If you got a Pixel 4 for Christmas, you should probably return it

Literally any other phone will be better.

pixel 4 main
Christopher Hebert/IDG

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The post-Christmas return lines are usually reserved for ill-fitting sweaters, ugly ties, and maybe even a duplicate Xbox game. But this year you might want to consider returning something a little more valuable: that new Google Pixel 4 Santa brought you. Why? Because any other phone you exchange it for will be better.

I don’t say this lightly. In my review of the Pixel 4 XL, I gave it 3.5 stars and wrote, “It falls well short of nailing a top-tier phone experience.” But after another month with it, I’m now thinking I was too generous. In no uncertain terms, the Pixel 4 is the worst Pixel phone I’ve used and one of the most frustrating and confounding Android phones ever at any price. It’s buggy as hell, its battery life sucks, its update schedule flouts expectations... and those are only some of my objections.

Honestly, you’d be better off getting a discounted Pixel 3 or the fantastic Pixel 3a and saving a few hundred bucks.

pixel 4 pixel 3 size Christopher Hebert/IDG

The discounted Pixel 3 XL (left) is a better choice than the Pixel 4.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some good things about the Pixel 4. It still has the best smartphone camera around. Its biometric unlock is the most advanced in an Android phone. And Motion Sense is truly transformative—under the right circumstances. (And since publishing this article I've heard from numerous Pixel 4 fans who love their phones, so I'll be sure to update this piece is my experiences chance dramatically after the January or February security updates.) But as a whole, the Pixel 4 has enough nagging flaws, half-baked ideas, and frustrating limitations to earn it a spot near the top of your return list.

Pixel imperfect

My main problems with the Pixel 4 have nothing to do with its design, price, or specs. I could deal with its small battery, lack of storage options, and giant bezels if it was the phone it was supposed to be. The primary driver behind any Pixel phone is to showcase the finest Google and Android have to offer, and the Pixel 4 just doesn’t do that.

pixel 4 display Christopher Hebert/IDG

Android does not perform well on the Pixel 4.

It’s quite perplexing. The Pixel 4 has all of the hallmarks of a Google phone—the latest processor, a great display, the newest version of Android, a few innovative features—but something about it is just off. I’ve had more crashes, hangs, and inexplicable issues with my Pixel 4 than any other Android phone, and it’s only gotten more frustrating as time as gone on.

In fact, my review is the first I’ve written where I’ve seriously considered going back in and lowering the score (alas, PCWorld’s policy is to never do that). I experienced occasional lagginess during my testing, but since I published my review, the issues have grown: My home screen has regularly refused to load its wallpaper, the share menu is back to taking several seconds to load, and Android Auto has a habit of getting stuck in a loop of connecting and disconnecting. Palm rejection is terrible and gesture navigation still doesn’t feel natural or intuitive. 

Even something as simple as wireless charging is a nuisance. Where I can mindlessly place a phone on a charging pad with any other phone, my Pixel 4 requires far more thought and precision just to make sure its coil is aligned. At first, I thought I was just being careless, but it’s more than that. Several times I woke up to a depleted phone before I learned to pay better attention to its placement. That’s not an issue I’ve ever experienced with another phone.

android vs iphone scattered Christopher Hebert/IDG

Any other premium Android phone will have better battery life than the Pixel 4.

Speaking of depleted, the battery life on the Pixel 4—even the XL model—is very not good. Premium phones carry an expectation of 10 to 13 hours of battery life (measuring always-on display, normal screen-on time and general use) with very little worry that you won’t make it through a full day of heavy use. The Pixel 4 doesn’t even meet the bare minimum of those expectations. I can’t remember the last time I made it from morning to night with my Pixel 4.

As I write this, I have 70 percent battery life remaining, which wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t 9 am in the morning. I’ve been awake since 6:30, so a couple hours of emails, Twitter, news, and a few games of Candy Crush have zapped 30 percent of my battery before my day even starts. (And it’s not like I was using it the whole time.) Pixels have always had smallish battery capacities, but battery life wasn’t an issue on previous Pixel phones. So, I don’t really know what the problem is, but after two updates, it hasn’t gotten any better.

And you don't have to look too far to find other people with the same problems. Some of the worst issues have been fixed with updates, but many remain—or crop up again after a few days. And Google continues to be non-committal about when fixes might arrive, only saying an update will arrive "in the coming weeks" or "soon."

Squandered advantages

Let’s talk about those updates. If there’s one thing that previous Pixel phones have had above all other Android phones, it’s the guarantee that they’ll stay fresh years after you buy them. Google promises three years of security updates and two years of Android version updates, and most of the time the Pixel truly felt like the iPhone of Android when OTA updates would arrive as soon as they were available.

That hasn’t been the case with the Pixel 4. Thus far, there have been two monthly updates (November and December), and neither arrived on the first day. Or the tenth day. I got the November update nearly three weeks after Google released it and the December update on Dec. 13. Honestly, that’s about as long as it takes for the Galaxy S10 to get its updates.

galaxy s10 back Christopher Hebert/IDG

The Galaxy S10 is receiving updates nearly as quickly as the Pixel 4.

And once again, there’s no explanation. Updates to the other three Pixel phones all arrived early in the month, but the phone that needs it the most also waits the longest. The Pixel 4 should be the priority, but it’s anything but. So if the OS is wonky and updates don’t arrive in time, what’s the point of keeping the Pixel phone when there are any number of phones that are cheaper and better looking?

And that’s not to mention the launch-day issues that haven’t been fixed, such as G Suite accounts blocking the new Google Assistant and Face unlock’s inability to recognize when eyes are open. Or the simple fact that only a very small number of apps support facial recognition for authentication. Outside of password managers, very few developers have signed on to support Face unlock, leaving the Pixel 4 without a biometric authentication method and thus, less secure than other phones.

So if you want the best camera but don’t mind slow updates, occasional crashes, poor biometrics, and horrendous battery life. Otherwise, return it and buy something else. Anything else.

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