New Tests Show Apple Is Artificially Limiting the Maximum Brightness of the iPhone 12 Display (Here’s Why)

iPhone 12 on Display at Apple Store Credit: Hadrian / Shutterstock
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When Apple unveiled its iPhone 12 lineup, one thing that caught our attention right away was the fact that the iPhone 12 appeared to have a lower maximum brightness than the iPhone 12 Pro, despite the fact that it seemed to otherwise be using the exact same Super Retina XDR OLED Displays.

What was even more unusual was that the maximum HDR brightness for both models was exactly the same, at 1200 nits, yet the “typical” maximum brightness was pegged at 625 nits for the iPhone 12 as compared to 800 nits for the iPhone 12 Pro. There seemed to be no obvious way to explain this discrepancy, especially after iFixit tore down both iPhone 12 models and discovered that the displays really did appear to be identical for all intents and purposes.

However, now a new teardown from REWA Technology (via iPhone in Canada) has confirmed that the maximum brightness of the iPhone 12 appears to be an entirely artificial limitation that has nothing to do with the display technology.

When the folks at iFixit tore down the iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro, they noted that many of the parts seemed to be interchangeable, but they also stopped short of actually trying to swap them, so the experts at REWA decided to pick up that ball and run with it, discovering in the process that the Super Retina XDR OLED display from an iPhone 12 can not only be used in an iPhone 12 Pro, but that it will reach the published spec of 800 nits of maximum brightness for the iPhone 12 Pro model.

Similarly, putting the display from the iPhone 12 Pro into the iPhone 12 results in that display maxing out at the same 625 nits as the original iPhone 12 display.

Since the display assemblies also include the TrueDepth camera and display controller hardware, both iPhones displayed a message showing that they were unable to verify that a “genuine Apple display” was installed and features such as Face ID and True Tone failed to work after swapping them between iPhone models; this would occur even when replacing the display in the same iPhone model, however, as a pairing process is required to “authenticate” the display and link the TrueDepth camera for Face ID to the Secure Enclave.

Beyond these expected limitations, however, REWA took both iPhone 12 models through several tests to demonstrate that the interchanged displays continued to work as expected, from touch sensitivity and responsiveness to things like ambient light sensors.

REWA also didn’t stop at the displays however, discovering that most other parts were swappable without any noticeable differences at all, including the Taptic Engine, the battery, and the Lightning connector assembly.

Why Is the iPhone 12 Not as Bright?

While the tests empirically demonstrate that the iPhone 12 display reaches a much higher 800 nits of brightness when installed in the iPhone 12 Pro, the folks at REWA weren’t able to delve into exactly why this is the case, speculating that it could be a limitation coming from the motherboard, or something in iOS itself.

Either way, however, it’s an artificial limitation that isn’t strictly necessary.

As to why Apple is doing this remains open to speculation. Cynical observers might suggest that this is entirely a marketing ploy, although we think that’s a pretty big stretch. The iPhone 12 Pro already has enough to offer that Apple doesn’t need to artificially limit the display brightness on the iPhone 12 just to make the more expensive model look better; further, the maximum HDR brightness — the mode where you’re really be showing off the iPhone screen capabilities — is identical between both models.

Apple has always used multiple companies to supply the screens for its various iPhone models over the years, partly to diversify its supply chain, but also simply because it’s difficult to get any single manufacturer to produce screens at the scale that Apple requires to keep up with the demand for tens of millions of iPhones every year. In the early days of the iPhone, this often resulted in very stark differences between units, and although Apple’s supply chain has reached a level of quality control that provides a much more consistent experience, there are still going to be some subtle distinctions between displays that come from different manufacturers.

So our educated guess is that Apple chose to use its higher-quality displays with more consistent reliability in its iPhone 12 Pro models — likely choosing displays from a single reliable vendor, such as Samsung, to ensure maximum consistency.

The iPhone 12, on the other hand, which Apple fully expected to be the far more popular model, likely uses displays from multiple suppliers, and it may not have been possible for Apple to guarantee that all of these can consistently reach the same typical maximum brightness as those displays used on the iPhone 12 Pro.

Rather than creating an inconsistent experience between different iPhone 12 units, Apple chose to limit the maximum brightness of the display on those models to the least common denominator.

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