What is microLED and why does Apple want to use the tech?

What is microLED and why does Apple want to use the tech?
News broke recently that Apple may soon start making its own displays. Surprisingly, however, these won’t be OLED or LED-backlit LCDs. Instead, Apple is eyeing an emerging display tech that supposedly trumps both in terms of brightness, color accuracy, and durability. It’s called microLED.

What is microLED?


The mobile industry is currently dominated by LCD displays that are backlit by light-emitting diodes, or LEDs. Although this type of panels is frequently referred to as “LED display”, the diodes simply provide a backlight, which is then filtered through a number of layers—polarizers, liquid crystal, color filters, and others—to create an image.

Unlike LCDs, OLED (organic light-emitting diode) panels don’t need a backlight to display images. Instead, they have a film of organic compound that emits light in a response to an electric current. This allows for the individual illumination of each pixel, which results in contrast ratios that are better than those of LCD. While traditional LED backlights need to be on all the time, which can lead to washed-out blacks (especially when viewed in darker environments), OLED panels can simply light pixels individually and as needed, leaving the rest unlit. This means true, deep blacks. Since OLED displays don’t require a backlighting solution, they are also thinner than LCDs, which is among the reasons why the mobile industry is shifting toward OLED.



So, what about microLED? Well, just like OLED, microLED does away with the backlight and instead relies on tiny LEDs, each of which consists of 3 sub-pixels that can emit its own light. This means that the tech is capable of delivering the same amazing aspect ratios and true blacks as OLED, but with a couple of added benefits. For one, microLED ditches the organic materials used in OLED in favour of an inorganic solution. This means that microLED displays aren’t as susceptible to aging as OLEDs, which deteriorate and decrease in luminance over time. The inorganic compound used in the production of microLED panels is called Gallium Nitrade (GaN), and apart from an improved lifespan, it also offers as much as 30 times higher total brightness than what OLED can produce. This also means no burn-in, which is currently a problem on OLED displays.

The microLED problem


So, what’s the deal then? Why linger on inferior technologies, when microLED is obviously better? Well, as with any emerging tech, the answer is “because money.” MicroLED isn’t even all that new, it’s just currently extremely difficult and expensive to produce. Apple bought microLED manufacturer LuxVue back in 2014, and it is just now, 4 years later, that the company is even considering implementing the technology. And no, don’t expect an iPhone with a microLED display this year. Or next. Or perhaps even the one after that.

Apple is currently considering implementing a microLED display in one of the future iterations of the Apple Watch, because it would be small, lower-res, and subsequently easier to produce. You see, the problem with microLED displays is that the panels need to be assembled one sub-pixel at a time. Just to put things into perspective, a 1080p display has roughly around 2.1 million pixels. Multiply that by 3 and you get around 6.3 million sub-pixels. And each of these has to be assembled individually. Suffice to say, at this point, building microLED panels in a meaningful scale is not possible.

So then, why even bother? Well, aside from all the benefits that microLED has to offer over LCD and OLED, Apple is playing another game. The current iPhone X uses OLED panels sourced solely from Samsung—Apple’s main competitor on the mobile market—while 2018 iPhone models are rumored to use a mixture of LG and Samsung panels. Apple also uses LG and Samsung displays in MacBooks and iMacs, which makes the company even further dependent on its competitors.

Apple will likely start out small with microLED, implementing the tech in one of the future iterations of the Apple Watch. From then, if it turns out to be a viable alternative, the company will have to increase the manufacturing rate. However, getting to the point where microLED panels can be produced on a large enough scale to satisfy Apple’s yearly demand, is still quite a ways off. For reference, the company has ordered around 270 million iPhone displays in 2018, half of which OLED.

Conclusion


Apple isn’t alone in this game. Samsung recently unveiled The Wall – a 146-inch behemoth microLED TV that’s supposed to be available for purchase in 2018. The company still keeps mum on the price tag—because it will be exorbitant—and the TV will be available in a limited run only. It’s more of a showcase, really, but it’s indicative of where the display industry is headed. According to analysts, it will be a good 4 to 5 years until the tech gains traction and mass availability. And even then, prices will likely turn most people away.


But for Apple's purposes—that is, building on a smaller scale for the Apple Watch—microLED may very well be a good first step toward independence. Wearables offer a good field for experimentation with newer technologies. After all, when the original Apple Watch launched in 2015, it had an OLED display on board. It wasn't until the iPhone X, in 2017, that Apple would implement the technology in another product. So, maybe next year we'll see an Apple Watch with a microLED display, and 2 to 3 years from then, maybe even a microLED iPhone.

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25 Comments

1. shaineql

Posts: 522; Member since: Apr 28, 2014

So apple is not even close to it while Samsung already produced a viable product yet you make an article about Apples Instead of Samsung who already has it in mass production(sort of). Unbelievable how much people will praise apple for things it isn't even close to manufacturing.

2. RebelwithoutaClue unregistered

Pretty sure a TV doesn't count as a mobile device, which wouldn't make it newsworthy for a mobile device news site.

7. yann

Posts: 613; Member since: Jul 15, 2010

What are you saying? Samsung doesn't make mobile devices or what?

9. sip1995

Posts: 1771; Member since: Feb 07, 2014

He's saying that Samsung don't use MicroLED tech for mobile devices (phones etc.)

12. RebelwithoutaClue unregistered

Which part of "a TV" didn't you get? They won't submit news about Samsungs new fridge or latest supertanker either. Nothing to do with Samsung making mobiles devices or not.

18. Mr.Pussy

Posts: 348; Member since: Feb 16, 2017

It's because they don't use on mobile device that doesn't mean they can't. They can when they want. They got all the tech to do it.

19. RebelwithoutaClue unregistered

So the tech is better than amoled, but they don't want to use it ??? But when they decide to use it or leaks come out they are planning on using it, it will be on this news site. Until then, it's not mobile news. Which was my original point.

3. Soundjudgment

Posts: 370; Member since: Oct 10, 2016

It is certainly *NOT* in 'mass production' at present... by any company.

4. TitaofManila

Posts: 34; Member since: Mar 17, 2018

The Wall by Samsung is not in a Mass production it is more of Concept. Besides, you forgot to add in your equation that the size between the Wall (146inch) and an Apple watch (1.5 and 1.6inch), adding microled on a 146inch size would be a lot easier to work with than on a size like Apple watch.

5. toukale

Posts: 624; Member since: Jun 10, 2015

Don't ruined it for him/her with facts.

13. Vyshak75

Posts: 75; Member since: Mar 03, 2016

Regarding the easiness of production in regards to the size, phonearena have already mentioned it in the article... "Apple is currently considering implementing a microLED display in one of the future iterations of the Apple Watch, because it would be small, lower-res, and subsequently easier to produce. You see, the problem with microLED displays is that the panels need to be assembled one sub-pixel at a time. Just to put things into perspective, a 1080p display has roughly around 2.1 million pixels. Multiply that by 3 and you get around 6.3 million sub-pixels. And each of these has to be assembled individually." So that means, manufacturing it for a watch is easier than for a 146inch TV.

14. xfire99

Posts: 1205; Member since: Mar 14, 2012

The Wall is not a concept, its a finished product and any can buy it. If can afford it! Its module based and can be customized at other sizes if wanted. So if you are rich and can customize to a 200" TV if wanted. https://news.samsung.com/global/samsung-unveils-the-wall-the-worlds-first-modular-microled-146-inch-tv

6. Humanoid

Posts: 1226; Member since: Dec 11, 2017

OLED sucks

10. SIGPRO

Posts: 2815; Member since: Oct 03, 2012

Why? It is Superior!

8. Nikolai90

Posts: 50; Member since: May 16, 2017

OLED is becoming obsolete especially on burn in tragedy. It is expensive and doesn't worth it to be used for a long run. No wonder LCD displays still a majority in 2018. MicroLED is the future, embrace it.

15. TechSceptic

Posts: 1156; Member since: Feb 05, 2018

You're kidding right? Every single parameter within the display technology space is indicating that Oled is the way forward, which is why Apple is buying panels from their main competitior (Samsung), because Samsung's Amoled is simply vastly superior to anything else on the market right now. Lastly, burn in hasn't really been much of an issue for any of the modern Amoled panels, which is why you never really hear about it on sites like this. It hasn't really been much of an issue within these last 3 years, if you treated your display just with some tiny amount of common sense. Oled (Amoled) is the present and future, while MicroLED is a potential candidate for a competing technology down the line, but the thing that is certainly for sure is that LCD is the past, not the future. However, before MicroLED becomes a viable candidate, they need to get over the massive manufacturing hurdles, which makes it excessive difficult and therefore excessively expensive. The fact is that Oled actually is not expensive at all compared to MicroLED. You should really have researched a little more before making such extreme claims.

17. Nikolai90

Posts: 50; Member since: May 16, 2017

I'm not kidding and no time to waste. LCD is already ancient but majority of manufacturers still using it because it is much cheaper. OLED is becoming obsolete, although it is still on its peak of popularity on this year 2018. It is even regarded as exclusiveness. However, MicroLED is truly the future, not OLED. OLED will be an ancient technology such like LCD when MicroLED is ready to take OLED spot in the near future. So, I stand by my honest opinion.

11. TerryD

Posts: 544; Member since: May 09, 2017

So what is the power consumption like on MicroLED? What is the response rate like? How many frames per second can it handle? What is the pixel density?

23. worldpeace

Posts: 3127; Member since: Apr 15, 2016

Just like LCD and OLED, 1st gen wont be great on those parameters, but it will get better with time (until it hit physical limitation)

16. NinoH

Posts: 131; Member since: Feb 09, 2018

Ohh poor Samsung, they don’t cover stories about sammy nearly enough in the news. Good job Apple, as always they invest in technologies that will be vialiable in a couple of years.

20. JMartin22

Posts: 2369; Member since: Apr 30, 2013

Can’t wait for them to drop that beta-esq OLED screen technology. It’s plagued with efficiency and degredation issues. The iPhone X really is as close to ideal as OLED technology has gotten. Haven’t seen the S9 series improvement firsthand yet. And no, I’m not being biased towards one brand. These are just firsthand preferential experiences. The Note8 would have been the better contender if it could’ve gotten brighter on manual maximum settings, rather than some auto-boost situational settings.

21. NickSDC

Posts: 26; Member since: Nov 13, 2012

Lol. "Pretty sure a TV doesn't count as a mobile device" sounded so sarcastic in my head. I'm a huge Sammy fan, but I believe Rebel to be accurate gentlemen.

22. JMartin22

Posts: 2369; Member since: Apr 30, 2013

It’s more of a difficult engineering marvel to condense a high resolution display into a pocketable medium. If Apple can achieve this feat within 2 years with their own blueprint and design schematics, that would be amazing. They’ve often done great things before the rest of the industry ever thought to reference it. (64-bit chipsets, 3D-face modeling etc) If they, or Samsung can pull another trick out of their hat, that would be amazing for all of us as consumers. I deeply respect both companies for their pioneerings.

24. worldpeace

Posts: 3127; Member since: Apr 15, 2016

Err... They don't make the first 64-bit chip or the first 3D-face modeling, that get that component from other manufacturers.. But Apple did spent alot on advertising stuffs.

25. JMartin22

Posts: 2369; Member since: Apr 30, 2013

They’re always the quickest to implement the solution. The manufacturers are just assembly lines that are referring design blueprints from customer and how they want it be built from the ground up.

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