The iPhone X is rumored to have an OLED screen — here’s what OLED is and how it’s different from past iPhones (AAPL)

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Designer Martin Hajek's render of the new iPhone with an OLED screen.

Apple is set to announce a slew of new products on Tuesday, including three new iPhones: the iPhone 8, iPhone 8 Plus, and iPhone X.

There are said to be several major differences among the three phones, but one of the biggest changes is the screen — the iPhone X will have a new OLED screen, while the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus will have an LCD screen like Apple’s previous phones.

The OLED technology is new for Apple, but anyone who uses Samsung phones (or the Google Pixel, or the new Essential Phone) is already familiar with OLED. In fact, Samsung has been using OLED screens since its first Galaxy phone came out seven years ago.

So what is OLED?

OLED, short for organic light-emitting diode, is a type of display technology. It differs from the more widely used LCD (liquid crystal display) tech by creating light within every pixel that makes up its picture, instead of requiring a separate backlighting system.

This means it can produce perfectly dark blacks. Rather than trying to cover up a backlight behind the scenes and inevitably letting some light through, it shuts off the appropriate pixels. The result is an infinite contrast ratio — i.e., the difference between a display’s darkest blacks and brightest whites.

And that, in turn, means an OLED panel can produce a more vivid, realistic picture. If you’ve ever put a Galaxy S8 and an iPhone 7 side by side, you’ve seen the difference: Apple’s LCD display is excellent, but Samsung’s OLED display just pops more. It’s more engrossing. It’s thinner, too.

I’m simplifying — improved backlighting tech, wider color gamuts, and HDR have helped the best LCD displays catch up a bit. But stuff like that isn’t exclusive to LCD. Judged straight up, the contrast difference is enough to make OLED superior.

The drawbacks

OLED isn’t perfect. The displays are more prone to color shifting and are very vulnerable to burn-in, meaning that if you leave an image on the screen for too long, you run the risk of it being retained on — or burned into — the screen over time.

This isn’t a problem unique to OLED — LCD screens are also susceptible to burn-in. But the vulnerability is greater with OLEDs and could shorten the life span of your phone (though according to some reports, there are clues in the iOS code that Apple has taken special steps to mitigate the burn-in effect on the iPhone X).

These two screens are displaying the same photo of the color black — that blue line on the OLED screen, right, just serves to show that the screen actually is turned on.
These two screens are displaying the same photo of the color black — that blue line on the OLED screen, right, just serves to show that the screen actually is turned on. (Antonio Villas-Boas/Business Insider)

Changes ahead

What does this mean for people who buy the new iPhone? Well, we’ll have to wait until Tuesday to find out what, exactly. But judging by my experience with Samsung’s OLED screens, I have a few guesses.

OLED screens paint a much more vivid picture, and the display is so bright and captivating that it almost doesn’t look real. You feel as if you could climb into the screen — it’s that immersive. For anyone who wears glasses or contacts, the difference between OLED and LCD screens feels like your prescription getting bumped up a notch and everything coming into sharper focus.

Plus, since the iPhone X is rumored to have a screen that goes all the way to the edges, OLED technology could really have a chance to shine.

An OLED screen on an iPhone would also give Apple the option to create an “always on” feature like the Galaxy has. The screen can display the date, time, battery life, and more without wasting the phone’s battery, since the phone has to light up only the pixels it needs. If an iPhone tried to do that now, it would have to light up the entire screen, then color in the pixels black to cover up the backlight — and drain your battery.

One thing to note: OLED screens are typically more expensive, and that may be part of the reason the iPhone X is predicted to cost more than $1,000.

We’ll know more when Apple officially launches its new products on Tuesday. Business Insider will be covering the event live, so check back then for complete coverage.

Jeff Dunn contributed to an earlier version of this post.

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