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What is OLED? A complete guide to the display technology

Wondering what an OLED display is? You’ve come to the right place – we’ve got all the details on why OLED screens are better than the alternatives.

In 2018 a number of smartphone makers planted an OLED screen on their mobile devices. Apple’s iPhone XS sports an OLED screen, as does the Huawei P20 Pro, Google’s Pixel 3 range and Samsung’s Galaxy lineup, although the Korean manufacturer calls its displays Super AMOLED. We’re expecting the Samsung S10 to pack in an OLED screen, once it’s officially announced.

Below we’ll explain what an OLED display is, what makes it better than the alternatives, and reel off a bunch of the best phones you can buy that already use OLED tech.

Related: OLED vs LED LCD

The term OLED is actually an acronym, and stands for organic light-emitting diode. For the unaware, a light-emitting diode is basically just a light source, and they’re used widely in electronics.

But OLED is different because of the organic part. In an organic diode, there’s a thin film of organic compound that emits light when you pass an electric current through it.

So manufacturers take this organic semiconducting material and place it between two electrodes, which provide the current. Usually one of these electrodes is transparent, so the light that is being generated can escape – and be viewed by you.

These organic diodes – OLEDs, as it were – are used in bulk to create digital displays on a wide range of products, right the way from small wearable and smartphones, all the way up to huge, hulking television sets.

Related: iPhone 9

Many smartphones and televisions use a type of display called LCD, which stands for liquid-crystal display. These liquid crystals don’t emit light directly; instead, you shine a backlight through them to create light. These crystals make up the pixels on your screen, and illuminate courtesy of a huge backlight at the back (or at the edges) of your phone or television.

But the key advantage of OLED is that the organic diodes emit their own light. This means they don’t need a backlight at all – just an electric current.

Improved battery life

The first perk this brings is the fact that you don’t need to power a backlight. That’s great, because backlights are very power-hungry, thanks to the fact that they need to always be on to illuminate the display.

By contrast, an OLED can light up individual pixels when necessary, and to different degrees. That’s why battery life can be significantly improved on smartphones that use OLED screens.

Related: iPhone 8

Thinner phones

Also, the fact that you’re ditching a backlight also means the entire display module in your phone can be thinner. That, in turn, means your phone can be thinner. Alternatively, phone makers could make a more sensible decision like adding a bit of extra capacity with the saved space – but who needs common sense, anyway?

Better contrast

With LCD screens, it’s not actually possible to show true black. That’s because there’s a backlight on at all times, which means there’s always some sort of light. And because you can’t control lighting in certain areas of a screen, it’s impossible to have detailed control over the brightness of the display.

With OLED screens, the advantage is clear. If an OLED screen needs to display black in an area, your phone can simply turn specific pixels off. This means you’ll have zero light being emitted, which is about as black as it gets.


More expensive

So why the hell is anyone still using LCD displays, you’re probably thinking. Price, basically.

To produce OLED panels was, historically, much more expensive than making LCD screens. The yield was low, and few people could manufacture them effectively. The good news is that the gap has closed significantly, and OLED screens for both televisions and smartphones are quickly dropping in price.

But for now, you should expect to pay a fair chunk more for your OLED device.

Related: Samsung Galaxy S9

There are phones with OLED screens right now, but they’re few and far between. The problem is that only a few manufacturers are effectively producing them. For instance, LG dominates the TV-sized OLED panel market, which is why LG has so many OLED televisions on the market.

For smartphones, Samsung is the winner. In 2017, it’s expected that Samsung will hold approximately 89% of the AMOLED (active matrix OLED) display panel market for this year, at least according to analysts at UBI Research. That’s expected to drop to around 72% by 2020, which is good news for consumers and businesses – at least in terms of pricing.

samsung galaxy s8

Just like with LG televisions, Samsung’s dominance of phone-sized OLED panels meant that the Korean firm was able to offer AMOLED screens on its smartphones for years. That’s partly why Samsung has offered OLED for ages, while Apple has stuck with less impressive display alternatives.

Here are a few recent phones that feature OLED screens:

Related: Best Android phones

Which smartphone that you’ve used had the best screen? Let us know via Facebook or Twitter

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