By most metrics, people have been pretty harsh on the Google Pixel 4 and 4 XL, especially when you consider that neither phone is actually “bad.”
Now I’m not trying to discount some quite substantial shortcomings, but the Pixel 4 XL, in particular, is a great phone. It’s amazing how quickly the market shifts, especially when you consider just what everyone else is doing compared to Google.
Leaks and sniping from the sidelines are one thing, but actually using a device for an extended period gives you a feel for the inherent strengths and weaknesses — and like any smartphone, the Pixel 4 XL certainly has a few of those.
From the very outset, the biggest problem is that since the Google Pixel 4 and 4 XL were unveiled, a steady stream of genuine top-tier handsets have all managed to offer exceptional hardware, software, cameras, and internals at similar and, in many cases, even lower price points.
Having used the Pixel 4 — more specifically the XL model — on and off as my daily smartphone for the past six months, I feel I know the device better than ever. I now feel I have enough extended experience to give you my thoughts after living with this fantastic but still somewhat flawed smartphone.
Hardware & Design
The design of the Pixel 4 XL is clean and simple. Simple in a way that I think really differentiates it from the crowd of shiny slabs with endless displays and tiny bezels. Now I’m still a huge fan of an expansive screen to interact with, but in all honesty, they don’t tend to match the comfort and approachability of the Pixel 4.
Having matte black side bezels is certainly striking and I’ve found they actually aide grip, which is sorely missing on some similar flagships. Matte glass, I like this. We need more matte colors across the smartphone industry. Had Google made a matte black Pixel 4 XL, I would have been first in line for more “stealthy” colors.
I’ve also been pleasantly surprised with the overall durability of my Pixel 4 XL, it has taken a few minor dings from drops but it has held up well — granted that is anecdotal as no two drops are equal. Some scuffs to the bezels haven’t really done much to “destroy” the look of the phone either.
With a 6.3-inch body, I personally wouldn’t call the XL small. It does feel smaller than some comparable flagships though. The smaller Pixel 4 is a tough sell because of the paltry battery, but it’s a far more palatable 5.79-inches if you do want a smaller smartphone. That said, we don’t recommend the standard Pixel 4 model unless you simply must have a smaller phone.
The Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 chipset and 6GB of RAM seem particularly modest given the pricing, but I still don’t think a Pixel is a “Pixel” because of the internals. The Pixel 3a is a prime example of that. I do kind of regret opting for the 64GB model, although I haven’t utilized more than 50GB thanks to an added 100GB Google One subscription plan. A plan that lets me hand off bigger files without worrying about space — and something I wholeheartedly recommend if you are worried about storage space.
The display on the Pixel 4 XL is superb but doesn’t get bright enough in direct sunlight. Luckily, that isn’t something to complain about in my case as I live in dreary England but it is something to note. Indoors it has been absolutely fine in my usage.
It still has fantastic colors, with the natural mode being particularly nice on your eyes. The 90Hz refresh rate when forced everywhere is also a big plus point, but I wouldn’t call it a core selling point. It just happens to make things slightly smoother. The bump from 60 to 120Hz will undoubtedly make more difference — should that happen on a future Pixel.
I haven’t personally encountered the display oleophobic coating issues that some have complained of. I slapped a screen protector on as soon as I heard it could be a problem. It might be wise to do the same unless you’re happy wiping smudges and grime from your screen quite frequently.
The big forehead hasn’t really detracted from the experience, and I have to admit that I am more of a fan of this look than a cutout simply from a uniformity perspective. That said, it would have been nice to get an edge-to-edge experience or more consistent bezels on all sides of the Pixel 4 XL display.
It’s also worth mentioning that the Pixel 4 XL display is completely flat. Not having curves makes it easier to interact with. You’ll have no issues with phantom touches at the edges or on the curves because Google did the right thing and made this completely flat.
Software & Performance
Arguably, the Pixel 4 XL’s greatest strength alongside the camera is the “pure” Android software experience. It’s still fantastic now 6 months on thanks to a series of updates that resolve some of the nagging issues.
One of the biggest bonus additions to the entire Pixel series this year has been the introduction of the Pixel Feature Drop. Quarterly feature additions that enhance the experience by giving supported hardware extra functionality and improving the original out-of-the-box experience in the process.
When running Android 10, I had no issues with slowdowns or app crashes. Now that I’m running the notoriously buggy Android 11 Developer Previews, I’ve seen problems but to be able to run the latest unreleased builds ahead of a full OS upgrade later this year is fantastic. If you simply must have the latest updates on your phone — beyond Apple — the Google Pixel series is still the only way to go on Android.
Should you stick with stable Android 10 builds, the aforementioned Pixel Feature Drops give you plenty of Android 11 Developer Preview features for a fully rounded experience. This is a phone that runs just as well after 6 months of daily use as it did as a fresh device on launch day — something not many other devices can claim.
It’s with regret that I have to tell you again about the battery woes with the Pixel 4 XL. On average, I will see around three to four hours of screen on time with “normal” usage — plenty of WhatsApp and Slack messaging, emails, and Pocket Casts abuse. That is probably fine for most people but it just isn’t consistent enough on a daily basis to be an “exact” figure — although Screen on Time is a poor metric in that regard.
As soon as I deviate from this regular usage, battery anxiety becomes almost too hard to bear. Watching your battery percentage dropping almost in realtime when doing anything deemed “power-intensive” is not something I miss when switching to a device with a substantial battery.
What’s more confusing is that some smartphones with only slightly larger batteries fare so much better. The OnePlus 7T is a prime example as it has a 3,800mAh battery compared to the 3,700mAh cell in the Pixel 4 XL. It can still manage to get through a day, whereas the Pixel 4 XL sometimes struggles.
Is this something to do with the Pixel 4’s battery optimization? We’re not entirely sure, but even with the extra features likes Motion Sense disabled, it still fares poorly. Plus, you shouldn’t have to disable core selling features just to make it through an average day. On top of that annoyance, the standby time is by far the worst of any modern phone I have used. Leaving overnight it can lose as much as 20% with Do Not Disturb mode activated throughout — that is actually terrible.
Anecdotally, software updates appear to have made a minor difference, but if I’m heading out for a long day (not common at the present moment due to COVID-19) I always ensure I have a power bank on hand to give me a little extra juice. Feeling tied to a charger is not something I’ve had with the Pixel 3a or 3a XL, so let’s hope the Pixel 5 can resolve this come release.
The beauty of the Pixel 4 XL is that you can just take it out of your pocket, snap the shutter button and 9 times out of 10 you are guaranteed a great photo. It’s simply the most enjoyable smartphone camera experience on the market. Sure, plenty of smartphones have better hardware, but there is a reason that we see people rushing to download Google Camera ports on their devices.
Google’s “special sauce” is the processing, and there is no denying that this is simply the best of the bunch. Some of the initial images I took within the first few weeks of purchasing the Pixel 4 XL are among my favorites I’ve ever taken. It always feels like I’m going to “nail” a shot before I even contemplate taking it, it’s quite tough to fully describe.
The consistency is simply unmatched for simple point-and-shoot smartphone photography. When I’m carrying the Pixel 4 XL, I feel excited to take photos — something no other smartphone seems to offer is that same desire and excitement.
I have missed the ultra-wide-angle lens, but it is not a lens I use often or even care about too much. Although I am not defending the omission, Google should really ensure that we have an ultra-wide option on the Pixel 5. Being able to get that wide shot is something I have missed the most when doing touristy things. The telephoto zoom lens is fantastic though, even though it is mainly handled by software.
Super Res Zoom enhances images exceptionally, but image quality does start to fall apart at 8x zoom. It’s definitely bettered by the growing list of smartphones packing in optical zooms, but the Pixel 4 XL hangs with them up to a point.
When it gets dark, Night Sight does a sublime job. It’s no longer the class leader, as the Huawei P30 Pro and even the Oppo Find X2 Pro excels at single shot night exposures, but it does a fine job in poor lighting. I do also like that basic Astrophotography is possible, but save the initial few weeks after launch, I’ve used it probably grand total of 5 times. I still haven’t managed to exceed the results on a cold Scottish night in late October — so I’ve essentially avoided using the mode since.
At the front, I’m sorry to say that I’m not a prolific selfie taker, but any selfies I have taken with the Pixel 4 XL have been exceptional. The portrait mode works just as well as it does on the rear-facing dual-camera setup. Prolific selfie-takers might miss the ultra-wide from the Pixel 3 series, but the undoubted quality from the solo front-facing lens won’t disappoint.
It’s a nice idea in principle, but Motion Sense is a bit of a gimmick. The added features do make it more useful but turning it off saves quite a chunk of battery life.
In my opinion, the haptics on the Pixel 4 XL have only been superseded by the OnePlus 8 Pro’s haptics. You get that nice pleasant “clink” when you tap and swipe. It’s full-bodied and in no way “buzzy” like cheaper smartphones. It’s still a few steps behind the iPhone but I still love the Pixel 4’s haptics.
I was not looking forward to losing fingerprint unlocks on the Pixel 4 XL, but the Face Unlock is a joy. It’s still a little fast for my liking, although I guess I prefer it being too fast than too slow. Remember the outrage over the eyes closed unlocking? Well, the recent March Pixel Feature Drop fixed that too.
We do need to see far more apps support for the biometric access though, as there are still only really about 15 apps that have added the option enabled since launch.
The Google Pixel 4 XL is a fantastic smartphone but, as it was upon release. However, $899 is still far too high an entry price to ask after 6 months. Luckily, it has had quite a few discounts and is almost constantly on sale. It still has probably the best smartphone camera, the best Android software, and the best update track record.
If you need a smartphone that needs to last all day, then it’s still tough to suggest the Pixel 4 XL. Although every time I come back to this smartphone, it’s with a smile on my face and love for the actual experience. The shortcomings make it hard to recommend for just about everyone, but now with a lower price-tag, the Pixel 4 XL for the experience alone becomes a really enticing prospect.
Where to get the best price on the Google Pixel 4 XL
The Google Pixel 4 XL can now be had for as low as $599 direct from Amazon, which is a far better asking price for the 2019 flagship. You can get it at other retailers such as B&H Photo, Best Buy, Walmart, and Target for similar pricing.
What has your experience been like with the Pixel 4 or 4 XL?
Did you pick up the Google Pixel 4 series at launch? If so, how is your device faring? Will you upgrade to the Pixel 5 should it offer a more “mid-range” experience? Let us know down in the comments section below.
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