Google Pixel 4 XL (6.4 inches) review
Apple, Samsung, and Huawei – which dominate the smartphone market – are more mature than Google’s annual phone refresh. In its fourth iteration, Pixel hopes to change the story and explore new ways to enhance the bond between a person and their phone.
With the Pixel 4, Google spends most of its time telling us that it’s not about the hardware, but about ambient computing. When you are trying to sell people’s phones, you are asking people to buy into an ambient experience when you aren’t providing them with the most compelling device to access.
Shifting up design
- Black, white, and Oh So Orange
- 160.4 x 75.2 x 8.2mm
- IP68 waterproofing
The Pixel 4 XL’s biggest design change is the finish. Despite the basic materials being metal and glass, the coatings on the phone make it feel much more tactile than previous phones.
Rather than being glossy and slippery, the edges have been coated for a better grip – at least on the orange and white versions. The black of those edges is an interesting contrast to the color of the rear of the phone when you’re manipulating a big phone.
Because the entire device has the same finish – no matte/gloss mix like before – Google chose black, white, and orange as colors. As a result, fingerprints aren’t an issue, but as with any phone of this construction, it would be better protected by one of Google’s great Pixel cases.
We’ve found that the orange finish on the Pixel 4 XL can be seen from a mile away. People can easily spot Pixel users and strike up a conversation with them.
There is a good sense of quality to the finish and the feel, although the corner camera array will catch the eye. As with the iPhone 11 Pro, Google has expanded the cameras and the housing for the cameras, which appears to be the trend for 2020. Yet there is another stark difference between the Pixel 4 XL and the iPhone 11 Pro: tap the back of Apple’s flagship phone, and it sounds solid; tap the back of the Pixel 4 XL, and it sounds hollow.
Radar magic and face unlocking
- Soli radar chip
- IR-based face unlock system
Your first observation of the Pixel 4 XL will be its forehead – the bezel across the top of the display. Certainly, it looks like a throwback to the Pixel 2 XL, and even though we’re glad to say goodbye to the Pixel 3 XL’s comedy notch, there’s a sense that Google hasn’t gone all out in trying to get a full-screen display.
However, there is a reason for that. For starters, it has a front camera and speaker. As well, it houses Google’s Soli chip, which powers a system called Motion Sense that detects you using radar, allowing you to use various gestures to interact with your phone.
I think it’s worth pointing out that bezels aren’t necessarily bad before we discuss Motion Sense. Having played plenty of Call of Duty: Mobile on the Pixel 4 XL, we found that the top bezel makes the experience better: when on the left, it gives some off-screen area for your hands to rest, so there’s less chance of accidental touches on the display.
But let’s talk about gestures. With Motion Sense, you can wave away alarms, skip tracks with a swipe and interact with a few wallpapers (waving at Pikachu is a novelty, but not much else). Motion Sense’s full potential is still yet to be seen – and Google says it’s just getting started – but as it stands we can’t really see how it adds anything useful.
Despite its appearance, it doesn’t do anything you can’t already do with your voice or by tapping the phone. A few of the Motion Sense gestures might be useful for drivers, but if it’s not a game-changer, we won’t be convinced of the need for it. After using the phone for a number of months, the gestures seem a little pointless since we have not used them at all.
However, there’s another reason why the Pixel 4 XL’s forehead is so big. In addition to the infrared sensors, it houses the new face unlock system. With an infrared dot projector, it’s similar to Apple’s Face ID technology, so it’s biometrically secure enough to be used for banking apps, etc.
There was no third-party support for these systems when the phone was first released, but that is slowly rolling out, so you are not at a great disadvantage because of the lack of fingerprint sensors.
In terms of unlocking itself, it is lightning fast. One good thing Soli does is to power up the face unlock circuits when you reach for the phone. The orientation doesn’t matter, but neither does whether your eyes are open or closed. Google has announced a future update that will add eye detection, so your phone can potentially be unlocked while you’re sleeping.
Display and hardware specs
- 6.3-inch Quad HD+ OLED display, 90Hz refresh rate
- Qualcomm SD855, 6GB RAM, 64/128GB storage
- 3700mAh battery
The Pixel 4 XL features a 6.3-inch Quad HD+ display, which is larger than the Pixel 4. Here, the biggest change is the 90Hz refresh rate of the OLED display. On the OnePlus 7T, that was well received and should mean smoother visuals, if you can see the difference. As a matter of fact, we don’t see a lot of difference in the overall experience, but that may have to do with the apps we’re using.
With the exception of the refresh rate, this is an impressive display with a lot of quality and high dynamic range (HDR), and we are very impressed with how well it displays content. In terms of brightness, it gets a big thumbs up.
Pixel 4 XL features a Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 processor, 6GB of RAM, and 64 or 128GB of storage. People who struggled with the 4GB RAM of the Pixel 3 XL may welcome the bump in RAM, but in many ways, performance will be governed by software optimization. Therefore, it appears that the Pixel 4 XL does not suffer from the same immediate background app closing problem as the Pixel 3 XL.
However, what Google has done is launch a new flagship device with hardware that’s not quite the best out there. It’s worth noting that the Snapdragon 855 Plus is making its way into devices such as the OnePlus 7T, and with Snapdragon 865 announced in December 2019 and appearing in devices from February 2020, for hardcore fans, this isn’t quite at the cutting edge.
The Pixel 4 XL’s performance may not matter as much as the spec sheet might suggest, because it runs fast and smooth, and we’ve found it to be a great phone for watching media and playing games like PUBG Mobile and Call of Duty.
A slight drawback is the battery life. Despite its small size, the 3700mAh battery is able to last the whole day. You will need a charger when you’re using it intensively – and it comes with an 18W fast charger, so while it doesn’t take long to charge it, the experience is far from class-leading. As with the Pixel 3 XL, this looks like a trend: Google just doesn’t seem as good at battery optimization as the likes of Huawei or OnePlus.
Say hello to a new camera
- 12-megapixel f/1.7 main camera
- 16-megapixel f/2.4 2x telephoto camera
- Night Sight enhancements
Fortunately, the story is more positive when it comes to the camera. In the past few years, the Pixel has excelled at using a single camera, using software, artificial intelligence, and optimization to achieve results that other devices couldn’t match – even with more lenses.
In addition, the second lens has a zoom – a 16-megapixel telephoto – designed to enhance the quality of shots of farther-away subjects. What’s interesting is how it’s implemented. With Google, you can’t switch lenses, you have to use the slider or pinch-zoom to zoom in or out – and that’s seamlessly integrated.
With the new telephoto lens, you can zoom in at 2x and then digitally zoom out to 8x with a hybrid system. Despite its low effectiveness at night and in low light, in daylight, you can get passable results up to 8x, and even better results if you don’t need to zoom so much. In terms of zoom, this is a significant improvement for the Pixel.
Additionally, Night Sight has been improved. The first aspect is that it performs better in low light without Night Sight turned on: it takes passable low-light photos even without Night Sight, so it’s much more like the Huawei P30 Pro in this sense. Night Sight will still be recommended, and it’s still a solid system – but now it’s being challenged by other devices, such as the Apple iPhone 11.
A new astrophotography mode has also been added by Google. This might seem like nothing more than a novelty, but in reality, it’s Google showing what’s possible. If you use this mode, you will need your phone to be steady – on a tripod, for instance – and it will take a series of long exposures with some cleaning up along the way. The process takes about four minutes, but the results are amazing and it’s simple to do. Though you might never get the chance to use it, there is real power in this – and much of it stems from Google’s computational photography.
When it comes to regular shooting, Google continues to deliver stellar results: it will take good pictures pretty much in any situation.
It still takes great portraits on the front and rear cameras, thanks to the saturation of the display. Google has an advantage over other devices in that it uses the main camera for portraits, whereas some competitors use telephoto lenses, resulting in lower-quality pictures.
There is one new feature, though, that is really interesting and something we haven’t seen on other phones. Dual exposure of a digital camera is not the same as dual exposure of a manual film camera. You can set the foreground and background levels independently, which takes the concept of HDR and amplifies it. For example, you can lighten a foreground against a bright sky or make a silhouette by changing the level – or just tweak the image at the time of capture rather than afterward in editing software. In all honesty, since the review testing, we haven’t touched it much. It’s a powerful tool, but it needs to be used in the right circumstances.
Despite all the goodness – and there’s a lot here that’s fantastic – that’s what photo fans will miss with a third wide-angle camera becoming the norm. A number of rivals offer it. It is possible to take those pictures with Google’s existing Photo Sphere feature, but it is not as fast, smooth, or natural as a dedicated lens.
All the software goodness of Android 10
In addition to running a pure version of Android 10, the Pixel 4 XL adds a few features that set it apart from other leading Android smartphones.
You can convert your notes into text using a voice recorder app. It is also searchable, which is great for students or journalists. Despite its good performance, it does make a few mistakes in transcription – but you can easily listen to the recording and correct those mistakes. Processing takes place entirely on the Pixel, so it is not data-hungry, and it is exclusive to the Pixel. The length of time this will last remains to be seen, but it’s another indication of Google’s push to create a smarter device experience.
We’ve long been fans of the Pixel’s Android compatibility. For those keen to have the latest Google functions, being at the front of the queue is still an advantage, but it’s not quite as useful as it once was. The software experience is also being optimized by some manufacturers, who are better at updating. OnePlus’s phones generally run a little smoother than Google’s too, because the company has been quick to update to Android 10.
Nonetheless, we like the software and the overall experience of uncluttered Android – and this may be a significant reason to buy this phone. In the absence of a pure Android flagship smartphone, the Pixel almost becomes the default choice.
|Exclusive smart features||No wide-angle camera|
|Camera performance||Motion Sense gestures add little to nothing|
|Pure Android software||Battery life is average|
Again, it’s the camera in the Pixel 4 XL that shines. It’s super easy to use and paired with a great display, it makes taking photos and videos on your phone a really compelling experience. Despite the lack of a wide-angle lens, this is one of the best phones for those who want to take pictures.
The Pixel 4 XL has a great design and plenty of power, but there are a few areas where it doesn’t quite topple its competition. However, the battery life is far from class-leading – although some may be fine with that – and the Soli and Motion Sense features don’t really add anything to the experience. Soli functions may change over time, but we’re used to holding phones in our hands – since that’s what they were designed for.
I find the Google Pixel 4 XL to be an interesting handset and one of the best pure Android handsets. However, rivals offer better camera performance, more power, a more compact design, and better battery life. This phone is attractive now, but in four months it will look dated.