Last week, at an official event in New York, Google announced a whole range of new products and updated devices with the star of the show being their newest smartphone, the Google Pixel 4 & 4XL. We’ve been playing with Google’s newest handset, the larger Pixel 4 XL to be exact, for nearly a week now and it’s been an interesting phone to get to know and use. Does it stack up to 2019’s other flagship smartphones from the likes of Samsung, Apple and Huawei or are Google going their own way when it comes to flagship hardware and software? Read on to find out in our review of the Pixel 4 XL.
Having already leaked the rear of the device themselves, months before the official unveiling, the design of the new Pixel handsets came as a surprise to no one. As you’d expect, it’s a rectangular slab of glass with a prominent, almost Apple iPhone 11 Pro style, camera module on the rear. Our thinking is that they ‘leaked’ their camera module design as far back as June so as to let everyone know they weren’t copying Apple.
Aesthetically, the design is similar to the previous Pixel models but is even more simplistic and ‘Scandinavian’ in its finish with a simple, polished glass rear and aluminium bumper-like edge all around the sides of the device. I’ve been testing the white model and I have to say; the colour, feel and design has really grown on me.
Up front, there’s a very nice 6.3″ QHD HDR OLED display which, according to DisplayMate, is up there with the best Samsung and Apple have to offer. This is a far cry from the Pixel 2 days when their displays were very much the weak point of an otherwise impressive device. The colour reproduction quality and calibration of the display really has improved to a point where pretty much anything on the Pixel 4 XL’s screen looked fantastic.
Under the hood, the Pixel 4 actually has automatic colour management which analyses the content on the screen in real time to make sure the colours are being reproduced as accurately as possible. This combined with the HDR and QHD resolution makes the Pixel 4 XL a joy for watching films and looking at photos you’ve captured.
The display was going 90!
On top of all this, Google also made sure that this new panel was capable of the much sought-after 90hz refresh rate so things are buttery smooth when scrolling through webpages for example. One caveat to this new feature though is that Google said they only enable this higher refresh rate for certain content but have been a little vague as to what exactly the content is. We have spotted the framerate increasing when scrolling through websites and blocks of text but we’re not sure if it’s being used for things like gaming and watching Netflix for example.
On top of display, you’ll have noticed that there’s quite a large forehead but it’s in here that Google in packing some seriously impressive, if a little under-utilised tech. For the first time on a Pixel device, Google is using 3D face unlock and they’ve also removed the fingerprint scanner altogether. They’ve also implemented their custom Soli chip into the top of the phone which acts like radar for touch free control of features, or ‘Virtual Tool Gestures’ in apps such as Spotify and the clock app.
It’s all in the wave..
This new form of interaction is called ‘Motion Sense’ and as impressive as it is, as of right now, it can only be used in a handful of apps.We were able to play tracks on Spotify and simply swipe our hand left or right over the top of the device to skip or go back a track and we could also snooze an alarm with a simple swipe as well.
Maybe it will take time for Google to analyse the data of how this new form of motion sensing interaction is being used to fine tune its abilities. This might then allow them to open up its implementation for other apps and uses on the device.
For this generation of Pixel, gone are the front facing stereo speakers to be replaced with a more industry norm of one front facing speaker located in the earpiece at the top of the device with the 2nd speaker located at the bottom of the device to the right of the USB Type C charging port. Overall sound quality is very impressive and Google seems to have fixed the hissing/crackling issue which affected a number of Pixel 3 XL models from last year. Peak loudness could be a little higher but there’s enough punch at around 80% volume that you should get by just fine.
Overall, it’s a sturdy feeling device and with Gorilla Glass on the front and rear and the aluminium bumper, we’d like to think it could stand up to a few knocks and drops. The screen is knockout and the inclusion of the Motion Sense tech, 3D Face Unlock along with old favourites such as ‘Active Edge’ (squeezing the device to launch Google Assistant) makes the Pixel 4 XL and engaging device to use in day to day life.
Unsurprisingly, the Pixel 4 and 4 XL are running Google’s latest version of Android, simply called Android 10. It’s smooth, intuitive and very pleasant to use. Coming from an Huawei P30 Pro, the new gesture control navigation option was easy to get used to and the 6GB of RAM along with the Snapdragon 855 CPU was more than enough to keep things ticking along nicely. There’s also 64GB or 128GB of storage to play with, depending on the model you get, but there’s no way to expand this with a Micro SD card.
With a new version of Google’s Assistant also announced at the official unveiling event, Google highlighted how more and more of the simpler tasks carried out by the Assistant will be done on the device going forward. Unfortunately, this updated version of the Assistant hasn’t made its way to our review device just yet but, even with the current version, which many of you would also have on your own handsets, things were still refreshingly fast and accurate.
Live transcribe for the win!
One impressive new software feature we did get to test out was the new voice recorder app, which will tap into advances in real-time speech processing, speech recognition and AI to automatically transcribe recordings in real time as you’re speaking.
As you can see from the screenshot below, my attempt to read the above sentence into the new app was pretty much spot on with a few little errors here and there. This is something I’d imagine many roaming journalists would love to implement into their interviewing process as it not only live transcribes your conversations, it will allow you to search back through the recording by simply typing in a desired word from the interview. It will also be able to identify when music is playing or applause and colours these accordingly.
The below video explains the new features quite well but, after playing with it for a bit ourselves, we were very impressed by what Google has managed to do here.
Again, the Google Pixel 4 and 4 XL introduce another first for a Pixel device and that’s a dual rear camera set up. As many manufacturers are packing three, four and even five cameras into their rear camera modules, Google decided to just add a single 2x optical zoom lens to pair with its 12MP wide angle lens.
Note how I said ‘wide angle’ and not an ‘ultra wide angle’ lens as many other device makers are clambering to include. Google believes that consumers would benefit more from a telephoto lens than a wide-angle but I guess sales figures are the only real way Google will know if their decision to not include an ultra wide angle lens was the correct one.
Inside the square camera bump on the rear, you’ll also find the PDAF sensor and the flash which Google jokingly said you should only need to use as a flash light given the low light capabilities of the device.
HDR, but on steroids
During the presentation of the device, Google spent a fair bit of time taking about the new photographic capabilities of the handsets and how their impressive software algorithms allow them to carry out ‘computational photography’ on the device.
Features like the new HDR+ Live allows you to see in real time how your HDR shots are going to look before you take them with the end result capturing great levels of detail in even the most demanding of HDR settings.
Testing it over the last few days, we can definitely see an improvement in the HDR from this new camera set up and being able to see it in real time really made a difference to how we composed our shots. Below are some examples of challenging HDR scenarios which the Pixel 4 did a good job of overcoming.
The white balance of images has also been improved, thanks again, to the computational photography. You can also now adjust the brightness and shadows of an image independently, live on the viewfinder, so you can make shadows or highlights pop that bit more before taking an image. You can see the new sliders at the top of the screenshot below:
A sky full of stars
Google also spoke about the upgrades to their Night Sight capabilities with ‘Night Sight Astrophotography’ a new feature to the camera app that, when using a tripod, will allow you to capture impressive images of the night sky.
Unfortunately, this was one feature we weren’t able to test fully given how much light pollution there is at night in Dublin city centre, making it almost impossible to capture a respectable image of the stars. We’ll be sure to update this review with our own night sight astrophotography images once we capture some but, for now, below is a sample of what the new feature is capable of.
The regular Night Sight mode is still as impressive as ever but still can’t quite match Huawei’s industry leading ‘Night Mode’ and the low light capabilities of P30 Pro’s main ‘Photo’ mode. Below is a sample of two photos taken in almost complete darkness, the first from the Pixel 4 XL using Night Sight and the second from the Huawei P30 Pro’s normal ‘Photo’ mode. The Pixel does a fantastic job of pulling in that amount of light and is actually a bit bright than the P30 Pro but the P30 Pro still retains more detail.
Google also spoke about the improved zooming capabilities thanks to the inclusion of the 2nd telephoto lens and now there’s the ability to zoom in 8 times digitally with some impressive levels of detail still retained, even as this length of digital zoom.
The front facing camera has dropped down to a single lens shooter this time around but still offers exceptional selfies with impressive edge detection for portrait shots and a nice wide angle for group selfies.
When it comes to video, Google OIS is still one of the best in the industry but, unfortunately, they still haven’t included 4K60FPS for some reason so the max you can go is 4K30FPS.
The camera app itself is fairly intuitive and straight forward to use but we would have liked a small bit more flexibility for some of the settings.
The Pixel 4 XL comes with a respectable 3700mAh capacity battery. Size-wise, this is by no means spectacular compared to the likes of the the P30 Pro’s 4200mAh or Samsung Galaxy S10+’s 4100mAh but, with Android 10 and Google’s Adaptive Battery feature, we were getting through a normal day of use no problem. For the smaller Pixel 4, which only packs a 2800mAh, we’d be worried about its longevity but, we’ve yet to see any reviews claiming it to be subpar.
As one of the latest smartphone launches each year, the Pixel range of smartphones have the unenviable circumstance of being compared to what’s already out there from the likes of Apple, Samsung and Huawei.
The smarter than smartphone
This, I feel, is something Google actually enjoys as, with each Pixel launch, the way in which they unveil and talk about their newest features becomes more and more assured and impressive. Yes, there are some features and specs which are suspiciously absent (4K60 video recording, 256GB storage etc,) for a flagship device but the software and hardware updates to things like the camera, that really only Google can do, make the Pixel 4 and 4 XL standout phones in their own right.
The display is up there with the best, Google’s camera credentials keep on getting better on better and the overall UI and software tweaks make the Pixel 4 XL a phone that will deliver when you need it to.
Pricing starts at €759 for the Pixel 4 and €899 for the Pixel 4 XL. Pre-orders are open now and the new phones are expected to start shipping on October 28th.