I’m not sure I’m going to make ANY friends with this review.
I’ve had a long running love/hate with Pixel cameras. Since my days at Pocketnow, I’ve tried to push back against the idea that the best auto HDR automatically equals “bestest evar camera evar”. I don’t think a manufacturer needs to exclude people who care about composition and control, to cater to folks who don’t.
But I digress.
To begin at the ending.
Google delivers one of the smoothest consumer experiences available, and it’s almost immediately clear when using the phone, that every compromise of the platform is dictated by the limitations of the hardware, and arriving at the decision to make the phone smoother. Every feature lacking from this phone was removed to make the camera experience smoother.
It’s the tricky thing about the Pixel this year. Google is trying to focus on a specific kind of feel, and that’s rubbing enthusiasts the wrong way. But acting like, because the phone isn’t for enthusiasts, it can’t be for anyone else, is disingenuous. It’s not difficult to imagine an audience for this phone who will love this experience. Our debate should be “how broad is that audience”.
Google’s march towards smoothness makes this the single most effortless snapshot experience I’ve used this year. We know this hardware well. We’ve gotten really comfortable with Google’s software processing.
You pull the phone out of your pocket, hit the shutter, put it away, and you can be pretty confident the image you captured will be juicy and ready for Instagram.
And then that’s it.
You can’t really go any deeper. Even my Pixel 3a has a few more settings and controls to chew on.
This camera is at once a fantastic victory for refinement, and also introduces some unexpected roadblocks. We ultimately arrive at a very positive review for those folks who aren’t inclined to do much more than push a shutter button. Conversely, I can also appreciate those people annoyed by some of the omissions.
The duality of the Pixel 4, the easiest phone camera I’ve ever used while shooting samples, and also one of the most difficult to describe.
The phone for the 80%?
I could keep waffling on the philosophy of this phone, but what’ll make more sense is just digging into some samples and looking at performance.
Starting with hardware, as mentioned, this is well worn territory. We’re at the end of this sensor’s superiority. Smaller than half inch 12MP shooter, all the bells and whistles.
Even for adding a second sensor, Google upgrades the pixel in the most traditional way possible with a zoom. I’m really glad all these techies finally came around on ultra wide sensors. People used to tell me they were fun but unnecessary when I would show them off on LG, but now that popular phone companies have started using them, NOW lacking an ultra wide is a “deal breaker”.
And again, I think it’s easy to see why Google made this hardware decision, but it definitely strays from the phone camera zeitgeist.
I could go on, Let’s look at some samples.
Starting with exposure and saturation, We immediately run into the main philosophical decision of the whole camera. There’s no control over HDR or AI settings. It’s all or nothing. There’s no way I’ve found to consistently deliver a standard style jpeg. Every shot has some degree of multi-capture or additional processing.
In making the camera more “reliable”, preventing output from blowing out highlights, juicing up the color, it can make the use a little less predictable. What kind of photo will you get out of the phone? Whatever Google thinks will look good. And that’s good enough for you.
It’s ultimately successful. I’ve advocated for this kind of auto mode numerous times in the past. I don’t like cameras that return us to the old menus of separate modes. Food mode, ai mode, multiple tiers of HDR, crop mode, fireworks mode, mode mode. Google is absolutely correct. If it’s an auto mode, we should use all the technology we can get to make the experience as automatic as possible. I just wish we had a manual mode for more simplifed output.
Everything here is out of the camera ready for social media sharing. You build a lot of trust that this camera is going to crush your highlights and shadows. Everything is “safe”, but everything has that processing sheen.
To my eye, this works best for cooler and earthier colors, but the sky can sometimes land that unnatural “BLUUUUUEEE”, or browns that start to push too ruddy. HDR often lets us down with warmer colors, and the Pixel is no exception. Yellows seem to be the worst for color clipping, where we start to lose detail between petals, differentiating between parts of the flower, color, and depth of field blur.
Reds actually maintain a bit more structure. We see that push into unnatural magenta, but pieces are more identifiable in a busy menagerie of blossoms.
I don’t often comment on skin tones, but this HDR style processing doesn’t really lead to a more natural depiction of light and shadow. Compare this against a camera with a larger sensor, and skin from a pixel will look more colorful, but flatter and plastic-y, compared to a sensor with a real advantage for dynamic range.
One of my two biggest concerns for this camera though, moving to white balance, there’s no way to tell the pixel to make an adjustment when it gets the color wrong, and the Pixel struggles with warmer light, then HDR processing compounds that color value.
Indoor lighting regularly looks kind of gross yellow. Like these shots of Lex using her first easy bake oven by an open window. And then shifting to a different angle, we should expect some differences, but this is a pretty extreme swing, and completely different color values, that I don’t think we’d have been able to predict. Even for getting comfortable with the camera, this was a surprise, and I don’t like surprises when I’m trying to preserve family memories.
This kind of mustard-y look is more expected at night, under gross street lamps. Hanging out with the YouTube Tech Guy, it’s an ugly look, but this we could have predicted given the lighting.
But then we get to the creepy gate, and the Pixel is working against the lighting, trying to compensate for the true white of the subject. Again. After looking at the night portrait, I would not have expected this result on the gate. Color me mustard-y surprised. And I don’t like surprises.
Back to daylight shots, we’re in the middle of fire season here in the valley, so I expected most samples would be warmer than our traditional setups. Smoke in the air, longer winter shadows on the ground, the Pixel is doing a reasonably good job working around that quality of light.
Again, this camera seems programmed to shoot around the situations most folks like to capture with their phones, the 80%, but output gets unpredictable at the fringes of our photography, and that’s exactly where you’d want to be able to predict what a camera might do in challenging situations.
Dynamic Range & RAW
The dynamic range conversation is increasingly useless when talking about JPEGs. Most phones seem to be moving to this multi-exposure HDR style processing. The actual dynamic range of this sensor hasn’t changed, we’re just smashing more and more raw images together. We’ll talk more about this in the app performance section, but Google is mangling so many exposures together, there are times this phone feels like a Nokia 9.
The RAW side of the situation feels a bit stunted. We know this sensor can produce larger RAW photos, so I wonder if Google opted for some kind of mRAW or compressed RAW to increase speed of capture. I’m happy that every photo can preserve a RAW, but they don’t seem to demonstrate the same editing range as a camera that saves a larger file. Not quite two full stops of brightness to reign in, but still a decent safety net for folks that like to edit.
Maybe the biggest improvement from the original Pixel to know, is how well Google has reigned in lens flares. We’re at the limit of optics with this sensor, huge apertures on tiny glass elements. All phone cameras will demonstrate some optical problem with this style setup, we’re just choosing which flavor of distortion, fringing , or flaring looks better to each end user. There’s no right answer, that becomes a personal preference. I think we’re all glad that the worst JJ Abrams style destructive flares are gone now.
The tricky thing about lens quality when looking at such heavy processing, it comes with pros and cons. Google’s software does an awesome job of scrubbing out fringing and ghosting, but sometimes the structure and sharpening look really unnatural. It’s HDR right? So, if the cleanest shot of a burst has some motion blur, the camera will still try to apply structure and sharpening filters. And parts of a face might look crisp, and smeared, at the same time.
The RAW files give us a better indication of what the lens can really do, and unsurprisingly, it’s about the same quality of performance we’ve been seeing since the Galaxy S7, with some small refinements over the years to improve performance at larger apertures.
Macro / Bokeh
But one of the best ways to stress test a camera lens, is work right up close. The Pixel is an upper average performer for Macro shots. A regular close focusing distance, no ultra wide to use as a super macro lens. Using a touch of zoom can help close the distance, and highlight your subject.
It’s a nice soft bokeh when working at the closest focusing distance, but Again, HDR stacking and auto processing can work against us. If your subject is just a bit farther away from minimum focusing distance, that structure and sharpening will try to enhance the background of your shot. I don’t want branches behind a flower to be more identifiable, they start to compete for attention behind my subject. And again, I can’t control for that. The camera will decide when and how it applies filters, or I can only work off the RAW photos.
When you can’t shoot at macro distances, Google includes a software cutting background blur mode. Google’s portrait option delivers some of the best subject identification I’ve ever seen. From the rear camera, I haven’t seen a cutting error yet. The only thing I wish we had was a more natural focus fall off, like the depth tracking we got on the Nokia 9. More layers of distance and blur information, and consumers will have a functional replacement for nicer standalone cameras. We’re getting really close.
Sadly, the selfie camera doesn’t perform nearly as well. This needs another update or three. Seeing that halo around the subject is a bummer. I expect this will be adjusted for, but it’s something we would have expected to see perform better out of the box.
Minus white balance, the Pixel is pretty well behaved in lower light conditions. Again, performance at night is comparable against other phones using always on HDR modes. The software processing will leave in a bit of grain and noise to balance detail against a faster set of exposures. I really like that it’s not wrecking a shot to scrub out all the noise, and then produce that gross cartoony look of over sharpening what’s left.
Color and white balance can be problematic in really challenging conditions, but an out of the pocket candid shot is what this phone excels at in any lighting condition.
When you do have the opportunity to sit and stage your composition, Google popularized a night mode, and it’s still one of the better solutions for a handheld longer exposure.
It’s another step less predictable for all the auto processing, returning to our creepy gate, it scrubs out even more color info from the light, to find a bright white on the gate which REALLY doesn’t exist. This gate is not that white.
Many competing phones are offering some kind of night mode now, but Google’s is still near the top of the heap for making night look as close to day as we can from a phone.
New for this year, if you set the phone up on a tripod, you’ll have access to an astro photography mode. For how streamlined the camera is, an advanced feature like this is poorly buried in the menu options, and suffers terrible conveyance. I doubt the people who Google is claiming to make this phone for, will know where it is or how to activate this mode.
I wish I could test this better, but even up in the hills, there’s way too much light pollution to get a good star capture. The capture is impressive though, how a phone can sample the scene for almost five minutes, and balance that against the rotation of the earth. In a traditional long exposure, 30 seconds or longer, stars start to become streaks not pinpoints of light. I REALLY want to take this phone camping, and see what this mode can really do.
Google also excels at focus and subject tracking. It’s one of the best features of this camera, never gets enough praise, but tap on a subject once, and even when you switch around in a handful of modes, the camera will try to follow what you originally focused on. It’s a huge innovation, delivered in the simplest “take it for granted” kind of package.
I really can’t stress this enough. Delivering a feature this advanced, which completely blends into the background of how a consumer uses the product, something the user doesn’t need to consider or think about, is a supremely difficult coding challenge, and Google nailed it with autofocus.
The future of technology will not lie in making flashy things to impress us. The future of tech will be incorporating gadgets into our lives in ways where we don’t even notice they are assisting us.
And Google is attempting to do that with zoom. They’re just a bit clumsier here.
Remember. Smoothness. Every decision is balanced against “smooth”. Managing the transition from standard view to zoom is smoother than switching from standard to wide. If we’re going to make this feel like it’s one constant action, no interruption, then the zoom makes sense.
Google wants to prune every setting, every option, and ANY interruption which might pause the user experience. Ultra-wide doesn’t currently fit in that equation, and Qualcomm’s chipset doesn’t really offer good support for triple cameras. The support for dual cameras is still kinda weak.
And Google is correct, this is the smoothest action I’ve yet used on a phone moving to the zoom. There’s almost no perceiveable change in performance, there’s very little dance between the two sensors interrupting your composition, and again, we just take that smoothness for granted in how it blends into the background of the experience.
It takes a ton of work to push us that little bit smoother. Making it look this easy isn’t easy. But it’s easier for techies to whinge on about the phone lacking an ultra-wide. An ultra-wide most reviewers acted like was no big deal when LG was the only option.
Oh, but now iGalaxies have ultra wides? DEAL BREAKER.
Google’s zoom is slick. You do shift to a smaller sensor at around two times zoom, and google’s software helps tremendously. Filling in the gaps, improving on the weaknesses of that smaller sensor. But even Google can’t completely fight physics and lens clarity. At the far end of the zoom, image quality is still going to look like a water color. It’s in the medium range of this zoom, you’ll see really well behaved performance.
No HDR – No AI
This is the section where I would normally talk about HDR and then AI modes, but that’s the whole phone. So for a minute or two, I’m just going to side by side some raw and jpeg photos. You can see some of those processing differences. I’ll check back in after a couple comparisons.
Moving on to panoramas performance is great, but I still don’t like the zooming out effect when capturing a panorama. As you need to line up the shot, the shot is zooming away from you and getting smaller. It looks clever, but is an exceedingly dumb way to compose a wide shot.
Google’s fine detail stitching though is absolutely insane. This is the new champ for the street scene, not only nailing all the powerlines, but continuing the way they’re curving through the scene, without a single bump or distortion. I’ve never seen that before.
Exposure leans a bit bright, but it’s a well balanced look considering a 180 degree panorama will often include the sun. Unlike, say a Samsung where exposure can get real weird shooting into the sun.
The lake shot is simply stunning. Perfect curves, the horizon doesn’t have weird bumps in it. No stuttering. I love shooting panoramas, and Google’s performance here is fantastic.
One quick counterpoint, I’ve seen some folks say you don’t need an ultra wide if you can shoot a panorama, and that doesn’t quite work for me. While the stitching here is the best I’ve ever seen, pano shots still have problems with moving objects. We’d expect the camera to struggle with cars, but even humans walking will distort during the scan.
If this was my only memory of seeing the millennium falcon, I’d be upset at how distracting all the people on the ground were.
I hate taking selfies, and the Pixel is good, but doesn’t convince me to use a smaller front camera instead of a rear camera selfie.
At arms length we benefit from a softer depth of field blur from the rear sensor, where the front camera feels sharper and buzzier.
There’s only so much software can do to fight the physics of light. And the Pixel fights the fight well, but this is still not how I would prefer to capture or preserve memories. Not when it’s so easy to line up that square housing and shoot off that rear sensor.
The video off this front camera doesn’t inspire much confidence either. A fairly standard 1080p, respectable stabilization, but it wouldn’t be my first pick for a walk and talk vlog.
Sticking with video, there’s been much gnashing of teeth over the lack of high frame rate UHD video. We know this hardware is capable of 60 frame per second video, but it seems the choke point again is Qualcomm and the snap dragon.
Again, how do you create a video camera with no noticeable interruption between two different camera sensors? Those two cameras need to shoot at the same time. And that seems to be the lock Google placed on the Pixel 4. This chipset has no issues capturing 30 frame per second UHD from two sources, it’s a no-go doing that at 60 frames per second.
I feel like I’m repeating myself here, but the user should never perceive that anything has changed. From 1.9 times zoom to 2.1 times zoom, there’s a barely noticeable pop as the phone shifts the viewfinder over, and many people will miss that pop as just a part of the hand shake from holding the phone. It’s barely a twitch.
Google made a decision. There should be as few things to manage as possible. The user shouldn’t be concerned with any operation other than pointing the camera in the right direction. That’s it.
Now, I’m glad techies are starting to care about higher quality video, but I felt like I was alone out there for years. Pushing 4K on the Note 4 and the V10. Thanks to phones like the V20, no moment of my daughters life has been captured below UHD except for slow motion video.
I guess first world smartphone consumers, who can afford premium phones, good cloud storage, and a back up hard drive, just hate their families. Only thing I can think of for why they wouldn’t want to capture their memories in the highest possible quality. If you shoot 1080p, you hate your family.
Why are you booing me? I’m right! If you’re complaining in my comments, why waste time whining at me when you could be helping your family and friends shoot better video. My family loves each other, and I make sure they shoot 4K.
4K video, HEVC, now gadget nerds care about 4K 60 because Apple did it. It certainly wasn’t a deal breaker at the beginning of the year. And no one seems to care about LG delivering AMAZING high frame rate video even with the limitations of the Snapdragon chipset.
But for someone who does care about pushing the limits of video creation on a phone, it is a bummer we don’t have an option to toggle on the Pixel 4. It just flies in the face of Google’s philosophy here. There’s no way to do 4K 60 seamlessly, so the Pixel 4 won’t do it at all. You’d need to disable hardware zoom, and have an extra option consumers would have to interact with in a menu, some way to explain what the differences are, and that’s not gonna work here. Google is cutting every extra option and mode that they can.
But while I make fun of specs nerds and tech reviewers, I do have a word for google as well. The explanation that “most people still shoot 1080p” is factually accurate, but a terrible excuse. Out of the box, new premium phones should shoot UHD. Most nicer mid-rangers should default to 4K. What are you paying for? What’s the point of improving the performance and the camera every year, if out of the box we encourage most consumers to shoot the same quality video we’ve been able to capture for almost a decade now.
Dear Google, this is not how you lead. A market LEADER does not look at what consumers can currently do, and just give them that. A market LEADER shows consumers how they can do better than what they currently have.
At once I think the Pixel 4XL completely delivers on the experience most consumers will want from it. And I completely understand some of the ire aimed at this phone. It’s stuck inbetween huge expectations, and Google is doing a terrible job explaining why they’ve made certain decisions. So, it looks bad when you have limited storage options on the phone, you lose a perk like unlimited full quality cloud storage, and some camera features are locked when competing android phones can deliver high frame rate options.
That’s a delicate path to navigate, and like many other companies this year, Google’s PR isn’t quite getting the message across.
What I can’t complain about though, the stabilization is still top notch. Software stabilization is a tricky thing to get right, and when the user tries to hold still, few phones will deliver a video shot that looks like it’s on a tripod.
The issues remain with pixels at night though, when the shutter speed is wide open at 1/30th of a second, you’ll see blurry frames, and buzzy transitions. But I want you to look at the light reflection on the creepy tunnel. That’s what my hands are doing. The video is incredibly smooth.
If you want to take a deeper dive on stabilization, and improving the quality of your video, I have a separate tutorial on how to use manual modes to capture smoother and cleaner video, but of course you can ONLY do that out of the box on LG and Sony phones. Not even Filmic can consistently deliver true pro video capture across all phones and all camera sensors.
Another happy discovery, Google is starting to take audio capture more seriously. The mics and noise rejection on the Pixel 4 are substantially better than where we were in years past.
There’s a brighter more vibrant quality around music and human speech. And these mics seem to be capturing a wider dynamic range. Especially in louder environments and concert situations, we get peakier, but we’re able to keep a prettier audio signal going before distorting. I have some samples on the Patreon which I can’t upload here because of potential copyright, but it’s pretty impressive.
What used to be one of the pixel’s strengths, the rest of the market has caught up or surpassed Google. Slow motion is fine, it’s just sort of normal good. No fancy burst modes, no better options or control. It’s good. I was just hoping to see some improvement or new features. Google kept this mode simple too.
And that brings us to the app and camera performance.
Google cut everything they could out of this phone. The main modes on the right. A floating panel slides in from the left, and then just the photo and video basics are left in the options. Again, a 3A will have a few more options to control for photography. Like white balance, which the pixel 4 could really benefit from.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that this phone is incredibly smooth in it’s intended operation. I really don’t think we could make a point and shoot shooter much easier without loosing more functionality. Snappy, quick, and accessible.
The issue for performance, this phone does a TON of computational lifting in the background, and it’s not hard to prompt a thermal warning in hot weather.
90 degree heat in los angeles, and it took me a while to figure out, that bursting three or four sample photos and then shooting a 4K video sample was running the phone twice as hard. If you shoot heavy, this phone starts to feel a little like a faster Nokia 9. If you immediately check a shot, you’ll see the phone is still processing it in the background.
Shooting those sample photos and then shooting a video immediately, the phone was still chewing up the photos while I was dumping 4K video on top. Add in the fancy fabric case, which seems to insulate the phone, and very quickly into capturing samples, Viewfinder got choppy, a thermal warning popped up on the screen, and a few videos got stuttery.
This phone doesn’t seem to have any advanced thermal hardware, where a V50 will never stutter under heavy use, the pixel seems primed for a much more casual audience.
Happily, this is one of the few phones I’ve used, where playing audio won’t get interrupted by shooting video. I listen to podcasts while I shoot, and even with the phone running hot, it wouldn’t pause playback to capture the video. Kinda neat.
One last point, I’m not sold on the highlight and lowlight sliders. Considering the push towards simplifying, dual sliders require more fiddling. This seems to complicate what should be a quick adjustment. Tap to focus, and slide up or down for brightness is fast. Tap to focus, slide the highlights, slide the shadows, check the viewfinder, doesn’t really seem to make this any easier. I’m a creature of habit, but spot metering and adjusting one slider seems better to me.
The Wrap Up
But that’s enough rambling from me, let’s wrap this up. Where’s that leave us with the cameras on the Pixel 4XL.
Reviewing a camera is NEVER a binary decision, winner / loser, or a one number score.
- What are the manufacturer claims?
- How has the phone improved over previous models?
- How does it stack up against the competition?
Google’s claims here seem pretty modest. They’re trying to make the easiest to use camera for causal smartphone shooters. By that metric, this is one of the best “shutter button” solutions in the mobile market. Tech reviewers keep reviewing phones, hiding behind the idea of “average consumers” and then freak out when Google really does focus on “average consumer” use.
You spent all that time demonizing manual modes, hyping up the iPhone, and acting like Samsung’s pivot towards less functionality was a good thing, this is the end result of streamlining.
Why are you booing them? Google is correct.
If we let the market indicate what features consumers use the most, this is the camera we will receive. Instead of using our reviewing platforms as ways to educate consumers how to get more for their money, techies keep pointing to the lowest denominator use. Don’t act like reviewers have been champions of functionality and features. I’ve been on the receiving end of naysayers since I’ve started reviewing phone cameras.
Case in point, how does the Pixel stack up against the competition?
The iPhone 11 pro is capable of doing more. Has that wide angle shooter people seem to care about NOW, but out of the box, it’s kinda the same experience. The only exception being 4K 60 video.
So here’s what we have to believe listening to tech reviews.
MOST AVERAGE CONSUMERS don’t use advanced camera modes, will rarely ever look at the settings in a camera app, almost never install third party camera apps, and only ever want to push a shutter button.
But at the same time, the pixel 4 camera is “garbage” because it doesn’t have 4K 60 – which most people won’t activate, and it doesn’t have a wide angle camera, which was never worth it on LG and Huawei phones, before Samsung and Apple adopted them.
For $1000, the smaller iPhone 11 Pro is going to cut your storage in half, and won’t offer much additional photography performance over a Pixel 4XL.
It’s really convenient to cherry pick “pro performance” when it helps a popular brand, but let’s not pretend any of this ever mattered until it became a way to trash the pixel.
Apple is making grand "Professional" claims with their camera, which can’t be realized without professional accessories, and a different camera app like filmic. Maybe also a small film crew.
Google is making a completely different claim in delivering the easiest to use point and shoot solution.
Out of the box, at the same price, Google arrives much closer to their claimed performance than Apple does.
Apple gives you more room to grow, but from years of being an LG and Sony fan, other reviewers keep telling me that potential doesn’t matter.
The Pixel will never be a camera for me, but this is an incredibly easy camera to recommend to folks looking for the most streamlined option in the android ecosystem. Someone out there wants a nicer premium phone, with first party Google software support, and a crazy clean camera. We should debate how broad that potential consumer audience might be, but for those consumers, it won’t get better than a Pixel 4.
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