If it's a screen on the best TV, the best phone or the best portable game console -- namely the Nintendo Switch OLED -- it's probably powered by organic light-emitting diodes. OLED technology has the best image quality around, with the kind of excellent contrast ratio that LCD screens can't match. OLED TVs from LG and Sony outperform rivals, all of the high-end phones from Google, Samsung and Apple have OLED screens and even some laptops and tablets use OLED.
Unfortunately, burn-in is a possibility with OLED. Burn-in is when part of an image -- navigation buttons or persistent icons on a phone, for example, or a channel logo, news ticker or a scoreboard on a TV -- remains visible as a ghostly background no matter what else appears onscreen. Apple's support page for the OLED-screen iPhones touts that they've been designed to reduce the effects of OLED burn-in, even as it acknowledges that burn-in can occur in "extreme cases." Google's Pixel phone support page says burn-in can happen "when the same image stays on your screen for a long time at a high brightness" and recommends steps to reduce it.
In the TV world, LG has a page that says "It is rare for an average TV consumer to create an environment that could result in burn-in." Nonetheless, stories of OLED burn-in don't seem rare online, with owners on YouTube, forums and social media reporting the issue. Reviews site RTings has demonstrated burn-in on LG OLED TVs in long-term tests.
The fact is that all organic light-emitting diode screens can experience burn-in, and from everything we know, they're more susceptible than standard liquid crystal displays (LCDs), which at the moment are every mainstream TV that's not OLED. But those same OLED screens produce better image quality than LCDs.
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. Here are some points to keep in mind:
- Burn-in is possible with OLED, but not likely with normal use.
- Most "burn-in" is actually image retention, which goes away after a few minutes.
- You'll almost certainly see image retention long before it becomes permanent burn-in.
- Generally speaking, burn-in is something to be aware of, but not worry about.
Is screen burn-in still a problem? Not for most people
All things considered, 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, onscreen for a very long time, repeatedly.
If you, like most people, watch a variety of content on your TV, phone, or other device with an OLED screen, you're not going to need to worry about burn-in.
How to avoid burn-in on an OLED screen
What can you do to prevent burn-in on that new TV? As we mentioned, vary what you watch a bit. In particular, don't watch something that has the same static areas displayed onscreen, nonstop for days on end.
The logos and news tickers on cable news channels are examples of those static areas -- they have elements that never move, and they remain on screen the entire time you're watching. That means if you leave your TV running Fox News, CNN, MSNBC or ESPN all day long and don't watch enough other programming, you're more likely to get burn-in. Or at least, image retention, which we'll discuss in a moment. If you play the same game for 8 hours a day, every day, the onscreen status display or HUD is also a likely culprit for burn-in.
To repeat, you can watch those channels, play games or whatever else to use your TV as a TV, your phone as a phone, etc. You just shouldn't watch only those channels, all day every day. And if that sounds extreme, know that emails I've gotten from readers about burn-in always have some variation on "well I only watched that channel for 5 hours a day." If that sounds like you, get an LCD.
As long as you vary what's displayed, chances are you'll never experience burn-in. That varied content will age your screen evenly. So in a 24-hour period you watch a movie, play some games, binge some TV shows, they're all varied enough that you should be fine.
The RTings torture test we mentioned above lasted the equivalent of 5 years of use and they still say "Our stance remains the same, we don't expect most people who watch varied content without static areas to experience burn-in issues with an OLED TV."
Nintendo Switch OLED: What to know about burn-in on your gaming console's screen
Nintendo updated its beloved Switch handheld gaming console with a few improvements, including an OLED screen. This offers a far better image than the fairly unimpressive screen on the original Switch. As you've read above, games are one of the potential issues that could lead to image retention or, worst case, burn-in. Here's what Nintendo had to say when we asked 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.
Which is to say, Nintendo is fully aware of this potential and took steps to minimize the risk. Also, despite many games having static HUDs, you'd need to play just that one game, for hours upon hours, every day without ever using the screen for anything else, at the highest brightness settings.
But if that's you, and you regularly play only one game all day every day for weeks with brightness set to max, get the non-OLED version of the Switch, which is cheaper anyway. For everyone else, the better image quality of the OLED version might be worth the upgrade.
Read more: Nintendo Switch OLED screen burn-in: Why you shouldn't be worried
Image retention vs. burn-in: What's the difference?
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 does not 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 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'd want.
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] 2015 Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge ($199 at Amazon) 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. However, after 2+ years with a Pixel 2 (not the XL), which also has an OLED screen, no burn-in was apparent. Six years on with the S6 Edge, now in the not-so-careful hands of a friend, the burn-in doesn't seem to have gotten any worse compared to mid-2017.
Apple, for one, flags users of OLED-screened iPhones, like the X, 11 and 12, that burn-in is a possibility. Here's the quote from its support page for the products:
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. This can occur in more extreme cases such as when the same high contrast image is continuously displayed for prolonged periods of time. We've engineered the Super Retina and Super Retina XDR displays to be the best in the industry in reducing the effects of OLED "burn-in."
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.
Also, OLED technology has gotten better. Billions of dollars have been spent on OLED manufacturing and R&D, and that's ongoing. So stories you may have heard about "burn-in" likely entered the zeitgeist years ago about older OLED displays. You just don't hear about newer OLEDs having these issues except in extreme situations like those discussed above. You'd likely hear a LOT more stories about OLED now that the two largest phone manufacturers, and many smaller ones, use OLEDs in millions of phones and have for years.
Screen 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 a couple 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."
Neither the iPhone warranty nor AppleCare explicitly mention burn-in, but neither apply to "normal wear and tear," and Apple's support page above makes clear that it considers burn-in "expected."
It's also worth mentioning that most LCD TV warranties don't cover burn-in either and most don't mention it at all. The closest Samsung's warranty comes on its QLED TVs, for example, is to specifically exclude coverage of "brightness related to normal aging or any other issues if the TV is used for commercial or non-normal consumer use. Samsung does not warrant uninterrupted or error-free operation of the product."
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 into the screens at your local sports bar would not be covered.
Extended warranties don't typically cover burn-in either. One of the most common, SquareTrade, is available from Amazon, Walmart, and others. They explicitly don't cover burn-in. However, Best Buy's Geek Squad Protection Plan might, depending on when you bought it. The latest version only explicitly covers burn-in on phones.
How to fix screen burn-in (the best way is to just avoid 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 a while. 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 six 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 screensavers 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 four 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.
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 Edge, even though I noticed it, I wouldn't say the 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." Since the phone was in use by its second owner twice as long as I had it, and was only let down by its battery, burn-in clearly wasn't a dealbreaker. My friend replaced it with a Pixel 4a, which also has an OLED screen. So even after 4 years with that screen he still preferred to get a phone with OLED.
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.
Testing found burn-in is more likely for OLED screens than LCD
CNET has not 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.
The most comprehensive independent tests for burn-in on TVs was run by the aforementioned review site RTings. In August 2017 they began a burn-in torture test with LCD and OLED TVs, followed by a "real life" torture test in 2018. They stopped regularly updating the test in 2020, but that was after the equivalent of 5 years of normal use on multiple TVs, and still they felt that most people will never have an issue with burn-in.
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.
The recap: Most people shouldn't worry about OLED burn-in
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, adjust the TV's settings, 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 himself once said, "Conscientiam autem ardeat sed non anxius" (be aware of burn-in, but not concerned). He was, we hear, a big iPhone fan.
Update, Oct. 9, 2021: This article was first published in 2018 but has been updated with new links and info.
As well as covering TV and other display tech, Geoff Morrison does photo tours of cool museums and locations around the world, including nuclear submarines, massive aircraft carriers, medieval castles, airplane graveyards and more.
You can follow his exploits on Instagram and his travel video series on YouTube. He also wrote a bestselling sci-fi novel about city-size submarines, along with a sequel.