I spent a good chunk of yesterday getting up and running on my Google Pixel 4 XL, and so far, I have no complaints of any kind.
Well, there is one complaint, I guess, but it’s about as innocuous as they come and is arguably what I should have wanted and expected: This handset is about as minor of an upgrade as could be expected, and is the type of thing that Apple delivers routinely. That is, it’s … kind of boring. But given my previous Pixel reliability issues, that’s a good thing. And I hope it continues.
Since writing that, I installed and signed-in to or otherwise configured all of my keys apps, arranged my home screens (I use two), downloaded content where necessary (Audible, Google Play Music, and Pocket, primarily), and so on. I had enabled the handset on Google Fi at first boot, after having configured the iPhone 11 Pro Max I was using previously to not use iMessage anymore so that nothing would be screwed up. (You can have weird issues related to iMessage when you move from iPhone to Android.)
And. Yeah. It’s kind of boring.
What I mean by that is, everything not only works as expected, but everything is nearly identical to, and often just a little bit better than, it was on the Google Pixel 3a XL, which I’ll be trading in soon if all goes well here, and the Google Pixel 3 XL (which I had previously traded in). There are exceptions: The speaker quality of the Pixel 4 XL, for example, solves the issues I had with the speakers on the Pixel 3 XL. But by and large, it’s same-old, same-old.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not looking for drama. It’s just kind of weird how nearly identical the experience is. If you’ve used a Pixel 2 XL or newer, the Pixel 4 XL is going to be very familiar. And tht’s true of both the hardware and the software.
Consider the fun new “Oh So Orange” color of my new Pixel 4 XL, which looks particularly striking thanks to the contrast of the handset’s black edges. This thing is made almost entirely of glass, and while I sort of like its smooth matte finish, and sort of mourn the death of the original two-tone Pixel design language, none of that matters, as I immediately put it in a case. I’m not carrying around a smooth, shiny glass thing that costs $1000. I’m a klutz.
But that case I purchased, an orange Google Pixel 4 XL case, completely hides the beautiful color of the handset itself. I could have purchased any color phone and it wouldn’t have mattered. Worse, in some ways, that case is literally identical in look and feel to the Google cases I’ve purchased for every single Pixel handset I’ve bought. (And I’ve bought them all, sometimes more than once.) Contrary to Google’s description, this case, like its predecessors, is not “soft,” but I assume it really is made of knit fabric. Scratchy, hard knit fabric.
The ambient always-on display? Identical to that on my Pixel 3a XL.
Signing-in is different, of course: The Pixel 4 XL uses a new Face Unlock feature, similar to Apple’s excellent Face ID, where the previous Pixels used an excellent rear-mounted fingerprint reader. In my experience so far, Face Unlock is pretty good, but not perfect. It worked about 75 percent of the time, maybe 80 percent, and when it does work it’s really fast. But when it doesn’t, as it didn’t consistently in the dark, it’s really frustrating. If you’re in a reasonably-lit environment, you lift the phone toward you and it signs-in before you’re ready to do anything, it’s that fast, and you’re right at the home screen, unlike with iPhone, where you need to swipe up first.
The user experience is largely identical to that of previous Pixels, but with minor improvements. I really like the new Styles & Wallpaper interface that replaces Wallpapers from the Pixel 3a XL and lets you mess with icons, fonts, and more. The resulting look is nice, as are some of the new live wallpapers, which I assume are Pixel 4 only.
Everything is where it belongs—the Google Discovery feed is to the left and the All Apps screen is below—and everything works as it did with previous Pixels for the most part. I like Google’s second-generation gesture navigation just fine—it’s exactly like iPhone, basically—and always have. Because I’ve used it before.
And yeah. There you go.
I did test the camera a bit more, with some low-light shots early this morning that were kind of interesting. As expected, the Pixel 4 XL delivers great low-light performance, and I like the second on-screen slider for adjusting the shadows and getting a silhouette type shot. I’ll be playing with that a lot.
I’ll also pair the Pixel 4 XL with my Samsung Galaxy Buds this morning and will enjoy the return of the ambient sound modes that were unavailable on the iPhone. I’m not expecting any problems. I mean, that’s just how this has gone so far.
And that’s good. Right?
(Side-note: I suppose the dulling sameness here speaks to the new normal in smartphone upgrades: Most Pixel 4 XL upgraders are probably coming from the original Pixel XL, which was released three years ago, and this is a significant upgrade over that. But Pixel 2 XL or newer? Aside from the potential reliability issues, not so much.)