LED vs. LCD TVs explained: What’s the difference?

Thinking of putting together or upgrading your home theater setup? There are many factors to consider, but the process often begins with one major question: What kind of TV should you get? Current top-of-the-line TV technology like popular OLEDs from LG or QLED panels from Samsung might get a lot of attention, but they can still cost a pretty penny. Until overall OLED and QLED panels become more affordable, LED and LCD televisions still offer up a viable, quality option for the more budget-conscious.

But what’s the difference? It’s a question we hear often from home theater shoppers confused by all the jargon and acronyms. Here’s the quick answer: An LED TV is an LCD TV, but how the definition of each term became so muddled might come as a surprise.

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LED and LCD: Together forever

LG OLED television

Despite having a different acronym, LED TV is just a specific type of LCD TV, which uses 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. 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 it as a shutter, either allowing light to pass through or blocking it out.

Since both LED and LCD TVs are based around LCD technology, the question remains: what is the difference? Actually, it’s about what the difference was. Older LCD TVs used cold cathode fluorescent lamps (CCFLs) to provide lighting, whereas LED LCD TVs used an array of smaller, more efficient light-emitting diodes (LEDs) to illuminate the screen.

Since the technology is better, all LCD TVs now use LED lights and are colloquially considered LED TVs. For those interested, we’ll go deeper into backlighting below, or you can move onto the Local Dimming section.

Backlighting

Three basic illumination forms have been used in LCD TVs: CCFL backlighting, full-array LED backlighting, and LED edge lighting. Each of these illumination technologies is different from one another in important ways. Let’s dig into each.

CCFL Backlighting

CCFL backlighting is an older, now-abandoned form of display technology in which a series of cold cathode lamps sit across the inside of the TV behind the LCD. 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 in more detail below. Since CCFLs are larger than LED arrays, CCFL-based LCD TVs are thicker than LED-backlit LCD TVs.

Full-array backlighting

Full-array backlighting swaps the outdated CCFLs for an array of LEDs spanning the back of the screen, comprising zones of LEDs that can be lit or dimmed in a process called local dimming. TVs using full-array LED backlighting to make up a healthy chunk of the high-end LED TV market, and with good reason — with more precise and even illumination, they can create better picture quality than CCFL LCD TVs were ever able to achieve, with better energy efficiency to boot.

Edge lighting

Another form of LCD screen illumination is LED edge lighting. As the name implies, edge-lit TVs have LEDs along the edges of a screen. There are a few different configurations, including LEDs along just the bottom, LEDs on the top and bottom, LEDs left and right, and LEDs along all four edges. These different configurations result in picture quality differences, but the overall brightness capabilities still exceed what CCFL LCD TVs could achieve. While there are some drawbacks to edge lighting compared to full-array or direct backlight displays, the upshot is edge lighting that allows manufacturers to make thinner TVs that cost less to manufacture.

To better close the local-dimming quality gap between edge-lit TVs and full-array back-lit TVs, manufacturers like Sony and Samsung developed their own advanced edge lighting forms. Sony’s technology is known as “Slim Backlight Master Drive,” while Samsung has “Infinite Array” employed in its line of QLED TVs. These keep the slim form factor achievable through edge-lit design and local dimming quality more on par with full-array backlighting.

What is local dimming?

Local dimming is a feature of LED LCD TVs wherein the LED light source behind the LCD is dimmed and illuminated to match what the picture demands. LCDs can’t completely prevent light from passing through, even during dark scenes, so dimming the light source itself aids in creating deeper blacks and more impressive contrast in the picture. This is accomplished by selectively dimming the LEDs when that particular part of the picture — or region — is intended to be dark.

Local dimming helps LED/LCD TVs more closely match the quality of modern OLED displays, which feature better contrast levels by their nature — something CCFL LCD TVs couldn’t do. The quality of local dimming varies depending on which type of backlighting your LCD uses, how many individual zones of backlighting are employed, and the quality of the processing. Here’s an overview of how effective local dimming is on each type of LCD TV.

Full-array and direct local backlighting

TVs with full-array backlighting have the most accurate local dimming and therefore tend to offer the best contrast. Since an array of LEDs spans the entire back of the LCD screen, regions can generally be dimmed with more finesse than on edge-lit TVs, and brightness tends to be uniform across the entire screen. Vizio’s impressive P-Series are great examples of relatively affordable models that use multiple-zone, full-array backlighting with local dimming.

“Direct local dimming” is essentially the same thing as full-array dimming, just with fewer LEDs spread further apart in the array. However, it’s worth noting that many manufacturers do not differentiate “direct local dimming” from full-array dimming as two separate forms of local dimming. We still feel it’s important to note the difference, as fewer, further-spaced LEDs will not have the same accuracy and consistency as full-array displays.

Edge lighting

Because edge lighting employs LEDs positioned on the edge or edges of the screen to project light across the back of the LCD screen, as opposed to coming from directly behind it, it can result in very subtle blocks or bands of lighter pixels within or around areas that should be dark. The local dimming of edge-lit TVs can sometimes result in some murkiness in dark areas compared with full-array LED TVs. It should also be noted that not all LED edge-lit TVs offer local dimming, which is why it is not uncommon to see glowing strips of light at the edges of a TV and less brightness toward the center of the screen.

CCFL Backlighting

Since CCFL backlit TVs do not use LEDs, models with this lighting style do not have dimming abilities. Instead, the LCD panel of CCFL LCDs is constantly and evenly illuminated, making a noticeable difference in picture quality compared to LED LCDs. This is especially noticeable in scenes with high contrast, as the dark portions of the picture may appear too bright or washed out. When watching in a well-lit room, it’s easier to ignore or miss the difference, but in a dark room, it will be, well, glaring.

OLED vs. QLED

As if it wasn’t already confusing enough, once you begin exploring the world of modern display technology, new acronyms crop up. The two you’ll most commonly find are OLED and QLED.

Despite the similar-sounding name, OLED (organic light-emitting diode) TVs are in a category all their own. We have an in-depth guide on the differences between OLED and QLED displays, but here’s a quick overview.

An OLED display uses a panel of pixel-sized organic compounds that respond to electricity. Since each tiny pixel (millions of which are present in modern displays) can be turned on or off individually, OLED displays are called “emissive” displays (meaning they require no backlight). They offer incredibly deep contrast ratios and better per-pixel accuracy than any other display type on the market.

Because they don’t require a separate light source, OLED displays are also amazingly thin — often just a few millimeters. OLED panels are often found on high-end TVs in place of LED/LCD technology, but that doesn’t mean that LED/LCDs aren’t without their own premium technology.

QLED is a premium tier of LED/LCD TVs from Samsung. Unlike OLED displays, QLED is not a so-called emissive display technology (lights still illuminate QLED pixels from behind). However, QLED TVs feature an updated illumination technology over regular LED LCDs in the form of Quantum Dot material (hence the “Q” in QLED), which raises overall efficiency and brightness. This translates to better, brighter grayscale and color and enhances HDR (High Dynamic Range) abilities.

Things will get even more confusing in the future, with Samsung working on tech that combines QLED and OLED to give folks the best of both worlds.

For a more detailed explanation of QLED, be sure to read our list of the best TVs you can buy, which details QLED and OLED TVs’ many features. We also recommend checking out our OLED vs. QLED piece for a look at how these two premium-tier display technologies stack up

And there are even more display types to become acquainted with, including microLED and Mini-LED, which are set to go head to head as two of the latest TV technologies. We also recommend checking out how they compare to the current leaders by reading out the OLED vs. MicroLED guide and our Mini-LED vs. QLED guide.

There’s never a dull moment in TV land, but we’ve got all the info you need to stay informed and keep your Best Buy salesperson on his or her toes.

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