5 big buts about the Pixel 4 phone

5 big buts about the Pixel 4 phone

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 in 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 still 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.

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 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. 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]

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.


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