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 reviewthat 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.