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 Samsung and LG are beginning to hit showrooms in the US, 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 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.
In terms of picture quality, OLED TVs are superior to LED/LCD TVs in nearly every way. 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.
Black Level - Winner: OLED
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 struggle to produce dark blacks. They also suffer from light bleeding out from the edges.
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.
Brightness – Winner (by a smidge): LED/LCD
When it comes to brightness, LED TVs have a slight advantage. LEDs are just really good at getting extremely bright. OLED TVs can get bright, too, but 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.
Color space – Winner: OLED
Both of the recently introduced OLED TVs are capable of covering a wider gamut of color space than LED/LCD televisions. Very basically explained, this means they can reproduce finer shades of more colors within the visible color spectrum.
Response time – Winner: OLED
While LED/LCD TVs have improved considerably over the past few years, OLED simply blows them 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).
Viewing angles – Winner: OLED
This is a tricky topic right now, because both of the OLED TV’s currently available for purchase in the US are curved. So, while OLED TV’s should offer perfect viewing angles due to the fact that OLEDs produce light rather than attempt to block it as LED/LCD TVs do, the curve introduces a couple of complications. Foremost, the side that is curved away from an off-axis viewer will be less visible than the side curved toward that viewer. Second, because of the curve, anti-glare coatings can tend to tint the image when viewed from extreme angles. With that said, OLED technology is still superior in this regard and a clear winner overall.
Size – Winner (for now): LED/LCD
One day, in the hopefully-not-too-distant future, we’ll all be dreaming of owning 80-inch OLED TV’s, but for now, that dream is limited to 55-inches. Meanwhile, Sharp produces a mammoth 90-inch LED/LCD TV that you can buy right now, albeit at roughly the same price as an OLED TV.
Apparently, scaling OLED up to 55-inches was a hefty challenge. But now that 55-inch sets have been achieved, perhaps moving up in size from there won’t be as tough.
Lifespan – Winner (for now) LED/LCD
OLED is unproven when it comes to lifespan, and there is some cause for concern here because the compound used to create the color blue in OLED televisions is known to have a shorter life span. As one color degrades, the rest will go out of whack. Samsung appears to be battling this issue by using a blue pixel that is twice the size of other colors and reducing the amount of voltage applied to it. LG uses white sub-pixels and lays a color filter over them to create the desired red, green and blue colors. These bandages may very well work, but only time and use in the public arena can tell how OLED will hold up on the long term. For that reason, we have to call LED/LCD the winner, as its lifespan has proven itself to be adequate.
Screen Burn-in – Winner: 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 a technicality.
Size, weight, power consumption – Winner: OLED, OLED, OLED
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.
Price – Winner: LED/LCD
Currently, an OLED TV is going to cost you either $9,000 (Samsung) or $15,000 (LG). We would be shocked – shocked! – if LG’s price didn’t come down in the coming months. Either way, $9,000 is a lot to pay for a television. And even though you can spend a little more on a much larger TV, the vast majority of televisions in the 55 – 65-inch price point are half OLED TV’s asking price or less. If affordability is a major consideration, LED/LCD is your best bet, and it probably will be for a few years.
We have a winner! Wait…do we?
In terms of picture quality, OLED absolutely crushes LED/LCD. And so does plasma, for that matter. But if you want the very best picture quality, you’re going to have to be ok with making a bunch of trade-offs. You’re going to have to live with a 55-inch TV while the Johnsons’ down the street giggle over their fancy new 70-incher. You’ll have live with the fact that the TV you buy now will be a fraction of the cost in just a year or two. You’ll have to accept that your TV will never be mounted on the wall while OLED owners just two years from now will be able to show off their much thinner-looking OLED TV as it disappears into their living-room decor. And, finally, you’ll have to steel yourself against the worry that your TV might not make it past the decade mark.
This begs the question: If money wasn’t a consideration, would you buy into OLED right now, or wait it out for a couple of years?