Every year, consumers look forward to the Google Pixel launch, because it best represents what the Android OS maker wants from a smartphone. Thanks to Google, I get to preview the latest Pixel 4XL on the day of its announcement.
Like last year, Pixel 4 series come with 2 sizes. The 5.7-inch Pixel 4 retails at S$1,119 (64 GB) and S$1,269 (128 GB), and the 6.3-inch Pixel 4XL retails at S$1,319 (64 GB) and S$1,469 (128 GB). They are cheaper than the Pixel 3 series retail price, and cheaper than the flagship models from Samsung and Apple. The Singapore retail unit does not come with USB-C Pixel earbuds, neither do they come with 3.5mm audio adapter, and this is probably one reason why it is lower-priced than Pixel 3.
I love using Pixel smartphones, and was contemplating getting the Pixel 3XL for my own use (but eventually settled for the Galaxy S10). The Pixel 4XL continues the same ethos with improved hardware, software and intelligence from Pixel 3 series.
The Pixel 4 design is revamped from the previous Pixel series. The rear glass on the black unit is glossy while the sides remain matt finish. The square camera module is positioned similarly to iPhone 11 but distinctly different nevertheless (the iPhone’s camera lens are more prominent).
On the front display, there is no notch, but a thick top bezel full of sensors and components. Picky users might feel that it looks imbalanced, but I’m not a fan of zero-bezel designs, because I need space to rest my fingers without touching any part of the screen.
There are no “2.5D” glass curves on the Pixel 4, just rounded off at the sides. The thicker matt sides offer better handling of the phone, and certainly more practical than the “waterfall” display. Kudos to Google for being practical rather than following the trends.
Improved Camera Experience
The Pixel 4XL comes with dual camera: a standard 12.2MP and a 16MP telephoto lens. No ultra wide angle, which is devastating for many fans, myself included. (Honestly, if not for the UWA lens, I would not have bought the Galaxy S10). But let’s not get too worked out here, as the Google Pixel camera quality is still as good.
The new feature to adjust brightness and contrast during framing is fantastic, giving better creative controls. And if you noticed, many smartphones will automatically reset the exposure adjustments after a few seconds. On the Pixel 4XL, just tap the lock button at the top of the brightness slider to lock it.
I shot the below images within 3 seconds by simply sliding the controls.
Night Sight is also enhanced to support astrophotography, though it’s not easy to shoot in Singapore. Still, the low light night shots appear with a little more details.
With the 1.8X telephoto lens, the Pixel 4XL will only go up to 8-times digital zoom, but amazingly the image details are better than Galaxy S10.
What I like about the Pixel 4XL camera is that they look less processed and compressed, the shadow details are substantial.
As for the background blur, Google opted for intelligent processing, meaning, it does not always blur everything based on the focal plane. For instance, if you take group photos and the faces are in various distances from the lens, all the faces will still be clear, while only the parts behind the last person’s face will be blurred out.
Take the image below: while the focus is on the front bowl, the rear bowl and the person’s fingers remain in focus, while on the areas behind the bowl is blurred. This would not be the case if it was shot with a large-sensor camera.
There are hits and misses, but Google works on its Neural Core to get it right for the users. It will even learn Frequent Faces to make sure they will be in focus. If you want to further tweak the blur intensity, you can do so from the edit options that appear below the photo viewer.
I will do more comparison in subsequent weeks with other smartphones.
Face Unlock Only
The Pixel 4XL does not have fingerprint sensor, which seems to give another nod towards iPhone’s design philosophy. As a practical user, I would very much prefer smartphone makers to keep the fingerprint sensor out of the display as it would guarantee a better faster unlock experience than even the best under-display sensor. See, after pasting a “premium” screen protection glass on my Galaxy S10, the on-display fingerprint sensor cannot work properly.
The face unlock registration process is more thorough than the other smartphones, and less smooth than iPhone. There are sections that seem to have difficulty registering, but I managed to get past that.
In the current version, the Pixel 4XL can be unlocked with eyes closed, but Google will have a software update to rectify that.
Another improvement I like is the stereo speakers. They sound louder, fuller, and better channel separation, thanks to the equally balanced frequency output from both the bottom-firing and the top speaker. In most smartphones, the top speaker is weaker as it was designed only for voice calls. In the case for Huawei, the top speaker focuses on treble while the bottom delivers more low-range.
If you have watched YouTube videos, you would have known of this feature. Now, Pixel 4XL can enable live caption on any videos that are played on the device. The result can be rather entertaining, and unless you are watching a video with clear diction from the presenter, you are bound to spot some weird captions. Nevertheless, it’s a great feature and is easily enabled from the volume pop-up, which I appreciate. At least I can easily turn it on without going through levels of setting menu.
Recorder with Live Transcript
Again, riding on Google’s speech-to-text technology, the new Recorder app will instantly transcribe speech as you record. It is accurate enough to be impressed, though there will still be errors. One thing is that the transcription happens during recording and does not edit by itself, nor allows user to edit. According to Google, the transcription happens offline on the device processor and does not send data to the cloud, allaying privacy concerns.
Motion Sense: Radar Sensor
Google’s answer to proximity sensor is using radar, developed over 5 years. The implementation on the Pixel 4 is somewhat underwhelming, though I can appreciate how radar sensor can work with better reliability than traditional proximity sensor. As of now, the Motion Sense is limited to big hand gestures instead of tiny finger movements as demonstrated in Project Soli. Let’s hope the next iteration of Motion Sense will be much more exciting.
Crash Car Detection
This is one cool feature that we can look forward to in Singapore. Why do I say that? Because the feature is only available in selected countries. Imagine we got into a car accident, and the phone detects it and prompts for some response, before auto-dialing to emergency services. This is life-saving and I would imagine people buying the Pixel phone just because of this added safety. And I hope such technology is available to other smartphone makers to make them a better companion than just playing games and watching videos.
90Hz OLED Display
A faster response display is certainly better, but to a normal person, there are no mind-blowing difference. While the scrolling and gaming may seem smoother, it does not really matter much because when you scroll pages, you do not care if the scrolling shows the smoothest transition. For videos, it also does not matter unless your content is high refresh rate. I would rather have longer battery life than a higher frame rate display that drains more power.
Slightly Smaller Battery
The Pixel 4XL contains a relatively smaller battery of 3700 mAh, and based on my usage pattern, it manages to survive an 18-hour day with less than 15% remaining. Perhaps it was the live wallpaper I activated, or the always-on display and Now Listening I enabled. Or I need to use the phone longer for the Adaptive Battery to learn better. It is not as bad as Galaxy S10, but it’s not as assuring as the Galaxy Note10+.
A larger battery that stores more juice will allow users confidence to enable all the features and enjoy the phone instead of having to turn them off to conserve battery. It is something that always baffles me: if manufacturers develop useful features that would require more power, they need to increase battery capacity to cater for them.
Google Pixel 4XL remains a fantastic practical-designed smartphone with outstanding camera quality. Now with a 1.8X telephoto lens at the rear, the 8X digital zoom image quality is better than before. The Motion Sense offers a few helpful use cases to interact with the phone at a distance, and Google added more useful apps using text-to-speech technology, like Live Caption, Recorder.
While it offers a few unique Assistant features (one of my all-time favourites is “Now Playing”), it is also lacking where other brands have offered. For instance, Huawei’s latest Mate30 intelligently rotates the screen by identifying the orientation of the face looking at the screen. Samsung’s Bixby Routine can perform automated actions based on locations, connected devices, time, and more. More importantly, when so many smartphones – even the notoriously slow Apple iPhone – have embraced ultra wide-angle in 2019, the Pixel 4XL does not. This strategy will further delay market growth for Pixel devices. Let’s hope it is still not too late for Google to grab some market share in 2020 with Pixel 5.
Pixel 4XL Specs
- Fullscreen 160.0 mm (6.3″) display
- QHD+ flexible OLED at 537 ppi
- Ambient EQ
- Smooth Display¹ (up to 90 Hz)
- Corning® Gorilla® Glass 5
- Always-on display
- Now Playing
- 100,000:1 super contrast ratio
- Full 24-bit depth or 16.77 million colours
- True black level
- HDR support (UHDA certification)
Dimensions and Weight:
- 75.1 mm x 160.4 mm x 8.2 mm
- 2.9″ x 6.3″ x 0.3″
- 193 g
- 3700 mAh
- 18 W/2 A USB Type-C™ charger
- 18 W fast charging³
- Qi-certified wireless charging
Memory and Storage:
- 6 GB LPDDR4x
- 64 GB or 128 GB (Just Black and Clearly White only)
- Qualcomm® Snapdragon 855™
- 2.84 GHz + 1.78 GHz, 64-bit Octa-Core
- Adreno 640
- Titan M Security Module⁵
- Pixel Neural Core™
- 16 MP
- 1.0 μm pixel width
- Auto-focus with phase detection
- Optical + electronic image stabilisation
- Spectral + flicker sensor
- ƒ/2.4 aperture
- 52° field of view
- 12.2 MP
- 1.4 μm pixel width
- Auto-focus with dual-pixel phase detection
- Optical + electronic image stabilisation
- ƒ/1.7 aperture
- 77° field of view
- 8 MP
- 1.22 μm pixel width
- ƒ/2.0 aperture
- Fixed focus
- 90° field of view
- NIR flood emitter
- NIR dot projector
- 2 NIR cameras