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Super AMOLED vs LCD vs Retina display: what's the difference?

Authored by: Kris Carlon — Jul 11, 2014

When we talk about the Galaxy S5, LG G3 or iPhone 5s,you may hear us rambling on about IPS this, AMOLED that, Retina whoduzzit and new fangled LCD thingamabobs and scratch your head and wonder what the heck we're talking about. Well, today we're going to clean that confusion right up for you as we break down how each display type works, what they're good at and which is best for you. And don't worry, we won't go too heavy on the geek speak.

teaser smartphones
Figuring out the differences between all these displays doesn't have to be rocket science. / © ANDROIDPIT

Note: The moiré effect visible in some photos is related to the mode of shooting, not the display type.

LCD

LCD means Liquid Crystal Display. As you can probably figure out, LCD is made up of an array of liquid crystals that get illuminated by a back light. Because LCDs don't require much energy to power a screen, the technology is very popular in portable devices. Likewise, because LCDs are back lit, they tend to perform quite well in direct sunlight, as the entire display is being illuminated, so they are ideal for smartphones. However, this back lighting means that blacks tend to appear gray and they therefore have less contrast than some other display technologies. There are two main types of LCD: TFT and IPS.

LG G3 Quad HD comparison
Presentations like this by LG show the differences, but are still skewed by marketing. / © LG

TFT stands for Thin Film Transistor and they are an advanced version of LCD that uses an active matrix (like the AM in AMOLED). Active matrix means that each pixel is attached to a transistor and capacitor individually. Their main advantage is their relatively low production cost and increased contrast when compared to traditional LCDs. Their disadvantage is more excessive energy consumption than some other LCDs, and less impressive viewing angles and color reproduction.

lcd amoled ips ecran teaser
The HTC One (M8) has a Super LCD3 display. / © AndroidPIT

IPS stands for In-Plane Switching and it is an improvement of TFT LCDs. To summarize very roughly, the way the crystals are electrically excited is different and the orientation of the crystals array is rotated. This change improves viewing angles, contrast ratio and color reproduction. Energy consumption is also reduced compared to TFT LCDs. Because IPS LCDs tend to be better than TFT LCDs, they are also more expensive when put on a smartphone.

To identify whether a smartphone has an IPS or TFT screen, just look at the technical specs: if they simply say it is an LCD then you know it's a TFT LCD; IPS LCDs are always labeled as such.

iphone 5s nexus 5
The iPhone 5s has a IPS LCD with 326 ppi. The Nexus 5 has a True HD IPS+ LCD with 445 ppi.  / © Apple, Google, AndroidPIT

Retina

A Retina display is not defined by any particular characteristic, other than that they are supposedly of sufficient resolution that the human eye can't discern pixels at a normal viewing distance. This measurement obviously changes depending on the size and resolution of the display. Apple popularized the concept with the iPhone 4, which had a 960 x 640 pixel resolution on a 3.5-inch IPS LCD screen, resulting in 330 pixels per inch. Considering the current 5.5-inch QHD displays sit at 534 ppi you can see that in the Android world we've moved on a bit from the iPhone 4.

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Retina displays may have quite low pixel density, but Apple think they are the perfect solution. / © Apple

Apple, on the other hand, have stayed true to Steve Jobs' dictum and the current iPhone 5, 5c and 5s all have a Retina display with 1136 x 640 pixel resolution for a pixel density of 326 pixels per inch. With a rumored large-screen iPhone 6 coming up, we'll have to see just what resolution Apple opts for in a device that will have to go head to head with the best Android displays available. With a 577 ppi Galaxy S5 LTE-A being released in China, a 300 ppi iPhone 6 would be a prime target for criticism.

samsung galaxy tab 105 front back
Samsung's Galaxy Tab S, with a Super AMOLED WQXGA display (2,560 x 1,600 pixels). / © Samsung

AMOLED

AMOLED stands for Active Matrix Organic Light-Emitting Diode. While this may sound complicated it actually isn't. We already encountered the active matrix in TFT LCD technology, and OLED is simply a term for another thin-film display technology: OLED is an organic material that, like the name implies, emits light when a current is passed through them.

As opposed to LCD panels which are back lit, OLED displays are ''always off'' unless the individual pixels are electrified. This means that OLED displays have much purer blacks and consume less energy when black or darker colors are displayed on screen. Because the black pixels are off, the contrast ratios are also higher than LCD screens. AMOLED displays have a very fast refresh rate too, but on the down side are not as visible in direct sunlight as back lit LCDs. Screen burn-in and diode degradation (because they are organic) are other factors to consider.

apple iphone 5s screen retina detail
Here's a detail of the Retina display on the iPhone 5s with 326 pixels per inch (1,136 x 640 pixels). / © AndroidPIT
lg g3 screen detail 4k qhd
Detail of the LG G3 QHD display, with 534 pixels per inch (2,560 x 1,440 pixels)  / © AndroidPIT
oneplus one screen fullhd detail
This is Full HD resolution (1,920 x 1,080 pixels), which is standard right now for 5-inch devices. / © AndroidPIT

Difference between AMOLED and Super AMOLED

Super AMOLED is the brand name given by Samsung to its range of displays that, like IPS LCDs, improve upon the basic AMOLED recipe. Super AMOLED displays reduce the thickness of the screen by integrating the touch response layer with the display itself. Super AMOLED displays handle sunlight better than AMOLED displays and are also better on power consumption. As the name implies, Super AMOLED is simply a better version of AMOLED.

screen comparison lg g3 galaxy s5 view angle 1
screen comparison lg g3 galaxy s5 view angle 2
screen comparison lg g3 galaxy s5 view angle 3
Every display type has pros and cons. Viewing angles might be a huge deal for you or something you've never even noticed. / © AndroidPIT

OK, got it: so which one is better?

As we have seen, each term is not restricted to one manufacturer: AMOLED is not always Samsung and Retina is not all Apple. iPhone IPS LCD displays are currently manufactured by LG, Samsung has built screens for the iPad and not all Samsung devices are AMOLED either. As is probably clear from our explanations above, it is not simply a case of which display is better: it's all a trade off between pros and cons.

All of this is to say two things: numbers and technical data are obviously important when comparing the screens on two smartphones, but equally important is the real-world performance of these displays. It is impossible to gauge a display on paper, you really need to see it in real life to know if it is too cool or warm for you, is too saturated or has too poor contrast, brightness, viewing angles and so on. Don't fall into the trap of believing the marketing hype. Analyze the displays for yourself, ask other users on the forum, or if a device is not yet available, then seek the advice of sites whose opinion you trust.

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The Samsung Galaxy S5's Super AMOLED display (left) and the LG G3's QHD IPS+ LCD. / © ANDROIDPIT

Lastly, know your usage habits and select accordingly: if you are a couch potato all night and are desk-bound all day, then the daylight viewing benefits of LCDs are probably not so important for you, but if you're an outdoors type then maybe they are. If you're crazy about squeezing every drop of life out of your battery or are simply obsessed with eye-popping color, then take a look at AMOLED, and so on. In some ways the grass will always be greener, but you can still make informed choices that tick as many boxes as possible for you.

What kind of display do you prefer? Tell us why it's your pick in the comments!

Kris Carlon comes to the AndroidPIT Editorial Team via a lengthy period spent traveling and relying on technology to keep him in touch with the outside world. He joined the Android community while resurfacing in civilization back in 2010 and has never looked back, using technology to replace his actual presence in other people's lives ever since. He can usually be found juggling three phones at once and poring over G+ posts, Reddit and RSS feeds.

8 comments

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  • Jahil Khalfe 5 months ago Link to comment

    I have used numerous devices. And what I can deduce is that for me the AMOLED just is more juicy than the rest. Ips and tft provide you with a nice helping of glar and the blacks are just not as black. Watching movies and playing games AMOLED please the others may leave

  • Nikobai Berlalgel 9 months ago Link to comment

    It all depend on your personal preferance.If you like the vivid and true to life experience than you use IPS LCD,if you want to see more color saturation then you have to switch to AMOLED display.Fair comparison,fair comment.Be optimistic,otherwise one will be 'muppet' and the other one will be 'puppet'.

  • Gita Pertiwi 10 months ago Link to comment

    I prefer old TFT LCD like old mobile phones were equipped, because we can clearly see any text and graphics under totally dark and bright area. Old TFT LCD can absorb light from its surrounding area and reflect back as an additional/secondary back light. Example: Nokia 3660. Under direct sunlight we can still very clear to see any text and graphics even with internal back light turned off. Something we never have on recent displays. IPS LCD and Super AMOLED need more brightness under brighter area which means more power while Old TFT LCD requires less (or even no need) internal light. Under totally dark area Old TFT LCD only requires little internal back light. I'd like to say Old TFT LCD is more power friendly. At last sorry for my poor English because I'm Indonesian.

  • Kris Carlon
    • Admin
    • Staff
    Jul 14, 2014 Link to comment

    One thing I love about about AMOLED though is lock screen notifications. On an all black screen it saves tons of battery.

  • Ravindu Thimantha Gamage Jul 11, 2014 Link to comment

    IPS LCD :) Always

  • Mamoon Jul 11, 2014 Link to comment

    definitely LCD balanced in every thing and power consumption is low