Apple’s MicroLED dream: what it means for the Apple Watch and beyond

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The Apple Watch already has a beautiful display, so MicroLED’s benefits aren’t obvious, but it’s an inevitable next step for the screens in our mobile devices.

Apple is reportedly planning to build MicroLED displays into future Apple Watch models — either in 2024 or 2025, according to a January 10th report from Bloomberg. The move would continue Apple’s progression toward using the company’s own parts across its products without having to rely on components from outside suppliers. Another report from Mark Gurman just this week said that Apple is currently at work on an all-in-one chip that handles Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and cellular networking. The company’s in-house silicon already powers the iPhone, iPad, Mac, Apple Watch, and Apple TV.

With all of these efforts, the end goal for Apple is to have greater control over future products with less risk of delays and setbacks that are out of the company’s control. With screens in particular, such a shift could impact the financial outlook for suppliers like Samsung Display and LG Display, which provide the bulk of Apple’s current panels.

But as it stands today, whether you’re buying the Apple Watch Series 8, Ultra, or SE, you’re already getting a smartwatch with a bright, vivid display. So it’s worth examining what benefits — if any — this next-generation MicroLED technology would bring to Apple’s wearables and other devices.

A close-up photo of Samsung’s MicroLED module.

A close-up photo of Samsung’s MicroLED module.

a:hover]:text-gray-63 text-gray-63 dark:[&>a:hover]:text-gray-bd dark:text-gray-bd dark:[&>a]:text-gray-bd [&>a]:shadow-underline-gray-63 [&>a:hover]:shadow-underline-black dark:[&>a]:shadow-underline-gray dark:[&>a:hover]:shadow-underline-gray”>Photo by Chris Welch / The Verge

Often hailed as the next major leap for display technology after OLED, MicroLED screens provide many of the same benefits. The picture is generated by millions of individual light-emitting diodes that offer per-pixel dimming; each one can shut off to produce perfect blacks. This results in the unrivaled contrast that we’ve been enjoying from OLED TVs and smartphones for years; more recently, OLED is increasingly used in tablets, laptops, and desktop monitors.

But the O in OLED stands for “organic,” and it turns out, that’s actually one of the downsides. The organic compound in OLED displays has a limited lifespan and still comes with at least some chance of permanent burn-in — even if it’s barely a factor on modern high-end TVs. Overall brightness has also fallen short of the best LCD TVs that use Mini LED backlighting and local dimming to try and get within striking distance of OLED’s superb contrast at a higher sustained brightness.

Samsung Display and LG Display have both made significant headway with brighter OLED panels over the last couple of years — QD-OLED in Samsung’s case — but MicroLED promises even greater luminance without the burn-in or panel degradation issues. Samsung has shown MicroLED displays that reach 4,000 nits of peak brightness, which is roughly double what the best OLED and LCD TVs are capable of right now. That’s a level of pop that would hold up in any environment. Like the iPhone 14 Pro and Pro Max, the Apple Watch Ultra tops out at 2,000 nits in bright outdoor environments. That’s still plenty bright and perfectly visible in sunny conditions, but MicroLED could up the game even further.

If there’s one company that has so far led the way with MicroLED, it’s Samsung. The company provided an update on where things stand at CES 2023. If you’re a display nerd or general tech enthusiast, the below video is well worth a watch to understand more about MicroLED’s benefits, modularity, and how it all comes together. You’ll learn a lot in under eight minutes.

In that voiceover, you’ll hear this key line: “MicroLEDs have limitless scalability, as they are resolution-free, bezel-free, ratio-free, and even size-free. This means that the screen can be freely resized in any form for whatever you use it for — just like a building block.” MicroLEDs are placed onto modules that can be seamlessly combined in any shape or size. In addition to being self-emissive, MicroLEDs also individually produce red, green, and blue color without needing the same backlighting or color filters as conventional displays. So the displays can output perfect color and improved color brightness. As with QD-OLED, that superior color luminosity makes the whole screen come off brighter to your eyes.

Since MicroLED tech is still so fresh, it’s outrageously expensive for early adopters. Want to install Samsung’s The Wall in your house? You’re looking at $800,000. So it’s critical for these displays to spread and reach more products for costs to come down — both for the manufacturer and consumers.

Not exactly. Bloomberg reports that the MicroLED screens “will be Apple’s first screens designed and developed entirely in-house,” but that doesn’t mean the company will suddenly start making tens of millions of these panels itself. As always, Apple will turn to manufacturing partners to produce whatever’s under development right now. The company “conducts test manufacturing of the screens” at a facility in Santa Clara, California, according to the report, but eventually, the task of mass production will go to a supplier. That’s the way it works with the company’s other displays. For example, Apple comes up with a design and specifications for its iPhone panels and hands those off to Samsung Display and LG Display.

In fact, when I was visiting LG Display’s suite at CES last week in Las Vegas, there was an iPhone 14 Pro Max just sitting out in plain sight as an example of the company’s OLED manufacturing prowess. My first thought was “uh, did Apple approve this?” Secrecy and all that. And my second thought was “no one’s even being coy about this stuff anymore.”

A photo of an iPhone 14 Pro Max on a table.

A photo of an iPhone 14 Pro Max on a table.

a:hover]:text-gray-63 text-gray-63 dark:[&>a:hover]:text-gray-bd dark:text-gray-bd dark:[&>a]:text-gray-bd [&>a]:shadow-underline-gray-63 [&>a:hover]:shadow-underline-black dark:[&>a]:shadow-underline-gray dark:[&>a:hover]:shadow-underline-gray”>Photo by Chris Welch / The Verge

But since MicroLED is such a new and sophisticated technology, it comes with new challenges that aren’t present with traditional LCD and OLED panels. Apple has been at this for a while, and apparently, the original goal was to begin including MicroLED screens in Apple products as far back as 2020. “But the project languished due to high costs and technical challenges,” per Bloomberg. Apple had also originally intended to start with larger screens but shrank those ambitions (literally) when confronted with technical hurdles. There are only so many companies with the means and know-how to produce MicroLED screens at scale: it wouldn’t surprise me if Samsung and LG still end up involved in the mix somewhere.

We also haven’t often seen MicroLED demonstrated in small form factors like smartwatches. Samsung’s idea of downsizing the technology is putting it into a screen the size of a TV. But with Apple unlikely to introduce MicroLED displays until 2024 (or even 2025), there’s ample time to get there. Wearables and head-worn displays will eventually become the leading use case for MicroLED, according to Display Supply Chain Consultants, which estimates that revenues around the display tech will grow to $1.3 billion by 2027.

Woman leaning on pool edge wearing Apple Watch Ultra next to a no diving sign.

Woman leaning on pool edge wearing Apple Watch Ultra next to a no diving sign.

This is the most curious aspect of the whole thing to me. Here are the benefits that Bloomberg says MicroLED will bring to the Apple Watch:

Compared with current Apple Watches, the next-generation displays are designed to offer brighter, more vibrant colors and the ability to be better seen at an angle. The displays make content appear like it’s painted on top of the glass, according to people who have seen them, who asked not to be identified because the project is still under wraps.

I’d argue that all of those things are true of the current Apple Watch lineup today. The displays are already readable in intense sunlight (like in the photo above), they’re vibrant and colorful, and since all of Apple’s OLED panels are bonded to the display glass, I’m not sure how much closer to the surface the content could appear. I don’t hear anyone complaining about viewing angles or brightness falloff from recent Apple Watches. But the more efficient screen tech of MicroLED could definitely help stretch battery life to new highs, and that’s very important.

It’s possible the natural RGB colors from MicroLED will add more saturation and bump up the overall color brightness (which in turn will increase the perceived brightness of the overall device), but I wouldn’t expect radical visual improvements for MicroLED in the wearables category. Whenever these screens make their way to iPhones, iPads, and MacBook Pros, the upgrades will be much clearer to our eyes. At the end of the day, we’re just taking the inevitable step from current display tech to what’s next. And Apple is trekking onward in its relentless pursuit to become fully self-sufficient.

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