Screens with high refresh rates aren’t new, but they’re still relatively uncommon. The OnePlus 7 Pro and 7T have it, as do gaming-focused devices like the Razer Phone 2 and the ROG Phone II. Even more uncommon is the Pixel’s ability to automatically change its refresh rate depending on what’s happening on-screen — the Razer Phone 2 is the only other device that works the same way. That approach isn’t just technically clever; it’s also a huge deal when you consider the impact these displays have on battery life. If you really wanted to, you could force the phones to run at 90Hz all the time, but you’re going to kill your battery.
Also new to the Pixels this year is a system Google calls Ambient EQ, which tunes the color temperature of the screen depending on the light around you. Let’s say you’re sitting at home amid warm lights; in that case, the Pixel’s screen would turn slightly yellow to match. Outside, the display would generally take on a cooler cast. Think of it as a more situational kind of Night Shift; rather than changing the screen’s appearance based on time, Ambient EQ changes it to look more natural in any given environment. The effect can be pretty subtle, but then again, that’s the whole point — it’s meant to make everything look more natural — you’re not really supposed to notice it in action.
These displays are largely great, but I do have one serious gripe: They’re not quite bright enough. This became especially apparent when we were shooting our review video. Even under the season’s subdued sunlight, it was sometimes hard to read my notes. It wasn’t just my review units, either. Google confirmed that the screen brightness on both versions of the Pixel 4 top out at 450 nits — that’s not nearly as bright as some of its toughest competitors. Samsung says the Note 10 and 10 Plus’s screens land between 670 and 690 nits, for instance, and Apple’s iPhone 11 Pro hangs out at around 800 unless you’re watching an HDR movie.
Should you avoid the Pixel 4s just because its screens are a little dim? No, but keep in mind that they’re not as great for outdoor use as some of your other options.
When Google unveiled the Pixel 4s, company executives claimed they were designed to allow for more “human” interactions. Sounds great, I guess, but what does that actually mean? Well, in this case, Google’s definition is that you don’t have to be clutching your Pixel to actually use it.
What’s most curious about a Pixel 4 is that it will actually respond when you wave at it. Say hello to Motion Sense, the most interesting thing Google has done with a smartphone in years. The key to Motion Sense lies above the Pixels’ screens — just to the right of the earpiece is a 60GHz ultra-wideband radar sensor called Soli, which shoots radio waves to detect your hands as they hover and dart in front of the phone.
Google’s specific implementation here is fascinating, but the concept of touchless controls is hardly new. Most recently, LG tried it with its flagship G8, and it was, uh, pretty lousy. The time-of-flight sensor the company used struggled to “see” hands unless they were sitting in a sweet spot above the phone, and certain actions, like changing your media volume, required you to remember some silly claw gestures and pray the phone understood them. Not so with Motion Sense. You can change tracks in most media player apps, plus dismiss calls or snooze alarms with a simple swipe left or right through the air. Oh, and when you go to pick up your phone, the Soli radar will see your hand coming and prompt the phone for a Face Unlock since neither Pixel 4 has a fingerprint sensor.
There’s more: Google worked with The Pokemon Company on a cute motion-sensitive demo with the Sword and Shield starters, which you can set as a wallpaper (if you don’t mind burning through your battery). The company also partnered with the studio behind Monument Valley on a game where you try to save birds from some poisonous… cloud thing by tracing your finger across the screen and occasionally waving your hand. And, well, that’s about it. Motion Sense doesn’t offer nearly as many actions as the G8’s Z-Camera did, and the actions we did get feel basic.
In fairness to Google, it’s early days for Motion Sense, and I’ve gotten the impression from execs I’ve spoken with that the company is playing the long game here. For now, keeping things simple allows people to get used to these new interactions without feeling overwhelmed. Google plans to solicit feedback from users and developers to get a sense of how Motion Sense should evolve over time. I can get behind that, as long as that evolution involves making Motion Sense less finicky.
Most of the time, as long as you keep your hand between an inch and a foot away from the Pixel’s forehead, the Soli radar responds to correctly. When it happens, these gestures start to feel like the most natural things in the world. Sometimes, though, Motion Sense just doesn’t work. The blob of light at the top of the screen signifying what Soli “sees” just bops around instead of following your hand.
There are ways to mitigate this, like making sure your fingers are spread slightly so Soli can more easily identify your hand, but even that doesn’t solve the problem. Even now, I can never predict if a flick of the wrist in front of the Pixels will actually do what I want on the first try. Because of that, I don’t feel like I can rely on Motion Sense, even though I want to.