+ Tuesday December 17th, 2019

The dust has settled on another Pixel launch and after a lot of concerns over different things with the phone it’s time to take another look at the Pixel 4 series — in particular, the Pixel 4 XL.

You would expect a phone that has been plagued by perceived issues would not still be in our pockets after a few weeks (especially when phones like the OPPO Reno and Huawei P30 Pro are around), but both Jason and I have persisted. There is something about the Pixel 4 XL that keeps us both tethered to it.

Battery is woeful

First up, let’s address the elephant in the room — the battery life. It is by far the worst battery life on any phone either of us have used in recently, even worse than the entry level phones that I have tested. There’s no two ways about it — Google made a huge mistake with the battery in the Pixel 4 devices.

While the Pixel 4 XL has better battery life than the Pixel 4, it will not last me a full day with standard everyday usage — and that is not good enough. Sure I do do a lot of tethering and streaming of NBA, NFL and YouTube throughout the day but that doesn’t prevent the OPPO Reno 10X Zoom nor the OnePlus 7 Pro from making it through a full day (to 10pm bedtime I am saying). The Pixel 4 XL barely makes it past lunch time if I am streaming games or tethering my laptop to it.

You know what though? I’ve embraced it. I’ve turned on 90Hz smooth display to be on all the time — why not? The battery doesn’t last a lick anyway. I’ve turned the brightness up and I just use it as I want to use it. I just need to not be shy about plugging it in to charge.

Jason, conversely, is all about preserving battery – to a point – by turning off stuff that he doesn’t need. His 90Hz screen refresh is completely off, although he refuses to squint at his phone, so his brightness is usually quite high.

Rapid charging over USB goes some way to addressing this. If I am busy at work I plug in for an hour or so and it tops it up. Jason’s Pixel 4 spends most of his work day on a wireless charger so it’s ready to go when he leaves work, although the battery life takes a significant plunge before work, and it feels like the phone spends most of the day trying to make up for this while charging.

The real test comes on weekends, when you’re away from a charger for a considerable amount of time — but on this point, it’s been less of a problem for both of us than we thought. On weekends I am less likely to be streaming video while out and about (just make sure I have it charged before heading out). Managing battery life is something you just have to live with if you want to have the cool things about the Pixel 4. It should be noted that the estimated rundown time provided in the notification shade is actually pretty accurate, so you do know when you’ll run out of juice. Jason’s long carried a USB battery with him wherever he goes, but hasn’t needed to use it much this year. It’s being pressed back into service now.

Android as it should be

Why else would you buy a Pixel? Let’s face it there are better cameras on other smartphones, there are better specs on other smartphones and there are smartphones with more features (or gimmicks as you will) so why would you even consider a Pixel 4? Because it is how Android should be — according to Google this is as perfect as Android can be.

The Pixel 4, battery life aside, is a joy to use. The animations are smooth. The device has settings where they are meant to be. Android permissions all behave the way they should. All apps work as they should. Android Auto works as it should. Wireless Android Auto works better than with any other device (we’ve found this does NOT work with many manufacturer-skinned phones).

There are no idiosyncrasies with the software, but in saying that there are less features than most other premium smartphones. Google’s slowly learning from other manufacturers though, and improving some of the built-in features. For example, the screenshot edit tool is quite good (though it still doesn’t do a scrollshot) but there’s still no easy screen recording feature anywhere to be found. There is still a lot hidden underneath that folks over at XDA have managed to peek into, but usually only activated with root access. In 2019.

Google is building smartphones for the 80% it seems and not for us enthusiasts, but the two don’t need to be mutually exclusive. Why hide the capability to do certain things? The option to force 90Hz screen refresh is in developer settings, but there’s no way to do the same for recording 4K/60fps? Why not offer the capability to have motion sense do something different?

Regardless of those qualms, purists cannot go past a Pixel 4 — especially in Australia. Internationally there’s options such as OnePlus, but that’s not an option for most of us.

Is the camera still a hit?

There was a time when the Pixel smartphones were considered the best smartphone cameras available but unfortunately they have remained stagnant for too long. Their computational photography has improved by leaps and bounds, but without hardware advances to match they have fallen behind the top echelon of smartphone cameras now.

The Pixel 4 still takes great pictures, but when you compare it to the latest Samsung, Huawei and Apple devices it suffers by comparison. Google made do with a single lens for too long, and misjudged the market by only adding a telephoto lens. It’s not enough.

A wide-angle lens adds useful options for framing your shot. How many premium smartphones do not have a wide-angled lens in 2019? One – the Pixel 4.

As an example I ran a couple of cameras side by side with a couple of smartphones I had on hand — a Pixel 4 XL, an OPPO Reno 10x Zoom and an Apple iPhone 11. On price point the Pixel 4 XL should blow them out of the water, but unfortunately it did not. It was good, but it was only hanging with the pack instead of excelling. Google may have doubled the rear lenses this time around but unfortunately that has not resulted in the quality of imagery doubling.

 

 

 

Where it does excel, unsurprisingly, is in Night Mode. Low light photos produce a fantastic warmth and exposes light in a way that’s slightly different to other manufacturers’ low light shots.

With Sydney’s recent stormy weather, we found the Pixel 4 excelled at capturing lightning. This is something that used to overwhelm smartphone sensors due to the sudden light level changes.

The above pic is actually an export of a frame from a video (our timing isn’t that good), but it’s still impressive.

Zoom is also much better than we initially pegged, although it still suffers over distance. If you’re zooming in on items that are, say, within 10-20 metres, it’ll do pretty well and you’ll get a sharp picture. Over larger distances you get the expected soft hybrid zoom (a byproduct of computational operations going on behind the scenes).

The Pixel 4 XL camera is still great. It gives you confidence that it’ll nail a shot, but under scrutiny its quality is not quite on par with Samsung or Huawei (or now, Apple’s iPhone 11 Pro Max). In the end the Pixel 4 takes some great pictures, but at its price and with its reputation it should be the best.

Despite the complaints, the camera is absolutely what’s keeping the Pixel 4 in both our pockets.

Motion Sense Gestures

One of the Pixel 4’s defining features is the addition of Motion Sense, a nearby radar-like motion detection system that allows you to control your phone without touching it. It’s so important to Google that it affected the industrial design of both phones, adding a significant forehead to the face of the phone in an era where we expect full-screen devices.

It’s switched off. At least, the music control gestures are switched off on Jason’s phone. It simply mistook too many normal actions around his desk as music control gestures and changed songs too often so it’s been relegated to the “nice idea” pile.

Fortunately, you can disable particular gestures while leaving others intact. While music controls are unwelcome, making the phone wake up as you reach for it is genuinely useful but this too is hit-and-miss. You’ll still be reaching for that power button to wake up the phone.

So where does that leave us?

Google, in striving to build a phone for the 80% has neglected several things we expect from a premium flagship smartphone in 2019. The camera is great, but it’s not class-leading exceptional. The display is good, but it’s not great — 90Hz refresh actually provides a welcome experience for users, but it’s not bright enough.

The battery life is woeful and I hate to think how bad it is going to be on those phones that will be running Stadia on them. The Pixel 4 is the only phone that supports Stadia upon release — it seems that one arm of Google was not talking to the other. One is building a product that will chew through a battery and one is building a product with a sub-par battery life — a happy marriage between the two is not expected.

So what is good about it? The design and the Android experience. Although the design does not scream premium I like it. It feels good in the hand and in Oh So Orange looks amazing. Face unlock when it works is great but it is too hit and miss at this stage – I find myself having to turn the display on quite often using the power button instead of Soli doing it for me and then having to go to the lockscreen before the phone will unlock.

The Android experience is fantastic. It is what Android should be. Google have gimped or hidden a lot of features away under the hood and I think they should think about having a superuser setting in Developer Settings that allows all of these under-the-hood-hidden tweaks to be accessed by those with the knowledge to do it. Even with these features being hidden the phone is a joy to use. Apps run as they should. Apps look as they should and the Android UI itself is not hard on the eyes.

Can I recommend the Pixel 4 XL to anyone? If you are in Australia and want to buy with a local warranty and also want the true Google Android experience (no, Android One doesn’t count) and have money to burn then yes this is the phone for you — with that being said a decent discount by Google on Black Friday may bring the XL version within reach.

A wiser choice may be the Pixel 3a XL at about half the price and that is because the Pixel 4 just doesn’t stand out like it should.

Pixel 4 just hasn’t blown us away. It’s missing the wow factor, and that is a shame. Maybe Pixel 5 will get it right…

Disclosure Statement:


Google has allowed us to keep to monitor software changes and because we are awesome blokes

Scott Plowman   Editor

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Scott is our modding guru - he has his finger on the pulse of all things ‘moddable’, pointing us towards all the cutting edge mods hacks that are available. When he’s not gymming it up, or scanning the heck out of Nexus devices, you'll find him on the Ausdroid Podcast.

Outside of Ausdroid, Scott's a health care professional and lecturer at a well known Victorian university.

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Luke Vesty
Ausdroid Reader
Luke Vesty

The Pixel 4 camera is much better than anything from Samsung. I have no idea what you guys are talking about. The iPhone 11 series is now trading shots with the Pixel 4 but Samsung isn’t even in the conversation. Their processing is awful.

Les
Guest
Les

I disagree – the Pixel 4 camera is very good. iPhone 11 photos may be sharper, but sharpness is well down on my list of priorities for a camera. Look at the group of 3 photos above, showing holiday cabins with a road in front, with the same photo done on Pixel 4, Oppo Renal and iPhone 11. You’ll see that the Pixel is handling dynamic range (light to dark) better than the iPhone. You can see more in the shadows with the Pixel 4. The other shot of the sun demonstrates that the Pixel 4 can handle the brightest… Read more »

Pixel dude
Guest
Pixel dude

Waiting for Pixel 4a. Even with Black Friday $220 off it’s not that great a price to lure me off my 3. Not many apps supporting face unlock, the loss of the unlimited original quality backups and the wide angle selfie cam was a deal-breaker.

Chris Rowland
Ausdroid Director

Look I’m not really the best qualified to talk about Pixels – the last one I used was a Pixel 3a (which I rather enjoyed), and the Pixel 2 before that (didn’t enjoy much at all). Sadly, Google’s hardware design seems to hark back to the mobiles of 4-5 years ago – too many features, too little focus on what users actually wanted. Samsung (to a degree), Huawei and Oppo have figured it out: nail the camera and delivery great battery life, and nothing else matters. We’re long past the point where OEM skins were unusable (goodbye, Touchwiz), and so… Read more »

Jason
Guest
Jason

I’ve got a Pixel 4 and the camera is noticeably better than the Pixel 3 that it replaced, along with being better than the iPhone 11 Pro and Samsung Galaxy 10 5G – I’ve got friends who have both and they’re both a little disappointed they didn’t wait and get the Pixel 4 due to the photos. Astrophotography Mode is a whole other level again. The battery does bite a bit, but if it’s getting down I find a quick 15 minute charge gives me a few more hours. I do suggest to people who ask, that they consider the… Read more »

Lance Clayton
Guest

I’ve had 7 faulty Pixels (including the rmas) across many generations. Buying the 4 has been underwhelming, battery really is exceptionally poor. Agreed it’s a shame it’s the best Android OS experience coupled with a phone built to be lacking in hardware. It will be my last Pixel.

Shahil Prasad
Ausdroid Reader

Does the best shot feature keep the other shots at a lower resolution or have they fixed that.

Daryl
Guest
Daryl

Would love a Google device, last one was the Nexus 7, but I cannot live with poor battery life.
I recently travelled overseas and my Note 9 made it through all but 1 day with heavy GPS, camera and browsing use.
The constant push for fast charging is crazy. I would gladly have a 1-2mm thicker device to get true all day battery life. Which is why I skipped the Note 10+ (thinner, slightly larger screen & battery).
Also, a significantly improved camera is key to my next upgrade.

michael
Guest
michael

Yes Daryl , a decent battery is a no brainer mate , I am at a loss to understand phone makers not sacrificing a bit of thinness and allowing a bit of extra weight for a useful sized battery . I have always been a bit of a galaxy dude , but holy jeebus , what the hell are they thinking making devices so thin they are like a chubby credit card , and they then have to sacrifice useful things like headphone jacks to be like anorexic fashion models . I look at googles design logic for the pixels… Read more »

Kevin
Guest
Kevin

Hey Scott, how would it compare to the Pixel 3, with Australian stock from Amazon and MobileCiti at around the $750 mark ?

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