OLED: It's an acronym you've probably heard before in reference to the highest-grade television sets on the market, but maybe you're unsure exactly what it means and, more importantly, why it's so important to home entertainment lovers.
In short: OLED truly is the next big thing in home entertainment and it's finally at a price where the average consumer can buy one their own. It offers better image quality (think blacker blacks and brighter whites), reduced power consumption and fast response times over traditional LED TVs.
So why doesn't everyone own one? Because it's prohibitively expensive and for a very long time only two companies, LG and Panasonic, currently used the technology in their television panels.
But that's changing, Sony, one of the initial developers of the technology is getting back in the game in 2017 with its new Bravia A1E OLED.
But just what is OLED? Are they worth it? And what are the advantages of an OLED TV?
Read on to find out all about the latest big screen buzzword.
What’s the difference between OLED and LCD/LED?
Everything. They might sound alike, but the processes are completely different.
OLED stands for Organic Light-Emitting Diode, with "organic" referring to the carbon film that sits inside the panel before the glass screen.
OLED panels emit their own light when an electric current is passed through, whereas cells in a LCD display require an external light source, like a giant backlight, for brightness.
This backlight is what separated LCD screens from their LED variants. A traditional LCD screen has a backlight (called a cold-cathode fluorescent light, or CCFL) which is uniform across the entire back of the screen.
This means that whether the image is black or white, it is being lit by exactly the same brightness across the panel. This reduces what we call "hotspots," or areas of super bright light, because the actual light source illuminating them is uniform.
This all started a few years back when engineers at companies like Samsung and Sony introduced an array of LEDs as a backlight, which meant that if a certain part of the screen was black then those LEDs behind that portion could be turned off to make it appear blacker.
This is a better solution than a CCFL backlight, but it still has its problems. Since it’s a light behind the LCD producing the illumination rather than the LCD layer itself, the illumination is not entirely in-sync with the pixel in front of it. The result is an effect called ‘blooming’, whereby LED light from bright portions of the image bleeds over into areas of blackness.
This is what separates OLEDs from LCD/LED displays. In an OLED display, the pixels themselves are the things producing the light, and so when they need to be black they are able to turn off completely, rather than relying on a backlight to turn off on their behalf.
What are the advantages of OLED?
The result is remarkably dark blacks in an image, and when you combine this with the brightness of the whites an OLED panel is able to produce you're left with a fantastically vibrant image.
LG and Panasonic, pretty much the only two consistent producers of OLED televisions on the planet, like to use the term "infinite contrast" to describe how the self-lighting pixels switch off completely when reproducing black giving it an "absolute" black color instead of a "relative" black that only describes how dark one pixel can get compared to the brightest pixel on the screen.
For years there was a question mark about longevity of OLED panels, while production lines have been impossible to make profitable due to high failure rates. But as companies like LG have invested huge quantities of money in the technology its affordability has gotten better, although it’s still much more expensive than competing technologies.
The advantages of OLED go beyond simple static image quality to the responsiveness and smoothness of the display itself, meaning gamers and home cinema aficionados are going to absolutely love OLED. It’s capable of a refresh rate of as low as 0.001ms, which for reference, is around 1,000 times faster than a standard LED-backlit LCD panel, while also being superior to the now-discontinued plasma tech, too.
And, because the lighting source they use is so tiny, the depth of screen sizes has shrunk at the same rate. That means OLED TVs have awesomely deep blacks and bright, peak whites, improved color accuracy as well as smooth responsive motion – and all from a form factor that’s just a few millimetres in depth and much lighter than standard TVs.
Which OLED TVs are out now?
OLED TVs have been on the market since 2012, and a variety of manufacturers have tackled the technology over the years. It used to be the case that OLED's were produced by just Samsung and LG, but Samsung dropped the technology over its cost and how difficult it was to produce, and has no intention of restarting production any time soon.
LG has been releasing OLED sets consistently over the last few years, and in 2016 introduced four product lines – the G6, E6, C6 and B6 – featuring OLED panels.
The LG OLED G6
The LG OLED E6
The LG OLED C6
The LG OLED B6
In 2017, LG will have five different models of OLED – the G7, E7, C7, B7 and the all-new OLED W7 that features an impossibly slim screen and Dolby Atmos soundbar.
And now, thankfully, LG isn't completely alone in the market. At last year's IFA, Panasonic announced its first OLED set, the TX-65CZ950, and we've been impressed by the other sets in its lineup thus far.
Last but not least, there's the new (old?) contender: Sony's Bravia A1E OLED, which looks simply incredible.
Can OLED do 3D?
3D may have lost the allure it once had as a TV feature, but that hasn't stop manufacturers from including it in their high-end models.
LG and Panasonic both include 3D as a feature in their 2016 OLED sets, and in most cases this is 3D of the passive variety, which means cheaper glasses and less screen flicker.
The downside of passive 3D is the drop in resolution you'll experience, but thankfully with almost all of the OLED sets now featuring an Ultra HD 4K display this is less of a cause for concern than it once was.
That said, LG did tell us that they don't plan on including 3D in 2017 models.
How much do OLED TVs cost?
OLED TVs are definitely getting cheaper, but they’re still a long way from what we’d call affordable. The prices of LGs sets start at $1,800 in the US and £1,400 in the UK, and Panasonic’s are more expensive still.
The scarcity of OLED TVs on the market means that those small number of players in the market are more or less free to charge exactly what they want. We’re not going to see prices drop until we get more competition.
That said, usually when one company starts to pull ahead, the others quickly catch up. Prices should come down when manufacturers can work out the kinks on the production line and demand increases for these phenomenal pieces of tech.
What’s the future for OLED?
OLED is an expensive new technology that even after several years is still proving difficult for manufacturers to get right.
In fact, OLED has been around for so long without having made it to the masses that over a year ago we wrote an opinion piece about how the technology might be dead.
Obviously the fact that we're still talking about OLED in 2017 means that the technology is far from dead, but after so many years of trying to make it work it's difficult to maintain hope that it will ever be truly affordable.
But just because OLED isn't affordable yet doesn't mean it's not getting better. An $1,800/ £1,400 price tag isn't what we'd consider budget, but it's a great deal cheaper than what OLED was retailing for even just a year ago.
If this trend continues we might just see the technology become mainstream in a couple of years time, but for now OLED remains something for enthusiasts.
Original reporting on this article by Jamie Carter.