When Google announced that the Pixels were getting an update to add an entire underwater photography mode, we were pretty curious what its results would be like. Sure, the company provided samples, but it’s unknown how curated the collection was or how it would have worked anecdotally. Unfortunately, none of us at Android Police have the time (or the money) to invest in diving – it’s an expensive hobby. Thankfully, Matthew Franklin, a friend of the site, was able to take his Pixel 4 and a compatible underwater case on a recent underwater trip.
We tested the Pixel 4’s underwater photography skills with the Kraken Sports KRH04 Universal Case, so we’ll start there.
Kraken Sports KRHO4 underwater housing
Franklin found the case sturdy enough and comparable in quality and construction to the types of dive cases you find for SLR cameras – appropriate, given the $ 325 price tag. It’s made from materials like aluminum and glass, with a handful of more complicated parts. (like the hinges and the display cover itself) which look like pretty tough plastic. Your Pixel’s screen is visible through a window on the front, the buttons are easily accessed and pressed even with thick gloves, and the case has threaded mounts for things like lighting.
The most significant feature of the case, and one of the things that allows it to function underwater as well as it does, is the built-in vacuum system, which allows you to test the seals before each dive to keep your phone safe. Plug it into a hand pump, give it some pressure, and a green light turns on when the interior reaches around 650 mBar. If the light stays on after a while, it means that the pressure hasn’t changed, your seals are good, there are probably no leaks and you are ready to dive. In fact, Franklin specifically defined a double O-ring on the vacuum port and its pressure release valve as a particularly good design, providing better protection on that gasket that the pressure sensor cannot test.
Your Pixel (in our case, a Pixel 4) can be placed inside the case while in its separate, matryoshka-style protective case. It attaches directly to the KRH04 and its spring retention clip quickly and securely. However, Franklin noted that the mechanism relies on the top and bottom of the phone being relatively flat, so some cases or devices with strong curves in their design may not work well with it.
Like most underwater camera cases, the case has negative buoyancy (read: sinks), which I’m told counterintuitively increases the chances of recovery in the event of a fall. “Just a few dives ago, I saved a GoPro because it went back to the wreck we were on – everything that floats is probably gone forever!”
However, he encountered some problems with the case:
“My first review sample had a shutter button failure at some point between when I received it and after the first use. I’m not at all sure what happened; the mechanism feels really sturdy. A second unit doesn’t had this problem. I also had no luck with any automatic power saving features, so you will definitely want to follow the instructions and remove the batteries when not in use. Diving can be difficult for the equipment as well, despite being reasonably careful, I ended up with a few aesthetic scratches in the aluminum finish after the first dive. Personally I prefer it when my dive gear has at least some scars, but if it concerns you, you will have to be careful. “
Franklin has one more tip: make sure the flash is disabled in the camera app before putting the phone in the case. You can’t change that setting while it’s inside and the glass panel reflects the flash, which can ruin your images. It may not seem like a problem in shallow water, where you may have enough light not to even trigger an automatic flash setting, but the deeper you go, the darker it gets and you don’t want me to switch to using the flash on its own, why not you can fix it mid-dive.
Google’s Dive Connector app
Google’s Dive Connector app worked almost flawlessly, although you need to follow an order of operations when logging out for everything to work as it should.
The app connects using the case’s built-in Bluetooth, and the pairing process is quick and easy with stable connectivity. Just turn on the case, then tap “connect case” in the Dive Connector app. There is a green light that flashes when unpaired and solid when paired.
Franklin tried to simulate a lost connection by disconnecting the case’s batteries while it was running and the case automatically reconnected once the power was restored. The only real problem is that if you turn off the case before logging out within the app, the app will still report the case as connected; in the end, you have to force quit the app to disconnect if you do it in the wrong order.
The app is pretty basic, but you can configure settings like an overlay that appears in the camera app’s viewfinder. For the KRH04, this only includes battery levels for the phone and case, but more premium dive cases like the KRH03 include depth and temperature information. Overlay information isn’t burned into photos like with old-fashioned cameras or something, but Franklin thought finding a way to include that data along with the EXIF information would be a useful feature for Google to add. A way to disable the flash setting while the phone is in the case would also be useful – as we mentioned earlier, you can’t turn it off once it’s in place.
But, in short, the app is just here to make sure the case and its buttons are working and doing its job.
When you use the case underwater, you’re basically using your camera from the lock screen shortcut. This means limited access to the device in a way that is not yet authenticated, so you can only access photos taken in the current session (i.e. from the last time the screen was turned on). Just in case, Franklin tried to play around with it a number of ways to see if the case featured potential lock screen bypass methods, but your Pixel is still apparently as secure as it is otherwise.
Taking pictures is quite natural and you have a dedicated shutter button plus a few handy extra buttons that give you hardware controls for things like the autofocus point, zoom, and camera mode. You can also review the images you took using those buttons, but only for the current “session” (again: due to phone lock).
Even in cold water, things like fogging and condensation weren’t a problem, although white balance was sometimes:
“During our dives, the white balance ran out all over the place due to changing lighting conditions – my friend had a video light for some of the photos (at various distances), and sometimes the only light was the green ambient darkness. of Southern California. “
Our photographic samples confirm this statement:
The Pixel can generally compensate quite well for the underwater lighting situation and the messed up white balance it produces, although the green hue you’ll see in most of our examples is more the result of Southern California water than any Pixel issues. Either way, extra lighting helps – consider the option of a waterproof underwater light. And of course, you can still take pictures above the water with the case you need to:
The surface photos here were taken using the KRH03 – the performance should be identical.
In the end, Franklin liked both the Pixel 4’s underwater photography and the diving case functionality. It’s certainly an expensive smartphone accessory, but pretty much all diving gear is – somehow, $ 325 is actually cheap. Plus, it works with standard light trays and offers much better performance than Go-Pro-like cameras underwater.
“Nowadays phone cameras can produce very high quality images and for many people this is perhaps a great balance between cost and performance if they don’t already have a camera that can fit into a low cost housing. my GoPro, it was great to experience the reliable good results of my Pixel 4 camera underwater. “
Google’s cameras have managed to stay on the cutting edge even as they stick to older hardware. We’ll be curious to see how the next Pixel 6 performs underwater, but you can get some pretty decent photos from the current crop right now, thanks to Google’s recent update and an underwater case.
Buy it if:
- You want to take pictures with your Pixel underwater.
- Look good with the accumulation of minor scrapes and scrapes – it won’t stay spotless.
Don’t buy it if:
- You can’t follow complicated instructions – the automatic shutdown doesn’t work too reliably, so you have to take out the batteries when they’re not in use and you need to unplug things in a precise order.
- Do you want something cheaper or want even better image quality – get a GoPro or better case and DSLR camera.