For many Nintendo fans, the launch of the Switch OLED in late 2021 was a welcome upgrade that provided a bigger screen and richer colors. But some people were concerned with the company putting an OLED panel on a portable system due to fears of image retention or outright image burn-in.
Thankfully, my pre-release testing of Switch OLED, which included hours-long tests of static Zelda images, didn’t permanently burn any Zelda heart icons onto the screen, and anecdotal testing in the months since has looked positive. But what if that isn’t comforting enough? What if you need an extreme test to know exactly how well the Samsung-manufactured panels in the Switch OLED consoles resist all forms of burn-in and image retention?
Seen by the eyes of a Wulff
On the system’s launch day, YouTube tech critic and Twitch host Bob “WulffDen” Wulff began an experiment to conclusively answer this question, and five months later, he has published the latest video in his series on the topic. The console he tested, as put through an extreme test case that average gamers would never approach, needed 3,600 hours of nearly nonstop projection of a single image to show any signs of OLED burn-in.
Wulff’s conclusion came after months of leaving a portable Switch OLED screen frozen on a Zelda: Breath of the Wild image while set to maximum brightness, with occasional interruptions to check for signs of burn-in. His last formal check-in, posted on YouTube in December, concluded that his extreme test left the Switch OLED’s screen seemingly pristine after a whopping 1,800 hours of uninterrupted runtime.
Another 1,800 hours later, Wulff finally noticed small “ghosting” images on the panel. As his latest video reveals, these ghosting outlines are sometimes discernible during gameplay, but they’re easier to see when the tested Switch OLED displays a full-screen image of a single color. These retained outlines are visible even from a zoomed-out perspective, though curiously, Wulff doesn’t focus on the static UI elements in Breath of the Wild, like heart icons or a d-pad selector for items, that tend to inspire the most fears of burn-in.
Switch systems in portable mode don’t include mitigations for burn-in such as pixel shifting or screen dimming; instead, the Switch enforces an automatic screen turn-off when it doesn’t detect button input for five minutes. Anyone doing battery or screen testing, then, must figure out how to engage button taps while stepping away, which Wulff did by using a third-party Joy-Con with rapid-fire functionality.
Good news for more than just Switch
As far as his tested Switch is concerned, Wulff doesn’t seem very bothered by the slightly noticeable ghosting image: “It’s still a little subtle, not anything that I’d probably do an RMA request for,” he says in his latest video. But Wulff thinks he can push this console further by leaving the test active, which he says he will continue to do to see if he can bring the system to “an unplayable state.”
This test has welcome implications for a lot of tech products besides the Nintendo Switch, particularly popular smartphones from companies like Apple and Samsung. UI elements on smartphones are much more likely to leave a thousands-of-hours impression than the same on a gaming platform. Switch players are likely to swap between the likes of Zelda, Mario Kart, and Pokemon, while smartphone owners are typically going to see the same fingerprint reader icon, on-screen keyboard, and top-of-screen UI on a daily basis.
If the Switch OLED can withstand over 3,000 hours without the aid of burn-in-prevention measures, the odds are good that TVs, phones, and electronics products will do just as well with current-generation OLED panels. Wulff’s test shouldn’t be taken as proof that all OLED panels are made equal in 2022 and beyond, and you may want to keep an eye on product teardowns to determine who is making your favorite device’s OLED screen and whether its model number is brand new. But it’s at least one further point on the side of OLED being an easier-to-trust technology as far as image retention goes.
At Ars Technica, we have at least one example of an OLED TV released before 2020 that succumbed to mild burn-in—a competitive online shooter’s UI continued to hover as a ghost image over other games and TV content. We also vividly recall LG’s bad reputation for smartphone OLED panels as far back as 2017. But many staffers haven’t reproduced such an annoying burn-in example on an OLED set, and newer TV and smartphone OLED screens have added nifty features to mitigate the possibility of such issues.