I’ve only had my Pixel 4 XL for a bit over a week, but it’s been such a solid performer that I feel comfortable using it full time going forward. It may not be the right handset for everyone—there are some goofy design choices, and the lack of an ultra-wide camera option will put off some—but it’s the right choice for me. Here’s what I think of Google’s latest flagship.
After establishing a two-tone Pixel design language across 3.5 handset generations and a few other hardware products, Google unceremoniously and silently dumped it for Pixel 4 XL. This year, we instead get a solid color with a (painted) black aluminum border all around. I happen to like this look, at least on the Clearly White and Oh So Orange versions of the product, since it adds some nice contrast. (With Just Black, it’s just, well, all black.) But thanks to the dull matte glass finish, it’s both bland looking and easy to break.
If there’s a controversy to this design, it’s the gigantic top (forehead) bezel that creates a bit of a lopsided look, since the bottom bezel is quite small. Google says that the top bezel was necessitated by the facial recognition and motion/radar sensors that we’ll discuss below, and I agree that it’s much better looking than the comically large notch that made the Pixel 3 XL such an embarrassment. But it’s still an anachronistic flaw for a flagship device, and a throwback to the 2017 design of the Pixel 2 XL.
Put simply, looks is no reason to buy a Pixel. Nor is the protective case you’ll need, since it will cover up whatever color you choose anyway.
The Pixel 4 XL’s gorgeous display is the design’s saving grace. This 6.3-inch OLED panel delivers a 3040 x 1440 resolution at 537 ppi with a 100 percent DCI-P3 color gamut and HDR, and has been described by the experts at DisplayMate as being “truly impressive” and “visually indistinguishable from perfect.” But I don’t need DisplayMate to tell me this: Unlike with most previous Pixel XL models, the Pixel 4 XL display is bright, sharp, colorful, and easily viewed in any lighting condition and at steep angles, including outdoors on bright, sunny days. What an improvement.
Google heavily advertises the Pixel 4 XL’s smooth 90 Hz refresh rate, but it declined to mention that the handset dynamically switches between 60 Hz and 90 Hz and is almost always at the former, and slower, speed. Here, Google’s attempts at outthinking the user with AI are, perhaps, less successful than elsewhere, but the dynamic refresh rate probably helps with battery life. And if you’re really concerned with that, you can just turn off 90 Hz all-together. (Oddly, you can’t enable 90 Hz at all times without enabling an obscure developer feature.)
Having used some stellar 90 Hz display implementations on the OnePlus 7 Pro and 7T, I understand the allure. But I also never once thought that the Pixel 4 XL display was “slow” or inferior in any way, and I’ve never felt compelled to mess with the refresh rate settings. Whether moving between different lighting situations, in which case the display adapts quickly, or performing any traditional phone tasks—reading, watching a movie, whatever—the Pixel 4 XL display has always excelled, and it always performs smoothly. I honestly can’t remember that ever being the case with previous Pixel XLs.
The Pixel 4 XL display is also aided by Google’s usual software-based niceties, like Night mode, Dark mode, the always-on ambient display, and the ability to configure the display’s color boost to match your preferences.
Hardware and specs
Google continues to come in just under expectations in the configuration department, and where last year’s issue was too little RAM, this year’s problem is that the Pixel 4 XL inexplicably doesn’t ship with Qualcomm’s latest processor, the Snapdragon 855+. Instead, it offers the slightly older and slightly less capable Snapdragon 855, an octa-core SoC with Adreno 640 graphics. That’s fine, of course, and I’ve experienced absolutely no performance issues so far. But it’s still strange and vaguely disappointing to buy a new flagship with a previous-generation chipset.
Google at least responded to last year’s RAM issue by mating the Snapdragon 855 to a more acceptable 6 GB of LPDDR4x RAM, where the Pixel 3 XL shipped with a woeful 4 GB. That’s lower than we see on other Android flagships, of course, but I expect this to help future-proof the handset for the duration of its support lifecycle.
Storage is unchanged: Google offers just 64 GB in its base models and there’s only a single upgrade option, to 128 GB, where most other Android handset makers (and Apple) offer 256 or even 512 GB upgrade options, or more. There’s no microSD expansion either, so you’re stuck with whatever you got at purchase time. (I upgraded to 128 GB, and this is all the storage I’ll ever need in a phone for the foreseeable future.)
For communications, the Pixel 4 XL is firmly rooted in the present, not the future. It provides worldwide cellular compatibility via multiple GSM, CDMA, HSPA, EVDO, and LTE network types, but not 5G, and it sports both eSIM and a SIM card slot. It also provides dual-band Wi-Fi 802.11 ac (but not Wi-Fi 6) and Bluetooth 5.0 with A2DP, LE, and aptX HD capabilities. It is fully compatible with Google Fi, which is a key selling point for me; and it will soon support Fi’s dual-SIM dual connect technology.
The Pixel 4 XL provides a 3700 mAh battery, and while I’ve seen complaints about the battery life, I’ve never had an issue getting through a full day. I’m usually north of 30 percent by the time I go to bed. But if you do need a charge, Google supplies an 18-watt fast charger in the box and the Pixel 4 XL supports Qi wireless charging.
The handset provides excellent and well-balanced stereo speakers that solve all of the problems with the previous generation handset, whose speakers were both off-balance and tinny sounding, with horrible audio echoes. There’s no headphone jack, of course, though this is less of a problem for me than it was a year ago. Your mileage may vary.
There are several unique hardware features worth discussing.
As with the previous two Pixel generations, the Pixel 4 XL features previous advances like Google’s Pixel Visual Core chipset for hardware-accelerated computational photography and the Titan M Security Module, which provides firmware-based security functionality at boot time, for storage, and for securing transactions through Google Pay and other services. It also continues the use of a weird on-handset “squeeze” gesture that summons the Google Assistant by default and is goofy.
The Pixel 4 XL also augments those components with unique new hardware capabilities including the new Pixel Neural Core chipset for on-device machine learning (ML) and AI capabilities that can work offline, the Motion Sense radar sensor for air gestures, and the Face Unlock facial recognition functionality. As noted below, Motion Sense and Face Unlock even work together to speed authentication. So, Google has expanded the hardware differentiation between its handsets and those made by its partners.
The Pixel 4 XL camera experience will be familiar to anyone coming from previous-generation Pixels, like me. But the camera software has some subtle and very useful tweaks, while the camera hardware … Well, that’s changed in more major ways. And not always for the better.
Let me get the two big disappointments out of the way first.
The Pixel 4 XL lacks the very useful super-wide selfie mode and dual front-facing cameras that were among the Pixel 3 XL’s few highlights. Given how much forehead chin this new handset has, not including both lenses this year seems wrong, and it’s absolutely a step backward.
I suspect, however, that this missing second front-facing lens is tied to a similarly missing rear lens: Despite having two rear camera lenses, in a first for a Pixel, the Pixel 4 XL lacks the ultra-wide-angle lens that the iPhone 11 Pro Max series and Samsung Note 11+ have. Google downplayed this omission at its launch event, but this omission is misguided: Ultra-wide-angle shots are even more useful on the rear camera system than they are on the front, and having enjoyed this experience on other handsets, I really miss it here.
On that note, I’m very interested that Google has taken its strengths in computational photography and expanded them to include two physical lenses. What the firm was able to accomplish with one rear lens across the final Nexus generation and three years of Pixels was truly exceptional, and Google routinely outperformed other camera systems, no matter the lens count. But this year, things have become complicated. Apple, you see, has actually caught up in some ways, especially with the iPhone 11 Pro series, which features three lenses.
The Pixel 4 XL, by comparison, arrives with two rear camera lenses: A 28 mm 12 MP wide lens with an f/1.7 aperture and a 45 mm 16 MP telephoto lens with a f/2.4 aperture, optical image stabilization, and 2x optical zoom. Normally, when we discuss such things, I’ll point out that one of these lenses is the “main” lens, indicating that the other lens(es) only factor into the conversation in certain conditions, like portrait mode, or an ultra-wide or telephoto shot. But that’s not how Google does things.
With Pixel, every single photo is massaged by AI and machine learning to ensure that the quality is as high as can be. This benefits every shot, whether it’s a sunny day with bright blue skies or an unevenly lit dark situation that would cause other camera systems fits. So there’s no real concept of a “main” lens here, per se: There are two lenses, and the Pixel uses either, or both, as needed. And it does so with every shot.
With other multi-lens setups, this isn’t always the case. The Galaxy Note 10+ and iPhone 11 Pro Max both feature on-screen buttons that (usually) map directly to one of the lenses (main/wide, telephoto, and ultra-wide). Google’s approach is to not constrain you to such things and just take the best shot every single time. To be fair, Apple does some of this as well, and its on-screen buttons don’t always map directly to a particular lens. But Google’s been at it longer, and it shows. Consider zoom shots: Both the Pixel 4 XL and iPhone 11 Pro series offer 2x optical zoom, but when you zoom out further, using a hybrid zoom, the Pixel’s shots are routinely superior.
It’s no surprise that the Pixel 4 XL camera experience is just about as good as it can be, and this handset meets and usually exceeds the capabilities of the iPhone 11 Pro Max across the board. But if you’re only considering camera quality, going iPhone or Pixel this year will be a tougher choice than usual; Pixel had always out-performed Apple’s entries by a wide margin before. So give Apple some credit: It made a giant leap forward this year and is, for the first time, in the running. And the addition of an ultra-wide-angle lens on the iPhone 11 Pro series (the normal iPhone 11 lacks this) is a real advantage.
That said, I do find the that Pixel 4 XL delivers consistently better shots in all other scenarios, from bright sunny outdoor shots to the lowest of low-light conditions, and everything in between. Apple’s photos tend to be more washed out, whereas the Pixel delivers just the right amount of clarity, brightness, and HDR color boost. (That said, Huawei’s recent flagships, which aren’t generally available in the United States, provide even more HDR pop, and some people may prefer that effect overall; it’s particularly good for food and travel Instagram account holders.)
Improving matters further, Google this year has augmented the brightness slider than appears in the camera app when you focus on a subject with a second slider, for shadows. This lets you compose scenes that are impossible on iPhone, and it’s particularly good for turning a scene with backlighting—like people against a sky—into a nice silhouette shot.
The Pixel 4 XL also provides an incredible astrophotography capability, which isn’t implemented as a mode but rather is done automatically: If you’re outside in the dark with the phone mounted on a tripod (or otherwise leaning on something stable) and focus on the sky, the Pixel will take multiple long exposure shots over 4 minutes and then combine them into something truly magical. Where I live, unfortunately, there’s a bit too much ambient light in the sky to get the telescope-like galaxy views that Google promotes (and others have achieved), but even the shots I take from my back yard show an incredible numbers of stars that can’t be seen by human eyes. I can’t wait to get it out in the middle of nowhere.
From a video perspective, the Pixel 4 XL is nothing special: It offers 1080p at 60 fps as its default, but you can only push it to 4K at 30 fps, where the recent iPhones all provide 4K at 60 fps, and bolster that with some impressive software-based stabilization capabilities that outperform Pixel. There’s nothing particularly wrong here—4K video eats storage quickly—but if you care about video at all, or this is a need, the iPhone is the better choice.
In a controversial move, Google doesn’t provide a fingerprint reader of any kind in the Pixel 4 XL. Instead, it relies solely on a new facial recognition system it calls Face Unlock that supposedly works like Apple’s excellent Face ID. In my experience, Face Unlock is not as fast or accurate as Face ID, as one should expect of a first-generation effort. But that’s what makes the lack of a fingerprint reader so frustrating: I keep moving my finger to the middle-back of the device to find a reader that doesn’t exist when Face Unlock doesn’t work as quickly as I’d like (or at all).
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not horrible. It’s just that it’s not as good as Face ID, and when you get used to a superior system, using anything less efficient can be painful. I’ve had to manually enter my PIN far too often, as at the gym, when I move from machine to machine and need to know how much weight to add. And it seems to fail in various conditions, not just the dark, but also sometimes in well-lit places.
That said, it could be worse: Google utilizes the Pixel 4 XL’s Motion Sense capabilities, which use radar to detect movement that is both in front of the handset and moving towards it, to sense that you are reaching for the phone. When it does, it wakes up the screen and trips the Face ID sensor to ensure faster performance. If this system wasn’t in place, Face Unlock would be a disaster. (Again, the need for all these sensors partially explains the Pixel 4 XL’s big upper bezel.)
Overall, I can live with this performance. But Face ID is better, as were previous Google fingerprint readers and even in-display fingerprint readers like those in the OnePlus 7 Pro and 7T. It’s about as frustrating as the in-display fingerprint reader in the Samsung Galaxy Note 10+. That’s not a compliment, but it’s not totally damning either.
For years, we’ve described Google’s Pixel software as “stock Android,” but that is increasingly not the case. Today, the Pixel 4 XL offers features that will never make their way to stock Android. These additions, like the new styling (theming) capabilities, are often subtle but are usually useful, and nothing like the major changes that some other Android handset makers add to the system. Put simply, the Pixel version of Android is ideal Android, not stock Android.
With its optimized version of Android, the Pixel 4 XL ships with absolutely no crapware and it, of course, isn’t marred by the needless app duplication seen on other Android flagships. There are a handful of new apps, however, including the useful Recorder app with its automatic transcription capabilities, and a Pixel Tips app that will help those new to Google’s hardware ecosystem get up and running quickly.
Most of Google’s Android additions are found, instead, in Settings, where you can configure such features as summoning the Google Assistant by squeezing the sides of the Pixel, the neat new Styles & Wallpapers interface, Digital Wellbeing (which is making its way to non-Google devices), Motion Sense, and the like. I’ve not yet disabled Motion Sense’s quick gestures, but I will: I’ve already inadvertently skipped to the next song by mistake because I was gesticulating over the handset while listening to music far too many times.
There’s also a nice Personal Safety app you can use to enter emergency contacts and medical info, and configure automatic 911 dialing in emergencies. Well done, Google.
Overall, the Pixel version of Android is still my favorite version of Android, and while it had gotten a bit boring in the past few years, the new Styles interface, with its icon and font customizations, has really helped.
Pricing and availability
Google prices the Pixel 4 XL at $899 for a 64 GB model and $999 for a 128 GB model. Those are the only two storage and pricing tiers, and both are, in my opinion, far too expensive.
The Pixel 4 XL is broadly available now, though you may have issues getting the Oh So Orange version with 128 GB directly from Google. It’s available from all the major U.S. wireless carriers, too, which is a first.
Recommendations and conclusions
If you’re in the market for the very best smartphone camera system and Huawei is out of the picture thanks to the U.S. government, you’ve got two choices: The Google Pixel 4 series and the Apple iPhone 11 Pro series. And both are terrific. Apple outdoes Google, a first, with the iPhone 11 Pro’s excellent ultra-wide camera lens, which I miss on the Pixel 4 XL, and in video recording. But Google edges out Apple virtually everywhere else: Day-time shots, low-light and night shots, whatever, the Pixel is consistently the better performer. Plus, it has on-the-fly shadow adjustment and that crazy astrophotography mode.
But Pixel 4 XL is about more than just the camera. Like previous Google smartphone entries, the Pixel 4 XL is essential because it provides that perfect combination of reasonably modern hardware with the clean and optimized Android image and innovative features for which Google is famous.
There are downsides to the Pixel family, of course. The flagships are always far too expensive, given the quality of the competition, and Google’s reliability problems of the past weigh over any purchase decision. The design might be considered bland by some, too, and adding a case removes whatever personality they do have. I wish Google had adopted the Pixel 3a’s excellent polycarbonate form factor for the 4 series: I would have loved using this handset without a case, but the pointlessly all-glass enclosure makes that impossible.
For me, the Pixel 4 XL is the obvious choice because it provides a top-notch (if not perfect) camera experience, an ideal version of Android, and total Google Fi compatibility. For others, I can recommend the Pixel 4 XL highly if you can get past the price; perhaps waiting for the inevitable sale is a good strategy. It’s a bit boring in some ways, but that’s good: The Pixel 4 XL is a solid entry, a welcome change, and while I still nervously await the first hints of reliability issues, it hasn’t let me down yet. Given my past experiences with this product lineup, I’ll take that as a win, at least for now.
- Excellent camera system in all conditions
- Terrific display
- Excellent performance
- Future-proof specifications
- Loud, distortion-free and unbiased stereo speakers
- Clean Pixel software image with nice personalization features
- Too expensive
- No ultra-wide camera lens on front or rear
- No headphone jack
- Large forehead bezel is so 2017
- All-glass form factor requires a case
- No upgrade past 128 GB of storage