Google Pixel 2 XL Review Update: Display Changes

Posted on November 17, 2017 by Paul Thurrott in Android with 24 Comments

Pixel 2 XL Review Update: Display Changes

As you may know, I cut my Pixel 2 XL review short due to the rampant problems that customers have reported about the device. I just cannot recommend a smartphone with so many complaints.

But I’ve continued using it. And last night, I finally received the November software update that Google rolled out to address one of those complaints, that the Pixel 2 XL display is too dull, and not as vibrant as the display on other modern smartphones.

We live in a HDR world, when you think about it: Overly-saturated colors displayed on glossy screens has become the norm across our digital devices. And while you may or may not have an opinion on that effect—some love the HDR-like effect, some do not—I am more bothered by the notion that we have no choice in the matter. That blown-out, overly-colorful colors may simply become the norm, distorting our view of the world.

This effect impacts photos taken with HDR-capable cameras, and it impacts device display in general. Since the former represent our memories, I feel like that is perhaps the more serious matter. That is, it almost doesn’t matter how good a smartphone’s display is, per se. What matters is that the photos it takes are what you want. That might mean “accurate” to some people. It might mean “with a bit of HDR effect” to others.

Personally, I like a bit of HDR effect, which adds a colorful “pop,” or HDR color saturation to photos. It can be over-done, of course. But, generally speaking, I’m on board. And on that note, the Nexus 6P and original Pixel XL both had what I would consider an “ideal” HDR impact on photos. The iPhone 7 Plus, however, did not—in fact, those photos are routinely dull—and I hated that you could not just leave that camera in an a “HDR always on” mode. It is telling, I think, that you can now do so with the iPhone 8 and X.

The charge against the Pixel 2 XL display dullness had nothing to do with the camera. Instead, what users were complaining about is that the display itself wasn’t as bright and vibrants as was the case with previous phones. My experience is that the Pixel 2 XL display was fine out of the box. And the photos are likewise excellent. If anything, they might include a bit more HDR “pop” than was the case previously. I’m OK with that. Night and low-light shots, in particularly, are crazy-good.

So. That update. What did it do?

Two things. First, Google made the first of a promised series of changes aimed at eliminating screen burn-in. This is an issue with OLED displays—surprise, the iPhone X has the exact same problem—but it’s a particular problem with Android because of the always-present on-screen navigation buttons, which are often a start white on black, ideal conditions for burn-in. I’ve not experienced this (yet?) but I’ve only had the phone for 12 days or so.

Second, the update changes how the Pixel 2 XL display works. Originally, Google had programmed the display to be color accurate, which is what generated all the complaints: Users didn’t want “accurate,” they wanted vibrant HDR colors. Accurate, as it turns out, looks dull by comparison.

Oddly, you could make the Pixel 2 XL display even less vibrant by navigating to Settings > Display > Advanced and unchecking “Vivid colors” (which was enabled by default). I’m guessing no one ever did that. But then, I thought the default Pixel 2 XL display was fine too.

After this update, Display settings has changed. The “Vivid colors” option is gone, replaced by a new “Colors” link. When you select this, you’re presented with a new screen where you can choose between three color choices for the display, Boosted, Natural, and Saturated.

I have a ton of problems with this screen.

First, while one of those options does match to the previous “Vivid colors” choice (and one likewise matches what the display looked like when you disabled that), Google has opted to use a different term for the same thing. That’s confusing.

(“Boosted” is what used to be called “Vivid colors”.)

The options are in the wrong order, which is crazy: The middle one is the least saturated. Come on, Google.

Using Google’s usually quirky naming style, I would have have named these as “Accurate” (or “Natural,” I guess), “More vivid,” and “Even more vivid.” You know. Make it obvious.

But worst of all, and seriously, ponder this one for a moment: Google doesn’t provide one or more sample photos so that you can see what impact your choice is making. Guys, what the F!#@.

Fortunately, I figured out a way around this: The Pixel 2 XL supports a side-by-side mode that lets you display two apps on the screen at the same time. So I used this to display a photo in Google Photos and Settings, so I could test the color changes.

Here’s a simulated look at how “Natural” (on the left) differs from “Saturated” (on the right).

What I’ve found is that I do happen to like the most saturated version. Whatever. I would have been fine with this if they had never changed it. But there you go.


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