There's a paradox to the way Google is addressing potential issues with its new Pixel 2 XL, which may leave some buyers of the flagship phone less than satisfied with the company.
On the one hand, Google wants you to know reported screen issues for the phone, released October 19, aren't a big deal. Even so, it's decided to extend the phone's standard one-year warranty to two years.
But here's the problem: That warranty doesn't actually mention the 6-inch OLED screen, one of the highlights of the $850 phone. In a pair of blog posts on Oct. 26, Google strongly suggested that the Pixel 2 XL's most worrying issue -- where images could permanently "burn in" to the screen -- isn't considered a defect covered by the warranty.
"Thorough testing of the Pixel 2 XL display shows that its decay characteristics are similar to OLED panels used in comparable products," wrote Google Mario Queiroz, vice president of product management.
So if Google says there's no issue with the Pixel 2 XL screen, how are customers who claim to have screen problems supposed to take advantage of the warranty? There's no easy answer to this question, which is why I went to Google's Silicon Valley headquarters on Monday to talk about that screen and that warranty with Queiroz and Seang Chau, vice president of engineering for Pixel software.
And even though there are some encouraging words for Pixel 2 XL buyers, explained in detail below, there's also some less than comforting news.
When it comes to the question of whether you're covered or not when it comes to the screen, the bottom line -- so far -- is "maybe."
It's not surprising that Google wouldn't want to own up to any problems with the Pixel 2 XL, particularly if they turned out to be limited to a small batch of devices. Google CEO Sundar Pichai has made a massive investment in consumer hardware, creating a dedicated hardware division last year and pouring more than a billion dollars into hiring HTC engineers to bolster its Pixel operation this September. The search giant has been trying to position itself as more than just a software company, but also as a lifestyle brand that makes devices you'd want to put in your home or your pocket.
So any hits to the reputation and quality of its flagship phone -- which is the target of a major advertising blitz -- may be a blow to Google, especially as it heads into the all-important holiday shopping season and tries to woo people away from Apple's iPhone X and Samsung's Galaxy Note 8.
Here's where things stand.
Good, but possibly confusing
Here's the encouraging news: Google is now officially willing to consider burn-in and other screen issues as potentially eligible for warranty support.
"We're very confident that Pixel delivers an exceptional smartphone experience, and if any customers experience defects, including burn in, they should contact customer support for a resolution," the company told CNET. "All warranty requests are evaluated on a case-by-case basis, and our two-year warranty covers a number of areas, including display-related defects."
Now, here's the confusing bit: Google still doesn't believe any of the screen issues it's seen so far -- both internally and floating around the web -- qualify as a defect. Unless your phone has an unusually problematic screen, that warranty may still not apply.
"Google has given itself considerable latitude to interpret the terms of its own warranty," says Adam Polk, an attorney with the law firm of Girard Gibbs in San Francisco who's exploring a potential class action around the Pixel 2 phones. "The warranty extension moves this problem to the back burner, but there is nothing in writing committing Google to stand by this product if burn-in becomes an issue in the future."
So that's why the "maybe" stands.
According to Google, the crux of the matter is this: all phones that use vibrant, high-end OLED displays can potentially suffer from burn-in. Users have had this concern with rival phones as well. But Google's Queiroz and Chau said Monday that the Pixel 2 XL doesn't suffer more than most, and importantly, that those afterimages aren't visible during normal use.
For instance, several reviewers and Pixel 2 XL claimed the Pixel 2 XL's navigation bar may leave ghostly images of the Home, Back and Recents buttons carved into the screen. (in 2 out of the 5 phones we tested.) Google makes an important point about that: it's not generally possible to see the image of those buttons burned into the screen because the navigation bar usually covers that region.
(In other words, you'd have to make the navigation bar vanish before you could see the issue -- say, by viewing a solid grey image that takes up the entire screen. Not exactly normal.)
To qualify as a defect, a Google exec said the burn-in would need to affect a buyer's normal day-to-day use of the phone. You'd need to see it without testing for it.
That blue tint? It's intentional
As to the second most prominent screen issue, blue shift, Google says all displays demonstrate some degree of color shift, a claim that noted display expert Raymond Soneira confirms. (FYI, blue shift happens when you tilt the Pixel 2 XL off-center. Everything on screen takes on a blue tint.) With the Pixel 2 XL, Google said Monday that it was a tradeoff: the company sacrificed wider viewing angles in favor of improved display performance when looking at the screen closer to straight on.
Bottom line: Don't expect Google's warranty to cover any unhappiness you might have with blue shift.
One other thing worth noting: Google said on Monday the Pixel 2 XL's colors do shift more than a prominent competitor (whom Google asked me not to name) when the screen is tilted far away from your face -- past 45 degrees or so. Even so, Google said that at the more realistic angles you'd hold a phone, the colors are more consistent. That doesn't really jive with what CNET saw in our initial tests, but we admittedly only tested a handful of phones.
Google will make changes
Google execs say they were surprised by media reports of burn-in and other screen issues, because their internal dogfood tests -- where a company distributes a product to its own staff to simulate real-world use -- didn't reveal any issues. And since the first reviews of the Pixel 2 XL in mid-October, Google said it's been testing a "statistically significant" number of Pixel 2 XL devices without finding any defective units.
But that's not to say Google isn't taking additional steps to help placate customers who feel the screen's not up to par.
Over the next few weeks, the company plans to roll out software updates that fade out buttons on the navigation bar to reduce potential burn-in and to increase the vibrancy of the screen's colors -- Google's primer on color management before enabling that to understand the trade-offs of the various modes.)-- with a new "Saturated" mode. (The screen nerds among us may want to read
Google also said it's already been working with app developers to offer a lighter navigation bar (white with black buttons, instead of black with white buttons), which could potentially help the screen wear more evenly. Google added that it's constantly looking at tweaks like these to see if it can reduce the inherent loss of brightness that some of the pixels in an OLED screen may experience over time.
And if you're unhappy with the phone for any reason, "defect" or no, Google says it still wants you to call support so it can try to help out.
So how does all of this affect someone's decision to buy this phone? Like many things, it's not exactly cut and dry. Some CNET staffers didn't notice the screen issues at all. Right now, we do believe normal, non-screen-junkie users will be satisfied with this phone, despite the minor issues we've seen after our close examinations.
But it's worth noting one more time that Google won't admit there are any issues with the Pixel 2 XL's screen at all, in its blog posts or comments by executives. So if Google's software updates don't satisfy you, the warranty may not either. You'll need to rely on Google's good graces.
Depending on what you're looking for in a phone, that could either be mildly frustrating or a dealbreaker.
CNET's Rich Nieva contributed reporting.
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