With the rapid evolution of televisions over the past few years, we've seen new technologies such as 3D, Smart content and – most recently – 4K and Ultra HD resolution all enter the playing field. But there's one other technology also looking to take the TV market into the next phase – OLED.
In 2013, the first OLED sets finally started hit the shelves after being on the back-burner for some time and gave us a glimpse at what all the fuss was about, with a revolution in picture quality and slimline design promised. The start of 2014, however, has been less encouraging from an OLED perspective.
First there was the news that Sony and Panasonic had ended an OLED TV production partnership in order to focus on 4K Ultra HD TV production, with no visible increase in demand nor any advance in the efficiency and affordability of production methods seemingly responsible for the end of the partnership.
And at the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, US, LG were the sole manufacturer to show off a new range of OLED model s for 2014 as others – including Samsung, Sony and Panasonic – focusing mainly on 4K Ultra HD TVs for the year ahead.
Have other TV manufacturers decided the costs and complexities of production are too prohibitive? We'll be watching that one very closely throughout the year – but in the mean time, you can find out more information about OLED, how the technology works and which TVs are already on the market.
OLED – what is it?
OLED – or Organic Light-Emitting Diode – is a type of display technology that makes it possible to create even slimmer TV sets than LCD and plasma, and more efficient, eco-friendly ones too.
Here’s how it works. An organic, carbon-based film is placed between two conductors and an electrical current is passed through, which causes it to emit light.
This differs from LCD TVs, which require a backlight to create their brightness. OLED pixels are self-emissive and generate their own light.
There are two types of OLED technology, Passive-Matrix (PMOLED) and Active-Matrix (AMOLED). Active-Matrix requires electronics to switch each pixel on or off individually, which is better for displaying motion and therefore the type used for OLED TVs.
So far, only two manufacturers have launched OLED TVs in the UK – LG and Samsung – with Panasonic and Sony due to follow suit. There is a crucial difference between the OLED technologies used by LG and Samsung, relating to the sub-pixel structure.
In its OLED TVs, Samsung uses a traditional red, green and blue (RGB) pixel structure with no colour filters, just like you’d find on a plasma.
However, LG OLED TVs use WRGB 4-colour pixel technology, which adds a fourth white sub-pixel. White light is shone through a colour filter to create the red, green and blue sub-pixels. LG says this results in a brighter picture.
OLED TV benefits
OLED technology has several advantages over LCD and plasma technology. First there are the physical benefits – OLED sets are lighter and thinner than LCD due to the lack of a backlight.
But of greater interest to home cinema enthusiasts are the picture quality benefits, of which there are several. Because OLED pixels emit light directly, viewing angles are much wider, plus colour and contrast stay the same from as far as 90 degrees off centre.
And because each pixel can be turned off individually, OLED TVs can deliver an absolute black and infinite contrast ratio – the Holy Grail for picture purists everywhere. OLED pictures are also brighter and achieve response times of less than 0.01ms, which practically eliminates motion blur.
OLED TV problems
It’s not all rosy in the OLED garden however. OLED is extremely expensive to produce and therefore to buy – LG’s first 55in set, the 55EM970V cost £10,000 at launch, and its 55EA980W sells for £8,000. Samsung’s first set, the KE55S9C, sells for £7,000.
Because it’s still in its infancy, OLED production has a relatively low yield, which means that for every set fit for sale, a high number are consigned to the scrapheap.
Recent reports put LG’s OLED yield at 60-70%, while Samsung is at 40-50%. OLED’s hefty price tags won’t start to drop until these yield figures increase, but the good news is they’re improving at a faster rate than anticipated.
Another of OLED’s problems concerns the pesky blue pixel. Because the OLED material used to make blue light deteriorates more quickly than red and green, its lifespan is shorter ,and over time the colour balance could be affected.
Samsung’s solution is to make the blue pixel twice the size of the other colours while LG’s WRGB system should side-step the problem, but as OLED is in its infancy it’s hard to know how this issue will play out in the long term.
It’s also worth noting that like plasma, OLED is susceptible to screen burn. And if you’re after an OLED bigger or smaller than 55in you’ll have a wait on your hands, because other sizes are currently difficult to manufacture.
What about curved OLED TVs?
The latest OLED TVs launched in the UK by Samsung and LG feature curved screens. There has been much scepticism over this – indeed we saw it as both a plus and a minus in our review of the Samsung curved OLED TV.
“It’s an outlandish idea,” we said, “not unlike a concept car: it’s very cool, even if it might not be entirely practical.” The curve also means Samsung’s set can’t be wall mounted.
Manufacturers believe the curve enhances the viewing experience. Samsung says it provides “depth to the content displayed for a more life-like viewing experience” and delivers an “immersive panorama effect.” LG has said the curve is there to “remove the problem of screen-edge visual distortion and detail loss”.
Marketing ploy or a genuine viewing enhancement? Whatever your take, it’s a nifty way to differentiate OLED offerings from other TV ranges and gives anyone rich enough to afford one something cool and distinctive for their money. When curved OLED TV prices tumble, expect flat OLED sets to become the norm.
Curved phones are also likely to become a reality in 2014, with the launch of the LG G Flex and rumours of curved iPhones. And it could make sense. Read our opinion piece on why curved phones could make more sense than curved TVs.
More after the break
Another curved 55in TV on sale now for a wallet-busting price, we found this curved OLED LG TV delivered brilliant black levels, punchy whites and natural colours.
There are slight motion issues and edges could be crisper – and of course it's very expensive. But for a first OLED effort, we're impressed by this LG TV.
MORE: LG 55EA980W review
The world’s first commercial large-screen OLED TV was launched in March 2013 and boasts a flat screen
New OLED TVs for 2014
CES is certainly an appropriate place for manufacturers to showcase futuristic technology and 2014 was no different, with LG delivering the goods in the shape of a 77in, flexible OLED TV (above). Claimed as a world first, the angle of the curve on the set can be controlled by the viewer.
LG is releasing a range of curved OLED 4K Ultra HD sets in 2014, which will include 55in, 65in and 77in versions. Meanwhile, the 55EA8800 Gallery OLED is a flat model with a screen surrounded by what looks like a picture frame, but which actually houses the speakers. The TV will display photos and art as a screen saver when the TV isn't in use.