Super AMOLED vs Super LCD: top smartphone screens compared
27th Feb 2014 | 14:50
What's so super about them?
The technology explained
Super AMOLED and Super LCD are two of the best and most popular screen technologies currently in use on phones, and are the display tech of choice for two of the most popular Android phones around.
HTC for example, packed its One flagship with a Super LCD screen (in fact, it's one of the biggest customers of the tech by some way) while Samsung not only uses Super AMOLED, the company actually created it. But what's the difference between them? And which is better?
To understand Super AMOLED you first need to understand its origins. It started with OLED, which stands for 'organic light-emitting diode' and consists of a thin organic film with electrodes at either side. As soon as an electric current is applied to the film it emits light.
AMOLED is an 'active-matrix organic light-emitting diode'. It adds a layer of semiconducting film behind the OLED panel which allows it to more quickly activate each pixel. That increased speed makes it ideal for larger, higher definition displays with a lot of pixels. In fact it's as much as 1000 times faster than LCD.
AMOLED screens also tend to have great contrast, as the light on the screen comes from each individual pixel rather than a backlight; when it needs to create a black colour it simply dims or turns off the relevant pixels, for a true, deep black.
AMOLED screens also use a large colour gamut, so they can display a wide range of colours, but that can also cause images to look very vibrant or over-saturated.
Other advantages of AMOLED screens are that they have wide viewing angles and can even be made transparent or flexible, which makes them ideal for the curved handsets which are starting to hit the market, such as the Samsung Galaxy Round.
An AMOLED touchscreen usually has an extra, touch sensitive layer on top of the screen, but with Super AMOLED Samsung has been able to integrate touch sensitivity into the screen itself.
The result of this is that not only is the screen thinner, lighter, more touch sensitive and less power-hungry, but without that extra layer it's also far less reflective than a typical AMOLED screen, making it easier to view in bright sunlight.
On the other hand Super AMOLED screens are quite susceptible to image burn in and sometimes use a PenTile matrix with fewer subpixels than their LCD companions, which can potentially lead to less sharp images or give the screen an unnatural colour tint.
Samsung obviously has a lot of faith in Super AMOLED, as the company uses it in its latest flagship (the Samsung Galaxy S5) as well as most other phones in the Galaxy S range, but it's also developed variations on the technology.
For example there's Super AMOLED Plus, which was used in the Samsung Galaxy S2 and has a standard RGB matrix rather than a PenTile matrix, meaning it has 50% more subpixels and therefore delivers clearer images, but it also degrades faster than a Super AMOLED display, which is why Samsung stopped using it in its flagships.
Then there's HD Super AMOLED, which is just a 720 x 1280 Super AMOLED display and Full HD Super AMOLED, which, you guessed it, is Full HD 1080 x 1920.
Just as AMOLED was the predecessor to Super AMOLED, LCD was the predecessor to Super LCD. Unlike an AMOLED display which lights each pixel individually, an LCD (or liquid crystal display) has a backlight, so the whole screen is lit to some extent, even supposedly black areas.
It uses liquid crystals which are manipulated via electrical charges to cover or not cover pixels as needed, thereby letting more or less light through, but it can never deliver true blacks as the backlight is always on.
In standard LCD displays there's an air gap between the outer glass and the display element, but with Super LCD that gap is removed, which has similar benefits to Super AMOLED.
Glare is reduced, making it more easily viewable when outside and in bright sunlight, plus the screen is also thinner and uses less power than standard LCD.
The power consumption of a Super LCD screen is particularly low when displaying lighter colours, which makes it ideal for web browsing for example as websites tend to have white backgrounds. The opposite is true with Super AMOLED, where blacks consume less power as the pixels don't have to be lit.
Things get a bit more complicated when you consider that there's also such a thing as Super LCD2 and Super LCD3, but really each numbered version is just an improvement on the last while working in much the same way.
Super LCD3 for example is brighter than Super LCD2, as well as having better viewing angles and a faster refresh rate to avoid blurring when watching videos.
Super showdown: Galaxy S4 vs HTC One
So those are the differences on paper, but you can't always equate that to real world performance. With that in mind we've put two of the best examples of each display type head to head to see which comes out on top. In the Super LCD corner we have the HTC One and in the Super AMOLED corner there's the Samsung Galaxy S4.
Why not the Samsung Galaxy S5? Simply because we haven't had enough time with it to properly compare it to the HTC One, though side by side with the Galaxy S4 it had superior colour reproduction, brightness and movies looked better on it.
The first thing to note is that while both screens are bright, the HTC One (and Super LCD screens in general) is much brighter than the Samsung Galaxy S4 with its Super AMOLED screen. In fact the HTC One can manage 500 nits of light output, while the Galaxy S4 can only manage around 300 nits.
The upshot of that is that the HTC One fares a little better outdoors and in bright environments, as the screen is clearer and colours are less distorted.
On the flip side though the Samsung Galaxy S4 has far better contrast as it can produce true blacks. It also has richer colours and the difference is particularly noticeable in dark environments.
To keep it simple you could say that the HTC One's screen tends to perform better than the Galaxy S4's when outdoors and the Samsung Galaxy S4's is better when indoors.
The Galaxy S4 also has wider viewing angles than the HTC One, though the HTC One has more natural colours than the Samsung Galaxy S4, which tends to over-saturate things a little.
The S4's display is also likely to consume less battery power, because it doesn't have a backlight, but OLEDs burn out over time so the HTC One is likely to have more legs before the screen starts to wear out.
To be clear though none of the differences are earth shattering. Other factors affect a phone's battery life and durability more than the display type.
The HTC One might not have as good viewing angles or contrast as the Samsung Galaxy S4 but it's still pretty good for both, while the fact that the Samsung Galaxy S4 is good at avoiding reflections means that it still fares pretty well outside despite not having as bright a screen.
Also colours are far more natural on the S4 than on some earlier Super AMOLED handsets, and they seem better still on the Galaxy S5.
Ultimately, the incredible contrast and rich colours of the Samsung Galaxy S4 seals the win for it, as the extra brightness of the HTC One isn't likely to be as useful as often.
While the HTC One's colours are more natural the difference is minor, especially as the Galaxy S4 has multiple colour profiles to choose from to alter the intensity of the colour saturation, while you're stuck with just the one on HTC's phone.
Does that mean that Super AMOLED is better than Super LCD? Not necessarily. On paper we'd argue that Super AMOLED is slightly superior but really it depends on your own preferences.
Do you favour brightness or contrast? Vivid colours or natural ones? And even then each handset will have its own display quirks or be calibrated differently, regardless of the technology used.
Phone screens are a minefield of different technologies with their own strengths and drawbacks, but at least now you'll be better equipped to navigate it.
- There's more to screens than AMOLED and LCD. Get up to scratch with our display tech explanations.