Price (RRP): $Pxiel 4 from $1049 and 4 XL from $1279
Manufacturer: Made by Google
I think therefore I am. The Google Pixel 4 XL thinks – therefore it is. It is an Android science project on steroids.
The Google Pixel 4 XL (and it’s almost identical but smaller brother Pixel 4) is Google’s attempt at offering a smartphone that a) uses Android to the fullest and b) has everything it ‘thinks’ users need.
The second point has many users saying, Why does the Google Pixel 4 XL (and indeed all Pixels) NOT have microSD storage? And, until this model, “Why does Google Pixel have a single-lens camera when we are up to, two, three, four or more”.
The answer is that Google doesn’t really care about making Pixel 4 XL et al., the world’s best-selling smartphone. But it does care about making a reference design that shows its pure Android off. We kind of agree.
Having said all that about reference design, the Google Pixel 4 XL has stepped a long way from a straight Qualcomm Snapdragon Platform, adding some interesting silicon and proprietary features. In our opinion, this makes it an even more desirable purist’s phone.
This Google Pixel 4 XL review is for geeks!
- One of the first 90Hz refresh screen sourced from Samsung that has not even used this yet.
- 60GHz Soli radar sensors for ‘Motion Sense’. This methodology is unique, although other makers have employed NIR and 3D ToF sensors to achieve similar results.
- A face unlocks NIR camera (sensor) that comprises a face unlock illuminator, IR dot projector, IR sender and IR receiver. A lot is going on in the phone’s broad forehead!
- Google Pixel Neural Core with .5GB RAM for onboard AI and computational photography. The Pixel 3a/XL deigned to use the Qualcomm SD845 SoC instead of the ‘secret sauce’ Neural Core. In earlier models, it was called a Pixel Visual Core.
- Quad-core audio ARM Cortex M4 Knowles IA8508 processor for always-on OK Google (keyword trigger processing) and the improved recording app (live caption and transcription)
- The mysterious Titan M H1C2M3 hardware security chip (ARM Cortex) to add hardware protection for on-board information like passwords, verified boot-loader sequences, strong encryption keys, secure third-party app transactions (think e-Voting and e-commerce), and 3D facial data (it no longer has a fingerprint reader)
- A new Google Assistant. What does that mean and is it unique to Pixel 4?
- The first with Android 10 OS
And according to our friends at iFixit that have done the teardown, it bears minimal resemblance to the previous Pixel internals. Buying HTC’s R&D has paid off with a new generation, 100% Google hardware designed, Google Pixel 4 XL.
So, it is no longer a Qualcomm Reference device, but a unique product. Is it right for you?
Geeks – this is what some of the Pixel 4 XL hardware enables
Soli – Motion Sense
Out of Motorola Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP) group that was acquired by Google and then dumped at Lenovo. It allows detection of micromotions or even twitches of ‘hands-in-the-air’ movements that can presently only be captured by a Soli sensor – unique to Google.
We think it is a solution looking for a question. At present is it limited to switching music tracks, snoozing alarms, dismissing timers, and silencing calls. Soli has broader implications for earbuds, watches and more if Google let it out into the wild.
It also enables auto AOD on or off. Like many features, enabling motion sense can impact battery life.
It works very well, even in low light. Given there is no fingerprint reader, it is that, or a pin/swipe/pattern. We understand (not tested) that most password managers, bank apps or Google Pay do not support it yet.
This is true Face Unlock in that it projects 3D dot pattern over the face. The NIR flood illuminator works in absolute darkness.
All we really know is that it is an always-on, ARM-based, co-processor with RAM for on-device processing, computing and machine learning. It is mostly responsible for computational photography results and night mode.
There is great overview of the older Pixel 3 Visual Core here which may sate techie types. Google can develop more uses for the Core.
Because we are not sure what it does – and we probably do not have the paygrade to know – we can say that Samsung’s Knox chip is similar and that most Android smartphones have been using Verified Boot for years. The main difference is that security is via a tamper-proof hardware chip instead of in software.
We understand that it still works with rooted Android albeit that it flags an error message on boot and then may not do much more than consume power.
A new Google Assistant
OK Google is now more deeply integrated into the Pixel 4 XL hardware, meaning a lot of activity can happen on the phone instead of over mobile/Wi-Fi data and to the cloud. We are not sure what this means, but it can simultaneously transcribe speech and identify sounds like music and applause. You can easily search within your recordings to quickly find a specific word or sound. All of this happens on-device.
Active Edge, tapping the Assistant icon, or simply saying “Hey Google” or “Okay Google” activates the genie. And the Knowles Quad-core processor is vital to deeper OK Google integration.
Rather than go down the Android 10 rabbit hole, you can read about its new features here.
Android 10 supports all the Pixel 4 XL features – Google has opted to execute some of these in specialist silicon. But any phone capable of running Android 10 will have access to the same features – what Google does in silicon will generally be handled by software or the SoC.
Android 10 (Q) introduces
- Dark mode – for night use. Apps need to support it
- Foldable phone/dual screen support/native 5G support
- Live Caption of media content like videos, podcasts and audio messages. Whether it is done on the device or in the cloud depends on the silicon and internet connection.
- 3D Face recognition (Google Pixel 4 XL uses NIR sensors for this)
- Cleaner UI – there is more use of swipe left/right/up/down – no more BACK button, and I miss the app drawer but you can switch this on!
- Machine learning and battery management using adaptive brightness
- More emojis
- iOS like gesture navigation controls (via Soli or NIR or other means)
- More Adaptive Wi-Fi and BT connectivity
- Notification handling changes, e.g. focus mode
- Digital WellBeing
- Individual app permission settings and more safeguards against accessing data an app does not need, e.g. contacts
- Biometric API pushing face ID
- Gmail and message smart reply
- Voice recorder with transcription
- New look and feel
- Minimum 3 years of OS and security updates
Is it easier to use than Android 9? No
Google Pixel 4 XL (the Pixel 4 is very similar and differences are usually noted in brackets)
- Pixel 4 6/64/128GB $1049/1199
- Pixel 4 XL 6/64/128 $1279/1429
- 6.3-inch, 3040 x 1440 (QHD), 537ppi, 19:9., Samsung sourced AMOLED
- Variable (not fixed) refresh rate to 90Hz
- AOD at 50 nits
- Gorilla Glass 5
- (5.7-inch 2280 x 1080, FHD+ in Pixel 4).
Ambient EQ uses the ambient light sensor automatically adjust both the display’s brightness and the colour temperature to match the surrounding environment. It’s a little over-aggressive towards battery life, and you can disable it. It also impacts colour accuracy.
The 90Hz screen refresh is marketing-hype done to death. It is called the Smooth Display option and can switch on 90Hz (90 times a second screen refresh). But our tests show that even with 90Hz ‘forced’ on it only works a) with some apps, b) above 75% brightness, and c) uses more battery.
Common apps not supporting 90Hz yet are Google Maps, WhatsApp, WeChat, Pokemon and Waze. Also, some Android system apps like ‘Files’ drops the rate. We found that you can force 90Hz in Developer Options. Subsequent battery tests (which are not always fair due to the load at test time) show a 30% decrease when forced.
- 444 nits typical, and infinite contrast – bright enough for daylight use
- 100% DCI-P3 (movie) @6500K and 100% sRGB (when that mode selected) – suitable for professional photographers – Delta E 1.4 is almost perfect
- Even screen brightness and low screen reflectance
- Blue light mode selects 2700K
- Dark Theme reduces battery draw from 2.4Wh to .4Wh
Screen summary: 90Hz may be good for marketing hype, but it makes little if any difference over 60Hz flagships. The screen is as good as it gets but do not expect 90Hz refresh nor perfect colours unless you set it that way. It is as good as a Samsung Galaxy Note10.
Qualcomm SD855 2.84Ghz (not the new 855+) 4 x 1.785MHz and 4 x 2.841MHz. It will run at similar speeds to any SD855 – the main exception will be if it throttles.
While we were testing this device (at an ambient temperature of 33°), we frequently received the message, “Phone turned off due to heat.” The message flashed before our eyes, but we gleaned it was due to heavy background loads. But as far as we could see, there was none!
Android 10 does not have a default app draw (note: apparently it does ‘somewhere’ so we will correct this phrase later), so we did not know what was running in the background. We hunted for the setting to bring back the Android 8/9 ‘three buttons’. Low and behold, in the background was CPU Throttling, GFX T-Rex battery tester, Simple Battery Graph, Camera, and every app I had tried over the week. There is no ‘Clear All’ command, but we could swipe them away, and eventually, the heat warning stopped.
Which is a great segue to CPU Throttling. For the first five minutes of a 15-minute test, it was great maxing out at 194,043GIPS. But at 5.5-minutes it started to waiver dropping to 160,667GIPS (86% of performance) and then levelled out. Interestingly all eight-cores throttled which reflects heat management issues.
Gamers and videographers note!
As tested this phone gets hot under load. Internals topped 96°, and the external temperature was 42° (108F). Later that evening at an ambient temperature of 25° the external phone temperature was 33.5°.
While it is not ‘burning’ unpleasant – and you would be silly to place a 100% load phone in your pocket – it reflects some heat management issues. The QHD screen, 90Hz screen refresh rate, 18W fast charge and extra silicon exacerbate this. It also explains why Google pulled [email protected] video recording as it would have punished the CPU too much.
6GB RAM and 64GB Storage
There is 6GB LPDDR4x RAM which is at the low-end now that many flagships are at least 8GB and up to 12GB. With only the necessary OS apps idling it has 2694MB free. It quickly chews that up as you load apps. Now there is nothing wrong with 6GB, and we never experienced lag, but one must wonder why Google went this way. Surely it was not the cost of 2GB more!
There is 64GB of slower UFS 2.1 storage (you can buy a 128GB option). Out-of-the-box there is about 43GB free, and frankly, you could chew that up in with five minutes of uncompressed [email protected] video. However, Google knows best.
As there is no microSD storage. It offers free high-quality Google Photos storage (resized to a maximum of 16MP for still and 1080p for video). Now, this is fine if you are uploading photos and video via Wi-Fi, but the majority will use expensive mobile data on the fly.
Why? We can’t begin to answer for Google, but we suspect it is it way to force users to use the cloud and enables it to analyse and sort photos for albums etc. And you can buy more ‘original-resolution’ storage annually for A$24.99/100GB, $43.99/200GB or $124.99/1TB. Other plans are monthly, e.g. $124.99/10TB and $249.99/2TB and $374.99/30TB.
If your use is for high-quality video, large RAW still files this is not the phone for you. Well maybe!
There is a way around this. As it has OTG support (and most Android phones do), you can plug in up to a 2TB SSD like a Samsung T5 (not an HDD as it draws too much power) and use its file manager to copy images to it.
LTE (not 5G)
Bands include 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 12, 13, 17, 20, 25, 26, 28, 32, 38, 39, 40, 41, 66 and 71. This is a world phone.
In theory, it has a Cat18/15 modem or 1.2Gbps download and 150Mbps upload. Even under Telstra’s 4GX ‘pole’ it could not get over 300/50Mbps. That is not unusual for any flagship.
It has a single nano-sim and an embedded eSIM. You cannot currently use the eSIM in Australia (*this may change soon) as a primary or second sim. Some international countries supported it.
Note: *Optus/Vodafone supports eSIM for 2018+ iPhone only. Other carriers support wearables and tablets.
It achieves -85dBM in a weak three-bar area (Note10 is -96dBm – lower is better) and finds the next tower at -105dBm (Note10 -110dBM). It also finds three other towers. This meets or exceeds the Note10 that has Telstra Blue Tick for rural reception.
Wi-Fi 5 (AC), BT 5.0, NFC
It has Wi-Fi 5 (AC) dual-band, 2 x MIMO. Some flagships have Wi-Fi 6 AX, but that is only useful if you have an AX router.
It achieves -21dBM (866Mbps) at 2 metres from the reference NETGEAR AX12 router (Note10 is -28 and 1.2Gbps).
GPS and e-compass
It has Dual-band L1+L5 or E1+ER5a, but our tests reveal that this function is not enabled. Apparently, a future firmware update may fix this.
What that means is that its accurate to about 10 metres (dual-band takes that to 4 metres or less). Nevertheless, it was OK for turn-by-turn navigation, it found satellites fast and recalculated routes well.
- Maximum Ring volume: 80dB
- Voice: 71dB (handsfree)
- Music: 74dB
- Three mics with ANC
Overall it is a tad quiet compared to other flagships that achieve more in handsfree and ringer volume.
It has a front-firing earpiece speaker and a bottom-firing speaker. Some reviews state it has a dual bottom-firing speaker – sorry no, that’s just an extra slot to match the design symmetry.
This earpiece/bottom-firing combo is like so many others – it does not reproduce any semblance of stereo separation (in fact I suspect it’s a mono setup) nor do the speakers match in volume or sound signature. For example, the earpiece has no bass but stronger mids from 2-5kHz for clear voice.
The bottom speaker has a minute amount of bass from 100-200Hz, reasonably flat mids peaking at 4Hz and then it drops right off.
When you combine the two, you get
- Deep Bass: 20-40Hz – none
- Middle Bass: 40-100Hz – none
- High Bass: 100 to 200Hz – a bare smidgeon and not very flat
- Low-mids: 200-400Hz – flat
- Mids: 400-1000Hz – building to flat
- High-mids: 1-2kHz – flat
- Low-treble: 2-4kHz – flat
- Treble:4-6kHz – peaking before dropping off a cliff
- High Treble: 6-10kHz – deep diving off that cliff
- Dog whistle: 10-20 – nil
We tested using BT 5.0 and the Qualcomm aptX codec (supports 16-bit/48kHz). It was fine with a range of wireless headphones, but we did not measure any better latency or sound signature than using an SBC codec.
But there was a noticeable lag with the Sony WH-1000XM3 when watching a video. Pixel seems not to have implemented aptX LL (low latency) or aptX HD (best) although some tech specs suggest it has aptX HD and LDAC.
In any case, volume was lower than expected making it necessary for the reference Sony to be at 90% volume for comfortable listening (typically 60%). Under developer options (not enabled by default) you can disable absolute volume protection (clips maximum BT volume to about 80dB), and it does give a few dB more.
The supplied USB-C buds have a nice sliding cable inner ear-clip and provide reasonable sound and volumes.
Sound Summary: Unlike other flagships is lacks true stereo speakers, Dolby Atmos (for speakers or headphones), and the sound signature is purely for clear voice (no EQ). Use buds or headphones.
- 3700mAh 14.2114Wh (Galaxy Note10 16.56Wh)
- 2800mAh for Pixel 4
- Qi charge 10W (supports 11W Extended Power Profile EPP chargers).
- 18W PD 2.0 fast charge (5V/3A and 9V/2A)
- 1080p Video loop 50% screen, aeroplane mode: 11 hours
- YouTube, 75% screen, Wi-Fi, BT: 7.5 hours
- Typical daily use: 16+ hours (over a week we had between 15-30% left after 12 hours)
- 100% load: 2.5 hours
Charge times (PD 2.0) charge starts at 9V/2A (18W) to 50% then reduces to 5V/3A (15W) for 10% and 5V/2A for the remainder
- 30% in 30 minutes
- 65% in 45 minutes
- 100% in 2.5 hours
Qi Charge 10W
- 30% in 2 hours
- 100% in 7 hours
We also tested with a Belkin 15W Qi (for Samsung), but it made no difference.
Battery summary: This is its Achilles heel. Power users will be looking for 4500mAh and faster changing (Samsung, OPPO and others now offer 45W charging). Fine for typical days use.
I am confused. In the specifications, it states IP68 with an 11 superscript. The fine print indicates IPX8 under IEC standard 60529.
Generally, the IP rating is two digits – the first is for dust and the second for water ingress. X means there is no data available to specify a protection rating for dust ingress. The 8 means immersion of one metre or more at least 30 minutes.
We trust Google has merely not completed dust ingress tests – an X rating would be inferior to other flagships.
The Pixel 4 XL (like the Pixel 3) is not global NFC (NFC A-B-F/EMV/FeliCa/MIFARE, all-in-one chip) and certain countries (like Japan) need a FeliCa phone chip version that then won’t work here. It is not a big issue – just a confusing one that other phone makers have solved.
Android 10 no longer supports Android beam (to share data between two NFC smartphones). Google has a new Fast Share using Bluetooth.
- 75.1 x 160.4 x 8.2 mm x 193g (Pixel 4 XL)
- 68.8 x 147.1 x 8.2 mm x162g (Pixel 4)
- Textured Aluminium frame (grippy) and matte Gorilla Glass 5
- Big forehead instead of a notch
- Oh, So Orange – almost salmon pink as well as matte white and glossy Black
- Squeeze edge to summon Google Assistant (force and app adjustable)
One issue (that does not apply to Australia) is the automatic 30-day opt-out from any class actions taken by Pixel owners against Google. Unless you specifically want to be part of a class action against Google and register the phone’s serial number on the website – that right disappears after 30 days. US Buyers are furious at forfeiting the right to include themselves in class actions. Now the US legal eagles are reviewing Google’s 1-year, 2600-word warranty. Strange – very strange.
Google’s Australian 2-year limited 519-word warranty is here and thankfully starts by stating, ‘Our goods come with guarantees that cannot be excluded under the Australian Consumer Law’. It only applies to goods purchased from Google Australia or its authorised resellers – so do not buy grey/parallel market at any cost.
Camera – Rear
- 12.2 MP (4032×3024), ƒ/1.7, 1.4um, OIS/EIS, 77° wide-angle,
- 16 MP ƒ/2.4, 1.0um, OIS/EIS, 52°, 2x optical, 8x hybrid zoom, telephoto
- ToF sensor for distance and depth
- PDAF, Dual LED, HDR+,
- Video: Limited to [email protected] (default is adaptive [email protected] with gyro-EIS)
- 8 MP ƒ/2.0, 1.22um, FF, 90° wide-angle, [email protected]
Camera segue: Every year, Google loans us a current Pixel to use as a reference camera and a pure Android device. Google’s inherent confidence in its computational photography (CP) means I can compare all newly tested smartphones with the current Pixel. Overall, in full auto modes, I find it hard to fault each year’s Pixel camera against all comers.
General camera comments
The Pixel 4 XL is not so much a better camera than the Pixel 3 XL (the standard lens is similar to it) but a better CP camera due to a later and more powerful SoC, more object ID ‘experience’ drawn from analysing zillions of Google Photos, and more AI power from its new Neural Core.
The result – it is a little more forgiving, a little more idiot-proof and frankly Joe and Jane Average will love it. And it is precisely for that reason that camera snobs will eschew it.
It is a superb CP camera that – hardware-wise compared to other current flagships – is missing an ultra-wide lens, depth lens (bokeh – Pixel 4/XL uses a ToF sensor instead), and perhaps a mono lens (for arty-farty types).
Those camera snobs will hang off every DxOMark result here (112 average – still/video 117/101).
Let me tell you it rates in the top ten DxOMark smartphone camera tests. In my tests, it beats every other dual, or single camera tested this year.
What do I like?
- The Dual Exposure mode lets you adjust brightness and shadow. It uses CP to alter foreground and background light and shows you the approximate result before you shoot.
- Night Sight is interesting. It has a new astrography option that can photograph the night sky. Warning – it needs a really long exposure, so use a tripod.
- OIS is excellent and makes 2X optical and 8X hybrid zoom a possibility.
- Adaptive video [email protected] uses a combined OIS/EIS and its great.
- Overall the Pixel 4 XL photo ‘style’ is pleasing if a little at the expense of finer detail. I can almost always tell if it is a Pixel photo – there is a unique look to it.
What I don’t like
- Bokeh can be a little hit and miss but then how many use it? Even a dedicated 2MP lens/sensor seems to give better foreground/background data over longer distances than a ToF sensor ( proven on a few new ToF equipped smartphones). Bokeh was unreliable over about 4 metres – probably near the extent of the ToF sensor’s range. And we found that the Pixel 4 XL tended to produce more blobs of blurred colours than being able to see a fuzzy ‘structure’ of the background.
- CP photography can produce some strange results – some of the time. For example,
- a shot of a person standing beside a yellow paper cup sitting on a shelf two metres behind (you had to be there) took the yellow colour and added it to the person’s skin tone.
- Hazy sky turned sky blue (as a recognised scene) this turning the green mountain foreground brown.
- And while Pixel 4 XLs colours are pleasing overall, they are not always real, especially in lower light where it gives you what it thinks they should be. Those colours tend to be brighter, rather than natural
- It can overcompensate for whites – turning off-white walls to white
- [email protected] video is a shaky and blurred mess. The Samsung Note10 and the iPhone 11 can shoot [email protected] with far greater clarity. But its adaptive mode [email protected] with OIE/EIS – for Joe and Jan Average – is superb.
Camera Bottom line: There are better camera phones – the latest OPPO Reno 10X/5G, Samsung Note10/Galaxy10+/5G, iPhone 11 Max and LG V50 can produce better photos on all counts.
Emphasis on ‘can’ – the Pixel 4 XL produces what Google feels its public wants. And it is not far wrong.
In summary, for daylight and office light shots, it is up with the best Google Android flagships. For lower light, it uses computational photography to the fullest sometimes producing unrealistic colours but still very competent shots.
Outdoor: Fast, accurate colour, skin tones, white balance – perfect
The normal shot on the left is excellent showing good screen definition and reasonably accurate colour – it is quite a deal brighter than reality. The Night shot loses colour accuracy and definition and turns the cream-coloured walls and HP printer to white.
Night Sight – night sky
Regrettably, we could not test Night Vision for two reasons. First, it was cloudy during the test and secondly, the ambient light from a row of ‘ultra-violet’ navigation lights nearby fooled the camera. Google has Night Sight that uses time exposure and bins the shots to create the sky.
Apple and Samsung both offer trade-in programs that allow you a credit against a new phone. As a guide, Samsung and Apple smartphones depreciate at about 3% per month, so a $1000/1500 smartphone is worth about $640/960 as a trade-up after twelve months.
Google Australia does not offer that program meaning you need to access third-party trade-in programs run by companies like Alegre for Telcos and retailers.
The approximate trade-in price for a Google Pixel 3/XL 64GB in excellent, as-new condition is $400/450. So, depreciation rates are more than 5-6% per month or 60-70% per year for this brand. If you own a Pixel, the best bet is to sell it second-hand where you may get a little more.
GadgetGuy’s take – Google Pixel 4 XL is unique
Sadly, it is no longer the Qualcomm/Android Poster Boy with the latest SoC and good camera sensors/lenses. This is so much more ‘science project’ on steroids going on under the hood.
It is classic Google understated design and not even ‘Oh, so Orange’ gets around that. While everyone (who saw it) remarked on the colour, they were more impressed with the pretty, shiny other flagship alternatives.
From my perspective, it improves on the Pixel 3 XL but to be fair a lot of improvements are due to Android 10 so Pixel 3/XL, 3a/XL other flagships will receive that treatment soon.
- Best pure Android from the Android maker
- The best dual-lens camera – but outperformed by tri-or-quad flagships
- Google-style (if you like it)
Don’t buy because
- No micro SD
- If you want bling
- Trade-in program is too low
- No more uncompressed Google Photos backup.
We use a comprehensive list of paradigms within price bands, e.g. what we expect it to do for the price.
I want to give it top marks because it is an innovative device with some unique silicon.
But, lack of a MicroSD; no 3.5mm jack (USB-C is fine but a DAC adapter would have been nice); eSIM (not yet for use in Australia); a meagre 6/64GB memory (6/128GB as an option); CPU Throttling; no fingerprint sensor (face unlock is good but lacks attentiveness mode and not yet accepted by all payment apps); and low resale value mean I have to knock some points off.
True Googlers will not care, saying the whole is greater than the sum of the parts – I tend to agree. It’s a clever, well-made, but not the best flagship smartphone.