Smartphone screens explained: display types, resolutions and refresh rates
Smartphone display acronyms can be a little overwhelming, but if you want to know what all the numbers and abbreviations associated with smartphone screens mean, we've got you covered. Want to know what each screen type is best for and what the differences in screen resolution mean?
- Panel types
- What is an LCD display?
- AMOLED displays
- Resolutions: HD/HD+, FullHD, 4K
- Retina, Super Retina XDR: what are they?
- Nits and brightness levels
- Refresh rates: what do 60Hz, 90Hz, and 120Hz mean?
- TFT, LTPS, LTPO, IGZO displays
- Displays of the future
- Which is better: LCD/LED or AMOLED?
In recent years, smartphone displays have developed far more acronyms than ever before with each different one featuring a different kind of technology. AMOLED, LCD, LED, IPS, TFT, PLS, LTPS, LTPO...the list continues to grow.
As if the different available technologies weren't enough, component and smartphone manufacturers adopt more and more glorified names like "Super Retina XDR" and "Dynamic AMOLED", which end up increasing the potential for confusion among consumers. So let's take a look at some of these terms used in smartphone specification sheets and decipher them.
There are many display types used in smartphones: LCD, OLED, AMOLED, Super AMOLED, TFT, IPS and a few others that are less frequently found on smartphones nowadays, like TFT-LCD. One of the most frequently found on mid-to-high range phones now is IPS-LCD. But what do these all mean?
In short, there are two kinds of technologies available in the market for smartphone displays: LCD and OLED. Each of them has several variations and generations, which gives rise to more acronyms, similar to televisions and their different ranges such as LED, QLED, miniLED - which are all actually variations of LCD technology.
What is an LCD display?
LCD means Liquid Crystal Display, and its name refers to the array of liquid crystals illuminated by a backlight, and their ubiquity and relatively low cost make them a popular choice for smartphones and many other devices.
LCDs also tend to perform quite well in direct sunlight, as the entire display is illuminated from behind, but does suffer from potentially less accurate colour representation than displays that don't require a backlight.
Within smartphones, you have both TFT and IPS displays. TFT stands for Thin Film Transistor, an advanced version of LCD that uses an active matrix (like the AM in AMOLED). Active matrix means that each pixel is attached to a transistor and capacitor individually.
The main advantage of TFT is its relatively low production cost and increased contrast when compared to traditional LCDs. The disadvantage of TFT LCDs is higher energy demands than some other LCDs, less impressive viewing angles and colour reproduction. It's for these reasons, and falling costs of alternative options, that TFTs are not commonly used in smartphones anymore.
IPS technology (In-Plane Switching) solves the problem that the first generation of LCD displays experience, which adopts the TN (Twisted Nematic) technique: where colour distortion occurs when you view the display from the side - an effect that continues to crop up on cheaper smartphones and tablets.
In IPS panels, the liquid crystals are aligned to the display, resulting in superior viewing angles - usually listed at 178º on TVs, which is another characteristic of IPS displays. Another characteristic of IPS displays in relation to other LCD technologies is superior colour reproduction, which explains the use of such panels in monitors that are meant for image editing jobs.
PLS LCD displays
The PLS (Plane to Line Switching) standard uses an acronym that is very similar to that of IPS, and is it any wonder that its basic operation is also similar in nature? The technology, developed by Samsung Display, has the same characteristics as IPS displays - good colour reproduction and viewing angles, but a lower contrast level compared to OLED and LCD/VA displays.
According to Samsung Display, PLS panels have a lower production cost, higher brightness rates, and even superior viewing angles when compared to their rival, LG Display's IPS panels. Ultimately, whether a PLS or IPS panel is used, it boils down to the choice of the component supplier.
Is the display LED or LCD?
This is a very common question after "LED" TVs were launched, with the short answer simply being LCD. The technology used in a LED display is liquid crystal, the difference being LEDs generating the backlight.
LEDs have the advantage of consuming very little power - which explains the emphasis given by marketing departments in highlighting the term in TVs, but not so much when it comes to smartphones with their reduced display size. On the other hand, backlight operation makes it difficult for LCD/LED displays to offer a level of contrast that is competitive with OLED displays since the lighting control is not performed by each individual pixel, but by regions on the display.
Mini-LED: What changes with this new technology
One of the highlights from TV makers at the CES 2021 tradeshow, mini-LED technology seemed far removed from mobile devices until Apple announced the 2021 iPad Pro. As the name implies, the technique is based on the miniaturization of the LEDs that form the backlight of the screen — which still uses an LCD panel.
Reducing the component allows you to include more LEDs in the display backlight, which results in greater control over contrast levels in different areas of the display. Another advantage highlighted by Apple for the new iPad is a higher peak brightness — up to 1,600 nits in HDR mode, versus 600 nits for the previous generation, or up to 1,200 nits for the OLED screen on the iPhone 12.
Despite the improvement in terms of contrast (and potentially brightness) over traditional LCD/LED displays, LCD/mini-LEDs still divide the screen into brightness zones — over 2,500 in the case of the iPad and 2021 "QNED" TVs from LG — compared to dozens or hundreds of zones in previous-generation FALD (full-array local dimming) displays, on which the LEDs are behind the LCD panel instead of the edges.
However, for even greater contrast control, done individually at each point on the screen, it is necessary to go to panels equipped with microLED technologies – still cost-prohibitive in 2021 – or OLED, which until recently were manufactured on a large scale only in sizes for smartphones or televisions.
AMOLED stands for Active Matrix Organic Light-Emitting Diode. While this may sound complicated it actually isn't. We already encountered the active matrix in TFT LCD technology, and OLED is simply a term for another thin-film display technology.
OLED is an organic material that, as the name implies, emits light when a current is passed through it. As opposed to LCD panels, which are back-lit, OLED displays are 'always off' unless the individual pixels are electrified.
This means that OLED displays have much purer blacks and consume less energy when black or darker colours are displayed on-screen. However, lighter-coloured themes on AMOLED screens use considerably more power than an LCD using the same theme. OLED screens are also more expensive to produce than LCDs.
Because the black pixels are 'off' in an OLED display, the contrast ratios are also higher compared to LCD screens. AMOLED displays have a very fast refresh rate too, but on the downside are not quite as visible in direct sunlight as backlit LCDs. Screen burn-in and diode degradation (because they are organic) are other factors to consider.
On the positive side, AMOLED screens can be made thinner than LCDs (because they don't require a backlit layer) and they can also be made flexible.
What's the difference between OLED, AMOLED and Super AMOLED?
OLED stands for Organic Light Emitting Diode. An OLED display is comprised of thin sheets of electroluminescent material, the main benefit of which is they produce their own light, and so don't require a backlight, cutting down on energy requirements. OLED displays are more commonly referred to as AMOLED displays when used on smartphones or TVs.
As we've already covered, the AM part of AMOLED stands for Active Matrix, which is different from a Passive Matrix OLED (P-OLED), though these are less common in smartphones.
Super AMOLED is the name given by Samsung to its displays that used to only be found in high-end models but have now trickled down to more modestly specced devices. Like IPS LCDs, Super AMOLED improves upon the basic AMOLED premise by integrating the touch response layer into the display itself, rather than as an extra layer on top.
As a result, Super AMOLED displays handle sunlight better than AMOLED displays and also require less power. As the name implies, Super AMOLED is simply a better version of AMOLED. It's not all just marketing bluster either: Samsung's displays are regularly reviewed as some of the best around.
The latest evolution of the technology has been christened "Dynamic AMOLED". Samsung didn't go into detail about what the term means, but highlighted that panels with such identification include HDR10+ certification that supports a wider range of contrast and colours, as well as blue light reduction for improved visual comfort.
In the same vein, the term "Fluid AMOLED" used by OnePlus on its most advanced devices basically highlights the high refresh rates employed, which results in more fluid animations on the screen.
Foldable and rollable displays
Another advantage of OLED displays is this: by doing away with an illumination layer, the component can not only be thinner but is also more flexible. This feature already sees action in smartphones with bendable displays and is also employed in conceptual devices with a rollable display.
The technology debuted with the obscure Royole FlexPai, equipped with an OLED panel supplied by China's BOE, and was then used in the Huawei Mate X (pictured above) and the Motorola Razr (2019), where both also sport BOE's panel - and the Galaxy Flip and Fold lines, using the component supplied by Samsung Display.
Resolution: What is the difference between HD, HD+, FullHD, 4K, etc?
Resolution describes the number of individual pixels (or points) displayed on the screen and is usually presented for phones by the number of horizontal pixels — vertical when referring to TVs and monitors. More pixels on the same display allow for more detailed images and clearer text.
To make it easier to compare different models, brands usually adopt the same naming scheme made popular by the TV market with terms like HD, FullHD and UltraHD. But with phones adopting a wide range of different screen proportions, just knowing that is not enough to know the total pixels displayed on the screen.
Common phone resolutions
|Marketing name||Horizontal pixels||Vertical resolution||Other used names|
|Full HD||1080p||1920 (16:9)
|Quad HD||1440p||2560 (16:9)
|Ultra HD||2160p||3840 (16:9)
|UHD, 4K, 2160p|
But resolution in itself is not a good measure for image clarity, for that we need to consider the display size, resulting in the pixel density by area measured by DPI/PPI (dots/points per inch).
Retina, Super Retina XDR: what are they?
Speaking of pixel density, this was one of Apple's highlights back in 2010 during the launch of the iPhone 4. The company christened the LCD screen (LED, TFT, and IPS) used in the smartphone as "Retina Display", thanks to the high resolution of the panel used (960 by 640 pixels back then) in its 3.5-inch display.
The name coined by Apple's marketing department is applied to screens which, according to the company, the human eye is unable to discern the individual pixels from a normal viewing distance. In the case of iPhones, the term was applied to displays with a pixel density that is greater than 300 ppi (dots per inch).
Since then, other manufacturers have followed suit, adopting panels with increasingly higher resolutions. While the iPhone 12 mini offers 476 dpi, models like Sony Xperia 1 boast a whopping 643 dpi.
To differentiate itself, Apple launched the term "Super Retina", which basically defines the OLED screens used on the iPhone X onwards, or the high contrast rates and colour accuracy that Galaxy S smartphone owners enjoy, and was even spotted in even some earlier Nokias.
With the iPhone 11 Pro, another term was introduced to the equation: "Super Retina XDR". Still using an OLED panel (that is supplied by Samsung Display or LG Display), the smartphone brings even higher specs in terms of contrast - with a 2,000,000:1 ratio and brightness level of 1,200 nits, which have been specially optimized for displaying content in HDR format.
As a kind of consolation prize for iPhone XR and iPhone 11 buyers, who continued relying on LCD panels, Apple classified the display used in the smartphones with a new term, "Liquid Retina". This was later applied also to the iPad Pro and iPad Air models, with the name defining screens that boast a high range and colour accuracy, at least based on the company's standards.
Nits and brightness levels
Nit, or candela per square meter in the international system (cd/m²), is a unit of measurement of luminance, i.e. the intensity of light emitted. In the case of smartphone screens and monitors in general, such a value defines just how bright the display is - the higher the value, the more intense the light emitted by the screen.
Refresh rates: what do 60Hz, 90Hz, and 120Hz mean?
Popularized in 2019 and 2020 by high-end and even some mid-range smartphones, the terms "120 Hz", "90 Hz" and others with a similar measurement in Hertz represent the refresh rate of the panel, be it LCD or OLED. The higher the value, the more frames per second are displayed on the screen.
The result is smoother animations on the phone, both during regular use and in games, compared to screens that have a 60 Hz refresh rate which remains the standard rate in the market when it comes to displays.
Originally touted to be a "gimmick" in 2017, with the launch of the Razer Phone, the feature gained more and more momentum in due time, even with a corresponding decrease in battery life. In order to make the most of this feature, manufacturers began to adopt screens with variable refresh rates, which can be adjusted according to the content displayed - which is 24 fps in most movies, 30 or 60 fps in home video recordings, and so forth.
The same unit of measurement is used for the sampling rate. Although similar, the value here represents the number of times per second the screen is able to register touches. The higher the sample rate, the faster the smartphone registers such touches, which results in a faster response time.
TFT, LTPS, LTPO, IGZO
To further muddy the alphabet soup that we've come across, you will also run into other less common terms that are often highlighted in promotional materials for smartphones.
TFT(Thin Film Transistor) - a type of LCD display that adopts a thin semiconductor layer deposited on the panel, which allows for active control of the colour intensity in each pixel, featuring a similar concept as that of active-matrix (AM) used in AMOLED displays. It is used in TN, IPS/PLS, VA/PVA/MVA panels, etc.
LTPS (Low Temperature PolySilicon) - a variation of the TFT that offers higher resolutions and lower power consumption compared to traditional TFT screens, based on a-Si (amorphous silicon) technology.
IGZO (Indium Gallium Zinc Oxide) - a semiconductor material used in TFT films, which also allows higher resolutions and lower power consumption, and sees action in different types of LCD screens (TN, IPS, VA) and OLED displays
LTPO (Low Temperature Polycrystaline Oxide) - a technology developed by Apple that can be used in both OLED and LCD displays, as it combines LTPS and IGZO techniques. The result? Lower power consumption. It has been used in the Apple Watch 4 and the Galaxy S21 Ultra.
LTPO allows the display to adjust its refresh rate, adapting dynamically to the content shown. Scrolling pages can trigger the fastest mode for a fluid viewing, while displaying a static image allows the phone to use a lower refresh rate, saving the battery.
In 2022, flagship phones started using the so-called LTPO 2.0 tech, whose main advantage is being able to go down to a 1 Hz refresh rate, instead of the 10 Hz available in first-generation LTPO panels. Found in phones like the OnePlus 10 Pro and the Galaxy S22 Ultra, LTPO 2.0 promises even further energy savings.
Displays of the future: microLED
Among televisions, the long-standing featured technology has always been miniLED - which consists of increasing the number of lighting zones in the backlight while still using an LCD panel. There are whispers going around that smartphones and smartwatches will be looking at incorporating microLED technology in their devices soon, with it being radically different from LCD/LED displays as it sports similar image characteristics to that of OLEDs.
A microLED display has one light-emitting diode for each subpixel of the screen - usually a set of red, green, and blue diodes for each dot. Chances are it will use a kind of inorganic material such as gallium nitride (GaN).
By adopting a self-emitting light technology, microLED displays do not require the use of a backlight, with each pixel being "turned off" individually. The result is impressive: your eyes see the same level of contrast as OLED displays, without suffering from the risk of image retention or burn-in of organic diodes.
Another advantage of microLED technology is the potential to display images with higher brightness levels while benefitting from lower power consumption, combining the strengths of both OLED and LCD panels.
On the other hand, the use of multiple diodes for each pixel poses a challenge in terms of component miniaturization. For example, a Full HD resolution has just over two million pixels (1,920 x 1,080 dots), which requires 6 million microscopic LEDs using a traditional RGB (red, green, and blue) structure.
This is one of the reasons that explain the adoption of such technology to date remains rather limited in scope. You will see them mainly in large screens of 75 to 150 inches only, which enable 4K resolution (3,840 x 2,160 resolution, which is close to 8.3 million pixels or 24.8 million RGB subpixels). This is a huge number of pixels to look at!
Another thing to be wary of is the price - at 170 million Korean won (about US$150,330 after conversion), that is certainly a lot of money to cough up for a 110-inch display.
Which is better: LCD/LED or AMOLED?
Each technology has its own advantages and disadvantages but in recent years, OLED screens have gained prominence, especially with the adoption of the component in high-end flagship smartphones. It gained an even greater degree of popularity after the launch of the iPhone X, which cemented the position of OLED panels in the premium segment.
As previously stated, OLED/AMOLED screens have the advantage of a varied contrast level, resulting from individual brightness control for the pixels. Another result of this is the more realistic reproduction of black, as well as low power consumption when the screen shows off dark images - which has also helped to popularize dark modes on smartphones.
On the downside, OLED screens have a higher manufacturing cost, as well as a smaller number of suppliers - dominated by South Korea's Samsung Display and LG Display, with China's BOE in third place and a few other Chinese manufacturers filling up the remaining demand when compared to LCD panels.
In addition, the organic diodes that give OLED screens their name can lose their ability to change their properties over time, and this happens when the same image is displayed for a long period of time. This problem is known as "burn-in", tends to manifest itself when higher brightness settings are applied for long periods of time.
While that is a very real possibility, it is not something that affects most users, who often confuse burn-in with a similar problem - image retention, which is temporary and usually resolves itself after a few minutes.
In the case of LCD displays, the main advantage lies in the low manufacturing cost, with dozens of players in the market offering competitive pricing and a high production volume. Some brands have taken advantage of this feature to prioritize certain features - such as a higher refresh rate - instead of adopting an OLED panel, such as the Xiaomi Mi 10T.
It is also worth remembering that, as with almost all types of components, there are AMOLED and LCD screens with different levels of quality and features, which can be combined in various ways to achieve a certain price point. This is a lengthy discussion, which has even been the subject of a heated debate between my colleagues, Ben and Rahul.
What about you? Do you have a preference for a specific display type? Did we miss any acronyms related to displays? Leave your comment below.
This article was updated in May 2022, but previously published comments have been preserved.
Thank you for this.
Very nice and helpful. Thank you.
Excellent description of complex, technical info.
WTF !man ???! so for u lcd, amoled, ips it's a marketing name like retina ???! r u crazy ? is this a trick to put apple on same level with big hardware companies ! absolutely useless article, confusing an BS !!
usefull article, ty
which is better LCD 120HZ Display or SUPER AMOLED Display ?
SUPERB INFORMATION BUDDY..
Clear information, thanks
Great article on types of screens.
Hey Ben! Great article! Do you have an email? I'd like to pick your brain about certain screens for a health issue. I need help in identifying why certain screens give me intense eye pain when I look at them and others do not. I'm having trouble finding a newer cell phone I can tolerate, even with blocking blue light, filters, changing setting etc. I'd appreciate anyone who could help! Thanks :)
Very useful article. Well done. Personally, I'm perfectly happy with a 1080p AMOLED. No need for a 2K/4K screen on a phone. They just drain the battery faster, that's all.
Nice Post, Got detail information about types of display. Keep it up, Good job
Thanks, as complete an article as I've seen on this. One thing worth mentioning, especially as we hear more and more complaining about battery life and all know that screen time is the single biggest battery factor, is that there's a big difference in battery drain between hi-res and lower end screens. On that factor, I've never read a serious lab comparison, but heavy users who have the screen on a lot of the day really ought to ask themselves whether the incremental improvement in display is worth increased battery anxieties. (I rarely watch small screen video, but watched an action flick on a 1280 x 720 tablet out on a garden lounge last evening - perfectly enjoyable, and barely moved the 3000mAh battery.)
Very informative, thank you!
I have iphone 7 and Note edge on hand. the noted edge is 2 years old.
everything in iPhone im satisfied but the retina display, the display is totally cannot compare with my old note edge AMOLED display. when you are scrolling fb or webpage u will definitely feel the different.
in iPhone, u r definitely not able reading and scrolling at the same time.
but in AMOLED device, it is not an issues.
I only realized that when I got my iPhone 7 last year with my usual reading and scrolling style. then I sudden feel like "I can't read at all", that time onwards, I do all my scrolling and reading in my old Note edge...
try it urself, retina display cannot handle reading while in scrolling style. in retina screen you have to stop scrolling while reading.
in AMOLED, reading while scrolling is not a problem.
Refresh rate is the culprit.
Any way of finding out the frame rate of these displays
in AMOLED, reading while scrolling is not a problem. but iPhone retina screen will make your eyes blur if you have tried
I enjoyed your article, great job!
its very informative