October 4 was supposed to be the start of something special. Google, with a year under its belt, was going to prove that not only was its hardware endeavors more than a hobby, but that the company was damn good at it. Expectations were high for the follow-up to the Pixel and Pixel XL which, despite pedestrian designs, quickly became the preeminent Android phones on the market a year ago.
On announcement day, the reaction was largely positive. The phones were expensive, the difference between the large and small versions was more pronounced, the designs weren’t jaw-dropping, there’s no headphone jack, but overall Google’s second-ever attempt at building a smartphone from the ground up looked like it would improve on the original Pixel and once again become the de facto best Android smartphone on the market.
When reviews rolled in last week, everything seemed in line with the expectations of announcement day. Once again, the reaction was largely positive. Reviewers from Wired to The Verge to Android Police praised both phones for offering one of, if not the absolute best Android experience of any handset. The one irksome characteristic that was pointed out in nearly every review regarded the display of the larger device. And this is where the tide begins to turn.
Before we move forward, it is important to note that the smaller phone, the standard Pixel 2, does not share any of the issues its larger brother is presenting. That device is still regarded as excellent and a worthwhile purchase by every publication that deemed it to be a week ago. The 2 XL, however, has lost a bevy of supporters.
It began with a routine complaint. Not one you’d like to hear about one of the most anticipated smartphones of the year, but still, nothing damning. The Pixel 2 XL’s screen was dim, and lacked the vibrant colors that have proven so popular with OLED screens from Samsung and other manufacturers.
With the importance placed upon displays as the war against bezels rages on, hearing that the panel on the 2 XL didn’t not stand up to the best of 2017 was undoubtedly a disappointment. Many said it was annoying, but livable. Others deemed it unconscionable. Still, a less-than-stellar screen was no reason to fire up the torches and drag the pitchforks out of the shed.
But it got worse. Reports of burn-in began appearing, a phrase you never want to see associated with a display of any kind, and especially not one that’s fresh off the manufacturing line. In some cases, users were experiencing burn-in symptoms (whether it’s actually burn-in hasn’t been confirmed, it could be temporary image retention) in mere days.
The controversy the Pixel 2 XL is embroiled in is the biggest in the tech world since last year’s Note 7 fiasco. The truly surprising thing is that the 2017 edition may be the worse of the two.
I know what you’re thinking. How can phones with burn-in effects on the display be worse than phones that are actually burning. The differentiator is the company at the heart of the problem.
For Samsung, the Note 7 fiasco was just that, but the company had years of hardware experience and hordes of loyal buyers to fall back on. Essentially, the Korean technology heavyweight was too big to fail. For any other company, aside from Apple, the Note 7 news cycle would have likely been a death sentence. If it had been Google, it would have derailed the company’s new focus on building an impressive hardware portfolio and being taken seriously as a hardware company.
That’s really the crux of the issue. Google is trying to build that reputation Samsung was able to fall back on, but they haven’t been at this game for long enough to do so. The company’s initial forays into hardware, largely under the Nexus name, were all experiments. Never meant to sell mass quantities, but instead be a guiding light for other Android manufacturers to follow. The Pixel line is different. It’s meant to be Android’s answer to the iPhone. The greatest combination of hardware and software the world’s largest mobile operating system has to offer.
In only its second year, the Pixel project is facing a watershed moment. The issues with the Pixel 2 XL, not to mention continued stock problems, are challenging the resolve of a young hardware company. Google may be 19-years-old, but it’s only been making hardware seriously for two, and if it continues to have issues like those plaguing the 2 XL, it won’t be for much longer.