Friday 15 November 2019

Review: Google's Pixel 4 XL is super-smart but disappoints on battery life

  • Phone: Google Pixel 4 XL
  • Price: €899 (64GB) or €999 (128GB)
L-R – Samsung Galaxy Note 10 Plus, Google Pixel 4 XL, iPhone 11 Pro Max – photo: Adrian Weckler
L-R – Samsung Galaxy Note 10 Plus, Google Pixel 4 XL, iPhone 11 Pro Max – photo: Adrian Weckler
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

Yet again, Google has come tantalisingly close to making a phone that you should buy over rivals, especially other Android flagship phones.

The 6.3-inch Pixel 4 XL, the larger sibling of the Pixel 4, is the smartest phone around, has some jaw-dropping new software features and feels great in the hand. It’s a joy to use.

But yet again, Google has compromised one or two key features that make it very difficult to recommend over Samsung’s Galaxy S10+ or Huawei’s P30 Pro (not to speak of the iPhone 11, which it isn’t quite as direct a rival).

I’ll get right to the point with what those compromises are — the lack of an ultrawide camera and a really disappointing battery life.

The camera issue might be subjective. The battery life question undeniably has more universal application.

First, the camera.

Virtually every high end phone made now has three different camera focal lengths: normal (1x), telephoto (2x, 3x or 5x) and ultrawide (0.5x).

An ultrawide camera is enormously useful. It allows you to get really excellent details into photos, especially when you’re indoors. Huawei and Samsung have had them for a year. Apple just added them as its main new feature to the iPhone 11. Together with better battery life, the ultrawide camera is easily the most popular feature on Apple’s new iPhone.

Google decided not to include this third camera, opting instead for just the regular lens and a 2x telephoto. And I really missed it on this phone. Testing it coincided with a refurbishment job I’m doing on a house. I wanted to take progress photos of individual rooms. With the Pixel 4 XL, I had to focus more on details of rooms rather than being able to capture the whole room itself, like I can do with the ultrawide cameras on any other flagship phone.

Yes, I’m a bit of a camera nerd. And yes, regular readers know that cameras weigh heavily with my phone reviews. And no, I don’t refurbish houses often. But there are increasing circumstances when I otherwise reach for the ultrawide option on a phone. It’s my default lens now when when taking a cityscape shot. The perspective and detail you get is just much more comprehensive than a standard or telephoto lens.

The great shame is that Google’s Pixel phones are so darn good at the cameras they actually do give us on this phone. The standard (1x) and telephoto (2x) cameras on the Pixel 4 XL are not just good, they’re superb. I mean this sincerely: they’re up there with the iPhone 11 and Samsung S10 (and Note 10) in terms of clarity and resolution. (The Huawei P30 Pro still has an edge because of its 5x telephoto lens, but the Pixel 4 XL’s 2x zoom scales impressively to 8x digitally.) That means they’re among the best of the best, with the additional features you’d expect, like Night Sight.

So I suppose if you’re happy with the standard focal lengths and don’t think you’ll miss an ultrawide, you can take the preceding five paragraphs in that context. You’ll get amazing portraits and fantastic zoom shots with this.

But there is no such mitigation on the issue of the relatively poor battery live on the Pixel 4 XL. Honestly, I was genuinely surprised.

My phone was in the red every day between 6pm and 8pm. That is a rare thing in these days of large-screen smartphones that can house larger batteries. And it brought me back to the frustrating days when manufacturers didn’t understand how dependent we have become on our smartphones all throughout the day.

I just don’t understand how this could have been allowed to happen. Yes, the Pixel 4 XL has a 3,700mAh battery, which is around 10pc smaller than the batteries in the top phones from Samsung and Huawei. But that’s not such a big deal when you’re as good at software as Google is. Apple’s iPhone 11, which has only a slightly screen than the Pixel 4 XL, has a 3,100mAh battery. But it lasts noticeably longer than the Pixel, probably because of the way Apple makes everything tick. Google is supposed to be really good at similar feats and I was really expecting battery life to (at least) match the iPhone 11. But it’s simply not the case. I can only imagine what the battery life is like on the smaller Pixel 4, which has a (relatively tiny) 2,800mAh battery.

To be fair, I’m sure there are plenty of people for whom a phone lasting reliably until 6pm is good enough. And in some ways it is. It’s just very rare now: we’ve all become used to better.

Android rivals such as Samsung's Galaxy S10+ and Huawei's P30 Pro are much, much longer lasting. Even mid-range models such as the One Plus 7 or Nokia 7.2 phones now have long lasting batteries.

Okay, I’ve moaned enough. What about the positive bits of the Pixel 4 XL?

Happily, they are numerous.

The Pixel 4 XL has added some new sensors to the top of the front-facing panel, mainly to facilitate a new facial-unlocking capability. This works really, really well -- easily the best implementation of facial-unlocking outside the iPhone X models, which remain the gold standard. In fact, unlocking the phone, in general, is lightning fast. Google has added new functionality to the motion sensors on the device so that they are now capable of doing a number of things. Some are gimmicky. For example, you can now sweep your hand in front of your phone to skip back and forward through audio tracks. In time, I’m sure that more functionality will be added to this. But the most useful end result of the phone’s sensors and motion detection is picking the phone up and unlocking it straight away. This works incredibly well and takes a small point of friction -- which occurs 50 to 100 times a day -- out of your phone routine: no swiping or button-pushing needed. I expect all phones to add this feature in time as it’s so good.

In fact, everything on this phone is fast. This is despite it not having the top processor or Ram memory allocation. Google, like Apple, proves that if you know what you’re doing with software, the hardware doesn’t necessarily have to be cutting edge to get the best experience.

Google’s Assistant is also now becoming a significant differentiator for those who want their phones to be smarter. The breadth and depth of things you can now ask your phone to do through the Assistant is genuinely impressive.

One of the show stoppers is its ability to take dictation or give you live captioning. Voice detection technology has raced ahead in the last few years, but the best systems typically charge you for it. Google is starting to provide it as a basic service. And it’s amazing.

But it’s not all about software. The Pixel 4 XL’s display is one of the very bet you can get on the market. It has opted to include a 90hz refresh rate. This basically means that your screen scrolls more smoothly than the vast majority of rival phones out there, including the iPhone 11. In practice, I noticed that it wasn’t on 90hz all the time, coming back down to 60hz for certain functions. It’s a very premium effect, though, and one you might notice if you stop down to a slower display on another flagship.

I also really like the look and feel of this phone, despite the ‘forehead’ bezel that houses the sensors and breaks from the trend of having an all-screen device. The Pixel 4 XL is slightly narrower than most flagship rivals, but this has the effect of making it easier to grip and operate one-handed. It has a really nice matte finish on the back of the phone, which is the antithesis of a fingerprint magnet.

My test model (€899) had 64GB of storage, which I would normally consider to be too low, but could live with if relying on Google Photos as my (free, online) photo and video gallery. A 128GB version is available for €999.

In summary, this is a phone that techies and advanced smartphone users should absolutely love. But the battery life issue kind of spoils things. At €899 (64GB), it feels expensive compared to Huawei’s €949 P30 Pro (128GB, three cameras, much better battery life) or Samsung’s €999 Galaxy S10 Plus (three cameras, much better battery life).

Online Editors

Also in Business