The market in general had high hopes for Mini LED notebook computers in 2021. Although most brands were relatively unenthusiastic towards the adoption of Mini LED displays, the release of Mini LED products by Apple will likely generate a copycat effect and inject fresh momentum into both demand and shipment for the Mini LED notebook market. Apple did, in fact, release two brand new MacBook Pros with 14.2-inch and 16.2-inch displays, both of which are equipped with Mini LED backlights as expected. However, these Mini LED notebook displays did not receive as much marketing and publicity as the Mini LED displays used for the iPad Pro models, which had been released about six months prior.
During the unveiling of the 12.9-inch iPad Pro in 2Q21, Apple made special mention of improvements brought about by the Liquid Retina XDR display technology thanks to the company’s adoption of Mini LED backlights. Conversely, perhaps because the new physical dimensions and processors took most of the spotlight, Apple was surprisingly quiet on its new MacBook Pro models’ Mini LED displays as it announced the release of these new computers during its October event. Not only did the Mini LED iPad Pros completely replace the previous edge-lit models, but these new tablets also featured a mere US$100 retail price hike, which basically entirely accounts for the cost of the new displays. Subsequently, the market began eagerly anticipating the release of the new Mini LED iPad Pro models. In contrast, whereas the 14.2-inch and 16.2-inch models of the new MacBook Pros also feature Mini LED displays exclusively, their retail prices saw significant jumps owing to the integration of multiple updated components and designs, in turn refreshing the enthusiasm of the market for Mini LED displays.
Thanks to the release of the two new MacBook models, annual Mini LED notebook shipment for 2021 reached 2.2 million units, representing a 1% penetration rate in the total notebook market. Regrettably, apart from MacBooks, the shipment volume of Mini LED notebooks released by non-Apple brands was rather insignificant. Looking ahead to 2022, given the all-out effort by Apple to ramp up MacBook shipment throughout the whole year, annual Mini LED notebook shipment for 2022 will likely undergo a staggering 360% YoY increase to eight million units for a 3.4% penetration rate. However, judging by notebook brands’ adoption of display solutions at the moment, most non-Apple brands will still gravitate towards OLED panels in 2022, with minimal adoption of Mini LED displays.
If Gen 8.5 OLED panel production lines are able to kick off mass production from 2024 onwards, will Apple transition its MacBook displays to a different solution much like it did for iPad? TrendForce believes that Apple has historically held a receptive attitude towards OLED solutions. Furthermore, from a technology assessment perspective, notebook computers and tablets are relatively similar in their display technologies and, to a lesser extent, use cases. If Apple does decide to transition iPad displays from Mini LED to OLED, then the company will likely do the same for MacBook display as well, in principle. On the other hand, LCD panels are still expected to remain the mainstream display technology for notebook computers in 2025. It, therefore, makes competitive sense for notebook brands to differentiate their products with OLED panels in the high-end segment and with LCD panels and Mini LED backlights in the premium mid-range segment or even mid-range segment. At any rate, given the shrinking gap between the cost structures of Mini LED solutions and OLED solutions, only by continually optimizing the manufacturing costs of Mini LED backlights can suppliers convince Apple to continue adopting Mini LED displays.
Benefiting from expanded introduction of AMOLED mobile phone models by Apple, Samsung and Chinese brands, the market penetration rate of AMOLED panels for mobile phones in 2021 was 42%, according to TrendForce‘s investigations. In 2022, continuous investment undertaken by numerous panel factories to expand AMOLED production lines will drive AMOLED panel penetration rate to an estimated 46%. However, TrendForce further asserts that the continued tight supply of AMOLED DDI and the willingness of mobile phone brands to expand the use of AMOLED panels will be the keys influencing AMOLED market penetration rate next year.
Continued tightness in AMOLED DDI supply for mobile phones
The AMOLED DDI process requires dedicated medium voltage 8V processes at the 40nm and 28nm nodes. However, the supply of dedicated process capacity in 2021 is limited. In addition, Samsung’s Austin, Texas fab was shut down due to a snowstorm in early 2021, resulting in serious shortages of AMOLED DDI. New capacity in 2022 includes UMC at the 28nm node and SMIC at the 40nm node. However, since capacity and expanded capacity still cannot effectively meet the various brand’s demand for AMOLED DDI, Samsung’s fab will continue to reduce OLED DDIC production scale in the future. Stocking issues are expected to plague AMOLED DDI continuing into 2022.
TrendForce states, UMC’s primary expansion plan for 28nm AMOLED DDI will be completed by the end of 2023, so AMOLED DDI supply tightness is expected to be alleviated in 2023. In addition, other foundries have plans to develop dedicated AMOLED DDI processes but, due to a belated development schedule, these plans will not be able to address the AMOLED DDI shortage in 2022. Facing limitations on dedicated AMOLED DDI production capacity, traditional front-line DDI design houses are actively booking the majority of production capacity, while other DDI design houses are also competing for limited production capacity in order to enter the AMOLED panel factory supply chain.
Mobile phone brands expand their willingness to adopt AMOLED panels
Facing the gradual maturity of AMOLED panel technology and the continuous improvement of production yields, AMOLED market penetration rate will increase from 42% in 2021 to 46% in 2022. This will reduce the market share of LTPS panels in the mid-tier market and drive panel makers to transfer LTPS production capacity to medium size applications. However, mobile phone brands face the risk of AMOLED DDI continuing to being out of stock in 2022. In addition to the high price of AMOLED panels and the steady increase in the pricing of other semiconductor components, in order for mobile phone brands to maintain profitability and achieve annual shipment goals, TrendForce expects that a small number of AMOLED products may switch over to LCD panels to pad shipments in the mid-to-low-end mobile phone market, allowing LTPS panel makers to gain a bit of breathing room in the mid-end market.
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