Tech

Google Pixel 4 XL review

After being leaked in its entirety several times leading up to launch, the Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL are now official, and will be heading to Australian retailers on October 24th. 

It’s the fourth generation of their ‘Made by Google’ Pixel phones. The Pixel line is designed entirely from the ground up by Google, rather than by modifying an existing design from an OEM, which is how their Nexus phone line was brought about. 

While the Pixel line hasn’t traditionally set the world aflame in terms of high volume sales, Google has stuck at it and the Pixel has become synonymous in the Android world with a high-end experience, which incorporates the latest features in Android with a camera that sets the standard in mobile photography.

You pay for the features in a Pixel though with the smaller Pixel 4 priced to start at $1,049, while the Pixel 4 XL starts at $1,279. There’s three colour options, Clearly White, Just Black, and the limited edition Oh So Orange, which Google says is only available for a limited time.

Hardware
Google handed us a Pixel 4 XL for the review, and it’s almost identical to the smaller Pixel 4 but for a few differences. The screen on the Pixel 4 is 5.7-inches with FHD+ resolution, while the Pixel 4 XL has a 6.3-inch QHD+ resolution display. The phones also differ in battery size with the Pixel 4 packing a 2,800mAh battery, while the Pixel 4 Xl has a larger 3,700mAh battery.

The rest is the same. The design is fairly familiar, though refined from the previous Pixel phones. Gone is the two-tone, dual texture on the rear, replaced with a single piece of glass. There are slight differences between the colours, with the white and orange both matte, while the Black is glossy – and in the two minutes I saw it, it was covered in fingerprints. 

The rear of the phone is adorned by a simple ‘G’ logo, with a square camera bump that includes dual cameras – a 12.2MP main sensor, and a 16MP sensor behind a 2x telephoto lens. There’s a laser auto-focus sensor and flash mounted in the camera bump, but apart from that the rear of the phone is clean.

The Pixel 4 has a matte black aluminium band running around the edge for increased grip and it seems trite, but it actually does make it easier to hold. The power and volume rocker are on the left, with the power button standing out with a splash of colour as has become a familiar flourish for Pixel phones.

Under the hood you get the Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 – not the 855+ unfortunately – and 6GB of RAM, with options for either 64GB or 128GB (except the Orange which is only available in 64GB). Performance wise, the Pixel 4 checks all the boxes and there’s been no sign of the memory issues Google experienced last year with the Pixel 3.

Notably, Google has stepped back from the controversial notch included on the Pixel 3 XL display, instead they’ve owned the ‘forehead’ on the Pixel 4 phones by including a slew of hardware. As well as the 8MP front-facing camera, Google included a few specific pieces of hardware for biometric unlock as well as their Soli radar chip to enable gesture navigation – but we’ll come back to all this.

Display – Smooth Display
Bucking the current trend in flagships sticks to some ‘Googley’ decisions, including the choice to stick with a flat display that sharply curves off at the edge, disappearing into that aluminium band.

The screen itself is brilliantly good. It’s colour accurate, with the folks over at DisplayMate awarding the display the highest possible score. You can play around with the display settings in Android, but for the most part the Adaptive option seems to look best for me.

The screen also now has a 90Hz refresh rate, making a big improvement when it comes to the way the phone displays transitions and how smooth games look.

Google calls the technology ‘Smooth Display’, but it’s not a Google only feature with Razer, One Plus and a number of other manufacturers starting to see the benefits of using a display with faster refresh rate in their phones. 

Animations look better and games look amazing (if they support it), in short I had never truly paid attention to screen refresh before now, but after using the Pixel 4 XL, I can’t unsee the smoother display. 

The 90Hz does have to be switched on in Settings, where you’re dutifully told that the higher resolution display will sap your battery faster, and it does, but it looks so good it’s worth the battery hit.

Lastly the Ambient EQ display feature found on the Nest Hub and Nest Hub Max is now used on the Pixel 4. Ambient EQ attempts to mimic the surrounding environment by automatically adjusting the display colour temperature of the display.

Motion Sense and Quick Gestures
One of the big inclusions for the Pixel 4/Pixel 4 XL is their Soli radar. First introduced in 2015 at Google I/O, Project Soli can detect movements and more without you having to touch the phone. 

Google has given Soli a new name for the launch: Motion Sense. As well as offering a new user paradigm they’ve named ‘Quick Gestures’ for snoozing alarms, dismissing timers, silencing calls and even just skipping tracks. 

Quick Gestures are, well, they’re different, and it takes some getting used to. There’s essentially only one gesture: a swipe across the front of the phone, which makes it easy to learn. 

The screen doesn’t need to be on to use Quick Gestures, just make sure your hand is within the ‘60cm bubble’ that Google says Soli operates in and it seems to work. To make it easy on you, there’s a glow on the display when Motion Sense detects your hand making it a little easier to trust the new gestures.

You can do some training with Google in their ‘Pixel Tips’ app when you get your phone, but far and away a better option is to install the Pokémon wallpaper on your phone and use the pat, and wave gestures to interact with Pikachu, Evee and a bunch more of their friends.

Motion Sense is also tied into another new feature on the phone: Face Unlock, with Motion Sense sensing when you’re lifting your phone to ensure all the hardware is awake, and ready to sense and authenticate your face when you look at it. 

Face Unlock
Google has a history with Face Unlock, and it’s not a good one. First introduced in Android 4.x (Ice-Cream Sandwich), Google’s first face unlock was buggy, and essentially insecure with the front camera doing all the authentication. That changes with the new biometric input on the Pixel 4 which includes dual Face Unlock IR cameras, a flood illuminator and Face Unlock Dot Projector – all eerily similar to the setup Apple introduced for Face ID on the iPhone.

Face Unlock on the Pixel 4 works, but not flawlessly. I had about a 75-85% hit rate with Face Unlock. When it works, it’s seamless, fast and convenient, but when it doesn’t it’s annoying, but you enter in your fallback pin and you’re away. 

There’s not a lot you can do to help the Face Unlock work, it’s all down to bringing your phone up to view your face and hoping it works. This is Google though, and you just know they’ll be tweaking algorithms in the background to improve things. 

Though Google can fix a lot of things on their end, they still can’t fix third party developers. Unfortunately there’s a lot of apps including banking apps, password vaults etc. who use the older Fingerprint API rather than the Face Unlock API. This means until those apps are updated you’ll be entering in passwords manually a lot.

There is also a little controversy floating around regarding Face Unlock. Soon after launch it was found to be working even when your eyes are closed. This opens the possibility of someone simply holding the phone up to your face while you sleep to gain access to your phone. 

Apple has already implemented a ‘Require Attention’ option for Face ID, which means you have to be looking at your phone before it unlocks. Google has said they’re looking into this, so expect an update soon.

Camera
Here it is, the section we all want to hear about: the Pixel 4 camera. 

The Pixel 4 camera is fantastic. There’s no other way to say it. The competition is snapping at their heels however with Apple announcing improvements on the iPhone with low-light photography, as well as upping their game in all other aspects. Android vendors are also either catching up, or at times surpassing the quality of the Pixel camera, but it’s a close race which Google is keen to maintain a lead on.

In the Pixel 4 we get a 12MP main sensor which has been a mainstay of the Pixel line since its inception, though Google says they’ve tweaked the sensor specs slightly. The main sensor is paired with a 16MP sensor behind a telephoto lens. 

I’m a little disappointed that Google went with telephoto rather than ultra-wide, but it’s a personal preference and there’s no arguing that the telephoto, when combined with their Super Res Zoom function launched last year, takes a great photo.

If you were worried about the quality of the Pixel 4 camera, there’s nothing to be concerned about. It’s still just as good as you could hope for.

In a bid to stay at the top of a very high-quality field, Google introduced some new features into the Pixel 4 camera. The list of new features includes Live HDR+ previews, Dual Exposure controls, an Astrophotography mode and also some improvements to their portrait mode. 

For sticklers, Google’s Live HDR+ preview is all about ensuring that what you see on the display of your phone is what you get in a photo – or What You See Is What You Get (WYSIWYG). 

The feature drives home how vast the difference is between what you see on the display and the outcome on some other phones. It’s a solid feature, but not one that’s going to be a huge driving factor for choosing the Pixel as a camera. 

The Dual-Exposure controls are by far more interesting than the Live HDR+, giving you sliders to adjust brightness and shadow when you tap on the viewfinder. 

The sliders are all about offering you the option to remove silhouette when you’re backlit, usually at sunrise or sunset. Google pretty much does all this adjusting for you automatically, but you can now fine tune these levels using the sliders, giving you some great shots in what would otherwise be challenging conditions.

Google introduced a game changing feature on the Pixel 3 last year: Night Sight. Using computational photography they managed to produce results in almost dark environments that outclassed pictures taken with a flash by a country mile. These features, were and still are a game changer for mobile photography, even forcing Apple into addressing it in their event this year.

For the Pixel 4 Google has added a new astrophotography mode to Night Sight that will help you capture ‘high quality images of the night sky, including stars, planets, and even galaxies’.

To be honest, the Astrophotography mode was the highlight of the announcement. As a bit of a space nerd, I’ve always wanted to take great pics of the stars and Google says the Pixel 4 is ready to deliver.

Astrophotography mode in the camera will open the shutter for up to 15 seconds at a time over multiple exposures – with the end result an amalgamation of these images. In testing I had waits of up to 5 minutes while the camera took multiple images and then layered them. 

To get the best results you’ll need a tripod, or a place to rest your phone on while it takes these long exposures. Unfortunately there’s no manual way to invoke the Astrophotography mode, with the option simply showing up when the phone is held still long enough while in Night Sight mode. 

The results were pretty impressive given I was taking shots in the middle of Canberra, a fairly urban environment. I’m looking to get away from the city at some stage to take more shots in an area with less light pollution, but for most people these are some great shots.

Finally Google has introduced a new ‘Frequent Faces’ mode, which, once you turn it on in settings, will learn the faces of people you most commonly photograph and highlight photos in which those people are smiling and not blinking. 

I’m not totally sold on ‘Frequent Faces’, the results of which are found in the ‘Top Shot’ style feature introduced last year on the Pixel 3. To access them you swipe up on a picture and then slide along the carousel of pictures to choose your shot. They’re there, but I’m not sure I’ll use this, much like the Top Shot feature from last year.

A big flag for the Pixel 4 announcement this year was the lack of unlimited photo storage in full resolution for Pixel phones. Instead Google now offers unlimited storage of images in ‘High Quality’ instead of ‘Original’ which is severely disappointing. It’s a small thing, but after 3 generations of Pixel phones, I may just have to start looking at paying for some photo storage – or start getting used to ‘High Quality’.

Google’s still shot on Pixel is phenomenal, but one place Google has neglected is video and it’s becoming a problem. 

The Pixel 4 camera can record in 4K, but alas you’re limited to 30fps. This is in stark contrast to the majority of the competition which offer 4K/60fps video recording options. Google hasn’t implemented 4K video with 60fps for a specific reason citing the majority of users who stick to 1080p video recording, as well as the large amount (half a GB every minute) of data used by 4K 60fps. 

If there’s one thing Google needs to do for the Pixel 5 it’s show some love for video. Samsung introduced on-device video editing, as well as Zoom Mic for the Note 10, and features like these, as well as 4K/60fps are becoming more important for users. 

Battery
The battery life discussion is fairly short with the Pixel 4 XL. You get a 3700 mAh battery inside which has been lasting around 12-15 hours per day, but with only about 3-4 hours of screen-on time.

The major battery suck for the Pixel 4 XL appears to be Motion Sense and Smooth Display.

Though I can get through a day, it’s not with heavy usage. I had to actually think about what I was going to be doing and if I’d need a top-up charge.

The Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL do allow you to recharge quickly though with the 18W charger included in the box. I splurged last year on the Pixel Stand wireless charger which also works quite well, with the bonus of some neat features.

If the Pixel 4 XL is struggling to reach a full day of decent use, my concern is for the smaller Pixel 4 with its 2,800 mAh battery. If you’ve switched Motion Sense and Smooth Display on, and have your screen brightness turned up, you could be in trouble.

Software
As has been the case since the Nexus line, Google uses the launch of their phones to showcase the latest version of Android and the Pixel 4 is no different. 

Launching with Android 10 and with the promise of Android version updates for at least 3 years, the Pixel 4 will be the centre of Google’s attention for at least the next year. You’ll see updates and features arriving on the phone first, including Google’s ‘New Assistant’ which they say is launching in ‘Summer’ this year. 

Having not used it, we can’t say much about the New Assistant, but the promise from demos is exciting.  We’ve seen multiple fast, strung together commands including taking screenshots, opening apps and much more all work seamlessly and quickly on the Pixel 4, now we just need it in our hands.

The biggest changes to Android 10 include the new gesture navigation which is on by default on the Pixel 4. The new gestures are decent, though it will take some time to transition.

The gestures are pretty simple, to go home simply swipe up from the bottom, to switch apps, swipe up from the bottom and then hold, and finally, to go back you swipe from either the left or right edge. 

Google has added a gesture for adding accessibility features, and a slightly different gesture for launching the Google Assistant, with a diagonal swipe up from either bottom corner triggering it as well. 

Failing all this – if you hate the gestures, you can jump into Settings and change them back to a the more familiar three button setup.

Google has also launched Live Transcribe on Android 10, giving you the ability to give you real-time captions on audio from videos, podcasts, and other sources.

Google has also leveraged Live Transcribe into the Recorder app, allowing you to capture not just the audio, but a transcription that includes labels for  “speech,” “applause” or “music” as well. 

The recorder also allows you to search your audio recordings, a handy tool for any meeting, lecture, or even a family get together or your bands jam session – or you can search your transcriptions. And it’s all backed up to Google Drive to make the recordings and transcriptions available just about anywhere in the world.

Frankly I can’t wait to try this out in our next team meeting, and if you’ve ever been stuck as scribe in a long, seemingly unnecessary meeting, then you’ll know exactly what this means.

Should you buy it?
The Pixel 4 is a conundrum for many people. The Pixel 4 offers the best of Google, and arguably one of the best phone cameras in the world – yet they do suffer from a few issues including battery life and the lack of app support for Face Unlock.

Google has a tough job ahead of itself when it comes to the mainstream market, but for everyone interested in phones the Pixel 4 is a pretty solid buy, but comes with those rough edges. That said, Google is well known for fixing those issues with software updates, so the next couple of months will be interesting.

While there’s no single stand out feature of the phone which demands you buy it, it’s more an evolution of both the design language of Google and the technology they’ve managed to put into the Pixel 4. For owners of the Pixel 3, there’s no pressing reason to update, but for an original Pixel, or Pixel 2 owner the Pixel 4 is a worthy upgrade.

For everyone else, the big question is usability. There’s a lot to like about the Pixel 4, the 90Hz display, phenomenal camera, and of course an up to date Operating System is a big plus. The price isn’t so attractive, though it becomes more so when compared against some of the big names on the market like the Note 10.

There also looms large the spectre of a Pixel 4a/Pixel 4a XL after the very well received Pixel 3a series earlier this year. Google and their team of ex-HTC phone makers knocked that one out of the park, and now we’re waiting to see what happens.

After a launch marred by issues last year, the Pixel 4 XL is shaping up to be a winner of a phone. If you’re in the market and you’re interested to see what the fuss is about, then the Pixel 4 XL makes a great place to jump in.

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