Why I Got a Pixel 4 XL When Google Discontinued It

Google discontinued the Pixel 4 in August 2020 and pulled it from the US Google Store. As soon as I learned of it, I ordered a Pixel 4 XL from the Google Store in Italy where I live and the phone was still in stock.

Why did I get it?

Because I like the 4 XL more than the current and planned Pixel models. I don’t mind the issues and limitations others criticize. And it’s not clear whether the Pixel 5 will ship with a telephoto lens, which I want.

Packaging of a Google Pixel 4 XL phone
The packaging of my Google Pixel 4 XL phone.

My previous phone

I had been using a Pixel 2 XL since January 2018.

This is no surprise as I always used Google-branded Android phones as my daily drivers. The Pixel 2 was the first of the Pixel family distributed in Italy. I was eager to try a Pixel and went with the 2 XL because of the higher specs, a more capable battery, and a better experience.

In October 2020, a couple of months from now, the Pixel 2 line will reach the end of life with no more system updates and support. Expecting the deadline, for a while I had been researching my options to replace the Pixel 2 XL.

Why not the Pixel 3 XL, 4a, or 5

Given I still wanted a higher-end XL model, what were my options?

The Pixel models after the second generation share a common feature that’s a deal breaker for me: the devices have a screen notch or a hole. I despise this design fad driven by Apple envy. To weather the design storm, I’ll resist getting a device with a hole or cutout as much as possible. I want my bezels back and I hope tasteless screen damage isn’t here to stay.

This constraint cut (no pun intended) the Pixel 3 XL and 4a from my options.

What about the upcoming Pixel 5? We’re a couple of months away from the official unveiling, and the only hints at specs or features are the usual tech press rumors. It seems the Pixel 5 will still feature the damn screen hole. And Google already announced it won’t distribute the Pixel 5 in Italy, anyway.

Why the Pixel 4 XL

This left only the Pixel 4 XL to match my criteria. Almost ten months after the initial release, the device has plenty of time left for getting system updates and support until its end of life in October 2022.

What are my selection criteria, anyway? Is the Pixel 4 XL a good phone?

What drew me to the Pixel 4 XL is Astrophotography mode, first introduced in the fourth generation of the Pixel line.

A related feature I wanted is optical zoom with a true telephoto lens. Digital zoom with advanced software processing is enough for terrestrial photography. But, for astrophotography, I need the actual detail and data so that what a photo shows is the closest to the true nature of the subject.

The primary use of phone cameras is terrestrial photography. When the Pixel 4 came out, some reviewers would have traded the telephoto for a wide-angle lens. Google may think the same, so there’s no guarantee the Pixel 5 will have a telephoto lens. The available information suggests Google is siding with the wide-angle camp.

What about the limitations?

The Pixel 4 wasn’t well received by the tech press, who pointed out a number of limitations and issues. These objections likely had some merit as the Pixel 4, discontinued after less than 10 months with some drama within Google, became the shortest-lived Pixel.

When researching the Pixel 4 XL I considered this feedback. But what the tech press pointed out isn’t an issue to me.

Battery life

The major limitation of the Pixel 4 line is the short battery life, which is particularly bad on the Pixel 4. What about the Pixel 4 XL? Is the battery really that bad?

My research suggested the 4 XL was an improvement, and I expected it to last significantly longer.

After using the Pixel 4 XL for a few weeks, I can say its battery lasts at least as much as my old Pixel 2 XL. Which is more than enough for my usage patterns. A full charge lasts me a minimum of 3 days, with at least 5-6 hours of Screen on Time.

Face unlock

The great pandemic of 2020 pointed out the drawbacks of screen unlock technologies based on face recognition. A face mask makes them useless and highlights their lack of versatility as the primary unlock method compared with a fingerprint scanner. Along with other reliability issues and concerns, this was one of the major criticisms of the reviewers of the Pixel 4.

I was prepared for a suboptimal experience with face unlock, planning to rely on a screen pattern as the primary unlock method as in the old days. But the actual performance of screen unlock on the Pixel 4 XL pleasantly surprised me.

Face unlock works well. Really well.

It’s fast and snappy. It doesn’t skip a beat. It never failed so far. Face unlock reliably recognizes me under a number of environmental conditions and settings such as:
  • prescription glasses
  • stubble beard
  • bulky headphones
  • complete darkness
At first I could not configure face unlock as I didn’t understand what head movement the system requires to calibrate the sensors. Google’s instructions are confusing.

What I didn't realize is I have to regularly rotate the head to span all the circular calibration area, not chase the constantly changing and moving marker patterns. I had an aha! moment watching a tutorial video and finally managed to configure the feature.

Project Soli and gesture control

The reviewers were right.

The Project Soli radar gesture control system is an immature gimmick. Controlling music playback or phone calls with hand waving, even if it works as expected, is not enough to justify the increased complexity and cost of the phone.

So I planned to ignore Project Soli and turned it off for good.

Price

Each of the Pixel 4 XL issues may not be a major limitation or annoyance in itself. But, taken together, they reduce the value of a device that comes with an iPhone price tag but without the quality.

This may be a compelling reason to skip the Pixel 4 XL.

But two things made the price a bit more bearable. First off, I went with the cheapest model with 64 GB storage. Most of my data is in the cloud, so my Pixel 2 XL with 64 GB had about 70% free storage left after almost three years of daily use.

Next, in early August 2020, the Italian Google Store sent me a limited-time promotion with a €100 discount for the Pixel 4. This, along with Google’s announcement of the Pixel 4 discontinuation, sealed the deal.

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