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What’s Up With the Pixel Screens? The Facts and the BS

Google’s new Pixel 2 phones are out and they’re pretty awesome. However, there are also reports of issues with both the Pixel 2 and the Pixel 2 XL’s displays. A little bit of misinformation and a lot of hysteria have made it sound like both phones are just the Worst Thing Ever. So, we’re going to break down what’s worth worrying about and what’s a lot of hot air.

Update: Google has responded after investigating the below issues. Short version: The company will roll out a software update that will give users an optional “saturated” color mode, and it will reduce the maximum brightness and introduce a fading navigation bar in order to reduce the likelihood of image retention. It won’t affect the blue shift at an angle or the smearing, but this should make most of the other already minor issues even less problematic. Original article follows.

For starters, we want to clarify: there are two different Pixel 2 phones. The regular, 5″ Pixel 2, and the 6″ Pixel 2 XL with its crazy small bezels. Unless otherwise noted, when we say “Pixel 2,” we’re referring to the smaller one. The Pixel 2—which was manufactured by HTC—uses an AMOLED display manufactured by Samsung, just like most smartphones with OLED displays include the Samsung Galaxy and Note lines, and the iPhone 8 and X. Meanwhile the Pixel 2 XL uses a POLED display panel manufactured by LG.

Some reported issues apply to both phones, while a few only apply to the Pixel 2 XL. Below we have a list of the alleged issues, how serious they really are, and which phones are affected.

Technical note: All of the images in this post, including the one above, are edited to highlight a specific effect. Our eyes work differently than cameras do, so it’s difficult to capture exactly what each issue looks like. Just keep in mind that the problems highlighted below are less pronounced in real life than they appear.

“The colors look muted and dull.”

Left: Nexus 6P. Right: Pixel 2 XL. Note the desaturated colors on the XL compared to the same colors on the 6P.

Phones affected: Pixel 2, Pixel 2 XL

Most OLED displays on the market have incredibly bright, vivid colors. This is largely because phone manufacturers like to crank the saturation up to 11. The colors aren’t necessarily accurate, but they sure are eye-catching. It’s the smartphone equivalent of watching Speed Racer. The Pixel 2 phones, on the other hand, are a little more subtle.

This issue has more to do with how Android Oreo handles color than the panels themselves. Oreo added the ability for developers and manufacturers to pick what color space they work with. Color spaces define what colors look like. There are three types of color spaces in Oreo: Low, HDR, and Wide. Low color spaces include profiles like sRGB, which is a very basic color space that doesn’t include a ton of extra richness.  It’s also the default color space in Android Oreo unless a manufacturer or developer changes it. HDR color spaces can include brighter brights, darker darks, and more vivid colors, though your content has to support HDR in order to make use of that extra flexibility. Wide color spaces, similarly, include a greater range of shades of colors, which lets colors stand out from each other, as long as the content is designed to make use of it.

Both Pixel 2 phones use a color profile that’s slightly more vivid than sRGB by default, but it’s still a far cry from Wide or even HDR color gamuts. However, developers (and even Google itself) could technically enable them. The displays are physically capable of these color profiles. In fact, some enterprising users are already experimenting with it. Google has even said that it’s considering adding a more vibrant color mode to the Pixel phones. This won’t fix everything with the displays, but it would go a long way towards making them look as intense as other phones you have used.

Is this a big deal? Depending on your preference, not really. If you like oversaturated displays, then the Pixel phones may look dull, but they’re also not wrong. They’re just using a different type of color space than other phones do. Physically, they’re fine on this front, and Google may even roll out an option to let people who prefer more intense colors have it their way, too.

“There’s a weird smearing effect when you scroll.”

Left: Pixel 2, Right: Pixel 2 XL. There’s a distinct wobble effect around black edges (which is different from the ghosting that occurs when recording a screen, which you can see on the icons).

Phones affected: Pixel 2, Pixel 2 XL

This one is pretty tough to spot if you don’t know what you’re looking for. In some instances, if you’re scrolling through a list—say your Twitter feed—you may notice some “smearing” along edges where a black area meets color on the screen. The smearing stops as soon as you stop scrolling, but while in motion, it looks a little weird. You can see a bit of this in the image above, where the black part of the image looks a little more jelly-like than the color parts of the image. You can see this effect in motion on both phones here.

This happens because OLED displays light up pixels individually, rather than using a back light to illuminate the entire display. To show the color black, an OLED display simply turns those pixels off. This not only saves a little battery, but it lets you reach deeper black levels than if you were trying to block the back light in say an LCD display.

However, it also takes longer to turn a black pixel on than it does to change the color of an already-illuminated pixel. This extra time is measured in fractions of a second, but it’s still just different enough to create that smearing effect.

Is this a big deal? To a certain extent, this issue exists in all OLED panels. I compared the Pixel 2 XL (with an LG OLED panel) to the regular Pixel 2, the original Pixel XL, and the Nexus 6P (with Samsung panels) and the issue exists on all of them. In fact, old posts referencing the problem on the original Pixel have existed for a while. This issue has only gotten more attention recently while the Pixel 2 XL is in the news. Some argue that it’s more noticeable on the 2 XL, but the difference is very slight if any. Sure, the image might look a little smudgy, just on black parts of an image, while in motion, but things in motion tend to be a little blurry anyway, so it’s really hard to tell even when you’re looking for it. If you think this issue will bother you, stick with the Pixel 2. Though you’ll still notice it a bit.

“It gets a blue tint when you tilt it.”

Above: Pixel 2 XL. The white areas on the display have a noticeable blue cast when viewed at an angle, even in the warming orange Night Light mode.

Phones affected: Pixel 2 XL

This one is where we start to get into more noticeable territory. When you look at the Pixel 2 XL from an angle, the colors look slightly blue. This issue is distinctly limited to the Pixel 2 XL, whereas it doesn’t seem to affect the regular Pixel 2.

It’s unclear what exactly causes this, but it may be due to the type of polarization filter applied to the OLED display on the XL. According to Google, the XL has a circular polarization filter that the Pixel 2 doesn’t use. It’s designed to make it easier to see the display from all angles, even when you’re wearing sunglasses.

This issue is particularly noticeable if you use the Night Light feature which tints the display orange at night to make it easier on your eyes. When looking straight on, the XL’s display has the proper orange-balanced whites, but as soon as you tilt it, the display noticeably turns blue.

Is this a big deal? While the blue tint is noticeable, it’s worth pointing out that you’re usually not viewing your phone on an angle anyway. It’s also exactly the kind of thing that your brain sort of automatically corrects for. If you’re the type who can tell when a photo has improper white balance, you might notice this, but for most people, it will barely register in daily use.

“It looks kind of dirty in low-light.”

Above: Pixel 2 XL. Note, this effect is greatly exaggerated. We’ve upped the contrast and adjusted color levels to highlight the grain.

Phones affected: Pixel 2 XL

Another problem that seems to exclusively affect the Pixel 2 XL is what’s being described as a “dirty” display. When the phone is in the dark, with the brightness turned all the way down, you can make out a faint grainy pattern.

There’s no way to explain this other than a sub-par panel. It’s not the worst display in the world, but there are plenty of OLED displays that don’t have this issue, which means the problem is with the panels LG shipped in the phones.

Is this a big deal? You’ll notice a didn’t use the word “noticeable” above because it’s anything but. While you can barely see it if you turn the brightness way down, turn off the lights, and squint really hard, it’s still very difficult to see the pattern. At least on my unit. Ars Technica’s Ron Amadeo demonstrated this effect in photos that were edited to exaggerate the effect, but it’s still a little hard to make out. Objectively, this is a flaw in the display, but subjectively it’s largely up to your eyesight, how you use the phone, and how much you’re looking for this flaw. In most cases it won’t even be possible to see the grain, and even when you can, most people would probably tune it out before they even saw it.

“There’s burn-in after only two weeks!”

Above: Pixel 2 XL. Our units haven’t shown any burn-in yet, but we’ve only had them for a few days.

Phones affected: Pixel 2 XL

This is the most severe problem that might actually make a difference about your buying decisions. However, it’s still not entirely clear what’s happening. Burn-in is a condition that occurs on some displays when an image has been on the screen for a long time (such as the navigation buttons) and eventually you can still see a “shadow” of it even when that element is not there.

On the other hand, it could also be a case of image retention. While this issue mostly affects LCD panels, it can occur on OLED panels like the one found in the Pixel 2. Image retention looks similar to ghosting, with hints of patterns or images staying long after they’ve left the screen, but can clear up after a while on its own if the image on the screen changes.

Is this a big deal? If there’s any issue on this list that’s objectively a big deal, it’s this one. Fortunately, it only seems to be affecting the Pixel 2 XL, so if you bought the smaller (and cheaper) Pixel, you should be fine. Moreover, if your XL is affected by this problem, it’s covered under Google’s warranty. It will be annoying to get it replaced, but you at least have options. Google is currently investigating the issue, so it might be worth waiting to buy the phone if you want to avoid the problem entirely.

Despite all of the digital ink spilled over these phones, the display on both the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL still look remarkably good. LG doesn’t have quite as much experience making OLED panels and it shows a bit, but you’re not getting a bad phone by any means. The issues that exist are minor and largely up to personal preference. At most, it may be worth holding off on the Pixel 2 XL until it’s confirmed that the issue is image retention and not burn-in, but even if you decide to take the plunge, you’ve got a warranty backing you up. And both phones are still pretty sexy, regardless.

Eric Ravenscraft Eric Ravenscraft
Eric Ravenscraft has nearly a decade of writing experience in the technology industry. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, PCMag, The Daily Beast, Geek and Sundry, and The Inventory. Read Full Bio »