Face Unlock, radar and on-device voice skills show Googles magic, but some bits need fixing

Googles latest Pixel 4 XL smartphone is its bravest yet, throwing out the conventions of old, integrating cutting-edge technology and attempting to round it all out with a special mix of software direct from the Android-maker.

By now you probably know the drill. The Pixel 4 XL is a metal and glass sandwich like practically every other phone. Unlike most though the aluminium sides have a black textured coating, which aids grip, while the back feels almost like super-smooth skin or silk rather than glass. It also has bold, contrasting colours, if you choose the white or orange variant, that make it stand out well against the competition.

The 6.3in QHD+ OLED screen is big but not massive by todays 6.5in-plus standards. It has a 90Hz refresh rate, but just in certain lighting conditions for now, which Google says its working on a fix to increase. Generally it makes the experience of using it smoother and more fluid. Its crisp, colourful and has good viewing angles but cant reach the same super-bright heights as rivals the 90Hz display on the OnePlus 7T Pro has far more wow factor. A chunky top bezel hides a new Face Unlock system and Googles new party trick: the Soli radar system.

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The frosted glass back feels very different to those fitted to rivals. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

The Pixel 4 XL is a large phone that doesnt feel too big in the hand. The textured sides and frosted glass back help with grip. I never felt I would drop it. At 8.2mm thick and 75.1mm wide it compares favourably to Apples iPhone 11 Pro Max and the OnePlus 7T Pro, while undercutting both by as much as 29g.

It feels like a phone youre meant to use without a case, rather than something that needs protecting although dropping it runs the risk of it smashing, like any other phone, so whether people will use it without a case is another matter.

The bottom has a USB-C port, the back supports wireless charging, theres an accent colouron the power button and you can still squeeze the sides on the bottom half of the phone to activate Google Assistant.

Specifications

  • Screen: 6.3in QHD+ OLED (90Hz, 537ppi)

  • Processor: octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 855

  • RAM: 6GB

  • Storage: 64 or 128GB

  • Operating system: Android 10

  • Camera: Dual rear cameras (12.2+16MP) with OIS, 8MP front-facing camera

  • Connectivity: LTE, wifi 5, NFC, eSIM, Bluetooth 5, GPS, 3D face recognition

  • Dimensions: 75.1 x 160.4 x 8.2mm

  • Weight: 193g

Speed, but not for long

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The battery life isnt great, so you might be reaching for the charger more than youd expect. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

The Pixel 4 XL has 6GB of RAM, at least 64GB of storage and one of Qualcomms top processors, the Snapdragon 855, which was only recently replaced by the slightly faster 855+ as used in the OnePlus 7T and 7T Pro.

In day-to-day tasks the Pixel 4 XL felt fast and fluid significantly faster than a Samsung Galaxy S10, but not quite as super-slick as the OnePlus 7T. Most will be very happy and the Pixel 4 XL is likely to continue feeling fast and responsive a couple of years down the line if the previous generation Pixels are anything to go by.

Whats not so great is battery life. The Pixel 4 XL only lasts just over 26 hours between charges with medium usage, which means 7am on day one until 9am on day two in the working week. Thats not really long enough to guarantee the Pixel 4 XL will be alive and kicking at the end of a night out to see you home.

That was while using it as my primary device, with 200 or so emails, messages and push notifications, a couple of hours of browsing in Chrome, five hours of Spotify via Bluetooth headphones, 50 minutes of Into the Badlands from Amazon Prime Video, and taking about 15 photos.

For comparison, the OnePlus 7T lasts 34 hours or the similarly sized iPhone 11 Pro Max lasts just shy of 48 hours under similar conditions. Turning off the ambient display feature added about two hours to the battery life.

The Pixel 4 XL fast-charges at up to 18W via any USB-C Power Delivery charger, one of which is included in the box, and wirelessly charges at up to 11W. A full charge via cable took just under two hours, hitting 70% in 50 minutes.

Android 10

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The new Google Recorder app is a brilliant example of using on-device AI technology for useful new functions, rather than whizz-bang gimmicks. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

The Pixel 4 XL is one of the first smartphones to ship with the latest version of Android 10, here with a level of polish only OnePlus rivals, and a bunch of Pixel-exclusive features, some of which will make it to third-party smartphones at some point.

Android 10 introduced a system-wide dark mode, full theming support for changing colours, icon shapes, typefaces and more, and vastly improved gesture navigation, which makes using large-screen smartphones a lot easier. Youre going to get at least three years of software updates from the release of the phone, and major Android version updates before anyone else.

The big new Pixel 4 XL software advance is on-device natural language processing. Normally when you speak to your phone for Assistant, search or similar, it sends what you say across the internet to be understood on Googles server farm.

Now Google has managed to make that technology run on the phone itself, with some very impressive results. Its considerably faster, recognising what you say instantly, doesnt require an internet connection, and is better for privacy because your voice doesnt leave the device.

A new version of Assistant uses it to great effect. You can rattle off commands at breakneck speeds and it will understand the lot. If you want to open the camera, shoot a photo and share it to a friend you can now do it faster with your voice than you probably can with taps.

The Google Recorder app is equally impressive, transcribing voice recordings on-device in real time and tying text and audio together so you can search through them. Lastly Googles new Live Captions can put subtitles on any video, even if its muted perfect for those who cant turn the sound up but want to know whats happening in a video.

These thoroughly impressive software features are what Google does best.

Unfortunately the new Assistant only works in US English for now. Worse, you cant use it if you have a G Suite account(Googles commercial services including email) logged into your phone. Google says its working on a fix.

Motion Sense

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Motion Sense uses the Soli radar technology to detect and track objects and gestures happening above and around the phone. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

One of the products of Googles advanced projects research division is Soli, which is a miniaturised radar system enabling the new Motion Sense feature. It detects when youre within 60cm and shows the ambient display. Reaching for the phone lights up the screen fully and gets it ready to recognise your face, but it can also snooze alarms and silence calls.

A swipe through the air above the phone can skip tracks in music apps or from the lockscreen, and more gestures are promised. It worked well when on a desk, but was harder to trigger when handheld.

The technology is certainly novel and works surprisingly well, but these sorts of gestures arent a new thing and Im not sure Google has hit on the killer feature for Soli yet.

Face Unlock

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Face Unlock shows promise, but needs the support of third-party apps to come into its own. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

Google has dumped the fingerprint scanner for its new 3D face recognition technology. Face Unlock works essentially the same way as Apples Face ID, except faster. A little too fast in some instances, unlocking the phone when I didnt actually intend to. A simple glance at the phone is all thats required, although you dont actually need to have your eyes open for it to recognise you which might be a problem for those with prying partners. Google says its working on a fix (can you spot the trend here?).

It works through polarised sunglasses and not once did it fail to recognise me. By default it skips the lockscreen and opens the phone straight up to whatever you were doing, which I wish Apples Face ID did.

But most third-party apps dont support Face Unlock now. Thats because to do so they have to implement a new unified biometric system which allows the phone to decide whether to use a fingerprint, a face or something else. Most dont, which means they dont even see the Face Unlock system.

Used to just using my fingerprint for everything, Id forgotten what a pain entering strong pins or 55-digit passwords into apps can be. Once apps are updated, using Face Unlock with apps such as LastPass is a fantastic, seamless experience; the kind of experience youve had on a top iPhone for the last three years.

Fewer than 10 apps currently do so, though. And even leaders in fintech such as Monzo are saying it will take a while to implement, so you can forget your traditional banking apps. At least this one isnt up to Google to fix.

Camera

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The Google camera app continues to be one of the best for point-and-shoot uses, now with a little more manual adjustment available. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

Google has made a name for itself with some of the best smartphone cameras on the market, and the Pixel 4 XL is no different, now with a dual-camera system on the back. It is arguably the best point-and-shoot camera available.

Still photos are full of drama and with an amazing amount of detail, even in very difficult lighting conditions. New for the Pixel 4 XL is the ability to manually alter the foreground and background brightness independently. Portrait mode for people, pets or objects is also improved particularly around things such as wisps of hair.

A 2x telephoto camera has significantly improved the zoom, using the firms Super Res Zoom technology to reach to 8x while still preserving a lot of fine detail. It compares favourably with the iPhone 11 Pro, but cant hold a candle to the 5x optical and up to 50x digital zoom of the Huawei P30 Pro.

Googles Night Sight mode continues to lead the market in capability and flexibility, and can now shoot three-minute exposures of stars with astrological mode not that I could test that given the British weather over the last two weeks.

The single selfie camera is also good, with a wider angle than most front-facing cameras. Video capture is generally solid, but caps out at 4K at 30fps and is by no means market-leading. If video is your medium of choice there are better cameras than the Pixel 4 XL. The lack of the fun ultrawide-angle camera popular with other manufacturers is also disappointing, as is Google dumping free full-resolution Photos backup, which has been a Pixel value-add for years.

Observations

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Pikachu and friends can invade your homescreen if you want. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

  • If you have your phone by your bed at night the ambient screen never shuts off because youre typically within the Motion Sense bubble all the time there really needs to be a scheduler or for the display to turn off when you activate do-not-disturb mode.

  • Theres a new Pokemon live wallpaper where you can wave at or pet Pikachu and others using Motion Sense.

Price

The Google Pixel 4 XL costs 829 ($899) with 64GB or 929 ($999) with 128GB of storage.

For comparison, the smaller Google Pixel 4 costs 669 ($799), the OnePlus 7T costs 549, the OnePlus 7T Pro costs 699, the Samsung Galaxy S10+ costs 899, the Samsung Galaxy Note 10+ costs 999, the iPhone 11 costs 729 and the iPhone 11 Pro Max costs 1,149.

Verdict

There will be a time when the Google Pixel 4 XL might be a great phone, but that time isnt now.

I love the design, the feel, the 90Hz screen and incredible camera. The new on-device natural language understanding is a marvel. The next-generation Google Assistant feels like were finally putting the kind of AI were used to seeing in films in our phones, not on some server somewhere providing the illusion of being in our devices. This is the smartest phone Ive ever used and I genuinely enjoyed Googles moments of magic.

But for every feature thats good, theres a problem that needs fixing. The screens great, but not always at 90Hz and not always bright enough, and the battery life just isnt long enough for a top-end phone in 2019.

The fact that the new Assistant doesnt work when you have a G Suite account on your phone a product made and sold to companies by Google is frankly embarrassing. As is the oversight that some may want to make sure theyre actually looking at their phone with their eyes before it unlocks Apple knew this and has had it in Face ID for three years.

The biggest issue for me, however, is that the Android app ecosystem just isnt ready for a phone that has dumped the fingerprint sensor. Face Unlock is genuinely great. A transformational leap just as Face ID was three years ago on the iPhone X, but only when it works. And it doesnt work in my banking apps, my security apps or Evernote. Only one app I routinely use a fingerprint with supports Face Unlock.

That situation will change once all the apps have been updated, but Im not holding my breath for the very slow-moving banks to support Face Unlock any time soon, and thats a real problem.

The Pixel 4 XL is therefore a very hard phone to grade. Once Google fixes the problems and apps have been updated, the only thing really holding the phone back is below-average battery life. If thats something you can live with, and you trust Google to fix things, then by all means buy the Pixel 4 XL.

But at 829, or really 929 if you want a reasonable 128GB of storage space, there are better, problem-free experiences to be had out there from the likes of OnePlus, and for less money too.

Pros: amazing on-device natural language processing, next-generation Google Assistant, brilliant camera, Face Unlock, Google Recorder app, Android 10 + fast updates, 90Hz screen.

Cons: poor third-party app support for Face Unlock, Face Unlock needs eyes-open fix, Google Assistant needs G Suite fix, below-average battery life, no fingerprint scanner option.

Source: http://www.theguardian.com/us

 

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