In the face of near-endless excellent reviews for OLED TVs, Samsung’s insistence on sticking with its own, rival telly technology might seem increasingly stubborn. But the company does have its reasons, and they go beyond simply not wanting to get into bed with its arch rival (and modern OLED progenitor) LG.
So what is QLED, and why would you consider it over OLED? Allow us to explain…
What is QLED?
QLED stands for Quantum dot Light Emitting Diode and, while it currently has quite a lot in common with LED-backlit LCD TVs, it’s actually intended as the next step on from OLED.
Samsung is the only manufacturer currently selling QLED TVs, while the last year has seen an explosion in OLED models from a variety of rival manufacturers - although all of those use panels manufactured by LG Display.
The idea is that, ultimately, QLED will combine the very best picture quality features of OLED (super-deep blacks, amazing contrast, superior viewing angles) with far superior brightness and colours.
How does QLED work?
QLED works using quantum dots, which have actually been around a little while - Samsung’s so-called SUHD TVs were using them back in 2016 - but they’ve become more of a talking point over the last year or so.
Quantum dots are tiny semiconductor particles only a few nanometers in size, and in the future they’ll be able to emit their own light. Right now, though, Samsung’s quantum dots rely on being hit by light from a backlight, much as current LCD TVs do.
The quantum dots convert the backlight’s white light into coloured light, with the resulting colour being depending on the size of the quantum dot itself - larger ones give off light at the red end of the spectrum, smaller ones at the blue end.
(Given we’re talking nanometers here, "larger" is obviously relative.)
The advantage of quantum dots in their current incarnation is significantly improved colours over LCD and, arguably, even over OLED. Certainly Samsung’s 2017 QLEDs were masters of vibrancy and lusciousness, and while using a backlight sort-of seems like cheating, the pay off is brightness that OLED can’t get close to.
More after the break
But things get really exciting when we look forward to those next-gen quantum dots emitting their own light. These photoluminescent quantum dots will give the TV the ability to light up and turn off individual pixels, just like an OLED set, while theoretically retaining the advantages of greater vibrancy and brightness.
Unfortunately, it looks as though TVs that utilise photoluminescent quantum dots are still quite a long way off. Samsung’s focus for 2018 is on improving the backlights of its QLEDs. We understand the mainstream QLED range will this year include direct LED backlighting (last year’s were all edge-lit), and we’ve seen two concepts that go a step further - one that uses a MicroLED panel for a backlight, and another with an LED backlight consisting of around 10,000 zones that can be lit individually.
The latter of those concepts will, according to Samsung, go into production towards the end of the year. There’d be little point in launching that model if photoluminescent quantum dots were just around the corner, so we’re going to go out on a limb and say it’ll be 2020 at least before these next-gen QLEDs appear in shops.
How does it compare to OLED?
You’ll find our full OLED vs QLED feature here, but the long and the short of it is: Samsung’s QLEDs do deliver on the promise of brighter, more vibrant colours than their OLED rivals but there are compromises too, all of which come from the reliance on a backlight.
For one, the backlight takes up extra physical space, which means that QLEDs simply can’t get as deliciously thin as OLED panels. There’s also the unavoidable fact that until each quantum dot can be lit individually, lighting a bright image in the centre of the screen is going to have an impact on the depth of blacks around it.
Samsung would point to price being a factor too, although we’d argue the company’s 2017 QLEDs, while generally a bit cheaper than their OLED rivals, didn’t undercut them quite enough. Perhaps Samsung has been as surprised by falling OLED prices as we have.
Either way, we’ve been told that 2018’s QLEDs will be even more affordable, although no prices (or even final specs or model numbers) have yet been confirmed.
Samsung also claims OLED has essentially hit its limit in terms of peak brightness, whereas we’re still in the early days of what QLED can achieve in that regard. It also says that OLEDs are prone to image burn-in - although this is not something we’ve ever seen first-hand or have received reports from our readers about, so should be taken with a pinch of salt at the very least.
It's also been claimed that QLED TVs use roughly half as much power as OLED screens, making them cheaper to run. You might not think that makes a big difference, but running a TV can be an expensive business.
Recently, British Gas claimed 4K TVs are costing British homes an extra £1.8m in electricity costs because they use more power than non-4K sets. This figure is expected to rise to as much as £82m by 2019. So a more efficient TV would be most welcome.
What does the future hold for QLED?
Samsung's native 8K QLED TV
Samsung isn't the only manufacturer backing quantum dot TV tech. Chinese company Hisense joined Samsung in a "QLED Alliance" mid-2017, but we've yet to hear of any new developments from that quarter. Philips has made better headway, announcing last year that quantum dot technology (not QLED) will be used for the first time for its 8000 4K LCD TV range.
But no one is flying the flag for QLED quite like Samsung. QLED might currently seem like the product of a single TV manufacturer refusing to in any way endorse tech that’s being pioneered by its arch-rival - but it’s genuinely believed it is, in fact, the natural successor to OLED. Most manufacturers - LG included - are working under that assumption.
If you think of photoluminescent quantum dots as the end goal, what we’ve currently got is two different short-term approaches: LG is focused on the self-emissive element with its OLEDs, while Samsung is obsessed with the quantum dots themselves.
That leads us to believe Samsung will be the only manufacturer selling QLED TVs in any meaningful way until the photoluminescent quantum dot nut is cracked - which, as mentioned, is a couple of years away at the very least.
One has to suspect the likes of LG will avoid using the term ‘QLED’, which is now synonymous with Samsung, when that time comes anyway.
In the meantime, those looking for the vibrancy and punch offered by QLED have two options: take advantage of the discounts currently offered on Samsung’s 2017 QLEDs, or wait a couple of months for the new, apparently better and cheaper range to appear. More detail on those new models as soon as we have it.