Pixel 4 XL first impressions: The camera shines once again, but battery life hasn’t been great

Pixel 4: Anticlimactic, expensive, but still innovative?
Jason Squared’s Jason Cipriani and Jason Perlow discuss how nothing about this 2019 Android flagship was left to the imagination at Google’s Made by Google event. Read more: https://zd.net/2IXHvtx

Last week, Google unveiled the Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL. The official announcement wasn’t all that surprising. Both phones had leaked in great detail over several months, leaving nothing to the imagination during the Made by Google event.

The Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL are available to preorder right now, with shipments starting to arrive this week. And for the first time, the Pixel 4 lineup will be available from every major US carrier.

Since the event, I’ve been using the Pixel 4 XL as my main device. I’m not quite ready for a full review of the 4 XL, but below are some initial thoughts and impressions about Google’s latest smartphone.

Every phone should have Live Caption

Google first announced Live Caption, a feature that adds captions to any video playing on your phone, in real time. The feature was first announced alongside Android 10, and was framed as a feature that would launch alongside the latest version of Google’s mobile operating system. But then Android 10 launched, and Live Caption was missing.

After enabling Live Caption in the Pixel’s settings, a caption box will show up any time a video is played on the Pixel 4 XL. All of the processing for live caption is handled on the device, and in real time. It even works if the video’s audio is muted, something I didn’t expect to be the case.

Not only does live caption make it easier to follow along with a video — a tutorial, for example — but it’s also a huge accessibility feature.

Android 10’s gesture navigation

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Like a lot of users who used Android 10 throughout the beta program, I was never really sold on the new gestural navigation feature. Instead of using two or three buttons along the bottom of the screen to go back, to the home screen, or view the app switcher, gestural navigation relies solely on swipes across the screen to achieve the same thing.

For example, a swipe up from the bottom of the screen goes back to the home screen. Swipe up and pause half way up the screen and multitasking mode is triggered. Those gestures are easy to get the hang of, but the back gesture is the cause of some confusion. A swipe in from the left or right edge of the display acts as the back button, taking you to to last screen in an app or exiting an app altogether. The problem is, a lot of apps use the same gesture to pull out the menu drawer from the left side of the screen.

It’s a frustrating implementation when you want to pull out the menu drawer, but instead find yourself exiting the app on accident. Over the past few days I’ve found myself adjusting to the new back gesture, and remember to use any available menu buttons or slowly swiping from the edge of the screen at a slight angle to pull out the menu.

If you find yourself struggling to use the new gestures, you can enable three-button navigation in settings.

Face Unlock and Motion Sense

Pixel 4 XL Face Unlock setup.png

Jason Cipriani/ZDNet

There isn’t a fingerprint reader on the Pixel 4 XL, instead Google added the necessary hardware for facial recognition. The new camera system also houses the radar system that’s used for Motion Sense — a feature that lets you control the phone just by waving your hand a few inches above your phone.

Face Unlock is fast and works just as well as Apple’s Face ID on newer iPhones. But there’s a problem, Google’s Face Unlock doesn’t require your eyes to be open in order for it to authenticate. Meaning, if someone had your Pixel 4 XL, they could hold the phone up in front of your face and gain access to it, whether you’re unconscious or asleep.

By default, Apple’s Face ID requires the users eyes be open and looking at the phone in order to unlock.

Google says it is working on an update that will add the option to require a users eyes to be open, but we won’t see it for a few months.  

I’ve used Motion Sense to control Spotify, skipping tracks with a quick wave of my hand over the phone. It’s a gimmicky feature, and one that I took some time getting the hang of, but the more I used it, the more I appreciate not having to pick up the phone or tap on the screen to skip tracks.

Google Pixel 4 XL astrophotography.jpg

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Astrophotography is really good

Google’s Pixel line has been known for its camera quality. It’s been the headlining feature for each and every Pixel release, and the Pixel 4 XL is no different.

Now with a second telephoto camera, improved night shooting, and the ability to capture photos of stars with a four-minute exposure length. I still have a lot of testing left to do with the camera, but the above photo was taken in my backyard on a tripod.

I captured the same photo with the iPhone 11 Pro Max, and there’s no comparison. Whatever AL and machine learning magic Google is doing is nothing short of amazing. Phones shouldn’t be able to capture a photo of the stars with that much detail and clarity, but yet, here we are.

Battery life isn’t good

Right now, my biggest disappointment with the Pixel 4 XL is, hands down, the battery life. The first full day of use, that is with no restoring of apps and all initial setup finished, the battery latest from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. with a total screen on time of around 4 hours. That’s… not good. The following few days I didn’t have to look for a charger before the end of the day, but the battery saver did turn on when there was 15-percent charge left on more than one occasion.

Right now, I wouldn’t have confidence in the 4 XL’s battery last an entire travel day without having to top off from a portable battery pack or finding on outlet in the airport.

ZDNet’s Matthew Miller has the smaller Pixel 4 and will have some of his thoughts soon. Both of us will have full reviews of the Pixel 4 lineup later this week.

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