Google Pixel 4 XL First Impressions

Posted on October 22, 2019 by Paul Thurrott in Android, Mobile with 22 Comments

As many readers probably know, I await each new Google Pixel release with a combination of excitement and dread. Excitement because, if Google gets this right, that’s my phone for the next year. And dread because, if they get it wrong, and they’ve pretty much always gotten it wrong, I’ll face another year of uncertainty.

I know some question why I even bother, given the reliability issues that have dogged the previous generation Pixel handsets (with the exception of the inter-generational and mid-range Pixel 3a/3a XL, which were just too slow and didn’t offer enough storage). But Pixels are special—or, could be, should be—because they represent Android as realized by its maker. Pixel is to Android as Signature PC used to be to Windows.

Pixels have also provided what was once an unbeatable combination of photographic prowess and Google Fi compatibility, the combination of which I value most highly of all. But these two advantages have been eroded somewhat in recent years by two factors: Improvements in the camera systems used by rival handsets, especially Huawei’s recent flagships, and Google opening up Google Fi to other handsets, albeit it in somewhat limited form.

There’s nothing quite like confusion. But in short, my heart is still with Google, even though my mind tells me that I’ve been burned too many times to get this worked up every year. And yet he we are.

OK, Paul. Focus.

Let’s talk about the design.

I like the matte orange color—I ordered the limited edition Oh So Orange version—and the contrast it creates with the black surrounding edges, both of which are new to 2019. (The Clearly White version also offers that nice contrast.) But I’m curious that no one has really mentioned that the Pixel design language is gone: The back of the device is straight-up orange, with no two-tone design as with previous Pixel handsets and other devices. It’s a nice look, but perhaps a bit bland. (Since I’ve already covered it in a case, no matter.)

The large and square camera bump on the back is unnecessary, given that the Pixel 4 XL has only two camera lenses, plus a flash and a small sensor. One gets the feeling that Google would like to keep the design for future years, when we’ll no doubt get a third ultra-wide-angle lens. That makes sense, but it also makes the Pixel 4 XL feel like a bit of a placeholder. But the large camera system on the iPhone 11 Pro Max never bothered me, and neither does this.

We do have to address that bezel. My God, that bezel: The Pixel 4 XL’s larger forehead bezel is partying like its 2017 all over again. But you know what? It’s also a huge improvement over Google’s previous devices. And this type of design is still better than that of the notch-tastic iPhone 11 Pro series, just as this basic design was better than that of the iPhone X back in 2017.

Let me explain.

Compared to its direct predecessor, the Pixel 3 XL, it’s no contest: That ridiculous-looking device featured an imposing buck-tooth notch that ate up precious on-screen real estate for no good reason, and it’s still painful to look at today.

But compare the Pixel 4 XL to the most recently-released Pixel, the Pixel 3a XL, and you’ll see something interesting: That handset also had a large forehead bezel that looks similar to that of the Pixel 4 XL. But the 3a XL also had a similarly larger chin bezel, where the Pixel 4 XL does not.

In short, the bezel situation on the Pixel 4 XL is superior to that of its predecessors. And superior to the notch on the iPhone 11 Pro series.

The issue, of course, is that other Android smartphone makers, notably Samsung and OnePlus, have moved to much smaller and almost nonexistent bezels. And so the Pixel 4 design, depending on your perspective still manages to look a bit old fashioned. Ultimately, I’m OK with it, and I know that because I never really had an issue with the bezels on the Pixel 3a XL. But I certainly do look forward to a future in which this bezel is reduced and then eliminated.

Initial setup was straightforward for the most part, with a new way of handling the eSIM, which I never referenced directly, and a new step for setting up facial recognition. That latter process was tedious and time-consuming, and I hope that doesn’t preview the issues I may have actually using it. I had a hard time getting through the wizard, for some reason. (And, so far at least, using facial recognition to sign-in has been lightning fast.)

There are some nice new customization features for those who like to change the look and feel. In addition to a Dark mode toggle, which really needs a scheduled option, there’s a new Style setting that lets you choose between different looks with different icon types and wallpapers, which is pretty nice.

I’ll be installing apps and downloading content all day, and of course testing the camera. So far so good, and the Pixel 4 XL camera system seems to take great shots that are more color-accurate than, say, the Huawei P30 Pro.

Speaking of which, Google made some obvious internal changes here, with a faster processor and more RAM, both of which should help to future-proof the handset. But I’m curious that the firm hasn’t focused more on its custom Pixel Neural Core chipset, which it describes only as “the engine for on-device processing, always-on computing, and machine learning, meaning more tasks are done on the device for performance and privacy.”

As you may recall, Google also debuted a custom chipset called Pixel Visual Core in the Pixel 2 series in 2017, and in Serious About Software? Make Your Own Hardware! (Premium), I described how this kind of chipset, also used by Microsoft, Apple, and others, could emerge as a key differentiator. I sort of assume that Pixel Neural Core is an updated version of Pixel Visual Core, but Google’s not said so, to my knowledge. But it did document that previous chipset in ways it has not for Pixel Neural Core, at least not yet. And Pixel Visual Core was very clearly about image processing, not ML in general. Maybe that explains the name change. Or maybe it’s literally different, and Visual Core remains as well. I look forward to finding out more.

Early photo sample

The stereo speakers are a significant improvement over those in the Pixel 3 XL; the tinny, echoing vibrations are gone, thank God, and the separation seems much more balanced. Apparently, replacing the front-firing speakers from its predecessor with bottom-firing speakers worked wonders. Testing with both movies and music, I was much relieved. Much relieved.

Early photo sample

One final note: The Pixel 4 XL no longer ships with Google’s excellent wired earbuds, which is a shame, as they are quite good, nor does it include a USB-C-to-headphone adapter in the box. I guess that’s understandable here in 2019.

Anyway, I’m up and running with no major surprises so far. It’s a super-familiar experience with no real drama, and while that’s both good and bad, it’s mostly good.

More soon.

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Comments (23)

23 responses to “Google Pixel 4 XL First Impressions”

  1. yoshi

    That's great news about the speakers. That would have been one of my top concerns going into it after my experience with the 3 XL.

  2. proesterchen

    At this point I have given up on Android phones and am waiting for a exceptional deal on an 11 Pro or more likely its replacement without the notch and hopefully a 90 or 120 Hz display.

    I've had it with sub-par hardware. I've had it with an ecosystem that is years behind the opposition in SOC performance and now battery life, too. That was OK when the prices reflected the difference. Now the thoroughly crappy Pixel 4 is more expensive than the Iphone with the crappy screen.

  3. constable

    Seems like a nice phone, but way to pricey for what you get.

  4. red.radar

    I have to say I like the orange.

  5. Divodd

    All the bug reports and issues start coming about 1 or 2 weeks in. That's when we find out the true measure of it

  6. jedwards87

    I can't stay away even though I am an Apple guy. I have the iPhone 11 Pro but I am getting this too. Depending on how it works for me I may send my iPhone back. I love things that Google does like the Assistant which blows poor Siri away. I have several Home Hubs and I absolutely love them. As far as photos they look about equal to me. Sometimes the iPhone wins and sometimes the Pixel wins. I am not sure what it is about the Pixel that keeps attracting me (although it always disappoints and I sent it back). I loved the Pixel 3 but had constant BT issues. If this Pixel 4 doesn't give me the same BT issues I may stick with it the whole year. I will admit it will be hard to give up the iPhone 11 Pro because it is one awesome phone especially the battery. It is like that bunny in that it just keeps going and going and going. But charging the phone doesn't bother me. I have the Google stand which I use with my iPhone sitting on my work desk which makes it very easy to keep the phone charged up. I think the biggest thing I will miss is my Apple Watch since there is nothing else on the market that comes close to it.

    My Pixel 4 is suppose to be delivered on Thursday and I am looking forward to trying it out. I do not care about headphones as I have several pairs of wireless ones that work great. And I do not mind paying for storage so Google removing to the unlimited compressed doesn't bother me either.

  7. rosyna

    Why is it understandable that the Pixel 4 doesn’t include headphones?

  8. SvenJ

    "Google opening up Google Fi to other handsets, albeit it in somewhat limited form." Somewhat limited? On a non-Fi handset, don't you pretty much have T-Mobile? That's what I get in non-Fi devices with a Fi data SIM.

  9. codymesh

    remember when phone makers told everyone that removing the headphone jack was necessary to get bigger batteries? good times.

  10. sentinel6671

    I've read a couple of other reviews that have stated the battery life on the Pixels 4 and 4XL is pretty terrible. Interested to hear your experience on that.

  11. eljay1987

    What i don't like about Pixel phones is how they slow down after a few months...reminds me of a Windows PC!

  12. jaredthegeek

    The thing that really bothers me with this device is the lack of fingerprint reader. I use that for my banking app as well as many others and without that or until they modify the apps I will hold off. Its a inconvenience that I do not want to deal with.

  13. reformedctrlz

    They've said the neural core is what enables the on-device voice-to-text and the HDR preview so I would imagine its the update to the visual core with more versatility.

  14. mike2thel73

    I'm sorry Paul but I'm sticking with my pixel 3. I was never seriously considering to make a pixel 4 purchase but based on reviews by others, the pixel 4 is disappointing.

    Based on reviews by others, pixel 4 disappoints with battery life. (no different from my experience with pixel 3)

    The camera performance (highly subjective based on personal preference) based on reviews is a mixed bag......a lot of people are saying the iPhone 11/pro does better in low light and kills in video. Some people are saying they like the pixel 4 but only in still photos and the margin isn't that much better than an iPhone 11 series.

    Google corrected their horrible mistake with the pixel 3 by not forcing their stupid proprietary fast wireless charging standard on the pixel 4

    BUT then they take away free unlimited original quality photos.

    and to add insult to injury a 128gb pixel 3 XL trade in only nets you up to $295 when some people were stupid enough to pay around $1K for it. What a joke

    Google has had so many chances to really make a true iPhone competitor but every time they always find a way to screw it up.

    I blame it on Samsung, because it's obvious they've had to tip toe around Samsung (forget HTC, LG, Sony, Motorola/Lenovo, they are small fries compared to Sammy) with all the backroom deals they made to keep Samsung from completely ruining the google experience on Samsung phones.

    Just like google bent their knees to the American wireless carrier industry, they did the same to their $h!#y OEM/ODM partners.

    I think next year for the first time I'm going to seriously consider buying an overpriced iPhone pro device.

    • proesterchen

      In reply to Mike2thel73:

      "I blame it on Samsung"

      I blame it on Google, they have consistently put out sub-par devices all throughout the Pixel era, as well as a number of Nexus phones they had partnered on with third parties.

      As this point, there is nothing to suggest that Google can 'do' hardware.

  15. wocowboy

    I don't think I would mind the enormous top bezel so much if the screen border went straight across the device instead of having rounded corners. Those upper rounded corners seem to be there for no reason since they are not actually IN the corner. I have never understood why Android phones have a large bottom bezel either. Apple got rid of the bottom bezel on their OLED-equipped models, so why can't Android makers do the same? If you're going to take away valuable screen real estate at the top, at least give a little bit of it back to us at the bottom. It would greatly help the overal look of the devices.

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