I spent my first several days with the Google Pixel 2 XL tearing its display to pieces. In light of concerns regarding its quality that were brought up in the first round of reviews (including ours) I wanted to know exactly what its shortcomings were. Lots of units — mine included — had burn-in/image persistence issues, blue tint shift, black smear, graininess, and other undesirable qualities. None of these issues are entirely unique to the Pixel 2 XL, but I came to the conclusion that Google’s flagship seems to suffer from them more than average at this price point. I stand by that.
I took it upon myself to look at every one of these problems under a microscope so that anyone that cared — which, I know, in the grand scheme of things is a tiny minority of Google’s target market — could know exactly what they’re getting in comparison to other flagships, the smaller Pixel 2, and even last year’s original Pixel. But even with all of the problems I’ve hounded on and pixel peeping I’ve admittedly done, I’ve finally come to a conclusion on this display: It’s not bad enough to keep me away.
For the last year, it’s been easy to repeatedly recommend the Google Pixel pretty much any time anyone asks which Android phone they should buy. The first Google Pixel had all the advantages the Nexus devices, and then some. It had performance that’s still unbeaten except by its successor, Google’s own flavor of Android that just works, one of the best cameras you can get on a smartphone, and everything put together in a package that was as close to “fit and finish” I’d ever seen in an Android phone. It was really hard to find complaints with the Pixel.
And that set the bar extraordinarily high for me for its successor. I came into the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL expecting a nice refinement of last year’s phones with perhaps a bit of modernizing on the design front. I was expecting that I would be able to pick up the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL and just flat-out recommend them both to anyone who needed a new phone. That’s what I did for an entire year, and I hoped I would be able to do it again.
Unfortunately, while I still think they’re awesome phones overall, I don’t feel I can say that anymore. It’s more complicated this year: I can’t get out of having to explain the nuances of the advantages and disadvantages between these phones and compared their competitors. It’s not that this year’s phones are “worse” phones per se, but all things considered, they’re both harder to recommend without appending an “except”. So let’s take a dive real quick into explaining what those nuances are — specifically with the Pixel 2 XL and its display.
Is the Pixel 2 XL’s display bad?
Objectively speaking, I stand by pretty much everything I’ve said about the display. It’s not as good as the display on most other OLED flagships. Sure, all OLEDs have color shifting. But no other $800+ flagship I’ve tested has such exaggerated color shifting that happens at such small angles. Yep, lots of OLEDs have black smear problems. But I don’t think any other 2017 flagship OLED has black smear as bad as this one — at least as far as I’ve tested. I know, for instance, that the black smear showing up on Samsung AMOLED on the Pixel 2 is so negligible as to be ignored.
While those two things seem to just be qualities of the display (i.e. if you try to RMA your unit for them, you’re just going to get another unit — even if perfect — that still has those issues), the display also seems to suffer from variance in quality control as well. I’ve used three different Pixel 2 XL units at this point and in some areas I can see differences between them. Two of them have had more “graininess” (where whites look textured like a piece of paper) than the other. And one seemed to have a slightly warmer display. I haven’t had any other crazy problems like rows of dead pixels or green lines, though.
Burn-in? We’re still not entirely sure what’s going on with burn-in on the Google Pixel 2 XL, other than to say it seems burn-in and image persistence seem to be happening faster and easier than other flagships. Google says it has concluded — after extensive testing — that the performance of the Pixel 2 XL’s display is up to snuff, but they’re still working on some software tweaks that will hopefully remedy the situation. I can say that I’ve been able to spot image retention, and in some cases what appears to be permanent burn-in, after just a couple weeks on all three of the units I’ve tested. They seem to vary in severity, though.
On the topic of washed out colors, I don’t think it’s really fair to punish Google. It seems to be entirely a software “problem” (some have suggested the displays are poorly calibrated, but Google has not confirmed as such) and it’s one they’re working on fixing for those that really, really want the vibrant colors. “In the new few weeks,” Google will be adding a new “saturated” color mode to both devices.
All this to say — and you probably wouldn’t be shocked by this if you’ve read my criticism on Twitter — I don’t think this is a very good display. Even compared to the Pixel 2 and the original Pixel and Pixel XL, it seems clear to me that the Pixel 2 XL has the worst display of the lot.
And then came Google’s response
I think all the concerns about the display are valid, but the way Google handled the situation should also be considered.
Two year warranty
Google is giving all past and present buyers of both the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL an extended 2-year warranty. If there are any weird manufacturing problems with your device, you can rest assured that they’ll be taken care of for at least 24 months. That alone is a big deal. For $850+, most buyers want to know that the device they’re getting is going to be steady for them for a couple years at least, and this extended warranty is Google telling those buyers that they aren’t discrediting their concerns of the issues many have talked about.
It’s also worth noting that Google seems to be very understanding for customer’s concerns in these early days of providing replacement units. I’ve seen reports of Google going as far as to replace units for customers complaining of black smear and blue tint, both of which seem to be just the nature of the device. Obviously many of these customers are just grasping for hope that they’ll get a unit that won’t have these problems to the degree they’re experiencing them. Whether it’s actually true or not, many have reported that they’ve gotten replacement devices that actually were less bad. So maybe you should give that a shot if you think yours is worse than average.
Google says it opted for a “more natural and accurate reproduction of colors” with the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL, and that the unsaturated colors you might notice are intended functionality. That said, Google is going to push out a software update with an option for more vibrant colors. I’d say this is the least of the concerns with the Pixel 2 XL’s display — pretty much a non-issue in my book.
Google stands by the LG-made display in the Pixel 2 XL as up to industry standard, but is also going to push out some fixes to hopefully mitigate the burn-in that many users have noticed. Google is going to dim the navigation bar buttons after “a short period of inactivity” and encourage apps to adopt a light navigation bar. Furthermore, max brightness on the Pixel 2 XL will be lowered by 50 nits. Seeing the max brightness dropping is a bit unfortunate in my book, but if Google thinks it will help prevent permanent damage, then I’m all for it.
Blue tint/off-axis color shift
This is the only response that feels inadequate to me, but it seems there’s just nothing Google can do about it. I’ve tested 3 different units, and all three of them show blue shift at as little as 5-10 degrees off axis and show shift to a greater degree than just about every other phone in this price range. Worse than the LG V30, worse than anything with a Samsung display, worse than the Pixel 2, and worse than the Pixel XL.
In short, Google’s official word on the blue shift is to say that it isn’t an issue, rather an inherent part of this display. The company says that this only happens at “sharp angles,” but our experience doesn’t exactly match that (one could say we very often see this blue tint at very dull angles, har har). This is just an unfortunate quality of the display.
Google hasn’t commented on the black smear issues we’ve noted. This problem of black smear is far from unique to the Pixel 2 XL, but it’s mostly a non-problem on many modern OLED displays. We saw exaggerated black smear on all three of our Pixel 2 XL units when viewing web pages and the like at the lowest brightness setting (which is basically how you use your phone at night in bed). Further proving that this is just the nature of the XL 2’s poor display, we were not able to reproduce this issue on the smaller Pixel 2. Another unfortunate quality of the display, and not likely something that would be remedied with a replacement, and not something Google will ever do anything about.
Google hasn’t officially commented on this issue, but since we saw variance in this between our three devices, we’d guess that Google will treat it as a quality control issue that can be remedied with an RMA. This issue is definitely on the minor side — you can only really notice it, even in this worst cases, if you look really closely — but it could still bug some that it’s not a problem at all with the smaller Pixel 2. If that’s you, I’d suggest getting a replacement and crossing your fingers that you get one that has less grain.
Other weird problems
Other weird problems like green lines, random dead spaces on the side of the display, lines of dead pixels, and others would probably all qualify, like the grain issue, as quality control. All of these issues will likely receive a prompt replacement from Google if you contact support.
But even with a bad display, the Pixel 2 XL is too good
Taking into consideration what we know now about all of the Pixel 2 XL’s display woes, as well as Google’s response to them, I’m leaning on the side of many who defended the phone from the get-go. The bad display doesn’t kill the phone. I think that my first review unit was worse than average — I had obvious burn-in and bad graininess on my display, something that other reviews like MKBHD said they never experienced — and the current unit I’m using doesn’t seem to have these problems to the same degree. For that, I’m happy.
It really comes down to whether you think the “unfortunate quality of the display” issues that Google isn’t able and/or deciding not to do anything about are enough to make or break the phone for you. Unsaturated colors are being fixed, burn-in and image retention — which is only really there if you go looking for it — is being remedied with software, and weird quality control concerns are getting replaced under warranty for up to 2 years. It’s really just about whether or not you can live with the slightly-worse-than-average blue off-axis tint and black smear.
For me, after a couple weeks with the phone, the answer is clear. I can live with worse-than-average blue off-axis tint and seeing worse-than-average black smear at night for the sake of all the benefits the Pixel 2 XL brings. And if you’re a normal person who isn’t going to look at this phone under a microscope and just wants a great phone, you’d probably love the Pixel 2 XL. That said, I can most certainly understand those that don’t want to settle on these two issues. If near-perfect displays matter to you and you want get the most of your $850, Pixel 2 XL isn’t for you. The Samsung Galaxy S8 is better. The Samsung Galaxy Note 8 is better. The iPhone X is better. Even the LG V30 seems better in some ways.
For most others, including myself, the display issues will go mostly unnoticed after a week or two of adjustment. I noticed the blue off-axis tint very often in my first few days with the phone, but as my eyes have adjusted over the last two weeks, it has become less and less noticeable. It’s still there if I look for it, but it’s just something that you learn to ignore. The black smear is still really obvious, though, and still bothers me when I’m scrolling through web pages at night. But that’s only because I’ve been spoiled with great OLED displays on other phones that don’t have this issue. After two weeks, these problems have become overshadowed by other things that I love about the phone.
If you focus too closely on its screen, it’s easy to forget the many ways the Pixel 2 XL is better than its predecessor and its competitors. It has a modern-but-functional design that I personally think is one of the nicest on a phone (it’s nice not to have the huge bezels of the smaller Pixel 2, that’s for sure). It has improved specs across the board that make performance and using the phone a whimsical and delightful day-to-day experience — perhaps the best on the phone. It has an improved camera that is pretty much unrivaled. It has Google’s killer software which, yes, is not unique to the 2 XL, but is altogether a great reason to feel confident that you’ll be happy with your purchase.
Everything that Google accomplished with the first Pixels is still here, more or less. Yes, these display gripes are annoying. And yes, it would be nice if I could crown the Pixel 2 XL as the no-compromise best Android phone on the market without having to talk about them. But just like last year, I think the Pixel 2 XL brings features and qualities that have long been under-appreciated on the Android side of things. It has killer battery life (seriously, does this thing ever die? I can’t tell), the UI is buttery smooth — by far the best on an Android phone, period — and the software features Google has added atop Android are useful and done well. And, personally, I love the resurgence of Italian design.
Keep an eye out for our final, full review of both phones in the coming days.
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