When OLED TVs first arrived in 2013, they were lauded for their perfect black levels and excellent color, but took a little bit of a hit due to brightness levels that couldn’t compete with LED/LCD TVs. There was also a huge price gap between OLED TVs and their premium LED/LCD counterparts. That’s all changed. OLED TVs are much brighter than they used to be, and the prices have come down. But LED TVs still have some distinct advantages. Let’s take a look at how these two TV technologies are different, and explore the strengths and weaknesses of each.
What is LED?
LED stands for light-emitting diode. These are little solid-state devices that make light due to the movement of electrons through a semi-conductor. Now the preferred choice as a backlight for LCD displays, LEDs can be created at a much smaller size than compact fluorescent and incandescent light bulbs, yet they can get extremely bright. However, LEDs aren’t small enough to be used as individual 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, with each LED illuminating a small cluster of pixels. For more info on that subject, visit our LED vs. LCD page.
What is OLED?
OLED stands for organic light-emitting diode. Very simply put, OLEDs are made with organic compounds that light up when fed electricity. That may not seem like a huge difference when compared to LEDs, but unlike LEDs, OLEDs can be made to be extremely thin, flexible, and remarkably small. In fact OLEDs can be so small that they can be used as individual pixels, millions of which occupy your TV screen, lighting up and shutting off totally independently. Because of this flexibility, when OLED’s pixels are shut off, they are completely off — completely black.
Now it’s time to pit the two technologies against each other and see how they stack up when it comes to elements such as contrast, viewing angle, brightness, and other performance considerations.
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, which selectively dims LEDs that don’t need to be on at full blast, LED TVs have historically struggled to produce dark blacks, and can suffer from an effect called “light bleed,” where lighter sections of the screen create a haze or bloom in adjacent darker areas. Even on the most advanced LED models, these are inevitable issues.
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. Sounds like an obvious choice to us.
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 their lifespan, but the pixel also takes a little while to return to total black. With those considerations in mind, it’s important to note that all modern TVs — OLED, LED/LCD, or otherwise — produce more than adequate brightness. The consideration then becomes where the TV will be used. In a dark room, an OLED TV is going to perform best, while LED TVs will outshine them, making them best for brightly lit environments.
OLED used to rule this 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. For those looking for TVs with Wide Color Gamut and/or HDR, you’ll find both OLED and LED models that support these features. OLED’s better contrast ratio is going to give it a slight edge in terms of HDR when viewed in dark rooms, but HDR on a premium LED/LCD screen has an edge because it can produce well-saturated colors at extreme brightness levels that OLED can’t quite match.
Response time and lag
Response time refers to the time it takes for each individual diode to change from “on” to “off.” With faster response time comes less motion blur and fewer artifacts (source material notwithstanding).
OLED, with its smaller diodes working as single pixels, simply blows LED/LCD TV out of the water in terms of response time. In contrast, the diodes in LED TVs are not only slower, but sit behind the LCD panel and illuminate clusters of pixels, not individual ones. This causes an overall slower change between “on” and “off” states. In fact, OLED currently offers the fastest response time of any TV technology in use today, making it a clear winner in this regard.
As for input lag, LG has improved its OLED TVs in this area, but we’ve not been able to test competing OLED TVs from other manufacturers yet. We do know that OLEDs aren’t an inherently bad choice for gamers, but which models will have the least input lag remains to be seen. It’s also hard to rank OLED against its LED/LCD TV competition because the input lag on LED/LCD TVs varies so greatly from model to model. Suffice it to say that OLED is certainly an option for gamers, and we’re interested to see how they perform in 2017
OLED, again, is the winner here. With LED screens, the best viewing angle is dead center, and the picture quality diminishes in both color and contrast the further you move to either side. While the severity differs between models, it’s always noticeable. LG produces an LCD panel known as IPS which has slightly better off-angle performance than VA-type LCD panels, but it’s still no competition for OLED.
OLED screens can be viewed with no luminance degradation at drastic viewing angles — up to 84 degrees. Compared to LED TVs, which have been tested to allow for a max viewing angle of 54 degrees at best, OLED has the clear advantage.
OLEDs have come a long way in this category. When the tech was still nascent, OLED screens were often dwarfed by LED/LCD displays. As OLED manufacturing has improved, the number of respectably large OLED displays has increased, but they’re still dwarfed by the largest LED displays, which can push past 100 inches in size, and beyond.
LG says you’d have to watch its OLED TVs 5 hours a day for 54 years before they fell to 50-percent brightness. Whether that’s true remains to be seen, as OLED TVs have only been out in the wild since 2013. For that reason and that reason only we’ll award this category to LED/LCD. It pays to have a proven track record.
Winner (for now) LED/LCD
We include this 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 appear to “burn” into the screen. 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 create 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” (logo graphic) that certain channels use disappears often enough or is made clear so as to avoid causing burn-in issues. 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.
That said, the potential is there, and it should be noted. Since LED/LCD TVs aren’t susceptible to burn-in, they win this fight by technicality.
OLED panels are extremely thin and require no backlight. As such, OLED TV’s tend to be lighter in weight than LED/LCD TVs and considerably thinner. They also require less power, making them more efficient.
Once upon a time, this category was handily won by LED/LCD TVs, but OLED TVs almost snap up this category based on price-to-performance ratio.
However, OLED TVs are premium TVs, period. Virtually no budget or mid-range tier exists for OLED. LED TVs, however, can range in price from a couple hundred dollars to several thousand dollars, making them overall more accessible than OLEDs. While prices of the highest-quality LED TVs hover at nearly the same range as the price of OLEDs, and at comparable quality, when judged by price and price alone, LED TVs can still be acquired for a pittance in comparison.
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 deserves the crown for its achievements.
Updated 4-6-2017 by Brendan Hesse to reflect current states of OLED and LED technology.