With the rapid evolution of televisions over the past few years, we've seen new technologies such as 3D, Smart content and – most recently – Ultra HD 4K (and higher) resolution all now firmly on the playing field. But there's one other technology that also comes with the potential to take the TV market into the next phase – and that's OLED.
The first OLED sets finally started hit the shelves in 2013, having been put on the back-burner for some time. These sets gave us a glimpse at what all the fuss was about, with a revolution in picture quality and slimline design promised; indeed, some could argue that a Full HD OLED set is capable of outperforming a 4K LED screen when it comes to the visual element.
But that promise appeared to wane somewhat during the initial weeks and months of 2014. First there was 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, LG was the sole manufacturer to show off a new range of OLED models for 2014, with rivals – including Samsung, Sony and Panasonic – focusing mainly on Ultra HD 4K TVs as the leading televisual trend of 2014.
Does that mean the other TV manufacturers had decided the costs and complexities of production were too prohibitive? The jury still remains out on that right now, but LG has reaffirmed its confidence in OLED - even if it accepts that prices will start at the higher end of the market. OLED, therefore, looks like it'll be keeping its head above the water at the very least, so why not 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. To give you an example of how slim, LG says its OLED sets are literally millimetres in width.
Here’s how the technology works: An organic, carbon-based film is placed between two conductors and an electrical current is passed through, which causes it to emit light. tThis 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. But 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.
By comparison, 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 sold for £8,000. Samsung’s first set, the KE55S9C, sold for £7,000. Prices are showing signs of coming down, however, with LG releasing a 55in curved OLED set earlier this summer for a mere $3500 in the US.
And because the technology is 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 price tags won’t start to drop in a significant fashion until these yield figures increase, but the good news is they’re improving at a faster rate than anticipated. That's one of the reasons why LG is targeting the high end of the market for the time being.
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.
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 have become a reality in 2014 too, with the launch of the LG G Flex. And it could make sense. Read our opinion piece on why curved phones could make more sense than curved TVs.
More after the break
4K OLED? Bendable OLED?
Not content with the introduction of OLED as a standalone option, LG is a manufacturer with big plans for the technology going into 2015. To begin with, the first Ultra HD 4K OLED sets are going to be making their debut in the UK before 2014 is out - a 65in variant will launch at a cost of £6500, while its 77in sibling hadn't been given a fixed price tag at time of writing.
And if that wasn't enough from LG, a bendable OLED screen is very much in the pipeline for 2015 - offering what the Korean giant describes as the "ultimate solution" for those who perhaps either haven't decided or would like to be able to switch between a flat and a curved screen, depending on preference and content type.
We've already seen a 77in flexible OLED screen from LG in action at CES 2014 and we've been told that, when it does become available, it will more than likely be just beyond the reach of most modest budgets to begin with. For now, however, you can see the bendable OLED in action above.
New OLED TVs for 2015
Apart from LG and Samsung, is there anyone else eyeing up OLED for 2015? It would appear so, yes.
Chinese manufacturer Haier announced a new TV range at IFA 2014 in Berlin - and that range included a 55in Full HD OLED set. We'll be keeping our eye out to see if it'll be coming to the UK, with pricing and release date to follow in due course.
There could also be a new challenger in 2015 too. TCL has unveiled a new technology called Quantum Dot (above) and is planning to release a Ultra HD 4K set with that tech on board. According to TCL, a Quantum Dot screen is claimed to be just one-third the cost of a comparable OLED set. Will it make much of an impression? Time will no doubt tell.
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