Where are the transflective displays?
April 18, 2014 9:06 PM   Subscribe

Digital display technology is constantly marching forward, especially with smartphone manufacturers trying to one-up each other on screen thinness, DPI, and brightness. But why do no smartphones (or tablets, or laptops) use transflective displays? Simply put, a transflective display is can be seen with either backlighting or frontlighting. It is a screen that can be used both in a dark room and in direct sunlight — and the sunlight will actually make it clearer.

I'll admit right up front that I don't know much about the technology behind this stuff, so it's possible there's something I'm missing. Maybe it's impossible to make a transflective screen with a high DPI? I don't know.

What I do know is that my Galaxy S3, which is a great phone and an amazing piece of technology, is essentially unusable in direct sunlight, and this absolutely baffles me. My GameBoy Advance SP, made in 2003 and purchased for about $100, has a screen that is usable in any light condition. So does a low-priced PDA purchased around the same time.

Even if you look at the super-ruggadized market, the very durable and very expensive laptops and tablets made by such brands as Toughbook, you'll see them trying to beat the sunlight problem by producing brighter and brighter screens, which pushes battery life ever downward. When using a transflective screen outdoors, you can turn off the backlight, and save power.

Possible reasons that I have considered:

—They're too expensive/the technology isn't really there.
Response: See my note about my GBA SP and PDA.

—People don't use their laptops outside.
Response: Not usually, but they sure do use their smartphones outside.

—The colors/viewing angle isn't as good.
Response: Maybe, but my GBA SP wasn't bad, and surely there are plenty of people in the smartphone market who would give up a little bit of color rendition in order to be able to see their screen outside.

—Transflective screens don't lookas pretty on store shelves.
Response: Quite possibly. This is the reason why laptops more often have glossy screens than matte screens, which I would argue are better. However, it's still very possible to find a good laptop with a matte screen, especially if you're looking at certain types of laptops (business laptops).
posted by CustooFintel to Technology (11 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Pixel Qi makes them, but they don't seem to be super high resolution. Maybe it's a result of their origins (developing the display technology for the OLPC), but their displays are only in tablets, netbooks, and niche devices at this point. I've always hoped that they'd take off and make larger, higher-res screens, but who knows why they haven't.
posted by zsazsa at 9:33 PM on April 18, 2014

give up a little bit of color rendition

from what I've seen/heard it's a lot of dodgy color rendition...like the difference between high-resolution, high-gamut color photos and newspaper comics.
posted by sexyrobot at 9:39 PM on April 18, 2014

The smartphone market has become really distressingly homogenous, in my opinion, with everybody afraid to take any real risks and instead just plopping the latest CPU into a shiny slab with the highest-res screen they can muster and not really innovating otherwise (This shiny slab has a 5 inch screen instead of 4! This shiny slab is curved!) I'm one person who really strongly prefers a physical keyboard (doesn't take up half the screen when you're typing, touch typing is a possibility, symbol entry can be easier) but there is no phone on the market that has even that once commonplace feature without being a woefully underspec'ed piece of crap targeted at grandparents and "novices." So I don't know if it's really a specific problem with transflective screen technology as much as an unwillingness on the part of manufacturers to differentiate their products and stop churning out iPhone clones with minor variations.
posted by contraption at 10:16 PM on April 18, 2014 [3 favorites]

Designing a phone with a transflective display means designing a phone that will look incredibly shitty next to all the other shiny phones in the cell phone shop.
posted by ryanrs at 10:26 PM on April 18, 2014

I could see a phone with a traditional display on the front and a transflective display on the obverse being really nice, especially if the whole thing was water resistant like Samsung's new one and the transflective side were ruggedized and used a resistive touch sensor. I'm not sure why there aren't more variations in form factor and feature set, maybe niche phones just never test well enough to be considered worth manufacturing. About the biggest deviation from the formula I'm aware of is Samsung's S4 Zoom, and even that's really just a regular slab phone with a bigger camera lens and sensor than usual.
posted by contraption at 10:41 PM on April 18, 2014

Sometimes technology like this withers and dies because the patent holder demands too large a royalty. (That's why Firewire lost to USB.)
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 4:55 AM on April 19, 2014

If I were designing a smartphone and looking for a sunlight-readable display, I would probably be playing with interferometric modulation displays rather than transflective LCD, which has a reputation for being finicky about viewing and illumination angles.
posted by flabdablet at 5:10 AM on April 19, 2014

Other possible reasons: Thickness, poor color gamut, slow refresh rates, cost, low resolution, poor yield: I honestly don't know but there are a lot of decisions that go into picking a phone display tech.

If you want to see & read some of the trade-offs for interferometric modulation displays, you should check out Ars' review of the Toq. This compares how some of the graphics look on that screen compared to a modern android screen.
posted by chairface at 7:04 AM on April 19, 2014

As far as your specific question, I think the above covers it pretty well. A pretty homogenized gadget industry, the fact that they don't look very good next to traditional LCDs, etc.

However, OLED tech has been generally recognized as the Next Big Thing in displays once the price goes down enough, and OLEDs ought to be much better than LCDs in this department (by the simple means of being brighter and more efficient).
posted by neckro23 at 10:27 AM on April 19, 2014

Transflective displays used to be common on mobile phones. Somewhere approaching 100% of Nokia's Symbian phones had them, and toward the end the color rendition was not an issue in the least except in bright sunlight. They may still be using them on current Windows phones, but I don't know.

A manufacturer can make any LCD panel transflective if they so choose, it's just an extra layer in the sandwich. Yeah, they look shitty and basically colorless..in direct sunlight, when every other device you have will look worse if it's even visible at all. In an indoor lighting situation, there is no significant difference in the color rendition between panels that have the transflective layer and those that do not.
posted by wierdo at 1:14 PM on April 19, 2014

It occurs to me that there may be a problem with pixel density. The display on your game boy was 2.9" 240*160. If I've calculated it correctly, that's 2.3 inches by 1.74 inches, and about 100 pixels per inch, give or take.

My phone has a 5" 1920*1080 display, which is 440 pixels per inch. And some have even higher pixel density than that.

Why does that matter? When it's backlit (as mine is) it doesn't. But a transflective display requires incident light to come in and go back out through the same third of a pixel, and if the incident angle is too great that's not going to happen. It'll come in one third and go out through a different one, and the colors will interfere with each other.

I bet that a transflective display with modern pixel density requires the incoming light to be nearly square -- and that's a deal breaker, because it usually won't be.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:09 PM on April 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

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