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Google Pixel 4 XL review: Half great, half-baked

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—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+ or iPhone 11 Pro. 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.

pixel 4 pixel 3 notch Christopher Hebert/IDG

There’s no notch on the Pixel 4 XL (front), but the bezel is very much still there.

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.

pixel 4 button Christopher Hebert/IDG

The orange power button on the Pixel 4 XL is my favorite design element.

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.

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