iPhone 12 — No 120Hz ProMotion Display?

Some tech nerds in some comment sections just keep saying if Apple doesn’t bring a high refresh display to the iPhone 12, well, then they’re not bringing the iPhone 12 home.

DED. Done. RIP.

And the other 99 out of 100 people are saying… a high what now?

The What

If you’re not familiar with 120Hz displays, if you don’t know what they are or why anyone would be talking about them, let me give you a super quick TL;DR.

Now, I’m totally going to cheat a little — ok, a lot — by not talking about the refresh rate, or how many times a second the display refreshes the pixels on it, but about something I think will resonate with more people — frames per second.

With video or animation, nothing really moves. What we see as movement is really a series of still images changing rapidly in a short period of time.

Like a flip book, if you ever made one of those as kid. Draw one picture per page, change the picture ever-so-slightly on every page, and when you flip them fast, it looks like they’re moving.

That’s basically how film work, just with 24 pictures — or frames — a second. Because, back in the day, that was enough to fool our brains into buying the illusions but not so much that it used too much more, expensive film to shoot.

Now, because we’ve gotten used to seeing 24 frames per second in film — at the cinema — it just looks… cinematic. Which is why a lot of YouTube channels, including mine, stick to 24 frames per second, even though YouTube happily supports 30… 60 even.

30 is the traditional frame rate for television in North America, which is why TV looks smoother in both good and bad ways. When done well, like a primetime show. When done badly, like a soap opera.

The iPhone has been 60 frames per second, double television, since it launched. Basically, because if it dropped even a single frame, Steve Jobs would drop it on someone’s head. Figuratively, not literally. I hope.

And for other reasons I’ll get to in a minute.

So… 120 frames per second is double again — the pixels on the display updating 120 times a second instead of 60.

And that brings with it some huge benefits… and some potential challenges if not outright problems.

The Good

So, ok, there are some real advantages when it comes to 120hz displays.

Rock solid 60 frames per second was critical to Apple when they launched the original iPhone back in 2007. Twice as fast as television, it made the interface animations, the scrolling through lists, the pinch and zoom through photos and maps, all of it, not just look buttery smooth but feel it.

It created the illusion of direct manipulation, that it was locked onto your fingers when you touched it, just instantly responsive. Like when you moved your fingers, you were moving the pixels.

Then, in 2017, Apple announced ProMotion for the iPad Pro.

Now, ProMotion wasn’t high frame rate. Not exactly. It was adaptive frame rate. But, it could boost up to 120 frames per second to make scrolling, pinching, zooming, all even smoother and Apple Pencil feel even more like a real pencil.

In other words, even smoother than butter. Like Ghee.

It’s legit terrific for anything like interfaces, animations, and gaming. People were psyched when Fortnite shipped 60 fps on the iPhone XR and iPhone XS a couple years ago, so even the idea of double that on the iPhone 12 has people, well, double psyched.

Also, for people like me, who watch videos far more than we game, the best thing about adaptive 120hz refresh is the adaptive part — it quintuples perfectly down to 24 frames per second, so it shows everything from YouTube videos like this to Hollywood movies just as nature and cinema intended.

So, yeah, I’m a total display nerd and I want it badly. And if you want it badly as well, hit that like button.

But… I don’t know that any of us want it… badly.

The bad

So, there are some issues with 120hz displays that very few people, especially nerds, will tell you up front but you’ll hear all about, loudly and repeatedly if you just stick around and listen.

First, they’re way easier to do on LCD than OLED. Which is why the iPad Pro’s had it since 2017 and the iPhone hasn’t… since it switched to OLED in 2017.

OLED is just such a complicated technology with a ton of good characteristics and a ton of bad ones that require serious mitigations to overcome. I’ve explained those in a bunch of previous videos, so, seriously, hit that subscribe bell and button and check them all out.

Now, other companies have been doing both 90hz and 120hz on OLED and with varying degrees of success for a while already. Even Samsung, who’s OLED process and panels a lot of these companies use.

Some of them do it… some of the time. And it either switches automatically when, like a cloud goes across the sun outside and the ambient brightness in your living room changes and you can just see the refresh rate downshift in the middle of a game, and just nothing in the world makes sense any more.

Others do it manually, and you can choose between lower resolutions with higher refresh rates and higher resolutions with lower refresh rates and as you switch you can literally see the white point change and it makes you hate your own eyes for a hot minute.

And some of them have been getting software updates to try and fix at least some of that, because these are the kinds of downsides we’re still dealing with even in 2020.

120Hz OLED panels, at least so far, haven’t been great when it comes to color management, low brightness levels — not, like, inky blacks, but like you’re in a dark room and you want to lower the brightness of your phone, and battery life.

Because the display is one of the most power-hungry parts of the device and having it refresh twice as much uses… wait for it, significantly more power.

Now, Apple designs their own displays, sometimes with their own material requirements, and has Samsung fab them on their OLED process. Apple also makes their own display controllers and has functionality for that built in at the silicon level.

But Apple also has a complete DCI-P3 wide gamut pipeline, with device-level calibration at the factory, and complete color management all the way through. From taking a photo to showing that photo.

It’s why a RGB and DCI-P3 image displayed side by side on a webpage on an iPhone look fine, and why an LCD iPhone 11 so closely matches an OLED iPhone 11 Pro, even though they’re completely different display technologies.

But 120Hz will still screw with all of that.


The reality

Apple may well ship 120Hz with the iPhone 12, quite possibly just the iPhone 12 Pro.

Like maybe they’re good. They’ve figured it out and have got all of this just handled.

Or, if the color is off, the low brightness is problematic, or the power drain is just too much, Apple may do what they’ve done with a bunch of other technologies and just decide to wait.

Remember, this is the same Apple that waited until 2017 and the iPhone X before they decided 60Hz OLED was good enough for them. On the iPhone. They’re still not happy enough with things like consistent brightness levels to use it on the iPad at scale.

Even today, they still ship LCD on the iPhone XR and iPhone 11, the two most popular single phones of the last two years.

Or, maybe Apple is just going to wait for production capacity on LTPO OLED panels big enough for the iPhone so, like the Apple Watch, they won’t just boost up to 120Hz for high frame rate, but down to 1 for super low frame rate, like for an always-on lock screen display.

Hey, a nerd can dream. And if you’re dreaming of the same thing, let me know in the comments.

The market

Now, if Apple ships 120Hz display on the iPhone 12 Pro, it’ll make a lot of display nerds like me super happy. Just like shipping HDR on the iPhone X made us and me super happy. But, it also made most of the world just go… what now?

And that’s the thing. If you ask a bunch of nerds like me on tech Twitter or tech YouTube if we want 120Hz refresh on the next iPhone — nay, if we insist on it, we’ll say yeah. Hell yeah. Why wasn’t it there last year? Nokia had it back in 1812!

Just like if you ask us if we wanted cake, we’d say hell yeah to that as well.

But if you tell us that cake is going to cost $100… well, then we stop and think.

Same way when you add context to 120Hz, even tech nerds like me stop and think.

Would you still want 120hz if it messed with low brightness levels… Ah, maybe. If it screwed up color management? What, no… If it trashed battery life. I’ll cut you!

And that’s just us nerds. If you ask the other 99% of the market, they’d say… 120 what now?

Seriously, this is the same market where… some people… double facepalm thumbnailed so hard at the iPhone XR not-even-1080p in 2018…

And it clowned them not only becoming the best seller that year, but by being followed up by the same display on the iPhone 11 being the best seller repeat in 2019.

Now, you could argue that the iPhone 12 going OLED across the line means Apple will need some other form of differentiation or segmentation between the standard and Pro versions this year, and 120Hz is a good one.

And I’d agree. To a point. Again, outside of tech nerds, the vast majority of the market just doesn’t make purchasing decisions based on display techs or specs. Some just get the best or biggest version every year, because they’re on an annual update program, and others just buy it every time they upgrade, however long that is.

And for people picking and choosing, typically things like cameras and battery life are the key drivers.

Which is why if 120Hz hurts battery life, most people won’t be happy about having it. They’ll be mad.

Which, T-B-H, I still kinda wish was the case with mmWave 5G. But that’s a very different marketing spend.. and video.

Even design details, like the colors, finishes, stainless steel antenna, all of that will likely drive more mainstream purchasing decisions than 120 vs. 60hz, XDR vs. HDR, even, god help us all, notch size.

At least for the vast majority of buyers.

And, again, I’m someone who really, really wants to 120hz all the things.