Google Pixel 4 XL Preview

Posted on October 15, 2019 by Paul Thurrott in Android, Mobile with 48 Comments

Google’s press event today was curiously subdued and even boring at times. But there was one major highlight: The Pixel 4 series, which appears to offer computational photography capabilities that surpass anything that the rest of the industry has to offer.

That’s important because there is a perception now—an incorrect perception, based on my experience—that Apple has somehow caught up to or even surpassed Google (and Huawei and others) when it comes to the quality of the iPhone 11 Pro camera system, in particular in low light. I’ll have an iPhone 11 Pro Max review soon, but the short version is that Apple has absolutely improved its camera system in low light scenarios and has added a neat ultra-wide capability. But these are features the rest of the industry already had. It’s not “better” than the recent Pixels or Huaweis. It’s just in the ballpark now.

Or was in the ballpark, as today’s Google event suggests. It looks like the Pixel 4—by which I mean the Pixel 4 and the larger but otherwise identical Pixel 4 XL—have leapfrogged the competition yet again.

Before getting to the camera, which Google naturally focused on (ahem) at its event, it’s worth discussing a few other aspects of the Pixel 4.

First up is the price: The Pixel 4 starts at $799 and the Pixel 4 XL starts at $899. For those prices, you get 64 GB of storage, which is not enough. You will pay another $100 for 128 GB of storage, and there is no way to get more storage than that, either at purchase time or later, as there’s no microSD expansion.

Those prices are high, too high, in my opinion, given the quality of the previous three Pixel generations. But those prices also undercut the latest iPhone flagships significantly: A 64 GB iPhone 11 Pro will set you back $999, fully $200 more than Pixel 4. A 64 GB iPhone 11 Pro Max is also $200 more than the equivalent Pixel 4 XL, at $1099. (And no, the non-Pro iPhone 11, which starts at $699, is not comparable, despite its admittedly impressive internals. The camera system is less capable.)

There are three colors, Just Black and Clearly White, as before, and a new Oh So Orange, which is the version I preordered (with 128 GB of storage). The Clearly White and Oh So Orange variants are particularly stunning, but if you can’t get the color you want—The Oh So Orange model I preordered is already sold out, by the way—you can at least get a fun colorful fabric case.

We need to talk about the bezels, and in part because Google did not. The Pixel 4 has a large top forehead bezel and a smaller but still visible bottom chin bezel that remind me of Android flagships of two years ago, like the Pixel 2 XL or the Samsung Galaxy S8+. The larger top bezel contains a number of sensors, some of which, like Motion Sense, are important to the device’s new facial recognition capabilities (which Google also glossed over). So they’re perhaps necessary. I will say this, they’re preferable to the humongous notch that ruined the Pixel 3 XL last year.

But the most important feature to me, and to many Pixel fans, is the camera system.

From a photography standpoint, Pixel has thus far been notable for two reasons: These cameras take the very best photos in the smartphone market, always have, and they have done so, to date, using only a single rear camera in a time in which its competition has moved to two or three lenses.

(Google did add a second lens to the front-facing selfie camera on the Pixel 3 XL only last year for ultra-wide, selfie stick-less shots. They never talked about this, but Pixel 4 is back to a single front-facing camera lens that offers a 90-degree field of view, compared to 97-degrees for ultra-wide in Pixel 3 XL.)

It took a few years, but Huawei, in particular, but also Apple and others have indeed started to catch up. So Google has finally taken a step into multiple rear camera lenses with the Pixel 4. But in a time in which most of its best competition utilizes two lenses, Google is using just two, a 16 MP main lens with an ƒ/2.4 aperture and 52-degree field of view and a 12.2 MP telephoto lens with larger pixels, an ƒ/1.7 aperture, and a 77-degree field of view.

What’s missing, of course, is an ultra-wide lens. Google said at its event that it felt that good telephoto was “more important” than ultra-wide, which is a cute way of acknowledging a missing feature that most definitely is coming in Pixel 5. I disagree: Telephoto and ultra-wide are both important, and I really like the ultra-wide lenses on the other recent flagships I’ve used this year.

That said, the telephoto capabilities appear to be impressive, despite the fact that the Pixel 4 is limited to “roughly” 2X optical zoom, shades of OnePlus’s contorted claims about the telephoto capabilities of the 7 Pro. Here, as always, Google’s AI smarts allow for some computational photography magic that allow what is essentially hybrid zoom to deliver excellent results simply by pinching to zoom and taking snapshots. That looks solid, but I’ll need to test it.

Google got the most cheers for its so-called astrophotography capabilities, which not only let you take pictures of the stars at night but also the galaxies that are floating behind them. That stuff is absolutely impressive, but it’s not the type of thing you’ll use every day. And there are some more common photography improvements that are, to me, even more impressive and useful.

The first is a much-needed capability that I assume Google’s competitors will try to duplicate in their handsets next year: It’s called Live HDR+, and it uses AI to display exactly what an HDR+ shot will look like in the viewfinder. I know that sounds obvious. But when you are taking a difficult shot today—say, with bright light coming in through the window of any overly-dark room—the viewfinder will either blow out the light or overly-darken the dark, depending on where you focus. Now, Pixel 4 will show you exactly what the resulting shot will look like so you can tweak it, if needed, at capture time. That will impact everyone in a very positive way.

Another huge improvement is Pixel 4’s dual exposure controls. Today, when I’m out in the world and want to take a shot on a lesser smartphone camera and it’s not contrasty enough, I’ll use the on-screen brightness control to help compensate. But doing so only solves part of the problem; it doesn’t help with pumping up the shadows. So Pixel 4 offers brightness and shadows sliders on-screen, letting you achieve the look you want. On stage, they did a nice job of showing how this could be used to create a silhouette of people against the sky.

Pixel 4 also brings the automatic white balance control from Night Sight to all other shooting modes, so that snow shots will no longer be blue-hued because of the reflection of the sky. And it uses split pixels to deliver better Portrait mode shots, which are well-known in other cameras (cough, iPhone) for their terrible edge detection, especially with hair. Portrait mode improves in Pixel 4 because of the two lenses, and it can be used with larger objects now, and from further back too.

What this all adds up to is what looks like the very best photography experience in smartphones. But that claim will need to be tested. And I’ll start doing that as soon as my Pixel 4 XL arrives, perhaps as soon as late next week. Given my previous Pixel experiences, I am, of course, a bit nervous. But I’ll also hopeful that they got it right this time. Because the camera system capabilities look truly incredible, and a step above anything else we see in the market today.

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Comments (48)

48 responses to “Google Pixel 4 XL Preview”

  1. Avatar

    yoshi

    Maybe this new Pixel won't vibrate like a jackhammer while watching a YouTube video.

  2. Avatar

    wright_is

    What is the actual focal length of the telephoto lens? Does it fall into short telephoto (85mm - 135mm), medium telephoto (135mm - 300mm) or super telephoto (300mm+)?

  3. Avatar

    brettscoast

    Thanks for the preview Paul. I find it odd that there is no model with 256GB storage especially as there is no expandable storage option. Otherwise the phone looks solid, good build quality. I will be interested in your follow up on the picture quality of this phone against the Huawei P30 Pro which seems to produce images of a startling high quality.

  4. Avatar

    Daekar

    I don't want to say that I don't care about camera advancements, because I do... but I really don't care that much anymore. The flagship phones are so good that they have definitely reached a point of diminishing returns for me. The practical improvement that the difference in cameras will make in my life is so small that they cease to be a significant differentiator in my selection of a handset once they reach a certain threshold.

    Wow. That's wordy as hell. So uh, I guess you could say that as long as the camera is good enough, I don't care. And all the high end phone cameras are good enough.

    • Avatar

      irfaanwahid

      In reply to Daekar:

      i Tend to agree with you.

      The camera improvements are incremental in most of the recent flagship smartphones.

      If we were to compare 3 - 4 years ago, then it's a different thing.

      I feel most recent smartphones are well equipped with good cameras.

      Companies will of course keep iterating and bring something new, unique every year, that's their job, to sell.

      Those small improvements does not justify 800 - 1000$ purchase. IMHO.

  5. Avatar

    kunalr

    Okay, fine. It has some unique features. But, let’s agree with something, it’s sale gonna be a lackluster one.

    • Avatar

      Stooks

      In reply to kunalr:

      It is my understanding that Google has now dropped the unlimited storage of photos at full resolution and has fallen back to high resolution like any other non pixel user.


      Basically the pixel lost one of its selling points.

  6. Avatar

    BigM72

    I'm not sure I can agree with the iPhone 11 is not comparable to the Pixel 4.

    If the 11 Pro camera system is worse, the 11 Pro is effectively equally worse (it won't have the deep fusion feature only?).


    Both the Pixel and the 11 comes with only two lenses (although I think the iPhone choice of wide and ultra-wide is more useful than wide and telephoto).


    Are you able to articulate more precisely why the regular iPhone is not comparable other than its camera is less good than the pro iPhone?


    Outside of camera, they will surely be comparable.

    • Avatar

      wright_is

      In reply to BigM72:

      Paul explicitly said, that this was all based on the camera capabilities, because that is important to many people. He deliberately concentrated on this one feature, he was not talking about the OS, apps, processor (directly) or anything else, just comparing their photographic capabilities.

      As to the lenses, lenses aren't made equal and, in the end, it is what is behind the lens (the sensor and software) that is really important and here the iPhone is (according to Paul, who has been testing iPhones and Android phones for years) still playing catchup.

      Wide and ultra-wide is better than wide and telephoto? Depends purely on what you are photographing. For me, even the telephoto is too short. I generally shot with 400mm or higher, most smartphone cameras can manage between 85mm and 135mm (short telephoto), at best. I haven't seen any phone bragging medium telephoto or super telephoto capabilities.

    • Avatar

      Daishi

      In reply to BigM72:.


      I think it’s pretty well established at this point that almost the only thing that matters on a phone for Paul is the camera and the rest seems to be the ability to put icons anywhere on the home screens. So the iPhone 11 doesn’t count. Now for me (and from the sounds of it you) these thing are utterly irrelevant and his constant harping on them is a point of genuine bemusement, but it should be pretty clear to any regular consumer of his opinions by now that that is where he’s going to come down.

  7. Avatar

    Chris_Kez

    The iPhone doesn’t provide a live preview showing what the final photo will look like? I thought it was doing those adjustments for HDR and night mode in real time on device.

  8. Avatar

    Philip

    A couple of corrections:

    "But in a time in which most of its best competition utilizes two lenses, Google is using just two, a 16 MP main lens with an ƒ/2.4 aperture and 52-degree field of view and a 12.2 MP telephoto lens with larger pixels, an ƒ/1.7 aperture, and a 77-degree field of view."

    should read (to match Google Fi spec page):

    But in a time in which most of its best competition utilizes three lenses, Google is using just two, a 16 MP telephoto lens with an ƒ/2.4 aperture and 52-degree field of view and a 12.2 MP wide-angle lens with larger pixels, an ƒ/1.7 aperture, and a 77-degree field of view.


    Just had to check when I saw the telephoto listed as a larger degree field of view than the main lens.

  9. Avatar

    wocowboy

    $1000 for a phone that maxes out at 128 GB of storage, no wide-angle lens, the inability to upload pictures at full-quality to Google's cloud service, plus a tiny battery in comparison with other Android devices? I don't think so, no way would I buy one were I in the market for a new phone. Google cut too many corners with this iteration of the Pixel line. I am amazed that Paul thinks this device is far ahead of what an iPhone11 is today, let along other Android phones

    • Avatar

      wolters

      In reply to wocowboy:

      I can't help but agree...I am tempted by the camera specs and features but I feel that I may be giving up a lot to move from the Note 10+ to the Pixel 4 XL this year...the "very best" camera may not be enough...

  10. Avatar

    Hawaiianteg

    Paul


    the iPhone 11 and 11 Pro have the same camera system, just the pro has an extra telephoto lens. Also if you look at early comparisons the iPhone 11 and pixel 4 are neck and neck and that’s still without apples deep fusion integrated yet. And yes the regular iPhone 11 is definitely in the same league as the pixel 4 and cheaper too.

  11. Avatar

    eshs1962

    I have a Pixel 3xl and I love everything about it except for the phone, which I use allot because I am a Realtor. I drop call constantly and either my voice gets synthesized or it happens to the person I am talking to. Because of that, I am not sure about the Pixel products. Any suggestions?

  12. Avatar

    chrisrut

    Ah, these camera features just make me giddy :-)


    I learned photography back in the 60s - trained on everything thing from 35mm Nikons to view cameras and sheet film; developing in open tanks in pitch dark or safe light as the media permitted. But even then this technology nerd dreamed of an electronic finder for my view-camera, replete with knobs for exposure, contrast, and shutter - Ansel Adams' "Zone System" in a box - results pre-visualized on screen before ever a shutter was snapped...


    And here were are, 50 years later, doing exactly that.


    What a fun ride it has been...

  13. Avatar

    red.radar

    As an iPhone user I was disappointed to see google add face unlock capability. I really not a fan of face-ID and this sort of codifies the feature in smartphone world...


    Microsoft starts it with windows hello... apple makes it possible in smartphone and now google cements it. I guess facial recognition is here to stay.


    I am at least hopeful google’s implementation is advanced enough to get apple to substantially improve Face ID. So I guess competition for the win


    Insee wireless charging is a feature, that should help mitigate some of the quality issues observed with substandard connectors

  14. Avatar

    F4IL

    This is a good solution for those that would go for the OnePlus 7T but were not thoroughly impressed by the camera system.

    • Avatar

      PeterC

      In reply to F4IL:

      Well Oneplus 7t in U.K. is £549 versus a pixel 4xl at £929. I’m in the market for a new android handset as I’m not upgrading my iPhone 8 and I’m purchasing a oneplus 7t for £380 cheaper than Google’s offering.


      sorry mate it’s a total no brainer choice.

      • Avatar

        rmlounsbury

        In reply to PeterC:

        Unless the camera is your top or one of your top decision makers. If you care at all about photography you get the Pixel 4.

        • Avatar

          PeterC

          In reply to rmlounsbury:

          I agree in principle- if the camera is the top priority, but to be honest id be choosing a p30 pro if the camera was my top priority.


          im happy with an 8 out of 10 score for my camera, but I need a really great all round handset for everything else. In my opinion op7t offers way better value for money. £380 difference in price is huge when you compare handsets, in my opinion.

  15. Avatar

    jeff.bane

    My days of $1,000 phones are over. There's too many compelling choices 500-700. Including google's own 3axl.

    • Avatar

      PeterC

      In reply to Jeff.Bane:

      Exactly..... £549 gets a ton of handset nowadays.

    • Avatar

      rmlounsbury

      In reply to Jeff.Bane:

      I do agree especially given that you can still get a Pixel 3 (64GB) for $499 and Pixel 3 XL (64GB) for $599. Of course you also have the Pixel 3a (64GB) and 3a XL at $399 and $479. Just considering Google's now previous generation phone lineup that is a lot of options with still excellent photograpy capabilities all under $599.


      Upgrading to the Pixel 4 is primarily an exercise in wanting the best camera on a smartphone in the marketplace. Of course, I'm sure if you wait until Christmas the Pixel 4 can be had with a pretty decent discount which Google has a history of doing. Or, if you are fine being a year behind the Pixel 4 pricing should drop like a rock as next October approaches.

  16. Avatar

    Stooks

    I would wager that 98% of smartphone users would be completely happy with the iPhone 8 camera or any Android phone at that level. For those 98% its a camera that is "good enough". They take hundreds to thousands of photos with most never being looked at more than once or twice.


    Last month I traded in my launch day iPhone X for a iPhone XR. I got $400 for it. I went from 256gig to 64gig. On paper I got a worse screen and camera, single vs dual. I can tell NO difference in the screen (LCD vs OLED) or the camera. I do like the slightly larger size and the battery lasts longer.....which I really care about. I was using 16gig of 256gig and now I am using 16gig of 64gig. The cloud makes that possible. My photos sync to OneDrive and I have icloud photos turned off. I simply erase the photos on the phone every month or so. If I need one I download it from OneDrive.


    I think most people now care way more about privacy than the latest rev of smartphone camera's. I have a DSLR that takes the pictures I truly care about.

    • Avatar

      peterepete

      In reply to Stooks:

      I did the exact same as you. I "upgraded” to an iPhone XR myself back in August from an iPhone 7 Plus. Took me a few days to learn to navigate the os using only gestures but its second nature to me now. Can’t tell a difference in the screen. The photos it takes look fantastic to me. I absolutely love Face ID! Super fast & spot on even in a pitch black room. And I lost nothing going from 128GB to 64GB thanks to cloud storage. The best part was the price. Yes Android has cheaper options but I’ve been in the Apple ecosystem for years & have no desire to switch.


      I honestly think we’ve reached a point where new features on these smartphones are a battle of diminishing returns. It looks good on a bullet point list but doesn’t mean much to the “typical or average” user anymore. That’s where I’ve found myself the last few years. The cutting edge doesn’t do a whole lot for me anymore. I’ll take cheaper if I can get by with it.

    • Avatar

      jgraebner

      In reply to Stooks:

      I think you are completely wrong with that last paragraph. Most people don't have expensive DSLR cameras and take all their photos with a smartphone. I also think the privacy concerns surrounding smartphone features are little more than a vague notion for most people.

  17. Avatar

    allberry2001

    I'm wondering what the battery life will be like.

  18. Avatar

    nbplopes

    Let me see. So a phone with one less lens equally lovely display if not better, super fast Face ID , not made of plastic and "no" bezels is not comparable. Yet a phone with all these winning things, and speaking of lenses adds one more lens to the pixel (3 not 2), plus an excellent OLED display ...already is? Smooth crop much?


    Humm. It does not make much sense to me.


    PS: HDR+, my iPhone X already does that. Pick up your iPhone and focus on the brightest of spots, you will see it compensate the dark areas.

  19. Avatar

    anderb

    A normal camera has better 'astrophotography capabilities' than this phone and costs a lot less.

  20. Avatar

    rmlounsbury

    I do find it mildly entertaining that Apple had to leverage 3 lenses to compete with what Google was able to do with 1 lense on the Pixel 3 devices.


    Since it sounds like the Pixel 4 are coming to T-Mobile and will indeed be available on their Jump on Demand program I will be trading in my OnePlus 7 Pro for a Pixel 4 XL (I was planning on moving over to the 7T for the minor bumps). It will be interesting to see what Google can do with two lenses and even more computational horse power behind them.


    I am glad to see Google didn't go with some sort of notch to accomodate their sensors and just gave it a forehead. This is far better than the bucket and the iPhone notch in my opinion. I'd rather have seamless top to the screen that isn't interrupted by a notch. It also compresses the notifications you can see which can be annoying on occasion.

  21. Avatar

    johnh3

    Im sure the new Pixel have good cameras. But with the design I always thinking about Fisher-Price. Why cant Google make nice devices like Apple, Samsung, Sony Xperia with the color options etc..



  22. Avatar

    silenthero117

    I'm currently on my Pixel 2XL and have been very happy with the awesome photos it produces. The one benefit that I do enjoy is the uncompressed backup to Google Photos (added OneDrive as secondary backup) and that appears to be going away with the Pixel 4. While it's not a deal breaker, it is somewhat disappointing when you consider this to be the cream of the crop in smartphone photography. I agree that the price is a bit too high as Paul pointed out simply due to the history of its predecessors and I've experienced the ridiculous USB-C issues on mine. It seems to be a worthy upgrade in some areas especially photography and the display, but I don't feel the urge to go out and buy one just yet.

  23. Avatar

    nobody9

    The camera and radar features are fine as far as they go, but the superior privacy features of both the P3s and P4s and Assistant results are the real reason to buy trade all your other premium phones in for them.

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