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LED vs. LCD TVs explained: Which is better, and why?

Creating or upgrading a home theater setup often comes down to one major question: what kind of TV should I get? While there are several types of TV, two terms come up pretty often: LED TVs and LCD TVs.

But what’s the difference? It’s a question we hear a lot from budding home theater shoppers, but shouldn’t. Blame the acronyms. Here’s the quick answer: An LED TV is an LCD TV, but how the two came to be confused with each other might come as a surprise.

Once you’ve got a better grasp on LED and LCD TVs, check out our list for the best TVs you can buy for suggestions of our favorite picks of what’s currently available.

An LED TV is an LCD TV

Despite having a different acronym, an LED TV is just a different type of LCD TV. The proper name would actually be “LED-backlit LCD TV,” but that’s too much of a mouthful for everyday conversation, so people generally just refer to them as LED TVs.

Both types of TV make use of a liquid crystal display (LCD) panel to control where light is displayed on your screen. These panels are typically composed of two sheets of polarizing material with a liquid crystal solution between them, so when an electric current passes through the liquid, it causes the crystals to align so that light can (or can’t) pass through. Think of each crystal as a shutter, either allowing light to pass through or blocking it out.

Now, since both LED and LCD TVs use LCD technology, you’re probably wondering what the difference is. Actually, it’s about what the difference was. The LCD TVs you think of now no longer exist. Here’s why: Backlighting. Older LCD TVs used cold cathode fluorescent lamps (CCFLs) to provide backlighting, whereas LED TV’s used an array of smaller, more efficient light emitting diodes (LEDs) to illuminate the screen, which gave them a few advantages. Now, all LCD TVs use LED lights, and are colloquially considered LED TVs. Here’s how that works.

Backlighting

There are three different forms of illumination used in LCD TVs: CCFL backlighting, full array LED backlighting, and LED edgelighting. Each of these illumination technologies are different from one another in important ways, and each have pros and cons. Let’s dig into each.

CCFL Backlighting

CCFL backlighting is an older form of technology that has mostly been abandoned, though some manufacturers do use CCFLs in lower tier LCDs since they’re cheaper to make. A series of CCFLs sit across the inside of the TV behind the LCD display. The lights illuminate the crystals fairly evenly, which means all regions of the picture will have similar brightness levels. This affects some aspects of picture quality, which we discuss on the next page. Since CCFLs are larger than LED arrays, CCFL LCDs tend to be thicker than their LCD counterparts. As this is an outdated technology, you won’t find many models using this style of illumination. A few tend to crop up here and there, but they’re almost always on the cheaper end of the spectrum.

Full array backlighting

Full array backlighting swaps the outdated CCFLs for LEDs. An array of LEDs spans the back of the LCD screen, with zones of LEDs can be lit or dimmed in a process called local dimming (we go deeper into how local dimming works on the next page). TVs using full array LED backlighting make up a chunk the high-end LCD TV market, and with good reason — with more precise and even illumination, they can create better pictures than CCFLs LCD TV were ever able to achieve. Plus, they’re less of a power drain than CCFL LCDs were. Given these benefits, the shift to LEDs as industry standard made a lot of sense.

Edge lighting

Another form of LCD screen illumination is LED edgelighting. As the name implies, edgelit TVs have LEDs along edges of a screen. Within this lighting type there are a few different configurations, including: LEDs along just the bottom; the top and bottom; left and right; and along all four edges. These different configurations result in differences in picture quality, but the overall brightness capabilities still exceed what CCFL LEDs could achieve. While there are some drawbacks to edgelighting when compared to full array or direct backlight, the upshot is edgelighting allows for manufacturers to make thinner TVs and costs less to manufacture.

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