Google’s strengths, and weaknesses, remain after several months.
It’s been nearly 6 months since I got my Google Pixel 4 XL and reviewed it. Time flies — there are new high-end phones on the market, several software updates have tweaked and added new features, and speculation about the Pixel 4a (and even the Pixel 5) is well under way.
But I haven’t forgotten about the Pixel 4 XL in light of the shiny new phones and speculation about replacements. I’ve still been using it, in fact. So how has the Pixel 4 XL held up to 6 months of use? Here are my experiences.
At a glance
Google Pixel 4 XL
Bottom line: 6 months on, Google’s strengths remain. Its simple hardware is still appreciated and has held up to use. The software is still useful and performs well, with a couple of big feature updates it keeps improving, and face unlock support has expanded. The camera is still the best around, even without an ultra-wide lens. But battery life is unfortunately just downright bad, and the specs and screen quality aren’t befitting its price in 2020.
- Still the best camera quality
- Face unlock support has improved
- Simple hardware has been durable
- Software updates add to the experience
- Performance remains good
- Battery life still terrible
- Screen is a bit dim
- Screen oleophobic coating wore quickly
- Specs are low for the money
$900 at Amazon $899 at Walmart
Google Pixel 4 XL What I still love
After spending a good bit of time away from the Pixel 4 XL to review the Galaxy S20 Ultra and then LG V60 back to back, it actually felt nice to be able to come back to the Pixel. There’s just something about this hardware that speaks to me. Compared to those two phones it somehow feels small and lightweight, and its simple soft-coated metal and glass (since I have the white one) still looks and feels unique in a world of super-glossy phones. Yes the overall design is boring, but it’s at least boring in a different way than the other phones out there. I’ve even been using it without my usual Google fabric case, even though it’s on the slippery side.
The Pixel 4 is still my favorite smartphone camera.
I led with the hardware because it’s top-of-mind after switching back to the phone, but how can I go any further without talking about the Pixel 4 XL’s cameras. The camera experience is still great, and the biggest thing I’ve come to appreciate is just how consistently great it is. I never fiddle with the interface or need to tweak things — I just point and shoot, and get an awesome photo. Spend a little time with composition, tap-to-focus and the highlights/shadows sliders and you can take things to another level.
The Pixel 4 XL’s camera isn’t quirky or weird, and the only trick you need to learn is that Night Sight takes exceptional photos — both at night and during the day. You’re far less likely to get an eye-popping over-saturated photo out of the Pixel 4 XL, but that’s exactly why I like it. I appreciate the balanced colors and excellent fundamentals of Pixel photos. I still lament the lack of an ultra-wide camera, and yes its zoom beyond ~3X is easily beaten by the Galaxy S20 series. But the shot-to-shot consistency, and low-light quality, easily outweigh those shortcomings.
The front-facing camera is also still superb, not necessarily for its shot-to-shot quality in good lighting (which is great), but for how well it handles low-light and challenging scenarios. You just get great selfies out of this camera in so many more situations than the competition. Google rightly took some flack for dropping the dual-camera system of the Pixel 3, but this is still the best selfie shooter out there.
Google’s software deserves praise for remaining fast, and getting better with updates.
Google’s software experience also deserves praise for holding up well over time. My Pixel 4 XL is still running fast and smooth as it did months ago, which isn’t always the case even with modern phones. It’s still easy to feel like Google cheaped out with only 6GB of RAM and 64GB of storage, but at least as far as performance goes its specs haven’t been an issue. Google’s quarterly “feature drop” software updates have added nice tweaks and improvements as well, adding some ongoing value to owning a Google phone.
I was pretty negative on face unlock at first because of its extremely limited compatibility, but at this point every one of my apps that used to use fingerprint authentication now supports it. I know there are many apps out there that still don’t, or only support it in a beta release, and that really is a black mark on face unlock. But things have improved dramatically since launch, and it changed my overall opinion on face unlock — now the app authentication is as fast and seamless as my lock screen, which is fantastic. When implemented properly, I like it more than a fingerprint sensor.
I’m going to bring an optimistic take on Motion Sense as well, which I didn’t expect to be doing at this point. With the last feature-filled software update Google added the ability to pause and play media with an open-palm tap down toward the screen, and it actually works! It’s a much more subtle gesture than the left-right wave to skip tracks, and a much more useful one for me — I’m far more likely to want to just stop or start my music or podcast than actively switch between tracks. Motion Sense still stands as s feature and technology that fell way short of its promise, and nobody should buy the Pixel 4 XL citing it as a must-have feature, but it does work for a very specific set of things and it’s neat to have.
Google Pixel 4 XL What hasn’t aged well
The biggest downside of the Pixel 4 XL remains the same as six months ago: battery life is terrible. And I’m even less tolerant of it now. If everything goes according to plan and I just have a usual basic day of use, I’ll go to bed with 15-20% remaining. But if I ever stray from that “normal” use, the battery just falls off a cliff. Prolonged camera usage, lots of music streaming, Google Maps navigation, some gaming, or a little hotspot use, and there’s zero chance I’m going to make it through the day without charging.
The Pixel 4 XL’s battery just doesn’t get the job done, and is a constant sore point.
The Pixel 4 XL’s battery just doesn’t have any wiggle room, and that means I never have confidence in it. It leads me to worry-charge early in the day if I know I have a late dinner or an event to go to in the evening, or make sure I have a portable battery handy when traveling. These aren’t things I need to worry about on any other phone I’ve used in the past few years (outside of the Pixel 3 and 2, of course).
And we know it isn’t just about the capacity of the battery, though at 3700mAh it isn’t particularly large. The OnePlus 7T does dramatically better with 3800mAh, the Galaxy S20 does notably better with 4000mAh, and there are plenty of other examples. Google simply doesn’t make the best use of the battery it has at its disposal, and it’s a huge negative mark on this phone.
Why does this flagship phone not have a flagship-quality screen from top to bottom?
Elsewhere in the experience, I have two distinct issues with the Pixel 4 XL’s display. For the most part, it’s actually good — colors, viewing angles and that sweet 90Hz refresh rate are all just fine. But the screen’s brightness really isn’t up to speed — I regularly have trouble seeing the screen outside without shading it, even with the brightness maxed out. And the automatic brightness always seems to be a bit too low even indoors.
My other screen issue is the oleophobic coating on the screen — the layer on top of the screen that keeps it from getting covered in oil and fingerprints. I raised this issue at the end of November, and it’s gotten worse — my Pixel 4 XL feels as though it has no oleophobic coating. It’s the absolute worst phone I have in terms of picking up fingerprints and gunk; it always looks and feels gross. I really don’t understand how Google keeps having this problem when every other phone handles it.
Google Pixel 4 XL 6 months on
With 6 months in the rearview mirror, the Pixel 4 XL stands roughly where it did before. I still appreciate Google’s hardware, and its software has stayed fast and smooth while picking up new features through regular updates. Its cameras are still excellent, and remain one of the biggest reasons to buy this phone.
But the sad reality for the Pixel 4 XL is that it’s simply gotten older, with the same notable weak points as before, while there’s new competition out that’s fresh and improved. Battery life is still really bad, and its specs and display are subpar compared to what you can get at this point in 2020.
out of 5
At its full retail price of $900, the Pixel 4 XL is a bit of a tough sell now that it’s 6 months old. At that price you’re just $100 from a Galaxy S20 (or the same price at times), and surely more expensive than the forthcoming OnePlus 8. But I’ve regularly seen the Pixel 4 XL dip down to $800 or even $700 on sale, and that feels like an appropriate price for this phone at this point. When you’re actually saving real money over a 2020 flagship, you can potentially look past the Pixel 4 XL’s shortcomings and bask in the glory of its camera and software experience.
Google Pixel 4 XL
$900 at Amazon $899 at Walmart
6 months in, the Pixel 4 XL doesn’t command the same price it did at launch. Time has not been kind to its specs or battery, and even all of its redeeming qualities aren’t enough to justify a $900 price tag. But if it’s on sale, it can still be a good buy in 2020.