Patent knowledge. Technology expertise. Market understanding.

Patent knowledge. Technology expertise. Market understanding.

Patent knowledge. Technology expertise. Market understanding.

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Samsung AMOLED in the Galaxy S4 Moves the Needle

Samsung has thrown its weight behind OLED technology in its latest “HD Super AMOLED” iteration. The Samsung Galaxy S4 features a full 1080p resolution in a 5” screen, giving you super sharp text and crisp images that benefit close-up computing. The “AM” stands for “Active Matrix” and it defines the method by which the TFT array controls the pixels in a manner that is extremely efficient and fast. OLED screens, in one form or another, have been on the market for about 10 years now, but large sizes (5” and up) and in volumes have only been around since about the Galaxy Tab 7” (you could argue these dates, but we are basing it on volumes and consumer knowledge).

OLED technology has some very promising features and Samsung’s spin on it, while to some degree marketing hype, does describe a technological approach to overcoming limitations specific to OLED technology. Some of the historic limitations have included over-saturated green and an uneven aging of the colors, causing deterioration in color balance over time (on a time scale not really relevant in the smartphone universe).

Perhaps more important than over-hyped technical issues, and probably the most critical factor inhibiting a quick success, is the production cost. OLED technology has been heralded as the next coming of Plasma to free us all from the evils of LCD contrast weakness, poorer viewing angles, and ghosting. Notably, the supporters of the latest IPS technology, including Apple, would have something to say about that too. But this article is about AMOLED, so we’ll keep our focus there. Relatively high manufacturing costs and reportedly low yields have kept OLED technology in handheld devices for now. And even in the handheld space, it is only used by a couple of companies.

But what companies! By all accounts, the Samsung Galaxy S4 and its galactic brethren are going to be the largest selling smartphones on the market in 2013 – by a long shot. In addition, the use of OLED technology in the Nexus line of phones is reported to be continuing for the LG-built Nexus 5. And finally, at CES2013, both LG and Samsung had some pretty special new OLED TV announcements for those with deep pockets (the curved LG 55EA9800 and the Samsung F9500); while Sony was showing a 30” 4K OLED monitor that is still in the prototype stage.

And once the technology further matures, OLED is well positioned to be a great screen choice for everything from PC monitors to cars to washing machines – pretty much everywhere; at least some processing power is finding its way, and where OLED’s inherent advantages (such as flexibility) can lead to sexy consumer designs. But until we get there, handsets are making a very strong showing and sucking up a lot of revenue, with shipments of handsets containing AMOLED displays expected to grow from about 8% in 2013 to 15% in 2017. Display Search has reported that they expect the overall market for OLED technology to exceed $20 billion by 2018.

So it begins, with flagship smartphones generating billions in revenue, and ends with the cloud being plugged directly into our brains (so no screen is needed). In between there, we have huge competitive incumbents, innovative upstarts, and IP providers that supply technology for silicon, display, power, systems, packaging, and design. Navigating this IP landscape requires focus because applying such a broad brush will make it very difficult to competitively innovate or seek out licensing deals in a quagmire of suppliers in the value chain. If we focus only on very direct AMOLED-related patent activity, then the hottest activity in the AMOLED filings occurred from 2003-2005, during a fairly rapid R&D ramp-up to where we are today. The top 10 holders include:

  • AU Optronics Corp.
  • Eastman Kodak
  • Cambridge Display Technology
  • Samsung Electronics
  • Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI in Taiwan)
  • Thomson Licensing
  • Ignis Innovation Inc.
  • Koninklijke Philips Electronics
  • LG
  • Sichuan CCO Display Technology

Let’s look a little closer at the Samsung HD Super AMOLED display

Optical section of the iPhone 5 IPS display showing more complexity due to the back light and diffusers compared to the Galaxy S4 AMOLED, where you do not need those additional layers (approximately to scale)

Optical section of the iPhone 5 IPS display showing more complexity due to the back light and diffusers compared to the Galaxy S4 AMOLED, where you do not need those additional layers (approximately to scale)

Samsung, by leveraging its massive R&D strength and high volume market leading position, is truly in an enviable position at this point in time. They have overcome technical barriers to ultra-high resolution small displays with a combination of fabrication technology and basic pixel design. The screen on the Galaxy S4 shows significant differences from that analyzed in the Galaxy S3. Both describe a “Pentile” design which has been maligned for creating pixilation at close viewing, however, you can see that what has been done in the S4 is a dramatic departure from what we have seen in the past. The resulting (from reviews) improvement in quality, combined with even more power saving features, should help Samsung keep its leadership position.

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From left to right: the Galaxy S3 pixel, Galaxy S4 pixel, and for comparison purposes, Apple iPhone 5 Retina Display (IPS) pixel

Illuminated pixels showing a letter on the display, in close up

Illuminated pixels showing a letter on the display, in close up

 

Reports on Devices Discussed in this Article

Samsung Galaxy S4 AMOLED Display Analysis

Apple iPhone 5 IPS Retina Display Analysis