Oh No, Not OLED

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It is being reported that Apple will begin to use OLED displays in an upcoming iPhone generation, as opposed to the IPS LCDs it has always used. And I’m not at all happy about this.

I’m not an iPhone user at the moment, so in the near-term I don’t really care what Apple does to its phones. But it can’t be denied that anything significant that Apple does with its most important product will likely be aped by most other manufacturers, if they aren’t already doing the same thing.

And the problem is that I seem to have some sort of ocular allergy to OLED. Throughout my Year of Phones, several of the units I tried out had AMOLED or Super AMOLED displays, and I recently spent some time with a Dell Venue 8 7000 tablet, which is OLED. And with only one exception, all of the OLED devices gave me headaches when looking at them for more than a few minutes. Indeed, I feel the strain on my eyes almost immediately.

I have no solid explanation for why this is so. OLED devices with which I’ve had significant experience, Notes 4 and 5 and the Venue 8, while they are truly excellent, each gave me the same problem. I thought perhaps that there might be some difference between Samsung’s proprietary “Super AMOLED” and Dell’s vanilla “OLED,” but no. They both produced the same effect.

And no settings-tweaking helped. Lowering the brightness, lowering the saturation level, adjusting hues, nothing mattered.

Some folks in forums have speculated to me that this has to do with an imperceptible “flicker” that OLED displays produce and LCDs don’t, but that’s just a guess from a few people who are otherwise as stumped by this as I am.

There was one exception, however, the Nexus 6, the device with which I had a stormy relationship. That has a Quad-HD AMOLED display just like the Notes 4 and 5, and yet with all the problems and delights I had with that device, I don’t recall headaches being an issue at all. I have no idea why.

On the flip side are LCD displays, like that on my beloved LG G4, and on every iPhone and iPad ever. I have never had any problem gawking at iDevice screens for hours on end, and my G4 Quad-HD LCD display is so lovely I can sometimes hardly believe it.

Also, I’ve seen far more problems with OLED displays than LCDs. This is anecdotal experience, of course, but on OLED screens I see far more burn-in, ghosting, dark spots, dead pixels, and the like. I do know that it’s currently a fact that they degrade more quickly than LCDs. They seem, from my personal experience, to be far less reliable.

But now Apple will, well, saturate the market with OLED, making it the new normal. OLED displays, at their best, are far more eye-catching and rich than most LCDs (though the G4’s is right up there), so they have obvious appeal. But if they are less reliable, why would Apple commit to them so wholeheartedly?

Boy Genius Reports speculates that Apple is prepared for OLED’s degradation problem, saying, “It stands to reason that Apple is confident that the aforementioned drawbacks can and will be addressed in the years ahead.” But I don’t think that needs to be true at all. Apple has already introduced its own leasing program so that folks can get new a new iPhone model every year, so we know that Apple very much wants to push regular consumers to upgrade at a rate that’s high even for many tech enthusiasts. If they’re confident that an enormous number of their users are going to get rid of their phones after a year anyway, why should they care if the OLED displays start to lose their “oomph”? You’re buying the new one anyway.

But what this all means for me (which is what this is really about, remember) is that the best phones on the market in the coming years will all be OLED in one way or another, which means that, unless they change something as-yet-undiagnosed in the displays or my eyeballs, I will be squinting in agony at the objects I would otherwise hold most dear. It’s like an Van Gogh devotee who gets a small electric shock whenever they look at one of his paintings.

There is still the anomaly of the Nexus 6. Perhaps there’s something in the way its display was made that holds the answer. Or perhaps LG will continue to improve its LCD displays to the point where it’ll be clear that it’s the better alternative.

But with my luck? I’m going to need a new drug.

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