Google Pixel 4 XL review: An excellent phone in a strengthening field
The launch of new Pixels is now as regular as the launch of new iPhones, and Google's flagships for 2019 are the Pixel 4 and the Pixel 4 XL. New Atlas has been living with a Pixel 4 XL for several weeks, and this is our verdict on the new phone.
Apart from the bigger 6.3-inch screen and the bigger 3,700-mAh battery on the larger model, the two phones are identical. They come with specs that are hard to beat this side of 2020, with a Snapdragon 855 and 6 GB of RAM installed inside. Your internal storage choices are 64 GB or 128 GB on both phones.
In terms of design, the Pixel 4 XL isn't anything to write home about – Google has ditched the two-tone backing of previous Pixels, which is a shame in our opinion. The orange and white color options do look a bit more interesting than the black model we're testing here, but overall Google's design team looks like it's in need of some inspiration.
We are at least glad to see the back of the awkward notch that rather ruined the front of the Pixel 3 XL. The Pixel 4 XL sticks with uniform bezels around the side of the screen, and does without a fingerprint sensor altogether, relying instead on face recognition.
On the software side, it's the pure stock Android experience we're used to with the Pixels, plus a few exclusive extras: those extras include a really neat Recorder app that can transcribe spoken audio (memos, lectures, news reports) in real time, thanks to the magic of Google's AI algorithms.
The Pixel 4 XL also comes with the latest Google Assistant, which should respond more quickly to requests, and better understand follow-up commands, thanks to on-board smarts and processing in the cloud. Over the next 12 months, you can expect improvements to the Assistant to hit the Pixel phones first.
Then we have new Face Unlock technology, powered by smart scanning lenses built into the rather thick top bezel on the front of the Pixel 4 XL. Face recognition is nothing new of course, but the way Google has implemented it here is really smart and fast – in fact it's one of the best features of the new Pixel 4 XL.
You really need to use it to appreciate it, but it's close to instant – it's like your phone isn't locked at all. You're checking Twitter, and then put your phone down, and then the next time you pick it up you just carry on where you left off, no PIN code or fingerprint required. You don't have to waste minutes of each day getting past the lock screen.
Another feature enabled by tech built into the top bezel – in this case radar sensors – is Motion Sense. It enables you to operate your phone without touching it, so you can wave your hand above the phone to skip between songs in a playlist for example. Again, we've seen similar ideas before, but Google's implementation seems more polished than most.
We found this a bit more gimmicky than Face Unlock, but there are a couple of situations where it's really useful: one, it lowers the volume of your alarm when your Pixel senses your hand is reaching towards it. Two, it brings up the always on display and notifications only when your hand is in close proximity.
These extras really add to what's otherwise a fairly uninspiring (albeit powerful) handset from Google: the truth is there are better specced, better looking Android phones out there. We were reasonably impressed with the battery life though, landing at around 30-40 percent at the end of every evening after a day of average use.
In our usual hour-of-Netflix test we saw a battery drop from 100 percent to 93 percent, which is one of the best results on the board, and you shouldn't have any problems getting the Pixel 4 XL to last a day. That said, it's probably not going to be all that forgiving if you forget to charge it overnight (wireless charging is supported, same as last year).
We have to finish with the camera, which has been the primary selling point of the Pixels since their introduction in 2016. This year we get a second lens for the first time, a telephoto lens that helps Google's image processing software in getting better zoomed in shots. Technically, it's a 12.2 MP f/1.7 + 16 MP f/2.4 rear camera.
And, as you would expect, it's a wonderful camera too: capable of taking top-quality shots in all situations at all angles. Color is well reproduced, white balance is intelligently handled, and that camera zoom (a mix of optical and digital) is capable of getting some fantastic results.
The big party trick this year is not Night Sight – which remains excellent – but a new Astrophotography Mode. That's right, you can actually shoot the stars with the Pixel 4 XL. You do need to find an area where night pollution isn't a problem, and you do need to keep the phone still for a four-minute exposure, but it's incredible that we're now at this stage with mobile phones.
Once again, the camera is a compelling reason to buy a Pixel this year – check out our gallery, plus the plethora of Pixel 4 XL sample photos you can find elsewhere on the web. The caveat is that others, especially Apple, have been catching up in terms of mobile photography: the Pixels are no longer the clear leaders in the field that they once were.
The pros, then: the Pixel 4 XL has a fantastic camera, a large, sharp screen, a clean software experience, and some really useful extra features on top (Face Unlock, Motion Sense, AI voice transcription in real time). We've really enjoyed using the Pixel 4 XL, but not everyone will like all of its strengths as much as we do.
As for the cons, the design is a little insipid, there's no wide-angle lens on the camera, and it's a pricey handset too. There are a lot of fantastic Android phones on the market as we approach the end of 2019, and it's very difficult to make the argument that the Pixel 4 XL is the one that offers the best value – especially with the Pixel 3a still available.
The Pixel 4 XL is on sale now, US$899 unlocked for the 64 GB edition and $999 unlocked for the 128 GB model. For $100 less in both cases, you can get the 5.7-inch Pixel 4.
Product page: Google