Could the Pixel 4 sway a loyal iPhone user?

25 Oct 2019

A photograph taken with the Google Pixel 4. Image: Kelly Earley

Can the Google Pixel 4 make an iPhone user move to Android? Well, it might just be the right phone at the wrong time, writes Kelly Earley.

I have been an iPhone user since 2013. I was an iPod Touch user long before that, with my iPod on me at all times as a companion to various Samsung and Nokia models I had until I finally acquired a second-hand iPhone 4.

The last phone I had that ran on Android was the Samsung Galaxy S Advance, a phone with a plastic touchscreen and a camera that made photographs look like they had been taken through a single-use plastic bag. It was only used for SMS and phone calls – and even then, I was often let down.

If I wanted to take a photograph, browse the internet, play games, send messages on Viber (don’t judge me, it was 2012) or listen to music, I did that on my iPod.

As the Galaxy S Advance was my last real experience with Android, I haven’t been particularly excited to return to the operating system or to Samsung, despite being well aware of the leaps and bounds that both brands have taken over the last six years.

When the Google Pixel 2 was announced, I was somewhat intrigued. I wasn’t rushing out to buy it, but it seemed like a really attractive alternative in the event that I ever got completely fed up with Apple’s battery problems, flimsy charging cables and lack of a headphone jack.

I felt similarly about the Pixel 3 and expected to feel the same way about the Pixel 4. Then, I was given a Pixel 4 XL to try out before the phone launched on 24 October. With an iPhone XR that I’m completely satisfied with and no plans to upgrade any time soon, I was slightly conflicted.

Could this be the end of my six-year honeymoon period with Apple?

Initial thoughts

The model that I managed to get my hands on had the matte white finish, which Google calls Clearly White. After just a week of regular use, it has become dirty quickly. It’s nothing that’s impossible to clean, but it’s also worth keeping in mind if you’re torn between this and another colour.

The back of the Pixel 4 XL, which is white. It has a black mark beside the camera.

Some black marks beside the camera after minor use. Image: Kelly Earley

Straight away, I thought the phone was a bit weighty, feeling somewhat heavier than my iPhone XR, despite the fact that it only weighs about 20g more.

There was a notable absence of a headphone jack on the device, despite Google’s previous digs at Apple for removing the 3.5mm jack. Suitable earphones were not included, which is one small strike against the Pixel 4 from me, but probably a thumbs up from all of the marine animals struggling to digest discarded old Apple EarPods as you read this.

I later learned that Google is offering $100 Google Store credit to those who pre-ordered the device, which can be used to purchase a set of USB-C earphones or a 3.5mm adapter.

A chart outlining the display features on both the Pixel 4 and the Pixel 4 XL.

The difference in display specs between the Pixel 4 and the Pixel 4 XL. Image: Google

While I did not dare to open this phone up to look at any of the components, reviewers at iFixit did and you can see everything inside the Pixel 4 here. They scored the phone a four out of 10 for repairability, noting that the waterproofing measures greatly complicate repairs.

Once I had turned the Pixel 4 on, I accepted that Android isn’t so bad after all. But then again, the device has been described as “more like an iPhone than any other Android phone”, which likely explains why I felt this way. After all, I’m the exact type of consumer that Google is trying to target with the Pixel 4.

Specs on the Pixel 4/Pixel 4 XL dimensions and weight, battery, memory and storage. Image: Google

Before embarking on an in-depth test of the eagerly anticipated camera, I downloaded a few basic apps and remembered how much I dislike the Google Play Store.

One of the apps I downloaded to play with was the Leap Card app, which may be an incredibly dull choice, but it always felt like the only thing I miss out on as an iPhone user. This alone was almost enough to make me want to migrate to Android.

The camera

There are a lot of assumptions people have about cameras on Android phones. You’ve likely seen the memes. From what I’ve seen over the years, Google’s Pixel line has been an exception to this.

When I tried out the new dual camera, it was immediately clear that my photographs were higher quality than the meme I have linked above, or the countless other ones involving GTA San Andreas characters.

A side-by-side comparison of the specs between the Pixel 4's camera and the Pixel 4 XL's camera.

The front and rear cameras on the Pixel 4 and the Pixel 4 XL are identical. Image: Google

Here are some photographs I took on a rainy Friday night, using the Pixel 4 XL’s 16MP rear camera.

An illuminated traffic bollard on the pavement, across the road from a Paddy Power bookmakers and a butcher's shop.

Meath Street, Dublin. Image: Kelly Earley

A red brick Georgian building with a chip shop on the ground floor. Above the door and windows of the restaurant, there is a neon sign that reads Vincenzo's. There are young boys on bikes in the doorway to the takeaway.

Vincenzo’s chipper on Thomas Street. Image: Kelly Earley

The exterior of a Spar supermarket at night time. It has yellow bricks on the walls outside and a glass front door with the shutter pulled down. The word "Spar" is illuminated on the shopfront.

Image: Kelly Earley

Make what you will of these, but I don’t think my iPhone XR holds up very well against these photos. Obviously the XR wasn’t designed to compete with the Pixel 4, but from the perspective of someone considering an upgrade, it’s probably worth taking into account the jump in quality between a device launched in 2018 and a device launched in 2019.

If you want to see a comparison between the Pixel 4 and its main rival, the iPhone 11 Pro, take a look at this review from The Verge. The Pixel definitely beats the iPhone 11 Pro in some scenarios, but the 11 Pro still holds its own in others. Neither one of these cameras seem to be miles ahead of the other.

Night Sight

While we’re on the topic of photographs taken at night time, here’s what the Pixel’s Night Sight is capable of in Dublin, a city with awful light pollution and very few stars to look at. First up, here’s a photograph taken between 7.30pm and 8pm on my iPhone XR camera.

An almost completely black photograph with an illuminated yellow window.

A photograph of a house taken in the dark on an iPhone XR. Image: Kelly Earley

And here’s a photograph taken at the exact same time on the Pixel 4 XL.

A photograph of a white house, with black roof tiles, three attic windows and a black drain pipe running down it under a blue night sky. There are clouds above it, as well as a few stars dotted around.

A photograph of a house taken in the dark on an Google Pixel 4 XL. Image: Kelly Earley

Here are some other photographs taken with Night Sight, in conditions that were almost completely black on the iPhone XR camera.

Clouds in a blue night sky over a row of white houses. Across the foreground of the photograph, there is a washing line with pegs on it.

Clouds that were not even visible on the iPhone XR camera. Image: Kelly Earley

A gutter and a washing line underneath a blue night sky with stars dotted around it.

Another photograph of the sky that was completely black on the iPhone XR camera. Image: Kelly Earley

Photographs in regular lighting conditions

Here are some other photographs that were taken on the Pixel 4 XL in better lighting conditions over the course of a weekend because, realistically, photos are going to be central to any review of this phone.

A blue sky over the Liffey. There is a concrete wall beside the river and further ahead in the picture, there is a stone bridge crossing the river. To the left, on the other side of the bridge there is a red brick building with the gable end covered in graffiti.

Liam Mellow’s Bridge. Image: Kelly Earley

A yellow sign outside a block of flats with yellow bricks. The sign says Tiomáin go Mall, which means Drive Slowly.

Bridgefoot Street. Image: Kelly Earley

A beige chihuahua with a black face lying on a grey, fluffy blanket.

A photo of my dog for good measure. Image: Kelly Earley

A young man with brown hair sits in a café drinking a coffee. He is wearing a pink t-shirt with a cartoon peach on it.

My cousin Dro, demonstrating what a human being looks like when photographed by the Pixel 4 XL. Image: Kelly Earley

While the phone’s main camera is really impressive, my opinion on the Pixel 4’s front camera isn’t as positive. The front camera is guilty of doing that ‘Android thing’ that people often joke about. It pales and smooths the subject’s face over, in a manner that is a little bit unnatural.

These photos were pretty unflattering compared to the typical selfie I’ve managed to produce on every model of the iPhone from the 5S upward. Something about the photographs on the front camera makes the subject of the photo look like a version of themselves on display in Madame Tussauds.

Is this phone enough to sway a long-time iPhone user?

If I hadn’t recently bought an iPhone XR, I seriously believe that I could have happily upgraded to the Pixel 4 XL.

While it was always going to lose points due to the Android emojis and Google app store, the lack of iMessage and general concerns about Android’s UX, the phone makes up for these shortcomings with its powerful camera, 6GB RAM and an OS that is super easy for Apple users to adapt to.

A side-by-side comparison of the processors the Pixel 4 and 4 XL are using. They both use the Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 processor with a Pixel Neural Core.

Both the Pixel 4 and the Pixel 4 XL are running on identical processors. Image: Google

While there are concerns about the phone’s facial recognition technology, it’s not the end of the world. An update is due and most people are still primarily using passcodes to unlock their phones. After a week of using this phone, I’m impressed, but not so impressed that I’m willing to part with my XR just yet.

For me, it’s the right phone at the wrong time. If this had been on the market a year ago, I’d have jumped at the opportunity to use this as my primary phone, even with the wax museum selfies.

After Apple’s latest iPhone announcement, most industry commentators were in agreement: this is the first time in the history of the iPhone where people don’t feel compelled to upgrade their phones each and every year. The necessity isn’t there, because the products have improved a great deal since the days when an iPhone 5 would randomly switch off when the battery was allegedly 54pc full.

While the Pixel 4 XL is an excellent phone and takes photographs just as well (and even better) than some of the digital cameras I have owned through the years, it’s still going to be an uphill battle for Google to pull consumers from Apple’s customer base.

Kelly Earley was a journalist with Silicon Republic