The Pixel 2 XL would be the best phone in the world if its screen wasn’t so weird

First thing’s first: if you want to read The Verge’s canonical opinion on Google’s new Pixel 2 phones, read Dieter Bohn’s authoritative and comprehensive review. Dieter’s judgment is something I rarely question, but on this one occasion, he and I diverge on how we feel about a very important aspect of Google’s new flagship pair. Dieter thinks the Pixel 2 XL’s screen is imperfect but can be lived with; I think it’s an inexcusable disaster.

I have been using the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL for nearly a week now, and in that time I’ve immersed myself in the goodness that is Android 8.0, Google’s pleasantly updated design, and the unprecedented and unequaled Pixel camera. I’m a satisfied Android user, and I know for a fact (because I’ve reviewed every other major flagship out there) that no other Android device can bring me as close to mobile nirvana and contentment as these new Pixels do. But for the majority of this week, I’ve opted to use the smaller Pixel 2, owing to just how poor the Pixel 2 XL’s screen is.

This situation upsets me because the 2 XL has numerous desirable advantages over the 2: much smaller bezels, a larger battery that lasts longer, and just a bigger canvas on which I can pen my letter of complaint to LG Display, the maker of the offending screen in question.

Photo by James Bareham / The Verge

Look at that New York Times icon in the image above. Stop flinching and really look at it, soak in the kaleidoscope of colors washing over it. Just to make sure we’re all on the same page, I’m seeing a haze of green in the middle of the gothic “T”, which then blooms into a red that eventually transitions into the white that the icon is supposed to be. But the fun isn’t over; when you get up real close, you’ll see the edges of the icon are all fringed by a sort of purply-red and, again, green. The neighboring heart icon, which is also supposed to be white, presents us with a crosshatch of red and green and white micropixels.

Does that look like 2017 to you?

At this point, still dripping with anticipation for the really great Google phone you’d preordered, you might be straying into denial territory and telling yourself that this is not the sort of issue you’d notice. But not noticing a thing isn’t the same as not sensing it. Your eyes will pick up on these flaws and you, like me, will start to grow annoyed looking at this screen without even knowing why. Well, the above is part of why.

Another big chunk of the “why” is in the blue cast that befalls the screen if you ever hold it at an angle that’s less than perfectly in front of you. You’ll know this issue from the year 2011, when Samsung was just getting started with its mobile OLED technology and phones like the Galaxy S II looked gorgeous up front but had the weakness of looking blue from almost any oblique angle. The OLED panel on Pixel 2 XL doesn’t even have the decency to look stunning when viewed under perfect circumstances. But it does have that aggravating blue cast that we thought we’d left in the past.

Same image displayed on an iPhone 8 Plus (left) and Pixel 2 XL (right). The iPhone makes the photo look brighter than it actually is, and the 2 XL doesn’t look quite so green to the naked eye. Still, this comparison illustrates just how different the 2 XL is from the conventional color tuning. Photos by James Bareham / The Verge

Then there’s the matter of the color accuracy and saturation of the 2 XL. Here’s Google’s position on the matter:

"We designed the Pixel display to have a more natural and accurate rendition of colors this year but we know some people prefer more vivid colors so we've added an option to boost colors by 10% for a more saturated display. We're always looking at people's responses to Pixel and we will look at adding more color options through a software update if we see a lot of feedback."

The Verge’s Creative Director James Bareham sides with Google on this, describing the Pixel 2 XL as the phone screen tuned most closely to professional displays: “it presents natural colors in terms of photos, but is a little dark,” he says. But here’s the real problem: James uses truly pro equipment that nobody is trying to sell to consumers; what he thinks of as accurate, what might technically be accurate, is not what the majority of us see on most of the devices we use.

Just a quick look at the red elements of the Google Photos and Chrome icons on the Android home screen — both of which look brown on the Pixel 2 XL — tells me I’m not going to like where this weird screen is going. Google’s “vivid colors” display setting doesn’t do enough to bring the 2 XL back in line with the mobile, laptop, and desktop displays that we’re all used to. Even with it activated, everything looks washed out and feeble when set against an iPhone 8, Galaxy S8, HTC U11, MacBook Pro, iMac, or the majority of Windows laptops. There is a reasonably consistent mainstream flavor of color balance and saturation, and the 2 XL is simply too far out of it.

I took a selfie with the Pixel 2 XL and it was a good sharp selfie, worthy of being shared. That Pixel camera really is a marvel to behold. But looking at the image on the 2 XL’s screen, my face looked vampiric, deprived of color and vibrance. I popped that same photo up on my iMac and, hey presto, there was pinkness in my cheeks again. I have also photographed cats, cars, architecture, and nighttime scenes, and in each case, looking at them on the 2 XL made me want to edit some saturation in and modify the color balance. That’s dangerous and misleading — because on more conventionally tuned displays, all of those photos look near enough perfect. The 2 XL screen is actively nudging its users into making photo edits they’ll later regret.

Yet another issue with the Pixel 2 XL screen has been pointed out by Ars Technica and Android Central. Both describe a gritty or grainy appearance to single-color backgrounds in low light on the 2 XL. The photos provided by Ars illustrate this well, showing an inconsistent, “dirty” white where it should be simply uniform; this grittiness becomes even more apparent when you scroll.

From my time with the excellent Pixel 2, I firmly believe that the Pixel 2 XL would be the best phone on the market — without exception — if it just had the sort of adequate screen that the Pixel XL of yesteryear had. (I’m not even reaching for Samsung Galaxy S8 class greatness, see how modest the bar to cross is!) Maybe you disagree with me and you consider the questionable display in question to be fine. But the reason for my melodramatic angst is just how close Google came to true greatness — there’s so much good contained within the company’s 2017 phones. Is perfection too much to ask for?

There are many phone features that I’m willing to compromise on. Wireless charging and waterproofing are things everyone insists on these days, but I don’t. I spent a very happy month and a half toting a U11 with big fat bezels on it, because I think it’s a gorgeous device. Expandable storage, removable batteries, even headphone jacks are not big enough omissions to put me off a phone that’s really great in some other respect. But a screen that makes me scream every time I have to look at it? I couldn’t tolerate that with the LG V30, and I wouldn’t tolerate it with the $850 Google Pixel 2 XL, either.

Comments

Pretty disappointing for a $850 flagship phone. No wonder Apple is stuck with Samsung supplying its iPhone X panels. LG Display needs to step it up.

LG’s OLED displays: Great on TVs, terrible on phones.

Yup, I have an LG OLED and it’s great.

Can we chop a 6-inch slab off the corner (no one will notice!) and put it into a phone? Asking for a friendly corporation in Mountain View.

I guess if we’re okay with WVGA screens that would work just great!

WVGA? Maybe if you had an 8K TV to start with. A 6-inch screen cut from a 65-inch 4k screen (3840 × 2160), would be 354 × 200.

I knew someone would do the calculation to get a hard number in. You haven’t disappointed me, Verge comments.

Fun additional fact: The original Apple Newton MessagePad released in 1983 had a resolution of 336 × 240, although it was black and white and 4.5-inch.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MessagePad
ARM 610 (20 MHz)
4 MB ROM
640 KB RAM
4 AAA or NiCd rechargeable or external power supply

What a brilliant and glorious 200 pixels they would be.

/r/TheyDidTheMath

So, just to be clear, is there a problem with the Pixel2XL screen (bad quality panel etc) that can’t be fixed in any way, or is it actually a "professionally tuned" display (as mentioned in the article) and is simply unpleasant to the common user’s eye (in which case it can be fixed with a software update)?

It’s both. LG is years behind Samsung on OLED development, and that’s why this 2XL screen exhibits flaws Samsung left behind in like 2012. But it’s also been tuned for a more "accurate" colour rendition, which lowers the usual over-saturation of mobile screens. I put the "accurate" in quotes, because if everyone’s screen is over-saturated but yours isn’t, what you’re gonna end up doing is sharing pictures that look horribly oversaturated on your friends’ screens.

I don’t understand why you are chalking this up to the color accurate sRGB profile that is (finally!) being used on the new Pixel devices. sRGB on a good display looks fantastic, which includes the iPhone 8 and iMac displays that were mentioned in this post itself. When you viewed your selfie on the iMac, it was being displayed in 100% sRGB because that’s what the image is in. Whatever the issue is with the Pixel 2 XL display, the calibration has nothing to do with it. You said yourself the smaller Pixel 2 looks better, which just shows it has nothing to do with the calibration as it too uses sRGB.

We are just starting to see proper color calibration on smartphones these days. Ill-informed opinions like these will just push manufacturers back in the Stone Age of acid trip colors.

Isn’t this the opposite argument we’ve been hearing for years about Samsung’s more saturated profile and Apple’s more "Accurate" color profile?

Vlad, can this be fixed by a software update? or are they going to have to replace the screen on upcoming phones like a month from now?

Vlad,

I’m going to reiterate krzyfrog’s post/question here:

You say part of the issue is the "accurate" sRGB profile versus an "oversaturated" profile of many Android phones. Yet Apple seems to have always engineered towards a goal of the most accurate color rendition they can possibly achieve and at least iPhone users aren’t clamoring that it is dreary (some are I’m sure ;v).

You also go through the trouble of showing the super cool side by side comparison where your portrait has a green/blue cast on the XL, which suggests the XL is not entirely color accurate?

But then there is this "The Verge’s Creative Director James Bareham sides with Google on this, describing the Pixel 2 XL as the phone screen tuned most closely to professional displays: "it presents natural colors in terms of photos, but is a little dark," he says."

So does that mean James has tested the Pixel 2 XL (and Pixel 2) displays and finds it/them very accurate?

I guess what I’m getting at is several of the discrepancies you point out seem unlikely to be the result of an accurate color profile nor do you find the same issues with the Pixel 2 just the XL. As krzyfrog posted, were they not tuned to the same profile? Maybe I am reading your article wrong and you are saying ’here are some definite issues (NY Times icon, your bluish portrait, Google Photos and Chrome icons having brownish looking reds) AND some people, coming from phones with screens tuned to be over saturated, will find the XL (and regular Pixel 2???) "washed out and feeble".

Not trying to be confrontational, just wanted to get some clarification with different points you seem to be making that don’t jive with each other.
Thanks!

Shame we never got an answer.

Not if you want the pixel density of a modern smartphone.

TV’s are notorious for their chroma compression. Wonder what subpixel arrangement LG is using on the P2XL, Samsung got a lot of flak for using RGGB a few years ago… the banding indicates something funny is going on. Perhaps the weirdness is due to the firmware powering the display to mitigate a weird subpixel arrangement.

Samsung still uses pentile arrangement, but they are smart: pixels are not defined like on a LCD, where each R, G, B belongs to a specific pixel and nothing else. That’s why you can run Galaxy phones at 1080p, and it looking great. Think of it as an always-on antialiasing that’s built into the hardware.

I need to disagree here. Pentile is smart for display life and manufacturing considerations, but not necessarily for image quality. Pentile sub pixels looks universally worse than RGB at a given DPI. Do you remember how grainy the image quality was in the original lower DPI pentile screens? Pentile has 2/3 the sub pixels compared to RGB. Perceptually if you count by sub pixels per square inch, Pentile and RGB look roughly as clear (with a slight edge to pentile), but to reach equivalent sub pixel count your GPU/CPU needs to process 50% more pixels with pentile.
Pentile displays these days tend to run at a DPI that would be pointless in an RGB display in order to overcome the issues presented by this lack of sub pixels and appear sharp instead of grainy.
You analogy with antialiasing is actually pretty good, except that it is not free. Your GPU is essentially being forced to alway process super sampled antialiasing just to drive the screen.
But to be fair, the best displays today are pentile.

You are right, I did not explain myself! In comparison of 1440p RGB vs 1440p pentile screen, the RGB clearly wins, no question about it. But Samsung phones actually run at 1080p (yea, you can force it to 1440p, but then one color is still only 1080p), which means that there is almost a "hardware" antialiasing going on.

Also I remember reading that this antialiasing calculation is done by display driver, not the GPU (or at least not in a way that’s exposed to the system), so I doubt there is a slowdown (or at least a slowdown that is avoidable, i.e. you can turn it off).

The first few years their OLED TV’s suffered similar problems. Terrible uniformity and banding issues.

To each his own. My Dad has an LG OLED and while it looks great when it’s working, he had to have the panel replaced due to blotchiness (they referred to it as orange peel effect) that occurred within the warranty period. It’s bad enough that they can’t make a display that looks good when new, but between that anecdote and all of their other hardware issues, I just don’t have faith that this $900 phone will live long enough to justify the price.

That’s because it’s different panel technology. LG’s tvs have a white OLED diods with color filters, instead of the diodes themselves illuminating in color. That way you get the dynamic range of OLED, and don’t have the issues with color accuracy/short lifespan of blue diodes etc.

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