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How big of a problem is the Pixel 2 XL's screen, really?

How big of a problem is the Pixel 2 XL's screen, really?


Ping / Counterping: Extreme First World Problems edition

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Photo by James Bareham / The Verge

Ping / Counterping is a special feature where editors of The Verge debate issues from the world of technology head-to-head, no holds barred. Vlad Savov and Dieter Bohn are bringing it back after a very long hiatus to debate whether the screen on the Pixel 2 XL is a deal breaker.

I reviewed the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL a couple of weeks ago. After that review was published, we discovered that the 2 XL exhibits more image retention than you'd expect on a flagship (or really any) phone, especially one so early in its lifecycle. Google quickly moved to address the issue as best it could, saying it's confident there's no real burn-in, but also promising software updates to mitigate against it going forward. The company is also extending the warranty to two years.

Ever since, I've been continuing to test both the Pixel 2 and the Pixel 2 XL. In fact, I purchased both phones so I could do longer-term testing on them. Yes, I am a maniac, but this is also my job. I've also preordered an iPhone X, because I am an equal opportunity maniac. Anyway, I have both Pixel 2 phones available to me at a whim now. And for the past week, my whim has been thus: I have been picking up, using, and enjoying the Pixel 2 XL much more often — despite the screen troubles.

I will now pause and let my esteemed colleague, Vlad Savov, react to this startling information.

Photo by James Bareham / The Verge

Vlad Savov

For me, the Pixel 2 XL represents a moment of personal (melo)drama. All throughout this year, I knew exactly what was going to happen: LG would build up my expectations only to let them down, Sony would announce a groundbreaking phone in winter that would be entirely conventional by the time it was released in the summer, and Samsung would be that little bit too staid and consistent in its ways to capture my passions.

It was Google I was waiting on; every other phone, even the brilliant HTC U11, was a fling. The true successor to my Google Pixel passions was going to be the Google Pixel 2. And the Pixel 2 XL looked like something close to perfection: slim bezels, big battery, solid design, and an even better HDR+ camera. I was ready to commit.

I’ve ended up a very satisfied Google Pixel 2 user

What I can’t forgive Google for is the way it screwed up one of the things we’d long ago figured out. Good phone displays have been around for way too many years for us to accept substandard ones from Google. And especially not from the otherwise close-to-perfect Pixel 2 XL. The display is too essential, too central to everything we do with a phone for it to be considered an acceptable compromise.

Maybe I can live with shorter battery life. Maybe I can tolerate big bezels for another year. But a bad screen? No chance. And that’s why I’ve ended up a very satisfied Google Pixel 2 user, even though I really would have loved to have been a delighted Pixel 2 XL owner. As to Dieter, I think he’s investing his hopes in Google’s promised software fixes rather than looking at things objectively.

Dieter Bohn

You should never buy a phone today based on the promise of a software tomorrow. And make no mistake: I do not believe that Google’s software changes are going to alter the experience of this screen. Google is promising to do just a few things, and none of them are going to be major changes.

It’s going to alter the way the nav buttons and other persistent elements are lit up, so they’re less likely to cause burn-in over time. That may reduce image retention, but I doubt it. It’s also going to give users the option to turn off color management and get more vibrant, less-accurate colors if they so choose.

Never buy a phone today based on the promise of a software update tomorrow

That’s great, but it won’t stop the blue shift or the grain on the physical screen itself. But for me, in both of those cases, I’m not righteously angry about it. I’m not going to reject this screen out of a principle that “Flagship, expensive phones shouldn’t have sub-par screens.” Standing on principle is less important to me than having a phone that matches my needs.

Another thing: this screen does have redeeming qualities. Because it's OLED, the blacks are fully black and so you can get some very extreme contrast. I especially like reading on the Kindle app at night with Night Light turned on — the only pixels lit up are the words and they're dim enough to not keep me awake. I don’t feel bereft or annoyed every time I look at the screen. It's also, you know, big.

I’m going to stick with the Pixel 2 instead of another Android phone because I think the camera is almost surely the best of this generation. Also because Google’s version of Android is flatly superior to everything else out there. As for which Pixel 2, it’s about trade-offs. For me, battery life and a large screen for my big, dumb eyes is more important than color accuracy. Besides, let’s face it, the smaller Pixel 2 avoids the sin of color shift but is guilty of another sin: being tiny and cramped.

Photo by James Bareham / The Verge

Vlad Savov

It’s good that you brought up the specifics of the Pixel 2 XL’s screen issues, Dieter, and good that you’re fully aware of them in making your choice. A big reason for why I’ve been so vociferous in my outrage about the 2 XL is that its problems are not immediately noticeable — many people will walk into a Verizon store, look at the thin bezels and high DxOMark rating of the 6-inch Googlephone, and wind up convinced that they’re getting a great product. I think they’re getting, say, 90 percent of a great product.

I’m right there with you on the excellence of Google’s own Android software, the importance of a solid battery, and the unequaled supremacy of Google’s Pixel cameras. The difference between us is that I do care about principle. I care that the way I spend my money signals something to tech companies and mobile carriers. If I’m purchasing products with fundamental flaws — whether they be iffy displays or absent headphone jacks — I’m saying that those flaws aren’t meaningfully problematic to me. If I want the future of mobile tech to be defined by amazing audio and video, that’s the guiding light that should be directing my purchases today.

Here’s my question: have you tried using the Pixel 2 with all the display settings reduced to a smaller size? It’s a little bit of a throwback to the BlackBerry days of yore, but it has been a good solution for me, fitting plenty of readable content on the screen even without fancy new screen tech.

Another thing that’s often missed with smaller phones: they make for much more discreet cameras when you’re out and about. I was a photo-happy tourist in Milan this past weekend, and I could shoot my snaps without feeling like everyone can see my enormous screen, or like I’m getting in people’s way. The Pixel 2 is simply more inconspicuous.

Dieter Bohn

I have tried the Pixel 2 with different settings, fiddling with both the “Display size” and “Font size” settings. Sadly, making things smaller isn’t really an option for me anymore. I use it on the go too often to read tiny type while standing on a subway car, and I’m old enough that squinting isn’t an option.

You are correct that it’s important to clearly communicate to as many people as possible that the first impression of the Pixel 2 XL screen isn’t going to accurately convey the experience over time. This is a display that is subtly worse than other phone displays in ways many will only unconsciously notice, as you pointed out here. But if you’re conscious of those issues going in, I think it’s a totally defensible purchase.

As for a less conspicuous camera, well, if I want something like that, maybe I’ll pick up a Google Clips camera ;).

I take your point about voting with dollars — and the Pixel 2 XL certainly represents a lot of dollars. But somehow I doubt that my purchase is going to move the needle. On the other hand, I guess I’m doing a bit of grandstanding myself with the Pixel 2. Samsung, OnePlus, and Essential have all figured out how to reduce bezels on smaller phones, so it’s just a bummer to me that Google couldn’t figure it out.

Honestly, I think some of the angst we’re all feeling right now is that smartphones are better than they have ever been. In many ways, we can see clearly that it is 100 percent possible to build the Platonic Ideal Smartphone all of us wanted a couple years ago. Yet, it is almost obstinately not happening:

In the course of our work, we often pick up and use multiple devices. The one I personally keep picking up and sighing over is the Essential Phone. It forces a different set of trade-offs — I can’t handle the camera — but the same basic feeling: we know that a nearly perfect phone could be made, at least by the standards we’ve been living with the past few years.

Just once, before AR and who-knows-what-else changes the rules and expectations again, I’d like somebody to make that idealized phone. Maybe it’s the iPhone X.

Photo by James Bareham / The Verge

Vlad Savov

The impossibility of the ideal phone is driven by our constantly rising standards of expectation. I’ve accused the Pixel 2 XL of looking like it has an OLED screen from the year 2012, and that illustrates the point: even with its visual faults, this phone would have been considered advanced alien tech five years ago. Everything is getting better. And if we all thought in absolute rather than relative ways, we’d be delighted about it.

Phones are interesting because we’re still figuring out the hows, whats, and whys of building and using them.

But there’s an inevitable urge to try and optimize a purchase as costly as a smartphone and to seek out the definitive best. Which phone gets me the most for my hard-earned money? I no longer think there is a clear answer to that question for the majority of people. I know some members of my family who can’t live without Apple Maps, for instance, others who dwell entirely within Facebook’s app ecosystem, and others still who are total Google services addicts. Yes, they all use the camera, but do they care about the Pixel’s imaging advantages over something else that’s good, such as a Samsung Galaxy or an iPhone? How much does that aspect matter to them?

You and I provide ample evidence to show the uneven priorities people place on device characteristics. I have a checklist that goes camera, display, battery life, and until I’m satisfied that all three meet a certain standard, nothing else matters about a phone. I can totally see a world in which battery life is more important, as it is for you, and things like one-handed size can totally trump all else. It’s just that with the Pixel 2 XL we do actually have the option to get the majority of its strengths without the one major weakness, and that’s why I keep advocating in favor of the Pixel 2.

More broadly speaking, I’m unworried that the ideal smartphone will ever come into being — though I may be biased by the fact that we’d need to find new jobs if phones were ever perfected. Nobody cares to read about microwave ovens these days, and that’s because they represent a fixed problem. Phones are interesting because we’re still figuring out the hows, whats, and whys of building and using them.

Dieter Bohn

Hard agree. Also, as long as we're on the topic of "figuring out the hows," can somebody explain to me how it is that Google keeps shipping phones that should have been rejected by quality control before they got out the factory door? It's mystifying.

I blame Plato, tbh

I still can't get over the feeling that the choices this year feel a little more stark than usual. I know there will never be a perfect phone, but I also know that it used to be a little easier to get a phone that hit high marks in all the important categories instead of just most of them. Like I said before, we can visualize what we want and know it could have been made, but damned reality keeps getting in the way. I blame Plato, tbh.

Well, now that we've fully completed this round of Ping / Counterping, First World Problems edition, it's time to move on to the next extremely privileged thing to gripe about: USB-C is still a mess and it's Apple and Google's fault for assuming the ecosystem would figure it out.

Vlad Savov

No argument here.