The Consumer Electronics Hall of Fame: Nokia N85 Cellphone

The first cellphone with an AMOLED screen fizzled in the marketplace, despite combining several very advanced technologies

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The Nokia N85 isn’t on anyone’s list of best phones of all time. Heck, it didn’t even make the list of top five best-selling Nokia phones released in 2008. What makes it special is that it was the first cellular handset to incorporate what would come to be the ne plus ultra of smartphone screens: an active-matrix organic light emitting diode (AMOLED) display.

Today Samsung is associated with AMOLED screens, but Nokia beat it to the punch. The N85 came out in October of 2008, while Samsung’s first AMOLED phone, the i7110, arrived in February of 2009.

Most phones in those days incorporated TFT (thin-film transistor) screens, though a few had OLED displays. AMOLEDs provided a much richer color palette and better color contrast than TFTs. Battery capacity has never not been an issue with smartphones, and AMOLEDs drew less power than OLEDs and significantly less power than TFTs. They have a wider viewing angle than TFTs. AMOLEDs are also flexible, a trait of little consequence 10 years ago, but the key enabler of the curved screens that some phone manufacturers are experimenting with today. AMOLED displays did not start out as touch screens; that capability would be created later by putting a touch-sensitive layer on top of the AMOLED screen.

In 2008, handset makers still had a mix of models with different screen sizes, some occupying roughly half the face of the phone, some occupying most of the face. The N85 was one of the half-screen phones. It had no touch-screen capability, so it had to have room for buttons. The screen measured 2.6 inches on the diagonal and 240 by 320 pixels.

The N85 also incorporated some advanced features for its time, including Wi-Fi connectivity, and a 5-megapixel rear camera with autofocus and a lens by Carl Zeiss. The phone was introduced at a price of €450—€100 less than Nokia’s flagship at the time, the N96, which was considered by many to be an inferior phone.

When the N85 and i7110 came out, contemporary reviewers kvetched about the poor visibility of AMOLEDs in sunlight, but that was a test many other screens failed at the time (and a good many still fail today).

Though associated with Samsung today, OLED technology was actually invented by Kodak in the 1980s. The first product with an AMOLED screen was Kodak’s EasyShare LS633 camera in 2003. Kodak’s fortunes were already flagging by then, however, and it began shutting down businesses and selling off assets, including its AMOLED operations in 2009. The buyer was LG, one of Nokia’s and Samsung’s rivals in the smartphone business. LG had seen the N85 and i7110, and predicted, correctly, that AMOLEDs would become a standard for smartphones.

And Nokia? Nokia sold its phone business to Microsoft in 2014. Two years later, in a complicated deal, an independent operating company called HMD Global leased the right to market phones with the Nokia label. HMD Global just happens to source at least some of its AMOLED displays from LG—including the screen on Nokia’s current flagship smartphone, the Nokia 8 Sirocco.

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