I’ve been using the Pixel 4 XL for the better part of a day now. I could tell you about that experience, what it’s been like, and how the phone’s handled. Those kinds of articles are generally what you expect alongside a smartphone launch. But the more I use the phone, the more I realize that, like so many smartphones, the Pixel 4 XL is basically just a phone. Most phones are so much more similar than they are different in 2019, and those differences that do remain are becoming vanishingly small. Many of them also center on questions that I simply can’t answer yet — questions that speak to how mature, how grown up Google’s smartphone division has become. And I think that’s a much more important discussion to have now, even as yesterday’s launch hype still looms large over this phone.
A comedy of errors, or: Google’s Smartphone History
I am not deaf to the fact that Google’s phones are often most well-known in the larger context of smartphone history for being… flawed. All the way back to the Nexus One, the company’s phones have been oddballs, quirky, and — at times — unapologetically janky in final execution.
There was the Galaxy Nexus LTE, with its notoriously poor battery life. The Nexus 4, which lacked LTE when that connectivity was beginning to become crucial in Google’s home market of the US. The Nexus 5, which for all its fanfare, was again beset by poor battery life, and horridly flimsy build quality. The Nexus 6, with its bizarrely massive size, dim display, and questionable performance. We won’t dare speak of the Nexus 5X (it was that bad), and while it may upset the Nexus Faithful, the beloved 6P was plagued with performance issues, faulty batteries, camera instability, and more bugs than I care to count. And we haven’t even delved into the issues the Pixel phones have faced — this post would just get too long.
The point is, Google’s smartphones have been uniquely, historically defined by their faults, rather than their triumphs. No doubt, that is in part because of the equally unique level of scrutiny Google has faced from fans and pundits: its phones have a demonstrable, particular draw to smartphone geeks, the kind of people who tend to obsess over the little things, and take companies to task for their failures. And no doubt, Google’s phones have been subject to many failings over the years, even for all they have don to serve as examples in some regards for how an Android smartphone should be.
The Pixel 3 turned a corner, the 4 must stay the course
For all the criticism the Pixel 3 has faced, be it poor battery life on the small phone, the obnoxious notch on the big one, and continued issues with RAM management and camera performance, it’s also easily been the first Google phone I can point to and say: “this feels like a mature product” (Artem’s comments on this point are invalid).
After its first major update to Android 10, my Pixel 3 XL only feels faster, and it also feels more complete: features like proper gesture navigation, systemwide dark mode (and accompanying app support), improved sharing, and granular notification and permissions management are legitimate improvements to the Android OS my phone has been fully able to take advantage of. And these are (mostly) features that phones from Samsung, LG, Motorola, and even some update-friendly OEMs like Nokia don’t have yet. And it hasn’t been accompanied by tons of bugs, odd behavior, or strange regressions. It really does feel like it just works.
I can’t give you deep impressions of the Pixel 4 XL yet — I am bound by embargo and by the fact I’ve only used the phone a day — but I can tell you that the phone feels like the evolution Google needed to make. A more mature camera array, modern biometrics (yes, the face unlock is good), powerful performance, and a sleek, unique industrial design make this phone feel like more than the sum of its parts. Google’s phones have, as I said, frequently been defined by their compromise and their flaws. The Pixel 4 XL is no doubt flawed in some ways, some probably still to be discovered. But so is the $1150 iPhone 11 Pro Max I’ve been using for several weeks, a phone which increasingly maddens me with each passing day. All phones are flawed. All phones are compromised. That’s sort of the existential nature of consumer products.
A do or die moment
Google has said it will remain serious about building serious smartphones for the foreseeable future, but I’m not so sure about that. If the Pixel 4 and 4 XL sell as terribly or worse than the Pixel 3 and 3 XL, I have a strong belief Google’s executive management will take a long, hard look at the business. For all the insane amount of money Google makes, the company is literally famous for killing beloved and not-so-beloved products in a particularly ruthless manner. For Google, it seems “sink or swim” is not a harsh philosophy to live by.
When it comes to the Pixel as a business, the signs to date haven’t been especially encouraging. And I think that Google can and should be doing more to provide proper support, repair access, and a more competitive trade-in program (the Google Store is offering a pathetic $260 for a Pixel 3 XL on trade-in, a phone that retailed for $900 a year ago). It needs to work with retail partners to increase presence in stores, to better train associates on the products, and to ensure the availability of official, compatible accessories. Google, in short, needs to become a better smartphone company.
There was little I saw yesterday that convinced me Google was seriously addressing much of this (aside from adding AT&T to its carrier roster), but that’s also because it’s a fairly unsexy topic. Nobody likes to talk about sell-through rates, customer loyalty, support resolution, and warranty turnaround times. They’re insanely boring things. But they’re the sort of things that, as our smartphones become more and more similar, more commoditized, are becoming more apparent. They’re also deeply difficult problems to solve — and ones that cannot be solved simply by making a good phone. In 2019, good isn’t good enough. And even if I do end up loving the Pixel 4, I can’t ignore Google’s notoriously flighty nature in the face of adversity.
Building phones is hard. Selling them is harder. I hope Google is in it for the long haul.