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One of the Pixel 4’s best new features isn’t as good as we thought

Published Oct 23rd, 2019 7:31AM EDT
Pixel 4 Specs vs. iPhone 11
Image: Zach Epstein for BGR

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The Pixel 4 has several features that aren’t available on other competing smartphones, the iPhone 11 included. The Motion Sense radar is unique in the industry, allowing users to interact with the phone using only gestures — well, it’s just one type of gesture for the time being. The brand new Google Assistant is easily one of the Pixel 4 highlights, and it’ll be a while until it makes it to other Android devices. The Pixel 4 screen, which received top marks just like the iPhone 11 and Galaxy Note 10, does have one advantage over its rival, and that’s a higher 90Hz refresh rate. Only 2019 OnePlus phones, as well as gaming Android phones, come with similar or better screen technology. But it turns out the Pixel 4 has a particular way of making that 90Hz screen work, one that you might not necessarily appreciate. Until Google fixes the matter — if a fix is being considered — there is a way to patch the whole thing yourself.

A Redditor asked whether the Pixel 4’s Smooth Display actually turns off when the screen is at 50% brightness, before confirming the threshold is actually higher. If screen brightness falls below 75%, which might happen when you use the phone indoors, the 90Hz refresh rate automatically switches to 60Hz, which isn’t ideal:

75% upon further inspection. Confirmed by monitoring logs via ADB. It could explain A LOT. Like battery discrepancies in reviews and reviewers complaining about being locked at 60hz without knowing why.


Mishaal Rahman also confirmed the findings by looking at code:

If you’re looking for quick fixes, Droid-Life has one. Just go into developer settings and forcing 90Hz to be always-on.

The second fix is simpler, but it’s also more annoying. If you have Ambient EQ enabled on the phone and enough sources of light around, you’ll be able to force 90Hz screens, and it won’t revert back to 60Hz at lower screen brightness.

It’s unclear why Google did this, but battery life concerns may have played a role. Google does say that enabling Smooth Display doesn’t guarantee a permanent 90Hz experience and that the phone will automatically raise the refresh rate from 60Hz to 90Hz “for some content,” which would also increase battery usage. Comparatively, the OnePlus 7T’s display stays at 90Hz no matter the brightness.

If Smooth Display hurts battery life on the Pixel 4, Google might never fix it. And if that’s the case, the 90Hz display might turn out to be more gimmicky than useful.

Chris Smith Senior Writer

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he brings his entertainment expertise to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises.

Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.