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