Google Pixel 4 XL Review

The Pixel 4 XL is the big brother the Pixel 4. It shares the same core hardware but comes with a larger, higher resolution screen and bigger battery.

Verdict

Despite appreciating many parts of this phone, at its current price and in its current state the Pixel 4 XL is a hard sell. As good as the camera, software and design are, the battery life, poor storage options and lack of an ultra-wide lens mean there are better options out there.  For example, the OnePlus 7T is cheaper at £599, offers far more storage, a longer-lasting battery that charges more quickly whilst also retaining the 90Hz display. In most cases, you’ll also get just as good snaps from the £719/$699 iPhone 11 – and then, of course, there’s the truly excellent Pixel 3a and 3a XL.

Pros

  • Excellent camera for photos
  • Grippy body is a nice change from the usual, highly polished flagships
  • Smooth Display is a significant upgrade
  • Great software

Cons

  • Disappointing battery life
  • Lack of ultra-wide camera is a shame
  • Motion Sense features are currently limited
  • Storage options only up to 128GB

Key Specifications

  • Review Price: £829
  • 6.3-inch HDR OLED Smooth Display
  • Snapdragon 855
  • 6GB RAM
  • Android 10
  • 12MP + 16MP camera

Google’s Pixel 4 XL has a tough task. Following disappointing sales of the Pixel 3, and the redemption of the line with the far more affordable Pixel 3a, the Pixel 4 XL has to offer sufficient flagship-worthy extras to make the £829 price worth paying. 

With the big uplift in excellent camera phones at varying prices this year, it’s no longer good enough for Google to simply have an “okay” phone with an “amazing” camera.

And Google knows it. With the Pixel 4 XL, Google takes many more risks. It has radar operated motion gestures for halting alarms and skipping tracks; it foregoes fingerprint security completely for face unlock; and it adds an extra camera on the back – something Google seemed staunchly against a few years ago.

Do these extras make for a better phone? And with so many more handsets offering far better cameras than before, has the Pixel series lost its edge in that department? Let’s have a look in our full review.

Google Pixel 4 XL camera – An absolute pleasure

The Google Pixel 4 XL is a good phone, but it’s truly great in one area: the camera. This device is a pleasure to shoot with, so much so that I can almost forgive the shortcomings elsewhere because the captured images can look excellent.

The most obvious upgrade this time around is the addition of a secondary sensor on the rear of the device. This 16-megapixel 2x telephoto lens joins the standard f/1.7 12-megapixel wide unit. Peek into the camera app, though, and you might not even know there’s a secondary sensor there.

Unlike most other phones, there’s no quick way to jump to 2x, and even when you’re zooming it isn’t entirely obvious which camera you’re using. Instead, Google uses both the cameras for a multitude of tasks, utilising the data received by both to generally improve your snaps.

The Portrait mode is probably the finest use of this new sensor, now defaulting to a slightly more zoomed-in look. Portrait shots taken with this camera are sublime, comfortably better than the already impressive iPhone 11. The way it manages to cut out around hair is unmatched and the results are smooth and sharp.

Related: Best camera phones

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The portrait mode here is the best I have used

Once again, it’s the machine learning and AI smarts inside this phone that help to deliver such fantastic photos. You can now see what the post-processed shot will look like through the viewfinder thanks to Live HDR+, which is a great indicator of what the final photo will look like.

In the typical Pixel style, the 4 XL takes snaps that display deep contrast; they’re pin-sharp and colourful without looking garish or oversaturated. The dynamic range (that’s the difference between the lightest and darkest point of the photo) is also better here than on any other phone, and gives photos real depth.

Pictures are sharp, with real depth

Colours look wonderful

Low-light shots have long been a strength of the Pixel series, and Night Sight in the last outing improved results even further. Night Sight here is just as impressive, even if on occasion I preferred the night-time shots captured by the iPhone 11/11 Pro. That’s a personal preference; but I did find the iPhone did a better job at reducing noise in the sky. 

However, the Pixel 4 XL is better at shooting starry skies, thanks to the Astrophotography mode. If you happen to be in a place where the stars are visible, and you have a tripod handy, the Pixel 4 XL will automatically stitch 15 snaps together to deliver an image that in no way looks as if it could have been taken with a phone.

night sight off Pixel 4

Night Sight off

Night Sight Pixel 4

Night Sight on

In truth, it feels like phone cameras have come a monumental step forward this year. And, unlike in the past, you no longer need to pay £1000 or thereabouts for the best anymore. Phones such as the Pixel 3A, Xiaomi Mi 9 and the iPhone 11 all take stunning photos. 

Comparing shots taken with the iPhone 11 and the Pixel 4 XL, I wouldn’t always pick out those taken with the Pixel as my favourite. This shows just how much Apple has improved its phone camera in 2019.

The Pixel 4 XL lacks a few camera features, too. There’s no ultra-wide camera to take those super-wide landscape shots; no 4K 60fps video recording to give you ultimate control when you’re editing; and the Pixel 3 XL’s dual-front camera has been replaced by a single selfie camera. It’s these changes that probably make the iPhone 11 Pro a more versatile choice.

If you primarily shoot 1080p video, the Pixel 4 XL still captures great and stable footage. I do wish the microphones were better, though. Audio recorded from subjects who aren’t up close to the phone can sound tinny and distant.

Google Pixel 4 XL design and Motion Sense – The complete opposite to Samsung and Huawei

You can pick up the Pixel 4 in two sizes: the standard handset with 5.7in display; the second with the larger 6.3in “XL” display. Those who took an immediate disliking to the awfully designed notch on the Pixel 3 XL, which pretty much ruined the display, will be happy to see that it doesn’t make a return here. Instead, the screen curves around without any distractions.

The lack of a notch does leave a fairly hefty forehead above the screen, and a slightly narrower chin on the bottom. It isn’t the most modern look, I’ll be honest, but it’s perfectly fine.

That extra space up-top is required for the radar chip which Google uses for new Motion Sense skills. The idea of a radar chip is far more exciting than what it actually delivers here; it feels limited in its current state.

Motion Sense delivers two functions in the Pixel 4 XL. It’s the underlying tech that powers the face-unlock system, plus it also lets you perform a “wave” gesture to skip through songs in supported media apps (Spotify, for example, but not Apple Music) and to silence alarms and timers.

The face unlock functionality is works well – and that’s a relief, since there’s no fingerprint sensor here at all. However, in its current state it simply isn’t very secure. As was highlighted on Twitter, and backed up by my own testing and Google’s acceptance of it being an issue, you can unlock the phone even if your eyes are shut. This means you’d be able to gain access to the contents of the device simply by holding the screen in front of its sleeping owner’s face. 

Google has acknowledged this is a problem, even making note of it during the initial setup. The company hopes to provide an update (which I assume will mirror the iPhone and require some form of awareness from the unlocker) “in the coming months”.

Still, the face unlock feature feels far swifter than on the iPhone 11, since it bypasses the lock-screen completely and takes you straight to the homescreen. It also works well at night – something you won’t find on phones that only utilise the front camera for unlocking.

Google’s handsets aren’t known for being particularly flashy, and the Pixel 4 XL isn’t the exception. It’s as far away from in-your-face, jewel-like devices such as the Note 10 Plus and Huawei Mate 30 Pro as you can get. There are no sloping sides, no overly shiny colour options and no highly polished finishes. This isn’t a device that you’ll feel needs to be wrapped up in a case the moment you unbox it  – and I really like that about it.

The rim, on both the white and Oh So Orange hues, contrasts nicely with the coloured rear. The sides of the device are textured, making it a very grippy phone. The glass back sports a matte finish, unless you opt for the glossy-backed model, adding yet more grip and avoiding a deluge of fingerprints.

Other features of note: the phone retains its IP68 rating; is missing a headphone jack; but can be squeezed to bring up the Google Assistant.

Google Pixel 4 XL display – 90Hz is great; shame about the brightness

The larger of the two Pixel 4 devices benefits from a slightly more pixel-dense panel, with the resolution upped from FHD+ to QHD+. That makes it a little sharper – but you likely won’t notice unless you have both phones side-by-side.

The 6.3in panel here is decent in many ways. It’s well calibrated, displays punchy colours and, since it’s OLED, the blacks are perfect and deep. It’s far from the brightest screen around, though; I did struggle to view it comfortably on particularly sunny days. Even with those brightness issues it continues to support HDR playback in apps such as Netflix and YouTube. The effect is fine, but it lacks the punch of the iPhone 11 Pro.

What I like most about this display is the new Smooth Display option. This is what Google is calling the 90Hz refresh rate – it means the screen refreshes 90 times a second rather than the usual 60, giving images a smoother look. Unlike the OnePlus 7T, the effect here is variable, so in certain situations, and when the brightness of the screen is low, the panel will switch back to 60Hz. This is probably for the best, too, since the Pixel 4 XL’s battery life isn’t very good.

Google Pixel 4 XL software – Is Google’s version of its own software still the best?

Google’s vision of Android 10 for the Pixel 4 XL is all about the Assistant. Google’s voice assistant can open apps, search within those apps, and is far more competent at quickly responding to directions than ever before. There’s even a clever new Recorder app that will transcribe whatever is being said live, all thanks to the Assistant.

Look past the Assistant integration, however, and in my opinion Oxygen OS is actually now a better overall version of Android. The Pixel 4 XL lacks a deep battery saver, customisation is limited, and even the new Dark mode is simply “on” or “off”, with no scheduling options available.

I have issues with the new gesture navigation, too, although you can switch back to the more traditional “back”, “home” and “overview” buttons, if you wish. The back gesture is now a swipe in from either side of the screen. It’s particularly infuriating when paired with apps that also have swipe gestures to open side-based menus. At least the swipe up from the bottom (and hold for slightly longer to see all your open apps) to go home works naturally.

On the whole, though, I love using the Pixel 4’s version of Android. It foregoes bloatware for some of the best native apps you’ll find and, obviously, plugs in fantastically well to Google’s vast array of services. Plus, there are little extras that I miss when using any other phone, such as the handy song recognition that silently appears on the lock-screen. 

Google Pixel 4 XL performance – Google still keeps the RAM low and offers minimal storage options

Google doesn’t like talking about specs. The company failed to mention the chipset, RAM or general speed of the Pixel 4 XL even once during the launch event. That’s fine, but for the second year in a row the relative mediocrity of the internals here might cause concern 12, 18, or 24 months down the line.

The 6GB of RAM and base 64GB storage feel stingy for the £829 price. You’ll need to shell out  an extra £100 to boost that to 128GB. Considering there’s no expandable storage and you no-longer get full-res backups to Google Photos, that space is likely to run out fast.

That 6GB of RAM is on the lower side when compared to other similarly priced Android phones. A year on from the Pixel 3’s release, its 4GB of RAM is likely the cause of a variety of issues – and there’s always the chance this will happen again.

Currently, the Pixel 4 XL is a fast phone, if not one that stands atop the Android ecosystem. The 90Hz screen adds an extra illusion of smoothness, and the Snapdragon 855 gets the job done without issues. It would have been nice to see the 855+ utilised for improved graphical performance, but you won’t have any issues with games.

Speaker performance is decent, too, even though the device lacks the dedicated dual front-firing speakers of the Pixel 3XL. Now there’s one unit positioned on the front of the device, and another next to the USB-C port on the bottom. In an interesting move, Google has opted not to include either a pair of USB-C headphones or a dongle for using your older, wired headphones in the box. As such, you’ll either need to provide your own or use Bluetooth headphones.

Google 4 XL battery life – Not its strongest skill

Neither Pixel 4 flavour offers noteworthy battery life. The Pixel 4 XL will get you marginally better endurance than the Pixel 4, thanks to its bigger 3700mAh battery. However, throughout the review period, I have regularly run out of battery by 8-9pm. This may have been acceptable a couple of years ago, but is disappointing when handsets such as the Huawei P30 Pro, Apple iPhone 11 Pro Max and the bargain Motorola Moto G7 Power can genuinely go multiple days.

It’s difficult to pinpoint the cause of these battery issues. The 3700mAh battery isn’t small by any means, and while the 90Hz display on the OnePlus 7T, 7T Pro and 7 Pro affected battery life, it didn’t affect it to the degree that I’ve witnessed here. The Pixel 4 XL doesn’t even have the excuse of a super-bright display working its way through all the juice.

A day spent really pushing the phone to its limits, taking hundreds of pictures, 30 minutes of YouTube streaming, and a smattering of social media use, saw it wiped out by 8pm. This was with less than 3hrs 45mins of screen-on time (hardly a decisive metric, I know, but always worth mentioning).

There hasn’t been much in the way of upgrades to charging, either. Google continues to supply an 18W USB-C PD charger in the box, which will power up the handset in around 1hr 40-50 minutes.

Wireless charging has been improved, now supporting fast (up to 11W) speeds across any capable pad. With the Pixel 3, you could only achieve those faster speeds if you ponied up for the Pixel Stand.

Should I buy the Pixel 4 XL?

Despite appreciating many parts of this phone, at its current price and in its current state the Pixel 4 XL is a hard sell.

As good as the camera, software and design are, the battery life, poor storage options and lack of an ultra-wide lens mean there are better options out there. 

For example, the OnePlus 7T is cheaper at £599, offers far more storage, a longer-lasting battery that charges more quickly whilst also retaining the 90Hz display. In most cases, you’ll also get just as good snaps from the £719/$699 iPhone 11 – and then, of course, there’s the truly excellent Pixel 3a and 3a XL.

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