As lovely as OLED screens are on TVs from and , and phones like the and the , one of the biggest potential problems is burn-in.
Burn-in happens when a persistent part of the image on-screen -- navigation buttons on a phone, or a channel logo, news ticker or a scoreboard on a TV, for example -- remains as a ghostly background no matter what else appears on-screen.
Last year the screen of Google's Apple's support page for the iPhone X touts that it's been designed to reduce the effects of "OLED 'burn-in'" even as it acknowledges that it can occur in "extreme cases.", prompting .
Ultimately, the dilemma is this: All organic light-emitting diode (OLED) screens can burn-in, and from everything we know, they're more susceptible than standard liquid crystal displays (LCD). But those same OLED screens produce better image quality than LCD.
So if the fear of the mere possibility of burn-in is your primary concern, the decision is simple: buy an LCD-based display instead. But know that you're sacrificing the best picture quality that money can buy.
All things considered, however, burn-in shouldn't be a problem for most people. That's why we at CNET continue to recommend OLED-based TVs, phones and other devices in our reviews. From all of the evidence we've seen, burn-in is typically caused by leaving a single, static image element, like a channel logo, on-screen for a very long time, repeatedly. That's an issue if you keep Fox News, ESPN or MSNBC on-screen for multiple hours every day and don't watch enough other programming, for example. But as long as you vary what's displayed, chances are you'll never experience burn-in.
That's the condensed version of our advice. Now it's time to buckle your seatbelt for the long version.
Image retention vs. burn-in
First, let's get the descriptions right. Though often used interchangeably, "image retention" and "burn-in" are not the same thing.
- Image retention is temporary: it goes away in time.
- Burn-in is permanent: it doesn't go away.
Image retention occurs when parts of an image temporarily "stick" on the screen after that image is gone. Let's say for an hour you're looking at a still picture of a white puppy (hey, you do you, we won't judge). Then you decide to watch a movie. Let's say "Best in Show" on Amazon because you're keeping with your theme. But as you're watching you can still see the white puppy image, as if it's a ghost on the screen, staring at your soul.
You're not crazy, probably. That's just an extreme case of image retention. Chances are it will go away on its own as you watch stuff that isn't the same still image of the puppy.
Now imagine you leave your TV on for days or weeks instead of hours, showing the same image the whole time. Then you might be in trouble. With image retention, usually just watching something else for a while will make the ghost image disappear. With burn-in, it's going to remain there for a while. Maybe not forever, but perhaps longer than you want to consider.
This is an extreme case, largely just to illustrate what happens. In reality, it's going to be far more subtle. Watch a lot of the same TV news station, like CNN in the example above? Not sure how your heart can handle that, but let's say you do. That station's identifying logo is a prime candidate for image retention and eventually burn-in. Ditto the horizontal borders of the "crawl" on the bottom of the screen.
If you play the same video game for hours and days on end, that game's persistent scoreboard or heads-up-display might burn in. Basically, anything that stays on screen for a long time and doesn't change can cause image retention and perhaps, eventually, burn-in.
With your phone, the operating system itself is one of the most likely candidates to cause the issue. My [Geoff's] 2-year-old Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge started to get burn-in after about a year. It started showing up very subtly, but after 18 months I bet most people would have noticed it. The top info bar where the notifications appear, and the lower third where the keyboard would show, didn't age as much as the remaining middle area. Since it was brighter, the middle area aged faster, so it "burned in" more. I noticed the difference if I was watching something full screen, a video say, and the image went to a solid color.
Apple, for one, flags users of the iPhone X that burn-in is a possibility. Here's the quote from its support page for the product, its only phone to date with an OLED screen:
"With extended long-term use, OLED displays can also show slight visual changes. This is also expected behavior and can include 'image persistence' or 'burn-in,' where the display shows a faint remnant of an image even after a new image appears on the screen."
What's colloquially called "burn-in" is actually, with OLED, uneven aging. They don't "burn in" as much as they "burn down." The candle that burns twice as bright burns half as long, right? OLED pixels very, very slowly get dimmer as they're used. In most cases this isn't an issue since you're watching varied content and all the pixels, on average, get used the same amount. But if you're only watching one thing, that one thing could cause uneven wear. Visually, and in the vernacular, this wear is called "burn-in." Uneven wear is more accurate, but also a lot more syllables.
Burn-in is (usually) not covered under warranty
In their warranties, LG and Sony explicitly state that image retention and burn-in are not covered on their OLED TVs. When CNET reached out to LG to ask why, a representative replied:
"There is generally no warranty coverage for image retention by TV companies and display manufacturers. Image retention may result when consumers are out of normal viewing conditions, and most manufacturers do not support warranty for such usage regardless of the type of display," said Tim Alessi, director of new products at LG.
Sony's reply was similar: "Our warranty covers product and manufacturing defects. Burn-in is not covered as it is caused by consumer usage and is not a product defect."
The iPhone X's warranty, and by extension AppleCare, does not apply to "normal wear and tear," and Apple's support page above makes clear that it considers burn-in "expected." Even the Pixel 2 XL phone's warranty, now , may not cover burn-in. In CNET's , Google said the warranty issues would be evaluated on a case-by-case basis -- which is basically a "maybe."
It's also worth mentioning that most LCD TV warranties don't cover burn-in. Samsung's warranty on its standard LCD TVs, for example, specifically excludes "brightness related to normal aging, or burned-in images." On its higher-end -equipped sets, however, Samsung markets a "burn-in guarantee." It applies to all 2016 SUHD TVs, as well as 2017 and 2018 QLED TVs. The 2018 version, for example, reads:
"In the event of burn-in from normal consumer use, Samsung Customer Service (1-800-726-7864) will either repair or replace at its option the 2018 QLED TV with a similar model."
When CNET reached out to Samsung for details, the representative defined "normal consumer use" as "use of the product by consumers in a home environment for viewing content and/or gaming in a typical manner. It doesn't cover business use."
In other words, those ESPN logos you see burned in to the screens at your local sports bar would not be covered.
Avoiding or getting rid of it
The fact is that if you do get burn-in on your OLED display, you're pretty much stuck with it. So your best bet is to avoid it altogether. But how?
Both Sony and LG told CNET that the best way to prevent burn-in or image retention on their TVs is to avoid static images.
"To avoid the possibility of burn-in consumers should avoid leaving static images on an OLED screen for long periods of time. For example leaving a video game paused onscreen for several hours or days," a Sony spokesperson said.
If you notice image retention, don't panic. Chances are if you watch something different, it will go away on its own after awhile. If you're repeatedly getting image retention of the same thing, then that could be cause for concern.
Turning down the brightness (controlled by "OLED Light" on LG's sets, and Brightness on Sonys) will help, especially when you're watching the content that causes the image retention. Choosing a dimmer picture mode, like Cinema instead of Vivid, has the same effect. You'd only need to do this when watching something that causes image retention, like a video game for 6 hours every night, or 24-hour cable news for 24 hours straight.
Pretty much all OLED TVs also have user settings to minimize the chance of uneven wear or burn-in. One is called something like "Screen Shift" (on LGs) or "Pixel Shift" (on Sonys), which moves the image slightly around the screen. They also have built-in screen savers that pop up after extended idle time. You should also enable screen savers on connected devices like game consoles and streamers.
To remove image retention, the TVs can also perform "refreshers" on a daily or longer-term basis. On Sony TVs the feature is called "Panel Refresh," and LG calls it "Pixel Refresher." It can be run manually if you notice image retention or, in the case of LG, you'll get a reminder to run it after 2,000 hours.
LG also has a Daily Pixel Refresher, which it says "automatically operates when users turn off the TV after watching it for more than four hours in total. For example, if a user watched TV for two hours yesterday and three hours today (more than four hours in total), when powered off, the Daily Pixel Refresher will automatically run, deal with potential image retention issues, and reset the operation time. This process will occur when the TV is powered off after every 4 hours of cumulative use, even if it's in one sitting."
In all cases the pixel refresher looks like a horizontal line that runs down the screen, for a period of an hour or more. It's designed to even the wear on pixels.
New for LG's 2018 TVs is an additional burn-in prevention feature called "Logo Luminance Adjustment." It's designed to automatically detect a static on-screen logo and, after two minutes, start decreasing its brightness over about a minute and a half, after which the logo should be 20 percent dimmer. CNET's initial tests of the feature found it does reduce logo brightness a bit, but we don't expect it to be a cure-all given the relatively mild percentage decrease.
When it comes to phones I wouldn't be too concerned, since it's likely you'll replace the phone far sooner than any image retention/burn-in issues become bothersome. Regarding my aforementioned S6, even though I noticed it, I wouldn't say its burn-in reduced my enjoyment of the phone. I was never watching a video and thinking, "Wow, I can't enjoy this video because of the burn-in." Maybe after another two years if it continued to get worse, perhaps it'd be noticeable enough to worry about.
With TVs, beyond the methods outlined above, there's not much you can do to reverse burn-in. In theory, I suppose, you could create an inverse image using Photoshop and run that on your screen for a while. This could age the rest of the panel to more evenly match the "burned in" area. Figuring out how to do this is well beyond the scope of this article, and you'd need to be pretty well versed in Photoshop to even attempt it.
What about burn-in tests?
CNET has not yet conducted any long-term real-world tests of OLED burn-in. In our experience reviewing TVs, we have seen image retention on OLEDs that disappeared quickly, for example after running a series of static test patterns, but nothing permanent.
Currently the most comprehensive independent tests for burn-in on TVs is being run by reviews site RTings.com. In August 2017 it began a burn-in torture test with two LCD TVs and one OLED. Before you check it out, keep in mind what they're doing is not normal use. You'd have to be trying to wreck a TV to make it look that bad, which is literally what they're trying to do. That said, the information is still valuable, and the main takeaway is that OLED is indeed more susceptible to burn-in than LCD.
They also recently began a more real-world test using six OLED TVs and a variety of program material including CNN and a couple of video games. It will be interesting to see how it turns out.
You've noticed a ghostly image on your TV or phone screen. If it goes away after a few minutes of watching something else, it's image retention and it's probably nothing to worry about. If it "sticks" longer, or you're repeatedly seeing that same residual image, it's burn-in. With phones, you'll likely replace it before the screen becomes an issue.
With OLED TVs, it's something to keep in mind if you're a TV news junkie, or only ever play one video game. Keep an eye out for image retention or uneven wear. If you spot it, perhaps switch up your viewing habits or run the pixel refresher a few times. And if you watch content with hours of the same static image each day, or just keep CNN, Fox or CNBC on in the background all day, you should probably get an LCD TV.
If you vary your TV viewing habits like most people, however, it won't be an issue. Even so, caveat emptor. Or as Caesar once said, "Conscientiam autem ardeat sed non anxius" (be aware of burn-in, but not concerned). He was, we hear, a big fan of his iPhone X.
Got a question for Geoff? First, check out all the other articles he's written on topics like , , and more. Still have a question? Tweet at him @TechWriterGeoff then check out his travel photography on Instagram. He also thinks you should check out his best-selling sci-fi novel and its sequel.