Assessing the Pixel 2 displays

There has been an absurd amount of misinformation circulating about the displays of Google's new Pixel phones. I’ve written hurriedly elsewhere about this, but one point I want to stress is that sRGB has little to do with anything. The devices run Oreo and are thus color managed.

To be completely clear, the 2 XL's panel is really bad, but we've also effectively known this was going to be the case for months based on the LG V30. After discussing with some smart folks, I’ll go ahead and speculate as to what’s going on. These are just some guesses, and none of this is confirmed.

You should never trust your eyes, and this needs to be properly tested and measured, but it does look like the display of the 2 XL undershoots the red and blue sRGB primaries and overshoots green. The panel is also clearly way too cold, which makes the off-axis color balance look really bad at large angles. There does appear to be a green push similar to that that could affect the Samsung Galaxy S4. Green shifting is about the worst result you can have for the color rendering of a display, because people associate it with nausea.

In addition to all of that, there are clearly various other traditional OLED issues and defects affecting the panel. Samsung Display OLED used to suffer from many of these problems, but the company managed to solve almost all of them over the past few years.

None of this can be fixed in software. It’s just a bad panel.

The calibration itself is software. The Pixel 2 XL’s panel is definitely not individually calibrated, and possibly not even batch calibrated. LG Display appears not to have the appropriate equipment and workflow for adequate calibration. Google probably could have paid sufficient money to buy this for the production line and made sure it got done, but it’s also possible the fabs are too immature and this was somehow not feasible.

LG Display was not originally going to ship OLED smartphone displays this year, but seemingly rushed to re-enter the market due to high demand from vendors wanting to better position against the upcoming iPhone X, for all the wrong reasons. (I’m hearing that some vendors now want displays with notches, which is spectacularly depressing.)

The Samsung Display OLED on the 5.0” Pixel 2 meanwhile appears to be pretty reasonable at a distance. These displays are probably batch calibrated. I strongly suspect it’s actually the same panel that the first Pixel phone used, except now calibrated to the Display P3 color space as well as could be managed. Google added some software to Android Oreo to allow for this, which is the same sort of thing vendors like Samsung and Qualcomm have been doing for many years for tons of devices.

On a final note, one thing Google has always done wrong is include optional or even default color profiles that are deliberately inaccurate. The "Vivid" setting should not exist if the product managers truly care about accuracy, and I hope Google doesn't add any more in response to all this overblown controversy. Perception of "dull colors" is not the problem to solve. No consumers complain about the accurate color rendering of an iPhone.