The Google Pixel 4 XL Review: Stuck In The Past In 2019by Andrei Frumusanu on November 8, 2019 11:30 AM EST
Camera - Daylight Evaluation
Naturally, the main selling point of the Pixel series is the phone’s camera(s). Google puts a lot of thought into the software processing of the Pixel’s camera and it’s able to differentiate itself by means of software trickery. The Pixel 4 this year upgrade the main camera sensor to a new unit which features better noise handling and dynamic range, and Google also claims to have improved the HDR+ algorithm for daylight pictures. Let’s see if this pans out.
In the first scene, the one thing that immediately pops out is that the Pixel 4’s colour temperature is a lot warmer than the Pixel 3’s. Unfortunately, this is a degradation as the scene is too warm and the sky starts to become far to grey compared to the actual scene.
The composition and exposure is otherwise extremely similar to that of the Pixel 3, which again for this particular scene, isn’t good because it’s far too dark and the scene is lacking highlights. Looking at the histogram of the picture we see there’s barely any content in the last 20% of the levels even though we’re capturing this on a clear sky with bright sun. The left building in particular is very muted on the Pixel compared to the more representative results of the iPhone 11 or Galaxy S10.
On the new telephoto lens, colour temperature is also off. The exposure and composition is extremely similar to the iPhone 11 here, both suffering from limited dynamic range compared to the S10.
Cropping on the viewfinder and taking super resolution zoom photos, we can see that the Pixel 4 XL does better than other phones with just 2x optical magnification, however when viewing the picture at its native resolution we still clearly see we’re a ways off from achieving equivalence to a higher optical magnification module such as the 3x zoom module on the Mate 30 Pro.
Detail on both the main and telephoto cameras are comparable and competitive with the best phones out there.
In this shot, the Pixel 4 is able to showcase its higher dynamic range compared to the Pixel 3. The phone has better exposure and the shadows are much better defined. It’s still behind the iPhone and in particularly the S10’s, at least the Snapdragon variant as the Exynos fell flat on its face with the local tone mapping of the HDR processing.
The colour temperature of the telephoto again is off here as it’s much too warm and the highlights are again a bit weak given the sunlight.
In the maximum zoom at 8x, again, the Pixel 4 is able to showcase an advantage in quality over other 2x units such as from Samsung and Apple, but the benefit is relatively limited as it again falls behind Huawei’s 3x module.
While maintaining a relatively similar signature, the Pixel 4 here is able to showcase better dynamic range compared to the Pixel 3; it’s able to more accurately resolve the trees in the scene and actually capture the leaves while the P3’s shadows were quite crushed. The iPhone does better with the foreground brightness while the Snapdragon S10 further has the best dynamic range in the background elements.
Again for the telephoto module, Google’s super zoom is a benefit along with the 16MP higher resolution sensor, however it’s again not comparable to a sensor with higher magnification.
This shot was taken facing the sun which is always a very tough situation for most cameras. Google’s worst attribute here is again the colour temperature is warmer than it should be and also a degradation compared to the Pixel 3. We notice the much-improved dynamic range in the shadows. Google here opts to raise the shadows more while Apple was better able to supress the halo of the sun. Samsung still remains ahead as it’s able to do both. We see similar results in the telephoto shots.
The scene here had a lot of contrast in it comparing the sunlit left side versus the dark and shadow-cast right. It’s a good example of the differences between the shadow handling between the Pixel 4 and 3. Previously, the Pixel 3 would just clip things to black with too dark shadows, whilst the Pixel 4 is making efforts to actually retain the scene. This hits some limits as we’re seeing extremely pronounced noise in the P4’s result. Samsung has issues with shadows on the S10/S while the S10/E has very blurry details. Apple and Huawei both have the best overall results.
Facing away from the sun the results aren’t quite as drastically different. The Pixel 4 is competitive but I think the iPhone produces the overall best results here.
The Pixel 3’s sky here is again just more blue and in line with what other phones are capturing, whilst the P4’s rendition is warmer.
The Pixel 4’s most obvious change here is again better shadow renditions and more visible presence of the trees. Again very conservative conservation of highlights compared to Apple and Samsung, most notable in the trees and leaves.
The forest is also a strenuous test for detail retention. The Pixel phones here have the best behaviour as they do not suffer from HDR merging issues or from degrading noise reduction filters, and are able to retain the details of the leaves throughout the scene.
In this next shot in easier indoor lighting, differences between the phones again diminish. Again for me the issue here is again colour temperature as things are yet again too warm and the yellows are too strong.
The Pixel 4’s dynamic range here is again evident as it’s able to much better preserve the shadows. The composition and colours are very close to the iPhone 11.
Camera Daylight Conclusion
Overall, the Pixel 4’s camera performance was a relatively mixed bag for me. The biggest downside in my opinion was that the phone had a ton of scenarios where it simply got the colour temperature wrong. This is a bit ironic because it’s one of the key points Google made about the new Pixel 4 camera software which is meant to use machine learning to better identify scenes. I just didn’t see the benefit in my time with the phone and more often than not it reproduced more inaccurate colours than the Pixel 3.
Where the P4 definitely made a big upgrade is in the dynamic range ability of the new sensor. The P2 and P3’s lack of shadow detail was for me the one of the phone’s largest weaknesses as I just wasn’t very fan of the captures. There’s actually a lot of people who were fan of this look because it looked more “contrasty”, with some vendors such as OnePlus even going as far as degrading their cameras in software updates and destroying shadow detail just to copy the past Pixel’s look. I’m really glad that Google has fixed this aspect of the Pixel camera and I think it’s a notable upgrade for the picture quality.
In terms of detail, the Pixel 4 does very well. There’s not much difference to the P3, and you’d also have to go pixel peeping to see major differences compared to Apple and Samsung. There’s going to be more differences in the HDR tone-mapping, and Google is falling behind a bit in terms of the dynamic range it can capture compared to the competition.
The telephoto module on the Pixel 4 is ok. A lot of the times it suffered similar colour temperature issues as the main sensor, and it’s also quite weaker in dynamic range compared to the S10 and iPhone 11’s telephoto cameras. The detail of the 16MP sensor is very good, and the inclusion of super zoom does improve digital zooming results, however I wouldn’t say it goes far enough as to it being a definitive competitive advantage as it’s not that major in terms of quality leap – Huawei’s 3x telephoto unit for example is clearly a better sensor.
My biggest problem with the Pixel 4 camera was the capture experience. The phone really needed to somehow impress me with the telephoto module in order for me to be able to rationalise Google’s decision of not adopting an ultra-wide-angle lens. The best anecdote I can talk about here is my own experience at Google’s launch event in New York. As I was visiting the city and walking down the streets with the Pixel 4 in one pocket and the S10 in the other, I found myself taking essentially all my shots with the S10, with most of them using the UWA simply because the city’s impressive buildings and skyline was just impossible to capture and properly frame on a regular angle camera module. LG, Samsung, and Apple all have figured out that the UWA takes precedence over the telephoto module if having to make a choice between the two, and in this regard, it feels like Google is still stuck in 2017/2018, and the omission is a definitive mistake for the Pixel 4.