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The Evolution of Smartphone Screens: From Retina LCD to cutting-edge OLED Technology

In 1973, Martin Cooper made the first call from a portable mobile device, marking the beginning of the consumer mobile communication era, at the Motorola laboratory in Manhattan, New York. Fast forward decades, the mobile phone has evolved from a simple communication tool to a multifunctional smart device, catering to entertainment, consumption, socializing, and more. The concept of “phones glued to hands” has become a consensus for most people.

The transition of phones from communication tools to comprehensive smart devices stems from changes in interaction methods, with touch and swipe replacing physical buttons, offering developers and users more innovative spaces. When it comes to changes in interaction, the screen plays a vital role: on one hand, it is responsible for the core output of content, considering humans derive over 90% of information visually; on the other hand, the touchscreen has long replaced the keyboard as the primary input tool. It can be said that the screen bears the brunt of most Input/Output functions on phones. The main thread of screen evolution largely revolves around the transformation of display technologies.

From the transformation of Retina LCD to the leap of high-end OLED

The iPhone revolutionized the world by upgrading the screen: the touchscreen replaced physical keyboards and styluses, refreshing the human-machine interaction mode. Simultaneously, the high definition of “Retina display” elevated the display quality of phone screens.

Cellular Sale

(Image Source: Cellular Sale)

Retina LCD touchscreen wasn’t the starting point of phone screen upgrades, nor the end.

In 2017, Apple, a long-time user of LCD, introduced OLED screens on their “next-generation” product, the iPhone X. This move made OLED the new favorite in the mobile market, with its high flexibility and excellent display quality, making it a standard for flagship models. At that time, OLED displays were already popular in smart TVs and other devices, with the technology matured and costs lowered.

Following Apple’s lead, major Android phone manufacturers swiftly embraced OLED screens. In the past couple of years, high-quality OLED panels transitioned from flagship to mid-range markets, offering more consumers a completely different visual experience.

Recently, Honor unveiled the world’s first smartphone, the Honor Magic6 RSR Porsche Design Edition, equipped with a dual-layer tandem OLED display at its spring flagship launch event. Its ultra-high brightness and extended lifespan left a lasting impression on users. Lei Technology also had a hands-on experience during this event, concluding that the next era of smartphone screens has arrived.

As mobile product forms mature, most manufacturers face the dilemma of being “innovators,” with product innovation becoming increasingly challenging. By 2024, AI had become a hot commodity for phone manufacturers. Meanwhile, core features such as imaging, screens, materials, communication, batteries, and charging continue to showcase diverse innovative trends. (Lei Technology has extensively covered and analyzed the focus on AI hardskills in numerous reports and reviews). Today, screens have truly become a battleground for manufacturers.

Ramping up Brightness: Brightness Beyond Limits

OLED panels boast higher brightness, contrast, and superior color reproduction, offering significant advantages for compact mobile devices like smartphones and smartwatches. Brightness, one of the most direct parameters of screens, has become a focal point for phone manufacturers.

Xiaomi

(Image Source: Xiaomi)

In January 2023, Samsung showcased new small-size OLED display panels with a peak brightness of 2000 nits, setting an industry record. This record was consistently broken over the past year, like Xiaomi’s 14 series with Huaxing Optoelectronics’ C8 luminescent material, achieving a peak brightness of 3000 nits; and OnePlus 12’s collaboration with BOE in introducing the ‘Oriental Screen,’ boasting a brightness spur of 4500 nits.

OnePlus

(Image Source: OnePlus)

According to small Lei, manufacturers boosting brightness is a step in the right direction. Smartphones have become essential tools in our daily lives, implying an increased usage frequency in high-light scenarios. Ultra-high excitation brightness can resolve visibility issues in such settings. Moreover, as platforms supporting HDR content grow, the viewing experience on these platforms becomes a crucial indicator. By continuously improving brightness to match the demand for HDR content, users can enjoy a better viewing experience.

Recently, Realme held an online media communication event, inviting Lei Technology to witness the arrival of a new generation of unsurpassed screens. This screen boasts a local peak brightness exceeding 6000 nits, a strong excitation brightness of 1600 nits, ensuring a brightness maintenance of over 1000 nits even under manual excitation.

(Source: Zhenwo)

We have reason to believe that Zhenwo’s new generation dual-screen is not yet the limit of OLED panel “rolling” brightness. This year, there may be more new technologies coming, such as the dual-layer series OLED technology.

The dual-layer series OLED technology first launched by Honor on the Magic6 RSR Porsche Design Edition is actually a method of connecting multiple traditional OLED devices in series through a connection layer to achieve higher brightness and better display effects. Additionally, the biggest advantage of dual-layer series OLED is that it controls power consumption to less than 30% while doubling the brightness, thereby achieving a longer brightness activation time.

(Source: Honor)

With higher brightness, lower power consumption, and longer lifespan, the dual-layer series OLED technology is poised to become a trendsetter in the smartphone market. Samsung is also making breakthroughs in the dual-layer series OLED technology, expected to collaborate with Apple to debut screens using this technology in the next generation of iPad Pro, aiming to enhance the market acceptance of iPad Pro transitioning from LED to OLED panels.

(Source: Digital Trends)

Apart from the dual-layer series OLED technology, Samsung is planning to shift its QD-OLED production line to the field of small to medium panel sizes. According to South Korean media KIPOST, Samsung Display has currently halted investments in large-sized QD-OLED panels (TVs, professional displays), redirecting focus to small to medium-sized (phones, PCs) sectors, with plans to unveil corresponding display solutions shortly. Compared to traditional OLED panels, QD-OLED panels offer higher brightness, longer lifespan, and superior color accuracy performance.

Of course, for an excellent screen, brightness is just one important factor. Contrast, color reproduction, refresh rate, and eye protection are also crucial, with refresh rate being one of the key directions in smartphone screen development.

Raising refresh rate continuously just to “deceive” the human eye

In 2017, Sharp released the first 120Hz refresh rate smartphone, AQUOS R, making “high refresh rate” a standard feature in smartphones and a significant hardware parameter for manufacturers. High refresh rates were initially introduced at 90Hz, 120Hz, then up to 144Hz, and even reaching 240Hz comparable to PC gaming monitors in the first two years. However, consumers began to realize that high refresh rates led to increased power consumption, which was deemed unacceptable.

To meet consumers’ demands for both performance and battery efficiency, panel semiconductor manufacturers started implementing LPTO technology in the smartphone sector. This technology offers various refresh rate options, allowing smartphones to switch between rates in different usage scenarios to save power.

Today, besides the standard iPhone models, screens supporting high refresh rate technology are available across various price ranges of smartphones. Even budget phones like the Redmi 13C priced at 699 yuan feature a 90Hz high refresh rate screen. However, the evolution of high refresh rates is far from reaching its peak.

(Source: Xiaomi)

The Xiaomi 14 Ultra debuted with a C8 display panel jointly customized with Huaxing Optoelectronics, excelling in color depth, brightness, and eye protection. What’s even more remarkable is that this screen takes LTPO technology further, supporting more levels of variable refresh rates. LTPO technology combines LTPS and IGZO in the driving circuit, enabling the screen to automatically switch between multiple refresh rates as needed to save power.

Typically, due to the complex structure and technical challenges of LTPO devices, most manufacturers only offer a few levels of variation. For instance, the iPhone Pro series provides 13 levels from 1Hz to 120Hz, enabling the screen to switch between refresh rates based on user interaction.

Although offering a sufficient range of levels, the transition between different refresh rates is still noticeable to keen users, affecting touch response speed differently, resulting in a slight “stutter” when sliding the screen. Xiaomi 14 Ultra provides a more diverse range of rate switching on this screen, reducing visual and tactile lag, ultimately enhancing overall smoothness.

Currently, most customized systems include rich system animations, even Honor’s MagicOS 8.0 features detailed interrupt animations. However, what still impedes the visual fluency experience in systems is the lack of “intelligent” variable refresh rates. With Xiaomi 14 Ultra introducing this technology to the market, more manufacturers will likely join the trend in the future, achieving “infinite high refresh rates” and offering users greater visual and tactile satisfaction.
Embracing Digital Health: Screen Eye Protection Enters the AI Era

As screens improve and smartphones become more powerful, users increasingly rely on them, leading to greater usage. Consequently, how to protect users’ eyes has become a new concern for more and more manufacturers. Thus, “eye protection” has become another direction for smartphone screen upgrades.

LCD panels inherently cause less eye strain compared to OLED panels due to their use of DC dimming. This is one reason why there is still significant demand for LCD panel phones despite OLED’s apparent advantages.

Over the past two years, almost every manufacturer has emphasized the keyword “eye protection.” For example, Honor’s Oasis Screen and OnePlus’ Vision Protection technology. Essentially, there are three types of dimming technologies for OLED panels: high-frequency PWM dimming, quasi-DC dimming, and low-frequency PWM. Manufacturers’ “eye protection technology” involves a reasonable combination of these three dimming technologies to achieve better results.

Source: Xiaomi

High-frequency PWM dimming is a focal point for eye protection among various smartphone manufacturers. For instance, Xiaomi’s Qingshan eye protection technology achieves a frequency of up to 3840Hz, while Honor’s Oasis Eye Protection Screen raises the frequency to 4320Hz. Generally, higher-frequency PWM dimming indeed causes less harm to the eyes as the value increases. However, the industry’s recognized threshold is approximately around 1250Hz. Once this value is exceeded, the eye protection effect can be considered satisfactory.

Certainly, as high-frequency PWM dimming requires relatively complex hardware conditions and algorithms, it also entails higher costs than ordinary dimming technologies. This is why initially only flagship models could utilize this technology. However, recently, with models like OnePlus Ace 3V and the upcoming Realme Neo 6 series applying the latest eye protection technology, it’s evident that “eye protection” will also become one of the mainstream trends in future screen technology.

Source: OnePlus Official Website

As mentioned earlier, a mixed solution of dimming technologies is a relatively balanced approach at present, considering the suitability of smartphones in different brightness scenarios. However, determining a reasonable mixed mode is also a major challenge for manufacturers. With the Redmi K70 series, Xiaomi has introduced a comprehensive AI dimming strategy, using AI to adjust the most suitable dimming strategy for different scenarios. On the other hand, with the new generation of dual screens, Realme delegates some tasks to AI large models to make decisions. Their “Green AI Eye Protection” system can intelligently determine the most suitable eye protection strategy based on user fatigue, physical condition, and usage scenario, achieving proactive eye protection.

Over the past year, large AI models have been widely used in smartphones, such as Xiaomi with imaging, Honor with smart connectivity, and OPPO/vivo with intelligent assistants, while also developing interesting features like AIGC elimination. With the development of large model technology, AI will continue to enter various niche areas of smartphones. Just as Xiaomi and Realme integrate AI with dimming algorithms, this will also be a new trend in the future.

Smartphone Screen “Rolling” Craze to Satisfy Human Visual “Greed”

From traditional mobile phones to smartphones, we are inseparable from these small handheld devices in all aspects of life. With the advent of foldable screen phones redefining the “mobile office” mode and AI large models making smartphones the most powerful assistants for users, the importance of smartphones has been infinitely magnified.

This leads us to a critical issue: smartphone addiction.

According to a report by Election Hub, the Philippines ranks highest in smartphone addiction globally, with individuals spending approximately 32.53% of their day staring at their smartphone screens. Meanwhile, China has the largest smartphone user base on average, with smartphone usage accounting for 19.54% of daily life and work activities.

This implies that we spend nearly 5 hours a day staring at screens. If the screen quality is poor, with issues such as flickering and blue light, it is more likely to induce eye diseases and cause irreversible damage.

Source: Honor

It must be acknowledged that the “rolling” screen is the most strenuous but thankless solution for smartphone manufacturers. It doesn’t provide an immediate noticeable difference like imaging does in experiencing a store. Nor does it deliver the exhilarating experience found in benchmarking and gaming, such as high performance and heat dissipation. However, the overall quality of a phone largely determines consumer desire to purchase, which may explain why smartphone manufacturers are enthusiastic about “rolling” screen technology.

Source: OPPO Official Website

Furthermore, as smartphone imaging technology continues to improve, screen quality naturally needs to be upgraded synchronously. Take OPPO, for example. As early as 2023, the OPPO Find X6 series debuted the ProXDR technology, which records the lighting scenes and light and dark information on-site when shooting HDR content with a mobile phone, and then presents them on the screen using HDR technology.
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# The Evolution of ProXDR: Redefining Mobile Screen Technology

ProXDR has evolved to encompass a trend towards broader accessibility, as evidenced by the recent release of the budget-friendly OnePlus Ace 3V, which also supports this feature.

Source: Xiaomi

In addition to HDR support brought by high brightness, professional-grade color display on screen panels has become a key direction for enhancing screen quality. The Xiaomi 14 Ultra, debuting with “Master Portrait” and “AISP,” supports professional color display on the Huaxing Optoelectronics C8 panel. This not only improves color reproduction in photos but also reduces the color difference between it and professional monitors, earning recognition for the phone’s imaging capabilities from professional users.

Therefore, the “curved” screen is not merely a competition of specifications, but rather progresses in line with the real needs of consumers and the enhancement of other aspects of phone configuration performance. Whether it’s the users themselves or the phone manufacturers, they all benefit from these new technologies.

How far should the smartphone screen “curve” to reach market saturation? According to Lei Technology, this question may not have a definitive answer.

Firstly, in terms of display technology, new display technologies such as Mini LED, Micro LED, and AI displays continue to refresh display quality. In due time, as these technologies mature, smartphones will continue to see screen innovations.

Secondly, how to achieve “compact size, large display” for screens? Users desire both a large screen and portability. Technologies like “foldable screens” and “holographic projection screens” are highly anticipated, as people seek more and better display expansion solutions.

Lastly, beyond flat displays, the spatial computing wave sparked by devices like Vision Pro indicates a need for new display solutions that can blend the real and virtual worlds. The essence of XR (Extended Reality) also revolutionizes display and human-computer interaction modes. Therefore, 3D spatial display will also be a crucial direction for future smartphone screen upgrades.

Humanity possesses an insatiable appetite for visual experiences. As long as electronic products’ screen displays cannot completely match the real world (including clarity, color, realism, brightness, and health considerations), there will always be a demand for screen technology upgrades. The upgrading of smartphone screens is an ongoing process with no completion.

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