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Google Pixel 4 XL First Impressions

Posted October 22, 2019 | Android | Google Pixel 4 | Mobile | Pixel 4 XL | Windows


As many readers probably know, I await each new Google Pixel release with a combination of excitement and dread. Excitement because, if Google gets this right, that’s my phone for the next year. And dread because, if they get it wrong, and they’ve pretty much always gotten it wrong, I’ll face another year of uncertainty.

I know some question why I even bother, given the reliability issues that have dogged the previous generation Pixel handsets (with the exception of the inter-generational and mid-range Pixel 3a/3a XL, which were just too slow and didn’t offer enough storage). But Pixels are special—or, could be, should be—because they represent Android as realized by its maker. Pixel is to Android as Signature PC used to be to Windows.

Pixels have also provided what was once an unbeatable combination of photographic prowess and Google Fi compatibility, the combination of which I value most highly of all. But these two advantages have been eroded somewhat in recent years by two factors: Improvements in the camera systems used by rival handsets, especially Huawei’s recent flagships, and Google opening up Google Fi to other handsets, albeit it in somewhat limited form.

There’s nothing quite like confusion. But in short, my heart is still with Google, even though my mind tells me that I’ve been burned too many times to get this worked up every year. And yet he we are.

OK, Paul. Focus.

Let’s talk about the design.

I like the matte orange color—I ordered the limited edition Oh So Orange version—and the contrast it creates with the black surrounding edges, both of which are new to 2019. (The Clearly White version also offers that nice contrast.) But I’m curious that no one has really mentioned that the Pixel design language is gone: The back of the device is straight-up orange, with no two-tone design as with previous Pixel handsets and other devices. It’s a nice look, but perhaps a bit bland. (Since I’ve already covered it in a case, no matter.)

The large and square camera bump on the back is unnecessary, given that the Pixel 4 XL has only two camera lenses, plus a flash and a small sensor. One gets the feeling that Google would like to keep the design for future years, when we’ll no doubt get a third ultra-wide-angle lens. That makes sense, but it also makes the Pixel 4 XL feel like a bit of a placeholder. But the large camera system on the iPhone 11 Pro Max never bothered me, and neither does this.

We do have to address that bezel. My God, that bezel: The Pixel 4 XL’s larger forehead bezel is partying like its 2017 all over again. But you know what? It’s also a huge improvement over Google’s previous devices. And this type of design is still better than that of the notch-tastic iPhone 11 Pro series, just as this basic design was better than that of the iPhone X back in 2017.

Let me explain.

Compared to its direct predecessor, the Pixel 3 XL, it’s no contest: That ridiculous-looking device featured an imposing buck-tooth notch that ate up precious on-screen real estate for no good reason, and it’s still painful to look at today.

But compare the Pixel 4 XL to the most recently-released Pixel, the Pixel 3a XL, and you’ll see something interesting: That handset also had a large forehead bezel that looks similar to that of the Pixel 4 XL. But the 3a XL also had a similarly larger chin bezel, where the Pixel 4 XL does not.

In short, the bezel situation on the Pixel 4 XL is superior to that of its predecessors. And superior to the notch on the iPhone 11 Pro series.

The issue, of course, is that other Android smartphone makers, notably Samsung and OnePlus, have moved to much smaller and almost nonexistent bezels. And so the Pixel 4 design, depending on your perspective still manages to look a bit old fashioned. Ultimately, I’m OK with it, and I know that because I never really had an issue with the bezels on the Pixel 3a XL. But I certainly do look forward to a future in which this bezel is reduced and then eliminated.

Initial setup was straightforward for the most part, with a new way of handling the eSIM, which I never referenced directly, and a new step for setting up facial recognition. That latter process was tedious and time-consuming, and I hope that doesn’t preview the issues I may have actually using it. I had a hard time getting through the wizard, for some reason. (And, so far at least, using facial recognition to sign-in has been lightning fast.)

There are some nice new customization features for those who like to change the look and feel. In addition to a Dark mode toggle, which really needs a scheduled option, there’s a new Style setting that lets you choose between different looks with different icon types and wallpapers, which is pretty nice.

I’ll be installing apps and downloading content all day, and of course testing the camera. So far so good, and the Pixel 4 XL camera system seems to take great shots that are more color-accurate than, say, the Huawei P30 Pro.

Speaking of which, Google made some obvious internal changes here, with a faster processor and more RAM, both of which should help to future-proof the handset. But I’m curious that the firm hasn’t focused more on its custom Pixel Neural Core chipset, which it describes only as “the engine for on-device processing, always-on computing, and machine learning, meaning more tasks are done on the device for performance and privacy.”

As you may recall, Google also debuted a custom chipset called Pixel Visual Core in the Pixel 2 series in 2017, and in Serious About Software? Make Your Own Hardware! (Premium), I described how this kind of chipset, also used by Microsoft, Apple, and others, could emerge as a key differentiator. I sort of assume that Pixel Neural Core is an updated version of Pixel Visual Core, but Google’s not said so, to my knowledge. But it did document that previous chipset in ways it has not for Pixel Neural Core, at least not yet. And Pixel Visual Core was very clearly about image processing, not ML in general. Maybe that explains the name change. Or maybe it’s literally different, and Visual Core remains as well. I look forward to finding out more.

The stereo speakers are a significant improvement over those in the Pixel 3 XL; the tinny, echoing vibrations are gone, thank God, and the separation seems much more balanced. Apparently, replacing the front-firing speakers from its predecessor with bottom-firing speakers worked wonders. Testing with both movies and music, I was much relieved. Much relieved.

One final note: The Pixel 4 XL no longer ships with Google’s excellent wired earbuds, which is a shame, as they are quite good, nor does it include a USB-C-to-headphone adapter in the box. I guess that’s understandable here in 2019.

Anyway, I’m up and running with no major surprises so far. It’s a super-familiar experience with no real drama, and while that’s both good and bad, it’s mostly good.

More soon.

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