Apple is reportedly planning some big changes for next year's iPads and Macs. But not everyone knows about the new technology it's planning--and why it matters.

In a note to investors on Monday, TF International Securities analyst Ming-Chi Kuo said that Apple will start to transition to Mini LED technology in 2020. The company will first offer a Mini LED screen in its 12.9-inch iPad Pro in the third quarter of next year, and follow that with a Mini LED 16-inch MacBook Pro in the fourth quarter, according to the analyst. 

Over the next two to three years, Kuo said, we can expect to find Mini LED used in anywhere from four to six devices.

If you haven't ever heard of Mini LED, there's a good reason for that. It's a display technology still in its infancy and one that you won't find in any of the devices from today's top companies.

There are plenty of technical things to understand about displays, but in truth, it can be mind-numbing to go through all the details. 

Most of today's popular display technologies are LCD, LED-backlit, and OLED. Apple generally uses LCD and OLED in its devices. LCDs offer solid pictures but don't deliver ideal black levels or extremely bright and vibrant visuals. OLED, or organic light-emitting diode, however, offers near-perfect black levels and bright visuals. Best of all, OLED technology is nice and thin, making it an ideal choice for companies looking to deliver great-looking displays in slim devices.

Given that, it's perhaps no surprise Apple has been moving to OLED in its high-end iPhone models. With all of the benefits OLED delivers, Apple is taking full advantage of it in its iPhone X, iPhone XS, and iPhone 11 Pro models. And those who use them see a clear difference in screen quality compared with the LCD models you'd find elsewhere.

But Mini LED represents a different opportunity altogether. Like OLED, Mini LED is designed for thinness and great-looking visuals. It uses a slew of lights behind the screen to light up at the right times to deliver a picture. Like OLED, it can offer a wide color gamut to improve color accuracy and exceedingly high contrast ratios. Add that to the ability to turn off individual lights to create true black levels, and Mini LED is a winner.

Perhaps most important, Mini LED doesn't suffer from one major OLED flaw: burn-in. If you leave a picture on an OLED display for too long without any movement, the colors will "burn in" and create a shadow effect whenever you use the device from then on. Mini LED doesn't suffer from that problem.

So, does that mean Mini LED is best? Not necessarily. Because it's relatively new technology, it's also expensive technology. That's probably why Apple wants to start using it in higher-end models. And although burn-in is a concern, OLED's strong power efficiency and great-looking visuals still make it an ideal choice for many.

But Apple's move might have more to do with its own branding than trying to justify a push to Mini LED over OLED. 

The fact is, the mobile industry is overrun with OLED panels. But Mini LED is hard to come by. If Apple can make the argument (and I'm sure it will try) that Mini LED is superior to OLED, and if it's the only major company offering the technology in its devices, that could become a major selling point. Best of all, if Apple can start cornering Mini LED production now, it will limit access for competing device makers.

Still, some big questions remain about Apple's Mini LED push. For one, it's unclear just how much the technology will cost and whether Apple will need to significantly push prices up to bring Mini LED to its devices. And although Mini LED sounds great on paper, there's no telling how appealing it'll be in reality.

If nothing else, Mini LED promises to usher in a new era in Apple's hardware design. And if it catches on, look for other companies to follow Apple's lead with Mini LED devices of their own.

Published on: Dec 3, 2019
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