AMOLED screens are all the rage nowadays, as it seems like every smartphone manufacturer is eager to use an AMOLED screen on their flagship device. The main display provider for the market is currently Samsung. So everbody depends on their production. Since Samsung introduced a lot of own smartphones with AMOLED and Super AMOLED screens, they weren’t capable to fullfill the demand of all display customers like HTC. Therefore HTC announced that they will switch from AMOLED displays to SLCD for a few devices like the HTC Desire and the Google Nexus One. I’m one of those people which never were quite happy with the AMOLED screen of my Nexus One because of the over saturated colors and the PenTile Matrix used on those Samsung AMOLED screens which lead to blurry text reproduction. So i was very happy to find out that my only gripe with the Nexus One could soon be remedied by HTC using SLCD displays for their newer Nexus One batches. Luckily i was able to get my hands on a brand new Nexus One SLCD to compare it with an Nexus One AMOLED device. Let’s find out if the whole AMOLED hype is justified.
As mentioned earlier, my first impression of the HTC Desire and Nexus One displays was VERY underwhelming, as the last smartphone i had reviewed at that point was the Motorola Droid/ Milestone which sported one of the best LCD displays i had ever seen with razor sharp text and great color reproduction. The moment i booted the HTC Desire i could see that something was wrong. Every graphic and especially text looked somehow blurry and my eyes had trouble focussing on smaller text. It wasn’t very complicated to find the reason for this by searching the web for a few minutes. The culprit here is called “PenTile Matrix”. Samsung uses this pixel approach for all of their current (SUPER) AMOLED screens. Each pixel doesn’t have three subpixel (red-green-blue) like on traditional LCD screens, but only two subpixel which are alternating in colors (green-blue / green-red). Let’s take a look at the following screenshot to visualize this (source: http://www.stealthcopter.com/blog/2010/06/nexus-ones-amoled-screen-under-the-microscope/).
The problem of this approach is that text looks MUCH worse than on an LCD screen with the same resolution. Straight lines appear like zig-zag lines on the AMOLED screen, which is not comfortable to read. I don’t know about you but i’m definetly reading and writing more text (emails, rss feeds, calendar, messages, apps) on my smartphone, than looking at some images or pictures. And I’m pretty sure that this is true for the vast majority of smartphone users. Therefore having crystal clear and sharp text is one of the most important display criteria for me. Let’s take a closer look at the Nexus One AMOLED screen (click picture to maximize).
You can see very clearly that the text is not only blurry, but also has pixels with different color at the edges. This is highly distracting the eye. I really tried to get along with it, because the Nexus One is still the best overall smartphone choice for me except for the AMOLED screen. But it became clear to me very soon that I won’t be able to get used to it. Not after I already had witnessed the incredible Motorola Droid/ Milestone display.
On the next screenshot you’ll see a macro shot of the new Nexus One with an SLCD screen (click picture to maximize).
The SLCD performs significantly better than the AMOLED screen. Text is razor sharp and reading for longer periods of time doesn’t tire your eyes as much as the PenTile AMOLED screen. Another thing i immediatly noticed was that the colors are also vivid but not over-saturated, so it’s not like the SLCD screen will look washed out compared to the Nexus One AMOLED screen. Therefore i think that the colors look more natural on the SLCD screen. After some days of using the Nexus One SLCD exclusively i turned on my Nexus One AMOLED device again and was really disgusted by the ugly PenTile rendering. So being used to the better text rendering of an LCD screen increases the bad impression of the AMOLED PenTile approach even further (click picture to maximize).
It’s important to make clear that the whole resolution issue is not a general problem of the AMOLED technology, but only one for AMOLED displays which specifically use the PenTile matrix approach. So as soon as there will be AMOLED screens available with the classic rgb stripes, there won’t be any difference in resolution quality between LCD and AMOLED displays anymore. But as for now the SLCD display is superior in this regard.
Outdoor/ Indoor visibility
Another big issue with these AMOLED screens is the very poor outdoor visibility. Especially on direct sunlight you won’t see much as the AMOLED screens brightness is only good for indoor usage. Basically the Nexus One SLCD doesn’t perform much better outdoors, which comes as a little surprise to me. The difference in direct sunlight is really very small. Both screens tend to have too much reflections and bad visibility outdoors. I would have suspected much better sunlight performance on the SLCD display, but that isn’t the case. The LCD display on the Motorola Milestone performs better outside than both Nexus One versions. Indoors the AMOLED screen has the edge, as the display is not backlit (AMOLED pixel are self emitting) like the SLCD screen, which results in better performance in dim surroundings.
Of course AMOLED screens have other good sides too. In example the black levels are superior. Since black pixels on AMOLED screens are just turned off, the screen produces great black colors and is supposed to have less battery consumption. This isn’t possible on SLCD screens because the screen is using backlight for every pixel. Therefore even black pixels on SLCD will have some glow to them which makes the color appear less deep. If you want to use the Nexus One as alarm clock and place it besides your bed on the docking station, then it’s much better to have the deep black levels of an AMOLED screen which don’t emit any light. The SLCD screen will be quite bright (even with the black docking station mode on the Nexus One) which might annoy you when trying to sleep. Honestly you won’t really notice this that much during the day, but especially in dark surroundings as the next picture shows (click picture to maximize).
Another aspect i hate about the Nexus One AMOLED screen is the oversaturation of colors. The colors just don’t look natural at all. Luckily the SLCD screen performs better, while the colors are still more saturated than the Motorola Milestone display. Overall i think that the color reproduction on the Nexus One SLCD is better, especially if you are not a fan of those AMOLED candy colors (click picture to maximize).
AMOLED screens fare better with different viewing angles. Even though AMOLED screens image quality suffers from different viewing angles too, the effect is more visible on the SLCD Nexus One. But honestly, who is looking at his smartphone from all kinds of weird angles? (click picture to maximize)
I never had any occasion during my many years of smartphone coverage, where this would be an importent use case. I just can’t shake off the feeling that many of those purposed AMOLED enhancements like less battery consumption and better viewing angles are merely marketing gags to justify the new technology, but not really giving much additional value to the customer as the AMOLED production is still in it’s early development stages (click picture to maximize).
As i wrote intentionally, AMOLED screens are SUPPOSED to have less battery consumption than LCD screens. But during the 2,5 months i used the Nexus One AMOLED device i was very disappointed. I couldn’t get more than one full day of usage from one battery charge, because the Nexus One battery died on me after about 18-20 hours of medium usage (emails, rss feeds, google sync turned on, 1 hour of WiFi, some internet browsing). This is worse than the battery life of my HTC Hero which sports a regular LCD screen. The reason is quite simple too, because AMOLED screens has less battery consumption for black colors, and more for bright colors. The difference of battery consumption between AMOLED and LCD screens is nearly nonexistent, as LCDs will have less battery consumption on bright colors, and more on black colors. So in the end the standby time will play out about the same.
So after having Nexus One devices with AMOLED and SLCD screens for some time now, which one is the better display technology? Well, it depends on your use cases. If you are reading a lot of text and want the best available resolution and sharpness, then the SLCD display is the way to go.
But if you prefer very bright colors and deep black levels, then an AMOLED screen is probably better suited. Overall I have to say that the SLCD resolution looks significantly better than the AMOLED resolution, because of the bad PenTile matrix rendering on the Samsung AMOLED displays.
And furthermore the SLCD screen provides nice and bright colors which can keep up with the AMOLED screen without being over-saturated. Besides the deep black levels and better viewing angle, the AMOLED display doesn’t have much else going for it in my opinion. So for my use cases the Nexus One with an SLCD display is the clear winner here. I’m very happy with my decision to sell my Nexus One AMOLED in order to get a Nexus One with SLCD and without PenTile rendering.
After releasing this review i had many discussions about this issue, and therefore wanted to clear up some things. The PenTile effect will be of course less visible the higher resolutions you have. So if we get better than WVGA on AMOLED displays with PenTile Matrix, it will lead to less visible problems. Furthermore it seems like Samsung was able to reduce this effect with their new SUPER AMOLED screens, as some people noted that they can clearly see the problems of bad text reproduction on the HTC devices with AMOLED screens but not that much on newer SUPER AMOLED devices. It would be great to see that issue being solved by getting rid of the PenTile approach as a whole, but of course those enhancements Samsung made with their SUPER AMOLED screen shouldn’t be left unnoticed too.