Google Pixel 4 XL Review – six weeks on, still early days for this flagship

The Pixel 4 XL (and, by extension, the slightly smaller Pixel 4) is a stunning piece of technology and a worthy flagship. It really is. And yet, even six weeks on, I can’t possibly recommend anyone buy it… yet. While its camera system is stunning, while its stereo speakers are jaw droppingly good, while its face recognition system is fast and effective, at least for unlocking the phone, real world activity is still massively impacted by third party banking and password apps not supporting the new biometric APIs (think Face ID) system. Again… yet. It’ll all come together in time and, as usual Google will need an update or two of their own (a ‘feature drop’ is happening as I write this), so I’ll leave a lengthier verdict for some time in early 2020.

Pixel 4 XL

In the hand, the Pixel 4 XL impresses enormously – the coatings on the side aluminium (black) and back glass (white, in this review unit) are astonishingly well done. Smooth yet grippy enough and I have to confess to not feeling the need to put a case on the phone. Probably foolhardy in light of the high cost, but it really is possible to use the Pixel 4 XL ‘naked’ without worrying unduly. The coatings don’t show fingerprints in the way glossy glass backs do, and while a drop onto concrete would crack the glass I’m sure – the extra grip hopefully means that the phone won’t be dropped in the first place.

Pixel 4 XL back

There are worries over wear and tear though. ‘Painted’ glass will see abrasions if the Pixel 4 XL is inserted into pockets 50 times a day. I tend to use belt holsters, so this doesn’t bother me, but I’m not typical. We’ve seen stories of paint chipping from the Pixel 4 screen surrounds and also (curiously) of the oleophobic coating on the screen wearing away.

Assuming that Google has got this material science right then it just set a new high bar in smartphone look and feel (though Apple’s new matt finish on some of its new iPhones comes very close). But we need more than a month or so and more data points before anything can be concluded here.

Pixel 4 XL side

The power button is quirkily coloured, as usual, and I love it. On the back is a square camera island, somewhat unnecessarily so, given that there are only two cameras in it! Surely these could have been placed in a row? So yes, perhaps a little copying of other smartphone tropes from 2018 and 2019, but I’ll cut Google some slack, since the shape of the camera hump is the least of the Pixel 4 XL’s worries.

Pixel 4 XL camera island

Components, performance

Most top end Android handsets have now switched to in-screen fingerprint sensors, with sometimes frustrating results – inconsistent recognition, security worries, and more. Capacitive scanners worked just fine, making the switch rather galling, in my opinion. Still, Google knows this and has thus aped the iPhone X onwards by going down the ‘Face unlock’ route with infrared-face contour scanning for its new Google Pixel 4 series. It works brilliantly, seemingly as fast as Apple’s implementation. Yes, there’s a slight forehead above the Pixel 4 XL screen, but there’s a lot of tech to fit in there – and it’s nice to not be staring at a ‘notch’, simplifying the UI slightly and reducing the chances of specific applications not knowing how to cope.

So – the best of Google, the pinnacle of where it wants to take Android.

And it is, in many ways. Super fast and smooth, with a 90Hz display when needed. Don’t worry about the fuss about it dropping to 60Hz at lower brightness levels, it’s supposed to, it’s partly how this screen tech works. Plus, if I’m honest, only hard core gamers or super-geeks will ever notice the difference.

The 6GB RAM means that applications stay in RAM far more often than on the old Pixel 3 series, while the camera’s exceptional, with genuine 5x lossless hybrid zoom (from a main 12MP and 16MP telephoto, plus software multi-exposure zoom) that can be relied on. Amazing. Even the stereo speakers have been upgraded, with better bass, better top end, more volume, just immense. Storage is 64GB or 128GB, yes, which is a bit stingy considering the price points here, but then this is 2019 and most of our media lives in the cloud and gets streamed. So it’s enough.

Talking of price, the 128GB Pixel 4 XL is over £900, which is a bit insane, and it’s not as if Google can pull an Apple and point to its network of Stores for support and repair. It also can’t point to the advantage of full original quality photo and video backup for Pixels, because – confusingly – that doesn’t apply to the Pixel 4 series. Clearly, Google’s trying to push everyone to a monthly cloud storage plan, but some kind of discount on the original purchase price would have been appropriate, I feel.

Aerial scene
A scene with a distant cell aerial… note the distance and then look at the zoomed and cropped detail below!
5x zoom!
Considering the telephoto here is only 2x, to get this kind of zoomed detail is really impressive. In terms of factors, I’d say 5x is lossless and 10x isn’t terrible. Impressive.
Low light scene
A low light scene, made even more vibrant with a little Night Sight…. Very crisp and clear.
Dead of night 'Night sight' scene
Dead of night scene, I could hardly make out the pretend grave with my own eyes, yet Night Sight genuinely ‘sees in the dark’!

There’s the new Soli radar transmitter and sensor in the forehead – this enables slightly faster face recognition, in that the Face ID system gets a few milliseconds warning when your face is on its way into view, plus a range of gimmicky control gestures that sometimes do what you want and at other times do things you didn’t want, like changing music tracks just because you reached up to adjust your glasses! Gimmicky, but maybe useful if enough developers do more interesting things with it? I turned this ‘Motion Sense’ off after a few hours – it’s unnecessary battery drain, surely? One less thing pulling from the battery?

Talking of which, the battery life of the Pixel 4 series has been much criticised – that of the XL is actually fine, easily getting through a full day in my tests. And the smaller Pixel 4 will be fine after a few updates, I predict – the series is following the usual Google pattern of ‘push it out, then fix issues later’!

Showstopper!

However, there’s an elephant in the room – I can forgive any minor shortcomings if the basics work, and work well. After all, this is a Pixel, so I’m expecting minimal bloat and maximum application compatibility. It’s ‘the iPhone of the Android world’, as it were, so everything should just work.

And it doesn’t. The Pixel 4 series has been on sale for more than six weeks now, plus developers have had a six month beta period to get their applications ready and…. they haven’t. While not strictly Google’s fault, how could they launch a flagship with a biometric authentication system that doesn’t work with the vast majority of banking and security applications in their ecosystem? Using the Pixel 4 series right now, it’s like going back in time to 2014, before fingerprint sensors were a thing. PINs and passwords everywhere and it’s truly horrible!

As I understand it, in the iOS world, Apple made sure that their Face ID was backwards compatible with existing Touch ID APIs, so that existing software would carry on working – after all, it’s just a matter of checking who you are. Google has put in a new biometric API, working under a new version of its developer SDK, and it will take multiple months (I predict) before most of the software that you and I want to work with the ‘Face unlock’ system actually does. Until then, better brush up your character entry skills for all those usernames, passwords, and PINs!

Initial verdict

So yes, the Pixel 4 XL can’t be recommended… yet. Let’s agree to reconvene in (say) February 2020, with more updates from Google and hopefully many updates from third parties, all bringing the Pixel 4 XL to life for real, and all allowing a proper long term review and verdict. It deserves it – I absolutely loved the hardware, the camera, the multimedia, but the gaping hole in the 4 series’ functionality still needs plugging.