Switch OLED Nintendo Life
Image: Nintendo Life

Nintendo's latest iteration of the Switch launched on 8th October and while it's far from the long-rumoured 'Switch Pro', the new screen on the Switch OLED model is a beautiful thing and has led to the new Switch SKU receiving generally positive reviews. It doesn't hurt that incredible games like Metroid Dread and Tetris Effect: Connected launched alongside the console and really show off the contrast and rich colour of that lovely new OLED screen.

However, there's one relatively unreported issue that seems to be causing an issue for a minority of players: PWM flicker. It's to do with the way the new screen handles brightness via Pulse Width Modulation, and at lower brightness settings it can result in a flickering effect that a small number of players may be sensitive to.

Before we explore the issue, we should preface this piece with the fact that this isn't a widespread or alarming problem and it will not affect the vast majority of players using Switch OLED. A number of Nintendo Life staff members have tested the screen and, while we can view the PWM effect through our smartphones shooting video at 120/240 FPS, not one of us is able to perceive a flicker with the naked eye.

However, for players who are sensitive to PWM flicker (we'll get into exactly what that is in just a moment), using lower brightness settings with Switch OLED may be distracting enough to cause a problem and lead to eye strain over time.

So, what is 'PWM' exactly, and how is it used in Switch OLED's screen?

Pulse Width Modulation is a method of simulating a change in brightness without altering the voltage supplied to a screen.

LCD screens such as the one in the regular Switch(es) also flicker, although the PWM of LCD screens tends to be around 1000 Hz or more — higher frequency, so more difficult for humans to perceive. OLED screens, on the other hand, usually have a much lower PWM frequency and can be more noticeably prone to flicker.

Essentially, when the user lowers the Brightness setting, screens using PWM turn on and off rapidly at a rate supposedly beyond human visual acuity. Viewers perceive the overall reduction of light output over time (including the incredibly brief periods when the pixels on the screen aren't illuminated) as a lower brightness.

The problem arises for people who are sensitive to this rapid screen change and can either perceive a 'flicker' or don't consciously note the effect but experience eye strain and headaches following extended use of such screens, especially in mobile devices or displays you look at for multiple hours at a time (at work, for example). Indeed, Notebook Check has an ongoing ranking of notebooks and other mobile device displays based on their PWM levels.

The video below demonstrates the phenomenon by filming the Switch OLED's screen using a camera filming at both 120 frames-per-second and 240 frames-per-second. Many phones are capable of this now, and we conducted similar tests ourselves — you too can see the effect by viewing the Switch OLED screen (or any other screen with a sufficiently low PWM rate) through your phone in the same manner.

Again, we stress that only when viewed through another device capturing the screen at a high frame rate will the vast majority of users be able to discern this flicker. For the small number of people who are sensitive to this, though, you can get a vague idea of how distracting and straining PWM screens can be.

For context, although this writer can't see the flicker on Switch OLED's screen at any brightness setting, I would say I'm susceptible to other forms of electric light flicker, specifically certain types of light bulb. It doesn't happen too often but put me in certain rooms — often with strip lighting — and I'll instantly be scrutinising other occupants and wondering how on earth they can stand spending any time at all in such interminable conditions. It's not something I've spent a bunch of time researching; I simply get the heck out of the office or elevator or wherever it is as fast as possible.

What should I do if I can see PWM flicker on Switch OLED at low Brightness levels?

Is there a solution for PWM-sensitive people when using Switch OLED or any other screen which uses Pulse Width Modulation? Hmm, kinda. It's an easy one, in fact — keep the Brightness setting nice and high.

PWM flicker is easier to perceive at lower brightness settings (when the screen is turning itself off at longer intervals to produce the desired lower-lit effect), so keeping the screen above 50% at all times will minimise that effect.

A screen at full brightness will naturally increase the possibility of 'burn-in' — a topic we've explored before — but the reality is that modern OLED panels are significantly better at mitigating the risks of image permanence than in years past. Burn-in is a risk, yes, but probably not one you should be worrying about unless you play the same game for days on end at full brightness and never dock your console.

Unfortunately, having the screen at close to full brightness at all times will inevitably drain the system's battery at a faster rate — something that will have an impact on portable players who are affected by this phenomenon.

So where does that leave us, then? Well, while it should absolutely be noted that this won't affect the majority of Switch OLED users, it's also important to recognise the potential issue for players who may encounter it and the eye strain it may cause, even if you can't actively perceive the flicker affect. Turning the brightness up, turning Auto-Brightness off, and taking regular breaks are the best advice.

Ultimately, if you have had trouble with PWM screens or similar light-flicker issues in the past, we'd definitely recommend testing a working Switch OLED unit before buying one — just to make 100% sure that it's the Switch for you.

Have you experienced any PWM issue with your Switch OLED? Let us know in the poll below.

Can you perceive any PWM flicker while using your Switch OLED?

This article has been edited to include extra details as highlighted by Nintendo Life reader ryu_san who helpfully provided further useful context and information on this issue.

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