When the first Apple Watch launched in 2015, it came with a cutting-edge OLED display. On every Apple Watch released, the screen looks rich, detailed and gorgeous. But a new report claims that an upcoming model will switch to an all-new technology, MicroLED.
There’s a sting in the tail, though: it won’t be until 2025.
January 13 update below. This post was first published on January 10, 2023.
According to the reliable analyst Ross Young, the first Apple Watch with a MicroLED display will arrive in 2025, with production starting by the end of 2024. It sounds like something which could out-Ultra the Ultra. While Young doesn’t specify the kind of Watch, I suspect it could debut in the Ultra, not least because of the increased brightness MicroLED offers.
January 13 update. It now seems that Apple isn’t the only company eyeing up MicroLED as a screen tech for future gadgets. ETNews claims that Samsung Display is also considering MicroLED. Samsung Display is that part of the Korean giant which makes screens, and Apple is a big customer, turning to it for OLED screens in iPhones, for instance. Another branch of the same company, Samsung Electronics, already makes MicroLED TVs, but this would be a much smaller-sized screen, of course.
The report says that it “is aiming at smartwatches as its first product.” It also says such a product would be a game changer on mobile devices, specifying the low power consumption as a key benefit for gadgets like smartwatches which only have room for small batteries.
ETNews also recognizes that the cost of making MicroLED screens is considerable, and they can be difficult to manufacture, but it’s believed Samsung Display has solved some of the problems in creating the roughly 2-inch display which a smartwatch would need.
The timing is interesting here. As discussed below, it first looked like Apple Watch would have a MicroLED screen, probably just in its Ultra model in Spring 2025, but Gurman’s update suggests that late 2024 is more likely. However, it seems that Samsung Display is aiming for earlier, perhaps as soon as the end of 2023. This could mean that a Samsung Galaxy smartwatch could conceivably appear late this year or, more likely, early 2024 with a MicroLED display, which would beat Apple by six months or more. On the other hand, Samsung has a release schedule which sees its new smartwatches appear in the second half of each year, so it may be that MicroLED would be too late for the Galaxy Watch6 Pro, and be saved for the following year, which might only be a matter of a few weeks before Apple debuts its MicroLED Watch.
The big winner here would be Samsung Display, if it can win Apple as a customer as well as making it for Samsung. But according to Gurman, it looks like Apple is working on making its own displays.
January 11 update. File the below update under “this changes everything”. Soon after the revelation, covered in depth in this report, that a new MicroLED display would arrive on the Apple Watch in Spring 2025, in time for the celebrations of ten years of Apple Watch, comes a different report from another reliable analyst.
Mark Gurman at Bloomberg has weighed in to the display discussion with a report which is similar in some ways, but completely upends the story in others. He says, “The company aims to begin by swapping out the display in the highest-end Apple Watches by the end of next year, according to people with knowledge of the matter. The screens upgrade the current OLED — organic light-emitting diode — standard to a technology called microLED, and Apple plans to eventually bring the displays to other devices, including the iPhone.”
Two big things here. First, the MicroLED display is likely to land on the iPhone “eventually”. Much more interesting, though, are these phrases: “highest-end Apple Watches” indicates that it’s most likely that the new display will come to the Apple Watch Ultra first, or at the very least won’t be on the most affordable Apple Watch models. And, secondly, “by the end of next year”. This is slightly different from Young’s prediction that the display would be in production in late 2024 but not on sale until Spring 2015.
I respect Ross Young, but I must say Gurman’s timeline makes a lot more sense to me, assuming it means the MicroLED Apple Watch would go on sale in late 2024. First of all, I never expected the Ultra to be updated in 2023, so for a new, MicroLED Apple Watch Ultra to land in 2024 seems perfect timing. Secondly, if the display tech were introduced to the Apple Watch, which would hit Series 10 in 2024, that would also make sense. The Apple Watch design changed with Series 4 and then again in Series 7. So, a new design for Series 10 could be sensational. That said, I still think the Ultra is likely to gain MicroLED at least one generation ahead of the regular Watch.
Gurman says “it will take years before Apple moves the iPhone to microLED”, so don’t hold your breath. Now back to why MicroLED is so appealing.
MicroLED has been rumored for the Apple Watch for some years. It has significant benefits over OLED, including that increased brightness, which could be especially useful in the Apple Watch Ultra. MicroLED also promises reduced burn-in and, perhaps most important of all, greater power efficiency, which could lead to enhanced battery life.
Release date intrigue
Curiously, Young says that it will arrive in Spring 2025, which would be a break from the fall release schedule the Watch usually follows. While it makes for a pleasant way to match the Spring 2015 release exactly ten years later (Happy birthday, Apple Watch!), it raises several questions.
First, what will happen in fall 2024? If Young’s timeline is right, the Spring 2025 launch seems very unlikely to update a fall 2024 release. Apple has never updated an Apple Watch in less than an annual cadence, and it was 18 months between first Apple Watch and the second.
This again makes me think this will not be a regular Apple Watch, which will almost certainly reach Series 10 in autumn 2024.
Which Ultra might it be?
My guess is that the Ultra, like the Watch SE, will not be updated on an annual basis, at least not at first. Before this report, I’d have guessed Apple Watch Ultra 2 would have landed on wrists in fall 2024, so perhaps Apple will hold off releasing it until the following Spring for that 10th anniversary Watch.
Even if there is an Ultra refresh this year, I’d expect the timeline would mean that Apple Watch Ultra 3 would follow not in fall 2024, but Spring 2025. This feels mighty fast to me, so I still believe we’re looking at Apple Watch Ultra 2 being the model Young is predicting.
Of course, it’s possible that this tech is not aimed at the Ultra at all, and Spring 2025 would add a whole other Watch to the line-up.
But my belief is we will see MicroLED in an Ultra model first, perhaps with the regular Watch following suit in fall 2025 in what would be Apple Watch Series 11.