‘Always On’ for phone displays is a relatively new development. Of course some apps and programs have tried it before, but the cons are numerous: it consumes battery. It can make it hard to tell if the phone screen is off-on or on-on and ready to be unlocked. It used to cause pixel burn-in, where the design on-screen becomes ‘stuck’ there. (In fact, depending on how long you’ve had your phone, you may be able to spot burn-in from your battery and WiFi indicators when you go full-screen on a video on your current device.)
It seems things have changed, and both the iPhone and Pixel are coming out with phones that have optional Always On Display built in. How do they tackle the issues this style of display used to cause?
1) Battery Life
Outside of the brick and suitcase phones, handheld consumer cell phones are as big as they’ve ever been. The screens are huge, many topping 6 inches, and while the devices haven’t gotten much thicker (sometimes even slimming down) the actual components needed for computing keep getting smaller and smaller, freeing up space for the battery.
Ultimately, ‘Always On’ didn’t get much cheaper to use energy-wise, but phone batteries have gotten truly massive in the time between the first notions of it and now. Many new generation phones boast multiple days of battery life given you’re not running Minecraft, location services, and Youtube on said phone at the same time.
Battery life is no longer the limiting factor in Always On settings!
Additionally, the iPhone has announced that Always On will not activate when the phone is face down, when it senses it’s in a pocket, and when a bedtime routine is set. Users can also turn it off in settings if they so choose. This limits how much power that function actually takes.
2) Is This Thing On?
The Pixel turns off the pixels surrounding the phone’s clock display, and keeps the clock itself at a very low light. Essentially, only the clock zone and any notifications are actually ‘on’ onscreen, and in most lighting conditions it’s not hard to tell whether your device is off-on (which won’t accept touch to activate it) or on-on (which will). The new iPhone still turns on the entire screen if Always On is active, but it shouldn’t be hard to differentiate as long as your brightness preference when you’re actually in your phone’s menu isn’t set to the lowest setting.
That said, this is a new feature, and it’s going to take consumers a bit of time to adjust. Notifications on screen are generally interactable, but while the screen is “off-on” (in a state where it would be off under the old display rules), they won’t be.
While many screens on all sorts of devices, consumer or not, have improved, it’s tough to say whether or not they’ll be able to hold up to the demands of Always On without getting some burn-in. The thing causing burn-in is not the screen staying on and displaying pictures – it’s that those pictures don’t change. It’s why the TV displays showing movies in Best Buy and restaurants don’t get burn-in despite being on for far longer than any ordinary consumer would leave them on. Meanwhile, restaurant menu boards aren’t doing that annoying thing where the menu disappears for an animatic to play because they think you want that, they’re doing it so that if the menu ever changes, there’s not the ghostly image of “Double Cheeseburger – 6.49$” over top whatever they’ve swapped it out with. If they just left it as it was, it’d burn in. If the screen is brighter, the effect is usually worse.
It will likely come down to how the consumer stores their phone. Some people do leave their phone facing up on a coffee table, and those people are going to be subjecting their phone to Always On for much longer than the people who store their phone in their pocket or face down. Again, it’s too early to tell how susceptible the phones will ultimately be to burn-in, but the odds are better than they’ve been in the past.