The latest iPhone has one of the best displays of any smartphone you can buy. That’s always been true. What’s interesting in 2016 is that Apple manages to be among best despite using LCD, a technology every other flagship has left behind.
The Galaxy S7 and Note 7. The Nexus 6P. The Moto Z. The LG G5. The OnePlus 3. Take any high-end smartphone, and what you see on the front isn’t LCD, like the iPhone 7. It’s OLED (or AMOLED, which is similar enough for our purposes that we’ll conflate the two). There’s good reason for that, says Ray Soneira, president of DisplayMate Technologies.
“[OLEDs are] much thinner, much lighter, with a much smaller bezel providing a near rimless design, they can be made flexible and into curved screens,” writes Soneira in a post analyzing the iPhone 7’s display prowess. “Plus they have a very fast response time, better viewing angles, and an always-on display mode.”
That may seem like an odd thing to write in the context of extolling the LCD iPhone’s virtues. But the iPhone 7 lacking those attributes makes its performance all the more impressive.
Show Me What You’ve Got
Apple’s latest smartphone may look like the two that came before it, but its display is one of the components that has leveled up considerably. Soneira found that it beat its forbearer in basically every measurable regard. It also beats out smartphone displays of any stripe for important attributes like peak brightness and highest absolute color accuracy.
It’s not necessarily the best display overall; the Galaxy 7 was DisplayMate’s pick for best OLED display, and choosing a winner amounts to a toss-up. “They are both great state-of-the-art displays,” says Soneira. “But OLEDs and LCDs have different inherent native strengths and weaknesses, so neither display wins in all display performance categories.”
What’s intriguing is that the iPhone 7 comes close at all, given just how many strengths OLED has. In addition to the attributes Soneira named above, OLED can also be more power-efficient, as it requires enough juice to light only the individual pixels that need it, as opposed to LCD, which depends on a single backlight to fire up your display.
So how did Apple do it? Color, for one. It’s one of just three smartphone manufacturers to support the new DCI-P3 wide color gamut that’s used in 4K televisions. The other two are Samsung and LG, two companies that also happen to make 4K televisions. On a smartphone-sized screen, rich, accurate color representation matters to your eyes more than the number of pixels you can squeeze in.
“Since the iPhone 7 has a Retina display it doesn’t need the 4K resolution,” says Soneira. “It already appears perfectly sharp at its normal viewing distances.”
In fact, the iPhone 7 has the highest absolute color accurace of any display of any kind measured by DisplayMate, meaning it beats out even high-end HDTVs and monitors. The upshot? Those high-tops you were thinking of buying will show up on your doorstep the exact shade of green that they were at Zappos.com.
The only downside is that it looks as though Apple may have hit the limits of what it can accomplish with LCD in a smartphone. In fact, despite being largely the same technology, the iPhone 7 display falls short of the killer iPad Pro’s because smartphones don’t play as nice with the tablet’s scratch-friendly anti-reflective coating. An LCD display can also never curve, or flex, or offer quite the same efficiency as its OLED counterpart, no matter how advanced it gets.
That explains, at least in part, reports that Apple will be shifting to OLED next year–supplied at least in part by LG and Samsung–in at least one model. The iPhone may be the best LCD smartphone display out there, but there’s not much competition for the title. Everyone else has already moved on to what’s next.