Google Pixel 3 XL Display Review – What Google Needs to Improve for the Pixel 4
The launch of the Google Pixel 4 is only a few months away, and this year Google started up the hype train extraordinarily early by posting renders of the back of the smartphone four months in advance of its expected release. The front of the phone is still up for speculation, but what we do know is that Google is attempting to up the ante in their screen department. Google takes tremendous pride in their DisplayMate A+ rating of the Pixel 3 XL, even resorting to touting about it as a PR response to display issues (which I’ve also encountered as a canned customer service response). DisplayMate’s review clearly bolstered Google’s ego — here’s my take on the display.
The Future for Pixel Displays — A Preamble
Google is so close to making a smartphone with a display that could be considered among the best. Indoors, the Google Pixel 3 XL display is absolutely stellar with iPhone X(S)-like quality — colors, contrast, viewing angles and all. The silhouette on the front of the device is extremely sleek with a nice flat dark slab that hides the bathtub notch and chin well when the display is off (a result of the high-quality anti-reflection absorption layers), and a display that looks just as well-laminated as the iPhone X-series. Just like Apple, Google decided to use a flexible substrate on a flat screen — which I highly prefer — to achieve the plastered-screen look (hence “Flexible OLED” even though the screen appears flat). If Google implemented its panel’s high brightness mode I would give the Pixel 3 XL display an “A” rating, but Google has to go even further since the competition is boasting 600+ nits display brightnesses. Until Google does so, its displays will always seem lackluster since there are literally dozens of us that actually go outside, where the Pixel phone displays simply appear unpleasantly dim when compared to the competition.
On the opposite spectrum, Google also needs to improve the shadow calibration in their displays. Within some of our native habitats — in the pitch black — the Pixel phone displays have exhibited higher black clipping than most other handsets, making dark scenes a black blotchy mess. The Google Pixel 3 XL has done better than the rest of the Pixel devices in this regard, but it is evident that the issue lies with Google’s calibration. In every Pixel phone’s native wide gamut, there is noticeably less black crush, which suggests a low-breadth LUT or an error in the tone response curve/transformation matrix to sRGB.
To add to the low-brightness nuances, the brightness steps at the low end are jumpy and not smooth. At the minimum brightness, the Google Pixel 3 XL outputs 2.1 nits and jumps up to 3.5 nits at the very next step. This is a 67% increase from the previous step. For reference, it takes approximately a 5% increase or decrease in magnitude for a change in luminance to be noticeable (in subsequent patches), so 67% is a very noticeable jump. The next step outputs 5.0 nits (43% increase), then 6.4 nits (28% increase), then 8.0 nits (25% increase). This happens for most of the display’s lower brightness range, and it could be annoying for your display to sporadically stutter in brightness when using auto brightness. It also lowers the available range of brightness values to choose from in dim environments; at night time the jump from 2.1 nits to 3.5 nits is pretty large, and you might want a setting in-between.
Next up is color management. I previously wrote a similar segment in my Google Pixel 3 (non-XL) display review that I would like my readers to read since all of it is still relevant. With the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL, Google moved on from defaulting to an accurate color profile and switching over to a new color saturation-expanding “Adaptive” profile. This profile does not have any form of color management, so using this profile doesn’t allow the viewing of photos in other color spaces at any proper fidelity. This is completely counterproductive to Google’s recent announcement that they are bringing wide color photos to Android. In the post, Google explains the importance of color management and color correctness in apps and how to prepare and implement the ideas, all of which would be pointless in the Adaptive profile.
Furthermore, I am fairly certain that the Google Pixel 4 will be the first to debut wide color photography in Android. I caught a hint of this last year during the Pixel 3 XL leaks when I noticed that the photo samples from the leaks had a Display P3 embedded color profile, coming from a dogfood-version of Google Camera. I was disappointed to see it omitted from the release product, but the recent Google wide color photo announcement leaves me no doubt that it is coming with the Google Pixel 4. They just won’t be properly viewable in the Adaptive profile, so I’m curious to see what Google is going to do. Google is also likely implementing an automatic white balance feature similar to Apple’s TrueTone, which suggests at least some focus on the display — be it just a feature — for the next Pixel.
The Adaptive profile is the punchier, color saturation-expanding profile and is set on the Google Pixel 3 XL by default. It does not support any form of automatic color management, and from my usage, there is nothing “adaptive” about this color profile.
The Natural profile is the color-accurate profile that targets the industry standard sRGB color space by default. The profile also supports Android 8.0 Oreo’s automatic color management system, so apps that properly support rendering content with embedded color profiles (which are currently few and far between) can display content in their respective color space.
The Boosted profile is the Natural profile with, unsurprisingly, a slight boost in saturation. According to Google, the profile boosts the saturation in all directions by 10%. You can change the amount boosted with adb and root.
Bottom of the barrel; poor sunlight visibility — D
In typical Google fashion, the display on the Pixel 3 XL is among the dimmest out of any flagship smartphone available, even being outshined by many mid-range devices. The main reason for this is that Google does not utilize the High Brightness Modes in their displays, which all of Google’s Pixel phones are capable of. It requires root to toggle, but it is long overdue for Google to implement it seamlessly into the auto brightness system. With High Brightness Mode, the Google Pixel 3 XL can reach 525 nits at 100% APL, which perceptually appears about 16% brighter than without High Brightness Mode. While 525 nits is still not very competitive with other flagship displays, it still slightly aids in viewing the Google Pixel 3 XL under brighter conditions.
Most OLEDs typically save power by lowering the brightness of the display as total display emission increases. The display in the Google Pixel 3 XL almost completely disables this mechanism, varying its brightness little-to-none with content APL, which is necessary for accurate tone response.
At the low end, the Google Pixel 3 XL gets as low as 2.1 nits, which is just fine, but even lower would help some people use the phone more comfortably during night time. Displays such as the Apple iPhone XS and the Samsung Galaxy S10 can go down to 1.7 nits, which is noticeably dimmer.
The brightness steps in the Google Pixel 3 XL are still messed up like they were in all the previous Pixels. I originally wrote about it in my Google Pixel 3 (non-XL) display review, and a whole beta OS update and device release later, Google still hasn’t fixed the distribution of their brightness steps. Simplified, Google doesn’t have enough brightness steps in the lower range of the brightness slider to allow smooth transitions when changing brightness levels, and the exponent that Google uses (2.5) to map the brightness setting to the output luminance is too high, resulting in a ramp up that is too slow in the dim end and too intense near the peak. No other handsets I have tested lately have either of these issues.
Excellent; includes wide gamut support — A+
In its Natural profile, the Google Pixel 3 XL is among the most chroma-accurate smartphones, sharing the top with the other Pixel phones and the iPhones. All Google Pixel devices support Android’s automatic color management, so they can also display content in other wider color spaces if the app supports it. Testing it out, Google Pixel 3 XL excels not only in reproducing the sRGB color space, but it is just as accurate when rendering P3 content: both gamuts are targeted with an average ΔE of 0.9 with very low variance. The maximum error for both gamuts is when rendering 100% blue at low brightness, reporting a ΔE of 2.7 and 3.0 for the sRGB and P3 gamuts, respectively. Both maximum errors are just unnoticeable, meaning that the Google Pixel 3 XL has a display in which all colors appear accurate at all brightness levels (except for when very low, <10 nits).
Contrast & Tone Response
Slightly skimped shadow rendering with otherwise-excellent tone response — A
Chroma accuracy is just one half of the equation. The other, arguably more important component to color, is its luminance, and the Google Pixel 3 XL nails this, too. The Pixel 3 XL display gamma ranges from 2.20 to 2.31 and averages out to about 2.25, which is excellent and appears completely accurate for almost all color mixtures besides those with signal levels below 10%. It is at these low signal levels where the Pixel 3 XL display struggles to render colors in its Natural profile, crushing blacks at and below 3% signal level (channel values below 9 in 8-bit). In its Adaptive profile, however, the Google Pixel 3 XL’s shadow rendering is superior, lowering its black clipping threshold from 3% signal level to 1.6%, gaining 5 full channel 8-bit channel values.
Mostly consistent appearance — B
The drive balance of the Natural profile is good. The three OLEDs are tightly coupled with no noticeable variance from 10% to 100% signal level, with a slight red bias in the shadows, then steering cold at even lower signal levels. The Adaptive profile seems to have a smoother LUT, but slightly higher variance in its red OLED, tinting the display slightly warmer for midtones and shadows.
Google Pixel 3 XL Display Overview
XDA DISPLAY GRADE