Apple, why is the OLED iPhone 13 still missing always-on display?

This article may contain personal views and opinion from the author.
Apple, why is the OLED iPhone 13 still missing always-on display?
If there's one feature we should expect from a smartphone with an OLED screen – it's always-on display. OLED screens can be more energy efficient than IPS, as the individual OLED pixels emit their own light and can be completely shut off to "display" true blacks.

Thus, normally a phone's always-on display feature would use a pitch black background and as few active pixels as possible to show valuable information to the user at all times. Thanks to the fact that most pixels still remain off, always-on display doesn't have the huge impact on battery life it would on a phone with an IPS display.

Android phones have had always-on display for many years now, from basic to fully customizable (e.g. on Samsung flagships), allowing you to choose what you want to have displayed on your phone non-stop, even when it's locked. Anything from a clock with notification icons, to the date, battery percentage, or even an image.

Apple clearly isn't in a hurry to adopt Android features like always-on display

So, plenty of flagship Android phones with OLED screens feature always-on display in some shape or form. But what about iPhones? Both the new iPhone 13 series and last year's iPhone 12 have OLED displays after all, yet those remain completely blank when the phone is locked. There's no option to enable anything resembling always-on display on iOS.

Apple indeed isn't in a hurry to adopt Android features, but that's likely because the company has its own strategy in how it does things, and it's working quite well so far. Keeping things simple and avoiding features that could be confusing and complicated are in part what makes the iPhone 13 so approachable and beloved by many. Basically, Apple may not see any reason to play catch-up with its competitors, at least for now.

But when it comes to always-on display in particular, a feature that's not really all that complicated, we did hear rumors that the iPhone 13 will get it, yet it did not. Why would that be? Because it will impact the phone's battery life? Perhaps, but it could easily be something else...

Apple may be reserving always-on display for the iPhone 14, so you'll have one more reason to "upgrade" next year

Technically Apple is capable of introducing always-on display (surely with a different name for it) right now, on the current iPhone 13 and even on the iPhone 12 series via a software update.

As mentioned earlier, before its release, we heard rumors that always-on display was coming on the iPhone 13. But it's plausible that the Cupertino company chose to omit this feature for now and make it available only starting with the 2022 iPhone 14. So that phone's presentation can show one more "new" feature to encourage you to upgrade next year.

Alternatively – yes, it is possible that Apple is still unable to solve the potential battery drain issues that come with implementing always-on display. We've seen Android phones where enabling always-on display drains the battery significantly, to the point of it not being worth it.

For example, in my personal experience – the Asus ROG Phone 5, which is a beast of a phone that can last up to 13 hours of screen-on time, lasted significantly less when I enabled always-on display. So instead of losing on nearly half the battery life, I just chose to disable the feature.

Indeed there are Android phone makers that have issues figuring out how to implement always-on display without sacrificing too much battery life, and it's possible that Apple similarly still hasn't been able to find a good balance. Thus, the iPhone 13 launched without always-on display.

But could that really be the case? It seems somewhat of a stretch, an excuse, rather than a plausible reason. In our iPhone 13 Pro Max review, we called that phone an "undisputed battery champion" for good reason – it lasted nearly 19 whole hours of constant 60Hz internet browsing. Surely that phone has a strong enough battery to survive whatever impact always-on display would've had on it, right?

In any case, the more basic and expected features Apple deprives users of, the more likely it is that they'll want to buy the next iPhone, should it finally get those features. Whether Apple couldn't or simply chose not to give us always-on display this year, we can't overlook the fact that including it on the iPhone 14 can be a convenient motivating factor for users to upgrade next year.

The iPhone 13 was just a stopgap

I'm sure many smartphone enthusiasts saw the iPhone 13 and struggled to figure out what's new over last year's iPhone 12. In my opinion, the iPhone 13 was a boring but safe stopgap release for Apple, and the company was well aware of that.

Apple is quietly working on the exciting Apple glasses and by some reports the iPhone 14 will be a more worthwhile release, but until those are ready to be unveiled next year, the company had to prepare something for this one.

And if you don't have anything huge to announce, the safest thing to do is to release the same tried and tested phone with minor upgrades, and make those look like a big deal. For example – introduce some software features (e.g. Cinematic Mode).

Or finally start at 128GB of base storage, which is twice over last year's iPhones. Realistically, this is not very exciting, and Apple should've arguably moved to 128GB a long time ago, but the company was smart about it and knew to offer it when the time is right; when there's not much else to get people excited with.

Not even an iPhone 13 notification light? Really?

I switch regularly between Android phones and iPhones, and if there's one thing I dislike more than not having always-on display – it's not even having a notification light for unread messages and notifications. It doesn't have to be a hardware notification light, Apple can simply use a few OLED display pixels to simulate one. Having it in any form would've been better than nothing.

On many Android budget phones and even flagships, a hardware notification light does the trick. It's not as intricate as always-on display, but you'll know if you have messages. However, if you're rocking even the latest, premium iPhone 13 "Pro" – you don't even get that.

Share your thoughts! What do you believe Apple's excuse is for still not giving us always-on display? Could it be related to concerns over battery life? Is it considered a feature that's not important enough? Or is always-on display simply something the Cupertino company chose to delay, in order to encourage users to upgrade to the iPhone 14 next year?

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