The surprisingly brilliant phone that Google left behind: Pixel 4 XL review after 1 year


I’ve been thinking about the best affordable phones you can buy now, and weighing in the options I was actually not very impressed. Sure, mid-range phones like the Galaxy A51 or iPhone SE work fine, but if you’re a tech enthusiast you would surely want something that’s a bit better.

So what is that phone which gives you that edge and still doesn’t cost a fortune?

Well, sitting on my desk for a while was the Google Pixel 4 XL. This is the phone that Google left behind. Launched in late October of 2019, the Google Pixel 4 XL was on the market for only about 8 months before Google discontinued it in early August 2020. We still don't know why apart from guesses and speculation, but this phone is surprisingly brilliant and if I had to buy a budget phone right now, it would have been at the top of my list. Here is why.

Conceived with intention to be great


So spoiler alert, I have been using the Pixel 4 XL on and off in the past year and I love it, so here is why I think you should still consider this one year old phone that is actually officially discontinued by Google, but you can still find it easily on eBay.

So unlike budget or mid-range phones, the Pixel 4 XL was conceived as a flagship meaning that it was meant to fight against the very best and Google went all out including the very best components, something that cannot be said about the newer Pixel 5, which was conceived as an affordable phone, never meant to take on the very best. What this meant is that last year, the Pixel 4 XL got the fastest chip at the time, the Snadragon 855. This chip, despite being a year old, is still noticeably faster than newer chips like the Snapdragon 730 used in mid-range phones these days. And while all modern phones work just fine for daily tasks, once you actually open a few dozen tabs on your phone and start pushing it a bit, they crumble and you do notice that microlag, slower loading times and a bit of choppiness. That’s not the case with the Pixel, even a full year after its release, it flies no matter what you throw at it and never feels choppy or slow, but the opposite.

Also, being a flagship means that you get a truly incredibly high quality AMOLED screen. Many budget phones these days also have AMOLED screens, but the screen on the Pixel is something else: it has extraordinary color calibration and it just looks better than even the best mid-range phones. Issues like imperfect auto-brightness adjustment, skewed colors, improper calibration of the screen rotation feature, all of those are not issues you will bump into with the Pixel 4 XL.

Design unlike any other


While the two above are objective reasons, I have to mention one fully subjective reason why I personally love the Pixel 4 XL: the design. Despite there being hundreds of phones out there, there is nothing quite like the Pixel 4 XL. I have never held a phone in my hand that feels better than this Pixel. The soft, velvety material on the back is just… uugh, so well made and pleasing to touch, it's really hard to describe the tactile joy of handling this phone with its satin finish. And while I usually prefer to carry a phone with a protective case on, I have had to make an exception for the Pixel 4 XL, it would simply be a crime to hide this brilliant design under a case.

With our editor-in-chief Rado, who is also passionate about smartphone design, we've been debating the different approaches various phone makers have to smartphone design, and he points out something important: Google's approach to design never feels like they are designing a luxury product in a way a stainless steel iPhone or a premium Samsung phone is. Google's phone designs have this minimalist style with a bit of a quirk to it, and using them, they don't feel like a dressy shirt, but instead like a very comfortable T-shirt that you never get tired of wearing. The white panda model I have been using with its playful orange power key, thin profile, and soft touch, is just that minimalist understated yet comfortable design dream.

Camera quality

Using the Pixel gives you confidence that you can take a picture anywhere and anytime

This wouldn’t be a complete Pixel review if we didn’t talk camera, right?

The camera on the Pixel is far better than anything you can get on a budget phone. It captures very good looking images during the day, but especially so in low light, and images that I would otherwise not even attempt to take on other phones, I know I can capture on the Pixel.

Granted, newer phones have caught up, but those newer phones usually cost a lot more, and the Pixel 4 XL at its current price is probably the best affordable phone camera system out there.



Simple and delightful software that doesn't get in the way


The other thing is just the software. The Pixel 4 XL comes with Android the way Google envisioned it, and if like me, you are fully invested in the Google ecosystem, you would appreciate this interface. It’s clean but not sterile, for example Live Wallpapers on the Pixel are so clever. You have the compass Live wallpaper that shows you the way to your favorite place and it automatically turns dark at night. The gorgeous Live Earth wallpapers are also a piece of art unlike anything else on a smartphone.

And if you are comparing the software on the Pixel versus that of a Samsung phone, you would be happy to find less bloatware and to encounter you do not to have to deal with Bixby and instead get easy shortcuts to the much more reliable Google Assistant (Bixby is a lot easier to avoid these days, but it's still there).

Let's talk about face recognition


And unlike other Android phones, the Pixel 4 XL is basically your only option if you love secure 3D face recognition. When I am saying that the newer Pixel 5 is a downgrade, the lack of a face recognition is one of my main arguments. Even in these mask-wearing times, you can just pull your mask for a brief moment to unlock your phone and it’s all incredibly quick and effortless compared to a fingerprint scanner.

The face recognition on the Pixel unlike that on many other phones is secure, meaning that you have a dedicated system embedded in probably the only ugly part of the 4 XL, its gigantic top bezel. A system of laser and depth sensors draws a 3D map of your face and it's not just 2D, image-based face recognition. In this one area, the Pixel 4 XL is just like all the latest iPhones, but its face recognition is noticeably faster.

The one great thing about the Pixel 4 XL nobody talks about


It's the loudspeakers!

Oh my gosh the loudspeakers on this phone are amazing! Last year, we ran a blind loudspeaker test and 10 out of 10 people pointed to the Pixel as having the best loudspeaker quality by far, and this year, other phones haven’t improved much in that regard, so while we haven’t had a chance to run this blind audio test again, I would bet on the Pixel 4 XL winning it this year as well.

Pixel 4 XL: some downsides you should know about


Now, the Pixel isn’t perfect by any means. In fact was harshly criticized when it launched. In my use, I have found that the battery drains a bit too quickly, and if you use the phone a lot you’d have to top it up by the end of the day, but I mostly use my phone before and after work, so I did manage to usually finish the day without recharging.

I also don’t like that huge bezel on the top, the "forehead". A notch would have been so much better, but Google just went with a giant top bezel that really steals away from the otherwise beautiful design.

Conclusion


Apart from these minor gripes, I haven’t had much complaints at all. I enjoy the little touches you get on the Pixel that you don’t get on other phones: the lock screen that shows me up-to-date temperature and little notification icons, the fast updates, and so many other little things. 

Anyway, this has been my experience with the Pixel 4 XL, one full year after its release, it's still as relevant as ever. I simply love this phone, even with all of its imperfections. I would have preferred the back to be slightly curved for a more comfortable grip and the buttons a bit more clicky, but even with that I can whole heartedly recommend the Pixel 4 XL.

Let me know your thoughts about the Pixel 4 XL, what you like it for and what you wish was better, in the comments right below.

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Pixel 4 XL
  • Display 6.3 inches 3040 x 1440 pixels
  • Camera 12.2 MP (Dual camera) 8 MP front
  • Hardware Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 6GB RAM
  • Storage 64GB, not expandable
  • Battery 3700 mAh
  • OS Android 11

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