OLED vs LCD: Who will win?

For a long time, most phones had LCDs, but now more and more phone manufacturers are switching to a newer technology: OLEDs. Read on to learn more about the differences, benefits, and draw backs of both types!

All smartphones prior to 2018 have a LCD display. If you’ve spent time researching or repairing phones, you’ve probably heard this term before. Underneath the glass on your phone’s screen there is a display panel, usually a Light-emitting diode liquid crystal display (LED LCD, or just LCD for short). LCD displays are cheap to produce, relatively robust, and have a long history of research and optimization backing them. Despite their ubiquity and success, many phone manufactures are switching to the more expensive, less developed organic light emitting diodes (OLED) screens. To understand this switch, we’ll need to look at a little bit of the science behind this technology.

What are an OLED and LCDs ? Lets look at just the hardware first. A LCD has three layers: a LED layer, a liquid crystal layer, and a polarizer (a color filter). A OLED has only two layers: a OLED layer and a fancy polarizer called a color refiner. You probably noticed that both screens use a type of LED. Light emitting diodes are tiny components that emit light when a current is passed through them. The difference between an OLED and a LCD is how that light is managed. In an LCD, the LED layer is called a ‘backlight’, aptly named because it is on the back of the display and produces all the light. The liquid crystal layer and polarizer then filter out the unwanted light so only the image you want shows through. In an OLED however, each LED only emits the specific colors needed to create the image, and then that light is refined to sharpen the image. TL;DR OLED emit an image, LCDs block out an image.

How does hardware effect the image? The three biggest factors for any screen are light intensity, contrast, and color saturation. LCDs are typically much brighter and have better color saturation because the backlight can blast as much light as desired, and the extra is just filtered out. This has the consequence of worsening the contrast however, since not 100% of the light can be blocked out. Thus, a ‘black’ LCD image is still emitting some light. OLEDs aren’t as bright or color saturated, but the contrast is perfect since dark spots emit no light.

The viewing angle range is also important. Many LCDs have a poorer range, meaning if you tilt the screen too much the image may become difficult to see. You’ve probably experienced this on your laptop, when the image looks too dark so you have to tilt the screen to a different angle. This has much less to do with the intrinsic properties of the screen, and more to do with other aspects of the phone/device hardware. In short, OLED’s tend to have a better range of viewing angles, but depending on the phone it may be more or less comparable to an LCD.

There are other considerations than just image quality. Power consumption, durability, and pixel density are also important factors. These features are highly integrated issues and depend on a lot more than whether the screen has a backlight or not, but there are identifiable trends. LCDs tend to be more power intensive and more brittle. OLEDs tend to be more flexible, but are much more susceptible to air and water damage, meaning even a small imperfection can destroy the entire screen.

So, all things considered, are OLEDs really worth the uptick in price? Probably, but not just because of the screen. Usually higher end phones have better optimized electronics, frames, viewing angles, and pixel densities, so a phone with an OLED is probably a nicer phone, regardless of the screen. That being said, I wouldn’t completely discount a high end phone just for having an LCD, but most companies have moved away from them.

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