The new OnePlus 8 series phones aced DisplayMate’s lab tests, with super-bright, low-reflectivity screens, high color accuracy, and excellent viewing quality at an angle, according to test results given exclusively to PCMag.com.
“OnePlus clearly wanted to make an outstanding display,” said Dr. Ray Soneira of DisplayMate Labs. “That motivation really shows up in their choice of metrics, parameters, and excellent factory calibration. The whole factory calibration system is one of the big pluses for OnePlus.”
OnePlus said on March 30 that it intends to release its next generation of phones on April 14. According to rumors, that means two or three devices—a OnePlus 8, a OnePlus 8 Pro, and maybe a OnePlus 8 Lite. If OnePlus follows its usual path, folks in the US will only see the Pro initially.
I saw two pre-launch DisplayMate lab test reports for OnePlus phones. One, presumably the OnePlus 8 Pro, has a “2K+” high-res display. The other, presumably the OnePlus 8, doesn’t have a display resolution specified but appears to be 1080p. Although OnePlus didn’t confirm those specific names, I’m going to use them as shorthand in this article. At least one will have a 120Hz display.
“Following the 90Hz QHD+ Fluid Display of the OnePlus 7 Pro, we have once again cooperated with Samsung Display,” OnePlus CEO Pete Lau said. “This time we push the refresh rate to 120Hz, two times that of the mainstream 60Hz displays. On top of that we added breakthrough improvements in offering the smoothest video playback thanks to MEMC technology, the most authentic color on any smartphone, and high brightness controls.”
Like the OnePlus 7, the OnePlus 8 series has Vivid and Natural color modes. The Vivid mode intentionally distorts colors to give that oversaturated OLED effect that people like; it’s also noticeably brighter. The Natural mode is truer to real colors, but not as bright.
Getting Better All the Time
Soneira uses proprietary tests and lab equipment to measure a dizzying array of brightness, reflectivity, and color elements. His primary business is selling display calibration and optimization technology for PC monitors, TVs, and mobile displays. Back in 2006, he started looking at phone screens like the Nokia N80 and Motorola Q, pointing out that at the time, the displays weren’t great.
That’s changed. The best current OLED displays are excellent, especially the Samsung panels that OnePlus and other leading smartphone makers use. I’ve been working with Soneira on mobile phone reviews for more than a decade. In recent years, he’s gotten some criticism for giving A+ grades to most of the displays he’s published reports about. He explained why.
Soneira’s letter grades are based on how many tests a display exceeds in his current top performance standards. Displays are getting better every year, he says, so each year’s best displays tend to get A+ ratings, even as the standards rise.
But here’s the thing—he only publicly reviews the best-performing displays now, because they’re the only ones he says people are really interested in. He told me he used to review some midrange products, but there was less interest in them, so he stopped. He’s only publishing articles for displays with A+ ratings at this point, because he’s only testing the best displays. There are many lower-performing products out there, he says; he just isn’t publishing reports about them.
I personally see this tension on our roundups, too. We review a lot of phones at PCMag. Many of them get 2.5- or 3-star ratings. Those don’t appear on our best phone pages, because they aren’t the best. Then readers who only see the roundups assume that we rate everything highly. We don’t; you just aren’t seeing the bad ones.
The OnePlus 7T Pro 5G McLaren has a 90Hz display. The next OnePlus phone will amp that up to 120Hz.
Brighter Than Ever
The OnePlus 8 and 8 Pro have two main user-selectable color modes—Vivid, which has a wider color gamut and high image contrast, and Natural, which can be set to more accurately represent either the digital cinema DCI-P3 color space or the older sRGB color space.
In its Vivid color mode, the OnePlus 8 Pro has a brighter screen than any recent Samsung Galaxy, Google Pixel, or OnePlus phone with a typical 50-percent average picture level, Soneira’s tests say. Its 594-nit brightness compares with 476 nits on the Galaxy S20 Ultra and 453 nits on the OnePlus 7 Pro. With automatic brightness turned on outdoors, it can pump up to 1009 nits into your eyeballs at 50-percent average picture level, compared with 995 on the Galaxy S20 Ultra and 665 on the OnePlus 7 Pro.
Recent Android phones hide a secret, Soneira says. While many people tend to turn off automatic brightness on their phones because they don’t like brightness shifting unpredictably indoors, recent Android phones have a High Brightness mode that only works in high ambient light with automatic brightness turned on. Folks using manual brightness will never see it.
iPhones don’t have the automatic-only high brightness mode, and you can pump their screens to a brighter level manually. That means the iPhone 11 Pro Max goes to 821 nits at 50-percent average picture level indoors and 902 nits outdoors in manual brightness mode—higher than the OnePlus’ manual mode, but lower than its automatic high-brightness mode.
OLED displays can also appear brighter when less of the screen is lit up, as a power-saving move. (Soneira suggests always using dark mode on your phone, so you don’t waste that screen brightness and power on bright backgrounds.) So an Android OLED phone shows its absolute maximum brightness figure on automatic brightness, in ambient light, with only a 1-percent average picture level. For the OnePlus 8 Pro, that’s 1444 nits, higher than any recent iPhone, Samsung, or OnePlus phone.
We shouldn’t expect that brightness to hit the battery too hard, OnePlus CEO Lau said.
“We have made meticulous optimizations for around 40 key use cases, and testing compatibility of commonly used apps, enhancing stability, and minimizing power consumption to make sure we deliver an unmatched fluid experience while ensuring a long-lasting battery experience,” Lau said.
You probably don’t think much about screen reflectivity, but it’s a real visibility bogeyman, Soneira says. Halving the screen reflectivity is equivalent to doubling apparent brightness in ambient light. But after getting reflections down to about 4.4 percent last year, phone makers have found it hard to go further without adding fragile anti-glare coatings that are too scratchable for daily phone use.
The OnePlus 8 series phones match the Galaxy S20 and S10 on reflectivity, and provide a meaningful improvement over the OnePlus 7 Pro in mirror reflections, the most annoying reflections where you can actually see what’s going on behind you. The OnePlus 7 Pro has a slightly higher incidence of mirror reflections than other leading phones at 6.2 percent. The OnePlus 8 series gets that down to 5.3 to 5.4 percent.
“The [high-end OnePlus model] has close to the lowest screen reflectance level that we have ever measured for a smartphone,” Soneira’s report says.
Color: Nearly Perfect
Color accuracy is better on the OnePlus 8 series screens, too. Soneira points out that a lot of color issues on displays aren’t about the display panel itself; they’re about the way it’s calibrated at the factory and the software choices the manufacturer makes. With the OnePlus 7 Pro, OnePlus chose to tune its Vivid mode’s whites a little blue for dramatic effect. It’s dialed that back this year—the whites are still a little bluer than in the Natural mode, and colors are still a bit vividly oversaturated, but not as noticeably. OnePlus also still offers an option in settings to hand-tune whites.
The charts below use Soneira’s JNCD (Just Noticeable Color Difference) metric, which measures the difference between reference and tested colors on a reference color chart. JNCD values below 3 aren’t noticeable to the eye, Soneira says, so anything below that is pretty much bragging rights.
On these charts, you can see how OnePlus has really turned down the oversaturation in its Vivid mode, while all of the flagship phones’ Natural modes have had very true colors for a few years now. Remember, any difference below 3 is not visually noticeable.
Performance when viewing at an angle has improved here, too. White is the most common background color, so Soneira says it’s important to make it shift as little as possible. The OnePlus 8 Pro has less of a white color shift at a 30-degree angle than the Galaxy S20 Ultra, iPhone 11 Pro Max, or OnePlus 7 Pro, although Soneira notes that the difference may not be visible to most eyes. The OnePlus 8’s performance isn’t quite as good as the 8 Pro’s, but it’s still better than the competition.
The OnePlus 8 Pro’s greatest color shift at an angle is in blue, which Soneira says is a smart choice. The eye tends to notice changes in blue less than changes in other colors. The Galaxy S20 Ultra’s greatest shift is in red, which may be more noticeable.
“Our food, our faces, and most of the things that matter to humans are in the red, green, yellow portion of the visual color space,” according to Soneira.
Protection From Reflection
Soneira likes to emphasize the phrase “visually indistinguishable from perfect” a lot. His reports say that in terms of color accuracy and contrast, especially in a dark room, devices like the OnePlus 8 Pro in its Natural color mode have gotten to the point where our eyes wouldn’t be able to tell if they got any better.
But they aren’t perfect yet. The last remaining hurdle is getting a display that works really well in bright, outdoor light. That’s not just about pumping up the brightness, the way displays do now, but about intelligently shifting on-screen colors and contrast to compensate for their washed-out appearance in ambient light.
“Right now these phones are only fully color- and contrast-accurate in absolute darkness,” Soneira says. “There’s a lot of work to be done and it’s a really hard problem…that’s going to require major changes in the OS and the firmware,” he added.
While companies like OnePlus can do a lot with factory calibration and their own firmware tweaks, Android phone makers won’t be able to jump this hurdle without cooperation from Google, he added: “Google, as the maker of Android, has got to take the first step in letting smartphone displays have the correct color and intensity scale management in changing ambient light.”
On the hardware side, a breakthrough in anti-reflective coatings would make a big difference, Soneira says. The industry has stalled for the moment around 4 percent reflectivity, which is similar to naked glass. Getting reflectivity down to 2 percent would be equivalent to doubling a display’s brightness, but Corning and other coating companies need to develop a screen coating durable enough to be used on smartphones, Soneira says.
We’ll see what else OnePlus brings to the table on April 14. Check back then for more details.