The Pixel series has become, in spirit the real iPhone alternative as far as Android is concerned. Google stepped up to the plate in 2016 to build a device that was a real response to the planet’s most popular, well-known smartphone. That’s going on with the Pixel 4 XL this year.
This is the best Pixel phone so far— that’s what it’s all about. In almost every way, Google has improved the phone. Yeah, there are some sore spots, but overall, if you’re an Android fan, only the Pixel 4 XL will end up on your mobile shopping list anywhere from the two new Google phones.
The modern-ish designs, cutting to the chase, have one foot in the future, one in the past. The dark, deep notch in place of a front that packs in new tech has been banned. It reminds me a lot of the Pixel 2 XL and, yes, the smaller Pixel 3 — though with new features.
Each pixel on the previous batch is a refinement, and the 2019 version is no different at all. Even though I long for the two-tone finish, we’ve come to know and love it. Google has agreed that this time around the two-tone component should be the black aluminum frame that contrasts with the back panel’s matt or glossy glass.
It’s a striking look — very different from what we got used to. I dig it massively and have friends and family wondering what this phone is more like than any other phone I’ve ever reviewed — it’s just important for the overall recognition of the Pixel brand, I think.
The side bezels are now much much more grippy and give the handset a sense of stability that I think is nowadays quite rare as phones feel much more dainty and svelte than ever before. Also, the matte design on the models “Just White” and “Oh so Orange” ensure that the Pixel 4 line is one of the least fingerprint-prone phones I’ve ever had the pleasure to use. I can’t say the glossy black model will do the same, though, but there’s at least one glossy model to choose from.
There’s no doubt that the Pixel 4 feels and has that “Pixel” aesthetic, but it also doesn’t adhere too closely to feeling like a retreat. The buttons have a lovely sensation of “clicking,” and in my opinion the colored power button is a touch that Google does better than other OEMs.
It looks and feels like you’d expect a flagship to feel anywhere else. When held, it has a fantastic balance and is actually slightly smaller than the Pixel 3 XL but can still measure in at 6.2 inches. It’s comfortable without being too heavy, but I’d never call a one-handed phone to the Pixel 4 XL. It’s worth noting that the lens bump at the back causes the phone to rock on a table— if that’s an issue for you.
Through removing the bottom speaker, the Pixel 4 XL (and Pixel 4) now relies heavily alongside the earpiece on a more traditional bottom-firing tweeter to produce stereo sound. Fortunately, this is not a concern since, despite the form factor, the actual sound is impressive.
Although front-facing speakers are always the preferred option, in this new implementation, Google has done a great job. I would bet most people would prefer the surprisingly “full” sound they could kick out from last year over the Pixel 3.
As part of the new Soli radar chip, Motion Sense is the biggest new introduction, and while it has tons of potential, it feels like a swing and a miss. I can see what Google is trying to do with the latest hands-free gestures, but they’re far too incoherent to be used regularly, like LG and Samsung before them.
It also doesn’t benefit you being able to control music players at the moment. Soli seemed like it might be the ultimate hands-free control system, but it seems like a really lame party trick at the moment. There are also potential downsides to the device, so my suggestion would be to just shut it off unless you keep on waving your hands over your display to change the song you are currently playing.
We knew the specifications ahead of time, and although there are refreshes, the Snapdragon 855 chip is still one of the best on the market. The addition of 6 GB of RAM is possibly the most needed internal upgrade after the RAM issues that Pixel 3 buyers have faced over the past 12 months.
UFS 2.1 storage base 64 GB is a bit disappointing, but it can be mitigated by offloading photos and files to Google Photos or Drive— but we’re biding goodbye to free full-resolution image and video storage. It’s a blast, but was it often the reason to first buy a pixel? I’m not that sure. When you record a lot of 4 K video on a regular basis, you may want to back up your videos locally, there is no way around that.
Our own Stephen Hall is a haptics stickler, and while the latest Pixel has outstanding vibration feedback, it’s a close call from earlier this year between the Pixel 4 and the OnePlus 7 Pro. I’ve made it humanly possible anywhere— as I do with most smartphones— and it’s a great feeling. If you type in, receive a call or message, unlock your phone or anything else.
Software & Performance
Android 10 comes with the Pixel 4 XL as part and parcel, but with a few neat exclusive additions that really complete the best mobile OS version so far. In this time around, Google has put in a huge amount of effort and it’s all the little tweaks that make the bundle beautifully complete.
When the Pixel 4 XL has extra complexity, being beaten to the punch as the first phone to ship with Android 10 pre-installed by the also exceptional OnePlus 7 T isn’t too much of a concern. These little additions prove to be the icing on our favorite mobile operating system’s cake.
The Snapdragon 855 is a huge bump over the Snapdragon 845, but I doubt you’ll see any significant day-to-day change, including some image or video processing improvements. It is the most powerful effect of the 90 Hz display and increase in RAM to 6 GB.
Android 10’s running like a dream. The latest gestures are the perfect complement to this responsive display, feeling that everything is a step ahead of the competition. Using UFS 2.1 storage means that the loading of apps is fast but not as snappy as the OnePlus devices ‘ recent crop. That said, I’ve only found this because I’ve used side-by-side phones.
Animations are smooth and slick, and the refresh rate of 90 Hz is even more helpful. It gives you a sense of responsiveness, which I think can only be matched by another OEM, but with more attention paid to the “feel” of these small interactions. It’s hard to describe the sense of these little details before you try yourself a Pixel phone.
If you use the adaptive frame rate, you can see the frame rate dropping. A lot of apps are going to drop to 60 Hz, which is noticeable but not jarring. But, by digging into the Settings and User Options, you can force 90 Hz wherever possible. If you don’t, the frame rate will only remain about 90 Hz if the brightness exceeds 75%. I get the idea that this should boost battery life, but it’s surprising that this is the case right out of the box.
While I’ve never experienced any major issues in the Pixel 3 with the 4 GB of RAM, it was obviously a massive problem with apps crashing in the background. There are no such issues with the Pixel 4. Without worrying about your music app or podcast suddenly cutting off or seeing an app completely refresh when switching back in, you can run a lot of apps with confidence. It’s going to be interesting to see how much longevity the 4-6 GB bump can allow in the long run, but it’s pretty perfect for now.
Ben also makes a great point that the Pixel 4 “won’t be on Android 10 forever.” As in the not-too-distant future, you’ll be able to use the first Android 11 betas if you want to update in late August or early September with a view to a stable Android 11 — essentially before anyone else.
At IO 2019, Google wowed us with the amazing live video captions, and while it only works for U.S. English at the moment, it’s incredibly accurate and a really valuable addition to accessibility for the hard to hear, or even if you just want to watch a video without headphones. It fails with strong accents, but live captions are a triumph for the most part— even more so because you don’t need an internet connection.
“New” Google Assistant
Including the new on-device Google Assistant and refreshed UI will also complement the Live Captions. I’d love to talk more about this, but at the moment it’s only limited to the US. Compressing all the natural language queries into just 500 MB is nothing short of magic, and it improves even more the best voice assistant. It should allow you to control your device and get answers to most general queries without needing a network connection, thus significantly speeding up the process.
I’m quite disappointed with the removal of the Pixel 4 fingerprint reader, but the new Face Unlock is ultra-fast to the point where you don’t even think of it when you lift your phone to unlock. While the eye-closed flaw is a bit of an issue, I think if you’re really worried about someone picking up your phone while you’re sleeping to get access to your phone, you might have far bigger problems going on in your life. But I hope this will be fixed, as a security flaw is still a security flaw, regardless of what my personal thoughts are.
Nonetheless, I can’t say the process of registration is as intuitive as some other methods. Registering properly took me a little while, because one part of the 3D grid would actually not be reported. In my view, it doesn’t feel anywhere near as intuitive as iOS registration. My advice would be to slowly turn your head to try to get it for the first time to register.
Nonetheless, once you’ve recorded your face on your Pixel 4, it’s plain sailing. Sometimes it’s almost too fast. You barely get time to see the speed of the lock screen. For combat this, just hold the phone off at an angle if you want to check it.
How few apps currently support it is a frustrating aspect of the single biometric unlock option. At this early stage, a good total of five. That’s going to be ballooning over the coming months, of course, but don’t expect the banking app to support face authentication for now.
Let’s talk about the new display quickly, as this is one area where some of the biggest changes on both new handsets have been made. Google kept an OLED panel— standing at 6.3 inches— which is utterly fantastic, barring any issues with throttling frame rate. This reaches the edges on three sides, increasing the chin as there is no longer a grill on the bottom of the speaker.
The display’s flatness is also much greater than a curved display for responsiveness. Taps, swipes and content look sublime and the lack of a notch makes sure you don’t lose any content while viewing landscape videos. It’s also a well-calibrated QHD+ panel, but in terms of overall quality it doesn’t suit the vibrancy of the Samsung S10 or Note 10. Nonetheless, it’s a really good board. It is also a significant improvement over the Pixel 2 XL, a phone from which many will switch to the Pixel 4 XL.
Of course, due to the new tech inside, the big front is more justified than the notch was last year. But it comes at the expense of that neat ultra-wide-angle selfie lens that was part of the last time around the so-called reason for the huge display cutout of the Pixel 3 XL. For the first time on a Pixel device, the not – a-notch front now comes with face unlock. The inclusion of the Soli radar chip’s Motion Sense courtesy is interesting for sure, but we’re going to talk more about it and the gesture-based controls it later activates.
As the peak brightness is not quite as high as some other devices from the likes of Samsung, Apple, and even OnePlus. If viewing the display on the Pixel 4 XL in clear or indirect sunlight, you may need to crank up the brightness levels.
The new 90 Hz refresh rate is the most notable change to the display bar to remove the knotch. This is a big addition to the 2019 Pixel line, considering just how few phones still have high refresh rates as standard.
Unfortunately, a dynamic refresh rate limit was set on the display by Google from the box. This means that the refresh rate will change between 60 and 90 Hz if the brightness of the display drops below 75%. I’ve got to say the effects are quite obvious, but they’re not jarring. The reasoning is to preserve battery life — which makes sense— but by diving into Developer Options, it can be constantly forced to 90 Hz.
There are very few phones that are as fast and smooth as the Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL when you enable 90 Hz everywhere.
The Pixel 4, the best of the Pixel line so far, is a camera behemoth that looks like a Pixel 3 refinement, though extraordinary. The capabilities of computational photography are further improved, and then we get an extra lens added to the mix for even more photographic prowess.
Now I’m not going to defend the lack of an ultra-wide-angle lens, as I think all phones should have the option as standard at over $700. That said, this is still a fantastic duo that is better covering all the “main” bases than any phone I’ve tried in 2019 so far. I really hate not being able to take wider shots, but I personally prefer a telephoto for framing and cropping into an image if only two lenses were to be chosen on a smartphone.
The 2x telephoto becomes a kind of 8x semi-hybrid lens when you zoom in. Some of the AI Super Res Zoom smarts Google and GCam have become known for sharpening the images. They’re not quite trying to match the exceptionally sharp P30 Pro, I’d have to say, but man, it’s getting really close.
However, the zoom method is quite annoying, as there is no quick button for zooming in on a topic. All you have to do is use the trusty pinch to zoom method at all times, but with a single press it would be useful to just snap to a specific zoom. It’s a nitpick, but if it doesn’t include the ultra-wide, you’d think Google’s going to really nail the experience of telephoto.
It also helps to improve the already excellent Portrait mode by providing a telephoto zoom lens. The rear-facing camera has a decent faux bokeh, with a great fall-off for very fun results.
The Astrophotography mode is another first for the Pixel line. It works by extending the Night Sight mode for a few more minutes, to be precise, from one to four minutes. From my experience, when standing on a tripod and then pointing to the night sky, the ceiling seems to be four minutes and four seconds.
If you find an area with little to no light pollution, the results after processing are nothing short of amazing. No, it’s not new to smartphones, but the magic of the Google camera brings the “wow” factor you’re not getting anywhere else— even from the excellent Huawei P30 Pro and Mate 30 Pro.
Let’s talk first and foremost about the lack of 4 K 60 fps on the Pixel 4 line. I don’t disagree with Google that most people are just going to film at 1080p— note that when they say “most people,” they’re mainly your parents, friends, and non-tech people. Given that every flagship packs in the Snapdragon 845, those who want to record their smartphones at higher frame rates are a glaring omission. Let’s hope we see it coming through an update of the software.
Nonetheless, the video’s quality is a massive step-up. With OIS working on the telephoto zoom lens in tandem with EIS, you can record super-stable footage that matches just about any other high-end smartphone on the market.
With 3,700 mAh, most tests don’t have a small battery on the Pixel 4 XL. The issue is that over the 6.2-inch mark we are now seeing 4,000 mAh cells become the sort of standard for most smartphones. In my experience so far, I have found that the Pixel 4 XL in day-to-day lifespan exceeds the Pixel 3 XL, despite only a modest overall capacity bump— the lifespan of the Pixel 4 is a completely different story. Our own Ben Schoon said the 2,800 mAh cell’s lifetime is “pretty awful.”
I haven’t noticed any difference in pushing the display’s 90 Hz refresh rate mode, but I prefer to disable the gestures of Motion Sense as I don’t use them at all. The continuous radar pings were suggested to affect durability, but in my experience it did not seem to have too much of a negative effect.
At this stage in 2019, when many smartphones are capable of 30W+, the inclusion of the same 18W fast charger is a bit of a disappointment, but it is by no means sluggish, and the inclusion of wireless charging is still good for those who want a more elegant charging station. This time around, fast wireless charging with certified third-party chargers is not limited to the Pixel Stand, as you can top up the Pixel 4 and 4 XL at 10W wireless.
But is it worth the Pixel 4 XL?
The Pixel 4 XL is a quantum leap over the Pixel 3 XL, I’m not going to say. Instead, many of the little minutiae’s refinement culminates in the best Pixel phone so far. However, is it the best phone in the price bracket? I’m not that sure.
Yes, there are flaws, but even these exceptional packages can not be completely diminished. It is worth noting that over the next 24 months it will only improve with software updates and tweaks. The biggest issue, of course, is the cost.
The thing is, you can pick up the excellent iPhone 11 for $200 less if you’re happy to switch to iOS — with a screen that’s really blowing with the Pixel 4. If you just need an Android phone, the OnePlus 7 T is a better value package at $550 with an excellent 90 Hz refresh rate display, a solid camera, and a better overall battery life.
The lesson for our Ben is that he can’t recommend the smaller Pixel 4 at all— even if you want a smaller device— but the Pixel 4 XL is luckily a different story. Even though I own the iPhone 11 and OnePlus 7 T personally, my personal choice will still be the Pixel 4 XL. I must also point out that if you want one of the best smartphone experiences with a few flaws on the market, look no further than the Pixel 4 XL.