(Pocket-lint) - Google's annual phone refresh isn't as mature as the likes of Apple and Samsung - or even Huawei - which dominate the smartphone market. But now in its fourth iteration, the Pixel is looking to change the story and explore new ways to enhance that bond between a person and their phone.
Launched alongside a smaller Pixel 4, Google spends its time telling us that it's not about the hardware - but about the ambient computing experience. The problem, when you're trying to sell people phones, is asking people to buy into that ambient experience when you're not offering them the most compelling device to access it on.
Shifting up design
- Black, white and Oh So Orange
- 160.4 x 75.2 x 8.2mm
- IP68 waterproofing
The biggest change in the Pixel 4 XL design comes from the finishes. While the materials are basically the same as the past few phones - metal and glass - the coatings on the phone make it feel a lot more tactile.
The edges, rather than being glossy and slippery, are coated for a grippier finish - on the orange and white versions, at least. When you're manipulating a big phone that's a great thing, but there's also an interesting contrast between the black of those edges and the colour of the rear of the phone.
Now with the same texture across the entirety of the device - there's no matte and gloss mix like before - Google has opted for black, white and orange as colours. That also means fingerprints aren't a problem, but as with any phone of this construction it's better protected by one of Google's great Pixel cases.
One of the great things about that orange finish that we've found with prolonged use of the Pixel 4 XL is that you can spot on a mile off. It's hugely distinctive and easy to spot a Pixel user and strike up a conversation.
The finish and the feel is good, leaving the impression of a premium handset, although the eye will be drawn to the camera array in the corner. Rather like the iPhone 11 Pro, Google has opted to expand the cameras and the housing that they sit in, which looks to be the trend for 2020. But there's also a stark difference to the iPhone 11 Pro: tap the back of Apple's flagship phone and it sounds solid; tap the back of the Pixel 4 XL and it sounds hollow.
Radar magic and face unlocking
- Soli radar chip
- IR-based face unlock system
The first thing you'll notice about the front of the Pixel 4 XL is that forehead - the bezel across the top of the display. Yes, it looks like a throwback to the Pixel 2 XL, and while it's great to wave goodbye to the Pixel 3 XL's comedy notch, there's a sense that Google really hasn't gone to town in trying to get a fashionable full-screen display.
There's a reason for that however. Firstly, there's a speaker and front camera. Secondly, it's where Google's Soli chip lives, which is used to power a system called Motion Sense which uses radar to detect you, allowing a range of gestures to interact with your phone.
Before we talk about Motion Sense, it's worth saying that bezel isn't necessarily bad. Getting stuck into plenty of Call of Duty: Mobile on the Pixel 4 XL, we found that the top bezel makes the experience better: when on the left, that gives some off-screen area for some of your hand to rest so there's less chance of accidental touches on the display when playing.
But back to the gestures. Motion Sense will let you wave away alarms, skip tracks with a swipe of your hand and interact with a small number of wallpapers (waving at Pikachu is a passing novelty, but not a lot else). The full scope of Motion Sense is yet to be realised - and Google says that this is a system that's just getting started - but as it stands we really can't see that it adds, well, anything.
It's not a feature we've been waiting to appear, it doesn't let you do anything you can't already do with voice or a tap of the phone. Some of the Motion Sense gestures might be useful for drivers - but outside of that, we'd need to see a game-changing function before we're sold on the need for it. Having used the phone for a number of months since launch, we've not used those gestures at all - so it seems a little pointless.
There's another reason the forehead on the Pixel 4 XL is so big though. It also houses the infrared sensors for the new face unlock system. This uses the same technology as Apple's Face ID, with an infrared dot projection, so it's biometrically secure enough for banking apps and so on.
When the phone was launched there was no third-party support for these systems, but that's slowly rolled out, meaning you're not at a huge disadvantage because of the lack of fingerprint sensor.
As for the unlocking itself, it's a lightning-fast system. The one good thing Soli does is wake the phone as you reach for it, powering up the face unlock circuits. It doesn't care on the orientation either - but it also doesn't care if you have your eyes open. That means your phone can potentially be unlocked while you're asleep, but Google has said it's going to add eye detection as a future update.
Display and hardware specs
- 6.3-inch Quad HD+ OLED display, 90Hz refresh rate
- Qualcomm SD855, 6GB RAM, 64/128GB storage
- 3700mAh battery
As to the core hardware of the Pixel 4 XL there's a 6.3-inch Quad HD+ display, larger than the regular 5.7-inch Pixel 4. The big change here is that this OLED display offers a 90Hz refresh rate. That was something that went down well on the OnePlus 7T and should mean smoother visuals - if you can see the difference. In reality, we don't see a huge difference in the overall experience, but that might come down to the type of apps that we're using.
Outside of the refresh rate, this is a vibrant display, dripping in quality and supporting high dynamic range (HDR) and we're really impressed with how well it presents content. It's pretty bright too, so it's a big thumbs up in this department.
The Pixel 4 XL sits on the Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 platform, with a bump to 6GB RAM and storage options of 64 or 128GB. The bump in RAM will likely be welcomed by those who struggled with the 4GB of the Pixel 3 XL, but in many ways the performance will be governed by software optimisation. As such it seems that the Pixel 4 XL doesn't suffer the same immediate background app closing problem that the Pixel 3 XL did.
What Google has done, however, is launch a new flagship-grade device on hardware that's not quite the top of the pile. There's a new Snapdragon 855 Plus which is finding its way into devices like the OnePlus 7T, for example, and with the Snapdragon 865 announced in December 2019 and appearing in devices from February 2020, for the hardcore fans this isn't quite at the cutting edge.
In terms of absolute performance that may not matter as much as the spec sheet perception might come across, because the Pixel 4 XL runs fast and smooth - and we've found it to be a great phone for consuming media and playing games like PUBG Mobile and Call of Duty.
What lets the side down, slightly, is the battery life. There's a 3700mAh battery that will get you through the day, but only just. Intensive use will see you needing a charger - and it comes with an 18W fast charger - so while it doesn't take long to top it up, it's far from a class-leading experience. That was the same as the Pixel 3 XL and this looks like a trend: Google just doesn't seem as good at battery optimisation as the likes of Huawei or OnePlus.
Say hello to a new camera
- 12-megapixel f/1.7 main camera
- 16-megapixel f/2.4 2x telephoto camera
- Night Sight enhancements
When it comes to the camera, however, there's a more of a positive story to tell. Over the past few devices, the Pixel has excelled with a single camera, able to use software, AI and optimisation to achieve results that others can't manage - even with more lenses.
The second lens brings a zoom - a 16-megapixel telephoto - designed to increase the quality for those farther-away subject shots. What's interesting about it is the implementation. Google isn't giving you the option to switch lenses, you can't tap a button and be in the telephoto lens, instead you have to use the pinch zoom or the slider - and it's seamlessly integrated.
The new telephoto lens pops in at 2x and then handles the digital zoom out to 8x using a hybrid system. It's good quality too - and while it's a lot less effective at night or in low light, in daylight you'll get passable results out to 8x and better results if you don't need to zoom so much. This is a big improvement in terms of zoom for the Pixel.
Google has also boosted the skills of Night Sight. The first aspect of this is that it's better in low-light without Night Sight turned on: you can take a passable low-light photo without engaging Night Sight, so it's much more like the Huawei P30 Pro in that sense. Night Sight will still be recommended and it's still a great system - but now it's rivalled by a lot of other devices, like the Apple iPhone 11.
Beyond that, Google has added an astrophotography mode. Taken at face value this might seem little more than novelty value, but it's really Google showing what's possible. To use the mode you'll have to have your phone steady - on a tripod, for example - and then it will take photos in series of long exposures with some cleaning up as it goes. Yes, it takes about four minutes to get a photo, but the results are amazing and it's easy to do. You might never get the chance to use it, but there's real power here - and at lot of that comes back to Google's computational photography.
In regular shooting, Google continues the stellar performance we're used to: it will give a great photo in pretty much all conditions. The saturation of the display adds real pop to them - more akin to Samsung's devices - and it's still a great phone for portraits, both on the front and rear cameras. One advantage Google has over other devices is that it uses the main camera for portraits, whereas some rivals use the telephoto lens, resulting in lower quality pictures.
But there's one new area that's really interesting and something we've not seen on other phones. Google calls it dual exposure, but don't confuse that with dual exposure of a manual film camera. What it does is take the idea of HDR and ramp it up, allowing you to independently set the foreground levels and background levels. That means you can lighten a foreground against a bright sky, or change levels to make a silhouette - or just tweak the image at the point of capture rather than afterwards in editing software. It's a powerful tool, but you need to be in the right situation to use it, and in all honesty, since review testing we've barely touched it.
For all the goodness - and there's so much here that's fantastic - with a third wide-angle camera becoming the norm, that's what photo fans will miss. It's offered by a number of rivals. Yes, you can use Google's existing Photo Sphere function to take those pictures, but it's not as swift, fast or natural as a dedicated lens.
All the software goodness of Android 10
The Pixel 4 XL runs a pure version of Android 10, with a few additions to stand it apart from some of the other leading Android smartphones.
There's a voice recorder app that will live transcribe your notes and turn them into text. That text is also searchable, meaning it's great for students or journalists. It works well, but does make some mistakes in transcription - but you can easily listen to the recording and change those words as necessary. All the processing happens on the device, so it's not data hungry, and it's exclusive to the Pixel. For how long remains to be seen, but it's another good example of Google's leaning towards a smarter device experience.
We've long been fans of the Pixel's position with Android. Being at the front of the queue for updates remains a real advantage for those keen to have the latest Google functions, but it's not quite the advantage that it once was. Other manufacturers are getting better at updating - and some are better at optimising the software experience too. OnePlus has been fast to update to Android 10 and its phones generally run a little smoother than Google's too.
Still, we love the software and the overall experience of uncluttered Android - and this might be one of the core reasons for buying this phone. With a lack of flagship-grade pure Android handsets, the Pixel almost becomes the default choice.
Once again it's the camera that sings in the Pixel 4 XL. It's a pleasure to use and now paired up with a great display, it's a really compelling experience when it comes to capturing photos and video on your phone. While there's no wide-angle lens, the performance across the normal, portrait, zoom and low-light photography makes this a top phone for those who want to take photos.
While the design is interesting and there's plenty of power, there's a couple of areas where the Pixel 4 XL doesn't quite topple its rivals. The battery life is far from class leading - although some may be perfectly happy to accept that - and Soli and Motion Sense gestures don't really add much to the experience. Those Soli functions may change over time, but we're accustomed to using a phone in the hand - as that's what it's designed for.
Overall, the Google Pixel 4 XL is interesting and a great pure Android handset. But rivals have closed the gap in camera performance, offer more power, more compact design and better battery life. While it's attractive now, we suspect that in four months time this phone will feel old.
Originally published on 24 October 2019.
Alternatives to consider
Huawei P30 Pro
The Huawei P30 Pro has an edgy excitement about it. Yes, there may be a bit of a question mark over the future relationship with Google, but it offers great power, great performance and great battery life - and it's still ruling the camera experience on smartphones.
OnePlus may have hopped and skipped through four phones in 6 months, but the OnePlus 7T is hard to ignore. It's more powerful than the Pixel, there's been improvements in the camera (although it's not quite as good as the Google phone) and the software experience is great too - and all for a cheaper price.