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2017: the year of AMOLED, HDR, and flexy LCD displays?

These are the top trends that we can expect from AMOLED and LCD display technologies throughout 2017 and beyond.
By
February 13, 2017

AMOLED vs LCD has been a long running debate between smartphone enthusiasts, but the consensus is now leaning towards AMOLED as the technology that has made the greatest strides in improving display quality and pushing the boat out in terms of new form factors. Flexible AMOLED has been made popular by Samsung’s Galaxy Edge flagships, but flexible LCD and other advancements could mean that this battle is soon to heat up once again.

2016 was an important year in the battle between AMOLED and LCD, as the price of a 5-inch AMOLED panel fell below that of an equivalent LCD panel for the first time. One of LCD’s major advantages over OLED had been that it was cheaper to produce, but with this advantage eroded, mid-tier and low end manufacturers are going to start showing an interest in the most cost effective display technology. This will place increasing pressure on the already limited supply chain.

AMOLED driving huge growth

Starting with some raw numbers, a report from Taiwan is expecting a huge jump in flexible AMOLED shipments in 2017, estimated to be in the region of a 200-percent gain. The report estimates some 150 million flexible AMOLED panels to ship this year, up from 50 million last year. More conservative reports suggests that we could see close to a 50 percent jump in AMOLED shipments in 2017, which is still an impressive figure. Samsung is currently the leading manufacturer of flexible AMOLED and supply has been heavily constrained by demand from its own phones and a small selection of other manufacturers.

Global AMOLED and memory shortages predicted for 2017
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According to industry reports, Foxconn-owned Sharp is mulling over a major 100 billion yen, about $864 million, investment into starting up an OLED production line, up from a $568 million investment announced in September 2016. The company has also been teasing a $7 billion US based display production facility to ramp up its supply for Apple, although this investment is far from confirmed. Speculation is still swirling about Apple finally making the switch from LCD to OLED with its next iPhone, but the industry would need additional capacity to cope with that demand.

LG needs a new production line for small-to-medium sized flexible OLED screens in South Korea, to address growing demand.

Samsung’s major rival, LG, is looking to invest a huge $1.75 billion in flexible OLED production as well. In a regulatory filing, LG noted that it needs a new production line for small-to-medium sized flexible OLED screens in South Korea to address growing demand. Along with Samsung, these two companies have become increasingly focused on OLED production over LCD, and seem to view flexible OLED as a major differentiator compared with some of its competitors. At this rate, OLED may overtake LCD as the smartphone display of choice in the next couple of years.

In China, local manufacturers are looking to diversity away from Samsung’s hold on the AMOLED market by expanding their own production capacity. According to Digitimes Research, total annual capacity is estimated to increase from 272,000 square meters in 2016 to 1.584 million in 2018, 4.464 million in 2019, and 7.864 million square meters in 2020. For comparison, Samsung Display and LG Display offered 4.945 million square meters of production capacity for OLED in 2016, which is expected to increase to 15.13 million in 2020. China is looking to close the gap, with BOE Technology, Tianma Micro-electronics, and Visionox expected to become the top three manufacturers in China come 2020.

It’s fair to say that AMOLED has become the darling child of the display industry, and growth in LCD pricing and investment appears to be slowing down as a result. That being said, the market is still a competitive scene, and the technology has a few tricks up its sleeve to keep up the good fight with AMOLED going forward.

Meet flexible LCD

We’ve previously discussed the merits of Quantum Dot technology for improving the brightness and colors produced by LCD displays to better rival the impressive gamut of its rival, so I won’t rehash the debate. Quantum Dot is seen as a key technology for achieving and promoting HDR capable LCD panels. LCD advancements are also helping the technology close in on OLED’s latest marketing trick, flexible display panels.

Japan Display plans to start manufacturing its Full Active Flex LCD display in 2018 and already has launch customers lined up for the technology.
Japan Display’s Full Active Flex display could certainly be used in future smartphones.

Back at the end of January, Japan Display unveiled a 5.5-inch 1080p LCD panel that can be bent just like OLED panels from Samsung and LG. This panel is certainly suitable to build rival LCD based smartphones that boast curved edges like Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge.

The technology enables flexible LCD panels by using a plastic substrate on both sides of the liquid crystal layer, rather than using a glass substrate. Not only is this much more flexible, but also makes the display much less prone to breaking when dropped.

Japan Display plans to start manufacturing its Full Active Flex display in 2018. The company says that it already has launch customers lined up for the technology, but didn’t drop any hints about who this might be. We might not seen any products this year, but we can certainly expect to hear more about flexible LCD in the coming months.

Forget 4K, it’s time for HDR

Sony’s brief experiment with the smartphone industry’s first 4K display was short lived, after consumers and pundits arrived at the conclusion that any minor benefits simply weren’t worth the extra cost and impact on battery life. Manufacturers might have a better time selling consumers on the virtues of high dynamic range (HDR) capable displays, which promise more vivid colors and higher contrast ratios than before.

HDR displays require high brightness and contrast properties in order to bring out extra colors and dynamic range in images and videos. OLED is already quite well suited for this, and Quantum Dot LCD technology is also a viable option. The other half of this equation is support on the software and graphics side.

One of the important features announced with the unveiling of Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 835 SoC was support for 10-bit color, up from the current 8-bit format. This greatly increases the available steps for red, green, and blue between black and white, resulting in 1.07 billion different possible shades of color, up from 16.78 million with 8-bit color.

We’re not seeing many signs that smartphone OEMs intend to boost the resolution of their smartphone displays above QHD (2560 x 1440) this year, as small form factor 4K appears to be dead for now. There’s also a growing amount of HDR ready content hitting the market. With Snapdragon 835 powered smartphones expected to appear in the second quarter and second half of 2017, we will probably see a number of manufacturers tout the benefits of HDR in order to help differentiate their products from other handsets.

Prepping for virtual reality

If virtual reality turns out to be as big of a deal as many are expecting, we may see the display market, and smartphone implementations, begin to coalesce around the feature set required by this emerging platform. High pixel densities, fast refresh rates, and low latency are all important, but next generation displays may also focus on improving imaging through HDR, improve color gamut, and new sub-pixel layouts.

Although Google's Daydream seems to be geared towards OLED panels, new LCD tricks are helping to make the technology a viable alternative too.

Although Google’s Daydream seems to be geared towards OLED panels, new LCD tricks are helping to make the technology a viable alternative too. Strobe backlighting can lower a LCD display’s “black-to-white” latency down to near OLED levels, and high refresh rates aren’t a problem with either panel type.

Both Sharp and Japan Display unveiled high resolution LCD based virtual reality panels in the closing months of last year, which could end up powering stand-alone virtual reality headsets. We may also see some smartphone manufacturers pick up these or similar panels for use in VR-ready headsets. It’s certainly a longer shot, but virtual reality is likely to have some influence on handset designs and display over the coming year and possible longer.

Display trends to expect in 2017

In summary, we’re likely to see mobile display technology continue to move in a lateral manner this year, rather than making leaps and bounds towards higher resolutions. We can certainly expect a larger number of AMOLED devices to hit the market this year, and not just in high-end flagships. OLED#s falling cost and increased production capacity should make it easier for mid-range manufacturers to get their hands on supply in 2017.

At the same time, high-end manufacturers are quite likely to turn to HDR, flexible displays, and other advancements to help differentiate their products. LCD certainly won’t be going anywhere in the near future, but there’s going to be increasing pressure on OEMs using LCD to prove that their display technology can keep up with the best.

AMOLED vs LCD: Everything you need to know
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Are you keeping your eye on any of these technologies this year? Or are displays already as good as you need them to be?