Smartphone Display Technology and its Future

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There was once a time when the size and resolution of your mobile phone’s screen didn’t matter, as it only displayed monochrome letters, numbers and basic animations. These LCD screens were ordinary, functional and boring, a very different situation to the one we find ourselves in today, where the size and resolution of the screen is as important as the processor and the camera. Take the new Sony Xperia Z, where the display technology of one of its primary selling points, and certainly its most unique feature.

The Xperia Z is probably the most technologically advanced phone in terms of its screen available in the UK, and it’s not the 5-inch size that makes it so either. The resolution is an amazing 1080p – that’s 1920 x 1080 pixels, probably the same as your TV – with a 443ppi pixel density. The iPhone 5’s Retina display has, for comparison, a pixel density of 326ppi.

Sony has also incorporated its new BRAVIA Engine 2 into the Xperia Z, which enhances the contrast and colours seen on screen when it’s displaying still pictures or video, while removing image noise and improving the sharpness. Sony’s demonstration video is really impressive, and the phone promises to be great for viewing films and images.

BRAVIA Engine technology is exclusively found on Sony’s hardware, so what fancy titles do other companies ascribe for their screen tech to attract our attention? Here’s a quick guide to the names which continually appear on phone spec lists

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LCD

This is the basic technology you’ll see named on entry-level hardware, and quality may vary wildly from one handset to the next due to differences in the manufacturing process. With LCD, a good rule to follow is the cheaper the phone, the less impressive the display.

If sper LCD is listed though, things should be much better, as it offers higher quality images while using less power than standard LCD screens. LG has its own screen technology named Nova, which is an LCD screen tuned to provide a very bright image while not consuming any more energy.

Standout Device: The 1280 x 720 pixel, 4.7-inch super LCD 2 found on the HTC One X+.

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AMOLED

While LCD screens rely on a backlight, the pixels in an AMOLED screen produce their own light, cutting down on power consumption and making the phone thinner. AMOLED screens are known for their bright colours and deep blacks. There are many derivatives, with the standard AMOLED, super AMOLED and super AMOLED HD all sharing the same technology, while the super AMOLED Plus version differs slightly, resulting in a sharper image.

Standout Device: The super AMOLED Plus screen on the Samsung Galaxy S II.

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Retina

This is Apple’s buzzword for its incredibly sharp displays found on every iPhone after the iPhone 4. Apple says a Retina screen has no discernible pixels when viewed at a normal distance, something measured by the “pixel density,” or PPI (pixels-per-inch).

Standout Device: The Apple iPhone 5 with its 4-inch, 326ppi Retina display.

So now our phones have the same resolution as the TV in our living room, where will manufacturers take screen technology next? Here’s a look at some of the most interesting areas of development which could be tempting you into buying a new phone in the future.

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Flexibility

We’ll start with a popular one which many of you will already be excited about: Flexible screens. As the name suggests, these are displays which flex and bend while still operating in a normal way. The latest in a long line of manufacturers showing off flexible screen technology was Samsung at this year’s CES event in Las Vegas. You can see it in action here, but be warned, it’s not ready for the high street just yet.

Flexible screens are exciting because they’re almost impossible to break, and the panels are thinner, stronger and more flexible than glass, so their indestructibility is only one of the advantages, as they’ll mean thinner and lighter phones too. Corning, the makers of super-strong Gorilla Glass, has even produced a highly flexible glass panel – called Willow – to go over the top.

Sadly, the first few generations of hardware with flexible screens won’t be floppy phones, as research into flexible circuit boards and batteries is further behind that of the screens, but they will have displays which will be almost impossible to break. That doesn’t mean manufacturers won’t have fun with them though, as their flexibility will mean we could see screens curving round the edges of your phone, or even more ergonomic shapes than we’re currently used to seeing.

As for when smartphones with flexible screens will go on sale, it may not happen until next year at the earliest, although both Samsung and LG have been rumoured to be working hard to incorporate flexie screens in a phone this year.

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Sharp IGZO

Now for a display technology which may not capture our sci-fi loving hearts in the same way as flexible screens, but is perhaps more beneficial to the smartphone world as a whole. Sharp has been developing a technology known as IGZO for a while, and it’s very nearly ready for mainstream use. Panels made using this technology are capable of high resolutions and pixel densities, the latter being anywhere up to 500ppi.

The clever thing is, IGZO screens don’t need to refresh static images – your smartphone’s home screen for example – like the screen on your phone today, which cuts down on power usage and its energy requirements, resulting in improved battery life. Additionally, the backlight doesn’t have to be as strong on an IGZO panel, again cutting down on the amount of power it consumes.

Sharp already sells phones with an IGZO screen in Japan, but as it doesn’t sell its own hardware outside of the country, we’re going to have to wait until another company chooses to have Sharp make its displays. Apple has already been linked with Sharp’s IGZO displays in the past, but as yet it hasn’t produced a device using one.

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On-Cell and In-Cell

So, flexible screens are still to come and IGZO panels are almost here, now it’s time to look at some new technology that’s actually here, but has yet to reach its full potential. Forgive us, it’s going to get a bit technical for a moment. The touchscreen on most phones is made up of three sections, the LCD, the touch panel and the glass covering, all of which are glued together.

However, there are two new technologies which take this down to two layers by either placing the touch panel over the top of the glass panel, called on-cell, or inside it using a process called in-cell. Two of the most popular phones on the market use this technology already. Samsung uses an on-cell super AMOLED screen with the Galaxy S III, while Apple uses in-cell on its iPhone 5. The result is a thinner screen and therefore a thinner phone, better colours and improved feel and responsiveness.

At the moment, screens using on-cell and in-cell technology are expensive and difficult to produce, but as the process is refined, it’ll become a viable option for more cost-effective phones.

This year  has already established itself as the year of the 5-inch or larger smartphone, and many of those displays will have a 1080p pixel count. The four technologies we talked about here could end up complimenting those devices by adding tangible benefits such as longer battery life and a higher degree of durability; making big screen, Full HD phones even more desirable.

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