Keep Calm and Pixel On
Last week Google released the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL, much to the fanfare of us and plenty of other press outlets as well. Google’s latest devices are a stunning blend of technologies, working together to create an experience that’s smoother and more refined feeling than the vast majority of phones on the market. It’s also got a killer camera that’s absolutely top in its class, better wireless support than almost any other phone out there, and battery life that lasts and lasts. Aside from design differences, the actual displays in each size phone are completely different too; the smaller Pixel 2 features a 5-inch Samsung AMOLED display, while the Pixel 2 XL features a 6-inch LG pOLED display.
Just after most reviews started going live, we saw the first reports of complaints about the display on the Pixel 2 XL, ranging from a blue tint when tilting the phone, to possible burn-in issues reported by a few. Some of these problems are design flaws, others are preferential things, and even still some may be actual problems. Despite not having even landed in the hands of many consumers yet, and without any knowledge of how widespread any of the real issues are, some press outlets have pulled their reviews and called for Google to stop selling the phone altogether, recalling any that have been sold thus far. This sort of knee-jerk reaction from some members in the media is unprecedented at this level, and it raises the question of whether or not something deeper seated is happening, or if some simply don’t understand the purpose of a recall.
Let’s go back just a year to the end of August 2016, when consumers first started reporting that some Samsung Galaxy Note 7 models were exploding. Knowing that this sort of thing can happen to any battery that doesn’t go through proper quality control (QC) in manufacturing, these serious issues were thought to be relegated to a small batch of phones that slipped through the cracks. Samsung issued a recall, but without having done the proper verification of which models were actually being affected, problematic units were once again sent out to customers, and the aforementioned recall turned into a second, more final recall of the phone. This is the perfect use of a recall; one that endangers human health, and causes total device failure.
Recalls are often used in situations where severe problems exist; seat belts don’t work as designed, airbags deploy hazardous materials instead of inflating properly, batteries exploding, etc. Recalls should not be used for when a product doesn’t meet certain quality standards that a specific price tag suggests, instead that’s where we as reviewers attempt to help consumers understand what a product brings to the table, and if there are better alternatives in one way or another. Let’s explore some of the issues that have been reported, and find out whether or not these are actually severe problems in Google’s supply chain or quality control standards, or if this display just isn’t as good as everyone was hoping.
Preference or Opinion
Some of the issues reported aren’t problems at all; they’re merely preferences that some may have positive or negative opinions toward. Let’s take a look at some examples of these.
AMOLED panels, Samsung’s in particular, have almost always been known for their excessively saturated colors that “pop.” This is more visually appealing to the human eye, and has been part of the reason Samsung’s displays are so loved throughout the world, but ultimately these colors are not realistic. The problem with unrealistic colors is that these colors are not what the designer or developer of a phone or app intended users to see, and as such you’ll find some displays where the same app or color is wildly different than others. We’ve seen more muted colors from other displays on the market, regardless of the underlying technology used, but Google set out to help developers better control the colors displayed regardless of the phone or technology with Android 8.0 Oreo. Oreo now has colorspace awareness, and by default will show sRGB + 10% on all apps that do not specify a colorspace. Some developers may prefer ultra-saturated colors, while others trend toward more natural, “muted” colors, and it’s here where the heart of this discussion lies.
Since we’ve had ultra-saturated colors on AMOLED panels for years, and Samsung is the biggest vendor of smartphones worldwide, it’s obvious that many people have come to expect this look from their smartphones. While the displays Google uses on either Pixel 2 model are capable of showing these colors, Google specifically chose not to use them. The default colorspace used in Oreo, specifically on the Pixel 2, is “low.” This mode refers to sRGB color, and generally looks muted compared to the more saturated displays we’ve come to know on phones. By default, apps that don’t specify a colorspace are then placed into this sRGB mode, which is the “color correct” version of the app. This is more of the actual issue than the display itself. By forcing sRGB on all apps that don’t specify HDR or wide color gamut, all apps look more muted than others, and there’s no system-level toggle to change this.
Other OEMs give users the option to adjust their displays, ranging from presets like “vibrant” or “standard,” to actual sliders that enable the adjustment of display properties like saturation or contrast. While Google’s design to allow developers to force a colorspace is great, giving users the option to override apps that don’t specify this colorspace would have been a good option for folks that prefer more saturated colors. Google needs to be leading by example with this change though, and while it’s nice to offer developers the option to specify this colorspace, Google’s own apps don’t even do it yet. This is part of why people find the launcher, Photos, and other apps to be more washed out. It’s yet another case of where the left hand doesn’t seem to be communicating well with the right hand at Google. It’s not the first example of this, and unfortunately, it’s likely to not be the last either.
Saying the Pixel 2 XL’s screen is bad because it’s not the color you want is ridiculous, and it shows a deep misunderstanding that many folks have developed concerning displays and color accuracy. It’s not the screen that’s bad here, it’s the color management implementation that needs work, and that’s what needs to be differentiated. I too am guilty of preferring more saturated colors on my mobile displays, but to say the screen is poorly calibrated or looks bad because of this is a paradigm that needs to change, and that change starts with Google helping to educate users on the benefits of color-accurate displays, as well as developer control over said colors.
Verdict: Will be “fixed” per app by software. Google may also roll out a global solution.
Google is using an LG pOLED display in the Pixel 2 XL, but in reality, both displays are Active Matrix Organic Light Emitting Diode displays using a plastic substrate. The specifics of how LG and Samsung manufacture these displays, along with the specific plastics used aren’t necessarily divulged, but they’re used to make the displays thinner and lighter than other technologies can. That being said, despite what seems to be identical manufacturing processes and designs, Samsung and LG’s displays look very different from each other, especially when viewed under certain lighting conditions. This can be attributed to a number of different factors, but subpixel structure and other components used outside of the ones mentioned here are likely the reasons for the results we’re seeing. Regardless of this, LG’s pOLEDs all have a very distinctive grain look to them that doesn’t look far from what we’d expect out of a fine 35mm film grain, but only when viewed in very specific circumstances.
When using the phone in normal circumstances you’ll likely never notice this grain. In fact it’s almost only ever noticeable when in a dark room, with the brightness at its lowest, and when looking at a solid color image. A 50% gray image makes this most apparent and is what we use to test displays for various issues. Human eyes pick up differences in gray imagery very well, and it’s here that we can see the sub-pixel structure best, and also here where our brains will form an opinion on whether what we see is bad or good. As a whole, I’m OK with grain to an extent. Film grain is a very distinctive characteristic that many people love, and I too enjoy a nice 35mm film and the character that brings to a movie. Subsequently, I’m not a person who must see every scratch of grain removed from a photo when it’s taken in sub-optimal lighting conditions, which plays part and parcel to my criticism of Samsung’s photography processing methods during the day. There’s no reason to erase all the grain; grain is natural and a result of many factors, and while you don’t want tons of grain in your image, it’s crazy to try and erase all of it at the expense of detail.
For me, LG’s pOLED displays have a sort of Plasma TV look, and I rather like that. Most displays on the market feel cold and digital, which of course makes sense given that they are digital technologies, but LG’s more “organic” or “dirty” look is something I actually prefer, and I feel it looks more natural as a result. Many have cited that Samsung’s AMOLED displays from 3-4 generations ago used to have these same results, and Samsung has cleaned up this process since then, but is it a process that’s really necessary to clean up? Is this really a manufacturing flaw, or is it something LG is using as a way of differentiating the look of its pOLED displays from other OEMs out there? We’ve seen this effect on every LG-made OLED in the mobile space so far; from the G-Flex series years ago, to the Android Wear watches that use LG’s pOLEDs; the grain is always there. You may never notice the grain in the majority of circumstances while using the phone, but if you do, you’ll just have to be OK with it being there unless LG changes something.
Verdict: Not changing
Sometimes a problem is due to an oversight or a design flaw that just isn’t going to get fixed in a product for one reason or another. No amount of complaining will be able to fix these issues, but they could also be the side effect of trying to fix another problem that was deemed more important.
Take any phone you have and tilt it to the side. See what happens? Most phones exhibit a slight bit of color tinting or dimming at the side, and depending on the screen technology and other materials used, this tint or dimming may be worse on some displays than others. When comparing LCD displays to OLED displays, it’s clear that OLED is the winner in the tilting category, as it inherently displays no difference in quality when looking at it from any angle. So why does the display on the Pixel 2 XL tint blue almost immediately, while the smaller Pixel 2 doesn’t show this effect until viewing it at extreme angles? We’ll first examine why this shift occurs in mobile displays and not other types of displays, and it begins with the polarizer behind the glass. Since phones are used in all sorts of lighting conditions, from dark rooms to bright sunlit parks, manufacturers have to consider all of these conditions and optimize a display to work best in all of them. To further complicate matters, some folks use polarized sunglasses, while others use standard tinted glasses instead. It’s these polarized lenses that have effectively begun the problem we are seeing, and manufacturer’s methods of counteracting the way polarized glasses work is what makes this blue shift happen.
Not every phone ships with the same kind of polarizer underneath the glass; in fact you’ll notice that some phone screens turn completely black when held in landscape mode while wearing polarized sunglasses. This is due to how the display emits light, and specifically how polarized sunglasses are designed to block light from certain directions. Samsung and LG both use polarizers in their displays to keep users from experiencing completely dark screens (since that would be completely useless), but LG seems to have issues with its application of said polarizer, where Samsung doesn’t. This same effect is seen on many displays out there, and has been around for years, but the recently released LG V30 suffers from the blue tint less than the Pixel 2 XL does, even though they appear to be using identical panels. The only conclusion we can come to is that the display panel and glass application on the Pixel 2 XL is done poorly when compared to other phones, and it’s not likely that we’re seeing the results of poor quality control on this subject either.
When held in standard portrait mode, you won’t notice color shifting until you turn the display significantly to the left or right, however, the color shift is almost instant when tilting up or down. Google has said this is normal behavior, which means it was accepted at design this way, and is not a defect, rather a design flaw. Why Google accepted this behavior, especially at the $850+ price point, is strange, but they’re not the only ones that have this issue. Plenty of displays on other phones showcase this issue, and it’s not something that only the Pixel 2 XL is prone to. Some phones, like the Nexus 6p for example, showed a rainbowing pattern when tilted at any angle; something we noted in the review but didn’t see users complain about once they actually got the phone and started using it. Subsequently, we’ve seen plenty of reports of users on Reddit who have received the phone and don’t seem to care one way or another. This is something we shouldn’t be seeing on a device in this price range, but nonetheless, it’s not just the Pixel 2 XL that suffers from this, and it will never be fixed unless Google deems this a huge problem and changes the manufacturing process for the phone.
Verdict: Not changing
Burn in, or as Google terms it “differential aging,” is something all displays suffer from in one form or another. It’s the result of keeping static images on a screen that never change and never move, and over long periods of time the natural aging of pixels happens faster in these areas, since they have been displaying an image longer than other surrounding pixels. The Pixel 2 XL has not been available long enough to deem the screen as overly prone to burn-in, but what we’re seeing right now is simply image retention of static elements. The navigation buttons on the bottom of the screen are the easiest on-screen element to use for examination, as they almost never change or go away. What we’ve seen from many sites is a simple test using the same 50% gray image we talked about earlier in the grain test, and it’s done by bringing this gray image full screen. If you look in the area where the navigation bar was hid (at the bottom of the screen), you’ll see a faint image retention of the nav bar itself for a few seconds. After a few seconds this goes away on all panels we’ve tested (both the review unit and final retail units), and is likely to get worse as time goes on; unless Google does something about it.
This isn’t a new problem by any means, and Google assures us that the OLED on the Pixel 2 XL doesn’t suffer from long-term burn-in any more than other OLED panels might, and that they are working on software fixes for the problem. The developer preview update to Android 8.1 Oreo this week has already provided solutions Google has obviously been working on for a while, and at least for the navigation bar portion, dims static elements on the UI to help alleviate burn-in on panels. Doing this same test on my personal Pixel XL (from 2016) reveals actual burn-in to the panel, but it’s important to note where this burn-in can actually be seen. Just like the grain test, this burn-in is almost only ever noticeable when testing the display using this 50% gray image, and is not visible on most other colors. Oranges, reds, yellows and other warm colors like this don’t show the problem unless you look really closely, but cooler colors are definitely more obvious. The amount of time spent in full screen will determine whether or not you even see this issue at all, and it’s an issue that Google can definitely fix (and already is) with software solutions that work to keep pixels from displaying the same thing for long periods of time (months, not minutes).
Verdict: Will be mitigated through software
There are issues that arise with any product, especially early batch production products as our review devices were. These problems can and should be filed with Google as an RMA, and Google will send you a new device as a replacement. They’ve also extended the warranty on the Pixel 2 to 2 years, meaning Google is clearly standing behind their manufacturing methods and cleaning up QC to deliver a better, more consistent product for end users.
This goes hand-in-hand with the aforementioned grainy look of the display, but takes the look and turns it into an actual problem. Some panels seem to be showing inconsistent brightness levels across the panel, meaning groups of pixels aren’t passing proper quality inspection processes during manufacturing. It’s entirely possible that this issue will go unnoticed unless you test for it, but this is most certainly a manufacturing problem that needs to be addressed by Google. We’ve seen this issue with panels used on pre-production models of the V30, and it’s something LG needs to work on fixing before these phones get into the hands of consumers.
Verdict: Get it RMA’d
We discussed image retention above, but over time this can turn into real burn-in and be a real problem. Burn-in happens when static images age pixels in a different way, causing pixels to literally get older than the surrounding pixels. These pixels exhibit different brightness and color properties, and as a result, will hold the retained image over other images. More than likely you’ll only ever see the software nav bar on the bottom have this issue, although it’s entirely possible that the status bar up top could see the same problem too. Months of usage can certainly cause real burn-in, and if it’s distracting or problematic in any way, it’s time to send the device in for an RMA. It’s going to take months before we get to this point, so long as there isn’t an actual defect in LG’s displays in this regard. The worry, of course, is that there is an actual problem and that we’re going to see massive cases of burn-in in just a few short weeks.
Verdict: Only time will tell. If it's bad, RMA.
How serious are the issues with the display on the Pixel 2 XL? From my point of view, not very, and certainly not worthy of calling for a recall or to stop selling the Pixel 2 XL in any way. Much like we saw when Samsung had devastating problems with the Galaxy Note 7, I have full faith and confidence that, if there are big problems with burn-in on every panel, Google will do the right thing and refund everyone for buying a defective device. We saw Google replace broken Nexus 6p units with the Google Pixel for many customers, which shows that Google is serious about keeping its customers happy when hardware fails. The rest of the issues listed here are generally not issues at all. Maybe they bother you, maybe they don’t, but almost none of them are problems that would warrant Google having to replace a device.
If the display isn’t up to the standard of quality someone expects when they pay $850 or more for a device, there are more than enough premium high-end phones on the market that offer better displays for your money. As for me, I’ll be sticking with the Pixel 2 XL; it’s got the best camera on the market, better (and more consistent) performance than most phones out there, better wireless audio support than most phones, and the full backing of Google’s software team and all the cool tools and immediate updates that come with that. At the very least the smaller Pixel 2 is still here, without the display problems of the Pixel 2 XL, and is quite a bit cheaper too, all while offering the same experience in every other regard.