What an Always-on Display Can Do for Your iPhone

Apple Watch complications on iPhone?

Key Takeaways

  • Rumors say the iPhone 13 will have an always-on display, like the Apple Watch.
  • Apple might bring watch-like widgets, or ‘complications,’ to the sleeping iPhone screen.
  • FaceID should take care of any privacy fears.
Person holding 4 iPhones displaying welcome messages in multiple languages
Daniel Romero / Unsplash

The iPhone 13 may arrive with an alway-on display, just like the Apple Watch. This small feature could bring a huge change to the way we use our phones. 

According to leaks published by 9to5Mac, the next iPhone will feature an always-on screen that looks like a "toned-down lock screen." It will show the clock and battery status, and notifications will appear without lighting up the entire screen to show them. It sounds neat, but what could an iPhone with an always-on display do?

"Rumors are that, at a minimum, an iPhone always-on lock screen will feature time and battery, plus a system for displaying apps that have notifications pending," Weston Happ, product development manager at Merchant Maverick, told Lifewire via email. "Whether iPhone 13 will have special cool features like to-do lists or album art is strongly correlated to the battery life expectations and gains Apple feels it can achieve."

ProMotion, Stop Motion

The new iPhone also is expected to use Apple’s ProMotion screen tech, as found in the iPad Pro, which allows the display to change its refresh rate. When you’re scrolling, it updates at 120Hz, for maximum responsiveness to touch and smoother animation. When the on-screen image is stationary, the refresh rate drops to save battery power.

The iPad even can use different refresh rates for different parts of the screen. For instance, it could show a movie in a popover panel at a cinematic 24fps (frames per second), while scrolling the display beneath at 120fps. 

To offer an always-on display, the refresh rate drops even lower. The Apple Watch Series 5, for example, drops the rate to as low as 1Hz, or one update per second, in order to save power.

"If Apple moves ahead and fully integrates its ProMotion technology into the display for the iPhone 13, adaptive refresh rates—from a 60Hz base up to 120Hz (gaming), 48Hz for movies at 24 frames per second, and 24Hz to save power on static images and interfaces—will certainly lend themselves nicely to always-on features," says Happ.

Always On

Being able to see the time and the battery status at a glance is definitely handy, but Android phones have done that for years. What could Apple really do to really mix things up?

One great addition would be mini widgets, like the complications used on the Apple Watch, that show all kinds of static and semi-static data. The simplest is the red spot that tells you there are unread notifications, but the watch also has weather widgets, timers, a pedometer readout, and more. These widgets are some of the best things about the Apple Watch.

Happ agrees. "Building off the widget system first introduced in iOS 14 seems like another natural starting place for always-on lock screen elements," he says. And like the Apple Watch, the iPhone might keep sensitive data obscured until you actively look at it.

iPhone showing the time while resting on a notebook with a pen
Jess Bailey / Unsplash

"Some considerations for privacy settings may require such a system to be simplified or redact any sensitive information while still being useful to the phone’s owner," says Happ.

The watch shows such redacted complications when the display is in sleep mode, and only displays the full data when you raise your wrist. An iPhone could do better, because it could wait until it detects your attention via FaceID, so only you would ever see the contents of private widgets. 

The main concern is battery life, but Apple seems to have figured it out with Apple Watch. Now, it’s a matter of implementation. Hopefully Apple can come up with something impressive. It likes to launch new features with a splash, so maybe there will be some brand new use of always-on displays we haven’t even considered.

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