This past Sunday, Google let us know that it was “actively investigating” reports of screen burn in on the Pixel 2 XL. Now, less than a week later, we are learning some of what the results of that investigation are. Here’s the short version: Google stands by the screen on the Pixel 2 XL, but it is nevertheless going to issue some software updates to expand its color gamut and protect it against screen burn-in. It will also offer a two-year warranty on Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL phones.
In a post in the Google Pixel support forums, VP of product management Mario Queiroz had this to say:
Our investigation so far has given us confidence that our displays are as great as we hoped they would be, though we’re also taking steps to address the concerns we've heard.
The first and most important concern: the screen burn-in. It’s been unclear until now whether the ghost images we’ve been seeing were merely image retention or actual burn-in. If it is the latter, it would be incredibly troubling to see so early in a phone’s life.
Google, however, says that its tests show that the Pixel 2 XL is not any worse than other phones when it comes to burn-in. Burn-in affect every display panel over time, and Google believes that it’s not going to be any worse on this phone than other phones. Nevertheless, the company is going to be issuing some software updates to mitigate any concerns:
Extensive testing of the Pixel 2 XL display show that its decay characteristics are comparable to OLED panels used in other premium smartphones. The differential aging should not affect the user experience of the phone, as it’s not visible under normal use of your Pixel 2 XL. We understand, however, that it can be concerning to see evidence of aging when using a specialized display test app, so we've taken steps to reduce differential aging through software.
We’re currently testing a software update that further enhances protections against this issue by adding a new fade-out of the navigation bar buttons at the bottom of the Pixel screen after a short period of inactivity. In addition, we're working with more apps to use a light navigation bar to match their app's color scheme. The update will also reduce the maximum brightness of the Pixel 2 XL by a virtually imperceptible 50 cd/m2 (nits), thereby significantly reducing load on the screen with an almost undetectable change in the observed brightness.
There are other concerns with the Pixel 2 XL screen beyond the potential for image retention and burn-in. Namely, Google chose to go with a relatively narrow color gamut by default, so the colors look more muted than Android users are used to. That decision was part of a larger change in Android, with the latest Oreo update being better at handling color spaces. Queiroz spends quite a bit of time explaining Android Oreo’s new color management feature, which is admittedly a step forward compared to previous versions of Android.
Still, Queiroz addressed those who are unhappy with the sRGB color gamut Google chose by saying another software update is coming. “Through a software update to Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL,” he writes, “we will soon be adding a new “saturated” color mode.” He then adds:
The saturated mode puts the display into an unmanaged configuration, similar to how the Pixel 1 operates. The colors will be more saturated and vibrant, but less accurate (similar to most other smartphones which display more vibrant colors): we give consumers the option to choose the color saturation.
A post in the support forums is a low-key way to address what has become a controversy big enough to give some people doubts about Google’s ability to produce flagship-quality hardware. But Queiroz’s post goes into quite a bit of detail on Google’s thinking and plans to allay users’ concerns. And since Google has concluded that there’s more smoke than fire, it makes sense that it’s simply addressing the issue here instead of in a larger forum. (Also, apologies for making a fire reference with regard to phone defects, Samsung.)
But to be clear, user concerns with the Pixel 2 XL screen don’t stop at the potential for burn-in nor at Google’s color choices. Some simply think the panel, which is manufactured by LG, is not as good as Samsung’s panels. For example, some screens have exhibited “grit” when scrolling and pretty much all of them have a blue shift when you look at the display at an oblique angle.
Those concerns were not enough to make us dislike the Pixel 2 XL overall in our review. However, the possibility that the screen might be getting permanently damaged so quickly via screen burn-in was enough of a concern that we temporarily pulled our review score for the larger phone. We’ll need a minute before we decide whether and when to give the Pixel 2 XL a score, but hope we can take Google at its word that burn-in is no longer a serious concern.
Google’s fast turnaround on explaining how it sees these screen issues and its promises to release software updates are heartening. It’s a difficult balance the company is trying to strike: standing by the quality of the screen that so many distrust while also offering updates that mitigate those concerns.
Whether that balance will successfully convince people who distrust the screen is another question — one that is best answered once the software updates are released.
In the grand scheme of things, four days to investigate these issues and also to decide on these software updates isn’t very long at all. Unfortunately for Google, those four or so days came right after the Pixel 2 XL went on sale and just as it began shipping, only a week before Apple’s new flagship iPhone X.
Assuming the company can put this controversy behind it, Google has another (albeit smaller) one that won’t seem to go away: keeping enough of the darn phones in stock.