With the resolution race old news, backlighting technology is the new black in the TV world. Next-generation display solutions have escalated from whispers to conversation points and have even now materialised into TVs that you can actually buy, in the case of Mini LED, and they're really rather good.
Not to be confused with MicroLED, Mini LED is currently pitched as an affordable OLED rival for the here and now with MicroLED a very intricate, highly expensive proposition promising to, one day, be the gold standard of TV.
Despite their similarity in name, they are actually markedly different – vastly different technologically, backed by different TV manufacturers, and attached to very different asking prices.
Below we explain what Mini LED is, how it compares to LCD, OLED and MicroLED, and how you can get your hands on a Mini LED TV.
What is Mini LED?
An evolutionary rather than revolutionary technology, Mini LED advances traditional LED TV tech to deliver better contrast control and deeper blacks. Like OLED, it's a premium offering.
All LCD TVs use a backlight to provide the light source for your TV viewing. In recent times that backlighting has come in the form of LEDs, numbering in the hundreds. Mini LED has taken that one step further by using LEDs which are are much, much smaller. About one-fortieth of the size of regular LED backlights, they're not unlike glitter in appearance, which is quite astonishing thing to see and realise.
The big advantage here is that it's possible to have many more of them for each TV. It's about a ten-fold increase, with them numbering the thousands and arranged into more dimming zones than before.
More subtle light control means better contrast, both in terms of absolute dynamics but also, usually, it means an increased and more complex array of simultaneous lighting levels. That makes for more precise shading and a better sense of depth to the picture, and more realistic and nuanced colour reproduction than your average LCD TV.
Mini LED TVs can reach a higher peak brightness than an OLED TV, and, as there is greater control over what portions of the screen are dark, it's easier to achieve deep blacks too. Theoretically, as the LED backlights do not control every single pixel individually, Mini LED TVs shouldn't be able to produce quite the same depth of lights-off blacks that OLEDs can. That said, we've been very, very impressed with the black depth of the Mini LED TVs we've had in for review so far.
Mini LED vs MicroLED: what's the difference?
MicroLED technology is more similar to OLED than LCD in that it is also a self-emissive technology – meaning each diode can individually turn on and off the light of each pixel, and the colour and intensity displayed by one can be different to the colour displayed on the one directly next to it.
MicroLED sets, such as Samsung’s The Wall and Sony’s Crystal LED TVs, are similar to OLEDs in their self-emissive properties, then, but instead of using organic light emitting diodes they use tiny, non-organic LEDs - three (red, green and blue) per pixel. The fact they're not organic means they should have a long lifespan and not succumb to fading, they should be capable of much higher brightness, and they're power-efficient because they don't need to shine through a colour filter.
Each pixel requiring three LEDs does, however, mean a 4K set requires 25 million of the tiny things, and mass producing these in perfect alignment and with no variation in brightness is a serious challenge. Because of this, and the benchmark quality these TVs should produce, be prepared for the first MicroLEDs to be super expensive (think five figures), as Samsung's The Wall installation is.
Mini LED is a much less intricate technology than MicroLED, then, and can be seen as a transitional technology between traditional LCD and MicroLED – and as an affordable alternative to OLED.
What Mini LED TVs are available?
Samsung has gone in two-footed with Mini LED for 2021 by bring the new backlighting tech to its more premium QLED models. The ones to look out for are the 8K QN900A, QN800A and QN700A Neo QLED TVs and the QN95A, QN94A, QN90A and QN85A 4K TVs. You can find full details and pricing on our Samsung TV line-up 2021 page.
LG has also made a grab for Mini LED but has chosen to protect its premium OLED range and position its QNED Mini LED TVs one rung below. These sets combine Mini LED backlights with Quantum Dot and NanoCell technologies.
There are 10 QNED models across four series – QNED99, QNED95, QNED90 and QNED85 – spanning 65-inches to 86-inches. LG states that its top-of-the-line 8K QNED TV will be backlit by approximately 30,000 LEDs, creating approximately 2500 local dimming zones. They're powered by the Alpha 9 Gen 4 processor, while the rest of the spec sheet includes support for Dolby Vision/IQ, HDR10, HLG, ALLM and HGiG, along with LG's own dynamic range technology, HDR10 Pro. You can find more details on the LG QNED TVs here.
They launch first in North America and Australia before arriving in other regions from July 2021. Prices start at £2499 ($1,997) for the 65-inch QNED90 4K TV and head up to £7999 ($6497) for the 86-inch QNED99 8K TV.
TCL has been quick out of the gates with Mini LED tech. As of this year, you can buy TCL Mini LED TVs across the UK, Europe and North America. The top model for the UK and Europe is the TCL C825K Series, which comes in 55-inch and 65-inch sizes. It's a 100Hz, 4K HDR screen fitted with an Onkyo-tuned 3.1.2 Dolby Atmos soundbar.
In the States, look out for the TCL 8-series Mini LED TVs. The 65-inch model is in and out of stock at around $1200 at Best Buy, while the 75-inch variant looks a good deal at $1430. The TCL 6-Series is also a Mini LED TV-backed for 2021. It's available at $950 (55 inches), $1300 (65 inches) and $1710 (75 inches).
The other big and growing name in the TV space to have taken to Mini LED this year is Hisense. The flagship, 8K Hisense U9GQ (£3299) claims over 10,000 backlights to create a peak brightness of 3000 nits across its 75-inch panel. Like most, it's also paired with quantum dot technology for colour accuracy. It features HDR10+ and Dolby Vision, a high refresh rate of 120Hz, and is scheduled for launch this summer.