Ah, a clean Android environment is a good thing.
Google is the developer of the Android operating system and it is used by virtually all device manufacturers that are not named Apple.
Android on its own is a great operating system, but most phone manufacturers think they can improve on it with their own software additions, which are mostly not that good.
Several years ago, Google started selling its own phones – called Pixel – that featured the latest version of Android OS in its purest form, and the company followed it up every year with a new model.
This year, Google introduced the Pixel 4 and larger Pixel 4 XL, which follow a tradition of high-end flagship phones that run the absolute latest version of Android without any other software getting in the way.
Other manufacturers are slow in rolling out new versions of Android, as they have to make sure their own software is compatible before they can release the upgrades.
Google will keep the Pixel phones updated with the latest version of Android as soon as it’s released for at least the next three years.
I’ve been testing the Pixel 4 XL that was kindly provided by AT&T.
Perhaps the biggest change in this year’s Pixel is on the front.
The Pixel 4 XL loses the screen notch from last year’s Pixel 3 XL. Instead, Google dropped the screen down on the face of the phone about a quarter-inch so the selfie camera is now above the screen. Users are missing out on the dog ears (the tiny bits of screen on either side of the notch), but I think the Pixel 4 XL has a much cleaner look.
Design-wise, when the screen is off, the Pixel 4 XL looks almost identical to my iPhone XS Max.
Google eliminated the fingerprint reader in favor of facial unlock. I lamented the passing of fingerprint unlocking when Apple did on my iPhone. But after a few days, using my face to unlock the phone didn’t bother me at all.
Motion Sense (gestures)
Alongside the selfie camera on the phone’s forehead is a new Motion Sense radar sensor that is used to sense approaching hands to wake the phone before you pick it up, which seriously speeds up the face unlock feature. This is easily my favorite feature of the Pixel 4 XL.
Just move your hand over the sleeping phone and you’ll see the screen spring to life, ready for you to lift it up and unlock it with your face.
As your face is recognized, the phone automatically takes you to the home screen, unlike Apple’s face unlock that still requires you to swipe up on the screen to enter the home screen. I think Google’s face unlock sequence is superior.
Motion Sense can also be used for controlling music playback or to silence alarms or calls by waving your hand above the screen.
It has a pretty limited use at launch, but I can see it catching on with developers to become more useful.
Better Cameras and software
Pixel phones have been ahead of the curve when it comes to cameras and the Pixel 4 XL keeps the tradition, but with one fewer camera.
Samsung and Apple flagship phones have added a third, ultra-wide lens, but not Google.
The main camera now has two lenses — a main camera with a 12.2-megapixel sensor and a 28mm wide angle lens with an f/1.7 aperture and a 45mm f/2.4 telephoto camera with a 16 MP sensor for a 2x optical zoom.
The selfie camera has an 8 MP sensor with a 22mm wide lens with an f/2.0 aperture.
The Pixel 4 XL has very nice cameras but what really makes them stand out is very good software behind the lenses to help process the pictures.
There are few cool new camera modes including Night Sight, which uses long exposures and multiple photos to really lighten up very dark scenes. You can also preview Live HDR+, (high dynamic range) photos on the screen before you shoot the picture. Portrait mode, which allows for selective blurring behind the subject, is also improved.
Even without a third camera, the Pixel 4 XL produces some of the best photos I’ve seen from a phone.
Faster Screen Refresh
LED screens work by refreshing all the pixels on the screen many times each second.
Most screens have a refresh rate of 60Hz (60 frames-per-second), but the OnePlus 7 Pro and Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL have a 90Hz refresh rate, which means scrolling and action playing on the screen look noticeably smoother. The higher refresh rate is very cool, but it does drain the battery faster, so the Pixel phone’s screen drops to 60Hz when screen brightness is dimmed lower than 75 percent.
Like Apple’s voice control in iOS, Google has been working on its digital assistant (now called Google Assistant) to allow for more control of more aspects of Android and inside apps.
A quick squeeze on the sides of the Pixel 4 XL brings up Google Assistant, which rises up from the bottom of the screen.
Speaking the words, “Open CNN.com,” brings up Chrome and launches CNN’s website. Once that page opened, I wasn’t able to pick links with my voice so the magic stops there.
Of course, for now, Google’s own apps (Chrome, Maps, YouTube, Photos) have better integration with the new Assistant. I’m sure things will improve with future updates.
The Pixel 4 XL has a 6.3″ P-OLED screen with a resolution of 1,440 x 3,040 pixels for a pixel density of 537 pixels-per-inch.
The CPU is a Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 with 6 gigabytes of RAM and 64 or 128GB of onboard storage (there is no memory card slot).
The phone measures 6.31 x 2.96 x 0.32 inches and weighs 6.81 oz.
It runs Android 10.
Communication options include 802.11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 5 and NFC for mobile payments.
The charge/sync port is USB-C 3.1.
The 3,700 milliamp-hour battery does fast charging and Qi wireless charging.
There is no headphone jack, and there are no headphones included.
It’s IP68 water resistant for up to half an hour underwater.
The Pixel 4 is available in Clearly White, Just Black or Oh So Orange.
Pricing and availability
The Pixel 4 and 4 XL start at $799 and $899 for the 64GB version. Add $100 to each to double the storage to 128GB.
The Pixel 4 models are also the first to be available from sources other than Google. You can buy them from every major wireless phone carrier and electronics stores like Best Buy.