In Defense of LCD

AMOLED Just Doesn’t Cut It

There has been a trend in the past few years with smartphone displays. Well, two actually. Smartphone screens have been getting more pixel dense and have been migrating from the tried-and-true LCD to the newer and previously cost-prohibitive AMOLED. The switch to AMOLED is what I’d like to focus on.

For those who don’t know, AMOLED stands for Active-Matrix Organic Light-Emitting Diode. The “Organic” aspect of this technology is what makes it stand out, allowing for the display to be made without a backlight. AMOLED also offers a supposed “infinite contrast ratio”, although this is marketing hyperbole. It’s a lie with a sliver of truth; while definitely finite, AMOLED does offer a greater range from white to black by outputting a “true” black. The blacks of AMOLED displays are truly black because the individual pixels can be turned off entirely. 

"If you put a phone with an LCD next to one with an AMOLED screen, most people would rate the AMOLED as better."

This difference makes AMOLED displays more pleasing to the eye, generally speaking. At the very least, if you put a phone with an LCD, say the iPhone 8, next to a handset with an AMOLED screen such as the Samsung Galaxy S8, most people would rate the Galaxy’s screen as better. While “better” to the naked eye of a layman, AMOLED is far less photorealistic than traditional LCD and over saturates the images rendered. Even when dialing back the distortion with an sRGB color profile, the displays of Samsung phones don`t accurately represent the real-life pictures and videos depicted on them.

We see a similar trend with headphones. Perhaps the worst offender of this is Beats by Dre. Many people love the way these headphones sound, myself included, but the highs and low are overemphasized in an attempt (a successful one, in my view) to be more pleasing to the listener. Music may sound may be “better” to the ears of a layman, but the output from a pair of Solo 3’s isn’t a proper representation of the artist’s work. Whether or not this is truly important is another question entirely.

"There’s nothing inherently wrong with Beats or Samsung, so long as you know there’s a trade-off."

It all comes down to a matter of preference. Loads of people listen to music on their bassy Beats by Dre headphones and watch videos on their oversaturated Galaxy phone screens, and love it. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, so long as they know there’s a trade-off. Nearly anyone technically inclined knows Beats have a bass-heavy sound profile. 

Smartphone enthusiasts, however, seem to have bought into the hype and by and large have been convinced by the marketing of Samsung and others. Take Google as an example. In both 2015 and 2017, the larger of their two flagship phones had an AMOLED, while the smaller and less expensive device had an LCD.

I bought a Nexus in 2015 and went with the Nexus 5X. It had a worse camera, less RAM, and a smaller storage capacity than the Nexus 6P. These trade-offs were well worth it, in my view, because of the phone’s LCD. It won’t burn-in like an AMOLED and is far more color neutral. The phone is still in use today and the screen looks as good as new. Listings for many two-year-old used AMOLED smartphones list screen burn-in in the “condition” section of eBay, Swappa, and similar sites.

"Google claims they're actively investigating this report, but nothing short of a recall or exchange program would alleviate the hardware flaws exhibited by these early units."

Samsung has been pushing AMOLED for several years with its Galaxy smartphones, and has honed its craft over the past five or so years. It will be supplying the screens for the tenth-anniversary iPhone X. Its rival, LG, supplied the displays for the recently announced Pixel 2 XL. The XL has been in the spotlight recently for all the wrong reasons, namely quality control.

YouTube tech reviewer Austin Evans called the screen “garbage town” and The Verge’s senior editor Dieter Bohn says the Google phone outputs “muddy color and grainy textures.” Google spokespeople claim the tech giant is “actively investigating this report” of awful AMOLED screens, but nothing short of a recall or exchange program would alleviate the hardware flaws exhibited by these early units.

As mentioned, LG is the manufacturer behind the Pixel 2 XL and its lack of experience is evident with respect to AMOLED technology. The LG G5 and every recent iPhone use LG LCD displays and look stunning. But those displays don’t have the artificial vibrancy today’s consumer demands. The market has spoken, but this is a case of low-information buyers parting with their dollars on a whim, and using their guts rather than their heads when assessing what to value most.