Why curved OLED TVs were 10 years too early (and now deserve a comeback)

Why curved OLED TVs were 10 years too early (and now deserve a comeback)
(Image credit: Future)

Next month, it will be 10 years since the first mass-market curved OLED TV went on sale. While you may remember the phenomenon (which, would you believe, actually preceded that of the flat production-ready OLED TV still going strong today), it was a relatively short-lived one. It deserved to be back then, but I think, like a Beatles-obsessed Gen Z, the curved OLED TV was simply born in the wrong era. Its more rightful place? Today. Hear me out.

For the uninitiated, these curved OLED TVs were, well, OLED screens that gently curved at the sides like bananas do. Why? To make the TV-watching experience more immersive. The purpose of that wraparound screen design was to help draw people into the picture. Hey, if it worked for IMAX screens, it would work for TVs too, right?

Kind of. The benefit of a curved screen was certainly subjective and something we hotly debated over the few years curved OLEDs came through the What Hi-Fi? test rooms, but there was no denying the curvature worked well… for one person at a time, anyway.

“Anyone else sitting at an angle will see a slightly distorted picture that changes depending on the curvature of the screen,” we noted in one review. “When viewing from the sides, the picture doesn’t taper off uniformly like a regular screen… the image is distorted according to curvature,” we wrote in another. Not exactly family-, couple- or film-night-with-mates-friendly then. Even with the curved OLED TVs that emerged before long with slightly less curvature, you still got “a slight distortion if you’re sitting off-axis from the centre”. It’s little wonder we put “That curve” in both the ‘pro’ and ‘con’ boxes of one LG curved OLED TV review. Anyway, you get the picture – they weren't the ideal television.

So in a surprise to no one then or now, they didn’t stand the test of time. Barely four years, really. Because they had a less-than-ideal sweet spot? Because they seemed a little pointless? Because the emergence of flat OLED TVs soon after stole their spotlight? Yes, yes and yes. But also because, as I can now say with the benefit of hindsight, they arrived too early.

The dawn of gaming-ready TVs

A viewing experience that’s immersive for one viewer sitting in the middle of the screen lends itself very well to one particular demographic (aside from singletons): gamers. That’s why the curved screen is very much alive and kicking in the gaming monitor scene. In fact, head to Best Buy (US) or Currys (UK) and you’ll see that around a third of the models on sale are curved. Anything to help immerse you in the game you’re playing!

Only truly in the past couple of years, however, have a number of big-brand, mid-to-top-end TVs become much more gaming-friendly. They kind of had to, considering all of the technology that the next-generation PlayStation and Xbox consoles introduced in 2020: Variable Refresh Rate (VRR), Auto Low Latency Mode (ALLM) and 4K@120Hz, to name the big three. Sony began branding some of its more gaming-friendly TVs ‘Perfect for PS5’ (of course it did), while models from other brands such as TCL and particularly LG now also offer various next-gen gaming features to enhance the console-playing experience.

In our TV & AV editor’s mind, the models that rise to the occasion best are the LG C3 OLED and its 2022 predecessor, the C2. “There's just no way to beat the perfect blacks and perfect contrast of OLED,” he says, “and LG's OLEDs support more next-gen gaming features than any other, from 4K 120Hz to VRR, HGiG to Dolby Vision gaming.” That’s why the two sets sit atop our best gaming TVs buying guide. So what if they were curved too? Well, in addition to making TVs that are great for gaming, LG has also made a gaming monitor that’s great for watching telly on – the Flex.

The 42-inch Flex has a motorised stand that allows it to go from flat to curved in 20 increments with a single press of a button, complete with forward and backwards tilting and raising and lowering operation. It has a suite of fancy gaming skills too, plus a TV tuner and a gateway to smart apps. Of course, that motorised stand contributes a fair bit to its considerable price tag of £3000 / $3000 / AU$5000 – roughly triple the price of the 42-inch C2 TV upon which it's based. All in all, it’s still more of a monitor than a TV. So what if there was a more accessibly priced, larger-screen version – curvy and all – that was more of a TV than a monitor? 

I can’t see such a model catching on for the mass of typical TV watchers, and I’m not saying LG (or any other TV manufacturer) should go out and produce a whole line of curved gaming TVs, but I can see the appeal such a TV might have to someone interested in buying a TV primarily – but not entirely – for gaming. Now that gaming is for many people a big-screen affair, the curved TV just makes more sense now than it did 10 years ago.

LG Flex

The LG Flex is a hybrid gaming TV and monitor, albeit a pricey one (Image credit: LG)

Better viewing angles now

But again, we’ve been here before. How would it then behave as the centre of attention at a Eurovision watch party? Would a costly-to-manufacture motorised flexy screen have to come in and save the day, pushing up the RRP while doing so? Possibly, but the quality of OLED screens (the best panel type for wide viewing angles anyway) has moved on exponentially in the past decade, and arguably enough to overcome that obstacle to a satisfactory level.

Each year, OLED TV makers declare improvements to (already very good) viewing angles, and the new flock of QD-OLED TVs (which marry OLED and Quantum Dot LED technologies) from Sony and Samsung are also proving very impressive in that department. In our review of last year’s Samsung 65-inch S95B QD-OLED, we praised its “peerless viewing angles”, a talent we recently discovered is shared by its 2023 S95C successor too. Could such technological leaps overcome the off-axis distortion that plagued the curved TVs of ol'?

I don’t know how close a curved OLED or QD-OLED screen today could get to offering the best TV viewing as well as gaming experience, but I’d be very curious to see one try. A decade on, any success would mark an impressive comeback for the curve.

MORE:

Our list of the best gaming TVs you can buy

And the best OLED TVs on the market

The TCL C745 QLED is the affordable gaming TV I've been waiting for

OLED vs QD-OLED shootout: LG G3 OLED vs Samsung S95C QD-OLED

Becky Roberts

Becky is the managing editor of What Hi-Fi? and, since her recent move to Melbourne, also the editor of Australian Hi-Fi magazine. During her eight years in the hi-fi industry, she has been fortunate enough to travel the world to report on the biggest and most exciting brands in hi-fi and consumer tech (and has had the jetlag and hangovers to remember them by). In her spare time, Becky can often be found running, watching Liverpool FC and horror movies, and hunting for gluten-free cake.