NEW YORK—Google’s big hardware event wrapped up yesterday, and, after a brief session with the Pixel 4, I’m back to report my initial findings. It’s a phone.
The feel of the Pixel 4 varies greatly based on which color you get. The black version is the most boring, with a regular glossy, greasy, glass back.
The orange and white versions are where things get interesting, though. These have the whole back covered in a soft-touch material (which is still glass) that looks and feels great. It’s reminiscent of the soft-touch back that was on the Pixel 3 but with a number of improvements. First, you can’t dent it with a fingernail. It feels a lot stronger and tougher than the Pixel 3 back, while still being soft and grippy to the touch. Second, it doesn’t seem to absorb and show fingerprint grease at the rate of the Pixel 3 back. It’s interesting that the orange and white versions get this soft-touch treatment, while the black version gets a glossy back. The black version is what had so many problems with the soft-touch coating last year.
I think the white version, in particular, looks great from the back. You get an alternating white-and-black color scheme: the sides get a grippy black soft-touch coating, the back is a brilliant white, and the square camera bump is black. It’s a lovely color scheme. The Google “G” on the back is the only thing that doesn’t get a soft-touch coating. There is actual depth to the G, making it seem like it was masked off when the soft-touch coating was applied, leaving it inset on the phone back, exposing the colored white glass.
The front is… not as elegant as the back. The Pixel 4 has a lopsided front design with a big top bezel and a smaller (but still there) bottom bezel. It’s not the worst thing in the world, but it’s still a bit awkward looking. Google’s design still can’t compete with the better-looking phones out there, like the OnePlus 7 Pro or Galaxy S10, which is a shame, since Google charges just as much, if not more, than the competition while also offering lower specs.
Those awkward bezels surround a great-looking OLED display, and this year Google has upgraded to a 90Hz panel. The demo units were running early software and maybe needed a bit more tuning, but you could see the smoother animations start to kick in. Google mentioned that the display only hits 90Hz when it’s actually being used, and for stationary pictures it drops to 60Hz to save battery.
The top bezel is full of sensors, at least, allowing Google to do a full, iPhone X-style face unlock system with 3D sensing. This is something I’ll have to wait for a review unit to try out, but it’s a bit alarming not having a fingerprint reader of any kind. We have to unlock our devices dozens of times a day—why not have both fingerprint and Face ID?
Also in the top bezel is the Project Soli sensor. About that…
Motion Sense with Project Soil—Not looking great
A very big deal was made about the Pixel 4 incorporating Project Soli, a miniaturized radar chip cooked up by Google’s “Advanced Technology and Projects” (ATAP) division. ATAP has an absolutely horrible track record when it comes to commercialization, but Soli is one of the few projects to have actually made it to market.
In the lead-up to Soli, Google demoed a technology that would discern extremely precise hand movements. Years ago, Google said Soli could detect “sub-millimeter motions at high speed and accuracy” and could detect things like tapping your thumb and index finger together for a virtual button press or rubbing the two fingers together to scroll or turn a virtual dial.
At presentation, Google said the original Soli chip, while it was a breakthrough miniaturization of radar technology, was still not small enough to fit inside a smartphone and needed to be shrunk further. It seems like this extra shrink took a lot of Soli’s accuracy—and a lot of Soli’s appeal—away, and now it seems to be only capable of detecting big, hand-waving gestures instead of the fine “sub-millimeter” motions that were originally promised.
I’ll have to play with Motion Sense some more to get a better beat on it, but so far, the first impressions are not good. Take the skipping music or dismissing an alarm gesture, where Soli has you wave your hand across the sensor: Soli needs a BIG gesture to work. It’s not a flick of the wrist; it’s a bend of the elbow. You need to wave your whole hand across the phone in a very big gesture. I’ve yet to find a way to skip songs using Soli that feels quick or effortless. The gesture is so big that it’s a cumbersome, tiring, annoying thing to do.
Maybe I haven’t gotten the hang of it yet, but I also have a very high miss rate. I’d say my gestures work about 50% of the time. At the very least, I can say Motion Sense is either not accurate or not very intuitive, given how many times I’ve already failed it. I feel I need to seek out more detailed instructions somewhere on how I am supposed to use it.
There isn’t a public SDK yet for Motion Sense, but there are some third-party apps that work with it through a limited partner program. It seems like this is the beginnings of an SDK for Soli—work with some select developers now and get feedback before locking down APIs in a formal SDK release.
The two apps available were quick, extremely limited demos. One featured app was where you… wave “hello” to a Pokemon? This was extremely simple: opening the app would display Pikachu and several other Pokemon on a plain background, and when you waved hello to them or did some other extremely simple gesture (many using the touch screen instead of the Soli sensor) they would respond with a simple animation. The “wave hello” gesture was, again, a big, arm swinging gesture. Many event attendees failed the hand-wave gesture more than once. I can’t imagine ever doing the kind of big, arm flailing motion this requires in public.
Another third-party demo app had you fly across a landscape, and an air gesture left or right would make you move left or right. It’s the exact same gesture as Pokemon and skipping music.
So far, Soli reminds me a lot of “Wii Waggle,” the old penchant for bad Nintendo Wii games to use a swinging motion input in places where a button press would have been more appropriate. All of these inputs seem silly when the touchscreen is right there, and so far I haven’t seen a reason for this technology to exist. Again, I’ll have to spend more time with it, but so far I’m unconvinced.
Since Soli is radar, it needs to be approved by various government regulatory bodies around the world in order to be used in a country. In the US that’s the FCC. A Google support page lists the countries where the Soil sensor has approval: “Currently, Motion Sense will work in the US, Canada, Singapore, Australia, Taiwan, and most European countries.” This has nothing to do with where you the phone, either. Google’s support page notes that “If you travel to a country where [Motion Sense is] not approved, it won’t work,” meaning the feature is geo-fenced based on your current location.
Can you actually buy a Pixel 4?
Google aspires to become a real hardware company, and while maybe you could make opinionated arguments for the company’s devices against Samsung or Apple, the one place Google is indisputably, woefully behind the competition is when it comes to device distribution.
First we’ll start with country availability, which has actually gotten worse with the Pixel 4. While Apple sells the iPhone in 70 countries, and Samsung sells the Galaxy S flagship in 110 countries, Google only sells the Pixel 4 in 12 countries: Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Singapore, Spain, Taiwan, the United Kingdom, and the United States. This is one less than last year, as Google has pulled its flagships Pixel 3 and Pixel 4 from the Indian market, the world’s second-largest country by population. The company hasn’t completely quit the Indian smartphone market, though—the cheaper Pixel 3a is still sold there. Shipping physical things is a lot harder than Google’s usual offerings of bits and bytes, and until Google fixes its country distribution, it is just to be a hardware company.
In the US, one big improvement is that Google dumped the misleading “Verizon exclusive” marketing. The Pixel 4 will be sold by the big four carriers: AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon. I asked around on the show floor and got a few responses indicating that the Pixel 4 would actually be in the big four carriers’ stores, too, not just “compatible” or an online-only option.