across tasks. It's nice to use the Assistant for new multistep tasks or just questions while on the go.

So much of the Pixel experience is that the phone should work for you. And it does, which is a testament to Google and the Pixel teams working on both the hardware and the software. It's something that Apple does well, and something that Samsung is working on. But it especially shines on the Pixel, and when it comes to Android, not many other companies can do it.

The camera can capture great shots with just a tap

So much of the Pixel photography experience is twofold. In that, yes, a lot of the AI and digital enhancements work, but you're also presented with a number of customizable settings. That's not changing at all with Pixel 4. The hardware is, though.

For the first time in a Pixel phone, there are two lenses on the back. And no, it's not ultrawide. Yes, I'm serious. The second lens is not ultrawide.

Instead, Google opted for a 12-megapixel main camera (it's the same one as on the Pixel 3) and a 16-megapixel telephoto lens. So it's kind of like the camera setup on the iPhone 8 Plus or X, and it performs well.

It's a weird decision — especially at the price point, and in some instances, I found myself craving a wider shot. In those cases, I pulled out an iPhone 11 or a Note 10+, but the Pixel 4 also managed to get good shots. It's interesting how much of a stand Google is taking here: It's kind of at odds with other manufacturers, but, the processing and AI techniques put the phones in a category alongside the most recent iPhones.

It still lets you capture a photo on a wide stage with excellent detail. Portrait shots are enhanced, with better attention paid to hair, on both humans and furry friends. And details are emphasized better than ever, thanks to the telephoto. Between a lens with the two times optical zoom and the digital layer, you can take impressive shots. I encourage you to check out our test photos embedded above. It's a good camera, but it doesn't appear to beat out other top performers in an overall category. It's a packed market and all the companies are improving.

The dopest thing on the Pixel 4 is being able to capture stars, and it was timed perfectly with Bruce Springsteen's release of the "Western Stars" film. It gave me a great Instagram, but the fact that you can capture stars on a camera that's in a smartphone is nuts. Similar to when Google first shipped Night Sight, it picks up details your eyes can't see. Definitely play with this if you go for a Pixel.

Live HDR is also a big deal, as the view you see when preparing to take a shot fully represents what outcome. It takes quite a bit of processing power, and Google deserves big props for this. It's great to use and I hope this comes to other devices, but being able to see in real time what you'll get makes it easier to frame a shot and make customizations. After all, it's better to edit before the shot is set. There are sliders for both brightness and shadows, allowing you perfect the shot to the best of your ability.

So yes, the Pixel 4 and 4 XL has a solid camera that performs quite well. On the video front, it goes up to 4K at 30 frames per second, which is behind the iPhone, Galaxy S and Galaxy Note. You'll have to weigh how important this is to you.

Battery life should get you through a day

Pixel 4 has a 2,800mAh battery inside and the 4 XL gets a 3,700mAh battery inside. Both ship with an 18-watt fast charger and support Qi wireless charging. And yes, if you're upgrading from a Pixel 3, the Pixel Stand works just fine with the 4 and 4 XL.

These aren't the biggest batteries in any smartphone, but they perform well. And big hint, it's once again, thanks to the software and hardware integration. I got close to 18 hours from the 4 XL and 16 hours of the 4 — both starting the day around 6 a.m. and going until about midnight with moderate usage. I charged at times throughout the day, but only about 10% was actually juiced in. I tend to do a lot of productivity, photo snapping, light gaming (idle tycoons) and plenty of calls. A nice touch is that it will estimate when the device will die in the top notification bar, which you can swipe down to see. Currently, it's 7:47 p.m. EST and my Pixel 4 is at 43%, and based on my usage, it should last until 10:15 a.m. tomorrow.

A lot of this stems from software and hardware improvements like Adaptive Battery, which intelligently lowers the consumption from apps and services that are in the background. Pixel isn't the first to do this, so it was a smart addition. The end result is longer battery life.

Bottom line

Google's latest Pixels are great phones. The market is ultra-competitive and manufacturers have to work harder to innovate, and that's a good thing. At $799 for the Pixel 4 and $899 for the Pixel 4 XL, these also aren't the cheapest options. And by late October, pretty much all the OEMs have shown their cards.

You have Apple with the iPhone 11 at $649, which brings incredible value and Samsung's Note 10+ is more expensive at $999. But the appeal for Google's Pixel is similar to that of the iPhone. It's a device that doesn't put up many roadblocks and just works for you. Yes, you'll get great shots from the camera (especially of stars and at night). It's a buttery smooth experience with a sharp display that's better on the eyes. And that 855 processor with clean Android is zippy.

It's a safe bet to go with either the Pixel 4 or 4 XL. Ultimately, the decision rests with you, but it's safe to say, after reviewing the major hitters this year, that the Pixel 4 and iPhone 11 families sit at the top.

Note: The prices above reflect the retailer's listed price at the time of publication.