Apple’s “Retina display” first appeared in the iPhone 4 in 2010, and all iPhones produced since then have featured the “Retina” branding in their marketing. So what makes a “Super Retina” and “Super Retina XDR” display different?
Super Retina Means OLED
Apple has been using Retina to describe its high pixel density displays for over a decade. The term is marketing speak and means that you can’t distinguish individual pixels at a normal operating distance from the screen. All displays used on Apple’s iPhones, iPads, and Macs are now “Retina” quality or better.
The term “Super Retina HD” was first used to describe a new type of display that debuted in the iPhone X. Apple moved away from an LCD panel in favor of OLED and needed a new marketing term to describe it. “Super Retina” is Apple marketing speak for a display that uses OLED technology.
OLED panels are different from LED-lit LCD in that they are self-emissive, which means they generate their own light thanks to organic compounds inside the display. This provides an excellent contrast ratio, where the screen can turn off individual pixels for deep blacks not possible on an LCD.
By comparison, an LCD must block out the always-on backlight to display black, which results in raised blacks that appear grey. Since OLED displays don’t require a backlight and can turn off pixels entirely, they use less battery power than their LCD counterparts.
XDR Is Extended Dynamic Range
Apple switched back to LCD “Liquid Retina” displays for the iPhone 11 release, but also launched the iPhone 11 Pro at the same time with new “Super Retina XDR” marketing.
The “Super Retina XDR display” has since appeared on the iPhone 12 and 12 Pro range, in both mini and Max sizes. This display is Apple’s second attempt at an OLED display, with improved contrast ratio, brightness, and support for high dynamic range (HDR).
Apple has used the “XDR” branding elsewhere to refer to enhanced dynamic range, specifically in the $4,999 6K Pro Display XDR which hits 1,600 nits of brightness. Unlike the OLED panel seen in the iPhone 12 however, the Pro Display XDR uses an LCD panel with dimmable backlighting.
This second-generation OLED panel improves on the original by doubling the contrast ratio (from 1,000,000:1 to 2,000,000:1) and introducing up to 1,200 nits of peak brightness for HDR content. On some models, like the iPhone 12 Pro, Apple reports a typical brightness of 800 nits, up from 625 on older panels.
Liquid Retina Displays Are LCD
Most iPhone models produced now use Super Retina displays, but older models like the second-generation iPhone SE and iPhone 11 use LCD panels. These have larger bezels, an inferior contrast ratio, and use more power than OLED panels but they still look fantastic.
Display technology evolves constantly, especially in the mobile space. You can expect more low-temperature polycrystalline oxide (LTPO) displays that are able to vary their refresh rates and sip even less power in future devices.