Google Pixel 4: The Morning After

Posted on October 23, 2019 by Paul Thurrott in Android, Google, Mobile with 27 Comments

I spent a good chunk of yesterday getting up and running on my Google Pixel 4 XL, and so far, I have no complaints of any kind.

Well, there is one complaint, I guess, but it’s about as innocuous as they come and is arguably what I should have wanted and expected: This handset is about as minor of an upgrade as could be expected, and is the type of thing that Apple delivers routinely. That is, it’s … kind of boring. But given my previous Pixel reliability issues, that’s a good thing. And I hope it continues.

You can find my first impressions of the Google Pixel 4 XL here.

Since writing that, I installed and signed-in to or otherwise configured all of my keys apps, arranged my home screens (I use two), downloaded content where necessary (Audible, Google Play Music, and Pocket, primarily), and so on. I had enabled the handset on Google Fi at first boot, after having configured the iPhone 11 Pro Max I was using previously to not use iMessage anymore so that nothing would be screwed up. (You can have weird issues related to iMessage when you move from iPhone to Android.)

And. Yeah. It’s kind of boring.

What I mean by that is, everything not only works as expected, but everything is nearly identical to, and often just a little bit better than, it was on the Google Pixel 3a XL, which I’ll be trading in soon if all goes well here, and the Google Pixel 3 XL (which I had previously traded in). There are exceptions: The speaker quality of the Pixel 4 XL, for example, solves the issues I had with the speakers on the Pixel 3 XL. But by and large, it’s same-old, same-old.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not looking for drama. It’s just kind of weird how nearly identical the experience is. If you’ve used a Pixel 2 XL or newer, the Pixel 4 XL is going to be very familiar. And tht’s true of both the hardware and the software.

Consider the fun new “Oh So Orange” color of my new Pixel 4 XL, which looks particularly striking thanks to the contrast of the handset’s black edges. This thing is made almost entirely of glass, and while I sort of like its smooth matte finish, and sort of mourn the death of the original two-tone Pixel design language, none of that matters, as I immediately put it in a case. I’m not carrying around a smooth, shiny glass thing that costs $1000. I’m a klutz.

But that case I purchased, an orange Google Pixel 4 XL case, completely hides the beautiful color of the handset itself. I could have purchased any color phone and it wouldn’t have mattered. Worse, in some ways, that case is literally identical in look and feel to the Google cases I’ve purchased for every single Pixel handset I’ve bought. (And I’ve bought them all, sometimes more than once.) Contrary to Google’s description, this case, like its predecessors, is not “soft,” but I assume it really is made of knit fabric. Scratchy, hard knit fabric.


The ambient always-on display? Identical to that on my Pixel 3a XL.

Signing-in is different, of course: The Pixel 4 XL uses a new Face Unlock feature, similar to Apple’s excellent Face ID, where the previous Pixels used an excellent rear-mounted fingerprint reader. In my experience so far, Face Unlock is pretty good, but not perfect. It worked about 75 percent of the time, maybe 80 percent, and when it does work it’s really fast. But when it doesn’t, as it didn’t consistently in the dark, it’s really frustrating. If you’re in a reasonably-lit environment, you lift the phone toward you and it signs-in before you’re ready to do anything, it’s that fast, and you’re right at the home screen, unlike with iPhone, where you need to swipe up first.

The user experience is largely identical to that of previous Pixels, but with minor improvements. I really like the new Styles & Wallpaper interface that replaces Wallpapers from the Pixel 3a XL and lets you mess with icons, fonts, and more. The resulting look is nice, as are some of the new live wallpapers, which I assume are Pixel 4 only.

Everything is where it belongs—the Google Discovery feed is to the left and the All Apps screen is below—and everything works as it did with previous Pixels for the most part. I like Google’s second-generation gesture navigation just fine—it’s exactly like iPhone, basically—and always have. Because I’ve used it before.

And yeah. There you go.

I did test the camera a bit more, with some low-light shots early this morning that were kind of interesting. As expected, the Pixel 4 XL delivers great low-light performance, and I like the second on-screen slider for adjusting the shadows and getting a silhouette type shot. I’ll be playing with that a lot.

I’ll also pair the Pixel 4 XL with my Samsung Galaxy Buds this morning and will enjoy the return of the ambient sound modes that were unavailable on the iPhone. I’m not expecting any problems. I mean, that’s just how this has gone so far.

And that’s good. Right?

More soon.

(Side-note: I suppose the dulling sameness here speaks to the new normal in smartphone upgrades: Most Pixel 4 XL upgraders are probably coming from the original Pixel XL, which was released three years ago, and this is a significant upgrade over that. But Pixel 2 XL or newer? Aside from the potential reliability issues, not so much.)

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Comments (27)

27 responses to “Google Pixel 4: The Morning After”

  1. proesterchen

    I wonder if the 'force 90 Hz'-option is improving the regular user experience now that Reddit found out the Pixel 4 (XL) only ever automatically enables 90 Hz at 75% or higher screen brightness.

  2. bluesman57

    I wasn't going to upgrade, I just got a 3 XL a few months ago on sale. But when I saw the astrophotography presentation I got excited. I used to do astrophotography with a telescope and a DSLR, spent many hours and $ on it. So I went ahead and ordered.

    I also wanted the face unlock, I never have much luck with fingerprint sensors, something about my fingers I guess. I really enjoy Windows Hello on the Surface, so I wanted that.

    I didn't know until Paul posted it about the dual sim thing, so I think that's a compelling reason to get one, too. Also the 90 Hz refresh rate.

    I hate the notch on the 3 XL so glad to be rid of that. Chins and foreheads don't bother me, neither do bezels on the Surface. I'm weird I guess.

    • wolters

      In reply to Bluesman57:

      I've not been able to try astrophotography as we've had cloudy conditions at night but hope to soon.

      Face unlock has been pretty amazing. Coming from the Note 10+ face unlock, it is significantly faster. It hasn't been 100% as sometimes I have to press the power button to activate it but as a whole, it has been great and actually helpful.

      The forehead is actually quite noticeable coming from the edge to edge from the Note 10+ and something to get used to again.

      Photos as usual have been pretty awesome and it is the reason I say with a Pixel year to year.

  3. radraze2kx

    Love this review. Finally, someone that isn't bitching about a "massive forehead" or "gigantic size bezels". I'm so tired of reading reviews from people that just got brand new pixels and iPhones earlier this year and then bitch about this one being an incremental update. Sorry for not buying a brand new phone every 10 months. I used to, but lately I haven't needed to. My phone is fast AF; I only bought the Pixel 4 XL because the battery in my current phone is down the toilet. It's a massive upgrade for me!

    - Posted from my OG Pixel XL 32GB

  4. jwpear

    I think this is the case for most phones these days--just isn't that much in the market to get excited about. It is hard to do something totally different at this point.

    Folding screens get me excited. I'd love to have a device that's about the size of current phones, but can fold out to something that's more the size of an iPad Mini for times when I want a larger screen. I'm just not sure we'll get there unless battery and folding screen tech really improves.

    Cameras are important to me, but at this point, it is kind of hard to get excited about them. They're mostly good enough for what we use them for. I'm not sure they'll ever be as good as DSLRs, but I'd love to be proven wrong.

    I stopped upgrading every year when Windows Phone died. New phones aren't that impressive to me and they've gotten too expensive. In fact, my first after WP was a used iPhone 6. Most recent phones were new, but the first was not latest tech. I think I'll hold what I have for a four to five year cycle unless something significant comes along. Kind of have to at the iPhone 11 Pro price.

  5. timo47

    "The ambient always-on display? Identical to that on my Pixel 3a XL."

    Wish I could say the same for my Pixel 3a. Upgraded it Android 10 and the ambient display is just ... gone. :-(

    Double tap etc. just immediately brings up the lock screen.

  6. wbhite

    As a Pixel 2 user, it bugs me that they keep certain software features locked in to the newer devices. For example, the new Styles & Wallpaper interface should have come to any Pixel device still receiving OS upgrades. It's a cheap trick to sell a "new feature" when there's no hardware-related reason why older Pixel users can't get it.

  7. Stooks

    Apple does the notch...Google does the notch.....Apple does faceID......Google does face ID.......Apple gest rid of the 3.5mm jack......Google get rids of it.......Apple gets rid of the finger print reader.......Google gets rid of it.

    That is boring. Want to know that is going to happen with the next Pixel, ask Apple.

  8. kshsystems

    I am curious about the phone's HDR support. Does it save images into a Camera RAW format? will you be able to copy the images to your windows 10 PC via onedrive and access the extra HDR information? Say from Adobe Photoshop?

  9. Daninbusiness

    Will love to know about your experiences with apps as they (hopefully) start rolling out updates to support face unlock.

  10. wolters

    Thank you Paul for the updates. My Pixel 4XL arrives today after having used the 3XL most of the year but used a Note 10+ the last 2 months. I'm expecting the same dull sameness but really wanting the camera to remind me why I usually leave a Samsung Note behind.

  11. yoshi

    Thanks for the update, Paul. I went ahead and ordered mine this morning - for pickup tomorrow. I'm both excited and nervous. Mostly nervous because of all the mixed reports of battery life.

    Are you able to give any impression on the battery yet?

    • Paul Thurrott

      In reply to yoshi:

      Nothing notable, sorry. I just got it. But it seems fine.

    • Sprtfan

      In reply to yoshi:

      I'm curious about battery life too. Android Central said that this is the first Pixel that they can't recommend to anyone because the battery life was so poor. I think that says something since they normally love everything that Google does.

    • bassoprofundo

      In reply to yoshi:

      Ditto on that request for battery life impressions. I'm frequently near a charger most days, but I'm awfully spoiled by not even having to worry about it with the Note 10. Going back to actively managing it would be a definite regression.

      • wolters

        In reply to bassoprofundo:

        Same here. The Note 10+ has really impressed me with it's overall features, excellent video (4K 60FPS) and "Good Enough" (if at times frustrating) still camera. I'm going to go a week or so with the Pixel 4XL and see if I can live with the corners that Google Cut and having less features than the Note 10+.

        • yoshi

          In reply to wolters:

          I've been debating if I should just cancel my pre-order and go back to the Note 10+. For me, it's the battery that's my main concern. I'm wondering if all these negative reviews on battery life are due to the short amount of time they've had the phone. The adaptive battery takes a week or so to really kick in. I even notice that on the Samsung phones as well. That's another reason I appreciate that Paul takes his time with his reviews.

          • wolters

            In reply to yoshi:

            I will try to update in a comment or a forum post about battery life once I get it...this is the first time since flip flopping between a Note and Pixel that I am given second thoughts about the Pixel and more excited about the Note.

  12. j_c

    Had the same "boring, but that's good" reaction with the iPhone 11 trading up from a 7+.

    The phone is now like a toaster or any other appliance. You buy one. You get maybe a moment of interest or delight. If it just does what it's supposed to then all is well. You use it every day and never think about it until it stops working and you need a new one.

    My hope is that means energy will instead be focused on making great software and content experiences and services that make life better.

  13. jeff.bane

    I hope it keeps up Paul.

    Still, I can't help but think this is the abusive spouse you never leave and keep thinking will change.

  14. djross95

    How is the battery life? Reviews of the smaller Pixel 4 say the battery life is atrocious (not surprising given the small battery size), and I saw one that said the XL wasn't so great either despite its larger battery. Just curious!

  15. bgoodbody

    I switched from Google Fi to Xfinity Mobile and bought new phones. Here must use Verizon for adequate coverage. Happy with cost and quality.

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