All modern phones use one of two screen types: IPS or OLED. But how are they different and is one better than the other? Why does the Huawei P30 have an IPS screen and the P30 Pro an OLED? We’ll give you the answers without getting bogged down with the technical details.

What is IPS?

It stands for In-Plane Switching and is a type of LCD screen. Over the last few years manufacturers – TV manufacturers at any rate – have used their marketing make people think that ‘LED’ screens are a new technology.

In fact, they aren’t: LEDs are merely the light source used to make the image visible on what is effectively a traditional LCD screen. Older LCD TVs used cold cathode tubes for a light source – these are essentially small versions of the fluorescent strip lights you probably still have in your garage or even your kitchen.

Obviously, phones have to use LEDs due to space constraints, but if your phone has an IPS screen it means it has an LCD screen whose pixels are illuminated by LEDs. Typically, these LEDs are placed at the top or bottom (not behind the screen) and a diffuser is used to distribute the light evenly across the screen.

The IPS part refers to the way the image is created, and it’s the technology that most phone makers use for their screens, especially in the cheaper or mid-range models. Here’s why:

Pros of IPS screens

  • Relatively cheap and easy to manufacture
  • Good colour accuracy
  • Doesn’t suffer from image burn-in

Cons of IPS screens

  • Limited contrast
  • Possible backlight ‘leakage’

What is OLED?

OLED screens work in a completely different way to LCD. Instead of shining light through liquid crystals from behind, each red, green and blue sub-pixel emits its own light.

The ‘O’ refers to the fact that the part which actually emits light is made from an organic compound.

As with LCD screens and IPS, there are various types of OLED screens used in phone. One of the more recent acronyms to emerge is P-OLED. P stands for plastic, and it refers to the ‘substrate’ – the base if you like – onto which the other layers are mounted.

Samsung calls its OLED screens Super AMOLED (the AM standing for Active Matrix), but to all intents and purposes, this is basically the same tech you'll find in its competitors' phones with OLED screens, including LG and Apple.

The way companies differentiate their OLED screens tends to be in how their sub-pixels are configured. As standard, each pixel is made up of red, green and blue 'sub-pixels'. Changing their brightness independently is the way to produce different colours - full brightness on all colours produces white. 

Screen manufacturers - including LG and Samsung - can alter the number of sub-pixels and even their colours, so LG might have four sub-pixels and have two blue ones alongside one red and one green. They might use white pixels to boost brightness - LG also does this for some of its IPS screens - or yellow to improve the vibrancy of certain colours. They may even use all white sub-pixels with colour filters over the top.

IPS vs OLED

While this might sound complicated, OLED is a simpler technology than LCD, requiring fewer layers (no backlight is needed) and therefore tends to be thinner.

The technology requires less power to function and, because you can easily turn off individual pixels, OLED screens have blacker-looking blacks and higher contrast than LCD screens.

This makes them more suitable for displaying HDR pictures or video which have higher peak brightness while at the same time retaining deep blacks.

And as anyone who has owned a Samsung phone with an AMOLED screen will attest, OLED displays can produce much more vibrant colours than LCD.

Another advantage of being able to light only the pixels you need means phone makers can have always-on screens which permanently show the time, or other information. Unfortunately, because of the organic nature, the image has to be constantly shifted around to avoid ‘burn-in’, also known as image retention.

Even the latest phones with OLED screens suffer from burn-in. However, techniques are used to reduce the effects as much as possible (both in hardware and software) and even in extreme tests, most people won’t be able to notice the resulting retention in normal use.

Because they’re thinner, OLED displays are more flexible than LCD, but they’re used in phones mainly because of their power efficiency and thinness.

Theoretically OLED screens should be brighter than LCD, but in reality recent advances have helped LCD to catch up. However, OLED-equipped phones still top the brightness charts.

Pros of OLED screens

  • Thinner than IPS LCD
  • Very power efficient
  • Excellent viewing angles
  • Excellent black levels
  • Excellent colour gamut

Cons of OLED screens

  • Possibility of image burn-in
  • Expensive to manufacture

Is OLED better than IPS?

That depends on your priorities. Do you want to spend as little as possible on a phone or is money no object? Do you want the brightest screen or must you have one that can display HDR10 video? Are you worried about burn-in or do you plan to keep your phone for only a year or two?

The pros and cons of each technology apply only in general, but not necessarily to specific phones.

That’s why it’s crucial to read phone reviews and not buy a phone purely on its specifications. And it’s also one reason why you can’t say OLED is better than IPS – or vice versa.

Both have their strengths: you might prefer OLED if you like vibrant colours and an always-on clock. But someone else might prefer IPS thanks to better colour accuracy and, ultimately, a more affordable price.