What is mini LED and what could it mean for iPad & MacBook?

Over the last year or so, we’ve been hearing more and more about new LCD display technologies, and we may see Apple adopt them in its devices as soon as next year. Follow along for an explainer on what mini LED display tech is, and why Apple is moving to it with iPad and MacBook Pro soon.

LED-backlit LCD displays replaced CCFL (cold cathode fluorescent) ones over the last decade as they offer a number of advantages across many aspects including reliability, lifespan, wider color gamut, smaller physical size, power efficiency, dimming capabilities, and more.

While OLED (organic light-emitting diode) displays have become the current choice for many flagship smartphones and smartwatches like the iPhone 11 Pro and Apple Watch, mini LED and microLED are set to bring further improvements to displays.

What is mini LED display tech?

Traditional LED-backlit displays will have anywhere from several dozen to several hundred LEDs. As the name suggests, mini LED displays make use of miniaturized backlighting and can feature over a thousand full array local dimming (FALD) zones.

Advantages of mini LED:

  • Higher contrast ratio
  • Higher brightness
  • Deeper blacks
  • Power-efficient
  • Less prone to burn-in than OLED
  • Uses inorganic Gallium nitride (GaN), won’t degrade over time like OLED

So what are microLEDs? They are an order of magnitude smaller than the mini variant and are as tiny as 1/100th the size of a traditional LED backlight in an LCD display. They go further with the benefits that mini LED has over standard LED-powered LCD displays and can provide over 30x greater brightness compared to OLED.

The tricky part about manufacturing microLED displays at a high quality is you’re dedicating an LED for each pixel of a display. Semiconductor Engineering explains:

MicroLED is where you shrink them down to the scale of tens of microns. You place one in each pixel. It’s so much smaller and harder to do. It’s harder to physically put them where you want them to be. It’s also harder to make the LEDs themselves so that they perform well.

It makes sense then that the two major holdups for these new display technologies are cost and manufacturing at scale, and that Apple is looking to do mini LED with its larger portable devices first and implement microLED with Apple Watch to start.

Apple’s iPad Pro and 16-inch MacBook Pro are expected to see the switch to mini LED as soon as Q4 2020. Meanwhile, microLED displays are believed to make their way to Apple Watch next year as well.

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