Apple clung to LCD screen technology for the iPhone for years, and it only just moved to OLED for the iPhone X. That’s the display design favored by Samsung, Google, and most other companies making flagship smartphones. However, Apple isn’t content to stick with OLED panels forever. A report from Bloomberg claims Apple has several hundred engineers developing new microLED displays. MicroLED has the potential to improve on OLED, but it might be a while before we get to see that with our own eyes.
OLED display technology has gained favor among smartphone makers because it offers higher maximum brightness compared with LCD. The panels are also thinner and flexible. That’s how Samsung can make those striking curved “Edge” panels. The main difference between OLED and microLED is the nature of the light-emitting components. OLEDs use organic semiconductors, but microLED is based on conventional gallium nitride (GaN) LED technology. They’re just very, very small LEDs.
If Apple can get microLED technology sorted out before the likes of Samsung and Sony (both of which are actively working on it), its phones would have a distinct advantage. MicroLED panels should offer vastly improved energy efficiency and brightness up to 30 times higher than OLEDs, and OLEDs are already setting brightness records with over 1,000 lux in Samsung’s latest phones. MicroLED tech also lasts longer, so you don’t have issues with differential wear, more commonly known as burn-in.
Apple’s research facility in Santa Clara has been operating in secret for a few years now, but progress has been slow. It inherited the intellectual property driving the development when it acquired display firm LuxVue in 2014. Apple reportedly considered shutting down the project (known internally as T159) last year. Since then, the team made several major advancements toward commercializing microLED technology. The current plan would involve rolling microLED technology out to the Apple Watch first. It would be easier to manufacture a small display like that before moving on to smartphones.
It will likely still be several years before microLEDs are in full-scale production. Until then, Apple will have to continue buying screens from suppliers like Samsung and LG. Currently, the Apple Watch panel comes from LG, as do the LCD screens for the regular iPhones. Apple gets the iPhone X screen from Samsung. Controlling its own display manufacturing could help Apple tighten up supply chains and stand out from other smartphone makers. Still, Apple might end up behind Samsung, which plans to launch microLED TV panels later this year.
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