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Pixel 2 XL: What's burn-in and what do I do if I have it?

The Pixel 2 XL's POLED display is getting flak for burn-in issues. But what is it and can you avoid it?

Josh Miller/CNET

The Pixel 2 XL, Google's top of the line phone for 2017, is a fantastic phone overall, but it's been dogged by questions about its plastic-OLED ("POLED") screen since it was first released. On some initial models, at least, the Pixel 2 XL exhibited faint outlines of images that "burn-in" to the screen and don't go away.

To alleviate user concerns, Google said that it investigated the issue and will roll out software updates to fix these concerns. It also extended the original one-year limited warranty to two years, though when and how potential screen issues will be treated under the warranty program remains an open question.

Now playing: Watch this: The Pixel 2 XL has screen burn-in, and it's a big problem
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Before we examine the issues, it's important to note: The smaller-size Pixel 2 -- the non-XL model -- uses a more traditional OLED display (not POLED). There have been no reports of burn-in or image retention on that model, and it does not exhibit the XL's "blue shift" issue discussed herein, either.

But back to the issue at hand.

So what's burn-in, and why is it happening on this screen in particular? We'll get into that, but first, a quick recap of the situation.

What's happening with the Pixel 2 XL?

Reports have surfaced that the Pixel 2 XL experiences screen burn-in, wherein faint remnants of images remain on the screen despite not being actively displayed. In addition to reports elsewhere on the web, two of CNET's five Pixel 2 XLs were affected. When we displayed a gray color swatch on one of those phones, we saw outlines of the notification bar's battery status and clock, and the navigational hotkeys at the bottom of the display.

When we ran the same gray-swatch test on three other Pixel 2 XLs we had, we didn't see any burn-in effects.

We don't think this problem will heavily disrupt your day-to-day experience with the Pixel 2 XL. While watching YouTube videos full-screen, for example, I saw burn-in only when a video happened to show light colors at the right side of the screen for more than a few seconds. And at that point, I had to be really looking for it.

Google Pixel 2 XL screen burn-in

A Pixel 2 XL exhibiting burn-in with the bottom navigational buttons.

Josh Miller/CNET

There's also been a more minor issue about the display's muted color appearance and tendency to look blue at the slightest tilt of the screen. This problem is more about personal preference and again, Google's upcoming firmware update will supposedly offer more user choice. Click here for more info on that.

Why is this happening now?

Both POLED and AMOLED are types of OLED, or Organic Light Emitting Diode displays, wherein individual pixels emit light. Every OLED screen today actually uses AMOLED (active-matrix OLED) technology and basically, OLED and AMOLED are the same thing.

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Early burn-in issues have not been reported yet for the V30, which has a POLED screen too.

Josh Miller/CNET

Samsung is the leading manufacturer of AMOLED phone screens and has been using it in phones for almost a decade. Samsung Display also manufactures AMOLED phone screens for other brands, reportedly including Apple with the new iPhone X.

POLED is another kind of AMOLED. Instead of the glass substrate used in typical AMOLED displays, POLED uses a plastic substrate. One advantage of plastic is flexibility, something Samsung and LG, another maker of OLED screens, have demonstrated before.

The smaller Pixel 2's AMOLED screen is made by Samsung, while the larger Pixel 2 XL's POLED screen was made by LG. Meanwhile, the LG V30 has a POLED display too, with the same resolution as the Pixel 2 XL. However, we haven't seen burn-in issues with the V30, nor the smaller Pixel 2 and Galaxy S8.

We're not sure why we've seen burn-in issues this soon in the Pixel 2 XL, despite Google saying the issue is "in line with that of other premium smartphones." LG Display, which is heavily speculated to be the maker behind the Pixel 2 XL screen, said, "The conditions under which afterimage occurs may vary, and it also depends on the product."

What exactly is burn-in?

Problems of a lingering afterimage have been around since the first days of plasma TV. Traditionally "burn-in" means that the afterimage (a ghostly "impression" of the image that was on the screen previously) never goes away; it's permanently burned into the screen. Image retention, on the other hand, implies something temporary, where the afterimage disappears eventually.

Whatever you call it, burn-in is generally caused by leaving a static section of screen on for a long time. Examples on TVs include logos and tickers at the bottom of news channels like CNN, a score bug from a baseball game, or the status display from a video game. You see more static images on phones, particularly the notification and navigation bars.

Now playing: Watch this: What is Pixel Burn?
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In most cases, those static sections of screens don't linger as faint afterimages. But on the Pixel 2 XL, the faint lines of the notification bar and hotkey buttons still stuck around after the display was turned off overnight and after running a screen burn-in fix video. These factors suggest that this issue is more persistent than standard image retention, which usually disappears after some time.

Reports of burn-in on OLED screens are not new; the Nexus 6 reportedly had similar issues. But the "stuck" afterimages usually happen after months or more of use. The fact that we're seeing it on such a premium and expensive phone so soon is concerning.

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Burn-in can occur in OLED TVs too.

Sarah Tew/CNET

That's a bummer. Can I avoid it?

Most of the time, this won't be a problem. But, best practice is to avoid keeping those static images up for long periods of time.

  • Set your screen off timer to a minute or less
  • If your phone has the option, set the persistent soft keys to "auto hide" when they're not in use
  • Do the same with the notification screen
  • Turn down the screen brightness. Brighter static images are more prone to retention
  • Try running a screen burn-in reduction app or burn-in fix video (Warning: this video can potentially trigger seizures for people with photosensitive epilepsy. Viewer discretion is advised)
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The Pixel 2 XL.

Josh Miller/CNET

What can I do if I want to return my Pixel 2 XL?

If you purchased the Pixel 2 XL through the Google Store, you can return it there within 15 calendar days after receiving it. As mentioned before, you're also entitled to a limited two-year warranty so long as the phone was purchased through an authorized retailer. Note that the Google Store generally has more liberal return policies than other retailers. That's why it's best to purchase Pixel phones there, rather than through a carrier or other retailer.

We've reached out to Verizon about its return policy specifically related to the Pixel 2 XL, but have yet to hear back. In the meantime, ask your local Verizon retailer to initiate a return.