Why iPhone X OLED won't have Pixel XL 2 problems

Most years most people don't know or care who supplied the panels for iPhone or what display technology they use. Nor should they. It's an implementation detail. All that matters is that the screens look and work great for them.

This year, though, the iPhone X display is going to get a lot of attention. Part of that is because it will be Apple's first OLED iPhone. The other part is because it ships right after Google's Pixel 2 XL OLED has thrown a huge, garish spotlight on the current state of the technology.

The Pixel 2 XL issues — and headlines — have been many. The color calibration looks dull and washed out. At an angle, colors shift and fringe. There's a consistent "dirty" grain to it. And, after only a week of use, review units appear to already be suffering from burn-in.

Since both use OLED, it's led some to wonder if iPhone X will suffer the same problems as Pixel 2 XL.

Every indication is it won't.

What is OLED?

OLED stands for organic light emitting diode. iPhone 8 and previous iPhones all used LCD. Where LCD requires a separate backlight, OLED emits its own light. That means, for starters, OLED allows for thinner panels.

Also, because there's no universal backlight, and OLED only lights up the pixels it needs to light up, blacks can look deep, inky black. For the same reason, if there's a lot of black being displayed, OLED can be more power efficient than LCD well.

OLED also has far higher brightness levels and contrast ratio than LED. That allows for a higher dynamic range (HDR), which means you see more detail in the shadows and highlights. It's terrific for photos and video.

There are some disadvantages to OLED as well. Most importantly, it typically doesn't last as long as LCD: The blue pixels degrade much faster than the red or green. To get around this, instead of using the traditional LCD stripe arrangement of RGB, OLED manufacturers have done things like use diamond arrangements, where large green oval subpixels form a line with smaller red and blue pixels between them. They've also oversaturated colors to compensate.

And, while theoretically cheaper to produce, there still aren't enough OLED suppliers or capacity, resulting in higher prices and significant shortages.

Basically, LCD is a mature, understood, and reliable technology. OLED is not. It has enormous benefits but comes with significant challenges. Anyone shipping OLED has to work really, really hard to mitigate those challenges.

Apple has already used OLED for Apple Watch and TouchBar, but iPhone uses a much larger screen and ships in much, much larger numbers.

Samsung vs. LG panels

There are currently only two companies capable of producing OLED phone panels at scale: Samsung and LG.

It took them several years to get there, but Samsung currently produces the largest volume and most mature OLED solution for phones — by far. There are still compromises, including their use of a diamond subpixel arrangement, but Samsung can ship them with consistency and at scale.

LG makes highly regarded OLED panels for TV sets but those use a very different implementation. When it comes to phones, LG theoretically has a better RGB stripe arrangement but has had a very hard time producing high-quality panels consistently at scale.

Both Apple and Google have, reportedly, poured massive amounts of money into LG to try and accelerate its OLED quality and capacity, because having two (or more) vendors means greater supply and lower prices for purchasers. But making mature OLED solutions is hard and LG just doesn't seem to be there yet.

Apple, ultimately, went with Samsung's OLED panel for iPhone X.

Google, ultimately, went with LG's OLED panel for Pixel 2 XL.

Color calibration

The Pixel 2 XL is capable of displaying the full DCI-P3 color gamut. It's wider than standard sRGB and allows for richer reds and more vibrant greens. While Google claims to have calibrated the screen for "naturalistic" color, people have found it to be dull and washed out, especially compared to the often over-saturated calibration of other Android phones.

Apple has been shipping DCI-P3 screens for a couple of generations already. Apple has also been color managing them across iOS and macOS devices for just as long. The company individually calibrates its LCD panels at the subpixel level and it's likely doing the same with its OLED panels for iPhone X displays. It also goes for "naturalistic" color, but in a way that retains richness and vibrancy without blowing out the saturation.

In my limited experience with iPhone X, the look was much the same as iPhone 8 or iPhone 7, but with higher dynamic range. In other words, exactly what you'd expect.

Graininess

The Pixel 2 XL has exhibited a graininess, especially on solid colors in lower brightness settings, and most especially while scrolling. This appears to be something particular to the LG panel used in the Pixel 2 XL and LG V30.

That issue hasn't been reported on devices using similar panels to what Apple is sourcing for iPhone X, and when I scrolled through several apps on iPhone X, albeit briefly, I never saw a hint of noise.

Color shifting

One of the technical issues with the LG OLED panel used by Google on the Pixel 2 XL is color shifting. If you look at the display straight on, it looks fine. If you tilt it and look at it off-angle at all, the colors start to shift towards the blue spectrum. It makes whatever color calibration Google's done meaningless for a wide range of viewing angles and use cases.

Color shifting like this is also not a known issue with the panels Apple is using for iPhone X. In my time with iPhone X, through a wide range of angles, despite the weird lighting ever-present in demo areas, I didn't notice any shifting like what's been reported on Pixel 2 XL.

Burn-in

Image retention and burn-in are problems faced by several display technologies, including OLED. Over the course of months and years, pixels that don't change start to persist. So, for example, if you go to a solid gray color, you could still see the ghosts of menu icons past.

Different companies use different methods to mitigate against burn-in, including subtly moving interface elements so they're not as static as they appear.

The problem with Pixel 2 XL is that it's showing signs of burn-in after only one week of normal use. Why Pixel 2 XL is showing these signs so early is unclear but so far it appears to be unique to that device.

My understanding is that, beyond sourcing better panels with high levels of quality control, Apple is doing things to actively reduce the chances of burn-in on iPhone X. Unfortunately, I haven't had the opportunity to use iPhone X consistently for a long period of time and see any of that in action just yet.

Apple OLED

If Pixel 2 XL has made you at all concerned about OLED in general, stop and take a breath. Pixel 2 XL and iPhone X display technologies might share the same acronym but they don't share the same sourcing or implementation. Apple is using a much more mature OLED solution and applying its far greater display technology experience to it.

That includes everything from anti-aliasing to burn-in prevention, color calibration to color management, TrueTone ambient temperature matching, and so on.

Of course, while Apple has been developing iPhone X for years and testing it internally at scale for months, nothing can be taken for granted until it ships. Then, when millions of iPhone X are in millions of hands — and under the scrutiny of millions of eyes, we'll see how it holds up.

Right now, all we know is that, for years, Apple has produced industry-leading displays for iPhone. iPhone X should prove no different.

Just like most people have never known or cared who supplied LCD panels for previous generation iPhones, most people won't know or care about who supplies OLED panels for iPhone X. Not if Apple's display team does its job right. All they'll notice is that the screen looks and works great for them.

According to Apple, they've made the first OLED display worthy of iPhone. Come next week, we'll all find out if that's true.

iPhone X + iPhone 8

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