Managing PWM on OLED iPhone & iPad Displays

May 14, 2021 - 9 Comments

OLED PWM on iPhone

Some iPhone and iPad users are sensitive to PWM flickering on the latest devices OLED displays. PWM, which stands for Pulse Width Modulation, can cause some users to have eye strain, feel nauseous or dizzy, or have headaches from the screen flickering when using an OLED screen device with PWM.

All new model iPhone and iPad devices with OLED displays have PWM, including the iPhone 13, iPhone 13 Pro, iPhone 13 Pro Max, iPhone 13 mini, iPhone 12, iPhone 12 Pro, iPhone 12 Pro Max, iPhone 12 mini, iPhone 11 Pro, iPhone 11 Pro Max, iPhone XS Max, iPhone XS, iPhone X, and iPad Pro 12.9″ M1. The remaining iPhone models that use LCD displays do not have this issue (at least to an extent that bothers users anyway), which includes the iPhone 11, iPhone SE iPhone XR, iPhone 8 Plus, and iPhone 8 and older.

While the majority of people do not have any issues with OLED PWM, if you are bothered by OLED PWM, it’s fairly obvious because you feel it. Assuming you fall into that unfortunate latter category, this workaround may help.

Workaround for Managing OLED PWM

  1. Open Settings on the OLED iPhone / iPad, and head to ‘Display & Brightness’
  2. Set the Brightness level to 90% or higher (100% tends to work best for most)
  3. Next go to ‘Accessibility’ settings, and go to ‘Display & Text Size’
  4. Enable ‘Reduce White Point’ and adjust the slider to a suitable screen brightness level

If you’re lucky, you may notice a difference immediately.

The theory behind this approach is that at higher brightness levels, PWM screen flickering should be reduced on the OLED. Thus, using a higher brightness setting can help to reduce the ill effects.

This does not work for everyone however, so don’t expect a miracle if you’re particularly sensitive to PWM on OLED displays.

As someone who is sensitive to PWM on OLED displays, the eyestrain and dizziness is annoying enough that it makes using the newest model OLED iPhones impossible. Thus my primary iPhone is the last generation iPhone with an LCD display, which is the base model iPhone 11.

Given this can be a pretty serious accessibility issue for some users, hopefully an official solution for those sensitive to PWM will become available. For the meantime, try out the workaround above, or consider using devices with an LCD display, which tend to use a much higher refresh rate and thus no noticeable screen flickering.

What is PWM?

PWM stands for Pulsed Width Modulation, and it’s a way for displays (particularly OLED) to dim the screen and manage power use. Generally, the lower the screen cycling frequency, the worse it impacts those who are sensitive to PWM.

NoteBookCheck explains PWM as follows:
“To dim the screen, some notebooks will simply cycle the backlight on and off in rapid succession – a method called Pulse Width Modulation (PWM) . This cycling frequency should ideally be undetectable to the human eye. If said frequency is too low, users with sensitive eyes may experience strain or headaches or even notice the flickering altogether.”

NoteBookCheck is one of the few sites that bothers to check PWM on all devices they review, so if you’re concerned about a particular device screen and you can’t see one in person to check yourself, their PWM-tested reviews are an excellent resource for PWM sensitive sufferers. For example, here are NoteBookCheck’s reviews and PWM comments on the 12.9″ M1 iPad Pro and the iPhone 13 Pro, scroll through the review to find the PWM section.

If you’ve never heard of PWM and want a more thorough understanding of what it is and why it’s unique on OLED, check out this article on oled-info.com on PWM.

Several studies have been done which note that many users can detect screen flickering, like this one from RPI.

Though the issues with PWM and OLED are not widely known outside of geekier tech circles, many non-geeks are surely being impacted by PWM sensitivity as well, but they may not attribute eyestrain, nausea, or headaches to screen usage.

What does PWM look like?

PWM is not typically visible by most people, but those who are negatively impacted by it will feel the PWM by becoming nauseous, dizzy, having eye strain, or headaches. Nonetheless, you can typically visualize PWM by using a camera with a high frame rate, such as what is available in slow-motion on the iPhone and iPad cameras.

Here is an example video where PWM is compared on an iPhone 12 Pro with OLED, iPad M1 12.9″ with Mini-LED, iPad 12.9″ 2018 model with LCD, and an Android tablet:

As you can see in the video, the OLED screens flicker considerably, seen as striping through the displays, and the mini-LED screen flickers sometimes, whereas the LCD does not show any flickering at all.

What does PWM sensitivity feel like?

Most users who are sensitive to PWM flicker report feeling quickly nauseous, dizzy, or motion sick when looking at an OLED display with PWM. Headaches and eye strain are commonly reported as well.

What can I do if PWM bothers me after I tried the brightness solution?

Not using OLED displays is usually the only solution.

Most LCD displays do not bother users with PWM sensitivity.

Do you have issues with PWM on OLED screens? Does using an OLED iPhone or iPad bother your eyes? Did the workaround discussed here help? Did you find another solution or workaround? Share your experiences with PWM in the comments!

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Posted by: Paul Horowitz in iPad, iPhone, Tips & Tricks, Troubleshooting

9 Comments

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  1. Sean says:

    I’m sticking with my iPhone 10 XR due to problems with PWM. I had to return a MacBook Pro due to PWN. Hope they can fix the flickering issue soon.

  2. Mark Peters says:

    Same situation here.

    Can’t use anything more recent than the iPhone 11..

    Also unable to use the Pixel 6 Pro (standard 6 is fine though!).

    Most frustrating, and no manufacturer seems to care / will acknowledge it as an issue!

  3. Riccardo says:

    Anyone know what the PWM flicker is like on the 2021 MacBook Pro 16″ or 2021 MacBook Pro 14″ with M1 Pro and M1 Max CPU? They both have mini-LED displays, which for some people have bothersome PWM flicker.

  4. per says:

    FWIW, I am someone very bothered by OLED PWM and here’s my report of iPhone 13 Pro:

    I used an iPhone 13 Pro and the PWM is not nearly as bad as it was on iPhone 12 Pro or iPhone 11 Pro (both of those were unusable for me, along with the XS OLED too).

    The iPhone 13 Pro PWM was bothering me more when the screen was black like in dark mode or white on black text, but overall it is way better than the prior models.

    It is still present, and it still feels ‘relieving’ to use an LCD again after looking at the iPhone 13 Pro, but the immediate dizziness/nausea feeling is not nearly as pronounced for me on the iPhone 13 Pro. I used the iPhone 13 Pro for about 15 minutes, so I have not had extensive time with it yet. I do not know if I would buy one yet (partially because the other features are so boring, it’s barely an upgrade from the 11), but compared to the 11 Pro or 12 Pro where I couldn’t even look at the screen without wanting to retch, it is an improvement.

    I recommend anyone bothered by PWM check it out themselves. I would be curious to hear other opinions too.

  5. PWM Question says:

    Anyone know how the iPhone 13 Pro is with PWM?

    I have seen a video where the iPhone 13 Pro screen is recorded at 240fps and it doesn’t flicker, but that just tells me it may be at the same frequency as the video rather than anything else.

    I also saw a video of iPhone 13 with PWM that is flickering bad.

    Yes I know all OLED use flicker, but whether or not it bothers someone is the question. For me, I get bad headaches and motion sickness from it almost instantly, and so do several other people I know. I wish Apple just made LCD phones still.

  6. Oplix says:

    Flickering (PWM) turns off completely at 100% brightness which leads me to believe these are simply subpar OLED screens that cannot operate normally under full power.

  7. Jeremy says:

    I am sticking with the iPhone 11 also because of flickering issues. I hope they manage to fix this with mini LED because I will not be using an OLED phone ever. My 2018 15″ MacBook Pro has never bothered my eyes and neither has my 2020 27″ iMac or M1 Macbook Air. I figure between those devices I am set for a while and will just have to ride it out.

    • Fron says:

      I really would like to upgrade to an iPhone 12 or iPhone 13 but the PWM flickering is too much. I returned an iPhone 11 Pro Max because it gave me headaches and made me feel like I was about to vomit when using the screen.

      Very disappointing, hopefully there is a solution to iPhone PWM some day, or what are we going to do? Many Android phones have options to stop or reduce PWM.

  8. Tioptic says:

    I too had to go back to the iPhone 11 because of the 12’s pwm. I also sent back an iMac Pro because it killed my eyes. I got the m1 MacBook Pro and don’t have any problems with eye strain while using it, but I am worried about the mini-led m1x/m2 MacBook Pro coming soon.

    Do you know if the m1 iPad Pro 12.9 has pwm?

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