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On the Apple Watch and OLED displays

That's interesting because Apple has thus far eschewed OLED (organic light-emmitting diode) displays for iPhone and iPad due to what the company said were the compromises needed to produce the panel at those sizes. A look back at things like PenTile and over-saturation in generations past makes that point hard to argue. Modern OLED, however, has improved considerably. At Apple Watch size, where power efficiency is the priority, those compromises start to fall in OLED's favor.

How much of a challenge developers will face designing for small OLED screens remains to be seen. Apple's been careful to seed best practices, such as using black background, into the Apple Watch HIG from the start. - Designing for the Apple Watch

Also interesting is how the Apple Watch display and HIG fit into the wider design language that's been rolled out across Apple's products, starting with iOS 7 in 2013 and OS X Yosemite in 2014.

Craig Hockenberry, writing on Furbo.org:

I've always felt that the flattening of Apple's user interface that began in iOS 7 was as much a strategic move as an aesthetic one. Our first reaction was to realize that an unadorned interface makes it easier to focus on content.But with this new display technology, it's clear that interfaces with fewer pixels have another advantage. A richly detailed button from iOS 6 would need more of that precious juice strapped to our wrists. Never underestimate the long-term benefits of simplification.

John Gruber, writing on Daring Fireball

Apple hasn't officially stated that Apple Watch uses an AMOLED display, but it's sort of an open secret. The other thing is, regardless of the underlying display technology, iOS 6-style skeuomorphism would've felt downright gauche on the watch. I don't think iOS or OS X needed to eschew skeuomorphic textures, but Apple Watch did.

An iOS 5-era Apple Watch would have been interesting to see, just from a design perspective. But I agree with John.

Apple Watch feels like it was born of the post-skeumorphic age. iOS 7 feels like it wasn't so much in preparation for the Apple Watch as it was in parallel to it. (Whereas the adaptive interface and the multiple display sizes found on the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus, and the rumored multi-window and iPad Pro, feel like the direct result of the changes that came with iOS 7.)

Like Yosemite, the watch also feels as though t's been allowed to go in its own direction. For example, the big 3D, squash-able emoji.

That said, it's not hard to imagine OLED will one day move to the iPhone and iPad, and then black backgrounds and high contrast interfaces, like those on the Apple Watch, could be just as important on iOS as they are on WatchOS.

There might be some idiosyncrasies involved in designing for OLED that might affect the way some apps are designed, and there might be some surprises for developers who only ever tested colors and contract on the simulator. (Which is why Apple is trying to give as many devs as hands-on time as possible.)

Compared to the changes involved in going from standard to Retina density, from 3:2 to 16:9 aspect ratio, from phone to tablet scale, from richly textured to flat, from pixel-perfect to adaptive interface, going to OLED shouldn't be much of a problem.

Rene Ritchie
Rene Ritchie

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.

20 Comments
  • I would personally like to see OLED displays on future iPhones and iPads. I like how the colors pop, along with the contrast. Another great thing about AMOLED is that it doesn't have to light up the display to show black, but it just turns those pixels off which saves on battery life immensely. Posted via the iMore App for Android
  • It's not gonna happen, there's too much risk of burn in with OLED for Apple, it's only been done on the Apple Watch because they are extremely limited for battery life, if battery life wasn't an issue for the Apple Watch, it would be using the same kind of screen as the iPhone/iPads
  • Huh? Show me the articles and mass consumer ratings hit that has anything to do with modern OLED that's used on smartphones currently burning in/image retention... I think you're selling wooden nickels with old information.
  • Of course if Apple does do it, you will proclaim it's a brilliant move. I love how Apple apologist always dismiss non Apple tech as somehow faulty or inferior until Apple ultimately adopts it.
  • Why would I proclaim it's a brilliant move if they used OLED? I just said they would use normal backlit LED on the Watch if they could. And I didn't say OLED was faulty, just that there is more chance of burn in Sent from the iMore App
  • "Pop" is just another word for "over-saturated" though. :-/
  • Oversaturated is just a term for vibrant and life like. "I'm da Blur boys!" - Me with 1200 ping. Fiber in Nashville? Save me based Google.
  • AMOLED displays always seem brighter and richer than the one on my phone this maybe is why. Whether they are more accurate or not I don’t know.
  • Whenever I get a phone with AMOLED I always get burn ins. I can't stand them
  • What's the last phone you had his issue with? Just curious as I've had numerous devices with AMOLED displays and haven't run into this myself. Sent from the iMore App
  • Lumia 822 also had a bunch of issues with it so it may not be the best determination of how good AMOLED
  • Gee... If only other phones had AMOLED displays... I wish. When Apple goes against what Tim cook said and releases one, though, it will be super "innovative."
  • iMORE, some faction of your website has been hacked. I've received a plethora of emails from no-reply@imore.com pitching a Dr. Oz miracle weight loss pill. Please secure your systems a little better and make sure I don't get any more SPAM emails through this site.
  • I hope Apple switches to OLED for their iPhone lineup. As it stands now continuing to use LCD is the compromise and not the other way around. Does anyone know if Samsung has a patent on the type of OLED and process they use for the Galaxy S series displays? For the last 2 years in several independent display tests/studies they have decimated the competition in color accuracy, brightness, deep blacks, low light setting, and basically beaten other manufacturers displays in every way. So much so that even display mate (which is pretty much the industry standard/go-to on display testing) had to make the distinction starting last year that Apple's IPS display is the "best LCD display on a phone to date" but Samsung's display currently are "the best mobile displays" (spanning phone and tablet) to date even beating Apples latest iPhone 6 displays in ever category. Not saying Apple displays are a slouch, far from it - but if they want to continue to make a big deal out of their display and charge such a premium for their products, then the quality needs to keep up as well and as it stands now it isn't using current LCD technology. Don't get me started on the mediocre displays they are putting in the iPad Mini.
  • Apple already has flexible Retina display, look at the bendy iPhones :-Â (just kidding around!)
  • I happen to like the look of OLEDs, having used them on various Android and Windows phones. Something to be said for the rich blacks you get on the OLEDs. If Apple didn't use them on the watch, then to be blunt, they are morons. The power savings alone would be worth it.
  • I think you've somewhat missed the point. The reason Apple has never done OLED is that OLED screens have yet to achieve the same kind of colour accuracy of LCD screens. They exceed LCD on contrast ratios, but have literally never really approached the same level of colour reproduction. They are typically, and almost routinely oversaturated. Recently, there have been some (crooked) tests from a lab or two that claim OLED screens have superior colour reproduction, but they don't stand up to scrutiny. It's just very difficult to get an OLED screen to reproduce accurate colour, and accurate colour is what matters to Apple, not "pop" which is just another word for over-saturated. Also, Gruber is dreaming when he talks about Apple Watch *not* being skeuomorphic. Of course it is. All those analogue watch faces are the very definition of a skeuomorphic effect. Apple Watch is the most skeuomorphic thing since sliced bread. It's literally a "fake" copy of an analogue mechanical watch in digital form.
  • I think that if a vendor is prioritizing color reproduction over power consumption on a portable device, its priorities need to be revised ASAP, or, to put it differently, do we prefer some extra hours of battery, or the absolute best color reproduction to answer calls and messages on a small mobile screen? Truth is, if you put two devices with the aforementioned screen technologies side-by-side, how many people would be able to differentiate one from the other?
  • I think the point is that the people at Apple would be able to tell, and a lot of their customers would as well. Apple has always had the best quality screens and always catered to "creatives" (artists, photographers, etc.). For these people, having the best, most perfect screen is important, for the rest of their customers it just "looks good" even though they don't know why. It's possibly hard to explain to a non-designer, but if a screen is supposed to reproduce pictures, colours, shapes, etc. (and it is), and there is a choice between one that does this accurately, and one that does not, a designer will always choose the one that *does* all other considerations being equal. As long as Apple is able to make the power envelope and battery life goals, and yet still have accurate colour reproduction, they will do so. LCD screens (so far) continue to be the best overall technology for all these reasons. I'm not sold on either type particularly and probably neither is Apple. The day that Apple switches to OLED for all their products will be the day it's problems with colour reproduction are considered "solved" (by them at least) and the day that it's actually *better* than LCD based solutions. Once that happens they will most likely drop LCD screens immediately. They just won't do it until the technology is there.
  • Compare Apple watch's faces with those from the iPod nano 6G - the latter is skeuomorphic. Apple's watch faces on the iPod Nano 6G had Nixie tubes, glowing. Gears moving behind a skelton face, detailed marking with depth. Nothing on Appll watch looks like a real watch face. I suspect the watch had something to do with Scott Forstalls departure.