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AH Primetime: Displays Compared: Sony SmartWatch 2 LCD vs Samsung Gear 2 OLED

June 17, 2014 - Written By Cory McNutt

With our daily thoughts on the newest Smartphone and the excitement of Google Glass, we sometimes neglect what is right in front of our eyes…or I should say, on our wrists.  Yes, I am talking about the Smartwatch, still in its infancy, but growing and improving at a rapid rate.  The future of the Smartwatch is very bright and manufacturers are only now beginning to realize their potential.  Just like the smartphone, one of the Smartwatch’s most important features is their display – it’s the first thing we look at and rely on for beautiful colors and visual clarity.  Just like the smartphone, we have two camps of technology – the LCD display, like the one found on the Sony SmartWatch 2 and the OLED display found on the Samsung Gear 2. The premier test lab, DisplayMate,  decided to test the two technologies in a “Smart Watch Display Technology Shoot-Out” and some of their findings may surprise you.

One disadvantage of the Smartwatch display is its size, generally only about 1.5-inches.  This means that they need a high pixel resolution for sharp and easy to read graphics and text.  We generally only glance at our watches and we have to be able to quickly identify what is on the display.  Since our Smartwatch is always on our wrist, we take it everywhere, including outside, so the display must be bright enough to be seen clearly in the ambient light, as well as direct sunlight.  Colors can looked washed out in the ambient light so the display needs a lot of color saturation. You can always update the software of the smartwatch, and even change the bands on some models, but you are stuck with the display, so you want to make sure you get the best possible display when you make your purchase.

Liquid Crystal Displays or LCD is an older technology that has had recent bursts of advancement.  LCD displays require a backlight and needs more power to operate, requires more parts and the displays are generally a little thicker to accommodate the backlight.  LCD’s do not have the contrast that an OLED display can produce.  The Organic Light Emitting Diode or OLED displays utilizes organic compounds to produce their light, which means they do not need a backlight and consume less battery power.  OLED technology can produce a thinner display and have superior contrast than the LCD displays. Let’s look at the two individual displays used in the Shoot-Out – The Samsung Gear 2 has a 1.63 inch RGB Strip OLED display with 320×320 pixels whereas the Sony Smart Watch 2 has a 1.60 inch Transflective LCD display with a much lower resolution of 260×176 pixels.

DisplayMate breaks down the Shoot-Out into several categories and we will go through them now.  The first is Sharpness, a very important aspect for visibility on such a small display.  The SmartWatch 2’s display of 220×176 pixels produces 39,000 pixels at 176 pixels-per-inch (ppi).  The Gear 2’s display of 320×320 pixels gives us 102,000 pixels and 278 ppi.  The SmartWatch 2 was “visibly coarse and heavily pixelated” while the Gear 2 OLED RGB Stripe display “was very sharp, even with fine text and graphics.”  The Brightness of both devices was fairly bright with the SmartWatch 2 having 495 nits and the Gear 2 had 415 nits in its Outdoor mode and 296 nits in Standard mode, however, in “typical viewing angles the Gear 2 is brighter.”

Next they compared the Color Gamut, Saturation, and Depth – the Gear 2 came in at 135 percent, which normally is too much for DisplayMate’s liking, but because it is in such a small display, it was not objectionable…and when you add in the ambient light it made it close to 100 percent.  The SmartWatch 2 starts with only a 91 percent color gamut, but once the ambient light hits the display, that number falls drastically.  The Gear 2 display has an excellent 24-bit color and although Sony specs the SmartWatch 2 at 16-bit color, it actually tested out to be only 12-bit color and that is “simply unsatisfactory.”

Because the way a Smartwatch is used, it is important that the display performs well in high ambient light and have good viewing angles, certainly more so than a smartphone.  The ambient light washes out the colors and image contrast, making it difficult to read, especially at a glance – forcing you to change the angle of viewing by twist your wrist to get less of the light shining directly on the display.  The two best ways to combat this never-ending battle is to increase the display brightness and reduce the screen reflectance – however, even those two fixes can only battle the bright ambient light so much.  When the Gear 2 was set in its Outdoor mode, the display was readable in fairly high 40,000 lux of outdoor ambient light, but not in direct sunlight.  The SmartWatch 2 display was also very readable in 40,000 lux and above, and in its Reflective mode, even in direct sunlight.

It is always best to look directly at a display, whether it be a TV, a smartphone, or a smartwatch, however, due to its nature of being worn on our wrist, the best we can usually garner with a Smartwatch is a 30 percent viewing angle.  At that angle, most LCD’s Brightness falls by 55 percent and Contrast Ratio by over 75 percent, while OLEDs only drop about 20 percent in BOTH areas.  Straight on viewing is brighter in the SmartWatch 2, however, in typical viewing angles, the Gear 2 is brighter and maintains a much higher Contrast Ratio.

What can we conclude from all of these tests – one surprising conclusion is how much of a difference there is between these two second generation display technologies:

“The OLED display on the Samsung Gear 2 performed very well across the board, almost identically to the most recent Galaxy S OLED Smartphones in almost every test measurement and viewing category. It looked and performed like a small version of a high quality OLED smartphone display – including sharpness, high pixels per inch, brightness, color depth, color gamut, viewing angle, in ambient light, and overall image and picture quality.”

“On the other hand, the Transflective LCD display on the Sony SmartWatch 2 was quite disappointing across the board, especially for a 2nd (actually 3rd) generation device…In particular, the coarse and heavily pixelated low resolution and low pixels per inch screen made worse with poor anti-aliasing, the very low color depth, the poor color gamut in ambient light, and also the poor viewing angle performance (because watches are not easily positioned for zero degree viewing).”

While the Samsung Gear 2 already has an excellent display, DisplayMate will come back shortly and examine the highly anticipated Smartwatches from LG, Motorola, Apple and others. A picture (screen shot) is worth a thousand words – look at the three images below, compared side-by-side and the differences become quite obvious.  The Sony SmartWatch 2 “produced poor to horrendous versions of the images.”  The Samsung Gear 2 “accurately and nicely reproduced all three images.”  Take a jump over to our sources website for the complete and in depth test results, and please hit us up on our Google+ Page to discuss your Smartwatch and how viewable you feel the display is on your brand…as always, we would love to hear from you.

Smartwatch display tests