Apple announced a slew of new products last Tuesday, including three new iPhones: the iPhone 8, iPhone 8 Plus, and iPhone X.
There are several major differences among the three phones, but one of the biggest changes is the screen – the iPhone X is the first iPhone to feature an OLED screen, while the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus have an LCD screen like Apple’s previous phones.
The OLED technology is new for Apple, but anyone who uses Samsung phones (or the Google Pixel, or the new Essential Phone) is already familiar with OLED. In fact, Samsung has been using OLED screens since its first Galaxy phone came out seven years ago.
So what is OLED?
OLED, short for organic light-emitting diode, is a type of display technology. It differs from the more widely used LCD (liquid crystal display) tech by creating light within every pixel that makes up its picture, instead of requiring a separate backlighting system.
This means it can produce perfectly dark blacks. Rather than trying to cover up a backlight behind the scenes and inevitably letting some light through, it shuts off the appropriate pixels. The result is an infinite contrast ratio – i.e., the difference between a display’s darkest blacks and brightest whites.
And that, in turn, means an OLED panel can produce a more vivid, realistic picture. If you've ever put a Galaxy S8 and an iPhone 7 side by side, you've seen the difference: Apple's LCD display is excellent, but Samsung's OLED display just pops more. It's more engrossing. It's thinner, too.
I'm simplifying - improved backlighting tech, wider color gamuts, and HDR have helped the best LCD displays catch up a bit. But stuff like that isn't exclusive to LCD. Judged straight up, the contrast difference is enough to make OLED superior.
OLED isn't perfect. The displays are more prone to color shifting and are very vulnerable to burn-in, meaning that if you leave an image on the screen for too long, you run the risk of it being retained on - or burned into - the screen over time.
This isn't a problem unique to OLED - LCD screens are also susceptible to burn-in. But the vulnerability is greater with OLEDs and could shorten the life span of your phone (though according to some reports, there are clues in the iOS code that Apple has taken special steps to mitigate the burn-in effect on the iPhone X).
What does this mean for people who buy the new iPhone? Well, we'll have to wait until it ships in November to find out what, exactly. But judging by my experience with Samsung's OLED screens, I have a few guesses.
OLED screens paint a much more vivid picture, and the display is so bright and captivating that it almost doesn't look real. You feel as if you could climb into the screen - it's that immersive. For anyone who wears glasses or contacts, the difference between OLED and LCD screens feels like your prescription getting bumped up a notch and everything coming into sharper focus.
Plus, since the iPhone X has a screen that goes almost all the way to the edges, OLED technology could really have a chance to shine.
One thing to note: OLED screens are typically more expensive, and that's part of the reason the iPhone X costs $999.
Jeff Dunn contributed to an earlier version of this post.