My $1,000 mistake: Here's why I’m returning the Pixel 4 XL to Google

The battery life is terrible and the camera is disappointing. But AT&T's failure to support a key feature was the last straw.

The Pixel 4 XL is a perfectly disappointing phone, here’s why Jason Cipriani tells Karen Roby that Google’s latest smartphone has a lot to like, but some key flaws. Read more: https://zd.net/3626TYX

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I knew this might happen, but I'd hoped for the best: I intended to keep it. However, after playing with the device for a few hours this past Friday, I decided that the Pixel 4 XL -- which I had ordered only ten days earlier and was delivered that afternoon -- was going straight back to Google. Here's why.

Google's trade-in program

I've been a buyer of Pixel devices and the Nexus series of devices for several years. From the Nexus One to the Galaxy Nexus and the Nexus 5, I graduated to the first-generation Pixel, then the Pixel 2, and then the Pixel 3. With these purchases, I took advantage of Google's trade-in program, which has become an increasingly poorer value every passing year. 

In December 2016, I bought the Pixel 32GB for $649. In October 2017, I traded that phone in for $350, and the new Pixel 2 64GB was again $649, but I opted for the 128GB version that was $100 more. 

In October 2018, I traded in that Pixel 2 for $327 towards a 128GB Pixel 3 that costs $899. 

This culminated this year in a trade-in estimate of $250 for the Pixel 3. I put it towards a $999 Pixel 4 XL 128GB and was credited to my Google Store account on October 28. 

Why do I keep buying Pixel phones every year? 

It's because, as someone who covers Android as a technology writer, I want to have the latest and greatest Android OS experience, and I want to be able to track developments when the next version goes into beta testing. 

The Pixel is never my only Android device, as I usually have at least one or two other Android phones from different vendors that I am testing at any given time. But other manufacturers' Android devices are so far behind the curve in software updates that you cannot use them for tracking developments in the Android OS itself.

I was relatively happy with the Pixel 3 last year, and I liked the camera a lot -- so much that I preferred taking photos with it than my iPhone XS Max. I wasn't happy with the 4GB of RAM, which made the device resource-constrained, and I thought it consumed battery a bit too quickly. 

The base storage configuration was too low for the price, and lack of SD card expansion capability was annoying -- so you ended up spending $100 more for the next storage jump. In this day and age, 64GB is far too small for a flagship device from a major OEM -- and I feel the same way about the iPhone. However, the Pixel did have native resolution cloud backup for free on Google Photos, so that did mitigate some of those storage issues.

Enter the Pixel 4 XL. I've already gone on record stating that this phone was too expensive when compared with other devices such as the Samsung S10+.

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ZDNet Reviews of the Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL by Jason Cipriani and Matthew Miller

Image: ZDNet

Still, I ordered one. Because I needed a pure Android device, and I was willing to give the thing the benefit of the doubt. But, as time went on, and while I was anticipating delivery of this product, I was exposed to many reviews from my colleagues and at other technology publications that did not portend well.

Let's talk about the phone's battery

With all the default settings turned on -- motion sense enabled, light color theme, and always-on display enabled -- you can watch the battery percentage drop quite dramatically every few minutes. 

Turning off motion sense (the cool Soli radar), enabling dark mode, and disabling always-on might increase your daily screen time up to another 20%. But let's face it: Based on Jason Cipriani's 6am to 8pm test day with a total of four hours of screen time... this is not good. And having a 3,700mAh battery versus a comparable 4,000mAh on its competitors doesn't help this phone either. 

Oh, and try to set that fancy 90Hz variable refresh display to run 90Hz butter smooth all the time using a developer setting? Forget it. You'll be lucky to get two or three hours of screen time out of the device.

So, it chews up battery. 

But the camera is excellent, right? 

OK, sure, but the Pixel 3 main camera was also exceptional. In the Pixel 4, Google added a second rear camera: A 2X zoom. The specifications on both cameras are 12.2 MP, f/1.7, 28mm (wide) and 16 MP, f/2.4, 45mm (telephoto) with optical zoom. 

Competitors now have three rear cameras, and most include an ultrawide in addition to a wide. The celestial photography mode? It looks cool in a demo, but it's not particularly useful. It's a gimmick.

Google's competitors have caught up big time with night modes, image processing, and machine learning. Google's camera is no longer unique.

But the free cloud-based photo storage on Google Photos is still a good value, right? Sadly, it no longer is. Instead of storing the photos in "original quality," it only stores them in "high-quality" mode. That's the same as every Android, and the iPhone gets. So, zero privileges here for owning a Pixel device.

The straw that broke the camel's back

The 6GB of RAM on the phone doesn't always present itself as a problem, but if you keep a lot of apps open like I do -- such as Outlook, Teams, Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook -- you'll begin to see performance degradation. This phone really should have been specced with 8GB of RAM or more, like its competitors from Samsung, OnePlus, ZTE, and Huawei.

I might have been able to tolerate these issues, but as soon as I activated this phone on AT&T with a spare SIM card that I reserve for my Android test devices, one final set of problems emerged -- and became the straw that broke the camel's back: HD Voice and Wi-Fi calling. I tried to turn it on. It didn't work.

Thinking there was some issue with my AT&T Wireless account, I called into technical support, and what it told me was profoundly disturbing.

It turns out that AT&T doesn't support the Google Pixel 4 with HD Voice and Wi-Fi calling unless you buy your device directly from AT&T. It doesn't treat BYOD Pixel devices the same way as it does, say, iPhones.

Now, you could consider the issue an AT&T problem, but I refuse to see it that way. It means Google didn't adequately prepare its carrier partners to accept BYOD devices on their network. Google should not claim that its phone works perfectly on all US carrier networks if it doesn't. This indeed is the raison d'être for owning a Pixel: It's supposed to be free of carrier mishegas; it's supposed just to work. Well, it doesn't. 

I expect it to work

Look, I expect these sort of annoying support issues if I buy a product that literally is not sold by AT&T -- like the Huawei P30 Pro (which doesn't have Wi-Fi calling or HD Voice support either) or some other random Chinese smartphone that isn't sold in the US or only exists at another carrier. But a Google Pixel? We are talking about the reference standard Android phone -- the very same it sells in its retail stores!

AT&T says it has an engineering issue open, and it plans to look into it, but it couldn't give me a timetable for solving the problem. If I were a few years younger and less cranky about spending $1,000 on smartphones that don't work correctly out of the box, maybe I would give it a few weeks to see if it can get its act together. But I'm not. I'm 50 years old; I yell at children in the streets, and when I pay a grand for a slab of finely engineered metal, glass, and semiconductors, I expect it to work.

My colleague, Jason Cipriani, asserts that the review unit provided to him at the Pixel 4 launch event in New York functions with the AT&T Wi-Fi calling, so I am a bit at a loss to understand why AT&T tech support is claiming an SKU and engineering issue. 

That said, I am not waiting weeks or months to see if this issue resolves itself. And I'm not escalating this to AT&T media relations and using other extraordinary means to which a typical consumer would not have access. If Apple can figure out how to make all its direct sale devices work between carriers without problems, then Google should be able to figure that out, as well.

On Friday, I brought the Pixel 4 XL over to FedEx, and I sent it back to Google for a refund minus a whopping $35 restocking fee. (Yeah, maybe I'm buying my Google crap from Amazon or a big-box retailer from now on.) 

Perhaps it will do better next year, but I am very disappointed with this device. The battery life is terrible, the camera is disappointing, and AT&T doesn't want to recognize a key feature. All these would be bad enough, but this smartphone has an ultra-premium price tag, and for that price, I expect much better.

Are you disappointed in your Google Pixel 4 and considering returning it? Talk Back and Let Me Know.