Switch OLED explained: what is OLED, and why is it such a great upgrade?

The biggest change in the Nintendo Switch OLED is the new screen technology that gives it its name – but how does OLED work, and why is it so revered? Here's what you need to know

Nintendo Switch OLED
(Image credit: Nintendo)

The Nintendo Switch OLED is the new version of the wildly popular console, and its biggest upgrade is hinted right in the name: it features a new 7-inch OLED screen. But you might not be sure exactly what that means if you don't keep up with screen technology news (you big weirdo). So here's your crash course in what OLED is, and why it's a great step up over the LCD screen used in the original Switch.

OLED stands for 'organic light-emitting diode', and its big party piece is that every  pixel in an OLED screen emits its own light – often known as 'self-emitting pixels'. This makes them very efficient, very thin, and provides some big picture quality advantages that we'll come to.

LCD screens work very differently. In these, the pixels are actually just a colour filter that sits in front of a big lighting panel. This 'backlight' is what actually provides the light that reaches your eyes, and then the LCD pixels change the colour of the light to the right tone.

LCD's advantage is that it's pretty cheap to make good-quality screens, but it comes with some downsides: it can't show truly dark or black areas on the screen, because the LCD pixels are never really able to totally block off the backlight; and its colours can look a bit washed out depending on the quality of the LCD filter. Cheaper LCD screens are often quite reflective too.

OLED doesn't have these disadvantages. OLED is famous for being able to offer true black on screens, because the pixels are self-emitting. If an OLED pixel needs to show total darkness, it can just dim itself, or turn of completely. This also means you can have a really bright area and a really dark area right next to each other with no bleeding between them – LCD screens can't do this.

Colours tend to be more vibrant, again because the pixels generate the light themselves, rather than filtering a backlight (which loses some of the brightness). And when an OLED screen is mounted right under the glass of a display, with its self-emitting pixels being right there, it's also often better at beating the reflections.

In mobile devices, OLED screens also tend to be able to go brighter than LCD screens, which adds to the effect of their colours looking richer, and again helps them to be more visible in bright light – perfect for the Switch.

The original Switch's screen reaches around 300 nits of brightness (a nit is a standard measurement of screen brightness), which is pretty mediocre by today's standards, especially for something you might use outside. An iPhone 12's OLED screen offers 600 nits of brightness in normal use, for example, which is pretty typical for a phone.

I suspect the new Switch OLED won't go quite that bright (Nintendo has yet to clarify), but it will almost certainly be brighter than the old model, so it will be more visible while also showing punchier colours, and giving you more realistic shadow tones.

The dark side of OLED

OLED does have some downsides as a technology. As the name implies, its made from organic parts, and so isn't expected to last as long as an equivalent LCD display… but these days, degradation of an OLED screen takes a very long time, so I wouldn't have any fears about reliability.

You're more likely to see people talking about screen burn-in on OLED displays, and some have already raised a warning about this being a screen danger for the Switch OLED.

'Burn-in' is an effect where having a particular image on an OLED screen for an extremely long time can cause the pixels to alter, causing a 'ghost' of that image to appear when when something else is on the screen. It's been known to happen on TVs with channel logos if the TV is always tuned to that channel all day; it can also happen on phones with things like the clock or icons at the top of the screen.

I'm not worried about it being a danger on the Switch OLED at all. That's simply not how the Switch gets used in handheld mode – for a start, the battery life puts a limit on how long you can have an image on the screen for. But even then, burn-in from games is only a risk if you play the same game all the time, and that game has some on-screen elements that don't change at all. And you play this game for extremely long periods every day in handheld mode. It simply won't come up much, unless there's a technical issue with the screens themselves.

So that's what you need to know about OLED on the Switch. It should be a huge upgrade for making your games look both brighter and better in dark areas, and there's no major downside that's worth worrying about.

Matthew Bolton
Matthew Bolton

Matt is T3's master of all things audiovisual, running our TV, speakers and headphones coverage. He also handles smart home products and large appliances, as well as our toys and games articles. He's the only one on the team who can explain both what Dolby Vision IQ is and why the Lego you're building doesn't fit together the way the instructions say, so is truly invaluable.

Matt has worked for tech publications for over 10 years, in print and online, including running T3's print magazine and launching its most recent redesign. He's also contributed to a huge number of tech and gaming titles over the years. Say hello if you see him roaming the halls at CES, IFA or Toy Fair.