In short, there are two kinds of technologies available in the market for smartphone displays: LCD and OLED. Each of them has several variations and generations, which gives rise to more acronyms, similar to televisions and their different ranges such as LED, QLED, miniLED – which are all actually variations of LCD technology.
LCD is an acronym for “Liquid Crystal Display”. This particular component is already well established in the market, with several major manufacturers churning them out at a relatively low cost. LCD displays feature a panel that sports a layer of liquid crystals whose alignment is controlled by applying an electric current.
Since the crystals themselves do not emit light, only their properties are changed – an illumination layer (known as backlight) must come into play.
This is a very common question after “LED” TVs launched, with the short answer simply being LCD. The technology used in a LED display is liquid crystal, the difference being LEDs generating the backlight.
LEDs have the advantage of consuming very little power – which explains the emphasis given by marketing departments in highlighting the term in TVs, but not so much when it comes to smartphones with their reduced display size. On the other hand, backlight operation makes it difficult for LCD/LED displays to offer a level of contrast that is competitive with OLED displays, since the lighting control is not performed by each individual pixel, but by regions on the display.
IPS technology (In-Plane Switching) solves the problem that first generation of LCD displays experience, which adopt the TN (Twisted Nematic) technique: where color distortion occurs when you view the display from the side – an effect that continues to crop up on cheaper smartphones and tablets.
In IPS panels, the liquid crystals are aligned to the display, resulting in superior viewing angles – usually listed at 178º on TVs, which is another characteristic of IPS displays. Another characteristic of IPS displays in relation to other LCD technologies is superior color reproduction, which explains the use of such panels in monitors that are meant for image editing jobs.
The PLS (Plane to Line Switching) standard uses an acronym that is very similar to that of IPS, and is it any wonder that its basic operation is also similar in nature? The technology, developed by Samsung Display, has the same characteristics as IPS displays – good color reproduction and viewing angles, but a lower contrast level compared to OLED and LCD/VA displays.
According to Samsung Display, PLS panels have a lower production cost, higher brightness rates, and even superior viewing angles when compared to their rival, LG Display’s IPS panels. Ultimately, whether a PLS or IPS panel is used, it boils down to the choice of the component supplier.
Super AMOLED is the trade name used for displays manufactured by South Korea’s Samsung Display that is based on OLED technology. The main feature of OLED displays is the individual lighting control of each dot, i.e. each pixel on the screen that can be switched off, offering darker tones when displaying black – while on LCD screens it is closer to gray. The result? A higher level of contrast.
OLED stands for Organic Light Emitting Diodes. This technology will see each dot on the display being switched (i.e. black) until an electric current is applied to it. This explains the low power consumption with dark images, which require far less power. In contrast, the use of bright images consumes more electricity, apart from subjecting the diodes to a higher degree of wear and tear, and continues to be one of the weak points of the technology.
The “AM” in the acronym refers to the use of an active matrix, where each dot on the display is actively controlled in terms of brightness and color. The “Super” prefix was adopted by Samsung Display when the company integrated a layer that detects touches on the display to the panel itself, resulting in a thinner component.
The latest evolution of the technology has been christened “Dynamic AMOLED”. Samsung didn’t go into detail about what the term means, but highlighted that panels with such identification include HDR10+ certification that supports a wider range of contrast and colors, as well as blue light reduction for improved visual comfort.
In the same vein, the term “Fluid AMOLED” used by OnePlus on its most advanced devices basically highlights the high refresh rates employed, which results in more fluid animations on the screen.
Another advantage of OLED displays is this: by doing away with an illumination layer, the component can not only be thinner but is also more flexible. This feature already sees action in smartphones with bendable displays and is also employed in conceptual devices with a rollable display.
The technology debuted with the obscure Royole FlexPai, equipped with an OLED panel supplied by China’s BOE, and was then used in the Huawei Mate X (pictured above) and the Motorola Razr (2019), where both also sport BOE’s panel – and the Galaxy Flip and Fold lines, using the component supplied by Samsung Display.
To further muddy the alphabet soup that we’ve come across, you will also run into other less common terms that are often highlighted in promotional materials for smartphones.
TFT(Thin Film Transistor) – a type of LCD display that adopts a thin semiconductor layer deposited on the panel, which allows for active control of the color intensity in each pixel, featuring a similar concept as that of active matrix (AM) used in AMOLED displays. It is used in TN, IPS/PLS, VA/PVA/MVA panels, etc.
LTPS (Low Temperature PolySilicon) – a variation of the TFT that offers higher resolutions and lower power consumption compared to traditional TFT screens, based on a-Si (amorphous silicon) technology.
IGZO (Indium Gallium Zinc Oxide) – a semiconductor material used in TFT films, which also allows higher resolutions and lower power consumption, and sees action in different types of LCD screens (TN, IPS, VA) and OLED displays
LTPO( Low Temperature Polycrystaline Oxide) – a technology developed by Apple that can be used in both OLED and LCD displays, as it combines LTPS and IGZO techniques. The result? Lower power consumption. It has been used in the Apple Watch 4 and the Galaxy S21 Ultra.
Among televisions, the long-standing featured technology has always been miniLED – which consists of increasing the number of lighting zones in the backlight while still using an LCD panel. There are whispers going around that smartphones and smartwatches will be looking at incorporating microLED technology in their devices soon, with it being radically different from LCD/LED displays as it sports similar image characteristics to that of OLEDs.
A microLED display has one light-emitting diode for each subpixel of the screen – usually a set of red, green, and blue diodes for each dot. Chances are it will use a kind of inorganic material such as gallium nitride (GaN).
By adopting a self-emitting light technology, microLED displays do not require the use of a backlight, with each pixel being “turned off” individually. The result is impressive: your eyes see the same level of contrast as OLED displays, without suffering from the risk of image retention or burn-in of organic diodes.
Another advantage of microLED technology is the potential to display images with higher brightness levels while benefitting from lower power consumption, combining the strengths of both OLED and LCD panels.
On the other hand, the use of multiple diodes for each pixel poses a challenge in terms of component miniaturization. For example, a Full HD resolution has just over two million pixels (1,920 x 1,080 dots), which requires 6 million microscopic LEDs using a traditional RGB (red, green, and blue) structure.
This is one of the reasons that explain the adoption of such technology to date remains rather limited in scope. You will see them mainly in large screens of 75 to 150 inches only, which enable 4K resolution (3,840 x 2,160 resolution, which is close to 8.3 million pixels or 24.8 million RGB subpixels). This is a huge number of pixels to look at!
Another thing to be wary of is the price – at 170 million Korean won (about US$150,330 after conversion), that is certainly a lot of money to cough up for a 110-inch display.
Speaking of pixel density, this was one of Apple’s highlights back in 2010 during the launch of the iPhone 4. The company christened the LCD screen (LED, TFT, and IPS) used in the smartphone as “Retina Display”, thanks to the high resolution of the panel used (960 by 640 pixels back then) in its 3.5-inch display.
The name coined by Apple’s marketing department is applied to screens which, according to the company, the human eye is unable to discern the individual pixels from a normal viewing distance. In the case of iPhones, the term was applied to displays with a pixel density that is greater than 300 ppi (dots per inch).
Since then, other manufacturers have followed suit, adopting panels with increasingly higher resolutions. While the iPhone 12 mini offers 476 dpi, while models like Sony Xperia 1 boast of a whopping 643 dpi.
To differentiate itself, Apple launched the term “Super Retina” (will the eventual nickname of a microLED display be known as “Ultra Retina”?), which basically defines the OLED screens used on the iPhone X onwards, or the high contrast rates and color accuracy that Galaxy S smartphone owners enjoy, and was even spotted in even some earlier Nokias.
With the iPhone 11 Pro, another term was introduced to the equation: “Super Retina XDR”. Still using an OLED panel (that is supplied by Samsung Display or LG Display), the smartphone brings even higher specs in terms of contrast – with a 2,000,000:1 ratio and brightness level of 1,200 nits, which have been specially optimized for displaying content in HDR format.
As a kind of consolation prize for iPhone XR and iPhone iPhone 11 buyers, who continued relying on LCD panels, Apple classified the display used in the smartphones with a new term, “Liquid Retina”. This was later applied also to the the iPad Pro and iPad Air models, with the name defining screens that boast a high range and color accuracy, at least based on the company’s standards.
Nit, or candela per square meter in the international system (cd/m²), is a unit of measurement of luminance, i.e. the intensity of light emitted. In the case of smartphone screens and monitors in general, such a value defines just how bright the display is – the higher the value, the more intense the light emitted by the screen.
Popularized in 2019 and 2020 by high-end and even some mid-range smartphones, the terms “120 Hz”, “90 Hz” and others with a similar measurement in Hertz represent the refresh rate of the panel, be it LCD or OLED. The higher the value, the more frames per second are displayed on the screen.
The result is smoother animations on the phone, both during regular use and in games, compared to screens that have a 60 Hz refresh rate which remains the standard rate in the market when it comes to displays.
Originally touted to be a “gimmick” in 2017, with the launch of the Razer Phone, the feature gained more and more momentum in due time, even with a corresponding decrease in battery life. In order to make the most of this feature, manufacturers began to adopt screens with variable refresh rates, which can be adjusted according to the content displayed – which is 24 fps in most movies, 30 or 60 fps in home video recordings, and so forth.
The same unit of measurement is used for the sampling rate. Although similar, the value here represents the number of times per second the screen is able to register touches. The higher the sample rate, the faster the smartphone registers such touches, which results in a faster response time.
Each technology has its own advantages and disadvantages but in recent years, OLED screens have gained prominence, especially with the adoption of the component in high-end flagship smartphones. It gained an even greater degree of popularity after the launch of the iPhone X, which cemented the position of OLED panels in the premium segment.
As previously stated, OLED/AMOLED screens have the advantage of a varied contrast level, resulting from individual brightness control for the pixels. Another result of this is the more realistic reproduction of black, as well as low power consumption when the screen shows off dark images – which has also helped to popularize dark modes on smartphones.
On the downside, OLED screens have a higher manufacturing cost, as well as a smaller number of suppliers – dominated by South Korea’s Samsung Display and LG Display, with China’s BOE in third place and a few other Chinese manufacturers filling up the remaining demand when compared to LCD panels.
In addition, the organic diodes that give OLED screens their name can lose their ability to change their properties over time, and this happens when the same image is displayed for a long period of time. This problem is known as “burn-in”, tends to manifest itself when higher brightness settings are applied for long periods of time.
While that is a very real possibility, it is not something that affects most users, who often confuse burn-in with a similar problem – image retention, which is temporary and usually resolves itself after a few minutes.
In the case of LCD displays, the main advantage lies in the low manufacturing cost, with dozens of players in the market offering competitive pricing and a high production volume. Some brands have taken advantage of this feature to prioritize certain features – such as a higher refresh rate – instead of adopting an OLED panel, such as the Xiaomi Mi 10T.
It is also worth remembering that, as with almost all types of components, there are AMOLED and LCD screens with different levels of quality and features, which can be combined in various ways to achieve a certain price point. This is a lengthy discussion, which has even been the subject of a heated debate between my colleagues, Ben and Rahul.
What about you? Do you have a preference for a specific display type? Did we miss any acronyms related to displays? Leave your comment below.
This text was updated in March 2021, but previously published comments were preserved.