Nintendo just announced a new Nintendo Switch with an OLED screen, coming in October for $350, and my first thought was "Great, the current LCD screen kinda sucks."
My second was "I bet people will be worried about burn-in." I review TVs for CNET and plenty of folks ask me about burn-in on the OLED TVs I've been recommending for years. My answer for the Switch is the same as it is for TVs: I'm not worried about burn-in. And based on what I know now, most other prospective buyers shouldn't be either.
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Let's start with the basics. Screens today -- on TVs, phones, laptops, tablets, smartwatches and, yes, portable game consoles -- use two major technologies: OLED (organic light emitting diode) and LCD (liquid crystal display). OLED screens have better picture quality than LCD screens, mostly because they can produce a perfect shade of black, which creates better contrast and "pop" as well as more saturated, richer color.
Nintendo touts "vivid colors and crisp contrast" on the 7-inch OLED display found on the new Switch, and I have no reason to doubt that claim. In my years of owning the original Switch and countless hours of gaming on its LCD screen, I've found it mediocre at best in terms of contrast and color. I fully expect the new Switch to look a LOT better.
Ghost in the machine
One potential downside to OLED technology is something known as burn-in. As we put it in our extensive guide to OLED screen burn-in: "Burn-in is when a part of an image -- navigation buttons on a phone, for example, or a channel logo, news ticker or a scoreboard on a TV -- persists as a ghostly background no matter what else appears onscreen."
TV and phone makers who sell OLED screens, from LG to Apple to Google, acknowledge the possibility of burn-in -- aka "image persistence" or "image retention." They all characterize it as something that can happen under "extreme" or "rare" circumstances, and I agree.
Here's Nintendo's response to my request for comment about burn-in:
We've designed the OLED screen to aim for longevity as much as possible, but OLED displays can experience image retention if subjected to static visuals over a long period of time. However, users can take preventative measures to preserve the screen [by] utilizing features included in the Nintendo Switch systems by default, such as auto-brightness function to prevent the screen from getting too bright, and the auto-sleep function to go into 'auto sleep' mode after short periods of time.
In my experience reviewing (and watching) OLED TVs over the years I've never caused a case of burn-in myself, although I've never tested for it directly. One reviews site that has, rtings.com, ran a real-world TV burn-in test and came to the conclusion, "We don't expect most people who watch varied content without static areas to experience burn-in issues with an OLED TV."
As a display that will show primarily games, the OLED screen on the Nintendo Switch will definitely have some static elements -- persistent scores in the corners, life bars, ammo counts, status icons, etc. These could, if left onscreen for a long period of time, conceivably cause burn-in.
What, me worry?
Despite the persistence of static screen elements in games, there are numerous reasons I'm not worried about burn-in on the OLED Switch. Here are a few.
- Static elements like a score, life bar or reticule would have to remain onscreen for many hours at a time.
- If you play different games, they'll have different (or no) static elements, which reduces or eliminates the issue.
- Aside from games themselves, the Switch doesn't have an always-on, static menu element like the navigation bar on some phones.
- As Nintendo mentioned, the Switch has an automatic brightness feature and an automatic sleep mode that turns off the screen entirely after a set period, helping reduce the issue.
Now if I were the kind of gamer who played the same game pretty much exclusively, one that kept the same bright, persistent static elements on the portable screen constantly, I would avoid the OLED Switch. But I (like every other Switch user I know) get enough variation on the screen by playing enough different games that burn-in shouldn't be a problem.
Here's where I mention that this is all just conjecture, based on my own experience as a TV reviewer, a Switch gamer and someone who's owned a phone with an OLED screen since the Samsung Vibrant (circa 2010). The new Switch was just announced, and perhaps something like the Google Pixel 2 XL burn-in issue, where the persistent bottom navigation bar caused burn-in, will surface for some OLED Switch users once it hits the market. But for the reasons outlined above, I doubt it.
If that possibility worries you, however, then by all means don't buy the new Switch. Or just get a Switch with a traditional LCD screen.
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For my part, I consider the risk of burn-in to be entirely worth the benefit of OLED. In fact, compared with a TV that can be left on for hours or days at a time playing one channel with a persistent logo like CNN, I expect reports of burn-in to be less common with the Switch than with TVs.
I have plenty of other questions about the new Switch, for example how the OLED screen affects battery life, how it performs outdoors or in other bright light and whether it crushes shadow detail or makes colors look less realistic. Whether burn-in will be a problem isn't one of them.