What Is Screen Burn-In, and Can You Avoid It? – Review Geek

A lineup of Samsung OLED TVs at CES 2023.
Josh Hendrickson / Review Geek

Modern OLED TVs are great at avoiding burn-in. That said, it’s still a real problem that some users may encounter, depending on their viewing habits.

The benefits of OLED are hard to overlook—its increased color accuracy and deep contrast provide a better picture quality than LCD. But as you may know, OLED TVs are susceptible to burn-in. Is this something that you should actually worry about, and how can you avoid OLED burn-in?

What Is Screen Burn-In?

The term “burn-in” dates back to the era of CRT TVs. If a static image is shown on a CRT TV for too long (usually months or years), the TV’s phosphor layer degrades unevenly. This creates dim spots on the TV and eventually leads to permanent image retention; a ghostly picture that remains on the TV even when it’s turned off.

Computer users suffered the most from burn-in. This makes sense, as most of the content on a computer monitor (especially taskbars and menus) is unmoving. Screensavers were introduced to combat this problem, as they reduced the risk of burn-in, saved users the trouble of waiting for their monitors to warm back up, and indicated that a computer was functioning.

Burn-in on an older Samsung smartphone with an OLED display.
See the keyboard burnt into this Samsung phone’s OLED display? siren37/Shutterstock.com

But when LCD replaced CRT, we continued using screensavers. This was partially due to habit, though early LCD users were also worried about “image persistence.” Static content displayed for a prolonged period on an LCD display may reduce the pixels’ ability to reset, leaving ghostly smudges, colors, and images on the screen.

That said, LCD image persistence is rare, especially in modern screens. And this issue almost always resolves itself, as the liquid crystals in an LCD display naturally want to enter a “resting” state.

You’d think that OLED technology would improve on this front. But OLED displays are more prone to “burn-in” or “image persistence” than their LCD equivalents. Manufacturers are slowly finding ways to reduce this problem, but for now, image burn-in is a real concern for any OLED buyer, especially if you plan to use an OLED display as a computer monitor.

Why Are OLED Screens Prone to Burn-In?

ASUS ExpertBook B9 OLED laptop sitting on a table at CES 2023
Justin Duino / Review Geek

Unlike traditional LCD displays, which require a backlight, OLED displays are self-emissive. They are “Organic Light Emitting Diodes.” Basically, a voltage is applied to organic material within an OLED display’s pixels, forcing the organic material to produce light.

This self-emissive design is responsible for OLED’s increased color accuracy. It also allows OLED displays to achieve a much deeper contrast ratio than LCD, as pixels can independently dim or turn off to achieve a true “black” color.

Unfortunately, each pixel of an OLED display has a limited lifespan, as the organic light-emitting material slowly decays and dims with use. Static content, especially bright white content, can accelerate the decay of pixels on an OLED display, leading to spots that are noticeably dim and shaped like a previous image.

But burn-in on an OLED display is rarely due to prolonged viewing. Instead, it’s usually the result of cumulative viewing. Let’s say that you watch CNN for a few hours each day; the channel logo is white, the news anchors are sitting against a dark background, and neither the logo nor the news anchors move all that much. So, the center and corner of your OLED screen will decay at an increased rate, and may eventually appear dim or suffer from permanent image retention.

When Will OLED Burn-In Affect My TV, Phone, or Monitor?

LG Signature OLED 8K 88Z3 sitting at a display in CES 2023.
Josh Hendrickson / Review Geek

If you watch a ton of movies or shows, you may never notice the effects of OLED burn-in, as the pixels in your OLED TV will degrade at a fairly even rate. But those who regularly watch the news, play games, or use an OLED computer monitor have an increased chance of encountering burn-in, as these video sources contain bright images that don’t move around very much.

But when will OLED burn-in occur? Well, there are too many variables to give an exact answer. Brightness, on-screen content, and even a TV’s firmware can play a part in this equation.

Most experts estimate that OLED burn-in will occur after less than 5,000 hours (half a year) of displaying a completely static image. But most images are not completely static, and even if the 5,000-hour estimate is accurate, it may be outdated. Manufacturers are constantly improving OLED technology, and newer OLED screens are less susceptible to burn-in than older models.

If you avoid content that can lead to burn-in, you don’t need to worry too much about your OLED TV’s lifespan. Manufacturers like LG rate their OLED TVs for 100,000 hours of use—that’s 11 years of non-stop viewing. A more conservative estimate comes from the U.S. Department of Energy Efficiency, which notes that OLED brightness is directly tied to pixel decay. It says that you can expect 30,000 hours (3.4 years) of continuous use from an OLED display at maximum brightness, at which point, “the light output decreases to 70 percent of the initial value.”

Smartphone OLED displays should offer a similar lifespan, which is comforting, as phones tend to get replaced after just two or three years.

How Can I Avoid OLED Burn-In?

Vizio V21d-J8's remote in-hand
Justin Duino / Review Geek

The earliest OLED displays were extremely vulnerable to burn-in. But OLED manufacturers (of which there are very few) have discovered a few ways to avoid this problem. Using software, most OLED displays automatically detect static content and wiggle it around or adjust its brightness—this reduces wear to the affected pixels, and importantly, it isn’t noticeable to the human eye.

Many OLED screens also utilize an ABL or “automatic brightness limiter.” This feature helps limit power consumption when displaying HDR content (which can get much brighter than SDR content). If there’s a big white spot on the screen, for example, it will dim to reduce power usage and ensure that other pixels can stay bright. While ABL isn’t intended to fight burn-in, it can reduce the impact of static white content in HDR shows and games.

Additionally, OLED screens may scan and refresh their pixels after a few hours of continuous viewing. This doesn’t prevent burn-in, but it allows the screen to compensate for uneven pixel decay. In some cases, existing OLED burn-in can be resolved by scanning and refreshing the pixels, though this may lead to a noticeably dimmer display. (If your OLED TV suffers from burn-in, look through the settings to see if you can refresh the pixels.)

You can also change your habits to discourage burn-in; reduce your TV’s brightness, turn it off when you aren’t using it, and enable standby mode. But I don’t suggest taking these steps unless you regularly watch the news, play games, or use an OLED computer monitor.

I should also note that LG Display’s OLED panels utilize a white subpixel (as opposed to an RGB subpixel) for instances of brightness that exceed 300 nits. This significantly reduces the risk of burn-in, according to LG Display, which cites an RTINGS study as evidence of its claim. (LG Display manufacturers the majority of OLED TV panels, even for rival brands.)

Samsung is also an OLED manufacturer, and it claims that the white subpixel reduces color accuracy. Unfortunately for Samsung, using the white subpixel also increases a TV’s overall brightness; OLED is dimmer than LCD, so this is the kind of trade that many customers are willing to make.

Is Burn-In a Problem for QLED TVs?

Samsung Neo QLED TV

When OLED TVs first hit the scene, Samsung went on a public awareness campaign to warn customers of OLED’s burn-in problems. The company also refused to sell OLED TVs, opting instead for a hybrid technology called QLED. (To be clear, Samsung now sells Quantum-Dot OLED TVs.)

A QLED display combines the brightness and reliability of LCD with the picture quality of OLED. While QLED can’t replicate the inky blacks of OLED, it looks great, and it does not suffer from burn-in. Samsung is the sole manufacturer of QLED panels, but brands like Hisense and Sony also offer QLED TVs.

Depending on your viewing habits, OLED burn-in may not be a serious concern. But if you’re worried about burn-in, you should check out some QLED TVs. Note that Samsung also sells QLED computer monitors—a great choice for computer users who want OLED quality without burn-in.

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