Apple’s iPhone is starting to look dull

iPhone Criticism Display Quality

When Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone 4 and its stunning Retina display, he said it would set the standard for mobile displays for the following five years. Five years is a lifetime in the smartphone industry, but two years later it’s safe to say the iPhone’s screen is easily still a market leader — I would even go as far as to say no mobile display even comes close to matching the iPhone’s in terms of clarity. But as sharp as Apple’s (AAPL) screen is, it is quickly falling behind the pack in another key area.

As I sit here wrapping up a review of the Motorola ATRIX HD, with a Samsung Galaxy S III and a newly updated Galaxy Note sitting next to me on my desk, I can’t help but look at my iPhone 4S differently. It remains true that no other cell phone can match the clarity of the iPhone’s display — Samsung’s (005930KS) Super AMOLED Plus displays come the closest but still don’t really approach the Retina display — but compared to these vibrant AMOLED and “ColorBoost” LCD panels, the iPhone’s display is starting to look dull.

As has been the case for some time with its flat-panel TVs, Samsung is building a huge lead in the smartphone market with regard to the color reproduction achieved by its displays. Plainly put, these screens are breathtaking.

Rival HTC (TPE:2498) is gaining ground quickly with the LCD screen on the One X and the AMOLED display on its One S smartphone, and the ATRIX HD’s ColorBoost panel is very impressive as well. Apple, with its annual smartphone launch schedule, obviously hasn’t gained any ground in this area in 2012.

Samsung TVs are so desirable because of their clarity, brightness and color reproduction. Its smartphone screens lead the pack in the latter two categories, but clarity is still an issue thanks to the PenTile pixel array on most of Samsung’s displays. While the company’s Super AMOLED Plus screens don’t use a PenTile matrix, they still can’t quite match the clarity of Apple’s Retina displays and they also aren’t used on many recent smartphone models. Samsung says its PenTile screens last much longer than its Plus-branded displays, which is why they’re used less frequently.

(To clarify the difference between Super AMOLED, which uses a PenTile pixel matrix, and Super AMOLED Plus: the former uses an array where pixels share sub-pixels, whereas pixels on Samsung’s “Plus” displays each have their own red, green and blue (RGB) sub-pixels. Apple’s Retina display uses a full RGB configuration, like Samsung’s Plus panels, and the result is greater sub-pixel density and improved clarity.)

I’ve seen televisions from the likes of Sony (SNE) and Sharp (TYO:6753) that feature amazingly crisp picture quality, but they just don’t measure up to Samsung’s TVs when it comes to producing bright, vivid, beautiful colors. Because of this, it will be some time before I consider purchasing a new TV from any company other than Samsung. And smartphones are now entering similar territory. The difference in “pop” between screens like Samsung’s and duller displays continues to grow more pronounced, and the result is a potential gap in overall user experience.

But there’s hope.

Apple certainly won’t be switching to AMOLED technology in its upcoming sixth-generation iPhone, but numerous reports state that the new 4-inch panel Apple has selected for its next handset will be a marked improvement.

Several reports indicate that Apple’s new display panels will be brighter and also thinner thanks to new in-cell touch elements, and a more recent rumor from The Wall Street Journal also suggests the next-generation iPhone will also include a “higher quality” screen. This doesn’t necessarily relate to more vivid color reproduction, but considering the amazing colors Apple’s new iPad panel pumps out, it’s very likely that we’ll see some serious improvements in this area when a new iPhone launches this fall.

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