Mobile display technology has been pretty well established for years, with flexible technology being the obvious exception. OLED displays have almost replaced the aging LCD technology, even on cheaper smartphones. With the switch to mini-LED, however, high-end devices could soon be back on the cutting edge.
Reports from the Apple camp suggest the company’s iPad and Mac notebooks could use mini-LED displays before the end of 2021. The company is reportedly seeking out Epistar and Sanan Optoelectronics as potential suppliers. As an emerging technology, these new displays will be quite expensive at first. However, costs could fall in 2021 and 2020, so there may be many more manufacturers using them in various product segments in the coming years.
Sounds fascinating, but what exactly is mini-LED and what advantages does it offer over other display technologies such as LCD and OLED? Read on to find out.
What is Mini LED Technology?
The name gives the game away something. Mini LEDs use very small LEDs to create the light on the display. This new technology is based on traditional backlit LCD technology. Instead of using a single large or multiple smaller locally dimmed backlights, mini-LED uses thousands of tiny LED backlights to provide superior local dimming capabilities. To meet the Mini-LED classification, these backlight diodes each measure less than 0.2mm.
Local dimming is very important for LCD displays, as the bleeding of the background lighting leads to poorer black and contrast ratios than with OLED displays, in which individual pixels are switched on and off. This is a hybrid approach that aims to emulate the emissive nature of OLED, but with less design complexity. Think of it as the best way for LCD to measure up to OLED. But don’t confuse this with micro-LED technology, which is more closely aligned with OLED. But more on that in a moment.
By switching to thousands instead of hundreds of tiny backlights, you can achieve deeper blacks, improved contrast ratios, and brighter panels. This is great for HDR content. All thanks to the smaller components. The mini-LED technology can also be easily scaled from small to large panel sizes, as the size and density of the backlight is not significantly limited. However, you are still bound by the size constraints of the LCD matrix, which converts the white backlight to color. However, this does not affect the smaller consumer electronics.
Mini-LED improves local dimming with thousands of tiny backlight diodes
Mini-LED versus micro-LED – the new LCD versus OLED
Mini-LED and micro-LED are very different. The former builds on LCD technology and uses smaller diodes for backlighting. The latter is a further development of the OLED, in which even smaller and brighter individual red, green and blue LEDs are used to emit colored light directly. In other words, each pixel creates its own light with Micro-LED, while Mini-LED still uses an LCD matrix to filter the backlight, but the backlight offers more control than a traditional LCD.
This makes the production of mini-LEDs much more practical compared to micro-LEDs and should therefore be more affordable. Placing many small OLEDs on a display works well on large TVs, but has proven very difficult on smaller, high pixel density displays for laptops and smartphones. The mini variant is less likely to suffer from these production difficulties because it is not as tightly tied to pixel density. It should therefore be better suited for small form factors. Although so far only a few commercial TV products use this technology.
Micro-LED still has the edge when it comes to contrast ratio and the deepest blacks, but it comes at a much higher price. It is important that the distance between the LCD and OLED with mini-LED is reduced.
Why switch to these new displays?
Ultimately, it all boils down to superior image quality without breaking the bank. OLED may be better than LCD, but it’s still pretty expensive. This is also not always the preferred option for high density laptop and tablet displays, especially for peak brightness. Micro-LED is the superior technology on paper, but it is currently too expensive even for Apple. Not to be forgotten are currently manufacturing difficulties with smaller form factors.
Mini-LED should offer the best of both worlds. Image quality and contrast ratios that match OLED and brightness that surpasses it without exceeding the odds of winning. Early displays of this type will still require a premium, but the technology will become more affordable in the years to come. At this point the traditional LCD will continue to be relegated to budget markets.
Of course, mini-LED is just one of the few new display technologies that hit the market. The list includes QLED (Quantum Dot) displays and a flexible OLED for foldable phones. The form factor remains the major limitation with new phone display technologies. However, keep an eye on display technology for tablets and laptops to see what might be available for next-generation devices.