It’s that time of the year again, this time with the release of the Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL. The Pixel has always been a platform for Google to showcase what their vision of a smartphone will be and it’s the software that brings it to life. Over a few generations of Pixel, we can see that Google is experimenting with different features, which is a plus by the way. Just like Soli Radar, when I first heard about it, it reminded me of Samsung’s Air Gesture. But it’s interesting to see how different and unique Google’s implementation will be.
If you already know by now, Google removed the Team Pixel stickers, 3.5mm headphone adapter and most importantly Google earbuds. The small price decrease doesn’t justify the omission of those items and I feel it’s important to provide users basic experience, especially for a thousand-dollar device.
Design and Build Quality
Google has been pretty safe for the Pixel 4 design, sticking to what works and removing what doesn’t. The 2 tone glass is now replaced with a full soft touch glass back which I personally like. The frosted sides now improve handling but it still feels slippery and so I recommend getting a case. I am usually careful with my devices so I didn’t have an issue using it naked for about 2 weeks. The Oh-So Orange is the Pixel 4 XL new colour. And since I’m a fan of orange colour, the new pastel colour really attracts me. If you are not into bright colours, the classy Just Black and Clearly White are also available.
The notch is gone as well, leaving behind a chunky bezel double the size of the bottom bezel. I wished the bezels were of the same thickness, but that’s just me and my OCD kicking in. The top bezel stores sensors like the face recognition, selfie camera and the new Soli radar. More about the Soli radar later.
If you notice, the fingerprint sensor is gone. Now replaced with face recognition sensor. I wouldn’t mind an extra sensor at the back, even if it interferes with the look of the phone. Practicality is more important to me and having both fingerprint and face recognition provides a choice for consumers.
Face recognition unlocks pretty fast but there are some flaws. It unlocks without eye detection, eyes closed, and even when I cover half of my face with my hand. As of now it’s poorly implemented and we can expect a fix soon.
Overall the Pixel 4 XL build quality is top notch, no pun intended. The phone is solid, all the sides and edges are well made. It really feels good in the hand. As for the design of the giant camera module at the back, I guess its personal preference.
Hardware and Display
The 90Hz refresh rate of the Pixel 4 XL is pretty awesome. For someone who is used to the normal display of most smartphones, you can really tell the difference. It’s very fluid and definitely feels like a high end premium device. But the 90Hz refresh rate doesn’t work all the time, to preserve battery life, it will tune down to 60Hz during certain scenarios. Such as turning on battery saver or during certain brightness and ambient condition.
You can actually force 90Hz by going into developer options. But first you need to enable it, to do so, head over to about phone in the settings. Look for build number and tap on it a few times. Once it’s done, go to Developer Options and turn on Force 90Hz refresh rate. You can also disable 90Hz refresh rate in the display options but you will lose the smooth UI scrolling and such.
The Google Pixel 4 XL comes with a 6.3 inch Quad HD resolution at 537 PPI, so you can expect a sharp and detailed display. It’s an OLED display so the blacks are the pixels turning off so they produce real deep blacks. You can’t really tell on camera but the whites are a little yellow compared to the previous Pixel 3 XL. Viewing angles are pretty good as well and there isn’t any obvious blue shift.
There are some settings you can change like choosing different colours and Night Light that helps you fall asleep easier if you tend to use your phone before you sleep. And of course, not forgetting system wide Dark mode.
To take advantage of the OLED display, you can turn on Ambient Display that shows information at a glance. You can either Tap, Lift or Reach to check your phone. That’s where the Soli radar comes into play. Google calls it Motion Sense and right now there are just a few motions you can use. To skip songs, swipe left or right. You can also swipe to silence calls or snooze alarms. Lastly the sensor will detect your hand reaching and will turn on the display without touching the phone. Personally it didn’t work quite well for me and it wasn’t very consistent.
At the bottom is the Type C port and sideward firing speakers together with the earpiece for stereo sound. On the right is the power and volume rocker and on the left is the single SIM tray slot. As usual this is a single SIM model so there is no expandable storage. The Google Pixel 4 XL comes in both 64GB and 128GB storage and 6GB of RAM.
It’s the same case for the Pixel 3 XL to provide only 2 storage options but there was a perk that sort of mitigated this decision; providing free unlimited original quality storage on Google photos till 31st Jan 2022. But for the Pixel 4 XL, it’s still free unlimited storage, but only uploading in high quality like every other Android user. Google just removed one of the main selling points that may be a deal breaker for potential Pixel users. If you use a lot of the camera, Smart storage will automatically remove backed-up photos and videos over 60 days old when storage is almost full.
The Pixel 4 XL supports USB OTG through Type C and if you have the traditional USB thumbdrive, you can use the adapter to bridge. This also acts as a tool for easy migration to the Pixel from another iOS or Android device. The Pixel 4 XL also retains the IP68 certification.
Software and Performance
The Google Pixel 4 XL is powered by the Snapdragon 855 and Adreno 640, but I was hoping for the Snapdragon 855 Plus instead since there will be improvements overall. Performance is still what you will get with Google’s flagship so I wouldn’t worry too much about it. Gaming performance is excellent without any overheating.
It also comes with the usual Bluetooth 5.0, NFC and dual band WiFi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac. These are the speed test using both cellular and WiFi. Following the Pixel line-up, it also comes with the Titan M chip that protects and secures your Pixel device.
One of the perks of having a Google Pixel is having access to the latest Android, which is now Android 10. Much of the software aims to have Google Assistant help users to achieve a seamless experience. To trigger Google Assistant, there are a few ways. Active Edge can be triggered by squeezing the sides or voice activation. Since there won’t be a Home button you if use gestures, you can swipe from either corners from the bottom to trigger as well. The standard Google Assistant always requires you to start with ‘Hey Google’ before any commands. But with continued conversations, after the assistant responds, the microphone stays on for a short time for any follow up conversations. You can tell when Google Assistant is active when you see a multi coloured lights at the bottom.
There is a new Recorder app that can automatically transcribe audio on the fly. For the most part, it works pretty fast and accurately too. Currently it’s only for the Pixel 4 but Google plans to release it for older devices.
There are some changes to the way notifications are shown when using Face Unlock. There are 2 ways you can choose by toggling ‘Skip Lock Screen’ setting. When toggle is off, it will show the traditional notification cards but when the phone unlocks it will stay on the lock screen. When toggle is on, it will display icons instead but when the phone unlocks, it will go directly to last used screen. A work around using the 2nd option is just swiping down from the top when the phone is still locked. If you tap and hold on the card, you can select some setting directly. There will also be a dot on the app for unread notifications.
Previously they introduced the 2 button navigation but this time it is just Gesture Navigation. Swipe up to go home, swipe up and hold to access recent apps and swipe either left or right edge to go back.
Live Caption detects speech in media and automatically generates captions. You can easily toggle it by pressing on the volume rocker and tapping on the last icon. You can move or expand the captions if you wish.
Split screen will be convenient for multitasking on a 6.3 inch display. To trigger it you can go to recent apps, tap on the icon and choose split screen. But all not all apps are compatible.
Now Playing will require permissions to the microphone to listen to ambient sounds for music. Once it detects a song, it will display at the bottom of the lock screen and will be added to history.
For general quality of life checks, Digital Wellbeing shows how much time you spent on your phone. It can also show how much time was being spent on individual apps. You can also set App Timers to limit the time you can use that app. This also works for Parental Controls using Google’s Family Link. You can keep an eye on your family’s screen time and also set limits or restrictions.
Finally when it’s near the end of the day, you can start to Wind Down. You can either run on a schedule or use Google Assistant. It will fade the screen to greyscale and turns on Do Not Disturb. It will also mute and block visual alerts.
The battery on the Google Pixel 4 XL is slightly larger than before at 3700mAh. My screen on time was around 5 hours, which is the same as the Pixel 3 XL with a smaller battery. The 90Hz refresh rate could have drained the battery more but personally I don’t mind the trade offs for a smoother experience. I’m not considered a power user but the Pixel 4 XL is usually unplugged for about 8-12 hours before its back on the wall charger, and I would have around 10% – 40% left depending on how much I use it. It’s not the best number but it will last throughout the day for the average user.
To save battery life, there is the usual battery saver mode and Adaptive Battery. This mode limits battery usage for apps that don’t get used often. Just to note if certain feature suddenly don’t work, check with this setting. In my case Google Assistant wasn’t working until I turned this off.
As for charging, it’s rated 18W using the wire. As for Qi Wireless, this time it supports 11W using 3rd party chargers. Previously you need to get the Pixel Stand or Google licensed wireless charger to support fast charging.
Not much has changed with the main camera; the Google Pixel 4 XL is still using a 12.2 MP sensor with OIS. Google has added another 16MP telephoto camera also with OIS. Previously you can toggle HDR+ mode but now it’s not available in the setting.
Camera modes are pretty standard like panorama and time lapse. Playground is like Augmented Reality, where you can add characters for interactions. Google Lens allows you to scan text, do translation or scan for object using image search.
Just to demonstrate, manual and auto focus both in day and low light is very fast and does its job well. For Super Res Zoom, I find that photos are sharper and clearer compared to the Pixel 3 XL.
Top Shot uses machine learning to recommend the best shot in the photo, and you must enable Motion to do so. Now it is also available for videos and you need to tap and hold on the shutter button. Tapping on the viewfinder shows 2 sliders where you can adjust the exposure and shadows.
Without much tweaking of the setting like HDR, daytime photos are really good and capture colours quite accurately. Low light shots continue to be good, without much grain or fuzziness. Night Mode also performs as good as before, although sometimes in certain shots it doesn’t look that natural. Since it’s post processing, the main purpose is to enhance light and brightness.
Astrophotography will auto trigger using night mode under certain circumstances. Unfortunately light pollution is heavy and I could only capture this picture. You can check out photos that others have done and it’s pretty nice.
For video recording, it can record 1080p @ 60fps or 4K @30fps. As for the front camera, the ultrawide camera was removed, leaving behind a single 8MP shooter with 90 degrees field of view. Likewise you can control the exposure and shadows for the front and there is an option for face retouching.
For every release of the Pixel, the main focus is the software. It makes sense since after all Google is a software company. It’s great to see Google improving on machine learning, making it more seamless and integrated into our everyday lives. New features still need more work, the Face Unlock issue; Motion Sense can have more uses and also needs to be more consistent. Some choices are also puzzling; the removal of the ultrawide front camera, the 2 small storage capacity options and also removing the free unlimited original quality storage.
But the Google Pixel 4 XL has its own good points. I liked the 90Hz refresh rate; going back to a normal screen feels different. The hardware design is beautiful and I really enjoyed the camera. Android 10 is as good as it gets, with nice features like live captioning and transcribing. Perfect for stock Android lovers and is pretty user friendly. Receiving timely software and security updates is also one of the perks of a Google Pixel user.
Is it value for money? My answer would be no. At over a thousand dollars, I would expect more like a 3rd ultra wide camera, a bigger storage option at the same price and also retaining free Google storage. If money is not a problem, it’s a no brainer for me.