Google Pixel 2 XL

We know people have opinions on the Pixel 2 XL's display. Some are bad, some are good, and some people want everyone to just move on with their lives and pick the phone that works for them for a variety of reasons. We know that the Pixel 2 XL's display has a few characteristics that are polarizing: the color representation, off-axis color shifting, grain on light backgrounds and weak shadow detail are all points of contention right now.

So rather than continuing to debate how bad each aspect of the display is, let's go to the next level: will Google release an update for the Pixel 2 XL to change the way the display looks? Let's look at the possibility.

Will Google address the screen with an update?

Google Pixel 2 XL

We know Google is constantly working on software for its Pixels, and we're sure there's already a little backlog of different features, fixes and changes that are already slated for an upcoming release. But with the amount of attention the Pixel 2 XL's screen is getting, Google has chosen to respond to this point in particular. When asked for comment on the Pixel 2 XL's display, Google provided the following statement to The Verge (emphasis mine):

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.

Google typically doesn't make many public comments on exactly what it plans to fix or change in direct response to complaints on current software builds, but it's not surprising that this one has raised to the point where it's considering changes. Go look at Google's product forums and you'll see complaints and bug reports filed for every thing you could imagine, but most don't reach the level of needing a public comment from Google — but that's where we're at with the Pixel 2 XL's display.

So there's a good chance that engineers at Google will be looking into the display tuning when it comes to release the next big software update for the Pixel 2 and 2 XL — presumably, Android 8.1. The question is, what all can Google actually do with a simple software update? Well, not as much as you'd think.

What can actually be 'fixed' with an update?

Google Pixel 2 XL and LG V30

To set the stage, manufacturers aren't even capable of making two panels back to back that look identical. Out of a batch of 1000 screens coming off of a production line, there will be variations from number one to 1000 — and LG is making far more than 1000 of these. There are tolerances that each fits within, but they are a range and not absolute. That's not to excuse issues with any screen, but rather to caution us all from looking at one phone and thinking it's completely representative of all Pixel 2 XLs.

Now, lot of what we perceive as quality of "the screen" itself actually comes down to the software tuning and calibration of that screen. The phone's software tells the screen what to do, how to adjust to various inputs, what brightness to show and what colors to recreate with which values. And within the parameters of what the screen is actually capable of, it'll do it. Further to that point, Android Oreo even offers developers the option to define a specific color space in their app, overriding the default OS setting.

Google can change the tuning of the screen, but it can't overcome physical limitations.

Google has tuned the Pixel 2 XL's display to be very accurate — more specifically, 100% accurate to the DCI-P3 color space. Other phones are not as accurate to the DCI-P3 color space (like the Pixel 2, at 93%), or are tuned to a different color space entirely. This is one reason why different screens look different to our eyes. Google could, in theory, change the Pixel 2 XL's software so that it displays colors differently — in this case, maybe with higher overall saturation. It could change the values of the red, green and blue the screen is told to show, and it'd have a direct effect on how it looks to us.

The problem here is that the Pixel 2 XL's display isn't completely malleable and able to be changed to whatever Google's engineers' collective hearts desire. It has physical limitations, and it turns out that most of what people have been complaining about in the Pixel 2 XL's display are these physical issues, not just software tuning. Changes in the software can't address the fact that the display distorts colors when you tilt the phone, nor can it address the bits of grain viewed at low brightness on white backgrounds. These are just characteristics of the display — they just happen to be ones that people are really focusing on.

So with this new-found knowledge, what do we do? Well, look at the Pixel 2 XL and decide if you like how the display looks right now. Don't buy a phone for what it could be in the future, buy it for how you feel about it on Day 1 and anything else that comes in a software update later on down the road is just gravy.

Google Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL