Google Pixel 4 XL review 4 months later: is it worth getting one in 2020?

This article may contain personal views and opinion from the author.
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It is 7:30 in the morning. A gentle melody tingles my ears, marking the beginning of a brand new day. The tune goes silent as I reach for my phone. I pick it up, and a moment later – after no complaints from Face Unlock about my messy hair – my Pixel 4 XL is ready to serve me. I spend the next few minutes checking the weather, reading the news, and enjoying the auto-generated collage of pictures from my weekend trip out of town.

The Pixel 4 and 4 XL weren't among the internet's favorite phones of 2019. The bashing began as soon as Google announced them: small batteries, stingy storage options, lack of a super wide-angle camera, and high prices were among the top complaints you'd read on the web.

But here's the thing: although I agree with the Pixel 4 criticism, I've already spent several months using Google's phone, and for the most part, I've enjoyed it quite a lot.

Is the Google Pixel 4 a bad phone?

The short answer: it depends. If you only stack specs against price when picking a phone, you'd be easily convinced that the Pixel 4 and 4 XL are the worst phones of 2019. However, specs never paint a full picture.

My colleague Victor wrote a great piece addressing the Pixel 4 hate and pointed out that much of the negative remarks people made were related to specs. But the strengths of the Google Pixel phones lie in things that can't be easily expressed in numbers – things that can't be appreciated until you actually get to use the phone yourself.

Case in point: the Google Pixel 4 XL I've been using is one of the most responsive phones I've tested recently. Not long ago, I had to use a Samsung Galaxy Note 10 for a few hours, and it felt slow in comparison. I'm sure that's not only due to the 90Hz refresh rate of the Pixel 4 display, but also because of software optimized for speed and fluidity.

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Now that I've mentioned it, the display on the Pixel 4 XL I've been using looks gorgeous. Colors are brilliant yet not oversaturated, and you get perks like automatic white balance adjustment (called Ambient EQ), a system-wide dark theme, automatic blue light filter, and a useful always-on display. The edges of the glass are flat so you don't get accidental touches as you do on other, fancier phones with curved screens. On top of that, the Pixel 4 is one of the few phones where the automatic brightness feature actually works well. 

And the list goes on. Face recognition on the Pixel 4 is awesome and I'll find it hard to switch to a phone that uses a fingerprint scanner instead. Also, the Pixel 4 XL was picked as the phone with the best speakers in our recent blind test. The vibration motor is powerful and provides excellent haptic feedback. The new Recorder app and Live Captions work well and could be super useful to many.

Are two cameras enough in 2020?

Pixel phones have always stood out with their cameras, and the Pixel 4 series is no different. I'm more than happy with the quality of the photos my Pixel 4 XL takes. Portraits and Night Sight photos also look fantastic. All the while, the camera app itself is fast, clean, and simple.

However, I feel like Google cut one too many corners here by not including a super wide-angle camera on the Pixel 4. This is not something you can compensate for using smart software algorithms. A super-wide lens is invaluable in certain situations, be it when taking photos in tight spots or fast-paced videos. 

Project Soli is a major disappointment

For several years, Google has been working on Project Soli: a radar-based sensor system allowing a device to sense gestures with utmost precision. Fancy videos of the system in action show how virtual dials and buttons can be controlled effortlessly by the snap or flick of a finger. No touching the phone required.

The Pixel 4 and 4 XL are the first two phones to ship with Google's radar-based system – and it's bad on so many levels. First of all, its use is extremely limited. With a wave over the screen you can skip songs, mute alarms, or play with your Pokemon live wallpaper. That's it, really.

Now, I would have loved being able to skip songs with a wave of my hand – while driving to work, for example – but my Pixel 4 XL detects the gesture only about 20% of the time. A month ago, after spilling my cup of tea while trying to skip a song with a wave, I turned all gesture controls off.

Strangely, my colleague Eugene, who's also been a Pixel 4 user for several months, reports that gestures work almost perfectly on his unit. Is my Pixel 4 XL a dud? I don't think it matters. The Google Pixel 4 would have been a better phone without Project Soli. Google's radar chip makes the phone more expensive and more complicated without solving any problems. I would gladly trade it for another camera or extra storage – both features that would have been much more useful.

Is the Pixel 4 battery life really that bad?

Not really, or at least not on the Pixel 4 XL which I've been using. With typical use involving music streaming, web browsing, social media, and watching YouTube video in the evening, the phone still has about 40% of charge left when I go to bed.

But it's not great either. For some reason, my Pixel 4 XL loses about 10-15% of charge overnight if I forget to charge it. In other words, it looks like its stand-by efficiency is terrible for a modern phone. The drain persists even with gesture detection turned off.

Speaking of battery life and charging, I now have a simple wireless charger on my desk at work. When I'm not using the phone, I just leave it there. This way I never leave the office fearing that the Pixel 4 XL may die before bedtime, even if I'm planning on going out.

Is a Pixel 4 worth getting in 2020?

I think Google made a mistake when it launched the Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL at $800 and $900 respectively. There wasn't a whole lot to justify such high cost, so Google's phones failed to make a positive first impression with the public.

But a Pixel 4 XL costs less than $700 right now, and that I'd call a fair price. Too bad that few people would care at this point, with the Samsung Galaxy S20 series on preorder and all models of the Samsung Galaxy S10 on sale.

So yes, a Pixel 4 XL is totally worth getting – but I'd say it's not a phone for hardcore enthusiasts.

Some people see the Pixel line as the successor to the Nexus series, but I don't think that's the case. Nexus phones were for geeks, clearly. They were for people who wanted top specs at a reasonable price.

Google, however, is aiming Pixels a lot more towards average consumers. I'd recommend a Pixel phone to anyone who wants a simple Android phone that works, has a good camera, and doesn't overwhelm them with unnecessary clutter. Oh, and who doesn't mind charging it every night. Specs nerds, power users, and mobile gamers might want to look elsewhere.

Buy a Google Pixel 4 XL:

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