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Apple’s iPhone 12 probably has better picture quality than your TV

It may have a much smaller screen, but there’s a very good chance that the iPhone 12 is capable of better picture quality than the TV in your living room.

Apple is definitely juicing up the display specs for its latest round of iPhones, but even with overinflated numbers, the Super Retina XDR displays found in the iPhone 12, iPhone 12 mini, iPhone 12 Pro, and iPhone 12 Pro Max — along with Dolby Vision capabilities — have all the makings to produce some of the most impressive images we’ve ever seen on a screen. Here’s why.

All about OLED

For the past seven years, I’ve awarded Digital Trends’ best TV of the year award to an OLED television. The reason is fairly simple: OLED TVs offer perfect black levels, excellent contrast, and rich, vibrant color, the likes of which LCD/LED TVs and even long-revered plasma TVs can’t.

The key is those perfect black levels, for which OLED displays are uniquely (for now) suited. OLED, which stands for organic light-emitting diode, differs from LCD displays by being able to make their own light.

“Apple has figured out how to drive that display harder and better than anyone else. How? Who knows. Well, the folks at Apple know, but they aren’t telling.”

When an OLED pixel is turned off, it goes completely dark. Today’s LCD displays rely on LED backlights, and even though backlight dimming technology has helped LCD TVs achieve very good blacks, LCDs simply can’t fully block out light, resulting in blacks that sometimes look more like really dark grey.

So if it is the OLED panel that makes these TVs look so great, and the new iPhone 12 models also use an OLED display, then how is it that they could look significantly better than the most impressive TVs you can buy?

It’s because the OLED panels used in phones are different and, in some ways, better.

Retina, made by Samsung?

According to Digitimes, Samsung nailed down the overwhelming majority of panel orders for the iPhone 12 series, with LG and BOE Technology picking up the rest. The type of OLED display in use in the new iPhones (as well as some iPhones in the past) is called a pentile OLED and it differs from the WRGB OLED you find in televisions in a few key ways.

I’m gonna get into the tech weeds here for a minute, but stick with me. It’ll be worth it. Promise.

TV OLED panels, all of which are made by LG Display, use a white subpixel with color filters to pluck out red, green, and blue. By carving out huge wavelengths of light, those color filters reduce the brightness potential of the OLED panel. This type of OLED display makes the most sense for TVs for a variety of reasons. But for phones, the pentile OLED makes more sense.

Pentile OLEDs have no color filters. Instead, they use one red, one blue, and two green pixels to make images. With no color filter in the way, they are capable of getting quite bright. But as I hinted earlier, pentile OLEDs aren’t new. They’ve been used in phones for years. This begs the question: What’s changed so much that Apple is now making wild claims about its phones being able to produce 1200 nits of peak brightness?

Retina, made by Apple

I’ve said this many times about TVs: A TV’s picture quality isn’t just a function of its panel. If that were true, then LG, Sony, Philips, Panasonic, and Vizio OLED TVs would all look exactly the same since LG makes the panels. A TV’s picture quality comes from many other factors like power supply, cooling measures, and picture processing engines.

The same is true for Apple’s Retina display technology. There’s a lot more under the hood of an iPhone that contributes to image quality than the Samsung AMOLED display. And apparently, Apple has figured out how to drive that display harder and better than anyone else. How? Who knows. Well, the folks at Apple know, but they aren’t telling.

The bottom line is that these new Super Retina XDR displays are apparently capable of getting a lot brighter than previous iPhone screens.

A “nit” is display-speak for a unit of brightness. Most OLED TVs can’t get much past 700 nits of brightness. Apple is claiming its new iPhones can reach a peak brightness of 1200 nits, which is a significant boost and probably a completely unrealistic number.

If Apple had all the right testing conditions, it could theoretically hit that 1200 nit number. But those conditions are nothing like real life and, therefore, Apple’s boast isn’t meaningful on its face. However, it may be a sign that the new iPhones could produce brighter images and much punchier HDR movies and TV content. That ability could make help iPhone 12 series’ achieve picture quality that rivals any TV you can buy today.

Oh, and also Dolby Vision

Adding to the iPhone’s advantages is not only its ability to display Dolby Vision HDR content — perhaps better than any TV — but its ability to capture Dolby Vision content. Sure, there’s quite a bit of Dolby Vision content on Netflix and Apple TV, but when you can press record on your phone and make your own? That just gives you more to watch.

Granted, it isn’t clear what the quality of the Dolby Vision video content will look like compared to what’s made by professionals in Hollywood, but it is certainly likely to look better than anything we’ve seen produced on a phone before.

Considering the increasing numbers of folks who are watching movies and TV shows on their phones, it makes sense that Apple would try to deliver the best visual experience possible. Who knew, though, that the TV made by Apple that would blow us all away would be the iPhone?

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Caleb Denison
Digital Trends Editor at Large Caleb Denison is a sought-after writer, speaker, and television correspondent with unmatched…
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