After an incredibly protracted drip-feed of hints and leaks over the course of several months, Google finally showed the Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL phones to the world. You may have already watched the livestream on Tuesday morning or read our stories about it, but I actually went to the event and tried them out for myself.
I can’t give you my full, comprehensive thoughts on the two phones just yet. Specifically, you’ll have to wait for a more detailed analysis of the new camera features. But at first glance, the new Pixel phones make big leaps in hands-free accessibility that don’t always seem to work 100 percent correctly.
Face the future
From a pure usability standpoint, the most drastic change between older Pixel phones and the Pixel 4 line is the switch from fingerprint sensing to facial detection for unlocking the phone. This, obviously, is not a revolutionary feature; iPhones have had it for a couple of years and that’s going to be a popular point of comparison in Pixel 4 reviews.
I got some time to mess with a Pixel 4 XL at the event and I can confirm that the facial unlock feature seems to work exactly as intended. Without the benefit of a direct, 1:1 comparison, I can say it seems slightly faster than the same feature on an iPhone, but I’ll need additional testing to totally verify that. Still, it’s extremely quick, just like everything else about the Pixel 4 seems to be.
That said, I don’t love that it seems to be the only option for unlocking the phone, and I assume some other people will feel the same way. There’s something to be said for being able to open a phone while it’s in your hand without needing to look directly at it. It’s not a dealbreaker by any means, but more options are always good.
Swiping in the air
One of the other big new features I got to try, and one I’m not especially hot on, is Motion Sense. Google claims the Pixel 4 is the first smartphone with radar built in, which allows the phone to sense when the user is nearby. It also allows people to interact with the phone without actually touching it; instead, they use gestures in the air.
Even if the phone isn’t unlocked, it’ll dimly display the time and some notification icons as long as you’re close to it. That part is cool. What I don’t like so much is the gesture system, which allows you to swipe left and right to switch between songs in Spotify, for instance.
Put simply, I had a hard time getting this to work consistently during my demo. I really appreciate that there’s a small band of light at the top of the screen showing where the sensor thinks your hand is, but sometimes it inexplicably wouldn’t register my swipes. I’m not going to rake the Pixel 4 over the coals for this just yet, as it’s very possible I just need to get used to Motion Sense first.
One thing I will say is that it worked pretty well with this nifty little Pokémon demo they made for the event. There was barely anything to it, but you could summon one of a few Pokémon and wave your hand around to make them react. It was cute and the sound of Pikachu reacting to tech journalists echoed throughout the hands-on area for hours.
The last new feature I got to try somewhat extensively was the new voice transcription option in the Recorder app. This is, admittedly, more interesting to journalists than most of the general population, but speech-to-text (and vice versa) are more importantly great for those who are hard of hearing.
The Recorder app will transcribe everything it hears in real-time, which you can choose to look at while you’re talking. Even in a noisy environment, its speech recognition was remarkably sharp and didn’t make any errors that I could see.
There’s also a “live caption” feature that will do its best to transcribe any video or audio the phone plays into closed captions. I didn’t get to see a ton of this, but I was given a short demo and it seemed like it genuinely worked well. The best part is that both features, as far as I could tell, spit out transcriptions that are fully searchable, so you can easily find a specific moment in a recording.
Face unlock and motion gestures were neat, but the transcription features were the most impressive. We wish every device could do this.