Thoughts on AMOLED and LCD displays in 2013: Is there a clear winner?

Chase Bonar
 from  Winter Springs, FL
| March 3, 2013

There are many display technologies prowling the mobile domain, yet no two are alike. AMOLED displays and its variants HD, Super, Plus, and Full HD, take up a large chunk of the market thanks to Samsung's near monopoly of the manufacturing process of the panels. But even these have their differences under a microscope.

You shouldn't prefer AMOLED panels over any other display technology without trying them. With the pixel density argument nearing to a ceasefire, and it being the main disadvantage of AMOLED displays since the beginning of their existence, IPS-LCD, and Super LCD displays are beginning to perfect the user experience. That is, if you have an interest in finding out the differences. Seeing is believing.

I have used many Samsung AMOLED displays. My first experience with the display technology was with the Super AMOLED (SAMOLED) display atop the original Samsung Galaxy S (AT&T variant). The 4-inch display was touted as offering 5 times greater visibility in direct sunlight, and was Samsung's first display to integrate the touch screen digitizer into the display itself. The trade off was the PenTile RGBG subpixel matrix layout which results in visible pixels on the screen and an off-white coloring when the display is not at full brightness. PenTile is a trademark of Samsung and remains a determining factor in how images and text are displayed on smartphone screens. PenTile is most often associated with jagged edges around text and shapes.

My second experience with AMOLED panels came courtesy of the Samsung Galaxy S II, the Sprint-branded Epic 4G Touch variant. In its full glory, it still takes the trophy for the most long-winded name ever: the Samsung Galaxy S II Epic 4G Touch. Whew. The screen was Samsung's first display without the PenTile RGBG pixel matrix, or four subpixels within each pixel. In PenTile's absence, a true RGB subpixel arrangement within each pixel eliminated the jagged edges of the former display technology.

My current device is the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, and the device has been showing its age as compared to other AMOLED displays from Samsung. Now, before you wonder why I'm comparing a two-year old phone to the latest AMOLED and LCD displays on sale in 2013, look down at your Samsung Galaxy S III or Galaxy Note (not the Note II). HD Super AMOLED is simply a rebranding of the original Super AMOLED display tech for high resolution displays. In other words, the original Galaxy S uses the same technology as the current Galaxy S III albeit adjusted for a higher resolution.

HD Super AMOLED displays offer higher pixel densities due to the inherent HD screen resolutions (>1280x720 and up) trending in today's devices. For better or worse, HD Super AMOLED was the natural succession in AMOLED panels to keep up with marketable terms like pixel density, PPI, and Retina. But where my Samsung Galaxy Nexus boasts a high 316 pixels per inch, it still isn't up to par with even Samsung's Galaxy S II's true RGB subpixel arrangement. But don't take my word for it, test it for yourself. Turn down the brightness on your Galaxy S III, original Note, Galaxy S, or Galaxy Nexus, and look at the shapes and text edges. Better yet, go outside and do this.

This is when I came to realization that AMOLED might not be the be-all end-all in screen technology for me. Nor should it be for Samsung. As further proof, there are rumors circling the Web that the Samsung Galaxy S IV could drop the rumored 5-inch Full HD Super AMOLED display for an LCD variant. Though just a rumor and one of the wildest one's surrounding Samsung, I'm beginning to have some remorse for the device if it doesn't come with an LCD display. I simply can't get enough of the Super LCD variants, and IPS backlit LCD screens on HTC's flagships, the LG Optimus G and even the iPhone 5.


The arguments for LCD displays

For starters, LCD displays, including the IPS backlit LCD displays and Super LCD variants, are on-par if not better (depending on your definition of the word) than LED displays. It's all a matter of your preferences and priorities when using your smartphone.

Naturally, the RGB (red, green, blue) arrangement results in crisper text and smoother edges at high resolutions. Though the Full HD variety of Super AMOLED displays are not yet available due to cost and manufacturing woes surrounding the technology, LCD offers an intriguing alternative, even if it's the grandpa of smartphone display technologies.

LCD (Liquid Crystal Display) displays remain one of the oldest display technologies. At the turn of the century when CRT (Cathode Ray Tube) was becoming obsolete because of low efficiency and the sheer space required to project the image with an electron gun, LCD came in as the clear winner. LCD displays were more efficient and used less power, all the while taking up less space.

In other words, LCD displays naturally moved into display technology as an alternative and remains a contender in the same sense that AMOLED is trying to supercede LCD displays. However, it's not that simple because the determining factor is uncontrollable - user preference.

In smartphone displays, LCD displays offer a few key advantages over AMOLED displays. Due to the "direct sunlight argument" where the Sun distorts colors and the image projected on AMOLED screens, LCD displays hold a clear advantage. At full brightness, LCD displays get much brighter than their AMOLED counterparts and also use less power in the process. They are miles ahead of AMOLED displays outside, and I'd say this is nearly an undenaible truth, and not an opinion. It's important to mention that LCD displays are only more efficient at full brightness as compared to AMOLED. AMOLED screens are more efficient all around, just not when the brightness is cranked up.

As you may have already learned, LCD displays also have a true RGB subpixel arrangement. The idea precedes Samsung's trademark PenTile matrix layout and for good reason; the pixel geometry is more detailed. However, an LCD display is simply an actuator of the pixel arrangement and provides no true light of its own, which is why IPS (In-Plane Switching) exists. You're most familiar with IPS backlit LCD displays by means of the entire LG Optimus line of devices, and Apple's iPhone 4, 4S, and 5. As evidenced in practice, IPS uses more battery to power the display, but they offer clear advantages in direct sunlight.

My last argument for LCD over AMOLED panels is a hot-topic among today's display technologies: color reproduction. No matter your preference in display technology, black is black, and white is white. Anything in between doesn't matter as much. It's preference. Where it gets tricky with an AMOLED and LCD comparison is with everything in between. Where my previous two arguments for LCD over the latter in direct sunlight, and with efficiency at full brightnes are 99% accurate, your color preference is the key determinant in which display will work better for you.


The arguments for AMOLED

LCD displays cannot touch the contrast ratios of AMOLED displays. In practice, you most often see this when turning the brightness of any AMOLED display to zero with a true black image in the background. The black pixels actually turn off when the color black is on-screen. To see true black is refreshing. LCD displays do not get this dark and often times result in a dark gray in place of black. The true black argument for AMOLED displays is a main selling point of the technology over LCD. The only real question is how often you plan to have a dark image on your screen. If you have no background on your home screen, AMOLED will better suit you.

Color saturation and efficiency are the remaining factors which sway consumers one way or another. Due to the high contrast ratios of AMOLED screens, color saturation is clearly divisive in how we perceive true color. AMOLED displays saturate all images and colors to the opposite effect of a traditional rainbow. The results are extremely vivid colors that don't look real, or true to reality. In practice, AMOLED displays are designed with no accuracy of color reproduction in mind, which is fine by me. It's completely acceptable that the AMOLED variety of displays do not prioritize true color reproduction.. It's preference after all. Lastly, AMOLED displays run "cooler" and offer colder colors. Coolness of color is the level of differentiation in hue, the degree to which a color can be described as red, green, blue, or yellow.



This is where the show stops and you come into play. As the consumer, we have more display options than ever. Where Samsung prefers AMOLED and its cooler colors and vivid details, Apple and HTC have distinctly become associated with LCD displays and their accurate yet inefficient color representation on-screen.

I am beginning to think that Samsung's top priority as the paramount manufacturer and innovator in LED display technology is persuading me to look elsewhere. I've used Super LCD displays on the HTC One X (and variants) and I'm intrigued by their successor, the HTC One. With or without the "X," I know what I'm going to get from an LCD display no matter what I'm looking at. That is, accurate colors with consistent reproduction, clear visibility outdoors, a consistent rate of battery consumption no matter the image displayed, and supreme viewing angles (which that used to be an afterthought of LCD tech).

I'm just never sure what to expect with an AMOLED display despite it carving out a clear set of attributes that the latter can't even come close to.

I can honestly tell you that pixels bother me like no other, and that I was severely disappointed with Samsung when they announced PenTile was on-board the Galaxy S III. Though I have ranked the Galaxy S III as my favorite all-around smartphone the past three weeks in the Expert Smartphone Rankings, I'm far from happy with the display. I consider it the number disadvantage as compared to the HTC One and One X, or even Google's Nexus 4.

I'm interested to hear your thoughts on displays, Reader. Even though pixels and colors are important to me, I can't be the only one who thinks about them. What do you look for in an image on your smartphone? Are colors important to you? Do you prefer color accuracy, or vivid saturation? What are your thoughts on pixels? Let me know what you think below!

Images via Engadget (1) and (2), and GSMArena.