As far as Android goes, the Pixel line has become, in spirit, the true iPhone alternative. In 2016, Google stepped up to the plate to craft a device that was a real answer to the most popular, well-known smartphone on the planet. That continues this year with the Pixel 4 XL.
This is the best Pixel phone to date — that is the crux of it. Google has improved the phone in almost all regards. Yes, there are some sore spots, but overall, if you’re an Android fan, of the two new Google phones, only the Pixel 4 XL should end up anywhere near your potential smartphone shopping list.
Cutting to the chase, the new-ish designs have one foot in the future, one in the past. The deep, deep notch has been banished in favor of a forehead that packs in new tech. It reminds me very much of the Pixel 2 XL and, indeed, the smaller Pixel 3 — albeit with new functionality.
Every Pixel is a refinement on the previous batch, and the 2019 model is absolutely no different. Although I do yearn for the two-tone finish we’ve come to know and love. Google has decided that the two-tone element this time around should be that of the black aluminium frame contrasted with the matte or glossy glass of the rear panel.
It’s a striking look — very different to what we’ve become accustomed to. I dig it massively and have friends and family asking just what this phone is more so than with any other phone I’ve ever reviewed — this is important simply for the overall Pixel brand recognition, in my opinion.
The side bezels are now far more grippy and give the handset a sense of stability that I think is pretty rare nowadays as phones feel far more dainty and svelte than ever before. The matte design on the “Just White” and “Oh so Orange” models also ensure that the Pixel 4 line is one of the least fingerprint-prone phones I’ve ever had the pleasure of using. I can’t confidently say the glossy black model will manage the same, though, but at least there is a glossy model for some to choose.
There is no doubt that the Pixel 4 has that “Pixel” aesthetic and look, but it also doesn’t adhere too closely that it feels like a retread. The buttons have a lovely “click” sensation and the colored power button is a touch that Google does better than other OEMs in my opinion.
Everywhere else this looks and feels like you would expect a flagship to feel. It has fantastic balance when held and is actually slightly more narrow than the Pixel 3 XL but still manages to measure in at 6.2 inches. It’s comfortable without feeling too large, but I would never call the Pixel 4 XL a one-handed phone. It’s worth noting that the camera bump at the rear does cause the phone to rock on a table — should that be a problem for you.
The removal of the bottom speaker means that the Pixel 4 XL (and Pixel 4) now relies heavily on a more common bottom-firing tweeter alongside the earpiece to create stereo sound. Luckily, this isn’t an issue, as the actual sound is impressive, given the form factor.
While front-facing speakers will always be the preferred option, Google has done a great job in this new implementation. I’d wager that most people will prefer the surprisingly “full” sound that they can kick out over the Pixel 3 from last year.
The biggest new introduction as part of the new Soli radar chip is Motion Sense, and while it has tons of potential, it currently feels like a swing and a miss. I can see what Google are trying to do with the new hands-free gestures, but like LG and Samsung before them, they are far too inconsistent to be used frequently.
It also doesn’t help that currently you can only control music players. Soli looked as though it could be the true hands-free control system, but at the moment it feels like a really lame party trick. There are potential battery downsides too, so my advice would be to just turn it off unless you’re insistent on waving your hands above your display to change the currently playing song.
We knew the specifications ahead of time, and although there are refreshes, it’s still worth noting that the Snapdragon 855 chip is still one of the best on the market. The inclusion of 6 GB of RAM is arguably the most needed internal upgrade after the RAM issues encountered by Pixel 3 buyers over the past 12 months.
The base 64 GB of UFS 2.1 storage is a little disappointing but can be mitigated by offloading images and files to Google Photos and Drive — but we bid goodbye to the free full resolution image and video storage. It’s a blow, but was it ever the reason to buy a Pixel in the first place? I’m not so sure. You may want to back up your videos locally if you record a ton of 4K video regularly, there’s no getting around that.
Our own Stephen Hall is a stickler for haptics, and while the latest Pixel has exceptional vibration feedback, it’s a close call between the Pixel 4 and the OnePlus 7 Pro from earlier this year. I have it enabled everywhere humanly possible — as I do with most smartphones — and the feeling is superb. Whether typing, receiving a call or message, unlocking your phone or anything else for that matter.
Software & Performance
Android 10 comes part and parcel with the Pixel 4 XL, but with a few neat exclusive additions that really round off the best version of the mobile OS so far. Google has put in a tremendous level of effort in this time around, and it’s all of the little tweaks that help complete the package wonderfully.
Being beaten to the punch as the first phone to ship with Android 10 pre-installed by the also exceptional OnePlus 7T is not too much of an issue when the Pixel 4 XL has extra nuance. It’s these little additions that prove to be the icing on the cake of our favorite mobile OS.
The Snapdragon 855 is a sizeable bump over the Snapdragon 845, but I doubt you’ll see any noticeable difference day-to-day, bar some processing improvements with images or videos. It’s the 90 Hz display and bump in RAM to 6 GB that have the biggest effect.
Android 10 runs like a dream. The new gestures provide the perfect complement to that responsive display, having you feel like everything is a step ahead of the competition. The use of UFS 2.1 storage means that app loading is fast but not quite as snappy as the recent crop of OnePlus devices. That said, I only notice this as I have used the phones side-by-side.
Animations are smooth and slick, with the 90 Hz refresh rate helping that even more so. It gives you a sense of responsiveness, that I think only one other OEM can match that, but with more attention paid to the “feel” of these little interactions. It’s hard to describe just what these little nuances mean until you try a Pixel phone for yourself.
You may see the frame rate drop if you do use the adaptive frame rate. Many apps will dip to 60 Hz, which is noticeable but not jarring. You can force 90 Hz everywhere possible, though, by diving into the Settings and Developer Options. If you don’t do so, the frame rate will only stay about 90 Hz when above 75% brightness. I get the idea behind this, as it should enhance battery life, but it’s disappointing that this is the case right out of the box.
While I never experienced any major issues with the 4 GB of RAM in the Pixel 3, it was obviously a massive issue seeing apps crash in the background. The Pixel 4 has no such problems. You can confidently run plenty of apps without worrying about your music app or podcast suddenly cutting off or seeing an app fully refresh when switching back in. It will be interesting to see just how much longevity the bump from 4 to 6 GB will make long term, but for now, it’s pretty much perfect.
Ben also makes a superb 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 betas of Android 11, should you want to with a view to a stable Android 11 update in late August or early September — essentially before anyone else.
Google wowed us at IO 2019 with the impressive Live captions for video, and while it only currently works with US English, is incredibly accurate and a truly valuable accessibility addition for the hard of hearing, or even if you just want to watch a video without headphones. It struggles with strong accents, but for the most part, Live captions are a triumph — even more so since you don’t need an internet connection.
‘New’ Google Assistant
The Live Captions are also complemented by the inclusion of the new on-device Google Assistant and refreshed UI. I would love to talk about this more, but unfortunately, this is only limited to the US at present. Compressing all of the natural language queries into just 500 MB is nothing short of witchcraft, and it enhances the best voice assistant even more. It should help you control your device and get answers to most general queries without requiring a network connection — therefore speeding up the process immensely.
I’m a little disappointed by the removal of the fingerprint reader on the Pixel 4, but the new Face Unlock is ultra-fast to the point you don’t even think about it when lifting up your phone to unlock. While the eyes-closed flaw is a bit of a problem, I think if you’re really concerned about someone picking up your phone while sleeping to get access to your phone, then you may have slightly bigger problems going on in your life. I do, however, hope this gets fixed, as a security flaw is still a security flaw, no matter what my personal thoughts are.
I can’t say that the registration process is as intuitive as some other methods, though. It took me a little while to register properly, as one section of the 3D grid simply wouldn’t get registered. It doesn’t feel anywhere near as intuitive as the registration on iOS, in my opinion. My advice would be to rotate your head slowly to try and get it to register for the first time.
Once you have your face enrolled on your Pixel 4, though, it’s plain sailing. It’s almost too fast at times. You barely get any time to see the lock screen such is the speed. To combat this, if you want to check it, just hold the phone off at an angle.
A disappointing aspect of the sole biometric unlock option is just how few apps support it at present. A grand total of five at this early stage. Of course, that will balloon over the coming months, but for now, don’t expect your banking app to support face authentication.
Let’s quickly talk about the new display, as this is one area where some of the biggest changes have been made on both of the new handsets. Google has retained an OLED panel — measuring in at 6.3 inches — which, barring some issues with frame rate throttling, is utterly fantastic. It reaches to the edges on three sides, with the chin being reduced, as there is no longer a bottom speaker grill.
The flatness of the display is far superior to a curved display for responsiveness, too. Taps, swipes and content looks sublime and the lack of a notch ensures that you don’t lose any content when viewing videos in landscape. It’s a well-calibrated QHD+ panel too, but it doesn’t quite match the vibrancy of the Samsung S10 or Note 10 in terms of overall quality. It is a truly solid panel, though. It’s also a huge upgrade over the Pixel 2 XL, a device which many will be moving to the Pixel 4 XL from.
Of course, the large forehead is more justified than the notch was last year because of the new tech inside. It does, however, come at the cost of that neat ultra-wide-angle selfie camera that was part of the so-called justification for the Pixel 3 XL’s huge display cutout last time around. The not-a-notch forehead now comes with face unlock for the first time on a Pixel device. The inclusion of Motion Sense courtesy of the Soli radar chip is interesting for sure, but we’ll talk more about that and the gesture-based controls that it enables later on.
It does falter a little in overall brightness, as the peak brightness isn’t quite as high as some other devices from the likes of Samsung, Apple, and even OnePlus. You may have to crank up the brightness levels when viewing the display on the Pixel 4 XL in direct or bright sunlight.
The most notable change to the displays bar the removal of the notch is the new 90 Hz refresh rate. Considering just how few phones still have high refresh rates as standard, this is a big addition for the 2019 Pixel line.
Unfortunately, out of the box, Google has set a dynamic refresh rate limit on the display. This means that the refresh rate will alter between 60 and 90 Hz, should the display brightness dip below 75%. I have to say that the results are pretty noticeable but not jarring. The reasoning will be to preserve battery life — which makes sense — but can be forced to 90 Hz permanently by diving into Developer Options.
When you do enable 90 Hz everywhere, there are very few phones that are as fast and smooth as the Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL.
The strongest of the Pixel line so far, the Pixel 4 is a camera behemoth that although exceptional, feels like a refinement of the Pixel 3. The computational photography capabilities are enhanced yet again, and then we get an extra lens adding into the mix for yet more photographic prowess.
Now I’m not going to defend the lack of an ultra-wide-angle lens, as I think at over $700, all phones should have the option as standard. That said, this is still a fantastic duo that covers all the “main” bases better than any phone I’ve tried so far in 2019. I do really hate not being able to take wider shots, but personally prefer a telephoto for framing and cropping into an image if I had to choose only two lenses on a smartphone.
When you zoom in, the 2x telephoto becomes a sort of semi-hybrid 8x lens. The images are sharpened using some of that AI Super Res Zoom smarts Google and GCam have become known for. I would have to say that they don’t quite match up to the exceptionally sharp P30 Pro, but man, does it get really close.
The zoom method is pretty annoying, though, as there is no quick button to zoom in on a subject. You simply have to use the trusty pinch to zoom method at all times, but it would be useful to just snap to a specific zoom with a single press. It’s a nitpick, but when the ultra-wide isn’t included you would think Google would really nail the telephoto experience.
Having a telephoto zoom lens also helps improve the already exceptional Portrait mode. The rear-facing camera has excellent faux bokeh, with great fall-off for really pleasing results.
Another first for the Pixel line is the Astrophotography mode. It works by extending the Night Sight mode by a further few minutes, from one to four minutes to be precise. In my experience, the ceiling seems to be four minutes and four seconds when mounted to a tripod and then pointing towards the night sky.
The results after processing are nothing short of incredible when you find an area with little to no light pollution. Again, this is not new to smartphones, but the Google camera magic just adds that “wow” factor you don’t quite get elsewhere — even from the superb Huawei P30 Pro and Mate 30 Pro.
Let’s discuss the lack of 4K 60 fps first and foremost on the Pixel 4 line. I don’t disagree with Google that most people will simply film at 1080p — note that when they say “most people,” it’s essentially your parents, friends, and non-techie people. Considering that every flagship packs in the Snapdragon 845, it’s a glaring omission for those that want to record at higher frame rates on their smartphones. Let’s hope we see it come via a software update.
The quality of the video is a massive step-up, though. Having OIS working in tandem with EIS on the telephoto zoom lens means you can record super-steady footage that is on par with just about any other high-end smartphone on the market.
At 3,700 mAh, the battery on the Pixel 4 XL isn’t small by most metrics. The issue is that we’re now seeing 4,000 mAh cells become the sort-of standard for most smartphones over that 6.2-inch mark. In my experience so far, I have found the Pixel 4 XL to exceed the Pixel 3 XL in day-to-day lifespan, even despite only a modest overall capacity bump — the Pixel 4 lifespan is a different story entirely. Our own Ben Schoon stated that the lifespan courtesy of the 2,800 mAh cell is “pretty awful.”
I haven’t noticed any difference when forcing the 90 Hz refresh rate mode on the display, but I do tend to disable the Motion Sense gestures, as I do not use them at all. It’s suggested that the constant radar pings affect the longevity, but it didn’t seem to have too much of a negative effect, in my experience.
The inclusion of the same 18W fast charger is a little bit of a disappointment at this stage in 2019 when many smartphones are capable of 30W+, but it is by no means slow, and the inclusion of wireless charging is still great for those that want a more elegant charging station. This time around, fast wireless charging is not just limited to the Pixel Stand, as you can top up the Pixel 4 and 4 XL at 10W wireless with certified third-party chargers.
But is the Pixel 4 XL worth it?
I won’t say the Pixel 4 XL is a quantum leap over the Pixel 3 XL. Instead, it’s the refinement of many of the little minutiae that culminate in the best Pixel phone to date. Is it the best phone in its price bracket though? I’m not so sure.
Yes, there are flaws, but even they can’t fully diminish this exceptional package. It’s worth noting that it will only get better with software updates and tweaks over the next 24 months. Of course, the biggest issue is no doubt the pricing.
The thing is, if you’re happy to switch to iOS, you can pick up the superb iPhone 11 at $200 less — with a camera that really trades blows with the Pixel 4. If you simply must have an Android phone, the OnePlus 7T is arguably a better value package at $550 and has an excellent 90 Hz refresh rate display, a solid camera, and better overall battery life.
Our Ben’s takeaway is that he can’t recommend the smaller Pixel 4 at all — even if you want a smaller device — but thankfully the Pixel 4 XL is a different story. Although personally, owning the iPhone 11 and OnePlus 7T, my personal choice is still going to be the Pixel 4 XL. I must also stress that if you want one of the best smartphone experiences on the market with a few flaws, look no further than the Pixel 4 XL.
Where can I buy the Pixel 4 XL?
If you do want to pick up the Pixel 4 XL, then you can get it directly from Amazon with the super returns policy they have in case you’re not fully happy. Alternatively, Best Buy has a deal with $100 off if you take out a Google Fi line — which is a pretty solid discount even this short after launch. We also have a full guide on where to pick up both Pixel models at the best prices.
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