Breaking from the recent yearly release cadence, the next version of Android to release might be a mid-cycle bump — an “Android 12.1,” if you will — rather than Android 13.
By all measures, Android 12 is a significant release for Google’s phones, among other things, revamping the design with “Material You,” which matches the system and your apps to your wallpaper’s colors. In the coming months, we should see more of how Android 12 will improve other companies’ phones, with Samsung set to beta test One UI 4.0 in the next few weeks.
Normally, this would be about the time that we should set our sights on 2022’s Android release, presumed to be Android 13. In fact, Android 13’s internal dessert name, Tiramisu, has been discovered.
However, it seems there may be another stop in the journey. As tipped to XDA by luca020400 (Director of the Lineage OS ROM), a new Android code change suggests that Tiramisu/Android 13 will be API level 33, which is two levels higher than the forthcoming Android 12, which will be API 31. 9to5Google has also discovered a newer code change that directly confirms that Android 13 will be API 33.
More than that, it’s directly stated that API level 32 will be “sc-v2.” In this instance, “sc” is shorthand for Android 12’s internal dessert name, “Snow Cone,” while “v2” implies that Snow Cone will get a “version 2.”
In almost every case over the last 13 years of Android’s history, a change to the API level has coincided with a change to Android’s version number. However, this would be the first time since 2017 that Google has felt the need to put out a second, mid-cycle upgrade for a particular Android version.
At that time, Android Oreo got a bump from 8.0 to 8.1 at the end of the year, with the update debuting on Pixel and Nexus phones. A similar mid-cycle “x.1” release schedule also occurred following Android Nougat and Lollipop. Following that pattern, it’s quite possible that this “sc-v2” update might be called “Android 12.1” when it launches.
So what can we expect from such an Android 12.1 upgrade? Whatever is changing must be both important enough to justify a mid-cycle release, and also drastic enough that Google couldn’t add it all to Android 12 while keeping the API stable for developers.
For now, there aren’t many clues to go on, especially as more parts of Android have become updatable without needing a major upgrade, thanks to Mainline modules. In a comment on another code change, we see that “sc-v2” will introduce some tweaks to the WindowManager APIs, which would definitely affect app developers.
It’s too early to say when this supposed Android 12.1 would release, but the earliest available evidence suggests Google has been preparing it since at least May. In past examples of a mid-cycle release, the new Android version bump would see release within a few months of the major version’s launch.
Another tidbit you’ll probably have noticed in the quote above is that a Googler mentions that “some of our Nest devices might not be migrated to T.” For now, we’re not too sure what to make of this, as no known Nest devices run on Android — let alone have potential to upgrade to Android 13 (T) — with the Nest Hub series using either Cast OS or Fuchsia. It’s possible this may simply be referring to the Chromecast with Google TV, which could be seen as falling under the Nest umbrella.
While text chatting with classic Hangouts is still possible today, Google has killed most of the legacy service’s video calling features. Google will soon restore a familiar capability that lets you make direct calls using Meet without having to generate a link ahead of time.
Today, setting up a Meet call involves giving participants a URL. In Google Chat, you can quickly insert an invite like to start a session. This makes sense for group meetings — with video links now normalized — but feels somewhat excessive when you’re just talking to one person.
Direct “Google Meet calling” is the company’s attempt to make “meetings more spontaneous.” In Google Chat, you’ll get a “video” button to quickly start a call. The “phone” icon next to it lets you make audio-only Meet calls without video. This behavior is similar to classic Hangouts, Google Duo, and other consumer video communication apps, with Meet having to increasingly target both casual and enterprise audiences.
This will ring their device running the Gmail mobile app and send a call chip to Gmail running in a web browser, so they can easily answer from any device
It’s rolling out “soon” for one-to-one chats in the Gmail mobile and standalone Chat apps. However, it will come to “other Workspace endpoints in the near future.”
Google today also provided an update on Meet’s upcoming Companion Mode. This second-screen experience lets you use one device for audio/video and another computer to better see what’s being presented, respond to and create polls/Q&A, access meeting chat, and whiteboard. You can also share/mirror your screen from that second device.
This will begin rolling out in November (previously September), with Google also working on adding the ability to read live-translated captions in Companion Mode by year’s end:
We’re currently working on translating meetings in English to French, German, Spanish and Portuguese, with many more languages coming in the future.
Gmail on the web is set to get a navigation revamp this summer, while the Android app is now beginning to roll out a Material You redesign.
It starts on the homescreen, with the top of the page seeing a pill-shaped search field that features a hamburger icon on the left and profile avatar/account switcher at the other end that fits the curvature. The layout of the navigation drawer is unchanged with this revamp, while various buttons in Gmail are now rounded.
At the bottom, we get a taller bottom bar — like we enabled in Google Play — that makes use of a pill-shaped indicator to highlight what tab you’re currently viewing. The selected icon is also filled out, while Gmail leverages a rectangular Compose FAB just above it — similar to the one in Google Contacts.
The other big change today is the use of Dynamic Color to hue the background of Gmail for Android. This includes the main email list, all tabs, and the compose screen. The bottom bar, search field, and buttons leverage a darker shade, while the overflow menu also sees some theming.
Gmail’s Material You redesign is coming with version 2021.08.24.394054613, as spotted by Artem Russakovskii and XDA this morning. That new release is rolling out via the Play Store, but it’s not yet available for all users.
Meanwhile, sideloading does not guarantee you’ll see these changes as there is a server-side component, but you might get lucky. This new update does seem to widely rename “Rooms” to “Spaces” — as expected — in the bottom bar.
While Chrome has been visually refreshed over the years, Google has kept the core user experience intact to avoid “disorienting” users. Over the past few weeks, however, Chrome for Android has been testing a redesigned New Tab page that changes quite a few things for the worse, but fortunately you can get back the old version.
Usually, new features added to Chrome do not change the fundamental design. For example, if you don’t use Tab Groups, most aspects of the mobile browser’s tab grid are unchanged.
The same cannot be said about the redesigned New Tab Page. The Google logo still appears at the top, but is much smaller and fits in the app bar. Next to it is your profile image and overflow menu, but there is no tab switcher button (or open page count).
That is part of my biggest gripe with this redesign. In removing, Google has fundamentally elevated the New Tab Page (NTP) — ironically — out of being a tab. If you imagine the tab switcher/grid view as Chrome’s underlying structure, then all open pages fit within it. Previously, the NTP was just another card alongside websites.
Now, it’s an entirely new screen and piece of browser chrome that exists on top of Chrome’s existing layout. It’s more akin to settings, history, bookmarks, and other pages that have a close “x” in the top-right corner.
Google’s intended replacement is an unfamiliar “View all” button that’s part of the “Continue browsing” carousel — one of two that happen to be stacked right on top of each other. The other is for recent/frequent pages and replaces the previous 4×2 layout, which was more efficient.
We first encountered this New Tab Page redesign in late June. Over the past week, it’s been appearing for most users. While the NTP revamp is not yet widely available, it could be an indication that Google is closer to launch.
Fortunately, you’re able to change it with the #enable-start-surface flag. The dropdown offers a slew of different iterations. Some do not even have an NTP, which is somewhat indicative of the new design’s lack of purpose/importance.
Selecting “Disabled” at the very bottom and Relaunching the browser will bring you back to the old Chrome New Tab Page — for now.
The process of shutting down classic Hangouts for Workspace users is almost complete, as Google this week enables the integrated Gmail with Chat and Rooms for even more paid accounts.
Following on Google in late 2018 confirmed that it was shutting down classic Hangouts for Chat and Meet. The legacy service is being split into standalone messaging — with a group productivity focus that will soon have a new name — and video calling apps. This deprecation was always slated to happen first for enterprise G Suite, now Workspace, customers.
Google has a five-part plan for this, and we’re now in “Phase 4” where companies using the “Chat and classic Hangouts” setting will be moved to the “Chat Preferred” option by default. That started this week and will occur for “most organizations in Q3.”
Admins can opt out, but this is the last step before the mandatory upgrade currently set for “late 2021.” At that point, all customers will be migrated and Google will “fully replace classic Hangouts with Chat.”
In terms of what end users experience, the primary change occurs in Gmail. On the web, they will be prompted with a yellow banner at the top of the screen to reload the tab. Afterwards, they will see classic Hangouts in the left/right sidebar replaced by “Chat” and “Rooms,” which is Google’s Slack and Microsoft Teams competitor. Once capability lets you open Google Docs/Sheets/Slides directly in the page next to a message thread for live collaboration.
On Android and iOS, Google Workspace customers will be prompted with a “Chat and rooms are now in Gmail” banner to “Relaunch.” The app adds two tabs to the bottom bar. The Hangouts mobile apps and website will continue to work, but the classic service’s days are numbered.
Google has yet to announce when classic Hangouts will disappear for free Gmail users, but it’s under way. These users have been able to turn on the integrated Gmail since June.
Bottom line: Samsung’s Galaxy S21 is a great overall package, delivering 5G, the latest hardware, and all the extras you could ask for in a 2021 flagship.
6.2-inch AMOLED, 2400×1080, 120Hz refresh rate
Qualcomm Snapdragon 888
128 or 256GB
12MP primary, 12MP ultra-wide, 64MP telephoto
25W wired, 15W wireless
151.7 x 71.2 x 7.9mm
Compact and lightweight design
Snapdragon 888 is a performance beast
120Hz AMOLED display
Very capable cameras
All-day battery life
Doesn’t have expandable storage
No MST for Samsung Pay
In 2021, Samsung has released a smaller and more affordable smartphone in the regular Galaxy S21. For shoppers that want a fully-fledged smartphone experience without completely breaking the bank, it’s well worth your consideration.
One of the best things the Galaxy S21 has going for it is the display. It’s a Full HD+ AMOLED panel, and when paired with a smooth 120Hz refresh rate, it is nothing short of excellent. It’s not quite as sharp as the Quad HD+ resolution found on the S21 Ultra, but the picture still looks really crisp thanks to a smaller 6.2-inch display size. Combine that smaller display with plastic construction, and the S21 ends up being a really comfortable phone to use thanks to its small size and lightweight design.
Another highlight is performance; the Galaxy S21 features the Snapdragon 888 and 8GB of RAM. No matter what tasks you throw at the phone, it’ll handle them with ease. There’s also a 4,000 mAh battery for all-day endurance, an IP68 dust/water resistance rating, and your choice of 128GB or 256GB of storage. The camera experience isn’t as jaw-dropping as what you’ll find with the S21 Ultra, though it is a bit better than the S20 FE. Once again, it’s a nice middle-ground between the two.
You get three guaranteed Android updates and four years of security patches on the software front, making the Galaxy S21 one of the best phones for long-term use. That said, the Galaxy S21 shares the same cons as the S21 Ultra, meaning there’s no expandable storage or MST for Samsung Pay. Those are two features you do get with the S20 FE, but the S21 still manages to stand out thanks to its improved cameras, faster performance, nicer design, and more pocketable form factor.
Bottom line: The S21 Ultra stands out as the phone to get if you don’t want to spare any expense. Everything from the display, performance, cameras, and more are among the very best you can get — just be prepared for it to cost you a pretty penny.
What Samsung achieved with the Galaxy S20 FE is nothing short of amazing, and for the vast majority of you reading this, it’s the phone you should probably buy. But if you’re itching for a device that has even more to offer and you’re OK spending more to get that kind of experience, you’ll want to turn your attention towards the Galaxy S21 Ultra.
This is Samsung’s top-of-the-line flagship for 2021, and in virtually every regard, the premium nature of the S21 Ultra is easy to see. Starting first with the display, you’re treated to a massive 6.8-inch panel that’s capable of running a Quad HD+ resolution with a 120Hz refresh rate at the same time — something very few smartphones are capable of doing. This means you get razor-sharp text, buttery smooth animations, and the stunning colors of Samsung’s Dynamic AMOLED screen technology.
Powering the S21 Ultra is the Snapdragon 888 chipset, paired with either 12 or 16GB of RAM. In real-world use, that means the Galaxy S21 Ultra is one of the fastest phones money can buy. Keeping with the theme of high-end specs, other niceties include a 5,000 mAh battery, up to 512GB of storage, an IP68 water/dust resistance rating, and a larger in-screen fingerprint sensor that’s much faster and easier to use than the one found on the S20 FE.
As if that wasn’t enough, the tour de force of the Galaxy S21 Ultra is its camera system. The primary camera is a 108MP sensor that captures extremely detailed and colorful shots. The 8MP ultra-wide lens is a strong performer. The two telephoto cameras — featuring 3x and 10x zoom distances — allow for some of the very best zoom pictures we’ve ever seen.
There’s no denying the impressiveness of the S21 Ultra, but that’s not to say it’s without its faults. Samsung got rid of expandable storage and MST for Samsung Pay, two hallmark features of Galaxy phones before it. If you’re alright with losing out on those features, the Galaxy S21 Ultra experience is well well worth the price of admission.
Bottom line: The OnePlus 9 Pro delivers a gorgeous new design combined with top-notch internal hardware, cameras tuned by Hasselblad, and clean software. OnePlus finally has a phone that measures up to Android’s best, and the OnePlus 9 Pro is an affordable alternative to the Galaxy S21 Ultra.
The OnePlus 9 Pro is gunning straight for the Galaxy S21 Ultra. The phone features the latest hardware you’ll find today, including the Snapdragon 888 chipset, along with LPDDR5 RAM and UFS 3.1 storage modules, and a marquee addition this year is the cameras.
OnePlus always nailed the hardware, but it just couldn’t deliver cameras that held up to Samsung, Google, and Xiaomi. That has changed with the OnePlus 9 Pro. The device comes with an upgraded 48MP camera at the back that takes fantastic photos. OnePlus also partnered with German camera giant Hasselblad to deliver outstanding photos to capture every moment. The result: the OnePlus 9 Pro takes amazing shots in just about any lighting condition. There’s also a 50MP wide-angle lens that may just be the best on any phone today, and you get an 8MP module that offers 3x digital zoom.
The OnePlus 9 Pro is one of the fastest phones you can buy today, and a new 120Hz AMOLED display joins the top-notch hardware. The phone uses an LTPO display to dynamically change the refresh all the way from 1Hz to 120Hz, allowing it to conserve battery life while delivering a smooth and fluid user experience in daily use.
You’ll also find clean software without any bloatware at all in the Android 11-based OxygenOS 11. The interface has plenty of customizability, and unlike Samsung’s One UI, you will not find any errant ads anywhere. The clean UI combined with a focus on performance and customization make OxygenOS the default choice for enthusiasts.
The phone doesn’t miss out in other areas either — you get IP68 dust and water resistance, 5G connectivity over both Sub-6 and mmWave, and dual-band GPS along with NFC. But a key highlight is around battery tech — the OnePlus 9 Pro offers 65W wired charging along with 50W wireless charging, with the phone taking just 29 minutes to fully charge using the bundled charger. OnePlus also recently announced that its flagship phones would begin receiving three major Android updates — up from the two promised previously.
While it’s exciting to see the gains in this area, the one downside is that battery life itself isn’t on par with other Android flagships. For example, the OnePlus 9 Pro barely manages to last a day with heavy use, so you may want to take the charger along if you’re heading out.
That said, the OnePlus 9 Pro is a great overall package that nails the fundamentals. So if you’re not sure about the Galaxy S21 Ultra and are looking for an alternative, you will love what the OnePlus 9 Pro has to offer.
Bottom line: There are many good smartphone deals out there, but none of them are as amazing as the Pixel 4a. From its flagship-grade cameras, reliable performance, all-day battery life, and long-term software support, no other phone gives you this much for so little.
5.81-inch OLED, 2340×1080, 60Hz refresh rate
Qualcomm Snapdragon 730G
144 x 69.4 x 8.2mm
Flagship camera on a budget phone
Easy to use in one hand
AMOLED display looks great
Three years of software support
The Pixel 4a is the best phone value available today, period. Google’s packed most of what makes the Pixel 4/5 series good into a smartphone that costs over 50% less. You also get a compact device that, despite its size, excels in the battery life department. Seriously, this phone lasts all day and then some.
Perhaps the most impressive part of the 4a is its camera, which is nearly on par with the Pixel 4 that preceded it. The main camera shoots exceptional photos in all lighting conditions, with Night Sight really showing its strength in poor lighting. Google even added Astrophotography mode this time around and improved the already impressive Portrait Mode. The front-facing camera is also tack-sharp and focuses more quickly than on the Pixel 3a from 2019. Both front and back, you’re getting flagship-level camera quality out of a phone that’s a fraction of the price. Google’s also improved the video quality on the 4a, thanks to an improved Snapdragon 730 chipset and 6GB of RAM standard.
So what do you lose by spending a third of the price of a more traditional flagship? Well, the Pixel 4a is made of plastic and lacks both water resistance and wireless charging, features you can take for granted at a higher price point. It also only comes in one size, a 5.8-inch variant, and one color, black. There are no storage size options, either: you get 128GB of internal memory, which should be plenty for most people, but a lack of microSD expansion may be a problem for the content collectors out there. Also, there’s no 5G support here.
All of these limitations shouldn’t impede your desire to buy the Pixel 4a, which proved to be one of the best smartphone surprises of 2020 — even if it did launch a few months late. Google’s latest budget phone is a winner, from the size to the performance to the battery life and camera quality.
Bottom line: They say that the best camera you have is the one you have with you, so make sure it’s the best it can be. Google’s Pixel 5 takes incredible photos in virtually any setting, and thanks to the company’s top-notch image processing, you don’t even have to be a pro photographer to get impressive shots.
6.0-inch OLED, 2340×1080, 90Hz refresh rate
Qualcomm Snapdragon 765G
12.2MP primary, 16MP ultra-wide
18W wired, 15W wireless, 5W reverse wireless
144.7 x 70.4 x 8.0mm
Among the best cameras on the market
Compact and comfortable to hold
90Hz AMOLED display
Great battery life
Three years of software updates
Might be too small for some users
The Pixel 5 is Google’s latest flagship smartphone that you can buy. Compared to past releases, it’s a huge departure. Rather than trying to have the absolute best specs possible, the Pixel 5 focuses on offering a great all-around user experience at a competitive price. And, in just about every regard, it succeeds.
First thing’s first, we have to talk about the Pixel 5’s camera performance. Simply put, if camera quality is a key priority for you, the Pixel 5 should be at the very top of your shopping list. The 12.2MP primary and 16MP ultra-wide cameras may not look all that impressive on paper, but combined with Google’s unmatched image processing, they kick out truly incredible results. The detail is sharp, colors are true-to-life, and the Pixel 5 handles low-light environments without a hitch. The best part? The Pixel 5 does all of this more reliably than any other smartphone.
Outside of killer cameras, the Pixel 5 has a bunch more to offer. We’re in love with its design, which is refreshingly compact and is made entirely out of aluminum. The paint job gives it an exceptional in-hand feel, and if you ask us. The Sorta Sage color is one of the best we’ve ever seen on a phone. Period.
Rounding out the Pixel 5 experience is a 90Hz AMOLED display, fast performance thanks to the Snapdragon 765G processor, and long-lasting battery life. For considerably less money than a lot of other flagships, the Pixel 5 is well worth your consideration.
Bottom line: Samsung’s Galaxy S20 FE is a solid, affordable 5G phone that offers most of what makes Samsung flagships so good in a cheaper, colorful package.
6.5-inch OLED, 2400×1080, 120Hz refresh rate
Qualcomm Snapdragon 865
12MP primary, 8MP telephoto, 12MP ultrawide
15W wired, Qi wireless charging
161.6 x 71.1 x 9.3mm
Flat 120Hz display is terrific
All-day battery life
Promised three years of software updates
Impressive cameras with 3x optical zoom
Sturdy design with fun color options
Not every color option is available everywhere
Camera can be slow to load
Samsung clearly understands that this is a time for people to pare back their expenses because the Galaxy S20 FE is a value flagship that really doesn’t skimp. It’s based on the successful foundation of the Galaxy S20+, featuring a spacious 6.5-inch 1080p AMOLED display with a luxurious 120Hz refresh rate, a Snapdragon 865, 6GB of RAM, 128GB of storage, and an all-day 4,500mAh battery.
Of course, to hit its affordable price point, Samsung needed to make some sacrifices, so it traded the Galaxy S20 series’ back glass for colorful plastic — the FE is available in six delicious colors — and cut back on the quality of the triple-camera setup ever-so-slightly.
Still, the S20 FE has everything you’d expect in a high-end phone and performs just as well. We especially love the IP68 water resistance and wireless charging, two features rare in this price bracket. Plus, it shares the same primary camera sensor as the Galaxy S20 and S20+, ensuring beautiful results in good light and bad.
Samsung’s One UI 3.0 is also on-board, and the company’s promising three years of platform and security updates, ensuring that you’ll be getting the latest Android features well into the next decade.
Finally, Samsung includes sub-6Ghz 5G in all variants of the Galaxy S20 FE, and we found performance to be excellent on both AT&T’s and T-Mobile’s 5G networks. If you want a Verizon version that supports mmWave, it’s also available for purchase.
Bottom line: The Moto G Power 2020 has reliable hardware combined with outstanding battery life and clean software. There are a few downsides — it’s limited to 10W charging and will only get one Android update, but you are getting a great entry-level package overall.
6.4-inch LCD, 2300×1080, 60Hz refresh rate
Qualcomm Snapdragon 665
16MP primary, 8MP wide-angle, 2MP macro
159.9 x 75.8 x 9.6mm
At least two-day battery life
Large 1080p display
Will get only one Android update
Charging limited to 10W
If you’re in the market for an entry-level phone, the Moto G Power 2020 is still a great choice in 2021. Motorola has nailed the basics here, delivering a robust phone with all the features you’re looking for in a budget option.
The standout feature on the Moto G Power 2020 is the battery: featuring a large 5000mAh battery, the phone manages to last over two days without fail. The charging situation isn’t ideal, though; the Moto G Power 2020 has 10W wired charging, so you will want to plug in the device overnight.
The phone holds up pretty well in other areas too. You get a 6.4-inch 1080p LCD that’s decent enough in its own right, and the Snapdragon 665 is a reliable performer in normal use. The phone has stereo sound, a 3.5mm jack, a rear-mounted fingerprint sensor, and a microSD card slot. And as the phone is officially sold in the U.S., it works on all the major carriers.
In fact, it’s a better option than the Moto G Power 2021 in key areas — the 2021 model has fewer LTE bands, a lower-resolution 720p display, and a less powerful chipset. You’ll find positives on the software side as well, with Motorola offering a clean interface without any bloatware. The downside here is that the phone will get just one Android update — to Android 11 — and if you’re okay with that, the Moto G Power 2020 has plenty to offer in 2021.
Bottom line: If you’re looking for a value flagship and want a phone with a gorgeous design, the latest hardware, stellar cameras, fast charging, and clean software, the OnePlus 9 is the obvious choice.
6.5-inch AMOLED, 2400×1080, 120Hz refresh rate
Qualcomm Snapdragon 888
48MP primary, 50MP wide-angle, 2MP portrait
65W wired, 15W wireless
160 x 74.2 x 8.7 mm
Sublime 120Hz AMOLED display
Clean software with no bloat
65W wired / 15W wireless charging
Three years of Android updates
Single-SIM in the U.S.
With the OnePlus 9, OnePlus sets its sights on the Galaxy S20 FE. The phone delivers on the same fundamentals as Samsung’s value flagship, offering the latest internal hardware, a 120Hz AMOLED display, reliable cameras, and many extras from the OnePlus 9 Pro.
The 120Hz AMOLED display on the OnePlus 9 is one of the best you’ll find in this particular category, and thanks to the Snapdragon 888 chipset, the phone handles anything you throw at it without breaking a sweat. You also get 5G connectivity over Sub-6, Wi-Fi 6, NFC, AptX HD audio codecs, and an excellent vibration motor.
The phone has the same 4500mAh battery as the OnePlus 9 Pro, and you get 65W wired charging. What’s new this generation is the addition of 15W Qi wireless charging. It may not be quite the same as the insane 50W wireless charging on the 9 Pro, but the upside is that the OnePlus 9 works with any Qi-enabled wireless charger available today. This particular feature is missing on the Indian and Chinese models, but you’ll find it on the OnePlus 9 variants sold in North America and Europe.
Coming to the software, OxygenOS 11 continues to set the standard in terms of customizability. The bloatware-free UI is a delight to use, and recently OnePlus announced that it would begin supporting its flagship phones with three years of Android platform updates.
Overall, the OnePlus 9 is a solid contender to the Galaxy S20 FE. It has the latest hardware, great cameras, clean software, and fast charging, and for what it costs, you are getting a great overall value.
Bottom line: The ASUS ZenFone 8 is a bit of a departure from its predecessors, but it is the best smallest Android flagship you can buy right now. It has an excellent build, clean software, great cameras, 5G, and the powerful Snapdragon 888 SOC.
5.9-inch OLED, 2400×1080, 120Hz refresh rate
Qualcomm Snapdragon 888
64MP primary, 12MP ultra-wide
148 x 68.5 x 8.9 mm
Easy to use one-handed
Gorgeous screen with 120Hz refresh rate
3.5mm headphone jack
No wireless charging
No telephoto camera
If you’re one of those people who still pines for a smaller, flagship-level phone, then we have some good news for you. The ASUS ZenFone 8 delivers one of the best Android experiences that you can get in mid-2021 for much less than the competition. Plus, it’s one of the smallest Android flagships around.
Unlike the ZenFone 6 and 7 series and the ZenFone 8 Flip, the ZenFone 8 has done away with the flipping camera module in favor of a more traditional design. While this new (older) form factor makes the device more pocketable, ASUS was able to retain an excellent camera setup nonetheless. It also means that it is now IP68 water-resistant. The ZenFone 8 features a gorgeous AMOLED display with a 120Hz refresh rate, and it even retains an old-school fan favorite with its 3.5mm headphone jack.
The ZenFone 8 has top-notch internal specs, too, including the powerful Snapdragon 888 processor, fast 20W wired charging, and one of the cleanest builds of Android we’ve seen this year. However, you miss out on wireless charging, and ASUS’s track record for updates has left us wanting in the past.
This is the perfect phone for someone who admires the size and capabilities of something like the Google Pixel 4a but who also wants a more premium and performant Android phone.
Bottom line: Folding phones are here, and the Galaxy Z Fold 2 is the best one we’ve seen yet. It’s basically a smartphone and tablet in one device, and while it is costly, it’s also the best attempt yet we’ve seen for this form factor.
6.23-inch AMOLED, 2260×816, 60Hz refresh rate
7.6-inch AMOLED, 2280×1768, 120Hz refresh rate
Qualcomm Snapdragon 865+
12MP primary, 12MP telephoto, 12MP ultra-wide
25W wired and 11W wireless
159.2 x 128.2 x 6.9mm (unfolded) and 159.2 x 68 x 16.8mm (folded)
Puts a mini-tablet in your pocket
Great cameras and battery
App compatibility issues
Just like any piece of technology, smartphones evolve and change as time goes on. We’ve seen screens get bigger, cameras get a lot more capable, and processors rival those found in computers. The next big thing for phones is the folding form factor, and so far, the best yet in this niche is the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 2.
The best way to think about the device is as a phone and tablet in one. When the Z Fold 2 is closed, you’re treated to a 6.23-inch AMOLED display that you can use for anything you’d like — checking email, scrolling through Twitter, watching YouTube videos, you name it. Should you find yourself wanting a larger canvas, however, all you need to do is open up the Z Fold 2 up. There, you’re treated to a larger 7.6-inch AMOLED screen with a 120Hz refresh rate. It’s a lot like having an iPad Mini that you can fold up and take with you wherever you want, and if you ask us, that’s pretty amazing.
As you might expect for a new technology like a folding phone, the Z Fold 2 does come with some unique dilemmas. For example, the Ultra-Thin Glass for the tablet display is prone to scratches more than traditional glass. The folding design raises questions about long-term durability, and not all apps are properly optimized for that larger display size. There’s also the matter of price, with the Galaxy Z Fold 2 costing more than two OnePlus 8 Pros.
This isn’t a phone that we recommend everyone go out and buy right now, but as far as folding phones go, the Galaxy Z Fold 2 is the best we’ve seen to date. If you’re willing to spend the money and put up with those quirks, the Z Fold 2 has a lot to offer.
Bottom line: The Galaxy A52 5G gives you amazing hardware in the form of a 120Hz AMOLED screen and a Snapdragon 750G chipset with 5G connectivity. Although the design looks similar to the S21 series, you also get great cameras and all-day battery life, which is much more affordable.
If you want to switch to a 5G phone but don’t want to pay too much money, then the Galaxy A52 5G may just be the ideal option for you. Samsung has always delivered value packages with the Galaxy A series, and it is taking things to a whole new level in 2021.
The Galaxy A52 5G offers considerable upgrades over its predecessor; the 6.5-inch AMOLED panel now has a 120Hz refresh rate, giving you a level of immediacy during daily interactions that was missing in last year’s Galaxy A51. The internal hardware has also received a boost, and the Snapdragon 750G chipset is faster in almost every day-to-day scenario.
The camera has received some attention as well, with the A52 5G now offering a 64MP lens at the back. There’s even a MicroSD slot and a 3.5mm jack, two features you won’t find on the Galaxy S21 series. And thanks to a generous 4500mAh battery and 25W fast charging, you don’t have to worry about battery life.
Samsung added IP67 dust and water resistance to the Galaxy A52 5G, making it just that little more enticing. Oh, and there’s, of course, 5G connectivity here, so if you’re thinking of switching to a 5G plan this year and need a mid-range phone, the Galaxy A52 5G ticks all the right boxes.
Bottom line: The ASUS ROG Phone 5 is designed for gamers. It has an incredible build, a stunning 144Hz AMOLED display, and is paired with a massive 6,000mAh battery and 65W wired fast charging. There are also great accessories and extras to help you get the most out of your mobile gaming experience.
6.78-inch AMOLED, 2448×1080, 144Hz refresh rate
Qualcomm Snapdragon 888
64MP primary, 13MP ultra-wide, 5MP macro
172.8 x 77.2 x 10.2mm
Huge battery (6,000mAh)
144Hz refresh rate
3.5mm headphone jack
Gaming inspired design
Fast and fluid performance
This phone is BIG
No wireless charging
No water resistance
Gaming phones are definitely a niche category, but the folks who are interested in these devices really care how they perform. ASUS knows this subset extremely well and has been cranking out heavy-duty gaming phones for several years now. Its ROG line of phones complements its gaming PCs quite well, and there is undoubtedly a lot of crossover between owners of these computers and phones.
The latest in the vaunted ROG series is the ROG Phone 5. It boasts one of the largest capacity batteries we’ve seen (6,000mAh) for extended play sessions, as well as a brilliant AMOLED display with an high 144Hz refresh rate to make your content fly. You also get a 3.5mm headphone jack, so you don’t have to worry about audio latency, and it’s all powered by the latest and greatest Snapdragon 888 chipset.
There are several great accessories that you can purchase separately to help you get even more out of the experience, such as gamepads, coolers, and cases, but the phone looks great au naturale. The biggest drawbacks of the phone are that it doesn’t have wireless charging or an official IP rating, and it is quite a big and heavy device.
Bottom line: The Redmi Note 10 Pro takes things to a whole new level in the budget segment. The phone has a 120Hz AMOLED display, robust internal hardware, a 64MP camera that takes great photos in any lighting, and a gigantic 5020mAh battery with 33W fast charging. You can’t ask for much more in a budget phone.
Xiaomi knows how to deliver a value-focused package, and with the Redmi Note 10 Pro, it is setting a new standard for budget phones. The phone has features previously only seen on flagships, including a 120Hz AMOLED display that makes an immediate difference in day-to-day use.
The Snapdragon 732G delivers decent performance for most tasks, including intensive gaming. The phone also has generous memory and storage options, and you get a 3.5mm jack, microSD slot, NFC, and even an IR blaster that lets you control your TV or other AV gear. The phone also has IP53 dust and water resistance to withstand the occasional splash of water or be submerged in a pool without any issues.
The 5,020mAh battery on the Redmi Note 10 Pro easily delivers over a day’s worth of use as for battery. When you need to charge the phone, the bundled 33W charger ensures the battery is full in just over an hour. You won’t find wireless charging here, but honestly, the battery life is good that you don’t need to plug it in during the course of a day.
The 64MP camera is also new, and it takes great photos in just about any lighting condition. This may just be one of the best cameras you’ll find for under $300, making the Redmi Note 10 Pro that much more enticing. Xiaomi has made a lot of changes on the software front as well. MIUI 12 comes with Android 11 out of the box, and the UI is cleaner than earlier iterations. You get more customization options than you’ll end up using, and there are genuinely useful features here.
Ultimately, the main drawback is that the phone isn’t available officially in the U.S. You can pick up the global version of the Redmi Note 10 Pro from Amazon, but you miss out on the warranty.
How to pick the best Android phone
Android phones have never been better than they are right now. So regardless of how much or little money you can spend, you can go out and buy a phone that you’ll be thoroughly happy with. Out of every single phone on the market in 2021, however, we have to give our top recommendation for the best Android phone to the Samsung Galaxy S21.
Samsung makes amazing phones every year, but you need to pay out the nose for the privilege of owning one more often than not. With the Galaxy S21, you get a top-tier Samsung experience for less than previous years, and that makes it a better overall value.
Compared to a more expensive Galaxy handset like the S21 Ultra, the standard S21 does an admirable job of holding its own. It has a 120Hz AMOLED screen, excellent performance, great battery life, and the same One UI software experience. Even wireless charging and an IP68 rating are here, and the only area it misses out on is the Quad HD+ display and a glass back.
There are plenty of other options on this list if something about the Galaxy S21 just isn’t clicking for you, but we think it’s easy to see why it has our highest recommendation at the end of the day.
1. What size screen should I get?
You should consider many different things when buying a new Android phone, and it all starts with the display. This is the component you interact with more than anything else, so you must get one that you’ll enjoy using. Things like the resolution and refresh rate of a screen are worth talking about, but more so is the size.
Smartphones come in different shapes and sizes, and the biggest determining factor for that is the display. A 6.8-inch screen results in a much larger phone than one with a 5.8-inch one, and because of that, you need to know how big or small you’re willing to go.
Take the Galaxy S21 Ultra, for example. It has the largest display on this list (outside of the Z Fold 2, but that’s different), and because the screen is so huge, it’s a phenomenal canvas for watching movies, playing games, and browsing the web. Basically, any kind of content consumption you do looks better on a larger display because the more room you have, the bigger and easier to see your media is. The downside to this, however, is that phones like the S21 Ultra can be rather unwieldy. Especially if you’re someone with smaller hands, managing a phone like that can be a pain in the butt.
Then there are smaller-sized phones, such as the Pixel 4a. It’s substantially easier to manage and can actually be used with one hand, but you have less room for your movies and games on the flip side. It also means you can fit less content on the screen at one time, and if you’re someone who likes to increase your font size, things are easier to read, which could result in you having to do a lot of scrolling.
And, of course, there are plenty of phones that fall somewhere in the middle between these two extremes. If you’re really concerned about whether or not a phone will be too big or small, your best bet is to honestly go hands-on with it yourself at your local carrier store or Best Buy before making your purchase.
2. Are software updates important?
It’s easy to compare displays, processors, and cameras, but something that’s just as important to talk about is software updates. Android is constantly evolving and getting better, and unfortunately, only certain phones are backed by a few years of software support.
As it currently stands, Google, Samsung, and OnePlus are the best in the business when supporting their phones with long-term updates. All of the Pixels, Galaxy devices, and OnePlus phones mentioned on this list are backed by three years of major OS updates from their initial release, which is by far the best support any Android phone maker has to offer. Google even goes a step further with three years of guaranteed monthly security patches, and while Samsung does the same for its flagships, it is now starting to follow suit for its mid-range devices.
On the complete opposite end of the spectrum, you have a company like Motorola. Take the Motorola G Power, which is only promised to get a single update to Android 11. Security patches are even worse, with Motorola having a track record of falling multiple months behind on updates.
So, how important is it that your phone gets software updates? That ultimately depends on how much you care about new Android features. Google releases a new version of Android every year, and while these updates don’t tend to be that drastic from year to year, they give your phone important features and security settings that help keep it running in tip-top shape for a long time. It also ensures that your phone stays compatible with all the apps and games on the Play Store because as Android versions become too outdated, app developers eventually drop support.
A phone like the Motorola G Power won’t be unusable two years down the road just because it’s running Android 11 and not Android 13, but it’s also a bit disheartening to buy a product and know it’s backed by such a small window of post-purchase support. This divide in updates is something Android has been faced with for years, and while companies are gradually getting better in these regards, we still have plenty of room to grow.
3. How many cameras and megapixels do I really need?
Over the last couple of years, there’s been a trend going on with certain phone companies where they throw as many cameras onto their devices as possible. As it’s become more common for phones to ship with two, three, or even four cameras, there’s something of an expectation that phones have to have multiple camera sensors to be any good.
Spoiler alert — this isn’t true.
Let’s look at the OnePlus Nord 9, for example. It has a 48MP primary camera, 50MP ultra-wide, and a 2MP monochrome portrait camera. Compared to the single 12.2MP camera on the Pixel 4a, one would assume that the OnePlus 9 takes better photos, but that’s not always the case.
Having those extra camera sensors can be a lot of fun, but only if they’re high-quality. Far too often, we see companies throw in a bunch of extra cameras on their phones only to have these secondary lenses not be very good. The primary camera sensor is always the most important, so that’s the one you want to be concerned about the most.
On a similar note, more megapixels (referred to as MP) don’t always mean you’re getting a better camera. As mentioned above, the 48MP camera on the OnePlus 9 sometimes takes photos that aren’t as good as those taken from the 12.2MP camera found on the Pixel 4a. There are so many other factors that come into play with phone cameras, so don’t let the megapixel count be your only factor for judging them when you’re out shopping. Read reviews, look at camera samples, and you’ll have a much better understanding of what kind of camera you’re dealing with.
4. What size battery should I get?
Battery life isn’t the most fun thing to talk about with smartphones, but ultimately, it’s one of the most important components. Your phone can have the best display and processor around, but if it’s constantly dying throughout the day, what’s the point?
There are many different battery capacities for all of the phones on this list, and if you don’t regularly keep up with them, it can be difficult to know what a good size is and what isn’t. So, here’s a general rule of thumb. If you’re buying an Android phone in 2021, the ideal capacity is 4000mAh or larger. As phones move toward larger displays with faster refresh rates, more battery is needed to keep them powered throughout the day.
Of course, this can vary a bit depending on the type of phone you’re buying. The Pixel 4a, for example, only has a 3140mAh battery but can still get through a full day of use without a hitch. What gives? It has a small display by 2021 standards and only has a 60Hz refresh rate, resulting in substantially less power use.
These are factors you’ll need to consider when shopping for your phone, but generally, more mAh means more battery life.
5. What smaller features should I look out for?
Last but certainly not least, there are a few smaller features and specs that can be easy to overlook when doing your shopping — a prime example being NFC. NFC stands for Near Field Communication, and it’s the chip in most phones that allows you to pay with your smartphone with Google Pay at grocery stores, restaurants, etc. Most of the phones on this list support NFC, but many cheaper Motorola phones often lack the feature. You may not care about Google Pay, but if you do, it’s worth double-checking that the phone you want to buy does, in fact, have NFC.
Another spec to check for is an IP68 rating. This is a seal of protection many phones have, and it ensures they’re protected from a certain amount of dust and water. If you happen to get caught outside in the rain or take your phone to the beach, an IP68 rating is nice peace of mind that your phone should survive just fine.
Some phones lack this IP rating yet boast water resistance or have a water-repellent coating. Those devices are also probably fine to get splashed with water here and there, but you don’t have that same guaranteed protection. The best-case scenario is to avoid getting your phone wet whenever possible, but if you happen to be around the water a lot, it’s probably worth getting something with that IP68 protection.
We should also address a trend that’s been going through the smartphone space for a few years now — the death of the headphone jack. The vast majority of new phones coming out these days no longer have the port, but few holdouts continue to offer it. It’s certainly nice to have if you’re someone that primarily uses wired headphones or earbuds, but if you’ve moved on to the wireless bandwagon, it’s not something you need to be all that concerned with.
Whether a $499 smartphone can qualify as “budget-friendly” is up for debate. But after extensive testing, what’s not up for debate is that the Google Pixel 4a 5G is the absolute best budget smartphone you can find in the price range. A 3,800mAh battery, a better-than-decent camera, a sleek design, and a powerful processor help catapult the Pixel over most of its competitors.
In fact, it’s got most of the same features as the $699 Pixel 5, though they diverge in several small but meaningful ways. It’s not water-resistant, it doesn’t have wireless charging, the battery is a tad smaller, and its display is 0.2 inches larger. It also sports a polycarbonate body, while the Pixel 5’s is aluminum. Despite the weird official naming, the Google Pixel 4a 5G is a totally different – and much better – phone than the Pixel 4a. The 4a is physically smaller, with a smaller battery, a slower processor, and (obviously) doesn’t have access to 5G.
While Google did release a “flagship” Pixel 5 this year, I think the more budget-friendly Pixel 4a 5G has stolen its thunder. The sleeper-hit is basically a bigger Pixel 5 that’s missing a few features, but $200 cheaper. That means skipping out on an IP rating, 90Hz display, a bit of RAM, and a metal (ish) build, but you get a bigger screen and a headphone jack, paired with with the same camera, internals, and the Pixel software experience. At just $500, this is my favorite phone of 2020.
The Pixel 4a 5G was announced on September 30, 2020, alongside the Pixel 5, the Google Nest Audio, and the latest Chromecast.
The Pixel 4a 5G is, in essence, the 5G-enabled version of the regular Pixel 4a, which came out on August 3. However, there are more upgrades to the Pixel 4a 5G. The phone has a bigger screen, features a faster Snapdragon 765G processor, and comes with a bigger battery.
Pixel 4a 5G is a value-oriented phone made for people who don’t want or need a flashy high-end phone. Like the Pixel 4a, the 4a 5G model’s strong points are its cameras, smooth software, and rock-solid update policy.
Google Pixel 4a 5G – Design and Features
It might sound a bit hyperbolic, but the Pixel 4a 5G is one of the best feeling phones I’ve ever held. The size is perfect for my hands. At 2.9 x 0.3 x 6.1 inches (W x D x H), it’s on the larger side – a full half-inch taller than the iPhone 11 Pro. But the Pixel 4a 5G can hide its size behind a weirdly sleek plastic frame, one that makes it feel sturdy, relatively high-quality, and much grippier than something like the aforementioned iPhone.
The Pixel 4a 5G could be confused with the smaller Pixel 4a at a glance. It has the same matte plastic unibody design, rear capacitive fingerprint sensor, hole-punch front-facing camera, and even identically sized bezels. The cutouts for microphones and speakers on the top and bottom, buttons on the right, SIM tray on the left, and ports on the bottom are all in exactly the same positions as the smaller phone. It’s impressively consistent. However, there are a few key changes, like the wider camera hump, which houses an extra wide-angle camera module, and the overall larger design.
As with the smaller phone, the Pixel 4a 5G’s matte plastic finish is a bit too finely textured and easily picks up oils from your hands. Though the plastic seems durable enough, it does accrue wear more quickly than metal or glass would; mine’s already marked up with a handful of barely-visible scratches from normal use in the last week. The fingerprint sensor itself is also too shallow when the phone is naked, though that’s probably a non-issue, because you’ll use a case. Outside that, it was entirely reliable.
The 4a 5G has a good heft to it, with a similar feeling of density in-hand when compared to the smaller Pixel 4a. The curved edges yeild a comfortable and ergonomic shape to hold, even for extended periods, though it’s a little less easily gripable than the smaller phone. I’d consider this the upper-limit of easy one-handed use.
Mid-range phones always have to strike a balance when they cut corners, and screens usually get the short end of the stick. Even last year’s Pixel 3a and 3a XL had pretty mediocre panels. But this year, Google seriously stepped up the quality of its displays. Like the smaller Pixel 4a, I have no complaints about the screen in the 4a 5G. It gets bright enough outside, dim enough at night, it’s visually quite sharp, and it doesn’t have any issues with uneven backgrounds or “green tint” in dark themes. Google tells us it hits up to 700 nits of brightness at peak and 2 nits at its dimmest, though there are a lot of ways to measure that which makes it hard to compare numbers with other phones. Sure, I’d prefer if it had a higher refresh rate or greater than 1080p resolution, but at this price, it’s hard to get too picky.
Like the Pixel 4a, you don’t have any IP-rated water resistance. While there are gaskets in its design, like around the SIM tray, there’s no way to know how aggressive the ingress protection is throughout the phone without an actual rating, so better to err on the side of caution and refrain from underwater photography or phone calls in downpours.
The stereo speakers work as usual via the top earpiece and bottom-firing speaker, and they sound slightly different compared to the 4a, just a little less shrill/treble-heavy with a more rounded sound and marginally more bass (though these are smartphone speakers and they’ll never thump). Haptics aren’t the best that Google‘s done, and a clear step back compared to the Pixel 4, but they’re marginally better and stronger than the 4a. At least, as a non-“flagship,” you get an actual headphone jack — score one over the more expensive Pixel 5.
In fact, I think it might make more sense to compare the Pixel 4a 5G to the Pixel 5, even though it shares a name with the Pixel 4a. It’s equipped with the same Snapdragon 765G and dual-camera configuration with a new wide-angle secondary. While the outward design and materials resemble the Pixel 4a, inside, this is basically a Pixel 5. Google even has a separate mmWave version of the 4a that will be sold by Verizon, bringing it almost to network parity with the Pixel 5 model sold in the US (minus a handful of Sub-6 bands). From a particular perspective, the phone would be better named the “Pixel 5 Lite.”
In more pure hardware terms, you get 6GB of RAM, and 128GB of storage, which is good enough for a mid-range phone to last a few years. I’m glad that Google has stepped up and realized that’s the minimum these days, and I hope other manufacturers follow in its footsteps.
In the box, you get an 18W USB PD Type-C charger, a three-foot cable, a Type-C to Type-A adapter, a SIM-ejector tool, and the usual warranty cards and manuals.
Software, performance, battery life
Some disagree, but consider Google‘s vision of Android on the Pixels among the best out there, especially on Android 11. With the number of exclusive features Pixels get, we can’t quite say it’s “stock” anymore, but it’s probably the closest you can get with the deep changes most manufacturers implement now. And while it’s very, very hard to express why I like Pixel software so much, I’ll try.
First: The Google Assistant. I’m not as all-in when it comes to smart home hardware as my fellow Android Police editors — I don’t have any Nest cameras (yet) or thermostats — but I still use the Assistant daily on smart speakers, displays, and my phone to control lighting, play music, remotely harass my roommate, and enjoy a remote-free TV life. While I can do all that regardless of the phone in my pocket, Google‘s extra Pixel-exclusive Assistant features are so useful, I’d probably pay a subscription to get them on other phones.
Automatic call screening is among my favorite features. While some of the folks calling me don’t like it too much, spam calls are still a serious issue regardless of whatever progress carriers claim to be making. So the fact that the Assistant can automatically screen calls that come my way and filter out the junk is fantastic, saving me from multiple interruptions a day.
The Pixels also get Google’s snazzy “new” Assistant, with faster on-device recognition and Continued Conversation. That last feature means, once you’ve triggered the Assistant, you can issue follow-up contextual commands and not have to preface them with the hotword either. I use it quite a lot while driving, and I miss it on other devices; although it’s weird Google still doesn’t turn it on during setup.
Beyond the Assistant itself, there are other software perks to Pixel ownership. Google’s Recorder app, for example, comes in handy for us bloggers when taking notes at an in-person event (if we ever have those again). But if you’re the sort that likes dictating notes to yourself, it can just as easily be used for that. The Pixel Launcher is so simple and good I go out of my way to install an improved clone of it on other phones. And, from my perspective, Pixels are mostly free of bloatware; every app they come with is something I’d install myself on another device anyway because I’m so deeply integrated into Google’s ecosystem.
While Google’s software design can still be a little inconsistent across first-party apps (I can’t believe YouTube still refuses to fit in), it’s generally more cohesive than most other Android skins, and it meshes better with third-party apps since many follow Google’s Material guidelines. In total, that makes for a less jarring or disruptive visual experience when you use a Pixel compared to almost any other phone.
There are only a few things I don’t like about the Pixel software experience. For one, Google seems to have re-tuned things like animations to favor higher framerate displays, and something feels just a little bit off on the 60Hz screen on the 4a 5G. (We touched on the same thing in our Pixel 4a review.) I may be alone in this, but I also dislike the effect the hole-punch camera cutout has on software. Google pads it with enough space that its latest Pixels have the largest status bars I’ve seen in years — it’s even bigger than the Essential PH-1. It doesn’t need so much wasted space, and as tall as the screen is already, I don’t like giving it up more of it to empty padding.
Performance on the 4a 5G struck me as odd. The phone is clearly faster than the smaller Pixel 4a — side-by-side with last year’s Pixel 4, which has a higher-end chipset, it loads most apps in almost the same time — but it’s simultaneously more prone to so-called Android “jank” for me, dropping frames more often than the less capable Pixel 4a feels like it does. We know from experience with other phones that the Snapdragon 765G is a capable chipset, and yet something still feels off at times. I have to assume that it’s a software issue, and other curiosities like too-small resolutions for the first-party hole-punch wallpapers imply to me that we might see a sweeping bug-fix update land soon (we’ll update our coverage if and when that changes).
But outside that “jank” — imaginary or otherwise — the phone was plenty fast. The GPU may not be the most powerful, but it was strong enough for some light Fortnite as well as more casual titles. Day-to-day performance was also generally good, and I didn’t notice any issues with app slowdowns or freezes.
5G remains mostly useless, and I usually get slower speeds on T-Mobile’s 5G here in Boston than I do on LTE. If and when 5G becomes truly relevant, the 4a 5G will support it — though there’s 5G and then there’s 5G. While Verizon will be getting a version of the phone with mmWave, the “standard” unlocked version only supports sub-6Ghz 5G. That’s the 5G that actually matters for most of us, but it’s also the 5G that will make the least difference to things like speeds. Ultimately, there’s really no reason to go out of your way to buy a 5G phone right now unless it happens to come with it, but the 4a 5G does.
The 3,800mAh battery in the 4a 5G may not be the biggest you can get in a phone this size, but Google manages to stretch it out to last all day — and then some. While I look forward to putting it through its paces in more circumstances, the phone managed just over eight hours of screen-on time over two days, and this was in mixed use with a few hours of GPS navigation as a standalone Android Auto screen, browsing, reading, and taking photos across Wi-Fi, LTE, and 5G connections. I even tested this on Google Fi, which is notorious for wrecking battery life. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that the 4a 5G may break 10 hours of screen-on time in a single day in certain use cases. In short: this is an even bigger battery champion than the smaller Pixel 4a was.
That’s good, because it’s not the most convenient phone to charge. While it can top up at 18W with the universal Power Delivery standard, and that’s enough for the majority of us that plug a phone in overnight, it lacks wireless charging for convenient topping-up during the day, and it doesn’t have an ultra-fast high-wattage charging mode for emergencies. Personally, I think 18W is still fine at this price, but more powerful specs like OnePlus’ Warp Charging have saved my butt in emergencies, and I’d like to see more phones support faster charging speeds.
Google‘s Pixels are known for having some of the best smartphone cameras you can get. Even with an older sensor, that remains true today — proof that software matters more than hardware in this era of computational photography. While I still prefer the utility of a telephoto, Google did convince me that the wide-angle camera can actually be useful with the Pixel 4a 5G.
The primary camera’s performance seems about equivalent to the Pixel 4, 4a, and prior Pixel phones. That makes sense, It’s using the same sensor and probably the same lens configuration. But there is one notable difference compared to last year’s Pixel 4: Camera processing takes a little longer. I’m told the Pixel 5 suffers the same behavior. It’s not a deal-breaker, but it is noticeable. Otherwise, you get the same hyper-real photos with great clarity, sharpness, and a tendency to favor slight underexposure (which makes for attractive contrast). Some super detailed, super high-contrast scenes can look a bit muddy on a very close crop (like the photo looking through the branches of a downed tree in the gallery above), but Google generally does an exceptional job preserving detail.
This, in tandem with the Pixel 5, is the first time Google has done a wide-angle camera in a Pixel, and it delivered. My biggest complaint is that its minimum focus distance is too far out, somewhere around two feet. That’s not unexpected, but it does mean I can’t use it for quite as many fun shots as I’d hoped. Though I did notice some very slight chromatic aberration (i.e., “purple fringing”) with leaves against the sky, it wasn’t too noticeable or distracting outside a crop, and I was stunned at the dynamic range.
Usually, the smaller aperture you get on wide-angle cameras means worse performance indoors or in poor lighting, and that isn’t the case here. Google’s wide-angle camera is equally good indoors our outdoors, and it even does okay in low-light. It’s definitely noisier in challenging circumstances than the primary, and even a tiny bit muddy with certain textures, but it does a great job. Although overall results are sharp enough, it’s also a little soft on a crop, and more likely to lose fine detail (like the leaves on the forest floor in some of the photos above). While both the primary and wide-angle suffer some unavoidable lens flare if bright lights like the sun are in scene, the long shape of the flare on the wide-angle camera is less pleasing and unexpected. Color balance between lenses in the same scene changed a little more than I hoped, but it was much more consistent than some manufacturers accomplish. For all I know, Google may actually be doing it intentionally to take a better shot.
The Google camera also has a couple new features like portrait light, that lets you dynamically adjust lighting for a portrait photo after the fact. It’s technically very cool, but I know I’ll never use it.
While I still lament it, the loss of the telephoto isn’t the end of the world. Google’s Super Res Zoom is probably the best software zoom solution out there, and it plugs the gap well enough. Paired with the wide-angle, the camera is now objectively more versatile, even if I know I would use a telephoto more often, myself.
Night Sight and Astrophotography are both still great features, and they both work with the wide-angle camera, though results are noisier and a bit streaky.
In short, Google made another amazing camera here, wide-angle and all. When the day finally comes for Google to switch to a bigger, more modern sensor in Pixels, the results will probably be incredible. But for now, it still takes the Android crown unless you need a sharper telephoto or wider wide-angle.
The more I ruminated on it over the last few days as I sat down to write this review, the harder I struggled to find things to complain about with this phone, and that’s weirdly high praise. When things are great, and nothing is really wrong, that’s a neutral state for a tool; it’s just doing what it should. It’s when things are bad, or something breaks, you can feel bothered or even frustrated. But the Pixel 4a 5G didn’t leave me complaining — and that’s enough to call it great in my mind.
Buy it if:
You want a Pixel 5 on a budget — it’s basically a bigger, “lite” version.
Camera performance, battery life, and price are your biggest concerns.
You’re so deeply integrated into Google’s services that you honestly can’t see a way out please help me.
Don’t buy it if:
You want The Real Flagship Experience™ and need more power, a smoother screen, and an IP rating.
Budget constraints are either narrower or looser — there are better values at both ends of the spectrum between the baby Pixel 4a and Samsung Galaxy S20 FE.
Google has taken a drastically different approach with the Pixel lineup. They’ve focused on providing a great user experience without maxing out the specs on the processor or the screen. The Pixel 5 maybe this year’s Google‘s flagship, but it’s not a flagship device as we know it.
Google did away with the finnicky radar sensors that enabled Motion Sense features on the Pixel 4 and 4 XL. Motion Sense wasn’t really as useful as the advertisements made it out to be. Because of this, the fingerprint scanner is back. Next, we don’t have the latest Snapdragon chipset on the Pixel, but we do get the capable Snapdragon 765G with support for 5G networks. Finally, the Pixel 5 swaps out the 2X telephoto from last year in favor of a new ultra-wide camera.
The overall form factor is far more manageable with a 6-inch display with a punch-hole selfie camera cut out and compact size. The Pixel 5‘s design is largely based on the Pixel 4a that came just weeks before it, but it comes with the slimmest bezels we’ve ever seen on a Pixel phone. It also has a beefier 4080mAh battery compared to the Pixel 4 XL’s 3,800 mAh. Combined with the power-efficient Snapdragon 765G, the Pixel 5 should also see improvements in battery life, but we’ll get to that.
Google Pixel 5 specs:
Body: 144.7 x 70.4 x 8 mm; 151g; Gorilla Glass 6 front, recycled aluminum enclosure reinforced with plastic; Colors: Just Black and Sorta Sage; IP68
The Pixel 5 does achieve something new. It’s got a housing made of recycled aluminum. However, it still supports wireless charging (and even supports reverse charging this year) – proving that smartphone makers don’t need to make fragile glass sandwiches to achieve the popular feature. Google did this by putting the charging coil on the outside of the housing before applying the texturized coating and ran the coil through holes cut out of the back of the chassis.
We can’t help but think that Google is taking a step backwards with the Pixel 5. However, its lower price and focus on experience may be in Google’s favor. The need for a cheaper headlining 5G smartphone is more urgent than in the past and its price point pins it up against the recently announced iPhone 12 Mini, the OnePlus 8T, and the Samsung Galaxy S20 FE.
The camera hardware stays the same on paper, but we’re curious to see if the software has allowed advancements in imaging. We’ll keep an open mind and let you know if Google has solidified its software and camera experiences with the Pixel 5. Let’s move into the box and see what’s inside.
On the exterior, the Pixel 5‘s box shows the phone’s picture with the chosen coat of color. Our model is the “Sorta Sage”. The Pixel 5 comes with the bare necessities inside the box, which prominently features the #teampixel hashtag and 5G logos.
The phone comes with some documentation, a SIM tool, USB “Quick Transfer adapter”, 18W USB-C PD adapter, and USB-C charging/data cable. Google only included earbuds once with the Pixel 3 (XL) but later removed them for the Pixel 4 (XL) in the US.
The Google Pixel 5 is not your average glass sandwich as it’s got a body made of recycled aluminum. In fact, Google deserves praise for proving that phone makers don’t need to use plastic or glass to get a smartphone to support wireless charging. You see, aside from wireless charging, having a smartphone with glass on the back makes it much easier for RF signals to pass through and makes it more prone to damage. This metal body also makes the Pixel 5 the first 5G-enabled smartphone with a metal body construction (even if it’s partially metal).
As Google explains, the Pixel 5‘s charging coil is placed right on the outside of the aluminum chassis before the assembly is placed in an injection mold. The wiring for the coil passes through the metal shell before getting a layer of “bio-resin,” which is basically a thin plastic layer. After that, the body is smoothened out and coated with either the “Just Black” or “Sorta Sage” exterior coating.
Google says you won’t be able to feel the coil behind the coating and its reasoning for going with this structure of materials over plastic or glass is to keep the phone thin. This coating feels unlike any other Android smartphone. It feels like granite or sandstone that’s been smoothened out and soft to the touch. The grip here is superb and certainly better than that of any glass.
The 6-inch screen is protected by Gorilla Glass 6, and just like the Pixel 4a, the 5 has a punch-hole cutout for the selfie camera. Under strong light, we can faintly see the proximity sensor behind the display, just below the earpiece. We appreciate these little touches that help keep the bezels slimmer than ever.
Compared to the Pixel 4’s 5.7-inch display, the Pixel 5 has got a larger 6-inch screen that fits in a device that’s slimmer in every dimension, even shaving off some weight. This is due to the extra bulk that the radar sensors took up in the previous-gen Pixels. The Pixel 5 weighs 151g and measures 144.7 x 70.4 x 8 mm, and is rated IP68 water resistance.
On the left side is a SIM card tray with space for a single nanoSIM. Remember that the Pixel 5 also supports an internal eSIM for dual SIM connectivity. The right side has a volume rocker and ultra-shiny power key. The accented power key on the Sorta Sage Pixel isn’t painted in a different color as Google has done in the past. It has made this button and the “G” logo on the back shiny, giving them a nice contrast to the soft, textured exterior coating.
The fingerprint scanner can be seen and felt easily at the back. Meanwhile, although there’s a camera hump present, it doesn’t protrude enough to cause the phone to rock back and forth on a table.
There’s no headphone jack on the Pixel 5, just the one USB-C connector at the bottom. The left port is a microphone, and the right port is one of two loudspeakers. There’s also a tiny microphone hole in the camera square on the back.
The overall design very closely mimics the Pixel 4a but with a slightly larger display and, of course, the dual cameras. We are content with the rounded sides and high-grip material on the back of the Pixel 5. We are glad to see more phone makers revert to more compact form factors as things have been getting a little out of hand, pun intended.
The Google Pixel 5‘s price point positions it in the same space as the newly-announced iPhone 12 mini, the Samsung Galaxy S20 FE, and the vivo X50 Pro. Although all of them are around the same price, some offer more value than others depending on your needs.
Then other packages offer the same or more for a lower price. The first device that comes to mind is the OnePlus Nord, which has twice as many cameras and runs the same chipset for less. The Nord even has faster Warp Charging, but it does omit wireless charging. The OnePlus 8T is priced like the Pixel 5 but offers high-end performance and 120Hz smoothness.
The iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Mini are just arriving on the market, and this is the first year that these iPhones will offer 5G support. Their preliminary reviews reveal that battery life is weaker than their predecessors. Still, the iPhone cameras are top-tier, and iOS is smooth and responsive.
The Pixel 5 has improved video recording this year with its processing tweaks and new stabilization modes. Suppose you’re after something that’s going to give you an even more advanced video recording experience. In that case, the vivo X50 Pro has a micro gimbal built into the camera assembly with some nifty controls and shooting modes.
The LG Wing is an entirely different class. Aside from having a higher price, it’s experimental T-shaped form factor brings a fresh way to interact with a smartphone. Both it and the vivo X50 Pro are running the same Snapdragon 765G chipset with support for 5G networks.
The Google Pixel 5 is an evolution of the kind of smartphone that Google wants to offer. It solves the battery life issue that’s plagued all Pixel phones before it, and it’s taken a decision to switch up the hardware materials while keeping Google’s obsession with using non-standard textures and an understated design and overall look. We are also glad to see something more compact and pocketable arriving in a sea of super long glass slabs.
Google was creeping up on $1000 territory with the Pixel 4 XL but pumped the brakes with the Pixel 5 while cutting corners in just the right areas that don’t compromise the overall experience. The midrange processor might be a turn-off for some who would instead go with a cutting-edge chipset, which both Samsung and OnePlus will gladly sell you for the same price. In any case, performance is adequate for a smartphone in this day in age (as my colleague Prasad would attest), and the Snapdragon 765G will age gracefully.
Then there’s the camera, which feels more like a side-step than advancement. Although Google is adamant about the features and improvements to the camera, the software side of photography can only improve so much. We feel that this ceiling has been reached, and Google is due to put out a new Pixel with a more advanced camera. The Pixel 2’s camera was ahead of its time, but today the Google Pixel 5 is really just playing catch-up with the new ultra-wide camera. The selfie camera is also due for an update.
Google’s implementation of Android 11 on the Pixel 5 is smooth and consistent – perhaps the best stock Android has ever gotten. It will be interesting to see Google’s next step from here, but the Pixel 5 is a great first move for a lineup that’s bound to benefit from a future high-end Pixel 5 “Pro” model if there ever is one.
Less bezel, more screen, more pocketable
Plastic-reinforced metal build with two-directional wireless charging
Much-improved display brightness over Pixel 4
Speakers are loud
Superb battery endurance
Pixel-only features like Hold for Me and Robo Call-screening
Finally, an ultra-wide camera on a Pixel
Snapdragon 765G performance is severely handicapped in this phone
Recycled main camera hardware with incremental improvements to image quality
Google‘s Pixel 4a is finally here and although it has arrived a few months behind its rumored schedule, many are eager to buy one during these trying times. How much has been done to improve the Google-fied budget Pixel 3a from last year? Well, last year’s formula was quite successful that Google didn’t need to change it up too much. In fact, it lowered the price and doubled the storage.
The 4a gets a modest performance boost with a Snapdragon 730G chipset, 2 additional GB of RAM, and updated UFS 2.1 storage speeds (The Pixel 3a used eMMC 5.1). A slight boost in battery capacity is seen as well, and the display size was stretched out to cover more surface area, and there’s a punch hole selfie camera cut-out of the screen as well.
The backside and frame are both made of plastic, but the display glass is now made of Gorilla Glass 3. In addition, the camera, while otherwise identical in hardware, gets a slightly brighter f/1.7 aperture lens (the 3a had f/1.8). We are expecting to see camera performance comparable to what we saw on the Pixel 3a last year, which was wonderful to say the least.
Google Pixel 4a specs:
Body: 144 x 69.4 x 8.2 mm; 143g; Plastic body and frame
Despite the taller screen, Google managed to shrink the footprint of the 4a (compared to the 3a) in both height and width. This is the first Google Pixel phone to feature a punch hole cut out for the selfie camera.
With the Pixel 4a, Google is solidifying its foothold in the midrange category. The higher-end Pixels that came before it excelled in camera technology, but these days the competition swerves around Google’s offerings. With the Pixel 3a, Google has proven it can make cheap hardware deliver a premium-feeling experience.
Let’s dig further into the Pixel 4a starting with the unboxing.
Unboxing the Google Pixel 4a
The Pixel 4a comes with the bare necessities inside. The box is printed with a matte finish on the outside. Google‘s branding and an image of the Just Black Pixel 4a appear on the packaging.
Inside the box is the Pixel 4a itself, a quick start guide and safety information card, SIM eject tool, a USB-C to C cable, and a USB-C Power Delivery charge adapter. There’s also a USB-C to A adapter, useful for transferring data from an iPhone or other Android device. This adapter doubles as an OTG input so you can mount a USB drive into the Pixel 4a.
The Pixel 4a doesn’t come with any earbuds, case, or screen protector.
Design and build quality
The Pixel 4a is built with a plastic frame and back panel while the display is protected by Corning Gorilla Glass 3. Like the Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL, the Pixel 4a no longer has the “window” on the back, so it is completely matte on the back, save for the camera bump. It’s interesting to see this fingerprint scanner, which is also matte on the back, we can’t help but think it might have been more aesthetically pleasing to make it shiny to contrast the rest of the back.
The camera setup is square like its more expensive siblings, but it only houses a single 12.2MP camera, and a dual-LED flash. We like that the styling matches with the Pixel 4. The camera housing does protrude, but not enough to make rocking back and forth on the table a serious issue.
The rear cover and the frame are a single piece, so holding the Pixel 4a feels really nice and smooth with no breaks or seams. At 144 x 69.4 x 8.2 mm, the Pixel 4a is slightly shorter and narrower than the Pixel 3a, despite having a screen that takes up more space. It’s even slightly lighter at 143g and its weight is well distributed.
It’s a well built phone, but we wonder if it has any structural weak points. It doesn’t creak or buckle under light pressure, so that’s worth something. Remember that the Pixel 4a is not rated for water or splash resistance, and we would not bet that it’s even sealed well for such an event.
Google has omitted Active edge from all Pixels starting with the 4a. Perhaps it realized that the pressure sensors placed in the frame take up more space than is worth the squeezy feature. You can do the same thing by swiping up from a corner, but it won’t be the same.
The front of this Pixel finally looks like it belongs in the present day. The Pixel 3 had large bezels (and the Pixel 3 XL had the bathtub notch), and the Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL had the honkin’ upper bezel for the underwhelming Motion Sense hardware. The bezels on the Pixel 4a are the smallest we’ve seen on a Pixel phone thus far and the display fills the space nicely.
There’s a 5.81-inch OLED screen with a punch hole cut out for the 8MP selfie camera. This cutout does have a border that isolates it from the display. The front-facing speaker is now a slit that sits above the display, so we wonder if it will affect the stereo loudspeaker performance.
There’s a headphone jack at the top, which you don’t see on the higher-end phones anymore.
At the bottom is a USB-C port, and two symmetrical ports – the right one is a loudspeaker, and the other is a microphone.
The SIM tray is on the lower left side of the phone, and it only takes a single nanoSIM card. There’s no expandable storage here, but dualSIM is possible via eSIM.
The power key is accented with a slightly mint-colored white. The buttons themselves are very clicky and tactile, though not too sensitive.
The phone feels great in-hand. From its curvy matte back cover to the compact size, this is going to be a wonderful phone to hold and use. Finger gymnastics are still kind of needed to reach the top of the status bar, but the Pixel launcher already lets you swipe from anywhere on the home screen to reach the notification shade.
Android 10, soon to be 11
It’s interesting that Google released the Pixel 4a this close to the release of Android 11. We’re expecting it next month along with the new Pixels, so we’ll skim over Android 10’s most prominent features.
Upon setup, you’ll be offered the chance to transfer data from another Android device, iOS device, or restore from a Google Drive backup. You do have the option to transfer via a USB cable (via the adapter included in box), iCloud download, or Google Drive backup, but this won’t be as thorough as the other two methods.
Keep in mind if you skip the initial setup, you won’t be able to transfer from another device unless you reset the Pixel, so skip wisely.
Next, the setup prompted us to set up a screen lock and register a fingerprint. This process is quick, simple, and the fingerprint scanner unlocks the 4a in a pinch, and every time.
In case you haven’t opted for Android 10’s gesture navigation by now, you’re offered a quick tutorial on how to use it. You can always switch the setting if you prefer the classic navigation bar.
The home screens are clean and uncluttered. A weather and date widget are at the top, with a dock, Google Search bar and Google Assistant shortcut at the bottom. The app drawer pops up with a swipe upwards. A swipe to the right opens your Google feed. As before, there are plenty of pre-loaded and downloadable wallpapers for the Pixel launcher.
You can change the look of the UI’s icon and quick toggle shapes, fonts, and accent color.
All Android 10 phones have universal live captioning that is accessed from the volume menu. Be advised that this feature will consume more battery when it’s enabled. Since its launch, English is the only supported language.
Dark Theme is easy on the eyes if you primarily use your phone at night. It can also be set to switch between light and dark with your local sunrise and sunset.
Google‘s Personal Safety app combines an emergency contact page, a page with your health information, a Safety Check feature, and an automatic car-crash detection feature.
Always-on display is available in the Display settings. The 4a doesn’t have the Motion Sense hardware that the Pixel 4 has that woke up the phone with a wave, but it does have “Tap to check” and “Lift to check” options to make checking the time or notifications easy. Ambient Display will also briefly show notification as they arrive.
With every passing year, Google‘s software is more solid, polished, and keeps getting deeper integration with Google Assistant. Android 11 is coming next month, so we’re expecting a slew of new features to come. The Pixel 4a is expected to be among the first in the queue to receive the update.
The Pixel 4a doesn’t stutter, slow down, or take a second to really think about what it needs to do. It handles multitasking like a champ thanks to those 6GB of RAM.
The Pixel 4a is currently on pre-order with a price tag of around 350 bucks – regardless whether that means dollars, pounds or euros where you reside.
The market has never been so full of great midrange propositions. The Google Pixel 4a enters a heated arena where all smartphones are already offering great performance and smooth user experience. It’s a compact phone so we’d admit that if that’s a particular feature you are after, you’d be hard-pressed to find equally matched counterparts as the industry has generally moved past the 6-inch mark.
The Samsung Galaxy S10e is one compact option to consider but we won’t actively recommend it at this stage because it’s already 1yr and a half old which means it’s unlikely to get major software updates going forward. It’s also considerably more expensive off-contract than the Pixel 4a.
The Samsung Galaxy A41 is a more recent midrange smartphone. It has not launched in the US yet but it’s enjoying a warm reception everywhere else and we were quite happy with it when we reviewed it. It’s got a 6-inch AMOLED screen and a larger battery than the Pixel 4a. Its great battery life is thanks to the chipset which is more tuned for power efficiency rather than performance. As a result, performance is one area where the Pixel 4a has the upper hand. The camera performance of the A41 is good but not outstanding too, which puts a second mark on the Pixel 4a checklist. However, the A41 is priced some 100 euros less than the Pixel 4a, so if camera performance is not super important, the A41 sounds like the better deal.
The iPhone SE 2020 has the camera performance to match the Pixel 4a as well as the fast-track OS updates and it’s got a much more premium build with water resistance. It’s got awesome performance thanks to Apple’s latest CPU but battery life is uninspiring and it also has a much smaller screen. Coupled with the higher price tag, it’s the phone you get if you want the cheapest or most compact iPhone possible (or both). The purchasing decision will likely not be down to specs but rather to the preferred OS ecosystem.
If the compact size is not a must-have, there are a few other alternatives hovering around the 6.5-inch mark. Due to their increased size, they’ve all got better battery life than the Pixel 4a aside from increased screen real estate.
The Xiaomi Mi 10 Lite 5G offers an amazing value package as well with a great AMOLED screen, and superb battery life while costing around 300 euros. It even throws in 5G connectivity in the mix but camera performance is not as good.
For around 350 euros, the OnePlus Nord is another 5G capable phone that is better than the Pixel 4a. And when we say 5G we mean this comes with a better grade chipset overall even if you don’t have access to a 5G network.
With many other midrange devices in the same price range, the Google Pixel 4a offers a fully rounded Pixel experience in a compact size and at a budget-friendly price point.
As midrange smartphones are now coming with triple and even quad-cameras, the Pixel 4a‘s Astrophotography feature, dead-simple camera UI, and distinct style of photography that it produces makes it competitive enough to stand out in its class.
The screen is plenty bright and nicely sharp. The phone’s compact size is comfortable and easy to handle – a nice break from all the budget smartphones that come in the mid and upper 6-inch range.
Software is as expected. Android 10 runs smoothly and quickly, though we are kind of puzzled that Google would release a Pixel so soon before it officially releases Android 11. It’s generally known that Google severely delayed the launch of this phone because of the ongoing pandemic.
This feels more like a refresh of the widely successful Pixel 3a, which is fine too. We have a feeling that Google is saving all the jaw-dropping changes for the upcoming Pixel 5.
If you’re coming from the Pixel 3a or the 3a XL, there isn’t any incentive to upgrade to the 4a. The phones are identical on paper and aside from the 4a’s design, added RAM and storage, and marginally better CPU, there isn’t really anything surprising about the Pixel 4a.
Comfortable, compact size
Plenty of RAM and storage
Smooth, snappy software
Still images nearly indistinguishable from Pixel 4XL, astrophotography
Not much of an upgrade over Pixel 3a and Pixel 5 launch is imminent
The Google Pixel 4 duo was not Google’s best-kept secret. We saw pictures of the phone weeks before the event, and we even learned about Face unlock while Google teased the Motion Sense features ahead of its event. The Google Pixel 4 XL represents everything that Google has learned in the first four iterations of the Google Pixel, including a mid-cycle and mid-range Pixel 3a which was very well received.
The Pixel 4 XL improves the camera even further, adding a new Astrophotography shooting mode and a viewfinder that will preview the HDR+ effect before you shoot the picture. There’s also a new telephoto camera that, when combined with Super Res Zoom, can capture images from far away.
Google first introduced the fingerprint scanner on its final generation of Nexus devices, the 6P and 5X. With the Pixel 4 and 4 XL, Google is replacing its “Pixel Imprint” with Face unlock. It works similarly to Apple’s Face unlock and is a whole new concept for Google-branded devices.
Google Pixel 4 XL Specs
Body: Texture-coated aluminum frame with very soft-touch Gorilla Glass 5 backside
Misc: Face unlock; radar-based Motion Sense; dual stereo loudspeakers;
Google also added a unique radar-based motion-sensing technology aptly called ‘Motion Sense.’ It detects when the user makes wave gestures over the phone, and it can wake the display as the user reaches for it. It can also be used to switch songs with supported apps.
Then there’s the design, which Google has slowly molded over the years. We’re glad to see there’s no longer a ‘bathtub’ notch (as it was once dubbed) from the Pixel 3 XL. Instead, there’s a sizable forehead that houses all the Face unlock and Motion Sense hardware without breaking the display’s continuity.
The dual-tone textured window is no longer a thing, as the softened glass texture now covers the whole backside of the phone. This soft-touch glass is on the ‘Clearly White’ and ‘Oh So Orange’ models and is both comfortable and tasteful. The Just Black is the only model that comes in regular shiny glass.
With Android 10, Google adds more granular control over Notifications and App access to permissions – in today’s climate where privacy is constantly thrown in the spotlight, these are welcome features. We also get gesture controls done better, and Google Assistant is more responsive than ever.
The Pixel 4 and 4 XL both have the same starting price and base storage as the Pixel 3 and 3 XL, has Google done enough to justify keeping the same retail pricing on the new Pixels? And the more important question: is it worth upgrading if you have an older Pixel? Let’s unbox the phone and find out.
The new Pixel 4 XL comes in minimally labeled packaging. A colorfully designed “P4” adorns the front of the box. Although we received the Pixel 4 in the standard retail packaging, some of the first ones to pre-order the phone had them delivered in Google-fied cereal boxes.
After lifting the lid on the box, the phone is presented face down with its plastic wrapper. Under the phone is a pack of documents, which contained a round SIM tool. At the bottom of the box is a USB-C Power Delivery adapter (up to 18W), USB-C cable, and USB-C to USB-A adapter – useful for transferring data from an old device.
The Pixel 4 comes with neither earbuds nor a USB-C to 3.5mm headphone adapter. We wonder why Google decided to introduce bundled earbuds with the Pixel 3, only to scrap them this year. We’d maybe understand if Google did it so customers would buy the new Pixel Buds, but they aren’t even coming until next year. Now we’re led to believe Google stopped including these Pixel earbuds to save money.
Now that we’ve seen what’s inside (and what’s missing), let’s take a closer look at the Pixel 4 XL‘s unique design.
Throughout its lifetime, the Pixel hasn’t exactly led design trends, but it did manage to put the world’s largest notch on the Google Pixel 3 XL last year. Even with the 4 XL, Google isn’t pushing any limits or trying to maximize the screen-to-body ratio. The Pixel 4 XL is probably what many wish the Pixel 3 XL looked like, without the fat notch.
Imagine if Google took the Pixel 3 XL’s display and shifted it lower, then filled in the notch with more pixels. That’s what the Pixel 4 XL feels like, and the resulting design is still asymmetrical and not as pleasing to look at as other competitors from Samsung and even OnePlus.
The Pixel 4 XL has a large upper bezel to accommodate for a bunch of new hardware, including new Radar-based motion sensors and 3d facial recognition hardware in addition to a selfie camera. More on that in the User Interface section. Otherwise, this is undoubtedly a large bezel for a 2019 flagship, so the Motion Sense tradeoff needs to be worth this asymmetrical design choice.
Google has also moved the lower front-facing speaker back to the bottom – in the same style as the original Pixel XL – and this resulted in a much smaller (but still there) lower bezel.
The frame that wraps around the 4 XL is coated in a fine-grit soft-touch texture. Our Clearly White review unit has a black frame and white rear Gorilla Glass 5 panel. The Oh So Orange gets the same powder glass and soft-touch frame, but the Just Black model has regular shiny glass on the back. Our unit has an orange accented power key.
The volume and power keys are on the right side of the handset while the SIM tray lives opposite the power key. There’s a single mic hole at the top edge, and at the bottom is a USB-C port and dual audio ports. The left port is a microphone, and the right one is a loudspeaker. There is no headphone jack on either Pixel 4 model.
Although it doesn’t feel like glass, the rear panel of the phone feels like a sheet of polished metal if you were to sprinkle some fine powder over it. The “G” logo at the bottom is the only thing left of the original appearance of the glass. The G was screened out of the glass-softening process, and the effect is almost three-dimensional.
Since the softened glass is porous, it’s less prone to showing fingerprints and looking greasy, but fingerprints are still collecting on the glass. This surface makes it harder to see smudges. The same goes for the frame, but the camera square is still regular glass, so expect to wipe it down occasionally.
The Pixel 3 had a glass “window” that was kept from the original Pixel’s design, but with the Pixel 4, Google went ahead and softened the entire glass panel. The Pixel design is evolving, but we’d say it still has some refining to do on the front.
This is the first time that Google adds a second main camera to any Nexus or Pixel phone, and it chose to go with a square island to house them. Google once claimed it didn’t need more than one camera to take portrait photos, and Super Res Zoom made up for the lack of a telephoto camera. Things have changed this year, and we’ll let you know if the telephoto camera is indeed an improvement.
Many will compare the Pixel 4 XL‘s dual cameras to the iPhone’s stove-top camera square, but the Pixel’s is blacked out. Its placement is coincidentally too similar. The square does protrude a bit from the body, but its location won’t rock the phone on a table very much.
The Pixel 4 XL measures 160.4 x 75.1 x 8.2 mm and weighs 193g. This makes the phone only barely taller and heavier than its predecessor. The new display is also slightly taller due to the 19:9 aspect ratio (the 3 XL has 18.5:9). Otherwise, the 4 XL maintains the same IP68 water resistance rating as the 3 XL.
While other manufacturers keep pushing screen sizes bigger and bigger, Google kept the larger Pixel 4 XL at 6.3-inches. This is the same size as the 3 XL, only the 4 XL‘s slightly taller 19:9 aspect ratio makes it a teeny bit narrower. With more competitors using higher-refresh-rate displays, Google decided to join in and go with 90Hz displays on both sizes of the Pixel 4.
The 90Hz Smooth Display isn’t at all necessary, but it improves the fluidness and amplifies the fluidness of the phone’s operation when scrolling or swiping through feeds. The animations are also displayed at higher frame rates. Otherwise, supported games will be able to push past 60fps for a more immersive experience.
The Pixel 4 XL has a 6.3-inch OLED display, and we’re happy that the notch is gone, keeping continuity with the screen’s content and simplifying the UI. If you want the sharpest image, the 4 XL gets about 537ppi with its QHD+ 1440 x 3040 px resolution. A layer of Gorilla Glass 5 protects the screen and like the Pixel 3 XL, the 4 XL is rated for HDR playback of 1440p video @ 60fps.
New to the Pixel 4 is a new “Ambient EQ” feature that tunes the display’s colors to your surroundings. The display will adjust its color balance a touch warmer if you’re hanging out around a warmly lit restaurant, for example. It’s intended to tune images to look more natural based on the surrounding light, and a good idea considering the Pixel’s camera always leaned towards cooler tones.
The feature is enabled by default, and it’s one of those comfort features that you don’t have to think about. This isn’t entirely new to the smartphone space, though. Apple has used True Tone on its phones since the iPhone 8.
In our brightness tests, the 4 XL peaked at 436 nits with no additional brightness boost. Those raw numbers aren’t exactly class-leading, but the phone is still easily visible in direct sunlight. It isn’t too much brighter than the Pixel 3 XL and barely reached the Pixel 3a XL’s 451 nits. You can see that other flagships from Samsung and Apple are reaching past 700 nits.
Apple iPhone 11 Pro Max
Samsung Galaxy S10e (Max Auto)
Samsung Galaxy Note10+ (Max Auto)
Samsung Galaxy S10+ (Max Auto)
Huawei Mate 30 Pro (Max Auto)
Apple iPhone 11
Asus ROG Phone II (Max Auto)
OnePlus 7T Pro (Max Auto)
Asus ROG Phone II
Huawei Mate 30 Pro
Google Pixel 3a XL
Google Pixel 4 XL
OnePlus 7T Pro
Google Pixel 3
Samsung Galaxy S10e
Samsung Galaxy S10+
Samsung Galaxy Note10+
The Adaptive profile is set as the default, and it isn’t overbearingly saturated. Colors are pleasant and vibrant, but not too punchy. In this profile, we saw an average deltaE of 3.5 with a maximum of 7 for greens. Whites are well within 2 deltaE, so they are indistinguishable to the naked eye.
Natural is the most color-accurate profile with an average deltaE of 1.9 and a maximum of 3.1. Meanwhile, the Boosted profile falls somewhere between the Natural and Adaptive profiles and has an average deltaE of 2.8. Whites are consistent across all color profiles with only the colors changing in tones and intensity.
Unlike other OEMs, Google keeps color options very simple. There is no individual color tuning or possibility for customized color calibration.
The 90Hz Smooth Display feature is a variable setting. This means that the software will switch 90Hz off wherever it doesn’t need it. Currently, it reverts from 90Hz when the phone is in battery saver mode or when watching a video.
Shortly after the phone’s release date, it was discovered that the 90Hz refresh rate only ever kicked in when the phone’s display was above 75%. Following these reports, Google stated it would update the Pixel 4 “in the coming weeks that include enabling 90Hz in more brightness conditions”.
The reason for doing this, as discovered via source code notes, is to prevent users from seeing flicker that can occur at lower brightness when the display is switching to and from its 90Hz mode. The flicker is attributed to a slight difference in color calibrations between refresh rates since the Pixel’s display doesn’t support a true dynamic refresh rate.
Google intended to fix this via a software update, but it’s really something they should have refined before launching the darn thing.
Luckily, there’s an option to force the display to run at 90Hz at all times, but its buried in the lengthy list of developer options. The setting does warn that battery life may decrease when forcing 90Hz so expect to need a charger an hour or two earlier than you normally would.
Finally, Google added a “Screen attention” option to on stock Android for the first time. This isn’t a new concept – Samsung has had this kind of feature since the Galaxy S4 and other manufacturers have it on their phoens too but it’s good that it’s now part of Android.
Flagship devices have been getting much better at battery consumption in the most recent years. For some reason, Google tends to take a more conservative approach with its own line of smartphones. The Pixel 4 XL comes with a 3,700 mAh battery, which is admittedly a bump in battery size from 3,450 on the Pixel 3 XL but the 4 XL has the same size battery as the much cheaper Pixel 3a XL.
As far as battery endurance goes, the phone didn’t perform as well as we’d hoped. The Pixel 4 XL managed a score of 73h of endurance which quite meh!, especially coming in a year where most manufacturers are focusing a lot on providing longer battery life.
The phone yielded a call endurance of 23:32h, which is about the same as the 3a XL did with the same size battery. Meanwhile, the browsing and video playback scores were 10:49h and 11:29h, respectively.
The score below shows the Pixel 4 XL‘s score with the 90Hz Smooth display enabled. When we disabled the 90Hz feature, we saw the Pixel 4 XL score a couple of hours higher on the web browsing test, but it may not translate to a significant difference in battery life.
Although disabling both the 90Hz Smooth display and Motion sense may let you squeeze a little more juice out of the Pixel 4 XL, it defeats the purpose of having the technology in the first place. With how far we’ve come in optimization and battery technology, Google knew exactly what it was doing by using a 3,700 mAh battery here – and that’s why we’re a little salty.
If its any consolation, there’s more than one way to recharge the battery. With the included 18W USB-C Power Delivery adapter, the Pixel 4 XL recharged to 44% in 30 minutes, reaching 77% after an hour and it finally reached a full charge at about an hour and 20 minutes. Although competitors can achieve much better charging speeds, they require proprietary chargers to work.
The Pixel 4 XL supports Qi Wireless charging, but Google quietly updated its capacity to 11W. With the Pixel 3 and 3 XL, 10W charging was only achievable with Google’s own $80 Pixel Stand charger, and defaulted to 5W when used with a regular Qi charger.
Stereo speakers are the standard with the Google Pixel. With Pixel 4, the loudspeaker hardware has shifted around a bit. Where the Pixel 2 and 3 both had dual front-facing loudspeakers, the Pixel 4 has traded them in for a setup like the Pixel 3a’s. The lower front-facing speaker has been replaced with a downward-firing speaker.
Pink noise/ Music, dB
Ringing phone, dB
vivo NEX 3 5G
Apple iPhone 11
Apple iPhone 11 Pro
Samsung Galaxy Note10+
Samsung Galaxy Note10
Google Pixel 3
Samsung Galaxy S10+
Huawei Mate 30 Pro
Asus Zenfone 6
Samsung Galaxy S10
Google Pixel 4 XL
Google Pixel 3a XL
OnePlus 7T Pro
The speakers are quite loud and yielded excellent loudness across the board. In fullness, however, we preferred the sound of the OnePlus 7T’s dual speakers. The Pixel 4 XL can sound tinny by comparison, after all, both the upper and lower speakers have smaller ports than previous generations.
The Google Pixel 4 XL did excellently in the active external amplifier part of our test. It delivered the expected perfect accuracy at very high volume levels.
Headphones did cause a rather big spike in stereo crosstalk and caused a tiny amount of intermodulation distortion. The other readings were barely affected though and loudness remained high, so it’s a solid performance overall. Particularly, if you compare it to the Pixel 3, which was one of the poorest phones we’ve tested.
IMD + Noise
Google Pixel 4 XL
Google Pixel 4 XL (headphones)
Google Pixel 3
Google Pixel 3 (headphones)
OnePlus 7T Pro
OnePlus 7T Pro (headphones)
Apple iPhone 11 Pro Max
Apple iPhone 11 Pro Max (headphones)
Samsung Galaxy Note10+
Samsung Galaxy Note10+ (headphones)
Sony Xperia 1
Sony Xperia 1 (headphones)
Android 10 by the book
We have already reviewed a handful of Android smartphones that came with Android 10 out of the box. With the Pixel 4 XL, we’re now able to see how Google envisions the presentation and execution of its own operating system.
Major changes to the interface include a new Face unlock system, overhauled gesture navigation, and a new appearance for Google Assistant. At the event, Google also demonstrated that it could process vocal queries much quicker as it can store voice-to-speech transcription locally on the device in a much smaller database.
When first starting it up, you are prompted to register your face for security. At this point, you might realize there is no longer a fingerprint scanner, and this is because Google replaced Pixel Imprint in favor of the more generically named” Face unlock.”
This was a significant change back when Apple dumped Touch ID for Face ID, and it’s a significant change for Google now. Both use IR dot projectors and an IR camera to create and detect a depth map of the user’s face.
In practice, Face unlocking works accurately and quickly. With the Motion Sense feature, it wakes the phone and triggers face detection while reaching for your phone so you can get in quickly. Just like any other phone with face unlock, it’s more difficult to unlock while it’s laying on a table. On the upside, Face unlock works from any angle, even upside down.
Soon after setting up and using Face unlock on the Pixel 4 XL, we noticed it would authenticate and unlock even with our eyes closed. This is a security gap that Google must have expected as its own support page suggested using a passcode would be more secure. Google has since confirmed it will patch this bug “in the coming weeks,” but that doesn’t seem soon enough.
Another hurdle with Face unlock is support from banking institutions. It took years before fingerprint authentication could be used with baking and payment apps, among others. Currently, Google Pay works with Face authentication, but banking apps that once supported fingerprint to log in need to be updated to support Face unlock. Right now, only a handful of apps support Face unlock, but they are mostly password management apps.
After setting up Face unlock, the setup will quickly teach you how to use Android 10’s new gesture controls. Google’s 2-button nav gestures are gone (and we’re glad), and the nav bar has been replaced with a slimmer home bar, much like a new iPhone. You can summon Google Assistant by giving the Pixel a squeeze.
Swiping up will go Home, swiping in from the edge will go Back, and swiping up from either corner will open Google Assistant. Multitasking is done by swiping up and holding, but you can easily switch between apps by swiping horizontally on the home bar.
Since there’s no longer a fingerprint scanner to pull down the notification shade, you can now swipe down from any part of any home screen will pull the notification shade down, so there’s no longer a need to reach up to the top edge.
The homescreens are what we’ve come to expect from a Pixel. Swiping up gets you to the app drawer with the top-most row dedicated to the five frequently used apps.
Apart from wallpapers, the Pixel launcher now allows for more customization in the settings. The Style tab in the wallpapers menu lets you change the shape and color scheme of both app and quick setting icons. You can also set a system-wide accent color and font.
There is a new category of live wallpapers labeled “Come Alive,” and they all subtly respond to hand gestures over the Motion Sense detector. There’s even a Pokemon wallpaper designed to promote Nintendo’s Pokemon Sword and Shield game titles.
When Project Soli was first announced back in 2015, it was presented as a breakthrough in motion-sensing technology with the ability to detect and interpret precise hand motions like sliding a finger and thumb to scroll through settings and then tapping the fingers together to select.
Motion Sense is Google’s first implementation of Project Soli in a major consumer product and the result feels both half-baked and gimmicky.
There are only a handful of useful things you can do with Motion Sense. Several music apps are supported to skip back and forward between tracks, even when music is playing in the background or if the display is turned off. You can also snooze alarms or silence timers and incoming calls by waving over the screen. That’s about it for useful features and nothing like the initial promo video for Project Soli.
Motion sense can detect when you’re reaching for the phone and fire up the Face unlock hardware to swiftly detect the user’s face and unlock the phone. We noticed it often triggers when its placed on a computer desk, in proximity to someone actively working with a mouse and keyboard. If you decide to turn this feature off (you might save some battery by doing so), you can still double-tap the display to quickly glance at the time and notifications, and you can still ‘lift to wake’ it.
By default, you’ll skip seeing the lockscreen entirely if you enable Face unlock, but there is an option to disable that so you can glance at your notifications and manually swipe in.
The Always On Display feature is enabled by default. This screen will display icons for missed notifications, a small weather widget, the time, battery percentage left, and a couple of lines are dedicated to contextual information such as anticipated traffic or upcoming calendar events.
With Android 10, both permissions and notifications offer finer and more transparent control. Starting with Notifications, the pull-down shade’s order is priority-based. For example, if you receive notifications from a messaging app, they are a high priority, and a little bell icon appears. Otherwise, when you get notifications from less important apps like games or persistent app notifications, they’ll show up as “Silent notifications” and take up less space.
Android 10 now shows you an average of the daily and weekly number of times an app triggers notifications in a dedicated Notifications menu. This gives users the information needed to decide which apps are inundating them with useless pings and prioritize more important notifications.
Android 10 brings the much-hyped “Dark theme,” and it can be accessed from the Display settings. It darkens all menus, pop-up windows, Google Assistant, and even the Google Search Bar. Some apps will also automatically switch to their respective dark scheme, as long as the app is supports following the system-wide setting.
There are two new applications debuting on the Pixel 4 XL. The first one is a new application that organizes the emergency features of the new Pixels. The app lets you organize and fill out your medical information and assign emergency contacts in an emergency.
Finally, thanks to Google’s new transcription app, it enabled a new voice recorder app from Google that can transcribe voice notes in real-time, and it doesn’t require an internet connection. This app debuts on the Pixel 4 and 4 XL, and it enables a new way to keep track of voice recordings.
The app can transcribe your voice notes as you record them, making it much easier to search through recorded meetings or lectures.
Google isn’t technically on the cutting edge of technology with the Pixel 4 duo. Both the Pixel 4 and 4 XL are running the Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 chipset, and they only come with 6GB of RAM. Google missed out on integrating the latest Snapdragon 855+ chipset – which is technically the same silicon, but with slightly overclocked CPU and GPU. This is a similar situation to Google’s decision to use an underclocked Snapdragon 845 on Pixel 3. If OnePlus can develop and launch a refreshed 7T with the 855+ at a super competitive price point, why can’t Google?
The Snapdragon 855 used in the Pixel 4’s is built on the 7nm process and features an octa-core CPU. One quad-core low-power Kryo 485 cluster is clocked at 1.78 GHz. The second cluster has three Kryo cores clocked at 2.42 GHz and one high-power one at 2.84 GHz.
Even if not the latest and greatest, the 855 is no slouch. It’s difficult to notice a difference between the Snapdragon 855 and 855+.
On the upside, Google has finally updated the amount of RAM to 6GB. One complaint we had with the Pixel 3 was that apps were getting knocked out of the system memory too early. It’s nice to finally get some extra RAM, but 6GB isn’t even competitive anymore with higher-end Chinese phones coming with 8GB by standard and upwards of 12GB when maxed out.
Anyway, let’s get into these numbers.
Single core performance is shy of other devices running the same processor. It finds itself in its own level below the other Snapdragon 855 and 855+ devices while the Kirin 990, Exynos 9825, and Apple A13 all exceed in single-core scores.
Although the Snapdragon 855 has already been succeeded by the 855+, the performance difference between the two is almost negligible. The 855 on the Pixel 4 XL, however, is not the best performer among other OEMs. We’ve witnessed the same thing last year with the Pixel 3 and the same with Pixel 2 before that. It seems that Google is purposefully limiting the max performance of the CPUs they use.
As a result, if you’re looking for the very best device to play lots of games on, the Pixel 4 XL may not be for you. There are plenty of other devices (mostly made by Chinese OEMs) that offer a bunch of game-specific features like a gaming mode or software optimizer for getting the very best performance out of games. The Pixel 4XL is also limited to a single configuration of 6 GB RAM, so you’re better off with the much cheaper OnePlus for gaming.
One positive is the phone doesn’t warm up under moderate use. Even when playing games, the Pixel 4 XL only may get comfortably warm under high usage.
Double the HDR+
The Pixel was one of the only smartphone brands that continued to equip its phones with a single camera and Google claimed it only needed one camera to take great photos and portraits. The passing of time always tends to make things change, especially in the tech industry, because this year, Google added a second camera to the mix.
Alongside an optically stabilized 12.2MP main camera with large 1.4-micron pixels and f/1.7 aperture is a 16MP telephoto camera (also stabilized) with 1.0-micron pixels and an f/2.4 aperture lens, which allows the Pixel 4 XL to shoot 2X zoom photos. Google’s Super Res Zoom allows it to go comfortably beyond that zoom level too. Also both cameras benefit from Google’s HDR+ algorithms for improving image quality.
The industry has already moved past dual cameras and are already established with triple cameras, including the latest iPhone 11 Pro. So Google’s decision to go with a telephoto camera instead of an ultra-wide – which many OEMs have been adding to the mix – raised many eyebrows. This depends on personal preference and the kinds of environments people tend to shoot, but Google believes that the average consumer is more likely to take zoomed photos over ultra-widened snapshots. We are not going to take a side here in favor of one type of camera or the other, but we’d just say that many manufacturers are happy to provide all three without the need for compromise.
Google has introduced a few new features on the Pixel’s camera. The first is Live HDR+, which should show you what your final image was going to look like in the viewfinder after it processes it. Before that, especially in more demanding situations, the live viewfinder was only really used to compose your shots, then you’d only see the resulting HDR+ photo in the camera roll. We’re glad to see this change implemented as it makes a huge difference in the picture taking process.
Another new feature is dual exposure controls – baked right into the camera UI.
What’s more, now you can manually adjust the shadows and highlights as you are composing a shot, useful if you want to get a more artistic photo like the silhouette of a person against a bright background. Since Google doesn’t offer fully manual controls on the Pixel, this is a welcome feature. The feature combines well with Live HDR+ so you see the photo’s exposure before you hit capture.
Apart from improvements in Night Sight and portrait mode – thanks to the second camera, “learning-based automatic white balance” is available in all shooting modes where it was previously only used in Night Sight.
The camera interface is mostly unchanged from the Pixel 3. You can swipe between shooting modes and the most important ones are easily accessible: Night Sight, Portrait, Camera, Video, and a More tab containing Panorama, Photo Sphere, Slow Motion, Time Lapse, Playground, and Lens.
To make the viewfinder less cluttered, Google put the flash, timer, and Motion settings in a drawer, opposite the shutter button. It’s an extra step to reach the Flash settings, but Google did mention at its presentation that it hopes you never need to use the Flash. Still, the drawer makes it easier to focus on the viewfinder.
Even with the drawer open, you can still hit the shutter key, so you don’t miss the shot. Hitting the shutter does hide the drawer so you can keep snapping away.
Image quality on the Pixel 4 is slightly improved over the Pixel 3. Google has cleaned up the noisy remnants we used to often see on the Pixel 3. Exposure is excellent and well-balanced thanks to HDR+. Colors are almost always true-to-life and white balance leans to cool – which gives the photos their signature Google Pixel look.
Where colors aren’t true to life is mostly when the camera is trying to compensate for strong highlights. For instance, the photo of the tree barrier in front of the rope fence is a perfect example. This was a very demanding shot, as the sun was just peeking behind the hotel building and during golden hour. The photo was exposed well, but colors were washed out as a result. You can also see lots of noise where there was an attempt to capture more details.
Capturing details in the high-contrast areas of a scene is where the Pixel excels, but if you take away the high-contrast, like if you try to shoot photos in the shade, you’ll start to see some noise.
Comparing some of the shots to the OnePlus 7T, we surprisingly preferred some of the shots it took over the Pixel. Although the Pixel managed to grab more details, OnePlus did a really good job with HDR mode (which kicks in automatically on the 7T) and here, we thought the Pixel’s colors were a little dull by comparison. This is shaping up to be a very interesting comparison.
Next up is the telephoto camera, which is new on the Pixel 4 XL. We expected samples to look a little different since the cameras’ apertures don’t match. Although the telephoto camera has a 16MP sensor, it outputs images in 12.2MP, just like the main camera.
The truth is, photos shot with the telephoto are indistinguishable from the main camera, at least at first glance. Pixel peeping will reveal slightly more noise and, naturally, a slight loss of detail. The only time you might notice a more significant difference is in lower light conditions. After all, it does have a dimmer aperture.
The telephoto’s camera performance is strong, and especially so when comparing it back to the OnePlus 7T.
In stark contrast to the shots from the main camera, the OnePlus 7T’s telephoto shots are nowhere near as nice in detail and colors. Fine details are mostly, if not completely, lost when switching to the telephoto camera.
Super Res Zoom was Google’s solution to the Pixel 3’s lack of a second telephoto camera, so its nice that Google included the feature on the telephoto camera as well so you can shoot photos from even further away.
Once you get past 2X zoom on the telephoto, 4X images are decent and there isn’t even too much noise. There is however, a good amount of pixelation happening as a result of the moving waters of the Atlantic. Even from the distance, we can still make out the container ship that’s anchored further out.
We’ve seen some incredible zoom shots from Chinese makers like Huawei with the P30 Pro and Oppo with the Reno 10X Zoom, so if you’re someone who wants to shoot birds or subjects from afar, we’d nudge you away from the Pixel.
Moving on, let’s look at some portrait photos. Thanks to the second telephoto camera, Google can capture more depth information to synthesize a bokeh effect that more closely resembles that of a DSLR.
Portrait photos are among the best we’ve seen from a smartphone. The subject line is near-perfect and the resulting bokeh, especially in the second shot in front of the green hedges, is exactly how we’d expect a DSLR camera to blur an image. Whatever Google did, we’re really impressed with the result.
Night Sight was first introduced last year with the Google Pixel 3 and 3 XL. Before that, the Pixel was regarded as one of the best cameras in low light, but in the span of the last two or three years, most OEMs now have some form of a long-exposure shooting mode that stacks images without needing a tripod.
We tested Night Sight in very demanding lighting situations. Let’s see how the Pixel 4 does with low light images and then compare them to the same scene with the Night Sight mode enabled.
Naturally, low-lit photos are noisy and lack details while some can’t even focus properly. The photos look just fine overall but quality really sinks when you zoom into the pictures.
With Night Sight, images are instantly better and more usable. They have more detail, albeit still with a bit of noise due to the processing. Although Google mentioned that learning-based AWB (automatic white balance) is present in all shooting modes, we didn’t find white balance to be consistent between the regular shooting mode and Night Sight.
Of course, some of these images are extreme lighting situations like the beach, which was solely lit by the dim lights of the boardwalk and nearby buildings. Let’s compare these night photos to the Nightscape ones shot with the OnePlus 7T.
Both the 7T and Pixel 4 XL were able to improve the night scene by using their respective dedicated low-light modes. Both had similar tonal reproduction and were quite similar in the boosting of shadows and highlights. However, we found the OnePlus 7T to produce sharper images.
We prefer the 7T’s Nightscape shot of the purply lit hotel with the swimming pool. Details are better preserved on the 7T and the image has applied better sharpening. Of course, too much sharpening can sometimes be a bad thing – you’ll notice excess noise if you pixel peep at the top areas of the hotel building in the 7T’s Nightscape shot.
Resulting photos aren’t very good, and that’s likely due to the f/2.4 aperture. Although we expected the camera wouldn’t take as good of Night Sight photos, at least the Pixel 4 XL gives you the option, Nightscape photos with the 7T’s telephoto camera is not possible, and it’s probably for the best.
A new feature is an Astrophotography mode. Since there is no fully manual operation of the camera, it was previously not possible to capture long-exposure shots with 20-second exposure. Now, thanks to the magic of image stacking and software, Astrophotography can capture starry skyscapes.
To enter the mode, all you need to do is open Night Sight and then stabilize the Pixel 4 XL against something or put it on a tripod. Once stable, you’ll see an Astrophotography label on the viewfinder, and then all you need to do is hit the shutter key. Then the camera decides how long it should capture on its own, based on the amount of light available. It takes anywhere between one to four minutes to capture something.
We do admit the images are impressive, and the mere fact that a smartphone captured them is awesome. These images are mostly processed by Google’s algorithms, so you may see some light noise as a result, but nothing that distracts at all.
Whatever you manage to capture in the scene also has a lot of detail if its exposed enough. If you inspec the last shot closely, you can see the texture of the paint on the pillar of the balcony. Of course, this one did take almost four minutes to capture.
While this is a cool feature, not everyone will be able to use it. You’ll have to travel outside of brightly lit cities and find a dark sky to shoot. While its not a mode that people will use frequently, it’s certainly a cool niche feature.
8MP Selfie camera
The front-facing camera no longer has the same dual-setup like on the Pixel 3 and 3 XL, but the 8MP selfie camera is paired with a 3D ToF sensor to keep up with portrait depth with the front camera.
To switch between the front and rear cameras on the Pixel, you can make a double-twist gesture right from the viewfinder.
Although the second selfie camera is gone, the Pixel 4 XL has a wide field-of-view than some other flagships. At a 35mm equivalent length of 22mm (90° field of view), which sits somewhere between the 19mm ultra-wide and 28mm lenses on each of the Pixel 3’s dual selfie cameras.
Selfies have well-balanced exposures both in the foreground and way in the background. Skin tones are well reproduced, and you can spot details in the shadows. Let’s look at portrait selfies now.
We’re not as content with these selfie portraits. In the first image, there’s a strange halo around the subject line, although we can give it a pass since the sun is directly behind our reviewer Ricky. Otherwise, the synthesized bokeh line is not as well refined as the main camera’s was.
There’s a significant difference in the amount of details and softness from the 7T. Pixels have always been more about capturing details (sometimes too many details) in the face while most other OEMs would prefer to soften features – this makes for a more flattering image. Between these samples, we prefer the selfie portraits from the 7T.
Most selfie cameras don’t play well in lower light, but the Pixel 4 XL‘s is surprisingly good at capturing selfies and exposing everything else properly. Though the background (and sometimes foreground) can appear noisy at times, its nothing compared to taking a selfie that you can’t use because its too dark to see anything.
Although much attention was given to the fact that the Pixel 4 XL cannot record in 4K @ 60fps, we can’t say many of us at the office record 60fps video at all, much less 60fps in 4K. With that out of the way, the Pixel 4 XL can still record 4K video at 30fps, and 1080p video in both 30 fps and 60 fps. You can also capture any of the modes mentioned with the telephoto camera.
1080p videos pack great detail and minimal noise. Exposures and colors are spot on. You may notice some fuzziness in the foliage, but that’s because these samples were all shot handheld. On that note, the Pixel 4 XL‘s stabilization is quite good.
Details in 60 fps video are about as good at their 30fps counterparts. In the areas of foliage, you can see a bit more noise because of the faster frame rate. Otherwise, colors, dynamic range, and exposure are consistent with standard 30fps video.
We’ve seen many smartphone cameras have issues with exposure metering when shooting in 60 fps, but there was no such hiccup with the Pixel 4 XL.
4K video packs pleasant details and colors. Although the scene is lit by a setting sun, we are happy with the way the scene was exposed. We can still see what’s in the shadows of the scene while we also get the warmth of the sun shining on the palm trees. You can see slight fluctuation of noise in the grass, but again, that’s due to the handheld nature of the video.
The Pixel 4 XL starts at $899 in the US. At this level, it is $100 below the iPhone 11 Pro and $200 more than the entry-level iPhone 11. All these phones start at 64GB of base storage and are non-expandable. This year, we have seen killer camera performance from the new iPhones. Both cameras are great and each one performs better than the other in key areas.
This year, all iPhones have excellent battery life, but we can’t say the same about the new Pixels. While Google was busy adding a telephoto camera to its lineup, Apple added an ultra-wide-angle camera to each new iPhone this year. If you’re looking for a polished software experience with an excellently balanced camera setup, great battery, and software, look no further than this year’s iPhones.
Earlier this year, Google received much praise for the Pixel 3a duo. It offered a smooth software experience along with power-efficient hardware and excellent battery endurance. If you’re after a Pixel that can keep up with you all day and you are not necessarily in need of extra horsepower for games, and an exceptionally great camera for the price, the Pixel 3a XL is the perfect budget alternative.
If you’re looking something with many more features and customization, take a look at the Samsung Galaxy Note10 and Note10+. Samsung’s flagship duo is packed with camera features, new shooting modes, an S Pen, and attractive-looking hardware. The Google Pixel can seem overpriced by comparison.
If you’re looking for better value, perhaps a Samsung Galaxy S10+ could be of interest. It has the same size display, but Samsung’s displays are second to none with excellent image, comfortable visibility in direct sunlight, and longer battery life.
Given the 90Hz display feature on the Google Pixel, it will inevitably be compared to the OnePlus 7T and 7T Pro. All phones have 90Hz screens, but the smoothness in display and hardware is seemingly more apparent on OnePlus devices. It’s a little ironic that an OEM can create a better UI for Android than Google itself.
OnePlus’ cameras have come a long way, and they have shown great potential and can probably match the Pixel in daylight photography. Otherwise, Google’s cameras are well-executed with an excellent image quality, but what’s missing is a well-executed 90Hz display.
The Pixel 4 duo is off to a rocky start. Reports of the company’s shortcomings have been making headlines in tech news. The 90Hz display doesn’t always render at 90fps while Google’s new Face unlock works with the user’s eyes closed when it shouldn’t. These features have one thing in common – they are going to be addressed in a future update.
However, these are things that should have been addressed before launching the phone in the first place. Motion Sense is also a dud, it feels unfinished, and it’s a shame that Google believed that this would be worth hyping up in its current state. As much as Google upsold the Motion Sense feature for “getting stuff done”, we don’t believe they add up to the value of the phone.
Face unlocking, although quick, reliable, and arguably more convenient than a rear-mounted fingerprint scanner, is no longer supported by the same apps that supported Pixel Imprint. We don’t believe a new technology is worth temporarily inconveniencing the customer for the sake of having said technology.
The Google Pixel is supposed to be Google’s own interpretation of Android. Given the state of incohesive features, poor battery life, and half-baked Motion Sense, perhaps this is how Google feels about its own platform: It needs other OEMs to make its own platform better.
Google has been taking note of what others have been doing. With Pixel 4, it has added more layers to the software like more advanced customization of icons and colors, as well as well-improved gesture control, and Google Assistant’s voice commands feel near-instantaneous. The instant-transcription voice recording app was a nice addition, but we were left wanting more.
The Google Pixel really excels in the camera department, but Google doesn’t seem too worried about the competition when it should be. It feels like Google is relying solely on its camera prowess to push sales of the Pixel 4 and 4 XL while merely getting by in other aspects like display technology (we want a brighter AMOLED display) but more specifically, battery life.
The Pixel 4 XL is the best that Google has to offer and if you don’t mind paying a premium price and overlooking a couple of shortcomings at launch, then you’ll be a happy camper with Google’s new phone. If you’d rather get the most out of your $899, you might want to consider getting something else or wait until the phone is discounted (which usually happens around Black Friday).
To avoid ending this review on a low note, we will say that we really like the new design of the phone. The soft-touch glass feels amazing, the textured metal frame is great, and the Pixel’s display is better than ever. The Google Pixel’s camera is amazing and its tendency to capture every range of exposure with detail makes it a joy to shoot with.
Gorgeous, color-accurate display.
Unique textured design.
Quick and reliable Face unlock.
Great camera performance.
Wonky 90Hz display execution at launch.
Half-baked Motion Sense features.
Below average battery endurance.
We’re missing the ultra-wide camera.
No fingerprint reader while the competition has already gone through a few generations of under-display readers.
Face unlock can be triggered with eyes closed and it’s not yet supported by banking apps.
No bundled cable earbuds or an adapter.
Limited market availability (even more so due to the Motion Sense radar).