We’ve reached a point in the evolution of smartphones where everything has started to look the same. Gone are the days when each manufacturer would have its own trademark style and layout. With very few exceptions, every single new smartphone that hits the market in the here and now is a big, black, touchscreen slab with a little notch near the top for cameras, and buttons down the side. It’s a trend that started with the early iPhones, after which everyone seemed to decide that Apple had arrived at the optimum smartphone design, and everyone else just followed suit.
Despite arriving on the market with a lot of hype and some interesting new features, the Google Pixel 4 XL doesn’t break that trend. It’s a little larger than some of the phones you may have owned recently, but it’s fundamentally still the same shape and style. Do the innovations make it worth ditching your current model, or considering Google’s latest shiny new toy for your next contract upgrade? Read on and find out.
We said that this phone feels big – and it is – but it somehow pulls off the trick of feeling larger than it actually is. The WHD & OLED screen measures 6.3 inches, which is smaller than the 6.5 inches you’ll see on other XL models from other manufacturers. In the build-up to the phone’s launch, we were told that the 90Hz refresh rate that the screen is capable of would set this new Pixel phone apart from the competitions. It still might, but only if you’re running with the right settings. 90Hz is a significant drain on the battery, and as the difference is imperceptible when the lights are turned low, the phone tries to work around this by only employing the mode if the lighting conditions are absolutely perfect. The net result of this is that if you choose to have your brightness set at or below 75%, the 90Hz rate will never kick in at all. The screen is capable of doing everything it’s supposed to do in terms of display, but only if you’re prepared to sacrifice battery life to make it happen.
We have good news for the dedicated mobile gamers out there – the Google Pixel 4 XL comes with plenty of processing power. We’re not just talking to mobile slots gamers out there; we’re talking to the people who like to play high-intensity games using their mobiles as a medium. Mobile slots might never look better than they do on this phone if you can get the device’s settings running properly, but playing mobile slots smoothly is child’s play for this phone. It’s packing 6GB of RAM, a Snapdragon 855 processor, and 64GB of storage. As a combination, that means you’re unlikely to experience significant slowdown over the course of the 2-3 years you’re likely to have it on contract.
What’s less impressive is the battery life, which has been found to last barely 24 hours with average use. There’s no excuse for that in this day and age – you can get almost double that out of an iPhone 11 Pro Max with the same amount of use, and the OnePlus 7T stands somewhere between the two. It’s almost as if the battery simply isn’t equipped to deal with the rest of the components under the casing. The more you do with it, the more you’ll notice the battery issue. It’s a particular concern if you plan to use it as a business phone, and therefore receive hundreds of push notifications on a daily basis.
In what’s being hailed as a leap forward in phone security, there isn’t a fingerprint scanner on the Google Pixel 4 XL. Instead, there’s a face scanner. The phone immediately recognizes your face and unlocks when it sees its owner. This may not, however, be as secure as it seems. The software recognizes your face even if your eyes are closed, and will unlock accordingly. That means someone could take your phone while you’re asleep, use your face to unlock it, and help themselves to whatever you have stored upon it. Google has announced that they’ll patch this loophole, but it’s a worry that it ever existed in the first place. We weren’t aware of any security issues with the fingerprint scanner, so this doesn’t feel like an upgrade.
To compound the problem, many common apps don’t yet work with the face unlock software. Without having the option of a fingerprint scanner to work with, you’re forced to step back in time a few years and use a passcode for any app you wish to keep secure. If we’re brutally honest, face unlock feels like a feature that’s been put there for the sake of having a feature, and not a particularly good one at that.
We’re more enthusiastic about Soli, which is Google’s new motion sensor technology. Using equipment very similar to radar, the phone notices when you (or someone else) are within two feet of the phone, and starts to wake up in anticipation of interacting with you. Get closer than that, and the screen will light up as if your phone were an eager puppy pleased to see its owner. There are a number of great uses for this – a simple wave of your hand can dismiss an unwanted phone call, or silence an alarm.
If you listen to music a lot, you can also skip to the next track by waving your hand over the phone, which is a nice touch. So far, there’s nothing revolutionary that can be done with the feature, but we’re in the early days of this new technology, and we’re reasonably sure that better uses will be found for it soon enough.
We think this is a good phone, but not a great one. It’s powerful, but the battery drains easily. It has a great display, but not all the time. One of the main new features is impractical, and the other hasn’t achieved its full potential yet. We haven’t even talked about the camera, but that falls under the same category too – solid enough, but not the best on the market. For approximately $1000, we think better options exist. It might be worth taking another look six months down the line. By that point, the price will have dropped, some of the issues may have been patched, and better uses might have been discovered for Soli.