Apple’s hubris stands between the iPhone and a fully baked always-on display


As Android users, it is a tradition as old as time. Every September, when the company takes the stage to announce a new iPhone lineup, it occasionally takes something from Android to hail it as a groundbreaking feature years in the making. As tempting as it may be to joke about the Dynamic Island this year — the name just begs for it — it’s the always-on display that really makes Apple seem late to the party. Unfortunately for anyone considering the iPhone 14 Pro, the always-on screen isn’t just bad — it’s a complete misunderstanding of what an always-on screen is supposed to accomplish.

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Android phones have supported always-on displays ever since AMOLED became a popular choice for smartphone displays. Motorola did this almost a decade ago with the first-generation Moto X, and it was far from the first company to add the feature. When OLED panels became the norm, so did always-on displays. It’s hard these days to find an Android smartphone that doesn’t have the tool – even devices with LCD panels often have it as an option.

I don’t have a good photo of the original Moto X, so here’s one of its successors from 2014.

That made Apple an odd one out, the last major phone manufacturer that didn’t want users to look at incoming notifications without turning on the screen. While some early rumors surrounding the iPhone 13 suggested it could be the company’s first devices to get an AOD, it didn’t come until this year’s iPhone 14 Pro and Pro Max. Unlike standard OLED panels, Apple uses LTPO technology to lower the screen to 1Hz when idle, all to protect the phone from battery drain.

In theory, this implementation should not be necessary. We’ve seen countless Android phones with always-on screens come and go over the years, and thanks to those OLED panels, burning a handful of pixels hasn’t really caused a problem in the battery department. It’s also far from the first smartphone to use an LTPO display – the Galaxy S22 Ultra shipped with it earlier this year. However, once you understand how Apple’s AOD works, it becomes clear why LTPO is so important — and why the feature is so bad on iOS.

This is dimmed, if you can believe it.

Despite its technical complexity, Apple’s always-on display is relatively easy to understand. Unlike Android, where the AOD is usually a custom interface, the one on the iPhone 14 Pro is just a dimmed version of what’s on your lock screen: no specialized notification icons and no black OLED panel – for better or worse, everything is where you left it when the screen was on. That’s why Apple had to turn to LTPO for battery management; otherwise these devices would be destroyed in just a few hours by keeping all those pixels lit.

I’ve been using an iPhone 14 Pro Max since the phone arrived on Friday, and this feature has been driving me crazy. During this time I couldn’t stop thinking about something John Gruber of Daring Fireball wrote in his review. In the piece, he referred to Apple’s version of the tool as an “actually-on state,” as opposed to the “always-on state” found on Android. It’s an obvious difference, and I think it’s key to why the iPhone implementation feels so half-baked.

Off and on.

The iPhone AOD issues come down to two main complaints. First, it’s too light. If you go to a dark room, such as at night, when you go to bed, you should turn the phone upside down to reduce the glow of your device. It sounds like a minor problem, but it’s incredibly frustrating. In nearly a year that I’ve owned it, I’ve never flipped my Pixel 6 over because of the light it emits at night. After just three days, I can’t say the same about the iPhone 14 Pro Max.

Second, it’s too distracting. Always-on displays on Android are not easy due to technical limitations; they’re simple because that’s what they should be: a quick way to check the time, see if any missed notifications have arrived, and bring your focus back to what’s happening in the real world. Apple is really pushing its customizable lock screen — new for iOS 16 — and that means all your notifications are piling up at the bottom of the screen. You can only see a few alerts at a time, and even then they overlap.

If you look very closely, you can see a very faint, very simple background on the iPhone.

Despite being focused on keeping your screen “on” all the time, you can’t interact with anything without activating the screen. That’s not surprising for viewing or swiping notifications – remember, the screen spins at 1 Hz – but it also means you can’t pause your media without activating the screen first, even though the music player widget is there. Meanwhile, to solve the brightness problem, you can tone it down by setting a basic background — especially one with a dark color — but in the process you lose some of those (admittedly cool!) features the company has added over the years. .

As an outside observer, it seems that Apple sees white text on black backgrounds as a technical hurdle, something to be solved with LTPO displays and variable refresh rates. Instead, it’s clearer than ever that a basic view limited to the most essential information – new notifications, the date and time, weather conditions – is much more useful.

And of course Apple can fix this with a software patch. It can add a toggle in the settings so you can switch to a full black mode when the screen is off. It can move its notifications back to the page, just like in previous versions of iOS, giving you a better overview of what’s happening on your phone. It could reduce those notifications to simple icons, leaving the text all behind for a more streamlined approach. These are all options we’ve seen on various Android phones over the years, and even without an LTPO display, they’ve worked well.

None of this will happen – at least not anytime soon. According to Apple, the always-on screen is not broken or missing features, but works as intended. It keeps your wallpaper central, a huge focus of iOS 16, while giving you a minimal glimpse of what else is on your lock screen. The time, the date, a few widgets, even some notifications – they’re all there, but in a drastically worse way than any other AOD attempt we’ve seen.

Unfortunately, because Apple insists on doing things differently than the competition, it gives iPhone users a much worse experience. And as long as the company refuses to admit that other brands have done this before — and better — it will lag far behind Android’s always-on implementation.