Where smartphone photography is still bread and butter for all companies now, Google have admirably sought to refine what it means to own a smartphone in 2019. They’ve looked at the entire experience with the Google Pixel 4, which has given us some pretty cool features that should hold great influence over smartphones in 2020.
What’s the primary purpose of consumer tech? To make one’s life a bit easier, no? Google have obviously paid very close attention to this guiding touchpoint, making the Pixel 4 one of the most innovative smartphone lines to date. However, that doesn’t mean problems – some small, some unfathomable – don’t exist.
Compared to previous pixels, the 4 looks smart. It’s a slick, even sexy build that stops rebelling against competitors like Apple and Samsung and decides that slim and supple is the best way to go. At 6.3 x 2.9 x 0.3 inches with a weight of 192.7 grams, the XL is pushing it in terms of hold, but it does feel comfortable even in one hand. It’s enough to excuse the rather chunky top bezel – which this time, serves a purpose – but not enough to atone for the blocky square camera array that sits on the top left corner of the back’s comfortable (and fingerprint repelling) matte finished glass, available in either orange, white or black.
Most noticeable is Google’s decision to scrap the circular fingerprint sensor from the Pixel 3, which was positioned on the back in the centre. Gone too is the textured two-tone finish, but the matte black aluminium frame that runs the edges of the phone contrasts nicely against the white or orange model (this review is based on the white), sporting pressure sensors so you can squeeze gently to activate Google Assistant (toggled in settings). It’s a nice, clean and minimal look interrupted only by said camera array. I respect Google’s refusal to buy into any shimmery gimmicks.
Gorilla Glass 5 also means that the phone takes a nice bump in terms of durability, and coupled with an IP68 rating that means more peace of mind when lugging this about outdoors. That being said, it’s not fall-proof by any means, so a tough tumble could still leave the phone with some cracks. Obviously you’d want to use a case.
You may be wondering where the fingerprint reader is if it’s been removed from the back then. Have Google finally decided to go with an in-display reader? Nope. There’s actually no fingerprint sensor whatsoever, instead leaving all the biometrics to the phone’s super fast 3D face recognition system and defining Motion Sense.
On the left side of the phone you’ll find a coloured power button – something they brought over from the mid-range 3a series – above the volume buttons. The top of the frame is completely bare, while the bottom of the phone houses two serviceable stereo speakers and a USB-C port for charging. The right side of the phone is where you’ll find the SIM slot.
The 6.3-inch, 537ppi, 1440p (5.7, 444ppi, 1080p on the Pixel 4 proper) OLED display is bright, vibrant, colour-accurate and very satisfying for media consumption, with a great resolution of 3,040 x 1,440 pixels. Most notable is the “Smooth Display” 90Hz variable refresh rate that’s been included, but that can be adjusted to a perfectly fine 60Hz in the settings, something I’d advise since it’s a big reason for why the phone’s battery is so disappointing.
Using Ambient EQ from the Google Next Hub to help combat eye fatigue was a wise decision, strengthening the display and adjusting lighting as a function of environmental factors.
Overall, Google have really refined their display for the Pixel 4 XL and edge out most other competitors when it comes to this essential part of the smartphone experience.
A high-performance Snapdragon 855 takes care of most things a power-user would need, and most importantly that’s complemented by 6GB RAM. It’s a satisfying, significant bump up from the 4GB that led to so many issues with the Pixel 3 such apps closing automatically. Although why they haven’t gone with even more RAM to compete with other phones in 2019 is beyond me.
It’s easily the best performing smartphone Google have produced, which could be another strain on the notably weak battery.
Okay. Battery. Let’s talk about the battery. The battery kind of sucks.
At 3,700mAh, the battery is bigger than that of the comparable iPhone 11 Pro, but here that translates to a life of just over 12 hours. It’s okay, but standing in the smartphone market of 2019 it’s also a bit disappointing.
There seems to be an issue with the battery that could cause the phone to trap itself in the dreaded Google reboot loop. I experienced it for the first time a few weeks ago, and it’s quite frustrating. The Google was left charging overnight but come morning would either not turn on at all (when unplugged) or reboot over and over again (when plugged in) without ever getting past the introductory white Google screen. I had to leave it unplugged for a day to allow the battery to completely drain, then recharged it as normal – I haven’t had the problem since.
The 18W USB-C charger shipped with the Pixel 4 XL doesn’t quite match the crazy fast speeds of say a Huawei P30 Pro. It would usually take me around 1 hour and 20-30 minutes to reach a full charge from 0%, and while that isn’t bad by any means, it’s another area in which Google’s newest phone falls behind competitors.
It’s also worth noting that the Pixel 4 XL just doesn’t work with some other USB-C chargers. I used my one that shipped with Huawei and it didn’t register, so make sure you’ve got the 18W charger with you when you want to juice this up.
Both the 4 and XL support Qi wireless charging which means you can use the Pixel Stand, although it’ll be much slower at 10W. There’s no reverse wireless charging, but that’s not something I ever really card for anyway.
Even with Adaptive Battery mode – which ideally adapts to usage habits and improves battery life over time – one month on, the results aren’t as good as they should be. I would have thought Google would be wise enough to include a bigger battery, especially since they went with power-hungry features like the aforementioned 90Hz display and their highly touted Motion Sense technology (more on that below).
Google won’t let other faults creep up to them when it comes to smartphone photography. Simply put, the 4 XL is one of the best photography phones on the market and uses a combination of hardware and software to produce excellent results.
On the rear, the main sensor is still the reliable 12.2MP (f/1.7) sensor, this time augmented by a 16MP (f/2.4) telephoto lens that works with Super Res Zoom software to give up to 8x limited loss zoom. Not the crazy 50x digital of the Huawei P30 Pro, but respectable and consistent. Both sensors feature both optical and electronica image stabilisation.
There’s no Ultra Wide Angle to speak of, which is frankly a bit disappointing. Seeing as most competitors are now trying to perfect the UWA in smartphone photography, Google’s refusal makes as much sense as their decision to have only one rear lens on the Pixel 3.
Key here is the Pixel Neutral Core, which is a refined version of Google’s Pixel Visual Core and is responsible for a large amount of the impressive AI workload (that also extends to other features of the phone). This is valuable when coupled with Night Sight, where a few rethinks to the algorithm has made colour accuracy much better. It’s also allowed for a new Astrophotography mode which is aimed at respectable results when catching the sky at night, although with this you’ll ideally want a tripod of sorts to keep the camera completely still for as long as 4-5 minutes.
As good as Night Sight is, I’ve found that it makes no difference during the day time. Of course, that should be obvious given the name, but with the Huawei P30 Pro I’ve found that Night Mode is actually incredible useful during the day time and can produce sharper, HDR images.
White balancing is the newest and most impressive AI feature, which automatically colour-corrects photos if they are in any significant need of tweaking, basing the results on a machine-learning model that has been trained on thousands of images. The most important thing here is that overcorrection is uncommon – it still happens, sometimes – which is a distinct advantage other competing phones, including the Huawei P30 Pro.
The phone is also much better at giving you a real-time and accurate image before you even press the shutter button, most valuable for travel photographers who may not have time to just sit there for extended periods and snap photos until they get the best one. You can also adjust exposure and shadows before you take the shot, which is a step up from just adjusting brightness.
Portrait Mode is the best I’ve experienced on any smartphone, although that’s no surprise. Even the 3a XL has a better portrait mode than most higher end models earlier this year, and the 4 XL puts that to shame. Food photos benefit the most with this, picking up texture exceptionally well and giving you results both with a strong bokeh effect and without (just in case the bokeh accidentally blurred some of the edges of the subject, which did happen sometimes). All the photos I’ve included in this section have been taken with Portrait mode.
Below I’ve included a selfie in Portrait mode that I took with a horse. As you can see the Portrait Mode inaccurately blurred out the top half of the horse’s head, but since the phone saves both versions I was able to get an accurate shot as well.
On the front, there’s an 8MP (f/2.0) sensor, remarkable when it comes to depth perception and half the reason why the 3D face unlock works so fast. It’s the best low-light selfie taker on market, and like the Portrait Mode, handles layers remarkably well.
Motion Sense is Google’s premier new feature and reason for the thick top bezel on the phone. You won’t just find the selfie-camera here, but also the two Face Unlock infrared cameras, Soli radar chip, Face unblock dot projector, and Face Unlock floor illuminator. All work together to offer a better and more faster biometric experience, but also so much more.
You can now use close proximity hand swiping gestures to access various features of the phone, controlling it without actually physically touching it. This includes snoozing alarms with a simple swipe, silencing calls, skipping tracks, and having the phone detect your presence when you simply go to reach for it, firing up the face unblock cameras for rapid biometrics.
The question is whether or not this is accurate. And no, it’s not completely accurate 100% of the time. While the Face Unlock has no issues whatsoever (in fact it works too good, with the phone unlocking even with closed eyes – something that’s been rightfully derided), the other features works so haphazardly that it’s obvious Motion Sense needs tweaking in future updates. The good thing is, Google are reliable when it comes to meaningful updates.
Like I mentioned above, what makes the Pixel 4 series stand out is Google’s wise decision to focus on the entire experience, rather than just the camera and power. In addition to the capable processor and the boost in RAM, users have the advantage of the best Android (10) experience available with promise of immediate updates trickled through to Google devices first. That’s big in the ever-competitive Android universe, especially now the Huawei have taken that controversial hit from the states.
Another prominent feature is Live Caption, which will be rolling out to other Android phones next year. It basically let’s you add a real-time transcription box to any video that you play on the display. Toggle this off in the settings when not in use though, as having it on all the time seems to be another burden on the battery.
This brings us to the feature I’m most divided over – the Recording app. As a journalist, it’s extremely valuable to have the ability to have the phone transcribe a recording in real-time. It means I don’t have to spend hours on end writing out a script to an interview, for example, and that I don’t have to listen to my voice over and over again. There’s also the fact that all the processing takes place on the Pixel, so nothing is sent to Google’s servers: a win for privacy.
However the transcription isn’t 100% accurate and can I’ve had some situations where the app refuses to transcribe at all. Real-time transcription has some series issues when it comes to punctuation and accurately telling when one sentence ends and another begins. There’s also nothing that distinguishes multiple speakers in a recording, so if I’m interviewing someone, my questions will get confused with their answers and it’ll be one big disjointed paragraph.
A big positive is actually being able to tap a word and skip to that section of the recording in playback, saving the trouble of trying to locate a particular section with nothing to go on.
Overall, the transcription is helpful, and can be copied-pasted immediately into an e-mail, but I would really like better accuracy and the ability to distinguish between multiple speakers.
Google’s Pixel 4 XL isn’t perfect. It’s not as impressive as when the Pixel 3 when it was first released, simply because of how far competitors have come over the past year. Google’s refusal to stay up with trends can be a bit frustrating (particularly with no ultra wide angle, or in-display fingerprint sensor), but the attention to the entire smartphone experience cannot be denied. A lot of these features are in their early stages, so once Google refine them, the Pixel 4 series will be a very valuable phone (although you might be better off waiting for the Pixel 5).
With promises of updates until 2020, the Pixel 4 XL is well worth the investment if you like photography (particularly Portrait – no one comes close), a better Google Assistant experience, and a thoughtful phone that considers more than just what’s on-trend at the moment. But just be aware of the flaws.
THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Highlights: Excellent photography; best Android experience out there; increased memory really makes a difference; respectable attempts to redefine entire smartphone experience; though flawed, the recording app is very useful.
Lowlights: MotionSense not entirely accurate; no ultra wide angle; battery life and charging is disappointing; occasional issue with reboot loop; no fingerprint scanner.
Price: $1,429 (based on 128 GB mode from JB Hi Fi)
This review is based on a Google Pixel 4 XL unit supplied by the company. This is not a sponsored post and all opinions are that of the writer’s.