OLED technology isn’t exactly new to the consumer electronics space anymore. Mobile phones have been using OLED screens in some form or another since 2001. But now that OLED televisions from LG are coming down in cost (with the promise of competition coming soon), people’s interest in OLED is beginning to tick up, and they have questions.
What makes an OLED TV better than an LED or LCD TV? How is OLED superior? Are there any disadvantages to OLED? We’ve got answers to those questions and more, in plain language, below.
What is an LED?
LED stands for light-emitting diode. These are little solid-state devices that make light because of the movement of electrons through a semi-conductor. LEDs are relatively small compared to compact fluorescent and incandescent light bulbs, but they can get extremely bright. However, LEDs aren’t small enough to be used as the pixels of a television – they’re way too big for that. That’s part of the reason why LEDs are only used as the backlight for LCD televisions. For more info on that, visit our LED vs. LCD page.
What is an OLED?
OLED stands for organic light-emitting diode. Very simply put, an OLED is made with organic compounds that light up when fed electricity. That may not seem like a huge difference when compared to LED, but OLEDs can be made to be extremely thin, small and remarkably flexible. On an OLED TV, each pixel lights itself up independently of the others, and when those pixels are shut of, they are complete off — completely black.
It used to be that OLED TVs were clearly superior to LED/LCD TVs in nearly every aspect, but with the recent introduction of quantum dots and improvements to backlighting technology, LED/LCD TVs are much better today than they were just three years ago. Today’s LED/LCD TVs have better blacks, less light bleed, and dramatically expanded color potential. The race may be tighter, but picture quality isn’t the only consideration at play. Let’s do a point-by-point breakdown of how OLED and LED TVs stack up against each other.
Editor’s note: Since OLED TVs are a premium display, we have compared OLED only to equally premium LED/LCD TVs armed with similar performance potential.
A display’s ability to produce deep, dark blacks is arguably the most important factor in achieving excellent picture quality. Deeper blacks allow for higher contrast and richer colors (among other things) and, thus, a more realistic and dazzling image. When it comes to black levels, OLED reigns as the undisputed champion.
LED TVs rely on LED backlights shining behind an LCD panel. Even with advanced dimming technology that dims LEDs that don’t need to be on at full blast, LED TVs have historically struggled to produce dark blacks, though they are better today than used to be a short time ago. The same goes for light bleed, which still exists, but has been minimized.
LED/LCD improvements aside, OLED TVs suffer from none of those problems. If an OLED pixel isn’t getting electricity, it doesn’t produce any light and is, therefore, totally black.
When it comes to brightness, LED TVs have a considerable advantage. LEDs were already good at getting extremely bright, but the addition of quantum dots allows them to get even brighter. OLED TVs can get pretty bright, too, and with such dark blacks, contrast is no issue. However, cranking OLED pixels to maximum brightness for extended periods not only reduces that pixel’s lifespan, but the pixel also takes a little while to return to total black.
OLED used to rule the category, but quantum dots, by improving the purity of the backlight, have allowed LED/LCD TVs to surge forward in color accuracy, color brightness, and color volume, putting them on par with OLED TVs. Today, most Ultra HD Premium TVs can achieve north of 90$ of the DCI/P3 color space, with even more color potential on the way.
OLED simply blows LED/LCD TV out of the water in terms of response time. In fact, OLED currently offers the fastest response time of any TV technology in use today, making it a clear winner in this regard. With faster response time comes less motion blur and less artifacts (source material notwithstanding).
OLED, again, is the clear winner here. While LG produces an LCD panel known as IPS which has slightly better off-angle performance than VA type LCD panels, it’s still no competition for OLED, which can be viewed with no luminance degregation by up to 84 degrees. Compare that with the best implementation of an IPS LCD panel, which last year tested out to a max 54 degrees, and fell precipitously from there.
LG just introduced its 77-inch OLED TV, a big leap up from the previous 65-inch maximum. That’s huge, but there are 85- and 90-inch TVs out there in the standard consumer market, and some manufacturers even offer massive 120-inch TVs. So, even though you have to pay through the nose for any of them, the LED/LCD TV wins the size war.
Winner (for now): LED/LCD, by a hair
LG says you’d have to watch its OLED TVs 5 hours a day for 54 years before they reached 50-percent brightness. Whether that’s true remains to be seen, as OLED TVs have only been out in the wild for a little over three years. For that reason and that reason only we’ll award this category to LED/LCD based solely on its proven track record.
Winner (for now) LED/LCD
We include the section begrudgingly, both because burn-in is a misnomer (that’s just an aggravation) and, for most folks, the effect will not be an issue.
The effect we’ve come to know as burn-in stems from the days of the boxy CRT TV, when prolonged display of a static image would cause that image to to appear to “burn” into the screen. But what was actually happening was the phosphors that coated the back of the TV screen would glow for extended periods of time without any rest, causing the phosphors to wear out and resulting in the appearance of a burned-in image. We think this should be called “burn out.” But … whatever.
The same issue is at play with plasma and OLED TVs because the compounds that light up can degrade over time. If you burn a pixel long and hard enough, you will cause it to dim prematurely and ahead of the rest of the pixels, creating a dark impression. However, in reality, this is not very likely to cause a problem for anyone. You’d have to abuse the TV intentionally in order to get it to happen. Even the “bug” (or, logo graphic) that certain channels use disappears often enough or is made clear so as to avoid causing burn-in. You’d have to watch ESPN all day every day (for many days) at the brightest possible setting to cause a problem, and even then it still isn’t very likely.
But, the potential is there, and it should be noted. Since LED/LCD TVs aren’t susceptible to burn-in, they win this fight on another technicality.
OLED panels are extremely thin and they require no backlight. As such, OLED TV’s tend to be lighter than LED/LCD TVs and considerably thinner. They also require less power, making them more efficient.
Winner: OLED, OLED, OLED
Once upon a time, this category was handily one by LED/LCD TV, but now that you can get a 55-inch LG B6 OLED for under $2500, the OLED almost snaps up this category based on price-to-performance ratio. However, a comparable LED/LCD TV from Sony or Samsung still hovers at $1700 and $2,000 respectively, so we have to hand it to LED/LCD TV in this case.
We have a winner!
In terms of picture quality, OLED still beats LED/LCD, even though the latter technology has seen many improvements of late. OLED is also lighter, thinner, uses less energy, offers the best viewing angle by far, and, though still a little more expensive, has come down in price considerably. What once was a difficult decision has become a much easier one: OLED is the superior TV technology today. If this article were about value alone, LED/LCD would still win, but OLED has come a long way in a short time and now deserves the crown.