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Low-Power LCD Smackdown

Sometimes it seems like there are a million different LCDs you might use with your microcontroller project, and deciding on one can be hard. Once you’re ready to move beyond a basic text display, you’ll find graphic displays have a dizzying number of options for technology, color depth, interface type, driver, and power. Recently I’ve been collecting info on display options for my own projects, and here I’m presenting three options that look promising.

The Nokia 5110 is a low-resolution monochrome LCD that’s cheap and extremely low-power. A family of small monochrome OLEDs provide crisp, bright displays with a bit more resolution, in a teeny-tiny package. A 1.8 inch color TFT provides even greater resolution and 18-bit color, while still limiting power to about 90 milliwatts.

Nokia 5110

Colors: monochrome
Resolution: 84 x 48
Active display area: 2.8 x 2 cm
Interface: SPI
Power: 3.3v
Current: 0.4 mA for logic, 1-10 mA for backlight
Cost: $10
Vendors: Sparkfun, Adafruit

This is the display I’m currently using for my Backcountry Logger project. It’s cheap, easy to use, and consumes very little power. You don’t really need the backlight for daytime visibility, and with backlight off, it consumes just 400 uA! Awesome for battery-powered projects. Just 1-2 mA worth of backlight current is plenty for night-time visibility too, although more would be nicer. This puts the display well within the capabilities of a single CR2032 coin cell.

Working with the display is simple, as long as you remeber it’s a 3.3v device and not 5v tolerant. There are lots of great tutorials and examples available for this display, including this nice one from Adafruit. Communication with the display controller uses SPI. Writing a single byte sets 8 pixels at a time, so pixels are not individually addressable. If you’re mostly displaying text or bitmaps this isn’t a problem, but if you need a more complex image consisting of many overlapping elements, you’ll need to composite them in software before sending the result to the display.

The weak points of the Nokia 5110 display are resolution and looks. The contrast and sharpness are pretty good for a display of this type, but there’s still no getting around the fact that this is a low-res, dark-gray on light-gray display. The 84 x 48 resolution allows for just 14 x 6 characters using a typical 5 x 7 font (allowing for space between letters). If you seek utility, low cost, and low power, it’s a great solution. If you want something with a bit more bling, look elsewhere.

SSD1306/SSD1308 OLED

Colors: monochrome
Resolution: 128 x 64
Active display area: 2.4 x 1.2 cm
Interface: SPI, I2C, or parallel
Power: 3.3v, and maybe 7-12v
Current: roughly 5-13 mA, depending on how many pixels are lit
Cost: $15-$20
Vendors: Sparkfun (bare LCD), Adafruit, eBay

This little OLED display comes in a few slightly different flavors, but all of them are tiny. It’s one thing to read the dimensions (0.96 inches horizontally), but another to see it in person. All three of the displays discussed here are small, but this particular OLED is smaller than a postage stamp. It’s about the size of the last joint on my thumb.

Despite its small size, the OLED display is very readable. It’s sharp and bright, and a pleasure to look at. Since it’s an OLED, there’s no backlight, and current draw varies between about 5 to 13 mA in my testing, depending on how many pixels are illuminated. The 128 x 64 resolution is a nice bump from the Nokia 5110 display, allowing for 21 x 8 characters. Communication choices are SPI, I2C, or parallel, selectable via configuration pins. Like the Nokia, each byte sets 8 pixels at a time. Adafruit has a tutorial and library.

The display controller chip runs at 3.3v, and the display itself needs 7-12v, although you might be able to get away with a single supply depending on which display variant you have.

Adafruit sells this display on a break-out board, with white pixels, with a SSD1306 controller. The SSD1306 has a built-in charge pump, and can optionally generate 7.5v for the display from a 3.3v supply, which is a very convenient option. Sparkfun sells the naked LCD, with white or blue pixels, and a SSD1308 controller that lacks the charge pump. You’ll need to mount the 0.5 mm pitch connector somehow, and provide a separate power supply for the logic and display. The most common eBay variant comes on a break-out board, with the SSD1306 controller, and yellow pixels in the top quarter and blue pixels in the bottom three quarters. Mine also came hard-wired to use the parallel interface, and switching to SPI required wicking away some solder jumpers and adding new ones.

This display meets a narrower range of needs, but is awesome for its target niche. I’m strongly considering doing a version 2.0 of the Backcountry Logger using this display, to gain the benefit of smaller size, higher resolution, and better looks. Unfortunately with the amount of current it needs, it’s probably outside of what a CR2032 can provide, and will require 2 x AAA or 1 x AAA with a DC boost converter.

Adafruit 1.8 inch TFT

Colors: 18-bit (262144 colors)
Resolution: 160 x 120
Active display area: 3.6 x 2.8 cm
Interface: SPI
Power: 5v or 3.3v
Current: 1 mA for logic, about 26 mA for backlight (can be dimmed)
Cost: $25
Vendors: Adafruit

This is the display I plan to use for Tiny CPU. Unlike the others, it’s a full color display with individually addressable pixels. It supports 18-bit color, but can also be configured for 16-bit color or monochrome (I think? Haven’t tried that yet). It’s a bit larger than the other two, but still quite small compared to most displays. It is natively a 3.3v device, but the Adafruit breakout board includes an LDO regulator and level-shifter chip, so it can be used with 5v microcontrollers as well. Current demands are the highest of the three displays, but not excessive at about 1 mA for logic and 26 mA for the backlight. The backlight can be dimmed using PWM to further reduce the current. This is still well within the capabilities of an AAA-based battery-powered project.

The TFT is very attractive, not quite on par with the OLED, but certainly nicer than the CSTN used in some other cheap color LCDs. The 160 x 120 resolution feels giant in comparison with the previous displays, allowing for 26 x 15 characters. The display controller allows for a few different protocols, but the break-out board hard-wires it for SPI.

With the larger resolution and greater bit depth, a screen’s worth of data requires many more bytes than the previous two displays. Depending on the speed of your microcontroller and SPI interface, this may result in noticeably slower refresh times. I tested it using hardware SPI on a 16 MHz Arduino, and found the refresh time to be acceptable.

Adafruit has a nice tutorial and library for working with this display (I’m sensing a theme here). Unexpectedly, the breakout board also has a micro-SD card reader on it. Ignore it, or use it as a bonus peripheral in your next project.

Read 6 comments and join the conversation 

6 Comments so far

  1. […] LCD for your project, or just need some reference material, take a look at this one. PyroFactor: Read Permalink  |   Email This […]

  2. Jindra Vavruska - April 2nd, 2012 8:00 am

    I don’t quite agree with the description of Nokia 5110 LCD as “3.3v device and not 5v tolerant”.
    While buying few pieces on eBay, I was looking for datasheet. All datasheets state that maximum recommended input levels are 5.5 V (absolute maximum rating being at 7 V). Also, some tutorials are shown with direct connection to 5V Arduino.

    I have not tried 5 V because I had no 5 V device nearby. But did you see it fail using 5 volts? It seems to be an “ordinary” CMOS device covering the usual range from 3.0 to 5.5 volts.

  3. Steve Chamberlin - April 2nd, 2012 8:25 am

    The Nokia 5110 LCD is definitely intended to run at 3.3V, but the datasheet does say that 5V is just within the absolute maximum rating. I was looking at this datasheet: See page 17, note 3. Still, there are at least two people on the Sparkfun discussion page who say their LCD was damaged when running it at 5V:

  4. Ronald - June 11th, 2012 2:14 am

    Hi I’d like to know whether if the SSD1306’s logic input 5v tolerant.

    If they are not what’s their max input current?

  5. Gearloose - February 17th, 2013 11:52 am

    cool to see my picture of the Nokia5110 display here (blue one) 🙂 Would have been nice to be asked though!

  6. Tony G - November 16th, 2019 3:32 pm

    The so called “vendors” are just re-sellers of Chinese stuff. The Nokia 5110s can be had at $1.80 for piece on Aliexpress and probably at similar price on ebay.

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