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Weekend Discussion | Is the Pixel 4 XL an unfairly overlooked flagship?

The Pixel 4 XL, the most-convenient flagship smartphone that you probably overlooked. (Image source: Forbes)
The Pixel 4 XL, the most-convenient flagship smartphone that you probably overlooked. (Image source: Forbes)
With Google offering sizable cashback on the Pixel 4 series right now, we thought we would give the Pixel 4 XL a try. After a few weeks of use and ahead of our full review, the Pixel 4 XL is the most-convenient flagship smartphone that you probably overlooked.
Alex Alderson,
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The Pixel 4 series has a bad reputation. Lambasted for its lack of an ultra-wide-angle camera and its sizeable top bezel, the Pixel 4 series has probably been ignored by many prospective buyers. We were not huge fans of the Pixel 4 either, remarking in November that Google was "no longer at the smartphone forefront". Here is the thing though; the Pixel 4 XL is a fantastic smartphone and has been unfairly overlooked in part because of the Pixel 4.

Undoubtedly, the Pixel 4 series has sold poorly. Google is offering £150 (~US$187) cashback on all models, for example, which it probably would not be doing if the series had been a hit. With that in mind we decided to pick one up, specifically a 128 GB version of the Pixel 4 XL. Ahead of our full review, in which we will cover the device in greater depth, we would like to offer a more personal take on the Pixel 4 XL. Simply, the device has been a pleasure to use. In short, Google has developed an exceptionally convenient smartphone.  

Yes, it has that top bezel, a comparatively large one by today's standards, and it lacks an ultra-wide-angle camera. However, we would recommend holding off dismissing the Pixel 4 XL on these two points because of how good it is in other areas.

Firstly, that top bezel does house some useful technology. In our opinion, the face unlock on the Pixel 4 series is more convenient than any fingerprint scanner that we have used, capacitive or otherwise. It just works. Pick up your phone and it will emit a small vibration to let you know that it has recognised your face and voilà, you are back into whatever you were doing previously.

Most apps now support it as a biometric authentication method. However, we should point out that banks have been slow on the uptake, so your experience may vary here. There is a mod called Fingerface that allows apps to use face unlock if they do not support the API, but you must root your device for it to work.

Face unlock is great, but it still needs better support from developers. (Image source: BestusefulTips)
Face unlock is great, but it still needs better support from developers. (Image source: BestusefulTips)

Unfortunately, Motion Sense and Quick Gesture still have limited utility. The latter can only be used to skip songs or interact with alarms, which is short-selling its capabilities somewhat. However, Quick Gestures are far easier to trigger than initial reviews had us believe. As Google hints in its marketing material, using the side of your hand provides greater accuracy than waving does. Likewise, we have also found that the more elaborate the swiping gesture, the more accurately we trigger Quick Gestures. Despite this, we think that Google could make better use of Quick Gestures. Even simple additions like playing and pausing music or adjusting the volume would make Quick Gestures feel more polished.

Correction

Google added play and pause functionality in a recent software update. Having set up Motion Sense before installing the latest round of updates, we overlooked this one. Our above point still stands, though.

Active Edge feels similarly underused, at least Google's implementation of it. Edge Sense Plus, a third-party app, makes Active Edge more useful in our opinion, like being able to squeeze the phone to bring down the notification shade. Similarly, the ability of activating the flashlight with the screen off by squeezing is incredibly easy. Overall, while Edge Sense Plus fill the functionality gap, Google should have included greater customisation options by now.

Motion Sense is easy to use, but still has limited functionality. (Image source: Google)
Motion Sense is easy to use, but still has limited functionality. (Image source: Google)

With that said, the Pixel 4 XL has excellent cameras. Simply, we have not missed the lack of an ultra-wide sensor principally because of how good its two rear-facing sensors are. Google has done an incredible job of optimising its camera app, to the extent that 5x digital zoom looks crisper than the 5x optical zoom of the Mi Note 10 or P30 Pro. Similarly, 8x zoom remains sharp, which is genuinely impressive considering that the camera only supports up to 2x optical zoom. It goes without saying that Night Sight remains exceptional, too.

On a different note, Google has done a great job with the shortcuts that it has incorporated within Android 10. The quick share with the default camera app is smart, as is the ability to bring up cards and passes by holding the power button. Likewise, we have found that flipping the device to mute all notifications has already become second-nature. The best part is that turning over the device enables notifications again, making it the best implementation we have seen of a DND or focus mode. Similarly, we always like to see smartphone manufacturers include double tap to wake and AoD functionality.

Flip to Shhh is the best DND or focus mode that we have used. (Image source: ASCII.jp)
Flip to Shhh is the best DND or focus mode that we have used. (Image source: ASCII.jp)

Finally, a word on battery life. Battery life was one of our main concerns with the Pixel 4 XL. There is no escaping that the Pixel 4 has dreadful battery life, and heaven knows why Google equipped it with a 2,800 mAh battery. However, the Pixel 4 XL makes amazing use of its 3,700 mAh cell. Unequivocally, Adaptive Battery is one of the main reasons for this. Regardless, we get between 36 and 40 hours of use between charges, putting it almost on par with the Mi Note 10 and P30 Pro. Most of those 36 to 40 hours is spent listening to music over Bluetooth headphones or responding to messages, so you may need to charge the Pixel 4 XL sooner if you are a keen gamer. Ultimately, you need not worry about battery life with the Pixel 4 XL.

In a way, that sums up the Pixel 4 XL; you need not worry when using it. You will not be waiting months for software upgrades, its photos and videos will always look great and it will see you through at least a whole day without needing  a charge. Likewise, it will always recognise you if you pick it up, something that cannot be said for many in-screen fingerprint scanners. Overall, do not judge the Pixel 4 XL by the Pixel 4. Instead, judge it in its own right. If you do, then you may realise that you unfairly overlooked it, as we have been doing for the last five months.

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Alex Alderson
Alex Alderson - Senior Tech Writer - 3834 articles published on Notebookcheck since 2018
Prior to writing and translating for Notebookcheck, I worked for various companies including Apple and Neowin. I have a BA in International History and Politics from the University of Leeds, which I have since converted to a Law Degree. Happy to chat on Twitter or Notebookchat.
contact me via: @aldersonaj
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> Notebook / Laptop Reviews and News > News > News Archive > Newsarchive 2020 03 > Is the Pixel 4 XL an unfairly overlooked flagship?
Alex Alderson, 2020-03-29 (Update: 2020-03-29)