Finally, the Rock comes home-level Finally, the iPhone 13 Pro is widely, really, truly expected to be getting a 120Hz refresh rate display this fall — basically in just a couple or few weeks — that’s after failing both last year and the year before. So, what took so damn long, and what’s going to make this version just 120% more eye popping than anything we’ve ever seen before? Well, buckle up!
Now, Apple’s actually been shipping 120Hz displays since 2017. But not really — let me explain. Back at WWC 2017, the second generation iPads Pro were announced with a headline feature called ProMotion, which is Apple’s branding for adaptive refresh. Adaptive in that it doesn’t just sit at any single, specific refresh rate but rather adapts to the right refresh rate for whatever the display is doing at the time.
So, it can ramp up to 120Hz for that beyond buttery, just Gee-smooth scrolling, or super high frame rate gaming. But refreshing the display twice as fast drains a lot more power as well. So ProMotion will also ramp down to 48Hz to show movies at 24fps the way nature and Hollywood intended, even down to 24Hz when you have something more static on the screen, like a photo. That greatly reduces the power drain, sorta, kinda, evening out the battery experience.
It also reduces the risks of the “soap opera effect” like when your parents leave “motion smoothing” on their TVs and suddenly Shang Chi or The Suicide Squad or your favorite game looks like it was shot in your friends bathroom and is being rendered back at 1.2x speeds. But I digress.
The quad major key thing here is that Apple did all this without making us have to manually manage or force high refresh rate, or sacrifice high resolution density just to get high refresh rate. And because they’d spent years building out a full-on, end-to-end P3 digital cinema gamut imaging pipeline, we didn’t have to manually manage profiles or put up with brightness or put up with color shifting as the refresh rate changed either.
It all literally just worked. In part, because of a new backplane technology on the iPad Pro called IGZO — Indium Gallium Zinc Oxide — which… science… was not only more efficient, but capable of much higher refresh rates without just burning the battery to the ground.
But only on the iPad Pro, not on the iPhone. Because, back then, it only just worked on LCD displays, not OLED. And 2017 just so happened to also be the year Apple switched the iPhone from LCD to OLED.
Which meant way, way better contrast, peak brightness, and dynamic range, but staying stuck at 60Hz, like a… display animal. Womp. Womp.
I mean, Apple could have done what some other companies did over the last few years. Just implement 120Hz straight up through a more traditional backplane and… suck up the power drain. But it turns out Apple’s mostly mainstream, non-nerd customer base values battery life over pretty much everything else. And a phone that drains completely by mid-afternoon was just a non-starter. They could have gone to 90Hz as a stop gap, but 90Hz would still have significantly reduced battery life and also isn’t evenly divisible to 48Hz and 24Hz, the way 120Hz is, making the whole adaptive refresh thing… kinda all shades of janky.
They could have made it a manual toggle in settings, so we could choose between refresh rate and battery life, maybe choose between high resolution and high refresh rate, like Samsung did for a few years with 1440 at 60 or 1080 at 120. But Apple never made a toggle for Retina high density, or P3 high gamut, or XDR high dynamic range. So, while they tested some of those options internally, they never considered any of them elegant enough to actually ship.
Fortunately, time solves for technology. Or in this case, oxide.
OLED panels were beginning to integrated IGZO into their processes as well. Namely, LTPO or low-temperature Polycrystalline oxide.
Apple deployed it back in 2019… but for the Watch, not the iPhone. And for low refresh rate, not high. Let me explain.
The Apple Watch was OLED years before the iPhone. From the start, actually, back when it first shipped in 2015. RGB-stripe OLED to be specific. So, just, super crisp, super clean.
And while some of us highest order bit nerds would certainly argue 120Hz Gee-smooth scrolling would be phenomenal on the Apple Watch as well, what Apple wanted to was 1Hz instead, for the always-on display. But do it in a way that didn’t make you feel like your brain-matrix was being reset every time it switched from ultra-low-power to regular display. That meant truly adaptive refresh technology and that meant oxide performance and efficiency. LTPO.
So, why Apple Watch and not iPhone? Because, back in 2019, there just wasn’t enough LTPO OLED yet. Not for iPhone scale, which is in the hundreds of millions of devices a year.
There weren’t even enough for Samsung’s flagship phones, which while Samsung sells a crapton of low-end phones, they don’t sell anywhere remotely as many premium phones as Apple, who pretty much only sells premium phones.
It wasn’t until the end of 2020, when the iPhone 12 was already locked and loaded with its peasant 60Hz display, that Samsung was able to produce enough LTPO OLED for the Galaxy Note run. Which was a much, much, much smaller run. Estimates have all said under a million units, maybe way under, for the initial run. Less than half of the initial Galaxy S21 run. By contrast, estimates have said Apple planned an initial run of 75 million iPhone 12, and 90 million iPhone 13. You can’t directly compare those numbers, but you can get an idea of what’s meant by iPhone scale, and supplying components like LTPO OLED panels at iPhone scale.
And despite a lot of really dumb reporting to the contrary, Apple doesn’t just take Samsung Galaxy panels and slap them into iPhones either. Apple has an entire display division that designs and specs out their panels for fabs like Samsung to produce. Sometimes that’s even included requiring different materials than what Samsung uses in their own phones, but always includes Apple taking the OLED that comes off the line and going to town on all their own customizations, from the custom controllers in Apple silicon, to the custom display drivers, the custom mitigations for burn-in, off-axis color shifting, and a bunch more.
Basically, with Apple display, you’re not just getting the best of Samsung or LG or Sharp or whomever, you getting the best of them and the best of Apple display. Not just the jab to your eyeballs but the full-on uppercut combo to your optic nerve centers.
But now, this year, it sounds like Apple can finally, yes Rock comes home finally, source enough LTPO OLED, at least for the iPhone 13 Pro and Pro Max. It’s almost certainly still PenTile Diamond sub pixel OLED, and not RGB stripe, but it still means they won’t just be able to do 120Hz refresh, but full on ProMotion adaptive refresh. So 48Hz, 24Hz, maybe even Apple Watch-like 1Hz for an always-on Lock Screen?
Which is also why 120Hz and not something like 144Hz, because 144Hz, like 90Hz, just isn’t easily divisible into 48 and 24 the way 120Hz is. And no one wants to hear hardcore display nerds complain about split frames the way they’ve been complaining about off-grid pixels since the great scaler crisis of ought 14… That’s… an incredibly geeky display tech reference so if you don’t get it just yell at me and I’ll explain.
Would 144Hz be better? Yes, absolutely, for sure, in a vacuum. But we don’t live in a vacuum. Which is good because it would make our heads explode. Even with IGZO or LTPO, increasing refresh rate still increases power draw, so it’s always about finding the best balance, and incrementing as it makes sense until you start hitting diminishing returns.
It’s the same thing that’s happened with high density. Apple originally went Retina, which was 2x the previous density. Which means four times the pixel resolution at the same physical size. More recently, they’ve gone to 3x, but because there are so many physical display sizes now, and PenTile sub pixels, and those scalers come into play, and… bottom line, it’s better, and going to 4x probably isn’t worth the performance or battery hit required to achieve it.
For refresh rate, 480Hz is probably the limits in terms of what any human could perceive. But, for a phone, the battery drain on that is just a non-starter, at least for the foreseeable future. So maybe 240Hz is next at some point, and we’ll see after that.
But just like 60Hz on an iPhone is way better than 60Hz on any other phone, because Apple owns and can optimize for the whole phone, 120Hz on an iPhone is going to look way better than 120Hz on any other phone as well.
It’s the benefit of the those custom controllers in Apple silicon, custom drivers, custom mitigations, so every pixel is all that it can be, and of iOS end-to-end color management, so red doesn’t look like a different red when the refresh rate changes, or the refresh rate isn’t forced to change when the brightness level goes down. Also,
of developers seeing a hundred million 120Hz capable devices hitting the market over the next year, and hundreds of millions more to come, and getting up off their apps to make sure every game can amp up its frame rate to take full advantage of that refresh rate, fast enough to get featured in the Store for launch day if they can.
That’s always been one of the biggest advantages Apple has brought to any single technology — the ability to make it not just matter but be better than any of sum of its parts.
I mean, Nokia or those damn Hobbit movies, might have invented high refresh rate back in 1812, but I’m pretty sure Apple’s about to re-invent it for the mass market, and like Retina and HDR, in a new hotness kinda way most won’t even notice… until we glance back at our old, suddenly-so-busted looking phones.