Google's Pixel 4 XL - review of a perfectly balanced phone

Okay, I know I'm not totally unbiased about this.  I've had some favourite brands over the past few years, but underneath it all has always been Google.    It had never been the most polished of interface or hardiest of tech ... but they have the vision of what things could be and let others take it higher.

Until they started with the Pixels.  Not only did they show off the idea of software, but they also put some amazing hardware to back it up.

Now, I don't believe it when I keep hearing of people badmouthing the Pixels... I just have never found those claims to be at all founded on anything.

Personally, I've found the Pixel to be the most all-around balanced phone.  Some phones, like the amazing P30 Pro: killer specs, but has some software annoyances, good camera, but awkward body and delicate glass.  There's always been something to some of the top-end phones... they have extremes.

Whereas I've found the Pixel isn't as 'extreme' in its highs or lows, but sitting at the perfect comfort with the few spikes of awesome.

I prefer an even keel ... I've not found any issue worth noting on this Pixel.

Okay let's get into the review.

Previously, I had given my initial thoughts on the Pixel 4, and I liked it - but the size just still was too small so I was looking forward to the XL variant.

With the XL the big advantage came in the QuadHD display ... plus the size in the hand, I needed the XL.

So let's go over the device again here:

Pixel 4 XL
Price (CDN)$1129-$1259
Processor2.84GHz x1 + 2.42GHz x3 + 1.78GHz x4
TypeSnapdragon 855
removable storageno
Rear Cam12.2MP (f/1.7, 1/2.55, 1.4um, 28mm)
+ 16MP (f/2.4, 1.0um, 45mm)
Front Cam8MP (f/2.0, 22mm, 1.22um)
Released2019 October

Soli (radar)
90Hz display

The other advantage of the XL was due to the bigger housing it has a bigger battery.  The battery on the 4 was good, just where I was used to getting a day and then some, the 4 fell short getting you about a day.  The XL definitely has no problem.  Typically I'd be using it and I had found that its almost double the performance of the 4.  I sat reading and emailing, light use for about 3 hours and 10% was gone.  Whereas on the 4 it would've had the same draw in about an hour.

The phone itself is similar to the 4 just bigger.  It's nice and thin, but I really prefer having a minimal case on it (you can see the options I reviewed here.  Depending on the phone you'd used, the power and volume buttons may take a bit of getting used to.  It's been almost 2 months and I still find myself sometimes hitting volume+ instead of power.

The hand feel is good.  I like it, it's still the right size for me, and including the squeeze to bring up the Assistant works like it has for the past couple devices, but, I'll admit, that I still find myself verbally asking Google before I squeeze it.

The stereo speakers (one downward-facing on the bottom, and then the earpiece) make for good volume, but the volume scale feels a little 'disproportionate' as it feels like sometimes just one notch above is super loud, and others you really have to crank it above 70%.  Wherever it needs to be for it to be 'loud' it is loud and good sound.  Not amazing, but good .. and that's what we use better headphones for tho', or speakers.

Looking at the screen you can tell the difference between the HD and the QuadHD. Definitely worth it in my view.  The display being so close to the bottom chin takes some getting used to, especially as the top end has some a blank spot - no notch here.  The notch is for a few other sensors used to help with detecting someone getting close and reading your face ... still not sure that I'm liking the trade-off of that for a fingerprint sensor.  I really miss that fingerprint sensor.

That 'radar' sensor they did include aside from just reading your face, does allow you to use the hand gesture to ... well ... something.

At launch they showcased how the waving of your hand in front of the phone allows you to go forward or back in music .. the hope was that that could either be developed into more of their apps or other developers, but several months in you don't hear of it doing anything. Hopefully a few more months something may come of it, but ... unfortunately, I think this was a bit of a novel gamble that just isn't going to pay off in the way they hoped.  d'oh

I really would have liked them to keep the fingerprint sensor (even to have an under-glass sensor like on my P30 Pro).  The gestures with that could have definitely been explored further.  I still tend to move my finger to the back looking to bring down the notification shade.  You can do it by swiping down, but only in a blank spot on the homescreen, so not if you're in an app.

So, turning it on we're met with a bit of an unfinished software feature... we'll get past that.

The biggest delivery comes in next as the actual Android software.  The way the OS was meant to run by those that developed it.  It's not the top-end spec device out there, yet, it still behaves unfalteringly (is that a word?).  No matter what other device I try out there, and how it might do X or Y better, I still find nothing provides quite the uniform experience that pure Android does.  It doesn't seem there while you use it, but as soon as you try something else you feel its lack.  Like natural lighting.  You almost take it for granted until you're stuck in a cubicle for a week.

It is such a breath of fresh air.  It's hard to put in words.

Speaking of another feature that seems pretty 'passive' is the 90Hz refresh rate.  it doesn't really seem to offer any fantastic views until it happens.  That is because it actually doesn't engage until you have

Next up the discussion that Google really put in about their concern for privacy that a lot of the translation of voice to text can happen on its own chip and not have to go into Google HQ for verification, meant that it can do 'live transcription' on device.

What that means is that you can actually have the device play a Youtube video play, the device will listen to itself and show you live captions on the screen.  It can save that to a text file that allows you to search it later.  Great for your own personal audio notes.

Personally, I don't do those 'notes to self' so live captioning any of my recorded videos have never been a feature I thought was ... useful.  For me at least.  But neat that it's there.

The main ... and I mean the MAIN reason tho that anybody should consider this phone comes in from its camera.  Really.

Sure, it's no longer in the top spot of DxO, however, I have not had a camera that has been so consistently GREAT.  There are some devices out there with higher marks, but in my findings they did superb in a few scenarios, but mediocre in others.  Whereas I find this Google image processor just makes everything great.

We have a bit of an 'Instagram war' at my office and every shot from mine has been awesome.  So the majority of the shots are GREAT, and then now and again, even without the Google Autoawesome feature, there are a few that really just STUN me.

It's to the point that it's pretty hard to take a bad picture with it.

Heck, you can take a photo in near-zero light.  Their night sight mode is touted even amongst astrophotographers as doing an amazing job.  Now, I haven't played with it to try to take a shot of the night sky, needing a tripod, and I don't see how they would allow you to play with the shutter speed on it (night sight sets you with what it thinks is the shutter speed and you just gotta watch how fast that circle moves to judge how long you gotta stay still for).

I thought there used to be a 'photobooth' mode for the camera do some selfies and controlled by gestures and whatnot... I can't find it anymore.  Anyways, speaking of the selfie camera, the fact that they had removed the wide option (again, they needed the space in the front for that sensor array) is a pain.  I really REALLY liked taking a selfie, and not having to really move my hand far enough away.

Same with the back camera.  There never was a wide-angle back there, just standard, but them to add a new lens in there, and they add in the telephoto option...

I thought I was going to be bummed about that, but I have to admit, that the number of times I've gone "dang, I can't get back far enough" has been greatly overshadowed by the "oh, let me zoom" in scenarios.

Yeah, the camera has just been awesome.  Video is ... good, but I'm not much of a videographer to notice if it's not as good as other options out there or if it's lacking in something.

I do miss how they have 'simplified' the look of the camera.  That's consistent across a bunch of devices now, make the buttons less and less so you can focus just on hitting the shutter.  But, I liked looking quickly to see if the motion feature was set, or flash turned off etc... having to hit that little triangle to swipe down the options is a bit of a pain.  It's a good thing that Google just has the smarts to make just about any setting great.

Overall, this has just been a great phone, because this is such a comfortable situation.  It's not constantly wowing you or finding ways to annoy you etc... it's just seamless to use start to finish.

Performance has been amazing, no stuttering, no lag... and battery ... battery is awesome.

There have been some weird settings that I've had to double-check here and there about the notifications.  I've felt like I wasn't getting some Gmail notifications so navigated the settings not just in the app but at the system level and that's about the only time I've found myself at a bit of a loss.

You can rest assured that if you're looking for a no problems, consistently well balanced phone, this is it.