How going OLED could benefit Apple’s iPhone

Why is Apple's order for 160 million OLED panels from Samsung such a big deal?

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It was recently revealed that Apple has contracted Samsung Display Solutions, a subsidiary of Samsung to produce 160 million flexible OLED panels. While both companies remain quiet on the specifics of the deal, it is a safe assumption that the panels are meant for the next generation of the iPhone that Apple plans to release later this year. Given that it is the tenth anniversary of the iPhone, there is large expectations that Apple would be doing something ground-breaking with the upcoming device. While we wait for more details to trickle through over the course of the next few months, what we do know is that if Apple switches over to an AMOLED panel for their phones, the move would be greatly beneficial across many fronts. Before we get into the advantages/disadvantages of AMOLED, let’s first understand the two dominant display technologies

IPS-LCD vs. OLED: How they Work
OLED and IPS-LCD aren’t all that different in how they work. Both displays require a backlight to shine onto a panel, generating the image. The difference between the two lies in the backlight. On an IPS-LCD panel, it is an array of tubes that light the panel in front and in the case of OLED, each pixel on the screen has its own, individual LED lighting it. This allows greater control over the image quality on the OLED panel than in the case of IPS.

Image Courtesy: Twitter

OLED to improve battery life
One of the most obvious advantages of OLED panels happens to be its battery-friendly nature. Given that the panel doesn’t need all the LEDs in the backlight active, the panel draws lesser power than its IPS counterpart. Imagine you are watching a movie on your phone which has a lot of dark scenes. On an IPS screen, even the black parts of the scene would have the backlight active. In an OLED screen, the bits where the colour is black, the backlight just wouldn’t turn on. Apple has already got strong battery game, despite using an IPS-LCD panel in the iPhone 7 and switching over to OLED would only help further the battery life.

A World of Colours
With the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus, Apple introduced the wide-gamut display. This display adhered to the DCI-P3 colour profile. This is the default colour profile for 4K video as it contains far more colour information than the standard sRGB which we have followed since 1996. The Wide Gamut IPS display on Apple is the most accurate panel to exist right now, but Samsung had an unmatched SuperAMOLED screen in the Note 7. The panel could be set to any one of four colour profiles, including DCI-P3 and sRGB. The Samsung Galaxy Note 7’s display was also the brightest in the market, with wider viewing angles than what the iPhone 7’s screen was capable of. It’s a pity that the phone ran into the minor inconvenience of exploding batteries and had to be recalled. While the iPhone 7’s display was capable of reproducing a larger gamut of colour than the Note 7, the Note 7’s versatility in being able to switch between various colour profiles was an asset to the creative professionals and users alike. If Apple adopts a similar (or even better) display technology from Samsung, the iPhone’s screen would become truly versatile in terms of content creation and consumption.

Consistent Colours from All Angles
Well, maybe not all angles, but OLED panels tend to have better control over colour shifts and changes in brightness levels when viewing angles are altered. While the iPhone 7’s current display is no slouch in maintaining colours across viewing angles, it does tend to become dimmer as you go from side to side. An OLED panel could fix this and then you and your friends could huddle around your new OLED powered iPhone and watch your favourite horror film without losing any fidelity in the picture.

OnePlus 2 IPS Display on the left, Samsung Galaxy S7 edge AMOLED on the right
OnePlus 2 IPS Display on the left, Samsung Galaxy S7 edge AMOLED on the right
OnePlus 2 IPS Display on the left, Samsung Galaxy S7 edge AMOLED on the right
OnePlus 2 IPS Display on the left, Samsung Galaxy S7 edge AMOLED on the right

OLED’s Form-Factor advantage
An OLED panel assembly is traditionally thinner than an IPS-LCD assembly. An IPS-Panel assembly consists of six layers while an OLED assembly only has four. The obvious result is a thinner OLED panel. Given that each pixel on an OLED has its own backlight, the panel can be made flexible, creating curved displays like we see in the Samsung Galaxy S7 edge. This again is achieved without compromising on colour and brightness consistency.

The challenges of OLED
Employing OLED panels instead of IPS-LCD does come at a huge monetary cost. According to IHS Markit, the iPhone 7’s display costs the company $43. This is a small number compared to the $71 per OLED panel Apple is paying to Samsung for the 160 million OLED panels that have been ordered. This obviously means the iPhone would get more expensive to purchase. The other potential downside of OLED stems from its backlight. Since each backlight LED is controlled individually, the rate of failure will vary LED to LED. This often leads to dead pixels across the display and even though modern OLED panels are resilient to this phenomenon, it’s still something that could happen.

The Way forward
Unless we figure out a way to make IPS-LCD panels thinner and mode power efficient, OLED panels are the way forward for a device category which is consistently under pressure to deliver better battery life. Given that displays are almost always the largest source of battery drain, making panels more and more power efficient might help mitigate some of our battery woes. While the iPhone 7 Plus saw very impressive battery life in our tests, the iPhone 7 was barely able to make it through the day. With an OLED panel replacing the current IPS type, we can only hope for an iPhone whose battery lasts far longer. Alternatively, we could commit to developing OLED technology further to be not only more battery efficient, but also figure out how to drive down manufacturing costs for the same.

You can watch the video below to get a quick comparison between the various display types and figure out which is best suited for you.