TOKYO — A third way has opened up in screen technology, and display trendsetter Apple is taking the lead.The new MacBook Pro models unveiled in October feature mini-LED backlights, in a first for Apple’s flagship line of laptops.Mini light-emitting diodes seek to take the best of both worlds of leading screen technology, combining the low-cost advantages of liquid crystal displays (LCDs) with the blacker blacks and sharper contrast of organic light-emitting diode (OLED) displays.”This is hands-down the world’s best notebook display,” Kate Bergeron, vice president of hardware engineering, said at the Oct. 18 launch event.The latest release drives home Apple’s emphasis on mini-LEDs for its high-end devices. The iPad Pro released in May also features the backlight technology.Inside the display of the 16-inch version of the new MacBook Pro are about 10,000 tiny LEDs arranged in zones that can be dimmed independently. This backlight technology allows for a 1,000,000:1 contrast ratio, according to Apple — three orders of magnitude greater than that of standard LCDs.In LCDs, a light source shines through color filters to produce images. Energy-efficient LEDs began moving into the mainstream for computer display backlights in the late 2000s. But LCDs struggle to reproduce sharp contrasts. Because the entire backlight is always shining when the display is on, black areas look tinged with gray.OLED displays are able to produce blacker blacks because each pixel can be turned off. Apple has shifted from LCDs to OLED displays for its top-of-the-line phones, starting with the iPhone X released in 2017. In more recent versions, LCDs have been relegated to the lower-priced iPhone SE, which went on sale in 2020.
The newest iPad Pro, bottom, renders blacker blacks than the older model above. (Photo by Kotaro Igarashi)
But OLED displays have their own drawbacks. They have a relatively short life span and limited maximum brightness. On top of that, the displays are still two to three times more costly than regular LEDs.Midsize OLED panels for tablets and notebooks in particular pose a bigger manufacturing challenge than small panels for smartphones. The limited production scale has contributed to the higher costs of such displays.Meanwhile, mini-LED displays share many of the same components as conventional mass-produced LCDs, which keeps costs down, while achieving image performance close to that of OLED screens.Mini-LED screens also have better brightness. Both the latest MacBook Pro and iPad Pro boast brightness levels of up to 1,600 nits, which is more than 30% greater than the OLED-equipped iPhone 13 Pro.The brightness level exceeds that of master monitors used in professional video production. With mini-LED displays, Apple is making a play for game and visual content creators.Apple’s turn to mini-LEDs could give the display technology a boost. Chinese and Taiwanese brands have moved in this direction. Mini-LED displays can already be found in TVs made by TCL Technology Group and computer monitors by Asus and Lenovo Group. Global shipments of mini-LED displays will reach 56 million units in 2026, increasing more than sevenfold from this year and rivaling the OLED market, U.S. research company DSCC projects.
Mini-LED modules are arranged in zones that can be dimmed independently, which boosts capability for displaying contrasts. (Photo by Norio Matsumoto)
Slashing costs will be needed for widespread adoption. Backlighting a typical 12.9-inch tablet panel costs about three times more with mini-LEDs than conventional LCDs.Mini-LEDs typically range in width from around 100 microns to several hundred microns. Those used in the iPad Pro measure about 200 microns, according to teardown specialist Fomalhaut Techno Solutions and other analysts.In the long term, industry insiders expect the rise of even smaller micro-LEDs that measure under 100 microns and can express primary colors without the use of a filter.Apple has made an acquisition in micro-LEDs and is said to have an active development program in this field.