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Apple's MicroLED Dream: What it means for the Apple Watch and beyond

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Apple intends to integrate MicroLED screens in future Apple Watch models — either in 2024 or 2025, according to a press release dated January 10 report of Bloomberg. The move would continue Apple’s progress toward using the company’s own parts in its products without having to rely on components from outside vendors. Another report from Mark Gurman this week said that Apple is currently working on an all-in-one chip that handles Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and cellular networks. The company’s internal silicon already powers the iPhone, iPad, Mac, Apple Watch and Apple TV.

With all of these efforts, Apple’s end goal is to have greater control over future products with less risk of delays and setbacks beyond the company’s control. With displays in particular, such a change could impact the financial outlook of vendors such as Samsung Display and LG Display, which supply the bulk of Apple’s current panels.

But as it stands, whether you buy the Apple Watch Series 8, Ultra, or SE, you’re already get a smartwatch with a bright and vivid display. So it’s worth looking at what – if any – benefits this next-generation MicroLED technology would bring to Apple’s wearables and other devices.

A close-up photo of Samsung's MicroLED module.

a:hover]:text-gray-63 text-gray-63 dark:[&>a:hover]:text-gray-bd dark:text-gray-bd dark:[&>a]:text-gray-bd [&>a]:shadow-underline-gray-63 [&>a:hover]:shadow-underline-black dark:[&>a]:shadow-underline-gray dark:[&>a:hover]:shadow-underline-gray”>Photo by Chris Welch/The Verge

Often hailed as the next big leap in display technology after OLED, MicroLED displays offer many of the same benefits. The image is generated by millions of individual LEDs that provide per-pixel dimming; each can be switched off to produce perfect blacks. This results in the unrivaled contrast we’ve enjoyed for years with OLED TVs and smartphones; More recently, OLED is increasingly used in tablets, laptops and desktop monitors.

But the O in OLED stands for “organic,” and it turns out that’s actually one of the downsides. The organic compound of OLED screens has a limited lifespan and always comes with at least some risk of permanent burns – although this is hardly a factor on modern high-end televisions. Overall brightness also falls short of the best LCD TVs which use Mini LED backlighting and local dimming to try to approximate superb OLED contrast at higher sustained brightness.

Both Samsung Display and LG Display have made significant progress with brighter OLED panels over the past two years – QD-OLED in Samsung’s case – but MicroLED promises even greater luminance without the problems of break-in or panel degradation. Samsung showed off MicroLED screens that hit 4,000 nits of peak brightness, about double what the best OLED and LCD TVs are capable of right now. It’s a level of pop that would fit in any environment. Like the iPhone 14 Pro and Pro Max, the Apple Watch Ultra hits 2,000 nits in bright outdoor environments. It’s still plenty bright and perfectly visible in sunny conditions, but MicroLED could up the game even further.

If there’s one company that has led the way with MicroLED so far, it’s Samsung. The company provided an update on the state of affairs at CES 2023. If you’re a display enthusiast or a general tech enthusiast, the video below is well worth a watch to learn more about the benefits, the modularity and how it all comes together. You will learn a lot in less than eight minutes.

In this voiceover, you’ll hear this key line: “MicroLEDs have unlimited scalability because they are resolutionless, frameless, ratioless, and even sizeless. This means that the screen can be freely resized into any shape for your use, just like a building block. MicroLEDs are placed on modules that can be combined seamlessly in any shape or size. In addition to being self-emissive, MicroLEDs also individually produce red, green, and blue colors without the need for the same backlighting or color filters as conventional displays. Thus, the screens can produce perfect colors and improve color brightness. As with QD-OLED, this higher color brightness makes the whole screen look brighter for your eyes.

Since MicroLED technology is still so new, it is extremely expensive for early adopters. Would you like to install The Wall from Samsung in your home? You are looking at $800,000. It is therefore essential that these displays spread and reach more products so that the costs go down, both for the manufacturer and for the consumers.

Not exactly. Bloomberg reports that MicroLED displays “will be Apple’s first displays designed and developed entirely in-house,” but that doesn’t mean the company will suddenly start manufacturing tens of millions of these panels itself. As always, Apple will look to manufacturing partners to produce whatever is in development right now. The company is “conducting manufacturing tests of the displays” at a factory in Santa Clara, Calif., according to the report, but ultimately the mass production task will fall to a supplier. This is how it works with the company’s other screens. For example, Apple provides design and specifications for its iPhone panels and passes them on to Samsung Display and LG Display.

In fact, when I was visiting LG Display’s suite at CES last week in Las Vegas, there was an iPhone 14 Pro Max right in view as an example of the company’s OLED manufacturing prowess. My first thought was “uh, did Apple approve this?” The secret and all that. And my second thought was “no one is even more shy about this stuff”.

A photo of an iPhone 14 Pro Max on a table.

a:hover]:text-gray-63 text-gray-63 dark:[&>a:hover]:text-gray-bd dark:text-gray-bd dark:[&>a]:text-gray-bd [&>a]:shadow-underline-gray-63 [&>a:hover]:shadow-underline-black dark:[&>a]:shadow-underline-gray dark:[&>a:hover]:shadow-underline-gray”>Photo by Chris Welch/The Verge

But because MicroLED is such a new and sophisticated technology, it comes with new challenges not present with traditional LCD and OLED panels. Apple has been around for a whileand apparently the original goal was to start including MicroLED displays in Apple products as early as 2020. “But project costs languished due to high technical challenges,” per Bloomberg. Apple also originally planned to start with larger screens, but scaled back those ambitions (literally) in the face of technical hurdles. There are only a limited number of companies with the means and know-how to produce large-scale MicroLED displays: it wouldn’t surprise me if Samsung and LG still end up getting involved somewhere.

We haven’t often seen MicroLED demonstrated in small form factors like smartwatches either. Samsung’s idea of ​​reducing technology is put it in a TV-sized screen. But with Apple unlikely to introduce MicroLED displays before 2024 (or even 2025), there’s plenty of time to get there. Wearable devices and head-worn displays will eventually become the primary use case for MicroLED, according to Display Supply Chain Consultantswhich estimates that display technology revenue will reach $1.3 billion by 2027.

Woman leaning by the pool wearing an Apple Watch Ultra next to a no diving sign.

a:hover]:shadow-highlight-franklin [&>a]:shadow-underline-black dark:[&>a:hover]:shadow-highlight-franklin dark:[&>a]:shadow-underline-white md:text-30″>What exactly do we win?

This is the most curious aspect of all this for me. Here are the benefits that Bloomberg says MicroLED will bring to the Apple Watch:

Compared to current Apple Watches, the next-generation displays are designed to deliver brighter, more vibrant colors and the ability to be seen better at an angle. The displays make the contents appear as if painted on top of glass, according to people who saw them, who asked not to be identified because the project is still secret.

I would say all of these things are true of the current Apple Watch line today. The screens are already sunlight readable (like in the photo above), they’re vibrant and colorful, and since all of Apple’s OLED panels are glued to the display glass, I’m not sure how the content is closer to the surface. might appear. I don’t hear anyone complaining about the viewing angles or dip in brightness of recent Apple Watches. But MicroLED’s more efficient screen tech could definitely help extend battery life to new heights, and that’s it. very important.

It’s possible that the natural RGB colors of MicroLED will add more saturation and increase the overall color brightness (which in turn will increase the perceived brightness of the overall device), but I wouldn’t expect any drastic visual improvements for MicroLED in the category of portable devices. Whenever these screens come to iPhones, iPads, and MacBook Pros, the upgrades will be much clearer to us. Ultimately, we’re just taking the inevitable leap from today’s display technology to the next. And Apple continues its relentless quest to become fully self-sufficient.

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