Google Pixel 4 XL: Half Great, Half‑Baked
PCWorld|December 2019
Google has packed its newest handset with an array of cutting-edge tech, but it falls frustratingly short of being a great phone.
Michael Simon

The Google Pixel 4 XL can lay claim to the only real smartphone breakthrough of the year: a shrunken radar chip that’s so advanced it can detect when you reach for your phone so you’ll never have to stare at a blank screen.

It’s a delightful feature that makes phones with ambient or always-on displays feel like they’re stuck in the past. Combined with Face unlock, the Pixel 4’s Motion Sense technology makes me feel like the phone anticipates all my moves, and this truly saves time by limiting how often I need to tap the screen. Before you even unlock it, the Pixel 4 XL exudes futurity and sets you up for an experience unlike anything you’ll find on a Galaxy or iPhone.

Unfortunately, the rest of the Pixel 4’s innovations are still several software updates away. Once you get past the lock screen, the Pixel 4 XL is basically an iterative upgrade over the Pixel 3 (go.pcworld. com/gpx3)—which is still for sale, and for hundreds of dollars less. The new model introduces features that need more time to bake, a few shortcomings that should have been fixed before launch, and a camera that isn’t impressive when compared to the competition. Google may have delivered its most ambitious phone with the Pixel 4 XL, but it falls well short of nailing a top-tier phone experience.

DESIGN: TAKING THE FUN OUT OF FUNCTIONAL

Like the Google and Nexus phones that came before it, the Pixel 4 XL is a bland, perfunctory handset that looks downright ugly next to the Galaxy Note 10+ (go.pcworld.com/nt10) or iPhone 11 Pro (go.pcworld.com/11pr). While other phone makers are racing to be the first with a 100 percent screen-to-body ratio, the Pixel 4 is nearly 20 percent bezel and extremely top-heavy to boot.

Gone is the Pixel 3’s laughably large notch, but in its place is a bezel that’s straight out of 2016. No fewer than seven sensors and a speaker occupy the space above the screen, but all you’ll see is an unsightly strip of black glass. The sizable top bezel extends to the sides and the bottom, where there’s no balance or symmetry. It’s small enough to push the speaker to the bottom edge, and from afar, the Pixel 4 will look more like a budget phone than a premium one. And even up close, there’s nothing about it that looks like it should cost $900.

Around the back you’ll find the Pixel 4’s most obvious upgrade: a dual camera. Like the iPhone 11, the Pixel 4 has a giant square camera array in the top left corner that’s designed to stand out, particularly in white or orange. However, while the camera array is very much a fluid part of the iPhone 11 despite its size, the Pixel 4’s camera bump feels like an afterthought that was tacked on after the phone’s design was already finished.

That said, the Pixel 4 has the nicest hand feel of any phone I’ve ever used. From the frosted glass back to the polished aluminum sides, there isn’t a speck of gloss apart from the front and the “G” logo, and the visual and tactile contrast is palpable. The back is practically silky to the touch, giving the Pixel 4 an even more luxurious feel than the iPhone 11 Pro, and it’s remarkably resistant to scuffs, smudges, and scratches. But my favorite design element continues to be the colored power button, which is orange on the white model I tested. It’s subtle, but it adds a bit of whimsy to an otherwise staid and, ahem, buttoned-up design.

The Pixel 4 doesn’t include a headphone jack, which isn’t a surprise, but it also doesn’t come with a pair of USB-C earbuds or a 3.5mm adapter, which is a bit shocking. The Pixel 3, Galaxy S10, and iPhone 11 all come with an audio contingency plan, so I really don’t understand the decision here. It makes it feel like Google is nickel-and-diming its customers, and coupled with a not-great design, it gives the Pixel a cheap vibe.

FACE UNLOCK: QUICK AND ACCURATE WITH LITTLE SUPPORT

The Pixel 4 brings a handful of new features that set it apart from both the Pixel 3 and Google’s 2019 competitors, and they’re all designed to enhance your daily smartphone routine without much adjustment or re-learning.

Let’s start with Face Unlock. Where virtually every other Android phone relies on a fingerprint sensor to keep your phone locked from prying eyes, the Pixel 4 has a 3D camera for secure facial recognition. It’s something no other U.S. Android phone has, and only the LG G8 with its time-of-flight sensor has something similar. That means after more than two years there’s finally an Android Phone that can rival Apple’s TrueDepth camera and Face ID, an overdue milestone that will hopefully spur other phone makers to follow suit.

And it works really well. While Face Unlock on the Pixel 4 requires more precise positioning than Face ID on the iPhone 11, for a first-gen feature, I was impressed. It works on the first try better than 95 percent of the time, and it offers some subtle improvements on Apple’s method. For one, there’s a small bit of haptic feedback to let you know it works, so you can stop holding your phone up. And there’s an option to let you skip right to the home screen once it recognizes your face, saving a swipe and making the whole system feel far quicker and more integrated.

However, there’s a big caveat to Face Unlock: It’s less secure than Apple’s Face ID, at least for now. That’s because Face Unlock doesn’t track your eyes, so someone could conceivably hold your Pixel 4 up to your face while you’re sleeping and unlock it. That’s not as big of a vulnerability as a third-party screen protector giving you access to the Galaxy S10, but it should raise some eyebrows.

Granted, this probably won’t be a concern for most people, but as the phone’s only biometric-based unlocking method, one would think Google would have made it as foolproof as possible. As it stands, Google has issued a vague promise to update it (go.pcworld.com/ fxp4) “in the coming months.” Attention awareness is something Face ID had from day one, and in an age of privacy and security, it’s a glaring omission in an otherwise welcome feature.

Equally frustrating is Face Unlock’s lack of app support. Since Google has taken away the fingerprint sensor, you’re going to be typing your password a lot because only a small handful of apps (including Chrome and Google Pay, naturally) have signed on to support the Pixel 4’s new biometric. Thankfully, most password managers aside from LastPass will hook into Face Unlock, but after you’ve logged in, any repeated authentication will require a passcode. That’s a major step backward, and given Android’s history, we’re not convinced those app updates will arrive in a timely fashion.

MOTION SENSE: GOOD NOW, BETTER LATER (MAYBE)

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