5: A new era of screens in our home
Don't miss these specs if you are buying a new screen for your smart home
Whether you’re curling up on the couch for a movie, browsing social media, adjusting the lights, or checking the front door camera, we use our screens at home a lot. But Apple has been making radical improvements to their screens across their premium pro devices over the past couple of years. This has made many of my other screens look terrible to me now, and has given me some new specs I will pay attention to for any screen I buy for work or play.
Every display has a general approach to the technology that’s bringing the image to your eyes. This determines what’s possible with the other specs. Much of Apple’s new screen advancements are driven by mini LED displays on iPad and MacBook Pro, and by LTPO OLED displays on iPhone. It would be a totally different newsletter to dive into the details of how these technologies work, and I’m probably not the best person to explain that, but the key is to know which technologies are at the leading edge. Right now it’s mini LED and OLED.
Nits are nice to have
Apple has talked about nits for a while in their keynotes. I never really took much notice until I started using some of these products with higher nit values. One nit is essentially equal to the brightness output of a candle, similar to horsepower for vehicles. Since Apple released the Pro Display XDR in 2019, they have brought similar 1000 nits-ish of brightness to iPhones Pro, iPad Pro, and MacBook Pro. Using an iPhone 13 Pro Max, a 2021 iPad Pro 12.9”, and a new MacBook Pro, the screen quality is striking. The contrast and brightness levels you get are noticeable, even outside of HDR content.
My LG UltraFine 5K display is capable of showing 500 nits of brightness with no HDR. For day-to-day use, this looks pretty comparable to my MacBook Pro with brightness at about 60-70%, but I can definitely tell that my MacBook Pro screen is brighter and has better contrast. Even though this monitor first shipped in 2016, the LG UltraFine 5K is one of the nicer monitors out there for these specs, aside from Apple’s Pro Display XDR, which is over five times the price. For computer monitors, there doesn’t appear to be any options beyond the Pro Display XDR that can take Apple’s level of screen quality to big computer monitors just yet. This could be for a variety of technical limitations, time needed to make the product, or potentially a lack of customers. But I don’t think it will remain this way forever. This screen quality looks too good to not have it come down in price and to a broader range of products from more companies.
The high-end television market is moving in the same direction. Many of the newer televisions support HDR10, HDR10+, HLG, but they often do so with fewer nits than Apple’s displays. I haven’t used any of these screens beyond browsing at Costco to really test the difference in nits.
Another key point here is the contrast ratio. This is the ratio of the brightest to the darkest part of the screen. The bigger the ratio, the better the contrast between bright whites and deep blacks. Many of these new Apple products have a staggering 1,000,000:1 contrast ratio or higher, which produces some very good-looking pictures and text on screen. My LG UltraFine 5K display has a 1200:1 contrast ratio. The text still looks great on this display, but I can see how much clearer it is on my MacBook Pro screen right next to it.
In order to show you a moving picture on the screen, any screen you look at reloads a certain number of times a second, measured in hertz (Hz). For years, 60Hz was a common refresh rate for screens. Apple doubles that with “pro motion” 120Hz refresh rate on iPhone 13 Pro, iPad Pro, and MacBook Pro. These higher frame rates have also caught on for years in gaming, where split-second reaction times can make the difference between virtual life and death. Both the Xbox Series X and Playstation 5 support 4K at 120Hz along with the HDMI 2.1 spec in many new high-end TVs.
But this feature isn’t for everyone. I am surprised by how many people I show pro motion to on my iPhone who don’t see a difference. Then I hear of plenty of people, including myself, who notice it right away. I also know there is a vocal minority who get motion sick from it. As long as there continue to be ways to turn it off, I think high fresh rates are here to stay as a feature that people are willing to pay for on most screens in their homes. I wouldn’t buy anything aside from a high resolution computer monitor without it. Given the data required to create a screen at a resolution higher than 4K, I don’t think we’ll see many options to drive 6K or higher resolution external displays at 120Hz for years to come. But everywhere else, including laptop screens, it is here or hopefully coming soon.
But what about smart home screens?
As aggressive as Amazon is at providing value in their Echo Show line, it will surely be years before any smart home display has these kinds of display specs. If Apple can make a smart home display that has a high contrast ratio with HDR10+ support, these could be selling points of why to pay $499 for their rumored smart display. Your photos would look so good! Not to mention they would come straight from iCloud.
Brighter always wins
While not quite as bright as the pro phones, Apple has also started moving this technology into their flagship iPhone line as well. As more people upgrade to these new Apple devices with bright, high nit screens and watch HDR content on streaming services, they are probably going to start gravitating toward other screens with the same qualities. Fast forward to TV shopping, and brighter pictures look better to many people when compared side by side. In other words, brightness sells, which is a strong motivation to get a brighter display than your competition. While Apple might have an edge on their competition right now, if my hypothesis is true, we’ll see other companies catch up soon. This means we’ll ultimately be looking at displays with a lot better brightness and contrast in our homes five years from now. Older screens will look dim and jittery in comparison. If you are buying some kind of screen to last the next five years, don’t ignore these specs.
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