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Pixel 2 XL: What's up with that screen?

Some people are complaining about the Pixel 2 XL's screen. But the issue isn't as straightforward as it sounds.

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The Pixel 2 vs. the Pixel 2 XL. The smaller phone uses a 5-inch Samsung AMOLED screen, while the larger has a 6-inch LG P-OLED one.

James Martin/CNET

You might have heard: The Google Pixel 2 XL has a less-than-perfect screen.

Depending on whom you ask -- see: Reddit, XDA Developers -- the phone's LG-made P-OLED screen has muted colors, a bluish tint or a blotchy, grainy texture that's visible when you scroll down webpages.

The short answer: It's basically all true.

But after a close comparison of five different phones here in the CNET offices -- two Pixel 2 XL, two LG V30 and a Samsung Galaxy S8 Plus for comparison -- it's more of a nuanced issue, and less of an open and shut case.

Screen nerds may want to steer clear of the Pixel 2 XL for now, but we don't believe any of the issues we're seeing are deal breakers for ordinary users.

Here's how things shake out.

Update, October 25: There's actually a fourth issue -- screen burn-in -- that's potentially even worse than any of the other issues discussed here. We saw it on two out of six different Pixel 2 XL units we tested, and we've seen other reports around the internet. We have updated our Pixel 2 XL review as a result, and we'll let you know if we can get a clear explanation from Google about what's going on.

1. Muted colors

There's no question that the colors on the Pixel 2 XL's 6-inch, 2,880x1,440-pixel P-OLED screen aren't quite as vibrant as those on the flagship Samsung phone we used for comparison. We created pure red, green and blue RGB images in Photoshop at each phone's native resolution for an apples to apples test, and the Pixel 2 XL's colors were consistently muted by comparison. It didn't matter whether we turned on the phone's "Vivid" mode, or reduced the Samsung phone's brightness to better match -- the Samsung's colors always popped in a way the Google's screen didn't.

But would you notice in everyday use? We're tempted to argue you wouldn't. When we watched movie trailers and CNET videos instead of peeping pixels, we had a tough time noticing a difference in color. (Maybe the skin tones were slightly better on the Samsung.)

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Google's phone is water-resistant.

James Martin/CNET

You might also argue that the muted colors are intentional, that Google calibrated its screen this way. Google certainly argued that, in a statement to CNET:

"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."

But again, the "Vivid" mode didn't make a big difference in our tests -- and for whatever reason, the two LG V30 phones we tested, also with identical size and resolution P-OLED screens, didn't have muted colors. They looked nearly as vibrant as the Samsung.

Besides, colors aren't the only potential issue with Google's screen.

2. Blue shift

The phone looks fine viewed head-on, pointed directly at your face. OK, maybe the colors are a touch muted. (See above.) But tilt it even a little bit, and all those colors get way cooler. Everything you see takes on a blue tint.

It's not unusual for a screen's colors to change at off-angles, particularly in phones with curved glass edges like these. Even our reference Samsung Galaxy S8 Plus takes on blue tint if you tilt it far enough. But the Pixel 2 XL's blue shift is so immediate, the sweet spot so small, that you need to hold it perfectly level with your face to avoid the blue color cast.

Here's the thing: It's not nearly as bad on LG's own phone, the LG V30. We pit two LG V30 phones against two Pixel 2 XL phones, and the V30s didn't take on nearly as deep a blue tint when tilted the same degree.

3. Noisy/blotchy screen

Of the various concerns with the Pixel 2 XL's screen, this is the tiniest by far. One of my colleagues said she couldn't see the issue at all. But if you look very closely, particularly when scrolling down a white webpage, with the phone's brightness turned down, maybe in a dark room, for good measure, you can see little splotchy rainbows appear on the surface of the screen, or a fine grain like the noise of a photo taken in poor light.

The theory is that these are because the individual subpixels that make up the pixels of the screen aren't all lighting up to the same degree, and so some of those subpixels stand out. I can't confirm that, but I definitely saw it happen on both the Pixel 2 XL and LG V30 phones.

However, once again, it wasn't nearly as noticible an issue on our twin LG V30 units as it was on our two copies of the Pixel 2 XL. 

Which leads me to believe there's more to the story than Google is letting on.

Eye of the beholder

The "smoking gun" for some are the noisy, blotchy patterns that are (barely) visible in the Pixel 2 XL's screen, which directly mirror those in early "preview" samples of the LG V30 sent to journalists over six weeks ago, such as the ones highlighted by Ars Technica's Ron Amadeo.

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Early previews complained of issues with the LG V30's screen as well.

Sarah Tew/CNET

That's effectively what Vlad Savov at The Verge is saying: That LG's P-OLED screen technology may be to blame. Both screens are from the same manufacturer, are the same size and resolution, and use the same underlying P-OLED screen technology, so it's not a huge leap to make.

But when we compare the V30 and the Pixel XL, we're seeing something different. Our final review units of the LG V30 look considerably better.

What does it mean? Well, with the caveat that perceptions are subjective, perhaps Google got a bad batch of LG screens, similar to the ones that wound up in those LG V30 "preview" units a few early reviewers got.

I've no proof of that -- Google declined to comment and LG didn't immediately respond to a request for comment -- so take that idea with a grain of salt.

But it wouldn't be the first time that an initial manufacturing run had some teething problems. Remember the "yellow-tinted" iPhone 4S screens in 2011?

The question is: Will the Pixel 2 XL you buy have a screen that looks more like the Pixel 2 XL units we have, or the LG V30s we have? I can't answer that question.

You're not missing much

Again, none of these issues are deal breakers. Many of them aren't even noticeable unless you're a pixel peeper, or compare the Pixel 2 XL side by side with other phones. We're not currently planning to dock points from our Pixel 2 XL review, because the screen is still beautiful, sharp and colorful, even if it's not the best that OLED has to offer.

Speaking of which, we didn't spot any dead or discolored pixels in any of these phones, which was one forum concern. We tested with completely-black and completely-white images, and each phone offered the brilliant whites and inky blacks that OLED screens are known for. No issues there.

If you're an absolute screen nerd, for whom the screen is the main reason to pick one phone over another, you might reconsider your Pixel 2 XL decision. (You might also reconsider if you're planning to use Google's VR headset.) 

Otherwise, we currently think the Pixel 2 XL is an excellent choice.

Just maybe buy it through Google's Play Store, which generally has a much more liberal return policy than other retailers.