There are many different display technologies in competition for your precious dollars. Anyone who wants to buy a new television today has the choice of buying an LCD (liquid crystal display) or OLED (organic light-emitting diode) television.
Simple enough, right? Well, then you have to decide on one of many sub-technologies as well. Often hidden behind mysterious marketing jargon. In this confusing market space, we’ll soon have a third display technology contender in the form of MicroLED screens.
While OLED TVs are generally the superior (and more expensive) option compared to LCD televisions, MicroLED displays are just around the corner. Should you wait for MicroLED TVs or pull the trigger on an OLED display now instead? We’ll try to answer this question as clearly as possible.
The LCD Standard
Both OLED and MicroLED technologies are attempts at improving on standard LCD technology. LCD panels still make up the majority of flat panel displays. Modern LCD screens have advanced in leaps and bounds over early HD TVs and computer monitors. They have little blur, are bright and produce marvellous pictures. Unfortunately LCD technology has one universal flaw that always limits image quality, screen thickness and screen performance.
That flaw is the reliance on a backlight. LCD panels themselves don’t emit any light. So in order to actually see the image on screen you need to shine a light through it. The biggest problem here is that backlights make true blacks impossible. If every pixel on an LCD is set to show black, what you actually get is a sort of off-grey shade.
This has been addressed in various ways. Modern LCD screens use a method known as local dimming, which places an array of LED lights behind the panel and allows zones of the screen to be dimmed independently.
Yet for all the refinement in LCD technology, they still suffer from poor viewing angles, slow response times, color reproduction problems and input latency. Their biggest selling point is price. Today you can buy a large 4K LCD panel with excellent image quality for a very reasonable amount. However, it’s becoming clear that LCD technology is reaching the limits of what’s possible. Which brings us to OLEDs.
An OLED Overview
OLEDs address almost every one of the primary criticisms of LCD screens. The pixels in an OLED can each produce their own light. This means you don’t need a backlight and can display perfect, inky blacks. OLEDs can also be made at insanely low thicknesses. They can be viewed from almost any angle, they have lighting-fast response times and offer stunning color, contrast and brightness.
OLED certainly sounds like the perfect display technology on paper, but OLEDs have their own issues. The most serious problem is durability. Some of the organic picture elements in OLEDs have a relatively short lifetime compared to LCDs. On top of this, OLEDs are susceptible to image retention. Sometimes referred to as “burn-in”.
You may remember that plasma TVs, which is also an emissive technology, also suffered from this issue. When the image or parts of the image don’t change for a long period of time, a ghost image can stick around. Think of network logos or video game HUD elements.
Since these parts of the picture don’t change, those pixels can retain them. Modern OLED displays have fixes built into them to reduce the chances of this happening, but it’s a problem inherent to the technology.
We first saw MicroLED technology in practical application back in 2018, when Samsung showed off a massive 146” display at the Consumer Electronics Show. This screen wowed spectators, and since then we’ve all been waiting to see when MicroLED technology will make it to consumer products.
MicroLEDs use miniature LEDs to make up each pixel. They share the same advantages as OLED screens. That is, they emit their own light, can display true blacks and offer fast response times. However, the organic nature of OLED picture elements makes them relatively unstable. They are subject to decay over time and are sensitive to image retention, as mentioned above. MicroLEDs don’t have these issues.
MicroLED displays can also be built from smaller sub-panels, opening up interesting possibilities for the future. Especially when it comes to truly massive displays that would be impossible to create as a single LCD or OLED panel.
The Pros and Cons of OLED Vs MicroLED
We’ve laid both the OLED and MicroLED cards on the table, so now it’s time to compare the pros and cons of each technology to one another. Starting with OLED, here are the key strengths compared to MicroLED:
- A mature manufacturing process.
- Plenty of models to choose from.
- Rapidly falling prices, comparable to high-end LCD TVs.
On the MicroLED advantage list, we can pin the following plus-points:
- Better lifespan and image quality.
- Stable performance without degradation over time.
- The potential for massive displays made from modular sub-panels.
Both technologies have their weaknesses as well, the most important ones to consider when it comes to OLEDs are:
- A tendency to over-saturate colors and suffer from image retention
- Organic decay over time, affecting brightness and color.
For MicroLED displays, there are a few serious issues as well:
- Absolutely insane pricing on first-generation displays that are set for release in the near future.
- For now, image quality advantages over OLED are marginal, at least when both displays are new.
It’s clear that the competition between OLED and MicroLED technology is about to turn red-hot, but what does that mean for you? Should you wait for MicroLED?
Should You Wait for MicroLED?
At the time of writing, the answer to whether you should wait for MicroLED is no. At least when it comes to large displays such as televisions. MicroLED is now at a similar stage to where OLED technology was just a few years ago. It’s still very expensive to produce and manufacturers are learning how to cut production costs.
Just as with OLEDs, we’ll first see the technology in devices like phones and tablets. Premium tablets such as the iPad Pro are most likely to be the first examples that anyone can go out and buy.
Right now, when it comes to flat screen TVs, OLED is coming into its own. They are finally cheap enough where the jump from a higher-end LCD to an entry-level OLED isn’t that large. Given the significantly better display properties of OLEDs compared to LCD screens, it’s not too hard to recommend them right now. As long as you remain aware of their existing weaknesses when it comes to lifespan and image retention.
It’s also important not to forget about LCD technology. LCD TVs are falling sharply in price in response to both OLED and MicroLED technology. Not only that, there are still advancements to be made with LCD technology. For example, Samsung’s QLED technology attempts to approach the black levels and performance of OLED at a lower price. Each person should weigh all three technologies as they stand today.