Google Pixel 4 Motion Sense Soli radar music control

I rarely buy new technology for myself. That’s partly because I work for a website that sends me technology to review, and partly because I don’t like spending money too often. But I ended up purchasing the Pixel 4 XL on launch day because (among other reasons) I was genuinely excited for Motion Sense.

Motion Sense is the Pixel 4’s gimmick. Try to explain your way out of it, but it’ll always be a gimmick. It uses some advanced radar sensors that let you do various things with your phone that you can’t do on other phones. None of these things are totally necessary to the smartphone experience. In fact, leaving Motion Sense turned on actually has a negative effect on the Pixel 4’s already bad battery, so one could argue Motion Sense is more of a detriment to the phone than a help.

But I’m here to say I like Motion Sense and I hope it sticks around through the Pixel 5.

Motion Sense is best when you don’t have to think about it

Why, Jimmy, are you revisiting Motion Sense now, three months into the Pixel 4’s life cycle? Three months is enough time for the honeymoon phase to wear completely off of the phone, so I’m no longer using certain things just for the sake of using them. However, I’ve had Motion Sense turned on since day one and I still use it.

Out of the five or six things Motion Sense enables on the Pixel 4, I only use a handful of them; but darn it, do I use them frequently. My favorites are the things that don’t really require me to do anything. When I reach over to my phone in the morning to turn off my alarm, Motion Sense enables the Pixel 4 to dim the volume so it’s not blaring and waking my wife up. It also shows the always-on display when I’m near my phone and hides it when I’m away, allowing it to save a bit of battery life. It’s the little things.

I also use that weird swiping-in-the-air gesture to switch songs from time to time. It’s not perfect and it’s not always convenient, but I leave it turned on just in case.

I know this is a thing lots of reviewers say, but buying a Pixel really is about the overall experience, not so much the specs or any one particular feature that’s miles ahead of the latest Galaxy or iPhone. Motion Sense makes the Pixel 4 smarter — like it’s listening to you and anticipating what you want out of your phone.

Features like Motion Sense keep things interesting

Motion Sense is the Pixel 4’s gimmick, and that’s why I like the Pixel 4. It shows Google wants to experiment with silly technologies that can make the overall experience that much better for the user. Is it revolutionary? Nope. Is it fun? You betcha.

I like when companies innovate — I’m not talking about the “innovation” you get when you throw a dozen gigabytes of RAM into a phone and claim to have the best performance. I’m talking about weird things companies come up with to see if they can strike gold. It’s why I’m so fond of the LG G8X and its dual display case. It’s not for everyone, but it’s a fun feature that could be something one day.

A gimmick with some negative consequences

Pixel 4 XL ports macro 1

Motion Sense isn’t perfect though. As I said, those radar sensors need to be powered by the Pixel 4’s battery, and the Pixel 4’s battery is not good. Turning off Motion Sense can save you some precious battery life. But, for the Pixel 5 and onward, I have a feeling battery life is going to be a big focus anyway for Google. Poor battery life, after all, is the single metric that stopped pretty much all reviewers from recommending the smaller Pixel 4 this year. The Pixel 5 will probably have improved battery, so Motion Sense’s battery suckage probably won’t be a big deal going forward.

Motion Sense hasn’t changed at all in three months. Those handful of features I talked about earlier? That’s all Motion Sense can do right now, and that’s all it’ll probably be able to do for a while. You see, Google hasn’t opened up the Motion Sense API to third-party developers, which of course stifles innovation. And we’ve heard nothing from the company regarding new features coming to the platform. Has Google not come up with other use cases for Motion Sense? Or is it a lack of development resources? Who knows.

Then there’s the availability problem. The Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL aren’t available in certain countries (India being the big one) because of the way Google’s Soli radar chip operates. Assuming Google isn’t planning on fundamentally changing how its radar chip works, we won’t be seeing any Motion Sense-enabled devices land in certain countries any time soon. That’s why the Pixel 4a and 4a XL — Google’s upcoming mid-rangers that will likely do particularly well in India — won’t have Motion Sense built-in.

I don’t want Google to ditch Motion Sense, but I also live in a country that has direct access to the Pixel 4. I’m sure I’d feel differently if I lived in an area the Pixel 4 wasn’t available. Region-exclusive features are no fun — they stifle development and remove major selling points from the phones being sold elsewhere.

I would totally understand if Google ditched Motion Sense, but I’d be sad to see it go. What about you? Are you one of the few that want Motion Sense to stick around? Or are you over it?

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