Google Pixel 4 XL full review
After one of the most leak-ridden journeys to market in smartphone history, the Google Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL are finally on store shelves for you to pick up.
In true Pixel style, both phones offer clean designs, promise top-notch photography smarts and the purest take on Android there is, complete with a level of polish unique to Google. At the same time, a myriad of decisions have been made that raise a few eyebrows, both in the context of the phones themselves, as well as their positioning in the current phone market.
As the name implies, the Pixel 4 XL shares in its sibling's talents, stylings and features but pushes the experience across a larger footprint; meaning you have a bigger screen, body and battery to work with.
Price and Availability: Small savings
In spite of the deluge of leaks beforehand, the 'Made by Google' keynote that took place in October 2019 served as the stage for the Pixel 4's official debut. Following the launch, the phones were made available for pre-order and have been ready to buy as of October 24, in various markets including the US and UK.
In the UK at least, the Pixel 4 and 4 XL actually come in slightly less expensive compared to last year's Pixel 3 series, which started at £739/$799 and £869/$899 for the base models, respectively. The Pixel 4 starts at £669/$799 for the 64GB model and costs £769/$899 for the 128GB version, while the 4 XL starts at £829/$899 and also costs £100/$100 when you double the storage.
For the first time, Pixel fans Statside can actually pick up both of this generation's phones on all of the country's major carriers: AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile, Xfinity, Spectrum, and Google Fi. In the UK, if you're not buying direct from Google, these devices are also available from our biggest players: Vodafone, EE, O2, Three and Carphone Warehouse.
It's also worth noting that the 'Oh So Orange' version of both sizes of Pixel 4 is considered a special edition, and as such, can only be had with 64GB of internal storage.
Design and Build: Reductive but still distinct
Pixel design language has always been clean, but the 4 and 4 XL take such stylings to their extremes.
While Google has included touches of colour, there's no rainbow gradient like you'd find on the likes of a modern Huawei phone, nor are there eye-catching "reflective geometric diamond-cut tiles", as found on the back of the Honor 9X - these phones are minimalist and understated by design.
Instead, you have a choice of three whimsically-named flat colours to choose from: Just Black, Clearly White and Oh So Orange. The 'visor' that once defined the back of every Pixel phone is gone, replaced instead by a continuous slab of glass that's only punctuated by the phone's significant camera module at the top and the monochromatic 'G' of Google's logo near the bottom. It was a touch that made the Pixel line easily recognisable and we're sad to see it go on this fourth-generation phone.
The black model we tested is easily the least exciting of the three colourways out there and thus the best choice for those planning on sticking the phone in a case or skin from the get-go. The phone's glossy back is as fingerprint-prone as they come but does, at least, serve as a subtle contrast to the rounded matte black aluminium frame running around the phone's edge (note: it's always black irrespective of which colour Pixel you go for).
One signature Pixel trait that has endured is an accented power key, which is white on the black Pixel, orange on the white model and peach/pink on the orange variant - an element that adds a hint of playful character to the phone's otherwise near-utilitarian aesthetics.
For those who pick up the Clearly White or Oh So Orange Pixels, Google has opted for frosted glass on the back instead of gloss, which changes the phone's look and feel a fair bit, and highlights a similarity with its most like-minded rival, the iPhone 11 series. What's more, that large camera module in the top-left corner also sits within the boundaries of a black squircle, again, much like this year's iPhones.
The rounded metal frame is broken only by that inlaid physical power key, a volume rocker (that we were surprised to find feels a little wobbly) and a USB-C port at the phone's base. The headphone jack ducked out of the Pixel recipe after the first generation but this year Google hasn't even included USB-C headphones or a USB-C-to-headphone jack adapter in-box.
The company expects most users to already rely on Bluetooth headphones, like the new truly wireless Pixel Buds it's working on for spring 2020. If you do want to go wired, however, you can pay Google £/$12 for its official USB-C-to-jack adapter or pick up its USB-C Pixel earphones for £/$30.
If you like simplicity in your smartphone aesthetics, the Pixel 4 XL should be right up your street. Its clean lines and contrasting textures are particularly pleasing to look at in Clearly White and it boasts some of the best build quality we've seen from Google thus far.
Motion Sense and Security: Look but don't touch
For some reason, Google always struggles with the bezels around its smartphone displays. They've always been relatively big compared to what else is out at the time, ever since the original 2016 Pixel.
This year, the company did see fit to nix the much-ridiculed gargantuan notch of the Pixel 3 XL in favour of a consistent 'forehead' of bezel running along the top edge of the 4 XL's display. While the smaller Pixel 3 opted for something similar last year, the narrow bezels elsewhere on the 4 XL actually emphasis this top border, although its appearance isn't simply a cosmetic faux pas, it's big for a reason.
The culmination of Google ATAP's efforts with Project Soli, the Pixel 4 XL comes with what Google has branded 'Motion Sense' and it adds some unique features to phone's skill set. Essentially a tiny radar chip programmed to recognise certain gestures, Motion Sense is the reason why the top edge of the Pixel 4 XL's bezel is so noticeable.
Motion Sense creates a proximity-aware 'bubble' around the phone that detects various actions. When you're near the phone it wakes the always-on display, making it easier to check the time and your notifications without the screen actually having to be truly 'always-on'.
With a wave of the hand you can skip tracks on the likes of Spotify and by holding or waving your hand when on the home screen, you can interact with the phone's exclusive Pokémon 'Wave Hello' wallpaper, which features animated versions of Pikachu, Eevee and the three eighth-generation starters, all of which react to your actions.
This inclusion is a seemingly random partnership but no less so than Google's previous dealings with the likes of the Star Wars franchise and Childish Gambino, within its Playground AR app, it seems.
As for the hardware itself, Motion Sense performs better at general detection - actions like the raise-to-wake for face unlocking seem near-faultless, while swiping or waving over the display to change the song your listening to can be a little more hit-and-miss.
There's a definite knack to cracking consistent correct behaviour from Motion Sense and even then, despite some smart implementation, it doesn't feel like it's quite the game-changing technology that Google might hope people think it is. Perhaps, if more apps support Motion Sense gestures and it becomes more prevalent throughout the user experience, its value will become more apparent, but that's a fairly big 'if'.
There's also the matter of the phone's face recognition, which is now the principal means of biometric authentication on Pixel 4, used for everything from unlocking the phone to authenticating purchases. It's fast, as face unlocking goes - probably the fastest out there - albeit still slower than the Pixel Imprint fingerprint sensor found on previous Pixels (mainly limited by the fact that the phone needs to actually see your face to initiate unlock).
The change also means you can no longer swipe to check your notifications pane from anywhere within the UI, instead only being able to pull off the swipe-down gesture shortcut when on the phone's main home screen.
The face recognition tech works well in low light, thanks to the structured IR light system in place, but unlike Apple's Face ID, there's no need to have your eyes open to unlock your device, inciting concern about how secure the Pixel 4 actually is.
Google says it's working to add eyes-open authentication as a requirement but the company is saying it'll take months to get the feature up and running. If you're worried about someone breaking into your phone by using your face while you sleep, you'll have to make do with the more traditional PIN or pattern for the time being.
It's also worth noting that, in its current form, the Soli radar technology powering Motion Sense inhibits Google from selling the Pixel 4 series in India.
Display: Sharp and smooth
The 4 XL's 6.3-inch HDR OLED display is narrower than that of the similarly-sized panel on its predecessor, as a result of a taller 19:9 aspect ratio (compared to 18:9 previously). The extended QHD+ resolution does also make the XL the sharper Pixel of this generation (the standard Pixel 4 uses a Full HD+ resolution display).
As you might expect, it's pleasingly crisp and thanks to that OLED tech, offers rich colours too. Viewing angles are promising, with next to no distortion and minimal brightness drop-off, however, overall brightness isn't as strong as we'd have liked; struggling to stand up to bright lighting conditions to a greater extent than its most like-minded competitors, particularly when viewed outdoors.
Google has also opted for particularly large radii on each of the screen's rounded corners, which can actually affect the viewing experience, especially when watching 21:9 or wider aspect ratio media; cropping the corners with disjointed rounding that leaves content looking awkward.
The company has included some smart display tech on the Pixel 4 XL to sweeten the pot, such as Screen Attention, which keeps the screen on so long as the phone detects that you're looking at it, as well as Ambient EQ: Google-branding (it also appears on the company's Nest Hubs) for Apple's TrueTone technology. It alters the white balance of the display to counter changing external lighting conditions, in order to offer a more consistent viewing experience.
Digging around, you'll find some basic colour gamut controls to tweak the visuals on the phone's DCI-P3-certified panel even further if you so choose, too.
The screen's standout feature, though, has to be the new Smooth Display ability, which is again Pixel parlance for a 90Hz refresh rate. It's a feature that's already cropped up on the likes of Razer's, Asus' and OnePlus' latest devices but this is the first time Google has employed the technology on a phone.
It offers super-smooth motion on-screen that makes the Pixel 4 XL feel really fast to use; as if the hardware is never really breaking a sweat. You'll most likely notice it when swiping around the main UI and the apps drawer but it'll appear all over the place. By default, it's a dynamic feature, with the phone shifting down to 60Hz when possible in order to conserve power.
You can disable Smooth Display from the phone's settings menu easily enough but it's harder to force the phone to remain in 90Hz mode all the time. Some early Pixel 4 adopters have discovered that the phone is geared to switch from 90Hz down to 60Hz whenever the brightness drops below 75%, as you're less likely to notice its absence under such circumstances. Most probably in the pursuit of power preservation, Google's hidden the ability to keep 90Hz mode on all the time behind developer options.
If you're feeling indulgent, the 90Hz display is a nice addition that helps reinforce the already-effortless feel of the Pixel's user experience, if you're more concerned with longevity, however, then switching it off is recommended.
Software and Feature: At your beck and call
Being the latest Google flagship, the Pixel 4 XL comes running the newly-released Android 10 too. The hardware has essentially been purpose-built to showcase the latest and greatest features of Google's mobile operating system and, for the most part, the Pixel hits its mark in this regard.
While we've bid farewell to the novel sweet treat codenames of previous iterations of Android, 10 brings a gamut of improvements to the table that make the transition bearable. Certain elements aren't or can't be explored on this specific hardware, like support for new aspect ratios and form factors, but there are a number of additions that do lend themselves to the Pixel 4's makeup.
One big shift sees much of the Google Assistant's skillset move on-device thanks to the inclusion of the new Pixel Neural Core. This makes for a more secure, and more impressively, faster Assistant experience.
With refined gesture-based navigation on Android 10 that resembles the iOS' current navigation setup, the Google Assistant can now be summoned with a swipe up against either of the bottom corners of the display, as well as by way of the "Hey, Google" wake word or the squeezable Active Edges as found on the previous two generations of Pixel.
As well as Continued Conversation, which lets you add follow-up queries relative to your initial question without the need for repeat uses of your wake word(s), there are a number of other new accessibility features that use AI and voice to streamline interaction on the Pixel.
The phone's native voice recorder app now offers real-time speech-to-text composition with impressive accuracy and what's more, recordings can be automatically tagged and searched, with the phone being able to differentiate between speech, music and applause and marking clips as such too.
The feature can be thrown by excessive background noise and, even if the option is enabled, blanked obscenities sometimes reappear once recordings run long.
There's also the option of live captions, which provide automatically-generated on-screen text to any spoken words from any audio or video source on-device, even when using headphones or when the volume is turned down. While not necessarily correct 100% of the time, they seem to offer greater accuracy than YouTube's automated captions, for example - not to mention the fact that they work system-wide and are instantly available is all very impressive.
The caveat to such features is that, beyond the journalistic community or in scenarios like lectures, the live transcription only offers niche appeal. There's also the rather sizeable caveat that, right now at least, you have to ensure your Pixel 4 is set to US English and that you don't have any G Suite accounts (Google business accounts) on your device either. For some reason, if either of these criteria aren't met, practically all of the distinct new Assistant and AI-driven features we just mentioned aren't accessible.
Camera: New sensor, new experiences
The camera is arguably one of the Pixel series' greatest assets. For the last couple of generations, Google hasn't really played with the main 12MP sensor at work in its flagship phones, instead elevating the hardware with astounding computational photography smarts. On the Pixel 4 and 4 XL, things are a little different.
Computational photography is still the name of the game here but, for the first time on a Pixel, there's also a secondary rear sensor sat alongside the phone's main 12MP snapper; a new 16MP telephoto camera to support the phone's zoom and depth-sensing abilities.
Before talking about image quality, the first question should be why Google opted for a telephoto module as the Pixel's secondary sensor. For one, of all the phones from the last 18 months, the Pixel 3 series arguably offered the best digital zoom (dubbed "Super Res Zoom") out there, so adding a physical zoom lens seems comparatively pointless, especially when one thing that can't be achieved by software alone is the ability to capture an ultrawide-angle perspective.
This is a conundrum that Apple also tackled with the base iPhone 11, opting for a wide-angle secondary sensor, which we think would have made more sense on the Pixel too. There's also the matter of the depth-sensing support that a second sensor facilitates.
Google was already able to add background bokeh to portrait shots by reading depth between two different pixels on the same sensor, now, with the 4 and 4 XL's secondary lens, it can pull the same trick between the two sensors themselves. In practice, however, there doesn't seem to be any noticeable uptick in the quality of the edge detection when shooting portrait shots, and in some situations, the camera on the 4 and 4 XL actually seems to have a tougher time making this distinction compared to its predecessor.
Beyond the odd choice of telephoto versus ultrawide, Google has added a few new software-driven camera features that genuinely do impress.
Night Sight blew users away last year, turning seemingly impossibly dark scenes into well-exposed, usable shots; now, Google has taken the concepts that power Night Sight and expanded them to grant the 4 and 4 XL the ability to capture stars in the night sky and even the likes of the Milky Way, with a new astrophotography capture ability.
The mode automatically becomes available when shooting the sky at night, whilst the phone is mounted perfectly steady, ideally (but not explicitly) on a tripod. Astrophotography shots take several minutes (up to four) to capture and, while you can vary the length of the exposure, the longer the better.
Being based in central London, testing this feature is seemingly impossible, thanks to the city's excessive light pollution, however, there have been more than enough samples and tests showcasing the feature elsewhere that highlight the phone's ability to capture beautifully arresting shots. With the most fundamental make or break aspect affecting image quality falling to exposure time.
As impressive as astrophotography is on a phone, it's a feature that, in truth, offers niche appeal. Two more practical include Live HDR+, which offers a more accurate approximation of how HDR+ shots will look after capture, directly from the viewfinder, and dual exposure controls, so you can tweak both the upper and lower exposure values together to control the highlights and darker areas of a scene before capture.
These additions are technically impressive but also pleasingly easy to use, falling in line with the Pixel's generally clean and simple camera experience, whilst also granting even more control over one of the most capable imaging experiences on a phone right now.
As with last year's phones, actual image quality is superb, with great dynamic range (that you now have the ability to manipulate before capture), accurate colours and capable noise suppression, even in low light. We were impressed with samples captured under artificial light, which retain more colour and detail information than rival devices would be able to render, without leaving images looking over-processed.
In typical Pixel fashion, the 4 XL shoots a little on the cool side but that can be fixed in post if desired, and colours 'pop' perhaps a little too much when using Night Sight at dusk or in scenarios where there are still numerous artificial light sources on hand. The reworked 12MP f/1.7 main sensor also offers better colour and contrast compared to the 16MP f/2.4 telephoto snapper.
Portrait shots offer a pleasing level of bokeh by default that you actually have the ability to vary after the photo has been taken, skin tones appear accurate, faces don't suffer from a doll-like smoothness and the only real gripe is that the phone's depth mapping, especially around patterned fabrics and hair, can become confused all too easily.
For selfie fans, Google's actually removed the secondary wide-angle camera that lived on the front of the Pixel 3 series, instead extending the view of the single sensor sat within the Pixel 4 XL's thick top bezel to about 90-degrees. Provided you're alright with the new wider perspective, selfies hold a decent amount of detail, usually turn out well-exposed and pleasing to look at overall.
There's weaker colour and contrast capture when snapping with the front cam but the fact that you can still access most of the main camera's features, including Night Sight and dual exposure control, is rather impressive, winning it back some points.
There's up to 4K video recording at 30fps and it looks good, but 'OK' doesn't really cut it at this level. Rival devices offer 4K recording at up to 60fps, better motion, colour and contrast capture, and generally more pleasing footage as a result. Google has been attributed to stating that 4K/60fps files would be too large, but rather than omitting the ability to shoot at such quality, when the hardware is capable enough to accommodate it, it would have made sense to simply offer higher storage capacities.
Performance and Battery: Just enough
Speaking of storage, as mentioned in the pricing section, both the 4 and 4 XL come with 64GB or 128GB of storage, and as these are Pixels there's no microSD expandability to speak of. With just over 12GB of that space occupied by the operating system, it looks as though living with a 64GB Pixel over your average two-year plan might be a challenge for some - something that could be a serious concern for those who opt for the Oh So Orange version, which is only available with 64GB of storage.
Google does offer unlimited photo and video backups via Google Photos but the promise of backup at original quality, free of charge - once a Pixel staple - is no longer part of the equation with the Pixel 4 and 4 XL. As such, if you want to retain that benefit, you'll have to fork out extra for additional storage via Google Drive or Google One.
While the price of this year's Pixels has dropped a touch, they're both still priced as fully-fledged flagships, but despite their standing, Google has opted for the older and marginally less potent Snapdragon 855 chipset. Qualcomm introduced a more potent revision of the chip later in 2019 called the 855+, which places a great emphasis on gaming and it's become the chip of choice for pretty much every Android flagship phone released in the second half of the year, except the Pixel 4 and 4 XL.
Benchmarking highlights both the disparity between the two original 855 and revised 855+, as well as the graphical hit that the 4 XL endures compared to the 4 as a result of its higher resolution display. However, despite what the numbers suggest, the phone feels great to use.
The effect comes from three main factors, underpinned by the nature of Google's clean Android 10 experience: the Pixel Neural Core, with its on-device processing smarts, the bump from 4GB to 6GB of RAM between generations, and the super smooth 90Hz display. Gaming also seems faultless, with nary a dropped frame, even whilst playing more demanding titles.
The one concern is the phone's propensity to heat up quickly to noticeable levels. Even just a few minutes of gaming causes the top left of the phone to warm by a reasonable extent, while charging has a similar effect. This isn't something we've encountered on previous Pixels and suggests the company should have looked into more robust cooling mechanisms before release.
Even before the Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL launched, concerns about the battery life of these phones emerged and the reality of that concern has since come to pass, especially with the smaller Pixel 4's lowly 2800mAh battery. Things aren't quite as bleak for the XL model though, as Google has thankfully used the extra space to grant the phone a larger 3700mAh cell.
Despite the bigger power pack, the XL's battery is still relatively small in the flagship phone space. Take into account the phone's QHD+ resolution and the addition of that 90Hz refresh rate and the power demands on such a battery shoot way up.
While artificial benchmarking places it in the same league as battery behemoths, such as the Huawei Mate 30 Pro and the OnePlus 7T Pro, under real-world conditions, the phone's performance is far less impressive. It usually doles out just over five hours of screen-on time per charge and said charge is only ever going to be enough to last you a normal day's use.
While it's fair to say that those with battery anxiety might want to look elsewhere, there is a sliver of hope for the Pixel's longevity. The phone comes with AI-driven adaptive battery tech that learns your habits and more tightly manages the phone's resources and power management, the more you use it.
With the short time in which we've lived with the Pixel 4 XL, there's a chance that the power management still hasn't been optimised to our usage habits. As such, we'll likely revisit battery performance after a month or so, to see whether the picture is any brighter.
As for charging, 18W fast charging endures from previous generations of Pixel, while the integrated Qi wireless charging has thankfully been upped from 5W to 11W, whether you're using Google's own Pixel Stand or not.
Does the Pixel 4 XL do as Google intended and show the best of Android right now? Sort of...
The phone's new onboard Assistant features, powered by that enhanced Pixel Neural Core and Motion Sense, feel leagues ahead of what any other phone can deliver right now, the Android 10 experience is wonderfully clean and responsive - thanks in part to that new 90Hz display - and the camera boasts some impressive new features, most of which you can't get anywhere else.
For all the innovation that Google has poured into its latest Pixel, however, it seems that everything comes with a pretty significant caveat.
Performance is great but it lags behind the competition out the gate because Google opted for the older Snapdragon 855 processor, which will age more rapidly. The battery will likely prove too small for most users' needs and expectations, just making through a day with considered use.
The 90Hz display is excellent but isn't as bright as its competitors and may prove problematic for some users as a result. Google opted for a telephoto sensor when its zoom abilities were already so good that an ultrawide-angle lens would have added greater versatility to the camera experience. Motion Sense is interesting but it's far from an essential feature that some users would have been happy to live without to benefit from thinner bezels.
The Google Pixel 4 XL is a great device in a market of excellent ones and while it lives up to the promises made by its creators, it'll likely fall short of most users' expectations, stumbling on the fundamentals more than the experimental new technologies on offer.
Google Pixel 4 XL: Specs
- 6.3in QHD+ (537ppi) F-OLED 90Hz Smooth Display w/ Ambient EQ and Gorilla Glass 5
- Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 octa-core processor + Pixel Neural Core
- 64GB/128GB storage, no microSD support
- Adreno 640 GPU
- Android 10
- 6GB RAM
- 12.2MP (f/1.7, 77°) rear camera w/ dual pixel phase detection and optical image stabilisation + 16MP (f/2.4, 52°) telephoto camera w/ phase detection and optical image stabilisation 8MP (f/2.0 90°)
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- Face unlock, Active Edge
- Motion Sense
- IP68-certified water resistance
- Stereo speakers
- Wi-Fi 2.4GHz + 5GHz 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac 2x2 MIMO, USB-C 3.1, Bluetooth 5.0, single Nano SIM, NFC
- 18W wired fast charging + Qi wireless charging (up to 11W)
- Just Black, Clearly White, Oh So Orange
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