Ever since Apple unleashed the term “Retina Display” upon the world, smartphone manufacturers have been laser-focused on improving display technology. In the beginning, these gains absolutely mattered. A lot of ink was spilled (some of it by yours truly) on the difference between OLEDs and LCDs, or PenTile subpixel arrangements versus the traditional RGB.
In the end, OLED won the high-end smartphone display race. LCDs continue to be used in some models, of course, including Apple’s iPhone XR, but OLED technology has won the day in high-end displays. At DisplayMate, display technology expert Dr. Raymond Soneira has written a shoot-out on Samsung’s Galaxy Note 10+, and declared it the best phone display he’s measured to-date. The question is, does anyone really care any longer?
According to Dr. Soneira, the Note 10+’s display has “has again raised the bar significantly higher.” But the significance of that movement as a whole has never looked more tenuous. Consider how close the Note 10+ ranks against the S10, the display Samsung launched earlier this year. Data below drawn from the Galaxy Note 10+ and Galaxy S10 display reviews:
We’ve created this chart using the metrics Dr. Soneira declares are most significant for each display. As you can see, the Note 10+ and the S10 displays are extremely similar. This is not a bad thing on the face of it — both the Note 10+ and S10 are recognized as having an excellent panel to begin with. Dr. Soneira declares that the shift in color accuracy and intensity values for both the Note 10+ and S10 are record-setting. While there’s a numerical difference between the two, the value is below 1 in both cases, which means it’s visually indistinguishable from perfect. The fact that we’re literally measuring differences that humans can’t visually perceive tells you something about how far down the rabbit hole device manufacturers have gone already.
As Dr. Soneira notes in his evaluation of resolutions, moving to 4K over 3K in a panel this small does not provide a noticeable improvement. He states, “As a result, it is absolutely pointless to further increase the display resolution and pixels per inch (ppi) for a marketing wild goose chase into the stratosphere, with no visual benefit for humans!” We may have hit this point in more ways than one. Reading over the Note’s performance, it’s one “excellent” score after another. The iPhone XS and S10 are scarcely different. It’s not that there are literally no differences in the designs of these screens, but that the differences have shrunk to virtually nothing. The major chatter these days is on when Android vendors will adopt panels with high refresh rates, because moving to 90-120Hz makes a display feel faster than a 60Hz equivalent.
Even so, screens don’t really feel like the upgrade-drivers that they once were. There was a time when a faster phone, better panel, and sharper image combined to make a new iteration of Android or iOS feel like a reinvention of mobile computing, especially if you skipped several OS versions at once. The strength of this effect obviously depended on when you upgraded — some Android and iOS versions have overhauled the UX more than others — but the boost used to be significant. Larger devices may have also indirectly helped with this — if you went from a 4-inch panel to a 5.5-inch or even 6-inch display, you obviously got a very different experience in that regard as well.
For all the hubbub over foldable displays in 2019, it seems telling that the most interesting and important aspect of the panel is a trait that has nothing to do with its actual ability to display an image. In 2012, the hottest thing in smartphone displays was a phone that could display a crisp, sharp picture. In 2019, the hottest thing in smartphone displays is a phone that can fold like a washcloth (until it breaks). Apart from faster refresh rates, smartphones seem to be topping out against the limits of human visual perception if nothing else. The enduring problems of smartphones, like the difficulty of reading them outdoors, are intrinsically difficult to overcome. The Sun, being powered by nuclear fusion, has a distinct performance advantage over the hapless OLED screen attempting to outshine it. Incremental improvements in JNCD, viewing angles, and reflection certainly seem possible, but these gains are all subject to diminishing marginal returns.
This leads to an odd scenario: The Samsung Galaxy Note 10+ may indeed have the best screen you can buy today, but I’m less certain than ever that this empirical observation will lead to additional sales. Much of the conversation around the phone has debated whether or not(e) it should even exist with the extremely-similar S10 on the market, though stylus lovers continue to defend it.