Google Pixel 4 XL review: Seriously subjective
Google Pixel 4 XL$899.99
- Fantastic camera system
- Beautiful 90Hz OLED screen
- All-day battery life
- Great software experience w/ timely updates
- Face unlock
- An ultra-wide camera would be nice
- Battery life's good, but not great for some
- Price is rather high
Let me explain to you what my ideal phone is. I don’t use it as a statement piece for my personality since I just need it to work. I don’t need it to look flashy. I don’t need it to have the most features. And most importantly, I need to use it like I would a laptop in terms of getting stuff done with minimal interruptions and distractions. I also need it to last me all day, have a great camera, and provide a nice user experience.
The Pixel 4 XL, Google’s latest attempt at making a $1,000 phone, does just that. It is, by modern smartphone standards, boring. But I like it for that. It is by no means the most powerful smartphone on the market. But I don’t really care since it’s still fast. It doesn’t check every box for every user. But it checks 99 percent of mine.
When the Pixel 4 and 4 XL were announced, they were absolutely demolished by reviewers who claimed not having an ultra-wide camera was a deal breaker, battery life was miserable, and the design wasn’t anything to rave about. I can respect all these opinions, only because you can make a case for all of them.
That’s why I think the Pixel 4 XL (the one I’ve been using) is the most subjective phone ever released. It’s going to meet the criteria of only so many people, and a vast majority of potential users will likely be better off with something from Apple or Samsung. But I’m one of the people the Pixel 4 XL was designed for, and I’m gonna tell you why.
Editor’s note: I’d like to extend a shout-out to Verizon and Google who were both able to provide me with units of the Pixel 4 XL to review. Note that their generosity hasn’t influenced the outcome of this review in any way.
Design and build: function over form
Smartphones nowadays try to grab your attention with flashy looks, shiny finishes, and screens with little to no bezels. The Pixel 4 XL does none of this. Instead, it takes a much more conservative approach and puts function over form, starting with the design.
Right off the bat, the Pixel 4 XL is much different compared to Pixels of the past. Every Pixel phone up until the Pixel 3 had a two-tone finish on the back. With the Pixel 4, that’s gone, but it’s still easy to tell it’s a Google phone thanks to the colored power button, large camera sensor, and chunky border.
When I say chunky border, I mean it. The frame around the Pixel 4 XL is unlike any I’ve ever handled. Google wanted to make this part of the phone a distinct design characteristic. This does two things: it makes the phone stand out despite not being as attractive as a shiny stainless steel frame, and it makes the entire phone easier to grip. Seriously, despite having the Just Black model which is extremely glossy, the rail helps with gripability. I don’t feel like I’m gonna drop it when I don’t have a case on it.
Elsewhere, the Pixel 4 XL is pretty familiar. You get the same volume and power buttons on the right side, while the left is blank besides a SIM slot. At the bottom of the phone, you’ll find a single speaker and USB-C port, while the top simply houses a microphone. It’s pretty basic, but that’s all you really need in a phone anyway.
What isn’t basic is the aforementioned power button. Google has a tendency to add unique accents to its phones, and it’s chosen the power key to serve that purpose. With the Just Black Pixel 4, you get a white power button; with the Clearly White model, you get an orange button; and with the Oh So Orange model, you get a light orange button. I like the combination of the orange key and white backplate on the Clearly White model the most, but the white key on the Just Black is pretty good looking too, especially for Oreo fans.
On the front of the phone sits the screen which we’ll get to next, but I’d like to mention that it, too, goes against a popular punctilio among flagship phones: slim bezels. While the Pixel 4 and 4 XL have them, they’re not symmetrical, as there’s a pretty sizable forehead at the top. It’s functional, though, so at least for me, it’s pretty easy to excuse it.
Throughout the Pixel’s lifespan, Google has managed to pull off designs that blend function over form with playful aesthetics. Every Pixel has felt innocent, young, and manufactured with the purpose of highlighting the experience glaring through your screen. The Pixel 4 XL is no different, and I have to say, I’m a pretty big fan. It doesn’t look as good as the latest Samsung Galaxies and iPhones of the world, but it’s a functional form factor, and it’s something to appreciate.
Display: big, vibrant, and smooth
One of the reasons you’d buy a Pixel 4 XL over the standard Pixel 4 is the screen size, so let’s tackle the display.
On the front of the 4 XL, Google includes a 6.3-inch P-OLED screen with a 3040×1440 resolution. It has a 19:9 aspect ratio so it isn’t as tall as something like the iPhone 11 Pro Max. It’s also a bit fatter than other phones thanks to the ratio, but I kind of like it since it makes it easier to type and more pleasant to watch videos on.
The Pixel 4 and 4 XL’s screens are direct departures to what was on the Pixel 2 and 2 XL since colors are fantastic, contrasts are great, blacks are inky, and it doesn’t look like you’re viewing your screen through parchment paper. The 3 and 3 XL didn’t have this problem, but just in case you were curious, no, Google didn’t go back to its old ways here.
However, in the same breath, it kind of did. That’s because neither of these phones have notches. While the 3 stuck with top and bottom bezels, the 3 XL was subject to a gigantic notch that cut into its display way too far down. The Pixel 4 and 4 XL don’t follow in these footsteps and remain notchless across the board, just like the 2 and 2 XL.
Thank God. The Pixel 3 XL’s notch was a near deal breaker for me, and it annoyed me tremendously how content was shoved down so far from the top of the phone because of it. Using the Pixel 4 XL has been a delight for this reason since I get a big screen and nothing obstructing it.
You know what else is delightful? The refresh rate. Google is using a 90Hz refresh rate on the Pixel 4 which is 30Hz more than normal screens. Plenty of companies are doing faster refresh rates nowadays including OnePlus, Samsung, and Asus, and I’m ecstatic that Google brought it to the Pixel lineup.
I’m sure you’ve heard reviewers say, “When you’ve experienced a faster refresh rate on a phone, it’s hard to go back to 60Hz.” This is the absolute truth. After using the 90Hz panel on the Pixel 4 XL, it’s extremely difficult to go back to a phone that has a normal refresh rate. Everything feels way smoother, faster, and more fluid. It’s such a simple feature, but it makes a world of difference.
Google tries to be smart with the 90Hz refresh rate by throttling down to 60Hz when it thinks it isn’t necessary. This includes times when you’re watching YouTube videos or when you’re reading something for a long period of time, like a book. That’s totally fine – I’ve had no problems with this feature. In fact, it used to be worse: before the December 2019 security patch, every time you reduced the brightness below 75 to 80 percent, it would drop back to 60Hz. Now, 90Hz remains on no matter how bright your screen is, and that’s by far the correct thing to do.
Speaking of brightness, this is my only problem with the Pixel 4 XL’s screen. Unfortunately, it doesn’t get very bright, so you have to crank it to max brightness to see it outdoors. This isn’t too much of an issue, but in a world where the Pixel 4’s competitors are going up to 1,200 nits of brightness, the 450 nits on Google’s screens seems pretty lackluster.
Face unlock and Motion Sense
The most polarizing design characteristic of the Pixel 4’s screen is its forehead. But like the rest of the phone’s design, it opts for function over form. Let me explain.
Instead of cramming everything inside the forehead on the Pixel 4 in a notch, Google just made a gigantic notch and strapped it to the top of the phone. Nowadays, companies are afraid to do this because notches are cool. I’m not calling Google brave in this case, mind you, since the forehead kind of makes the phone look dated. But when you think about it, forehead isn’t that bad, especially since a) you stop noticing it after a while and b) it’s functional.
Inside the forehead, Google includes an array of sensors including;
- two IR cameras,
- a selfie camera,
- an ambient light/proximity sensor,
- a Soli radar chip,
- a dot projector,
- and a flood illuminator.
All of these sensors help power two of the biggest new features on the Pixel 4: face unlock and Motion Sense.
Starting with the former, face unlock on the Pixel 4 replaces the fingerprint reader from the Pixel 3, and it works just like it does on the iPhone 11. It maps your face using the IR cameras, dot projector, and flood illuminator; stores the data it records; and compares it to whatever data it collects when you try to unlock your phone. If it’s a match, you get in.
In practice, the feature works great. I’m able to get in my Pixel 4 XL in a very limited amount of time. I’d even go so far as to say it’s either as fast as the current iPhones or even faster since you don’t have to swipe up to get to the home screen.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said about security. Don’t get me wrong, face unlock on the Pixel 4 isn’t insecure like on OnePlus phones, and it isn’t powered by a single RGB camera. Instead, the phone doesn’t require your attention to unlock it, meaning your eyes can be closed and someone can get into your phone simply by holding it up to your face.
It’s kind of a weird problem to have with the Pixel 4. Sure, it’d be nice to know that both of your eyes need to be open for the feature to work, but in the same breath, are you really afraid of someone unlocking your phone while you’re sleeping? Like, do you not trust the people you sleep around?
Google has said in the past it’ll eventually roll out a fix for this security hole, but I can tell why they’re not in a rush. It isn’t like face unlock is broken. It just doesn’t require your eyes to be open in order to work. Do I wish the feature were there? Yes. But I can live without it in the mean time, especially since I’m not worried about someone unlocking my phone at night.
I will say, though, I hope more companies integrate the Pixel’s face unlock into their apps. It’s kind of frustrating to have to resort to unlocking fingerprint-friendly apps with my PIN. Third parties, if you’re reading this, please get to work. I just wanna get into Wells Fargo with my face.
The second big feature enabled by this pronounced forehead is Motion Sense, and it’s the most interesting of the two.
Also inside the array of sensors is a Soli radar chip. Back in 2015, Google announced it was working on Project Soli which used radar to do crazy things like change the volume of music by turning an imaginary dial in the air. Unfortunately, none of those concepts have made it to the Pixel 4, and instead, the Soli chip is used much more conservatively.
The marketing pitch for having radar in your phone, according to Google, is being able to flick through songs by swiping your hand across the top of the Pixel 4. I’m not detailing feature any more than simply saying it works. It doesn’t work well (I had about a 75 percent success rate), but it works nonetheless. I just don’t get why you can’t tap your screen to change songs.
The other perks Soli brings to the table are much more practical and functional, and quite honestly, I can appreciate the whole radar thing a lot more with these features.
The first is awareness. When you go to reach the Pixel 4, it can sense your hand and start waking up, thereby firing up the face unlock sensors. As your phone gets closer to your face, it detects your head, scans it, and unlocks your phone. This is a part of the reason why I think face unlock on this phone is faster than on the iPhone, and I absolutely love it.
Reaching for your phone also silences things like phone calls and alarms. When your hand gets closer, the volume of whatever’s ringing begins to drop. You can then swipe an alarm away or swipe up on the screen to answer a call. These two features make the Pixel 4 much more aware of your surroundings, and it’s another feature that makes the phone feel like a Pixel. It’s intelligent, it works well, and it’s practical.
Google had to do some type of marketing gimmick with its array of Motion Sense sensors. Apple did the same thing with Face ID (looking at your, Animojis). Swiping left or right to change songs doesn’t make your phone more useful or faster to use. It’s just there to show off the tech. And that’s fine! But when it comes to practicality, having your phone know when you’re approaching it is much cooler, and to me, it makes the Pixel 4 experience notably greater than it otherwise would be.
Camera: fantastic as always
The Pixel 4 and 4 XL have another feature that make the great, and it’s their camera setups. Obviously, I’m using the Pixel 4 XL in this case, but you can expect identical results with the standard Pixel 4.
Here’s the short of it: for yet another generation of phones, Google has achieved a fantastic photography experience when it comes to the Pixel 4 XL. The phone takes incredible pictures with amazing post-processing, vibrant colors, unique contrast dynamics, and fantastic detail and sharpness. Just look at these photos.
In terms of new features, there are a few of them worth talking about. For reference, the Pixel 4 and 4 XL ship with a main 12.2MP camera with an f/1.7 aperture. For the first time ever, the rear camera is paired to a secondary lens, with this generation of Pixel translating to a 16MP f/2.4 telephoto lens. With these two cameras paired with Google’s smart image processing, you can take some amazing zoom photos with much more detail than what you get out of normal telephoto cameras.
It’s thanks to Google’s Super Res Zoom which has been improved on the Pixel 4 thanks to the extra hardware. The company captures data at every opportunity it’s given, whether that means boosting sharpness or even recording handshakes while the viewfinder’s open. Overall, you get much sharper images out of the Pixel 4 when you zoom in than previous Pixel phones, and photos even come out sharper than on some competitors’ offerings.
With all the detail and post processing the Pixel 4 can handle, Google has introduced a feature called astrophotography. It lives inside the company’s Night Sight (which is still as incredible as ever in low-light environments). When it’s dark enough, the Pixel 4 and 4 XL can detect it and take a much longer exposure. You need a tripod for the feature to work the best, but I was able to get it work by holding it as steadily as I could.
While there’s no toggle to turn on astrophotography mode, you can tell when it’s on. How? By looking at the photos it can produce. For the first time, I’ve been able to take photos of stars in the night sky and capture some of the most incredible low-light shots I’ve ever taken with a phone. You have to look at these results to believe me.
Granted, it was a bit challenging to get away from light pollution during my testing, but my buddy David Imel at Android Authority drove up a mountain with his tech friends to test the feature out. You’d think he used a multi-thousand-dollar setup to take the photos he captured. Go look at them.
Astrophotography is just one of the newest features to come to the Pixel camera. The Pixel 4 also lets you adjust exposure and contrast live in the viewfinder before you take a photo. That way, you can take the photo you want without having to worry about overexposing your shot. It works really well.
In terms of portrait shots, there’s not a ton to talk about here. Every portrait mode photo I take still comes out fantastic, but I can’t really tell if there’s a difference over the Pixel 3. I thought there would be since you get a telephoto camera now, but I wasn’t able to detect any noticeable differences year over year.
There’s also a new feature called Frequent Faces which can detect the faces of people you often take photos of and focus on them. This will probably be good for people with kids who want to make them the focal point of every picture they take, but for groups of friends, it’s probably not a great idea to show anybody if you want to avoid jealousy.
Also, selfies are as great as they’ve been for the past couple of years. You only get a single 8MP f/2.0 lens this year, but it still has a wider field of view than most selfie shooters, so I was happy with how many people I could fit in a single frame.
Of course, the Pixel 4’s camera isn’t perfect. For instance, video quality is pretty much identical to last year. You can shoot in up to 4K at 30 frames per second, but it doesn’t look as good as the iPhone’s. Stabilization is pretty good, but the overall quality is choppy and not as smooth as it could be.
On top of that, Google took away unlimited original quality backups of photos and videos to Google Photos which makes zero sense. I guess Google just wants you to pay money for cloud storage.
Finally, there’s the lack of an ultra-wide camera. I wouldn’t necessarily call this a deal breaker since it’s still one of those features that’s “nice to have.” I do agree that it’s weird the company left it out on the Pixel 4 since almost every other manufacturer has a flagship with an ultra-wide sensor on the back. But to be perfectly honest, I’m not that mad.
These issues are pretty easy to dismiss (unless you require an ultra-wide camera). The Pixel 4 and 4 XL still have baller camera systems, and anyone who buys these phones will undoubtedly agree.
But you already knew that. I mean, it’s easy to assume the Pixel has an amazing camera. After all, it’s become a staple of the Pixel brand. One of the reasons people buy these phones is for the camera, and that hasn’t changed this generation.
That being said, competitors are beginning to get closer and closer to Pixel levels of image quality. For instance, the iPhone 11 Pro took the crown from the Pixel 3 for the best photos you can capture, and Samsung has made strides to get its image processing and hardware techniques up, especially with the recently announced Galaxy S20 series. The playing field is much more even now when it comes to what constitutes a “great camera on a phone.” You can pretty much buy any high-end phone you want and get a great camera. Just know, though, when you buy a Pixel, you don’t just get great photos; you also get a great experience thanks to astrophotography, zoom quality, and even the portrait capabilities.
Performance and software: Fast, fluid, and Android 10 with ‘the new’ Google Assistant
The Pixel line has also historically been known for having one of the cleanest and snappiest Android experiences you can have. That hasn’t changed with the Pixel 4 XL, and it’s even been improved over last year.
In both my Pixel 3 and 3 XL reviews, I had to mention the stuttery performance of both phones. I still don’t exactly know why both of these phones were so slow, but I think it’s a combination of poor software optimization and lack of RAM. I mean, both phones came with 4GB of random access memory. That’s not exactly a lot nowadays.
With the Pixel 4 and 4 XL, Google looks to fix the issue by throwing in an extra 2GB of RAM. The 6GB combined with Qualcomm’s powerful Snapdragon 855 processor has translated into an experience that’s plenty to handle casual use, heavy tasks like gaming, and multitasking between apps like Spotify and the camera. I wish the base model of the phone came with more storage than 64GB (and the top-tier model came with more than 128GB), but other than this gripe, I haven’t had any problems with the specs inside the Pixel 4 XL.
I’ve also noticed the build of Android 10 on the Pixel 4 XL feels much more stable compared to how Android 9 Pie performed on the Pixel 3s at this time last year. Everything feels buttery smooth on my Pixel, and I absolutely love it.
Speaking of Android 10, that’s what comes pre-installed on both new Pixel phones. I won’t detail it too much here, but you do get dark mode, updated gestures that are miles better than before, and some new apps like a recorder that automatically transcribes audio into readable text. You also get Live Caption which can give you captions for any audio that comes out of your phone, regardless of whether you have your volume turned up or down.
And, of course, because it’s a Pixel phone, you’re first in line for software updates which is a fantastic status to be.
The biggest new software feature in the Pixel 4 and 4 XL is the “new” Google Assistant. I say “new” in quotes because it’s not necessarily new. In other words, it’s the same Google Assistant you’ve come to know and love, now with a new base.
See, on the Pixel 4, Google is introducing a new look for the Assistant with much more transparency than before. I kind of dig it since you don’t get distracted by a giant white card like before. And yes, you can still trigger it by squeezing the sides of your phone.
But the biggest reason why Google calls it “new” is because of how the Assistant is powered. Instead of resorting to the web to transcribe your voice and play responses, it does everything locally. The best part? It barely takes up any storage on your phone.
This is what we call in the tech industry a Great Feature. It means that the Assistant is now much faster to respond to your questions and more encouraging to use. For me, I rarely use voice assistants on my phone, but when I used the new Assistant on the Pixel 4 XL, I could tell just how impactful this change will be for people who use it frequently.
No, I don’t know when the new Google Assistant will roll out to older Pixel phones, and I have no idea if/when third-party Android devices will get it. Right now, it remains a selling point for the Pixel 4, and it’s a pretty great one.
While still on the topic of performance, audio performance is also great with the Pixel 4 XL. The dual stereo speakers (one bottom-firing, one front-firing earpiece) have rich bass and good clarity, even at high volumes. Speaking of which, these speakers get loud and are definitely enough to fill up small to medium-sized rooms. There’s no headphone jack, but what were you expecting?
Battery life: it’s absolutely fine
Ah, battery life. The biggest, most controversial part of the Pixel 4 and 4 XL lineup. It has become the reason reviewers can’t recommend either phone to anybody in the market. I can’t comment on the Pixel 4 since I haven’t used it (and I really don’t want to because that 2,800mAh battery scares me to death), but I can tell you how the battery life is on the Pixel 4 XL.
It’s absolutely fine. Seriously. The 3,700mAh battery inside the phone is plenty to get me through a full day of use. I don’t measure screen-on time since I’d have to report 2 – 2 1/2 hours of use every time I did a review (it’s all thanks to a ton of Bluetooth music streaming, by the way), but for what I do on my phone (email, texting, social media, phone calls, work stuff), it’s absolutely fine.
When the first reviews of the Pixel 4 were published, almost every publication bashed both phones for having disappointing battery life. Could the Pixel 4 XL benefit from a larger battery? Absolutely. Should it last a bit longer than a single day? Yeah, probably. But I’m not in the group of people that have to have two-day battery life. I’m fine with one. My iPhone XS (God bless its heart) has a 2,658mAh battery and lasts me a day, and I’m fine with that. The conversation around what constitutes good battery life has to change. No more of this “7+ HOURS OF SCREEN-ON TIME IS WHAT YOU HAVE TO EXPECT IN EVERY HIGH-END PHONE!” garbage. Just give me a phone with reliable battery life. That’s all I want, and the Pixel 4 XL gives it to me.
In terms of charging speeds, this is an area where Google should probably improve things. The included charger is 18W which is fast enough for some extra juice before you leave in the morning, but is pretty slow compared to the 30-45W chargers shipping with other phones. I’d love to see a 25W or 30W charger with the Pixel 5, so if any Google product managers are reading this, count a faster charging brick in my list of requests.
Of course, the Pixel 4 XL also has wireless charging, minus the fancy reverse wireless charging that’s popular nowadays.
Finally, I’d like to briefly talk about connectivity. I tested the Pixel 4 XL on a unit provided by Verizon on Verizon’s 4G LTE network in and around South Jersey. I also tested Google Fi on a unit directly from Google. Both phones offered good data speeds of around 10-15Mbps upload and around 25-30Mbps download. I did notice I’d drop bars on Verizon more often than Google Fi, so if you’re considering carriers in SJ, for a more reliable connection, Google Fi may be the way to go.
As you can tell by this review, I’m a fan of the Pixel 4 XL. But in the same breath, I can understand why you might not be. The battery life thing is a big one. You might use your phone like a maniac and require a device that lasts at least two days. Or maybe you need an ultra wide camera. Or maybe you hate the minimal and functional design and want something more modern and flashy.
No matter what your opinion is on this phone, I can respect it. It’s just one of those phones: it’s either designed for you or directly against you. I’m a pretty simple guy, so I can appreciate the straightforward-ness of this device. I don’t mind the single-day battery, simplicity of the camera system, minimal software, and function-over-form design. I also prefer the face unlock feature to a traditional fingerprint reader.
The Pixel 4 XL is one of my favorite phones ever. That’s my subjective opinion. Maybe it’ll be that way for you, maybe it won’t be. If it is, you’ll love this device. But if you have any gripes with this device at all, you’re better shopping elsewhere.
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