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Samsung and the curious case of the red OLED

When critics of Samsung see the Korean technology mega-corporation turn out yet another huge, impressively sharp screen for a new phone or tablet computer, it makes them see red.

Well, not red, actually—more like a super-saturated, unrealistically bright version of red.

Samsung is the near-undisputed king of OLED, or organic light-emitting diode, display technology. It has been using its dominant position in that market as a source of stability as it enters an increasingly untenable situation: eroding sales on both ends of the phone price spectrum. On the low end where profit margins are thin, Samsung has been under attack by local manufacturers such as Xiaomi, which have been willing to sacrifice profit for the sake of market share. On the high end where margins are better, rivals such as Apple’s iPhone have proved to be fiercely competitive. Every company in the business hopes that large sales volumes will make their big bets pay off in the end; the question is what will prompt consumers to buy one glassy device over another.


Samsung hopes that display technology will be one of those things as its rivals use less flashy but more trusted screen technology.

Apple’s iPhones and iPads and roughly two-thirds of all smartphones have LCD, or liquid-crystal display, screens. LCDs essentially twist and untwist liquid crystals to allow a certain amount of light through each red, green, or blue sub-pixel, the term for the components that make up each individual pixel in a display. The technology is well-known and well-worn, but it comes with a major downside: liquid crystals provide no light of their own. The necessary backlight that accompanies such displays is a substantial draw on battery life; taken together with the crystals and other necessary technology, such displays make the resulting screen thicker and more rigid.

Most of Samsung’s modern devices have AMOLED (as in “active-matrix organic light-emitting diode”) displays. The technology involves passing a current through tiny, thin films of organic material (red, green, or blue), which cause them to throw off colored light. AMOLED screens generate their own light, so they do not need a backlight. Even better, when the pixels are not needed, they are actually “off,” saving device power and allowing blacks to be deeper and truer than with LCDs. Manufacturing and material improvements have made AMOLED displays thinner, extremely pixel-dense, occasionally curved, and able to display a huge range of colors.

Most importantly, these manufacturing improvements come largely from one single maker: Samsung Display, a division of Samsung Electronics. “There may be a couple of other players, technically, but, really, these displays come from Samsung,” says Vinita Jakhanwal, senior director of analyst firm IHS. “There is no other OLED or AMOLED maker making displays for mobile phones or tablets.”

Samsung certainly wants to talk about its display technology. In a video promotion for its Galaxy Tab S tablet this summer, women purchase salad bowls, dresses, and shoes online, only to sigh in deep exasperation when a different shade of blue-green, yellow, or shale comes out of the box. The Galaxy Tab S, the voice-over claims, displays the “professional RGB standard” and each pixel is a “living pixel, capable of producing a variety of color combinations.” The message: Samsung’s screens are organic, different, and simply better at colors.

In reality, this is the opposite of what many industry pundits claim. The colors displayed on Samsung’s Galaxy Tab S, according to Dieter Bohn, an editor for the tech-lifestyle website The Verge, “still tend to look over-saturated to my eyes,” though he added that “Samsung has toned things down considerably from years past.” In an otherwise positive review of a newer Galaxy S5 smartphone model, Anandtech, a computer hardware site, made note of “minor issues with excessive green in the color balance.” In essence, people seem to agree that the colors of AMOLED displays are more vivid. Whether or not those colors are natural or accurate based on what the eye would see in real life is another matter entirely.

Samsung may be sensitive to accusations of color problems because one of its main rivals is on record about it. Apple CEO Tim Cook told a Goldman Sachs investors’ conference in February 2013 that “the color saturation is awful” on OLED displays. He added: “If you ever buy anything online and you want to really know what the color is . . . you should really think twice before you depend on the color of the OLED display.”

Part of the issue has to do with a seeming strength of AMOLED technology. It can create a wider range of colors than other display technologies. While the colors of most images are limited to fit inside the 18-year-old sRGB color gamut, AMOLED screens can technically reach far beyond that range, and Samsung often lets them. Some Samsung devices offer a display-correcting “mode”— “Professional Photo” is one—but for the most part, Samsung allows colors to run bolder and more saturated, especially in the red part of the visible spectrum.

“The colors look really off to me, but it’s up to you whether you like this effect or not,” says Erica Griffin, an in-depth video device reviewer, in her take on Samsung’s Galaxy S5. “I know Samsung is heading for an effect that’s eye-catching, to get people’s attention . . . For some people, that looks pretty, and for others it’s just an eyesore.”

It’s also a look that may change as you use your device. The organic materials used to make blues in OLED displays wear out far more quickly than the reds or greens. As they start to wear out, the overall balance of color shifts. Samsung and other device makers often try to correct for this—for example, by making blue sub-pixels twice as large—but it remains an unsolved issue.

A Samsung spokesperson pointed to the company’s latest displays, dubbed Quad-HD Super AMOLED, as having “an immersive viewing experience with a high contrast ratio and a wider color range” than the competition. The Galaxy Tab S featured in the aforementioned ad has a dedicated chip in it that can stabilize colors. At its most basic setting, tech site Anandtech says it mostly has the desired effect.

Colors are important on mobile devices for one overarching reason: managed expectations. Knowing that Twitter uses a sky blue color for its logo, it can be jarring for users and marketers alike to see a version with a tinge of green. LCD display technology certainly is not standing still—displays are becoming thinner, brighter, and even more high-definition. But IHS’s Jakhanwal notes that it is more than just colors, battery life, or thinness that gets a device into buyers’ hands.

“The winners are going to be the device that has not just superior display technology, but superior overall performance,” she says. “Nobody is really going to feel good that, ‘Now I have the brightest tablet,’ or ‘Now my colors are more real.’ It’s a combination of features that make the display and the device.” Which may be good reason for Samsung and its market-moving AMOLED research teams more time to move its displays out of the red.

Next, read:Logged In,” Fortune’s personal technology column, written by Jason Cipriani and published every Tuesday.