Today’s smartphones are brilliant. But they do all broadly look the same. Can new display technologies bring back some experimentation? MEF Minute looks at screen innovation…

It’s hard to overestimate the impact of phone screen innovation. Today, displays are so good we can happily watch entire box sets on them. And we do. Think how that is affecting the TV industry. Or even the family.

The screen technologies that have brought hi-def to the masses are LCD and OLED. LCD displays comprise an always-on backlight, which requires a light source to create black, white, and colour. They are pretty power-hungry but generally age well, with brightness and colour balance staying sharp after thousands of hours of use.

LCD displays comprise an always-on backlight, which requires a light source to create black, white, and colour. They are pretty power-hungry but generally age well, with brightness and colour balance staying sharp after thousands of hours of use.

OLED screens work in a different way. Their panels are made from organic (carbon based) materials that emit light when electricity is applied to them. That means they don’t require a backlight or filters. The best way of understanding it is to think of each pixel as its own independently colored, miniature light bulb on the screen. So OLED screens are thinner and can project a great picture quality at wide viewing angles. They consume less power than LCDs, but they do degrade more quickly. They also cost more than LCD screens. In the mobile space, OEMs tend to use a flavour called AMOLED (active-matrix organic light-emitting diode) displays.

So who’s doing what at the moment?

Well, most smartphones use TFT (Thin Film Transistor) LCD screens, though some higher-end devices have switched to IPS (In-plane switching) LCD. Viewing angles on IPS are far wider and the colours brighter. Apple iPhone 6 models have IPS screens. Meanwhile, in the AMOLED corner are Lumia, Samsung and others. Just to confuse things, it brands its screens Super AMOLED because they comprise touch sensors in the display itself, removing the need for an extra layer. All the above devices offer displays that are hi-def. Generally, that means 1,280 by 720 pixels for most models and 1,920 by 1,080 pixels for so-called full HD. Recently – and inevitably – there’s been a move towards Quad HD, which offers 1440 x 2560 pixels. QHD has appeared on the Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge, Xiaomi Mi Note Pro, HTC One M9+, LG G4 and others.

Not everyone is on board with this definition inflation. Plenty reckon QHD is unnecessary. QHD screens can display at over 500 pixels per inch, well beyond the 300 ppi that Apple famously said the human eye can discern. Earlier this year, Huawei Consumer Business Group CEO Richard Yu told Tech Radar: “I don’t think we need QHD displays on mobiles. Your eyes totally cannot identify between full HD and 2K on a smartphone. You can’t distinguish the difference, so it’s totally nonsense.” Whether or not QHD is nonsense or not, the fact is today’s screens are good enough for pretty much anyone. So if resolution is ‘done’, what’s next?

One possibility is transparent screens. There were some experiments around transparency in the early mono days, with models such as the Sony Ericsson Xperia Pureness offering a novelty see-through display. This summer, transparency made a comeback in the form of the Lenovo ZUK Z1, which can display full colour images and video on an entirely see-through screen. It’s a prototype, though word is the phone will launch next year.

Another new display idea – and one with the most potential for transforming the market – is flexible screens. Bendy displays are possible because OLED displays can be created not only from glass substrates, but also on flexible plastic materials. Of course, some handset makers have already made curved devices. In 2014, LG unveiled its G Flex phone with a curved screen. You could even flatten the handset out without breaking it. The Flex was a flop (though LG has kept the faith and launched a Flex 2). Most reviewers questioned the purpose of a curved screen. It didn’t seem to do anything apart from change the viewing area. When Samsung took advantage of OLED’s curvy properties in the Galaxy S6 Edge, it was essentially to make it look pretty.

This may be why there’s much more excitement about genuinely foldable screens.

Smartphones are getting bigger. People clearly like bigger screens on their handheld devices. But they don’t necessarily like carrying around huge ‘phablets’ especially when making calls. Foldable displays would make it possible to open out a mobile like a book, or pull out the screen like a mini roller blind. You get the idea from watching this Samsung promo.

Both Samsung and LG are working on flexible display technology and have issued statements that such smartphones ‘will be commercial possible in 2016’. The rumours suggest that Samsung’s ‘Project Valley’ will  deliver a book-type foldable phone in spring 2016. Nokia has also previewed a device that can be folded two or three times.

And another widely-reported piece of speculation says LG Displays has done a huge deal with an unnamed US software business (not Apple). LG will deliver foldable screens for a project that will see this mystery firm challenge Samsung and Apple in the smartphone space. Perhaps, at long last, the industry is poised for some genuine hardware innovation. We’ve had flat rectangles for eight years now.

Get ready for a new kind of clamshell.

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