MicroLED promises to be the next big upgrade in TV technology. But what is it? How does it work? When will it be available and how much will it cost? What’s more, is it actually all it’s cracked up to be?
After a hands-on briefing with Samsung's first MicroLED TV at CES 2019, allow us to give you the lowdown on why everyone is so excited about what MicroLED displays have to offer.
What is MicroLED?
At this point it’s fairly accepted wisdom that TV backlights are fundamentally flawed. Even the really excellent examples, such as on the Samsung Q90, are limited in terms of fine control of contrast and add to the overall thickness of the set.
Ditching the backlight is therefore the way the TV industry is heading, but while some manufacturers have thrown their weight behind OLED, which is self-emissive, Samsung has avoided it, citing brightness limitations and concerns over the lifespan of the organic compounds. Ultimately, its goal is almost certainly self-emissive quantum dots, but with those still seemingly a long way off, the company is also throwing its considerable weight behind MicroLED.
MicroLED sets are similar to OLEDs in their self-emissive properties, but instead of using organic light emitting diodes they use tiny, non-organic LEDs - three per pixel. That means that each pixel can be turned on or off individually, or can display a completely different colour to the one next to it. The result is essentially perfect contrast and colour control.
What are the advantages of MicroLED?
Of course, that’s essentially what OLED already does, but there are clear advantages to MicroLED. The first is increased brightness: while it’s widely thought that OLED is inherently limited to a peak brightness of around 1000 nits, Samsung says its first commercially available MicroLED sets will boast 4000 nits, and could go as high as 10,000 nits in the fairly near future.
Secondly, because MicroLEDs aren’t organic, their lifespan isn’t nearly as short as that of OLEDs. While OLEDs are generally expected to fade in time, Samsung says its MicroLEDs will keep going for around 100,000 hours - that’s over 11 years of non-stop use.
Thirdly, MicroLEDs are very power-efficient, largely because there’s no need for a colour filter for them to shine through. There’s nothing between the LEDs and your eyes, so they can be brighter with less effort.
Fourthly, MicroLEDs should, in the long-run, be fairly cost-effective to produce. That said, the first sets will be prohibitively expensive - more on that below.
Then there are the qualities that MicroLED shares with OLED, such as exceptional thinness (in fact, MicroLED panels could be even thinner than OLEDs), a non-reliance on bezels, and essentially perfect viewing angles.
In other words, MicroLED is designed to take the best of OLED and make it brighter, longer-lasting and more affordable.
What are the disadvantages of MicroLED?
The big disadvantage of MicroLED TVs is how tricky they are to manufacture. Each pixel requiring three LEDs means a 4K set requires 25 million of the tiny things, and mass producing these in perfect alignment and with no variation in brightness is apparently a very serious challenge.
This will likely lead to prices being very high in the first place, although they should come down once the manufacturing process has been refined. IHS Markit predicts MicroLED shipments will rise from under 1000 this year to 15.5m by 2026, thanks to a dramatic drop in manufacturing costs, which should bring the price down drastically.
Samsung's MicroLED plan
So that’s the theory, what about the practice? Well, Samsung has pretty concrete plans in that regard. The company’s first public foray into MicroLED was The Wall, demonstrated at CES 2018. At 146in it wasn’t exactly consumer-friendly, but as a tech demo it was rather convincing.
What’s perhaps most interesting about The Wall, besides the picture quality, is its modular nature. It’s constructed using MicroLED panels, and while it was shown in a traditional 16:9 configuration, it can actually be specified at any size and ratio. At CES 2019 Samsung revealed not only a monstrously big, 219in version of The Wall, but also a number of samples at unusual ratios.
The Wall began as more of a commercial proposition than a product for consumers, but Samsung has now announced a version for the man on the street. Well, the man on the street who has money to burn and live in a mansion.
Why so big? Actually, Samsung says it’s perfectly capable of producing MicroLED sets as small as 40in, but that it’s focused on bigger screens on account of industry trends and hitting a price-to-size balance (those 40in screens would likely be disproportionately expensive).
Samsung feels that it’s pretty much cracked the manufacturing process, but that doesn’t mean the initial models will be affordable. While the company won’t go into specifics, we’re expecting these first MicroLED sets to be priced in the tens of thousands. However, as mentioned above, prices will apparently fall quickly.
Samsung is keen to push all of its MicroLED displays as more than simply TVs. Thanks to the long life and ultra-low power consumption, it says they can be left on all of the time. The company’s Ambient mode, already available on its QLED TVs, will really hit its stride here - remember that the TVs can be ultra-thin and bezel-free, so could almost disappear against the wall upon which they’re mounted. Or, Samsung says, it could be used as a virtual fish tank, or even a pretend window. It could always be on and displaying useful information, such as news headlines, weather or your calendar.
Samsung is also keen that these MicroLED sets usher in new ways of interaction with a display, suggesting that they won’t require a traditional remote control to operate.
One thing that isn’t decided is how Samsung’s MicroLED TVs will generate sound. Traditional TV speakers require bezels and add thickness, which would rather diminish the aesthetic goal of MicroLED. Going down the acoustic surface route employed by Sony on its A1 and AF9 OLEDs is an option, but this too adds thickness and Samsung isn’t convinced it’s the best approach from a sound quality point of view. It may be that the MicroLED TVs are sold simply as displays, with discrete sound systems offered as add-ons.
Hands-on with Samsung’s 75in MicroLED TV
All of the above would be so much hot air were it not for the fact that Samsung has actually treated us to a demo of its 75in MicroLED prototype, which is, we’re happy to say, incredibly impressive.
Interestingly, while these first consumer models will come in fixed sizes, they’ll still be created by combining a number of modules. In the case of the 75in prototype here, there are 64 modules in an 8x8 configuration.
It is actually possible to see the borders between the modules on this prototype, albeit only when looking very closely indeed. At a metre or two from the set they’re invisible.
While Samsung says its consumer sets will be 4000 nits at launch, this prototype’s peak brightness is ‘only’ 1000 nits. It looks vastly brighter, though, largely thanks to the lack of a colour filter. This is a stunningly punchy and vibrant image with truly exceptional colours. Everything looks real and life-like, to an extent we've not experienced before.
Night skies are fabulous - perfectly black with perfectly white, bright stars. Striking doesn’t even begin to cover it. Wildlife footage is brilliant, too, with wonderfully lush, vibrant foliage.
But if your impression now is of a sort of visual bombardment of bright whites and colours, that’s really not the case - there’s superb subtlety to the way it reproduces the rough, grey skin of a lizard, and at no point do we feel as if we’re seeing anything other than real authenticity.
Oh, and just to confirm, the viewing angles of this prototype are essentially flawless. From any point in the room, the colours and blacks remain totally consistent.
We’ve got to remember that the 75in model we’ve seen first-hand is just a prototype. It doesn’t have a model number, a price, speakers, proper connections or a chassis.
It is, though, enough to convince us of the benefits of MicroLED as a technology. This really does look like OLED but with better brightness, colours and (apparently) a much longer lifespan. No wonder LG is also pursuing MicroLED alongside its current OLEDs. But while we’ll likely see sets become available next year, it’ll be another two or three before they become attainable by mere mortals.
All that being said, with Samsung claiming 8K is coming sooner than we think, and an 8K MicroLED 'The Wall' on the way, it looks like there is plenty of excitement around the corner when it comes to next-generation TV technology...