Google Pixel 4 XL review: A perfectly disappointing phone

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  • Editors' rating
    7.7 Very good

Pros

  • Impressive camera
  • Pure Android with regular updates
  • Wider carrier availability

Cons

  • Poor battery life
  • 64GB of base storage
  • $899 starting price point
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

For the past few years, I've looked forward to Google announcing its latest Pixel phone. I've enjoyed and easily recommended every Pixel phone Google has released. It's been one of my favorite devices released every year, and even with months of leaks that revealed nearly everything there is to know about the Pixel 4, I still looked forward to trying out Google's latest. 

Also: Google's new Pixel and Nest devices: Prices, release dates, and where to buy

After a week of using the Pixel 4 XL, I'm left disappointed. Don't get me wrong: The Pixel 4 XL is every bit of a Pixel device, and I love it for that. It has an impressive camera. It provides a nearly pure Android 10 experience, save for a handful of tweaks by Google, and it's set to receive monthly software and security updates. 

But there's a lot about the Pixel 4 XL that doesn't live up to its predecessors. The battery life, for starters, has been a major let down. Google no longer provides unlimited Google Photos backup at full quality to Pixel 4 owners, previously a huge selling point. And even with an extra camera, in a lot of ways, it feels as if the Pixel 4 XL's camera has fallen behind just about everyone else. 

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(Image: Jason Cipriani/ZDNet)

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Design

The Pixel 4 XL breaks away from last year's 3 XL design, in that Google has ditched the display notch at the top of the screen. Instead, there's now a bezel along the top where the front-facing camera and sensors for Motion Sense are located. Google ditched the Pixel's staple two-tone color scheme, replacing it with a single color on the back of the phone. The Pixel 4 XL comes in black, white, or "Oh so orange." The latter two color options have a matte finish. 

The QHD+ display measures 6.3 inches, and for the first time, it has a refresh rate of 90Hz. It's actually a variable refresh rate, with the display automatically adjusting its refresh rate based on what you're doing at the time. The result is smoother scrolling through apps and web pages. 

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Inside the Pixel 4 XL is Qualcomm's Snapdragon 855 processor, a 3,700mAh battery, 6GB of memory, and 64GB or 128GB of storage. The 64GB model costs $899, while the 128GB will set you back $999.

The Pixel 4 XL now has two rear-facing cameras: The standard 12.2MP wide camera, and a new 16MP telephoto camera. The camera array on the back of the phone looks a lot like the iPhone 11's camera setup. 

On the bottom of the phone is a USB-C port for charging and transferring data. On the right side are the volume rocker and power button. The left side is blank, save for the SIM card slot. 

I've been asked a lot about the notch being replaced by an extended bezel, and I have to say, I don't mind it at all. I think I prefer it. I've long touted the Pixel's two-tone look as my preferred design for phones, and while I'll surely miss that design, the matte finish of the white model I received is a pleasant break from the glossy black or color-changing designs from Apple and Samsung. 

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(Image: Jason Cipriani/ZDNet)

Performance

Some might consider the Pixel 4 XL's internal hardware underpowered, and in some ways it is. Android device makers are moving away from 6GB of memory, using 8GB or even 12GB instead. The base strange of 64GB is a joke, whether it's in a phone from Google or Apple. 

I will say that I haven't had any performance issues during my time testing the Pixel 4 XL. It's on par with Samsung's Galaxy Note 10 or the OnePlus 7T. Apps load fast, and there's been zero lag or freezing.

I've been blown away by the new Recorder app's ability to transcribe interviews or conference calls in real-time, leaving me with a text version of the call I can then sift through to pull out key details after the fact. The built-in search feature has been a big boost to my productivity. It's all done on-device and doesn't require an internet connection. 

Google Pixel 4 XL astrophotography.jpg

(Image: Jason Cipriani/ZDNet)

Camera

Praise for the Pixel's camera performance over the past few years hasn't been unwarranted. The company leveraged AI and machine learning to capture portrait mode photos with a single lens -- at a time when the entire smartphone industry was using two cameras. Night Sight single-handedly forced Apple and Samsung to figure out how to take better low-light shots. 

And true to its past, Google has provided an exceptional camera experience with the Pixel 4 XL. Night Sight's new astrophotography feature produces incredible results, and the new dual-exposure control lets you get artsy with photos with minimal tinkering. The Pixel 4 XL's camera is still one of the best smartphone cameras available, but the problem is, everyone else has caught up.

The iPhone 11 Pro now has three cameras, and a camera mode for capturing photos at night that look just as good, if not better, than those captured by the Pixel 4 XL. 

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(Image: Jason Cipriani/ZDNet)

Combine that with the fact that companies like Samsung and Apple have caught up to Google's post-processing features with three cameras -- ultra-wide-angle, wide-angle, and telephoto -- and the Pixel 4 XL's camera setup feels dated.

Let me be clear: The Pixel 4 XL's camera is superb. But, at this price, and with the competition that has caught up to it, it doesn't feel as magical as it used to feel. Taking photos of the stars isn't something most of us are going to do on a nightly basis, and messing with dual-exposure controls to take a silhouette photo is another artsy feature reserved for a random occasion. 

Add in that Google did away with free unlimited original quality backup Pixel 4 owners, and the special appeal of the Pixel's camera has lost some of its appeal. 

Google Assistant

Google touted big upgrades to Google Assistant with the launch of the Pixel 4 XL, but I haven't been able to test it. I have a paid G Suite account that I use as my main Google account, and the new Assistant features aren't available to G Suite users.

I have an old Gmail account I still use for testing, but according to Google, just by adding a G Suite account to the Pixel 4 XL, it defaults to the old Assistant. In other words, if you have a G Suite work account and plan on getting the Pixel 4 XL, don't expect to get the new Assistant experience. 

So, to test the new Assistant experience, I would have to remove my G Suite account, and in turn, forgo receiving work and personal emails. Enterprise users who work for a company that uses G Suite, you're going to face the same dilemma.

It's too bad. The new Assistant looks like it's been vastly improved, but due to a weird limitation, I'm unable to use it. 

Battery life

This is by far the most glaring issue with the Pixel 4 XL. Maybe I've been spoiled by the iPhone 11 Pro Max and its battery life, but the Pixel 4 XL's battery is downright disappointing. 

My first full day of use -- with no restoring of apps and all initial setup finished -- the battery latest from 6am to 8pm with a total screen on time of around four hours. That's... not good. The following days I didn't have to look for a charger before the end of the day, but the battery saver did turn on when there was a 15% charge left on more than one occasion.

Right now, I wouldn't have confidence in the 4 XL's battery to last an entire travel day without having to top off from a portable battery pack or finding an outlet in the airport. And that's a huge issue, especially when Apple's 2019 iPhone lineup all have batteries that can last more than a single day, even for a heavy user like myself. 

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(Image: Jason Cipriani/ZDNet)

Face Unlock

There isn't a fingerprint reader on the Pixel 4 XL. Instead, Google added the necessary hardware for facial recognition. The new camera system also houses the radar system that's used for Motion Sense -- a feature that lets you control the phone just by waving your hand a few inches above your phone.

Face Unlock is fast and works just as well as Apple's Face ID on newer iPhones. But there's a problem: Google's Face Unlock doesn't require your eyes to be open for it to authenticate. Meaning, if someone had your Pixel 4 XL, they could hold the phone up in front of your face and gain access to it, whether you're unconscious or asleep.

By default, Apple's Face ID requires the users' eyes to be open and looking at the phone to unlock.

Google says it is working on an update that will add the option to require users' eyes to be open, but we won't see it for a few months. 

Motion Sense -- the radar-based feature that lets you wave your hand above the phone to do things like silence an incoming call or change tracks when streaming music -- works, but it's gimmicky and very limited right now. I've used to it control Spotify, skipping tracks just by waving my hand over the phone on my desk. It's fun, but not as useful as I would have hoped. 

Surely Google will continue to improve and add functionality to Motion Sense, but right now, it feels very much like a fun party trick. 

Should you buy one?

If you have a Pixel 3, I wouldn't recommend getting a Pixel 4. For the past year, I've randomly used the Pixel 3 XL and don't remember having the battery issues I've had with the 4 XL. If you're happy with the Pixel 3's battery life and performance, there's little reason to upgrade. The camera features are neat, but not worth the upgrade alone. 

Actually, I'm not sure I would recommend anyone get the Pixel 4 XL right now. I'd wait to see if Google can resolve the battery performance through a software update in the future before placing an order. With Apple's iPhone 11 priced at $699 and the OnePlus 7T priced at $599, the Pixel 4 XL's starting price of $899 feels steep. 

On paper, the Pixel 4 XL reads like the perfect Android phone. In the real world, it's a mixture of surprises and disappointment.

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