iPhone 11 Pro and Pixel 4 Christmas Lights Shoot Out

I took the iPhone 11 Pro and Pixel 4 out to a public space last night that was lit up really nicely for the holidays. This is not a complete comparison for how well each phone does, but it’s a good first test and I’ll show you the comparisons before giving you my thoughts.

Point of order here, my tripod broke last night so all of these were taken handheld. Also, they were all slightly touched up in Lightroom to make the colors a little more pleasant. See this post for why I do this in my photo comparisons.

On the surface, these look pretty darn similar. Especially when viewing on a phone, the differences in quality are hard to see, so let’s zoom in on a couple of these.

The difference still isn’t huge, but my takeaways are:

  1. The iPhone maintains more detail in every single shot.
  2. The iPhone has better dynamic range, capturing the bright lights with less bloom.
  3. The raw shots came out very similar from each camera. Sometimes there is a major color temperature or white balance difference in these cameras, but not last night.
  4. In some of these, “night mode” didn’t even kick in. The lights are so bright that they don’t require an extended exposure.
  5. The iPhone has some occasional artifacts around really bright lights in the middle of frame. You can see this in the last comparison above the lights in the sky. I don’t know why this happens, but it’s not something that can be fixed by cleaning the lens. Maybe I have a defect or maybe it’s the nature of the camera, I’m not entirely sure.

I’ll be playing around more with these cameras throughout the month and will report back with anything else interesting, but for now I’d say that either of these phones are able to produce Christmas light photos unlike any other phone before them, and I think owners of both will be very happy with what they are able to accomplish.

Recorder on the Pixel 4 vs Dictation on iOS

I read this sequence from a recent blog post on this site and had the just released Dictation for iOS and Recorder for Pixel 4 listening at the same time. Here are the exact words I read:

It’s the end of the decade and I love lists, so today I’m starting a series of lists about my favorite things. Today we’re looking at my favorite albums from the past 10 years. What I learned more than anything with making this list is that 2010 and 2011 were more amazing than I gave them credit for at the time. 7 of the 10 albums below came out in those two years! Alway, I hope you like the list and check out one or two of these that you haven’t listened to yet.

And here is what Google Recorder captured:

It's the end of the decade and I love lists so today. I'm starting a series of lists about my favorite things. Today we're looking at my favorite albums from the past 10 years. What I learned more than anything making this list is that 2010 and 2011 were more amazing than I gave them credit for at the time. Seven of the 10 albums below came out in those two years. Anyway, I hope you like the list and check out one or two of these you haven't listened to yet.

And Dictation for iOS:

It's the end of the decade and I love lists so today I'm starting a series of less about my favorite things today we're looking at my favorite albums from the past 10 years what I learned more than anything making this list is that 20 10 and 20 11 were more amazing than I gave them credit for at the time seven of the 10 albums below came out in those two years anyway I hope you like the list and check out one or two of these two haven't listened to yet.

Both apps captured the general message well, but Google is so far ahead here it’s not even funny. I counted 5 errors in Dictation’s transcript and zero in the Recorder transcript.

Not only are the words more accurate in that transcript, it also includes punctuation that’s not too far off from the script. Dictation can only give me one loooong sentence, but Google mostly understood where each sentence ended.

I’m glad Dictation is out on the iPhone because the functionality is very nice, but Google should rightly be proud of what they have been able to do with voice detection on the Pixel 4.

When it Comes to Performance, iPhone is Still King

Finding things you can test on iPhones and Android devices is kinda tricky. App launch times, while relevant to overall sense of speed, does not really test performance, and many of the apps that I could use to test an iPhone’s performance don’t run on Android.

Given this, there are 6 total tests I felt I could run that were a fair comparison of speed. I broke the tests in to 3 segments:

Segment 1: I ran 3 browser benchmarks back-to-back, and then immediately ran Geekbench 5’s CPU benchmark. This was in an effort to get a sustained load on the phones and see which held up better.

  1. Run JetStream 2
  2. Run MotionMark
  3. Run Speedometer
  4. Run Geekbench 5 CPU benchmark

Segment 2: Take 10 HDR photos in Adobe Lightroom, add a preset profile to each one, and export the photos to the camera roll. I only timed the export part.

Segment 3: Export a 31 second video in Adobe Rush using all of the sample clips included in the app when you first download it.

Segment 1: Benchmark apps

In all cases, the iPhone 11 Pro demolished the Pixel 4. I’ll also add that the Pixel got noticeably warm by the third run, while the iPhone never felt like it was breaking a sweat.

Also relevant info, I let both phones sit for a while after this test run and then tried the Geekbench test again. I wondered how much better they would be if they were running that benchmark from a cool state. The iPhone was less than 1% better, and basically within the margin of error, while the Pixel was 21% faster in single core and 10% faster in milticore.

Segment 2: Lightroom Export

The process for this was:

  1. Take 10 photos in Lightroom using the HDR camera mode
  2. Let those process and apply one of my presets to it, which will apply about 15 sliders to each photo
  3. Export to the camera roll

The export was 2x as fast on the iPhone, and the processing of the HDR photos was at least 2x as fast, but I didn’t time that so I’m not sure of the exact number.

Segment 3: Adobe Rush Export

And finally, I installed Adobe Rush, selected all 5 of the sample videos and exported the resulting 31 second video. Again, the iPhone destroyed in this test, exporting 3x faster than the Pixel.

Takeaway

This is nothing we already know, the iPhone continues to have a massive lead in CPU and GPU performance over the competition. And while tests like this can be dismissed as not representative of real world use, I think the differences can be seen throughout the phone experience.

Take night mode on each phone as an example. These phones take very comparable shots, but the Pixel requires you to hold the camera still for 2-10x longer than the iPhone. Similarly, the iPhone previews portrait effects while you align your shot and the photo is ready immediately. Meanwhile, the Pixel can’t preview the effect in real time, and after you take the shot it requires a good3-5 seconds before the effect is rendered. And finally, there’s video where the iPhone can do 4k HDR with 120 samples per second at 60fps, all while the Pixel caps out at 4k30 and doesn’t get HDR in that mode.

Obviously, many of the things we do on our phones don’t take advantage of all the power we have today, so many things are just as fast on either phone, but if you’re looking for a device that will last you years and still feel good, then the more headroom you can have on day one, the better.

Google Pixel 4: The BirchTree Review

Google Pixel 4: The BirchTree Review

This is going to be a different type of review. In part because you’ve likely read and watched a bunch of reviews already which go over the spec sheets and basic functionality. Instead, I’m going to address only the parts of this phone that I find interesting and where I have not seen my opinions widely voiced out there already.

It’s a wild idea, I know, but I hope you enjoy!

The Pricing Conundrum

The Pixel 4 starts at $799; that’s for the 64GB smaller model. However, as you have likely seen from most reviews, no one can recommend the smaller one due to its small battery, so they suggest you get the XL model, bringing us up to $899.

Then you have to contend with the fact that 64GB is not a lot of storage for a phone in this price range, and people who spend this much on a phone will likely want the 128GB model, bring our total up to $999.

If you want more than this, too bad, because we’ve maxed out the phone already.

Where this gets dicy is when you look at what this phone offers and what other competitors are doing right now. The iPhone 11 is $699, and $749 if you want to match the Pixel’s 128GB storage1. The 128GB Galaxy S10e, my favorite Android phone of the year, goes for $749. And the just-released 128GB OnePlus 7T goes for a chill $599.

Obviously phones are more than their spec sheets, but when we look at what the Pixel 4 is offering, Google is asking us to pay hundreds of dollars more that other flagship phones in this class. And I can happily recommend any of those phones from Apple, Samsung, and OnePlus without hesitation. If someone tells me they’re thinking of getting a Pixel 4, I might still recommend it to them, but we have to have a serious conversation about the opportunities.

Strategy

I don’t always talk about market strategy in my reviews, but I think the Pixel 4 warrants it more than most other phones. As I just talked about, the pricing for the Pixel 4 is quite high considering the spec sheet and I think we’re seeing a lot of reviewers struggling to contend with this fact in their reviews. They like the phone but they have a hard time justifying the price. Again, since most of them say “you need 128GB and the better XL battery, so it’s $999,” the price comparisons get silly2.

Add onto this the fact that after 3 years of Pixel phones, Google has struggled to garner any significant market share or grow sales in any significant way. I would totally believe you if you said each Pixel sold more than the previous model, but we’re still solidly in niche phone territory here. In fact, according to a recent report, Pixels account for 5% of the phones Verizon sells, with a whopping 90% going to Apple and Samsung phones. And that report even called out the Pixel 3a as the main driver of Pixel sales, not the high end Pixel 3.

I think the Pixel line has always been priced wrong. Google failed to gain any real traction with the $649 Pixel 1 and 2, and they didn’t move the needle when they raised the starting price to $799 last year. The only thing that got them anywhere was the Pixel 3a this spring that took us all by surprise with how great it actually was. I personally called it the MacBook Air of smartphones and I stand by that phone being a great value with a camera that punches way above its weight class.

With the $799-999 Pixel 4, I think Google has assured that they will not make any significant changes this year either. I just think that they’re trying to play a game that they can’t win while they should be focused on the game they have every ability to dominate.

Google is currently attacking iPhones and Galaxies, and frankly in the US Apple and Samsung have that high end market locked up tight. Google is trying to beat them head on when they should be trying to flank them with something different.

My Pixel 4

I swear I’ll talk about the phone as it exists today soon! But before I do, let’s look at what I would have done to get the Pixel 4 down to that $599 price point I think they should have targeted. Of course, I don’t know Google’s margin or exact component pricing here, but I’ll try to ballpark based on what other phones are out there.

First, I’d remove the Motion Sense radar sensor. The Soli project was debuted half a decade ago and the version released on the Pixel 4 is so far less advanced than that 2015 demo that it’s actually kind of shocking. More details in the “It’s Freaking Radar, Man!” section below, but I think they could remove this and have a phone that’s just as useful. And it would let them sell the phone in India, which is kind of a big deal.

Second, kill the 90Hz screen. I know, I know, it is very nice and I’m happy to have it, but it hardly adds any value, is something most people won’t even notice, and currently it only runs that fast when the screen is over 75% brightness, so basically only when you’re outside. Oh, and because the battery is so small, many reviewers say you can turn it off entirely to make the battery more acceptable, at which point it serves zero value.

Third, speaking of the battery, I would do whatever it took to put a bigger battery in here. Maybe that’s removing more components or making the phone a little thicker, but one way or the other, the most important thing for phone buyers is the battery and the Pixel can’t fall this far short.

And finally, if that isn’t enough to get them to that $599 price point, I hate to say it but throw out face unlock and bring back the fingerprint sensor. I like secure face unlocks far more than fingerprint readers, but there are plenty of people out there who still like the fingerprint option and if it cuts a significant amount off the price, then it has to be done.

To recap:

  1. Remove the radar
  2. Use a 60Hz screen
  3. Boost the battery
  4. If needed, go back to a fingerprint sensor instead of face unlock

While I get that these changes would make this phone less “cool” they would also make the phone better for almost everyone, and it would make this a phone people have to twist themselves in knots to recommend into something they can recommend without hesitation.

This Thing has a Battery in it, Right?

If I had to describe this phone’s battery in one word, it would be “brutal.” The above screenshot is from this Sunday when I used the phone a little bit (2.5 hours) which burned through 74% of my battery. Comparatively, my iPhone 11 Pro with a very similar 2.3 hours of screen on time sits at 69%. For lack of a better word: nice.

And this is without having a SIM card in there this day! It’s not like it was searching for a hard-to-reach cellular network or anything. I’ve even tried turning off all Motion Sense features to see if that Soli chip is what was killing it, but that didn’t really move the needle for me.

I don’t know what’s going on here, but this is by far the worst battery life I’ve ever experienced in a smartphone3. It’s just very, very bad.

It’s Freaking Radar, Man!

The Soli radar sensor, or Motion Sense, in the Pixel 4 is certainly the most unique hardware aspect of Google’s new phones, and the ways Google has integrated it into Android range from pretty clever to very questionable. I’m going to look at each one from most useful to least.

Making Face Unlock Even Faster

The best use for Motion Sense is in how it helps make unlocking your phone incredibly quick. From my testing, the Pixel 4 recognizes my face exactly as quickly as the iPhone 11 Pro, but the Pixel feels faster because it uses its radar system to notice when you’re reaching for it and turns on the screen and face unlock camera system before you even touch the phone. This makes it so as soon as your face comes into view it unlocks and is ready to go. This is a very clever use case and it’s effectively invisible to the average user. Their phone just feels like it’s fast, and that’s the whole point.

This would also be a good time to mention that just like the iPad Pro, this face unlock works from any angle, so it works in bed, unlike my iPhone. Love this.

The only downside of this in my experience is that it’s too aggressive in activating so my phone has been unlocking way more than I actually want it to. For example, my phone sits on a charging stand on my desk at work. With my iPhone, I tap the screen, it unlocks in milliseconds, and I can see my notifications. With the Pixel 4, any sudden movements I make trigger it to light up and unlock. I’ve had it happen when I simply lean forward a little in my chair and BOOM the phone is unlocked and on my home screen. I also have an annoying issue where simply putting the phone on the charger makes it unlock. It also typically unlocks itself when I place it on my wireless charger on my bedside table. It also unlocks when I move it from my desk into my pocket.

Basically, the Pixel 4 seems to think that if you touch it, you want to unlock it, which is absolutely not the case and makes me handle my phone differently. And as has been well-documented, since the Pixel doesn’t care if I’m looking at it or am even, you know, alive, I can’t close my eyes or something and prevent it from doing this.

This problem is mostly mitigated by changing the default behavior to only unlock the phone but not take you to the home screen (go to Settings app, Security, Face Unlock, and disable the “skip lock screen” setting), I recommend most people change that as soon as they get the phone.

Quieting Alarms, Timers, and Calls

This one is pretty cool too. When a timer, alert, or phone call is beeping, you can reach out to the phone and it will quiet the noise. It doesn’t silence it, mind you, just make it quiet. Then you can decide what you want to do with it. In all cases, you can swipe your hand over the phone to dismiss the timer, stop the alarm, but oddly not reject a call.

The part with quieting the noise when you reach for the phone works very reliably, but the swipe to dismiss is a little less so (more on this below).

Saving Battery When You’re Far Away

This one is very subtle, and you may never notice it’s even happening, but the Pixel 4 will try to detect when you are far away and turn off the always-on screen to conserve battery. As soon as you get closer, it turns on the screen. Again, this is subtle and it’s actually kind of hard to test as you need to get far enough away to make it work.

All in all, my screen always “feels” like it’s on even though it’s not actually always on.

Controlling Media Playback

And finally there is the one that Google is marketing the most, all while being, in my experience, the worst of the bunch: media controls. This works in lots of apps, but not all. It works in all my music apps from Apple Music to Spotify to Google Play Music, and works in YouTube as well. It does not work in Pocket Casts, though. It doesn’t appear that apps need to integrate to this themselves, the system determines if an app is playing media and enables the media gestures on its own.

But this is a feature I’ve turned off because my use of it can mostly be broken down like so:

  • 5% using it because it’s useful
  • 20% using it for testing
  • 60% struggling to make it actually work
  • 15% accidentally triggering it and wanting to throw my phone across the room

The feature just isn’t reliable or predictable. I can’t get it to work reliably, and more importantly, I can’t find a spot in my life where it’s actually useful. The cooking example comes up all the time, but (a) this is the only example anyone can come up with and (b) I use my phone all the time when I’m cooking with pinkies and knuckles. The biggest thing this solves is advancing to the next track when the screen is off, which I will admit is nice, but isn’t a major pain point for me.

What’s frustrating is that this gesture seems to work one minute and then not the next. Sometimes it recognizes left swipes as right swipes and does the opposite of what I want. And that 15% I mentioned above, that comes when I’m making breakfast and happen to walk too close to the phone and it skips tracks. Or other times I’m getting ready in the bathroom and I put my toothbrush away, only to have YouTube skip to the next video because I thinks I was swiping it.

Google showed this off as having some smarts to recognize intentional vs unintentional swipes, but it’s unreliable enough that I got way too many false positives. In the end, this is the thing that made me turn the feature off; it made me feel like I had to tiptoe around my phone lest it do things I very much did not want it to do.

As many have already said, the media controls are very limited, presumably because Google wanted to do a few things well and build from there, but this very limited functionality is very bad right now. My fingers are crossed for some updates that make this work better.

All of this adds up to very little in my experience, and when I turned off Motion Sense to try and save battery life, I hardly even missed it.

Cameras

There is tons to say about the cameras on the Pixel 4, but let’s just look at how the Pixel 4 camera stacks up against the iPhone 11 Pro in some situations.

First up is a comparison of:

  1. Computational zoom past 2x
  2. Portrait mode
  3. Low light indoors

https://youtu.be/Z_KRvCnBNdE

And then here are some side-by-sides in good lighting. iPhone is always on the left and the Pixel is always on the right.

Next up, here are some night shots taken with each phone (iPhone still on left, Pixel still on right).

And how about another one for fun? Here’s the iPhone 11 Pro:

And here’s the Pixel 4:

As a whole they look pretty similar, but the details show some differences. The Pixel has much more color noise in the sky, as well as a little less detail in the grass and bushes. Here’s the deal: the iPhone tends to do better in handheld night mode shots and the Pixel tends to do better when using a tripod.

And finally, we have to try out some astral photography and see how the main new feature in this year’s camera update.

That’s not how it comes out of the camera, of course, that’s how I made it look after a minute in Lightroom. This is what the camera app gives you:

I sadly don’t have any other examples right now since it’s been cloudy and rainy every night here in the US Midwest. What I can tell you is that I went out a few weeks back with the astral mode on the Pixel 3a, and got very similar results to what I’m seeing on the Pixel 4. Google is showing off some remarkable photos in their marketing but I haven’t seen anyone online get much more than I am. Maybe we all just have too much light pollution where we live to see that many stars.

Oh, and I should probably show what the iPhone gets when trying the same thing:

Also good, but not as clear as the Pixel. Again, this is a 30 second exposure while the Pixel used the full 4 minutes possible.

My Opinion on Still Photos

When it comes to still photography these phones are really neck-and-neck. The Pixel 4 applies much less harsh contrast to every photo which was my main complaint with the photos in years past, which is wonderful. I’d say I still prefer the colors in iPhone shots more often than Pixel ones, but it’s so close that it’s not worth discussing further…so I won’t.

When it comes to detail in shots, it’s really a toss up and varies from shot to shot. Sometimes the iPhone got a better image and sometimes the Pixel did, but they were both almost universally excellent so it didn’t really matter.

That said, in low light, but not night time, the iPhone consistently gets sharper photos, largely helped by the excellent addition of “Deep Fusion” in iOS 13.2. Additionally, portrait mode I find far better on the iPhone in 90% of shots.

Nighttime is where things are most interesting, as both haver upped their game significantly from the Pixel 3 last year. This is again a toss up from photo to photo, but the Pixel 4 probably won out 60% of the time, giving it the slight edge.

One big caveat with the Pixel 4’s night mode, especially when you throw it on a tripod and it switches to “astral photography” mode, and that is that the exposures take waaaaaaay longer to take than on the iPhone. Handheld night shots take 3 seconds on the iPhone and 10 seconds if you’re using a tripod (you can manually boost those to 5 and 30 seconds, although the difference in image quality is usually trivial and not worth it). Meanwhile, they are somewhere around 7 seconds handheld and 2-4 minutes on the Pixel 4. Take that first photo of the life saver: that was a 210 second exposure on the Pixel 4 vs 10 seconds on the iPhone. When you consider the photos look effectively the same, it’s really hard to justify the 20x time commitment. Seriously, you don’t appreciate how long 3 minutes is until your phone is incapacitated for that long while you wait.

All of this said, if you don’t want an iPhone then none of this is going to bother you. The Pixel 4 reliably shoots some of the best still photographs you can get on a camera, let alone a smartphone camera.

My Opinion on Video

Video is a whole other story, as this time it’s not even close, the iPhone 11 Pro smokes the Pixel 4 in every single way. If we look at lenses, the iPhone has an ultra-wide lens4, so it’s more flexible. If we look at modes, the iPhone shoots higher resolutions at higher frame rates, at higher bitrates, and with noticeably better video quality at all times.

https://youtu.be/E0n30RJk9XQ

Taking the iPhone out of the picture, the Pixel 4 still doesn’t hold up that well on the video front. The video okay overall, but there are far too many instances of artifacts in the footage, especially in scenes with lots of texture like grass or trees.

I don’t have nearly as much to say about video as it’s not my forte, but I’ll say this about video: every video I take with the Pixel 4 makes me go “yeah, that’s okay” while everything I take with the iPhone 11 Pro makes me go “I can’t believe how good this is!” I’d love to see Google put their photography smarts towards video as well.

Software

Next to the cameras, the software on Pixels is what really draws people to them. The Pixel 4 has a good number of software improvements that make it a better Android experience than most other devices out there.

The New Google Assistant

I’m not the biggest user of voice assistants on my phone, although I’m all in on smart speakers, so I don’t have a ton to say here. What I will say is that Google moved all voice processing onto the device and this makes everything feel stupid fast. Doing things locally like dictating a message or asking Google to set a timer happen with almost zero lag. Seriously, setting a timer feels like it’s done before I’ve finished asking for it! I went frame-by-frame in a video of me asking for one and it took 0.83 seconds for me to finish saying the word “timer” to the timer being started.

Other things like being able to navigate your phone and issue sequential requests have not been nearly as good for me. For example, asking Google “show me my dog pictures” from the home screen does a search of my photo library with all my dog pics, but then asking “only ones from last week” doesn’t return anything, despite there being tons of dog pictures last week.

But this isn’t particularly new, and the features Google showed off at I/O this spring that let you control your phone entirely with your voice seem to not be here yet. And if they are, I have not been able to find them, so please let me know if I’m wrong here.

Overall, Google Assistant is similar to the one on all other devices, but the voice recognition is much faster, so everything is a bit faster than before.

Voice Recording Cranked to 11

The Pixel 4 ships with a new app called Recorder and think of it like Voice Memos on the iPhone but with automatic transcriptions built in. All you have to do is hit record and you’ll get a nice sounding recording of whatever is going on, and the app with automatically (and in real time) transcribe everything it records. It does this all offline and doesn’t send anything off your device. In fact, unlike Voice Memos on iOS which syncs your recordings across your devices, Google’s Recorder specifically tells you that nothing leaves your device. If you would like, you can share these recordings one at a time, either as audio files, text files, or both.

And the quality of the transcriptions is pretty good, although it’s not perfect by any means. This might not be a perfect test, but I played the first 90 seconds of my most recent podcast for the app and this is the transcription it created:

Good morning everyone and welcome to the. Mycast today. I want to talk about what I would like in a pro. I.

So the iPhone 11 Pro came out just over a month ago, so we've had if you got it at lunch you had your phone for a month and two days at this point, so one of the common threads in many of the youtuber view. The iPhone 11 pro is people saying what's the pro for what's pro about this?

And. Get mentioned our stuff like if it was going to be called pro I think you should get rid of the notch. I think you should have a high refresh display and I don't think those are things that's quote unquote pros actually need like is that really what is going to keep someone from using the iPhone as their smartphone?

And believe that problematic to.

I don't think so, so if I think about what a pro device actually. Mean do I do? I care about the naming I guess.

General. The word pro typically.

The one that we sell to everybody but has higher specs can do. A little bit more is a little faster when.

The transcript is okay, but it’s far from a word-for-word transcript of what I said. Is it useful? Yes, but is it going to give you word-for-word transcripts of that it’s hearing? Not unless you’re recording someone talking very precisely at all times.

Car Crash Detection

And finally on the software front, there is a new car crash detection feature that acts kind of like the fall detection on the Apple Watch. If the phone detects you were in crash, it will make a loud noise and ask if you are okay. If you don’t respond in time, it will call emergency services and your emergency contact. The app says it uses the accelerometer, location, and audio sensors to guess if you were in a crash, and is off by default when you get the phone. To turn it on, just go the Safety app and enable it from there.

No, I did not test this out, but I did use the demo the app lets you try out and yeah, it’s pretty loud: you’ll notice if it goes off.

General Notes on Hardware

  • The asymmetrical top and bottom bezels don’t really bother me, but it’s definitely not ideal. Is it better than a notch? Depends on who you are, but for me it falls into the “minor annoyance” category.
  • The phone overall feels quite nice in the hands. I love the brushed edges for being far more grippy than the polished steel on the iPhone 11 Pro or the brushed, slippery aluminum on the iPhone 11. The white modelI got is also very striking and I think looks fantastic with the black accents and single splash of orange on the power button. Interestingly, I asked my wife what she thought about the feel and she instantly said it felt cheap and she didn’t like it compared to her iPhone 11, so your mileage my vary.
  • The screen is very good and works well for me. It’s bright enough and the 90Hz screen looks amazing when it’s activated. However, it currently only goes 90 when the brightness is over 75%, which is not often when you’re indoors. This is to conserve battery life, but it makes it so the screen feels normal most of the time and only silky smooth occasionally. You an force the screen to always do 90Hz in the developer options, and that’s quite nice, but it slays the battery, so it’s only worth changing if you’re always topping up thought the day.
  • The power and volume buttons are decent, but are a bit soft. The power button feels good if you hit it dead in the middle, but if you’re off center at all it loses its clickiness.
  • Face unlock works when I’m lying down in bed! This is my only time Face ID on the iPhone lets me down, and I’m happy that the secure face unlock on the Pixel 4 works from all angles, just like the iPad Pro.
  • Speaking of face unlock, the fact that it can be used even if I’m not awake or even alive is not ideal but is also not the end of the world for me. The same can be said for any fingerprint reader, so I won’t go so far as to say this is useless, but an attention requirement certainly should have been there from day one, and not months away in a yet unconfirmed software update.
  • The haptics on this phone are second only to the iPhone. They’re just great.

My Buying Advice

The Pixel 4 is a really hard thing for me to recommend. It has great cameras, very good software (if you’re cool with Android), nice hardware, a questionable price, and a piss poor battery life, and all that adds up to a device that only works for people who really value the things it does well to an obscene degree. If all you want is the best still camera in a smartphone, I think the iPhone 11 Pro is better, but on the Android front the Pixel is still king. If you love Google’s opinionated take on Android and want to always have the latest updates, then the Pixel 4 is also the best way to go.

But if you are looking for the most bang for your buck, it’s hard to think of a phone with a worse value per dollar. If you want a phone you can trust to make it through the day, you’re also hard-pressed to find something worse. If you want ultra-premium hardware, I don’t think you’re going to get it here either. And if you take more videos than photos, then the camera is going to let you down more than other options out there today.

If you fall into the camp that really wants one of the things the Pixel 4 excels at, then have at it, but know what its limits are so you can plan accordingly.

Finally, I won’t pretend to be able to tell you what you should do, but in general in the US in late 2019, I think people who would consider the Pixel 4 might enjoy a few other phones instead.

The Samsung Galaxy S10e is $50 less than the Pixel 4, has double the storage, all the same specs5, and takes much better video. It also comes with One UI which I think improves on Android in some ways and has all of Samsung’s additional software which many people enjoy and is much better than it has ever been. I loved this phone and I think most people would enjoy this more than the Pixel 4.

The OnePlus 7T is $200 less than the Pixel 4, has double the storage, and has a slightly faster processor (855+) with more RAM (8GB). And while the photos from this phone are not as good as the Pixel’s they’re competent and have the advantage of a 3x telephoto lens (vs the Pixel’s 2x) and an ultra-wide lens as well. It also shares the 90Hz display and has a nice premium build. Oh, and did I mention it was $200 less expensive?

Google’s own Pixel 3a is also a contender for some folks. Yes, it’s slower and has last year’s camera, but it’s been updated to get the new astral photography mode and also will receive software updates the same say the Pixel 4 will. If you want the Pixel experience while spending half the price of the baseline Pixel 4 and get the same 64GB storage, then the 3a should be in the conversation.

And finally, it’s not Android, but the new iPhone 11 is $100 cheaper ($150 cheaper if you compare the 128GB versions) and comes with all the benefits of iOS, but we’re not going to go too far down that rabbit hole today.


  1. I’ll leave a note here that the iPhone 11 Pro Max also has 64GB in its $1,099 model, which is insane as well. There are plenty of reasons the 11 Pro warrants its price tag, but storage is not one of them.

    I’m not reviewing the 11 Pro Max here, but this is to fend off the “um excuse me, but the iPhone 11 Pro Max, which you love, has 64GB too!”

    It does, I don’t like it, and I don’t think anyone should get that one. It doesn’t excuse the Pixel 4. 

  2. Compared to other good battery 128GB phones: $250 more than the iPhone 11, $250 more than the Galaxy S10e, and a whopping $400 more than the OnePlus 7T. 
  3. Standard disclaimer that I don’t review every single phone that comes out, so I’m open to there being worse ones out there. 
  4. Which I find more useful for video than still photos. 
  5. 1080p screen, Snapdragon 855, and 6GB RAM 

Testing the Pixel’s Super Res Zoom and an Actual Telephoto Lens

All of the Pixel 3 and 3a phones have a feature called Super Res Zoom. This is one of Google’s many A.I. features they brag about and I wanted to see how well it did in the real world. To test this, I took the same photo 4 times.

  1. Pixel 3a at 1x zoom
  2. Pixel 3a at 2x zoom (digital zoom)
  3. iPhone Xs 1x zoom
  4. iPhone Xs 2x zoom (optical zoom)

Here are the 1x photos for the Pixel and then iPhone:

The quality of these photos is basically the same, but it shows you a decent baseline and what sort of day it is (cloudy, but still pretty decent lighting).

Now let’s look at a zoomed in version of this shot and see which we prefer:

Have you chosen one you like the best?

Spoilers below…

So the order was:

  1. iPhone 1x zoom
  2. iPhone 2x zoom
  3. Pixel 1x zoom
  4. Pixel 2x zoom

For me the iPhone shot using the 2x lens was clearly the best of the bunch. There is simply more clarity in the image than any of the other photos.

Here’s the two 2x photos side-by-side:

And if you’re curious what the difference is between each camera’s 1x and 2x modes, here you go:

The Pixel’s software is definitely doing some work on the zoomed shot to try and add in more detail, but I don’t think it’s close to as much as the iPhone gets just by having a physical lens capturing more data.

Happily, the Pixel 4 looks like it’s going to have a telephoto lens in it this year and this advantage iPhones, Galaxies, and many other high end phones have will be gone. All of the flagship phones from Apple, Google, and Samsung will shortly have ultra wide, standard, and telephoto lenses and I could not be happier about it.

Night Sight vs NeuralCam (quick, incomplete comparison)

Here’s a shot taken on the iPhone Xs:

And here’s the same scene taken with the Pixel 3a:

Not so pretty right? Well here’s Google’s much lauded Night Sight doing its best:

And here’s NeuralCam doing it’s best in this same insanely low light situation:

Due to WordPress liking to cache images, you might not be able to see much of a difference beyond the Pixel photo looking a little brighter, but the Pixel photo is definitely better overall. It’s sharper and maintains more details than the NeuralCam shot. Not for nothing, but I had to hold my phone still for about 3 seconds with Night Sight and north of 10 seconds for NeuralCam.

This is not a take down of NeuralCam or anything, and I think it’s a really decent option for someone who has an iPhone and wishes they could get similar shots to those Pixel owners like to brag about. It’s the best app I’ve used yet for taking very low light photos with an iPhone.

And before anyone says it, no, this is not a very realistic shot I’d normally take a picture of, but it’s a good stress test for each mode. I’ll be doing a more comprehensive side-by-side in the coming weeks, but these single example is consistent with most of what I’ve been seeing after a few days with NeuralCam.

Other Uses for Night Sight Photos

I'm a big fan of Night Sight mode on the Pixel line of phones. Qualms about it being a separate mode or making scenes look different from how they look to the naked eye are fine, but as an additive mode to all the normal photo modes on Pixels, I'm still a fan.

But one thing that comes up a ton is the fact that a lot of these comparison shots people like me do to show off the mode are unrealistic, so today I have an example of Night Sight improving a real life photo. I was sitting on the couch last night with the lights off and Sherman, my dog, was struggling to stay awake, so I snapped a photo with my iPhone XS.

He was sitting pretty still, so I carefully reached for my Pixel 3a and took the same photo with Night Sight.

You can probably see the difference already, but let's zoom in on each one to make sure you can see the difference.

Here's the iPhone:

And here's the Pixel:

The Pixel 3a took a much better photo with far more detail. Neither of these photos are amazing or anything, but the Pixel got a markedly better shot than the iPhone and it reminded me again that I really hope Apple has some serious low light improvements in a future iOS version.

Google Pixel 3a Review: The MacBook Air of Smartphones

Google Pixel 3a Review: The MacBook Air of Smartphones

Most phones are judged on 4 things:

  1. Build Quality
  2. Performance
  3. Camera
  4. Software

If you buy an $800+ phone then you can usually get all of those but spend any less and you’re going to have to compromise. The $400-$700 phone market is interesting because it’s full of phones that are making compromises to appeal to the most people while sacrificing enough to turn a profit. In most cases, phone makes will stuff the bet sounding chips into their phones and will skimp on build quality, software, and the camera. This gets headlines like “a top-of-the-line processor in a mid-range phone!” headlines and surely moves some devices from tech enthusiasts.

Google chose to go a different route as I think they are the only major phone maker who has leaned 100% into the camera and skimped on raw performance. As a result, they have created a midrange phone that’s hard to compare to anything else.

I think that the Pixel 3a has immediately made it hard for me to recommend anyone looking for a midrange phone look at anything else right now. If your budget is $400 then this is a no-brainer, and even if you’re willing to spend a little more and you bring the OnePlus 7 Pro into play, I think this phone will hold its own very well for a lot of people.

That said, this is not the phone for me personally, nor is is a “flagship killer.” Let’s take a look at why that is and if the compromises it makes are the right ones for you.

Camera

We have to start with the camera because that’s the simgular thing that makes this phone the most interesting. There is literally no compromise here as Google put in the same back camera that they have on their $1,000 flagship. Basically, if you think the Pixel 3 takes the best photos of any smartphone, then the Pixel 3a takes exactly those same photos, so you’re going to love them.

I’ve compared this camera to the iPhone XS and despite liking the photos from the iPhone more, the fact I’m comparing the cameras on a $400 phone to a $1,000 phone and they’re basically neck-and-neck is a huge compliment to the Pixel 3a.

This review is going to be read mostly by iPhone users, so here’s how I’d say the cameras stack up to Apple’s latest iPhones (which again, cost 2-3x more):

Just like the iPhone, you can basically trust this camera to get at least a good photo every time you snap an image. I miss the telephoto lens from my iPhone, but I also appreciate having Night Sight, which adds a whole new type of photo I can take.

If I had to simplify it way down, I’d say I’d prefer to use the iPhone during the day and the Pixel at night. The iPhone gets incredible photos during the day, and I think its HDR capture is way ahead of Google here. As I’ve said many times now, Google’s camera algorithm “optimizes for drama” which can be good, but can also lead to photos that look artificial or lose data due to the extra contrast applied to each photo. Here’s an example:

Which of those photos do you prefer? People will differ on this, but I greatly prefer the bottom photo, which was taken on the iPhone XS. The Pixel 3a image is crushing the shadows to create an image that looks decent, but (a) removes details that I can’t get back in editing, (b) does not reflect what this actually looked like in real life, and (c) is less saturated than what made the scene look so nice in real life.

There was also a time I switched my profile photo in Slack at work to a selfie taken on the Pixel 3a and people came out of the woodwork to ask me how many Photoshop effects I applied to that photo because it looked super fake. I had to tell them that none were applied and that’s just how selfies on the Pixel look. I ended up changing the image.

At night time though, I’ll take the Pixel 3a every time. In the standard camera mode it does pretty similar to the iPhone, although the iPhone usually has better white balance at night. But the Pixel separates itself by having a solid flash mode as well as Night Sight, which gives you another option to get a photo if the main shooting mode isn’t cutting it.

Moving past stills on the back camera, we get to places where I think the Pixel 3a falls well behind the iPhone. The selfie shooter is fine and has a wider angle lens than the iPhone, but I think this wider lens produces less-flattering selfies as people’s faces are shaped weird. This is the nature of wide angle lenses, but that wide angle lens also makes it easier to get selfies with more of the background in them or to cram more people into a shot.

Video on the Pixel 3a is quite good, although I’d say it falls well short of the iPhone XS and even the Galaxy S10e I used before this phone. That said, the 4k 30fps footage looks very good and Google’s stabilization is really solid. I don’t think it’s best in class, but it’s damn good video that you’ll enjoy watching.

This is what I remind you that this phone costs less than half of the iPhone XS, barely over a third of the XS Max, and basically exactly half of the XR. The fact that I’m splitting hairs here with $1,000+ phones is a victory in and of itself for the Pixel 3a. This is truly a no compromises camera for a phone in this price range and it’s what sets this phone apart from the rest of the mid-range market. Frankly, this is the only mid-range phone I could ever use as my daily driver for any extended period of time since the camera is so important to me. Kudos, Google.

The Build

The Pixel 3a absolutely feels like a less expensive phone. The plastic body is light in the hand and feels good, but you don’t think of it as a “precious object” like you can with some of these more premium phones. This is totally fine, as phones in this market don’t need that premium feel to bring value, but it’s worth noting.

Despite the less luxurious feel of the phone, it’s built well and feels quite nice in the hand. It’s a bit slippery and its top and bottom bezels make the 5.6” screen a bit harder to handle than on the bezel-less phones out there, but pretty much everything else is a win here.

The colors are here are great. I got the “Purple-ish” model and the name does not lie, this is just barely purple. Most people think it’s a white phone and it’s not until I tell them and they look closer that they say “oh yeah, I guess it’s a bit purple.” And then there’s the accented green power button that just looks great. It’s a slick and distinct look and I totally dig it.

The Display

The display is an extra tall 1080p screen with rounded corners. It’s 5.6” and has a pixel density of 441 pixels per inch. This is basically the same as the iPhone XS and much higher res than the iPhone XR. The screen just looks fine overall though. It’s a good screen, but not a great one. Colors appear pretty accurate, but are boring when set side-by-side with higher end devices. This isn’t something you’ll notice much when using the phone like normal, but there are fewer “wow” moments here.

The biggest problem with the display is using it in sunlight. It’s not terrible, but it does not seem to get as bright as the iPhone or Galaxy phones I’m used to and it becomes difficult to see outside.

One last note on the display, this phone has what I consider the best always-on display functionality in the game. It looks nice, displays notifications well, and has the flat-out brilliant “now playing” feature that tells you what song you’re listening to1.

Fingerprint Reader

The fingerprint reader on the back of the phone is top notch. It’s fast and seems quite accurate. In the spectrum of authentication methods, I prefer face unlocks over anything else, but if I have to have a fingerprint reader, I prefer them on the front of the phone, then on the back, and then on the side. The Pixel 3a has it on the back, so it’s not my favorite method, but it’s fine. This is what I said in my Pixel 2 review and it holds true for this phone as well:

People say this location is great because it’s were your index finger naturally is when you’re holding the phone, but my index finger simply does not rest there when I’m using the phone. I can put my finger there easily enough when I pic up the phone to unlock it, but my hand shimmies down the phone to actually use it. I’m about an inch below it and need to stretch to reach it, which is not comfortable.

Battery Life

Full disclosure, I do not have real battery life tests since I have not moved my SIM card over to the Pixel 3a, but I can say that it holds a charge better than my Galaxy S10e which is also in WiFi-only mode right now. Here’s what I said about that phone:

Coming from the iPhone XS, this is pretty much what I’m used to.

So yeah, if you have an iPhone XS then the Pixel 3a will probably get slightly better battery life.

Buttons and the Squeeze

I mentioned the buttons in passing already, but they are all on the right side of the phone which I quite like and they are nice and clicky. The iPhone has the best buttons in the game, but the Pixel 3a has good buttons that hang with the best of them.

And then there’s Google’s “active edge” feature which lets you trigger Google Assistant by squeezing the phone. I hate this feature. Despite setting it to every sensitivity option and trying my best to work with it, I accidentally trigger it about 10x more than I do so intentionally. It just makes me feel like I need to baby my phone and not grab it too hard, lest I get Google Assistant asking me what I want to do when all I wanted was to check the time. Maybe you’ll enjoy it, but for me it’s never convenient enough to make up for the constant annoyance it causes for me.

I/O and Charging

There is a USB-C port on the bottom of the phone which does all the USB-C things you’d expect, but you’ll probably just be used for charging, which is fine. I’ll also mention that this phone does not have wireless charging and I miss that feature more than I realized I would. My life is all in on wireless charging, with my iPhone (and Galaxy) sitting on a charging mat at night and a charging stand during the day. The Pixel 3a made me add wires to these setups and I personally hated it. Outside of reviewers like myself, I don’t know who else is going to go from a wireless-charging phone to the Pixel 3a, but it’s hard to do back.

And last but not least…well, actually yeah, least…there is a headphone jack on this phone. Just like wireless charing, my whole life has moved on from wired headphones, so this port was basically useless for me, but I’m sure plenty of people will enjoy having it. I do need to talk about its placement though, which is on the top of the phone and seems stupid.

Why, Google, why?

Storage

This story is pretty simple as the 3a and 3a XL only come in one storage size: 64GB. I think this is fine and makes perfect sense for the price point they’re hitting. Would I love more storage? Sure, but 64GB is going to get the job done for most people and I think the only real problem here is that you can’t throw another $100 at this phone to upgrade to more if you want it. There are no higher storage options nor is there a micro-SD slot for additional storage.

Android does a pretty good job of not absorbing all of your storage so this has been okay for me so far. I have been using this for my podcasts, music, audiobooks, and games, and I currently have 43GB free.

Performance

If you were waiting for me to get to the MacBook Air comparison from the title, then wait no longer. This is where Google saved some cash and you can tell it’s not a top-of-the-line phone when it comes to speed. That sounds like a dig, but it’s not meant to be. Some people want/need a specced out MacBook Pro, but many people are perfectly fine with a MacBook Air. Different products, different categories, and different customers.

The Pixel 3a ships with a Snapdragon 670, which doesn’t mean a whole lot on its own, but the important bit is that this benchmarks a tad slower than the 2017 Google Pixel 2. This is according to Geekbench and all the web benchmarks I could throw at it. In terms of iPhone speeds, that’s somewhere between an iPhone 6 and 6s for single core and and close to the iPhone 7 for multicore. If you were curious, the iPhone SE benchmarks 33% faster than the 3a in single core, and is a little slower in multi-core.

But benchmarks only matter so much and real world performance is what is actually important in a phone. Sadly, the benchmarks tell the story pretty well here as the Pixel 3a feels very much like a slower phone than the higher end options out there. This is one of those things that you have to let sink in for a while, as most phones, including this one, feel perfectly fast up front. Watch literally any review of any phone ever and they’ll say something like “and it handled everything I threw at it without any trouble.” This line bugs me so much and is the sort of thing you say after using a phone for a few hours.

After 3 weeks with the 3a I can confidently say that this will do anything you want it to, but it’s going to do it all slower than you’ll get with a higher end phone, as well as many of the similarly-priced budget phones out there.

Apps usually launch quickly…until they don’t, and animations are basically always a bit choppier than I’d personally like. None of this is a disaster, and you can absolutely get your work done on this phone, but the difference between a high end Android phone and this phone is absolutely noticeable.

But here’s the thing about this phone’s performance: if you are a more average customer and are getting your phone from a carrier, then this phone contends much better. Look at what Verizon, T-Mobile, and Sprint have in the $400 range and this is going to keep up with or beat most of those options. It’s only once you get into some of the Huawais and Pocofones on Amazon that you get phones that really smoke this thing in terms of performance. Of course, getting those phones means a far worse camera and pretty darn objectionable software layers over Android. If you care most about power, then the Pixel 3a isn’t for you, but if a great camera is worth tolerating acceptable speeds, then the 3a is really hard to beat.

Software

Bringing up the rear is software, not because it’s unimportant, but because it’s simply not going to be my favorite part of any Android phone. Also, as a Pixel phone, we don’t have much to talk about since it’s really just stock Android.

Ultimately I think this is a good version of Android but it lacks some things I’ve grown to like about, and I can’t quite believe I’m saying this, Samsung phones. I miss the lock screen customizations Samsung offers, I think the dark mode is better, I miss the health tracking features, I miss the UI tweaks of One UI, and I even miss Bixby routines.

But the Pixel line is not all about having tons of features right out of the box. You can download apps to add a lot of power to the device, so it’s not that big of a deal. And Google would probably tell you that Google search and Assistant already give you tons of power on their own.

One of the great things about Pixels is that they are not overwhelming and I love that about them. As far as Android phones go, the Pixel 3a has a good stock experience, not a big one.

Recommendation

If my phone budget was sub-$500 then the Pixel 3a would absolutely be the phone I would buy. I appreciate speed and love having it in a phone, but the most important to thing to me is a camera, and it’s what has prevented me from using cheap phones as my “daily driver” for very long. I need my phone to have a great camera and the 3a delivers here like no other phone in the price range. Despite my gripes about performance, I’d rather trade that for a good camera any day of the week.

I’d also recommend the Pixel 3a to any iPhone user who is Android-curious. I think you can get a good idea about Android from this phone without breaking the bank on a flagship. I suspect this will not convert you and make you want to sell your iPhone, but if you have the budget to have a second phone, then this is a very good option.

If you must have more speed then something like the OnePlus 6T is a good option and will cost you $100-150 more. And if you want to spend what flagships used to cost before they got insane, the iPhone XR and Galaxy S10e are great choices in the $650-750 range. I’ve never used it personally, but if you want to spend a little less than $400 and get better performance, then the Pocofone F1 seems to be the winner.


  1. To clarify, it tells you what song is playing in the world around you, not the song playing on your phone itself.