Apple Watch Raises the Bar for Mobile Display Quality and Cost

Apple CEO Tim Cook announces the Apple Watch

Justin Sullivan/ Getty Images

The upcoming Apple Watch will set a new gold standard in mobile device display quality and cost, reports market research firm NPD DisplaySearch. As detailed in the firm’s report, not only will the Apple Watch include an expensive and cutting-edge display technology, it will also feature a “proprietary thin and flexible solid-phase plastic seal” to ensure its durability. Based on its material and production cost analysis of a 42 millimeter (1.7 inch) Apple Watch Retina display system, NPD DisplaySearch estimated that that Apple is spending over $27 per display.

However, it was not clear from the report if NPD DisplaySearch’s cost estimate included the differences between the various display cover materials used on some of the Apple Watch models. While most models will feature sapphire-covered displays, smartwatches in the Sport collection will use “strengthened Ion-X glass,” according to Apple. Either way, the Apple Watch display will be the most expensive mobile display that Apple has ever made based on its cost in relation to its size. According to preliminary device teardowns performed by IHS Technology, Apple spent about $45 on the 4.7-inch iPhone 6 display and about $52.50 on the 5.5-inch iPhone 6 Plus display.

Although Apple has kept many of the details of its as-yet-unreleased smartwatch under wraps, the researchers at NPD DisplaySearch believe that the device will feature a flexible AMOLED (active-matrix organic light-emitting diode) display. While the Apple Watch’s display is not curved like the AMOLED display of Samsung’s Gear S, Apple revealed that its smartwatch includes a pressure-sensitive “flexible Retina display” that will be able to “distinguish between a light tap and a deep press.” This makes it likely that the Apple Watch is using an AMOLED display, since they can be fabricated on thin, flexible plastic substrates. NPD DisplaySearch also speculated that the Apple Watch would have a 240 x 320 resolution screen.

Source: displaysearch.com

Source: displaysearch.com

“The plastic AMOLED offers design flexibility and is very rugged,” said NPD DisplaySearch analyst Charles Annis. While plastic AMOLED displays have the advantage of being 65 percent thinner and lighter than LCD displays, and 50 percent thinner and lighter than conventional glass-based AMOLED displays, plastic AMOLED displays also require a more complex manufacturing process that raises production costs.

Besides allowing Apple to make a lightweight display that could enable its so-called “Force Touch” technology, the company’s use of plastic AMOLED displays may also jumpstart the overall OLED display industry. According to NPD DisplaySearch forecasts, out of the 11 million OLED smartwatch display units that are expected to ship this year, AMOLED panels for the Apple Watch will account for approximately 8 million of those units. As seen in the table above, Apple is expected to drive a massive surge in OLED display shipments in the fourth quarter of 2014, as the Cupertino-based company prepares to launch the Apple Watch in early 2015.

Of course, any technical or cost analysis predictions made by NPD DisplaySearch about the Apple Watch should be taken with a grain of salt, since the company has yet to release any devices that could be disassembled and scrutinized by researchers. NPD DisplaySearch also noted that the accuracy of its Apple Watch display cost analysis was limited to the components that are widely available in the consumer electronics supply chain. The cost of some materials, such as the sapphire covers that are exclusively supplied to Apple by GT Advanced Technologies, could only be roughly estimated.

While Apple has yet to reveal the prices for all of its different Apple Watch versions, the company announced at its media event in September that the entry-level model would start at $349. However, the premium gold Apple Watch Edition models could cost significantly more. Jewelers and watch experts recently consulted by Tech Crunch estimated that the Apple Watch’s 18-karat gold chassis alone likely cost about $600 to make.

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