Fast Charge: What the Pixel 4’s camera needs to beat the iPhone 11

With the imminent arrival of the Google Pixel 4, the phone camera wars are about to become seriously heated...

Google has always sold its Pixel phones on the strength of its onboard camera – obviously, with a name like Pixel, it’s front and centre for importance – but Apple has not been shy about doing that either. 

For Google, the Pixel’s strengths have always centred around computational photography and artificial intelligence to deliver excellent results in a number of situations, such as low light and portraits. 

However, with the introduction of the iPhone 11 series, Apple has really brought its A game and not only upped the ante with regards to “computational photography mad science” (Apple’s words, not mine), but has also improved the hardware with a triple lens setup.

As someone who has used all of the recent Pixels, as well as several generations of iPhone (not to mention Huawei and Samsung too), I’ve always had a little bit of a soft spot for Google’s efforts. They’re simple to use and produce excellent results – but I’d still like to see the company take it up a notch for the next release.

Here’s what I think the Pixel 4 needs to do to beat the iPhone 11 (and possibly even the iPhone 11 Pro).

Related: Pixel 4: Release date, price, camera – all the rumours

Google Pixel 4 design confirmed

1. Lenses – At least two

Up until now, the Pixel has relied on just a single lens – with excellent computational photography stepping in to sort out things like digital zoom and portrait mode. But one lens is starting to look a little bit old hat in the current market where even budget models are toting two or even three lenses. 

Rumours suggest that a telephoto lens will be appearing for the first time on a Pixel phone, which would be a very welcome addition and will undoubtedly perform better than a digital zoom. Although I don’t think it’a going to happen, I’d also love to see an ultra wide angle lens also making an appearance – or for Google to go down the Apple route and sacrifice a telephoto for an ultrawide. It’s something that you can’t really mimic with artificial intelligence and gives you a whole new perspective on many different scenes. 

Apple has proven it can do an ultra-wide angle lens very well in both the iPhone 11 and the iPhone 11 Pro, while it’s also something that the latest round of Huawei and Honor phones have had for some time, too. 

Rumours: Pixel 4 second camera mystery may have been solved

Google Pixel 4

2. Camera Modes – Manual transmission

It’s either a plus point or a minus point depending on your point of view, but the Pixel (indeed much like the iPhone) has always kept its native camera app as stripped back and simple as possible. The positive there is that you can just point and shoot with confidence, knowing that AI will do the job for you. 

However, as a professional photographer, I’d love to see some kind of advanced or professional mode – even if it’s slightly hidden away. While I trust the Pixel to get things right in the majority of situations, having the option to make my own artistic choices if nothing else helps my own ego – we can’t have algorithms make all the decisions for us.  Considering Apple also keeps things simple, this would be one sure-fire way to elevate the Pixel above the iPhone 11, and I’m confident other enthusiasts would feel the same. 

That aside, there are rumours which suggest that some extra point-and-shoot modes including Motion Sense could be coming our way, which would also be a welcome addition. 

pixel 4 night sight leak

Night Sight has reportedly been improved for the Pixel 4 | Image credit: 9to5Google

3. Low Light Sight – Going deeper than Deep Fusion?

Google’s fantastic Night Sight impressed me a lot in the Pixel 3 and the Pixel 3a – it did a great job of keeping detail, while also producing on-the-whole natural colours. 

Apple finally got up to speed by introducing an automated night mode for its iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro, while Deep Fusion is apparently going to blow us away with its low light powers when that’s fully released later in the year. 

That means it’s no longer enough for Google to simply be ‘very good’ in this area – it needs to the best. As such, I’m hoping, or expecting, the next generation of Night Sight to be seriously improved.

Perhaps the Pixel 4 will be able to use information from both of its lenses to produce clearer and sharper low-light images than ever before, with hints that astrophotography (taking pictures of stars) might even be a possibility.

Rumours: Astrophotography and more

4. Video – Improvements and editing

At the keynote launch of the iPhone 11 series, Apple claimed that its new models delivered the best video on a smartphone ever. It’s hard to argue too much with that summation with 4K at 60fps and a wide range of editing tools available in camera. 

The Pixel 3 is capable of shooting 4K at 30fps, so I’d expect to see 60fps making an appearance on the new model, plus some improvements to its overall handling of colour. Further to that, I’d love to see more comprehensive editing tools to give you options for tweaking on the go.

Google Pixel 4 sample photos

Image credit: 9to5Google

5. Selfies – Less distortion, more detail

Love them or hate them, selfie cameras are one of the most important aspects of any smartphone in 2019 – and I’ve to see Google being the leader in this field. 

The Pixel 3 already does a reasonably good job of producing shallow depth of field effects, but I’d like to see these be even more convincing and to be slightly less distorted, too. 

Rumours suggest that the Pixel 4 will have just one selfie camera (rather than the two found on the Pixel 3) – but I expect Google will have some AI-based magic, or possibly even additional sensors – to help it produce the goods. 

Rumours: Google Pixel 4 will take selfies and portrait shots to the next level, sample photos show

Google Pixel 4

6. Surprises – Google’s secret machine learning sauce

Google likes to throw in a couple of surprises with its launches, perhaps this year we might see an unexpected expansion of Night Mode to offer some astrophotography wizardry, but what I’d really like to see is something a little more practical, too. 

An organiser to help the pictures that I take for reference, for example – I don’t want to have to scroll through all my visual notes when I’m trying to get to my photographic, ahem, masterpieces – so surely Google could come up with something to help me out here. 

My colleague has already come up with a natty name for this in the feature below: Super Photo Organiser. OK, it’s not that great, but it does what it says on the tin. Come on Google! 

Related: The Pixel 4 needs this camera feature – and it has nothing to do with photography

Pixel 3 XL

7. Photo Editing – A much bigger toolkit

One of the great new features of the iPhone 11 the varied set of photo editing that you can do directly from Apple’s native app – without the need to install anything else. Particularly impressive is being able to adjust perspective and distortion in a simple and straightforward way. 

As it stands, the Pixel 3 does offer some basic editing tools, mainly features such as cropping and rotating and the like, but Google could utilise what it does best (computational wizardry) with a suite of editing tools that could do all sorts to improve your images after the fact.  Could we perhaps even see something akin to Photoshop’s “content aware” tools to get rid of pesky tourists and the like from your holiday snaps? 

Perhaps not, but I can dream. 

8. Storage – More love for memory cards

I’d love to see the next Pixel including a memory card slot for those of us who like to take a lot of photos and video. Google will argue that you can store your files on Google Photos, but being a little old fashioned, I’d also like to have a physical store for them too. 

In truth, I’d love to see this from Apple too – but I simply can’t envisage a day when Apple allows you to expand your storage without charging an extortionate price for it.

iphone 11 colours

9. Price – Undercutting the iPhone 11

Of course, we don’t have a confirmed price yet for the Pixel 4, but it’s likely to be more in line with the iPhone 11, than the iPhone 11 Pro. While in theory that means it’ll go more squarely head-to-head with Apple’s “budget” offering, if it manages to pull a special camera out of the bag it could arguably also be a real rival for the iPhone 11 Pro, too. 

Latest rumours suggest the Pixel 4 will retail for between £640 – £730 (depending on in-built memory), while its bigger version, the Pixel 4 XL is likely to set you back between £730 – £830.

It looks like we won’t have too long to wait to find out what comes true (and what doesn’t). With Huawei’s future looking decidedly more bleak as time passes on, it’s up to Google and Samsung to provide a credible alternative to iOS – is it Pixel’s time to shine?

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