What Is OLED TV? The Ultra-Thin Display Tech Fully Explained

If you’ve been considering a new TV, you’ve likely come across mentions of OLED TV in stores and online. And if you’ve walked into a Best Buy or a Costco and seen an OLED TV sitting next to a QLED TV or a regular LED TV, it might not have been immediately apparent how and why these three TV types are different from each other. After all, under the bright lights of a showroom floor, three or four 65-inch 4K TVs sitting next to each other can start to look the same. We’ve been there too. But if you give us a few minutes of your time, we’ll make you an OLED TV expert with as little jargon as possible. You still may decide an OLED TV isn’t for you, but you’ll make that decision knowing all of the facts.

What is OLED TV?

OLED stands for organic light-emitting diode. It’s tempting to think that the only thing that separates an LED (light-emitting diode) TV from an OLED TV is that “organic” word, but there’s actually more to the story.

Backlights versus self-lit pixels

LG G1 Gallery Series OLED TV.
Dan Baker/Digital Trends

To really understand how an OLED TV is distinct from an LED TV or even a QLED (quantum dot light-emitting diode) TV, we need to talk about how a TV generates the light that makes its way to your eyes.

LED and QLED TVs use a backlight. That backlight is composed of anywhere between a few dozen LEDs (this is where the “LED” in LED and QLED TV comes from) to a few thousand of them. Those LEDs create lots of light, but that’s all they do. In order for that light to become a picture that you recognize, it passes through two layers: An LCD (liquid crystal display) layer, which controls the amount of light that passes through each individual pixel, and then a color filter layer that ensures each pixel is tuned to the right color at the right time.

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It’s a very effective (and reasonably affordable) way to build a TV that has a nice, bright image, with decent color, too. But there are drawbacks to this construction technique.

When an on-screen image calls for very dark areas (like the inky blackness of space), LED and QLED TVs must dim some or all of their backlight LEDs and then use their LCD panels to block as much of the remaining light as possible.

And though the newest QLED TVs with mini-LED backlights are really good at this task, most models of LED and QLED TVs struggle to present a truly deep and dark black. In some instances where a TV has very few LEDs that it can control, you get an effect known as blooming — that’s where light spills from a bright area of the image onto a dark area.

OLED TVs use a completely different design. Because each pixel is a self-contained organic light-emitting diode, they eliminate the need for a backlight. Those OLED pixels generate 100% of the light that an OLED TV produces. And because an OLED TV can control the behavior of each pixel, it can shut down light emission on a pixel-by-pixel basis. When an OLED pixel is turned off, it emits no light at all, giving OLED TVs their single biggest advantage over other TV designs: They can create a perfect black with little to no blooming.

Wide viewing angles

A Sony OLED TV seen at a sharp angle.
Riley Young/Digital Trends

OLED TVs can also maintain brightness and contrast from virtually any viewing angle, while the LCD panels in LED and QLED TVs act as a kind of tunnel for the light that gets emitted.

If you’re sitting dead-center, you’re perfectly aligned with these tunnels, and you get the maximum picture quality. But as you shift your seating position to the sides, that tunnel alignment becomes less accurate, which means less light is being aimed at your eyes. Some LED/QLED models suffer from very poor off-angle viewing, while others do a much better job. But even the best non-OLED models still exhibit a perceptible loss of quality when you sit off-center.

OLED TVs don’t use LCD panels, so there’s no tunneling effect.

Ultra-thin, ultra-flexible construction

An LG worker rolls a paper-thin OLED display.
Rich Shibley/Digital Trends

Another benefit to not needing a backlight or an LCD panel is that OLED TVs can be incredibly thin — just 2 or 3mm at their thinnest point. QLED TVs are getting thinner all the time, but none have come anywhere close to how thin OLED can get.

OLED panels are also remarkably flexible. It’s still only a feature of very expensive models, but you can now buy rollable OLED TVs that can expand to their full size or disappear entirely into a built-in stand, leaving no trace of the screen at all — a feat that is physically impossible for LED and QLED TVs.

OLED panels are also inherently transparent. It may be a few years before transparent OLED TVs become mainstream, but the technology already exists, and it will start showing up in non-TV applications in the near future.

Lightning-fast

If your TV-watching habits are mostly around movies and TV shows, you probably don’t spend much time thinking about something called response time. That’s the time it takes (measured in milliseconds) for a single pixel on a TV to change its state. But when it comes to watching fast-paced sports or playing video games, the lower a TV’s response time, the better. That’s because the faster a pixel can respond to a change, the crisper the whole image appears.

OLED TVs are inherently blazingly fast because they don’t have to coordinate changes to a backlight with changes to an LCD panel pixel. The result: Response times as low as 0.2 ms. Compare that to one of the fastest QLED TVs at 3.3 ms, and you can see we’re talking about an order of magnitude.

It’s true that 3.3 ms is more than adequate for fast-action gaming, but what’s notable is that you have to buy one of the most expensive QLED TVs to get that result, while even the least expensive OLED TV you can buy is capable of sub-1 ms response times.

Got game?

An LG press release showing an OLED TV with Nvidia G-Sync support.

Speaking of gaming, LG’s OLED TVs are proving themselves to be superb gaming displays. Their fast response time combined with ultra-fast refresh rates give them the ability to offer Nvidia’s G-Sync and AMD’s FreeSync compatibility. These are two types of variable refresh rate (VRR) technologies used by PC and console manufacturers.

For the uninitiated, VRR lets a display (like a TV or monitor) match the frame rate of a video game. Depending on the game, this frame rate can vary a lot from scene to scene. Without VRR, these frame rate changes can create an unpleasant experience known as screen-tearing. With VRR, images remain smooth and clear.

To be fair, OLED TVs don’t have a monopoly on VRR, but right now, OLED models offer broader support for VRR than their LED/QLED counterparts.

Energy efficiency

Prior to the use of mini-LEDs in backlights, OLED TVs enjoyed a clear advantage over LED and QLED TVs in terms of power consumption. Because OLED panels don’t need to power up a backlight (in addition to all of the other TV functions), they’re inherently more efficient — at least when compared to traditional LED-backlit TVs.

But mini-LED appears to be leveling the playing field. When the newest Samsung Neo QLED TVs were compared to LG’s newest OLED models, the Samsung TVs actually used slightly less power.

Does this mean OLED TVs are better than other TVs?

Currently, we think that OLED TVs offer the best overall experience, but the technology does have a few drawbacks that you should be aware of, as these might affect your buying decision.

Bright, but not the brightest

A Samsung QLED TV in a brightly lit environment.
Caleb Denison/Digital Trends

As we’ve shown above, not having a separate backlight gives OLED TVs a number of advantages, but it also creates some limitations. The biggest of these is maximum brightness. OLED panels derive 100% of their brightness from their individual OLED pixels. But the harder you drive an OLED pixel to emit bright light, the shorter its lifespan gets. That means OLED TV makers need to balance brightness with longevity.

TVs with LED or mini-LED backlights are far less susceptible to these lifespan concerns, so they’re able to produce a brighter image by increasing the maximum brightness of the backlight.

In most indoor environments, an OLED TV will feel sufficiently bright, but if you have a room with lots of windows or lots of lighting, you may find that an OLED TV simply doesn’t get bright enough to compete with the ambient light. In these situations, a QLED model is probably a better choice.

Beware of burn-in

A Vizio OLED TV showing a 24-hour news channel.
Dan Baker/Digital Trends

The thing that gives OLED its unbeatable contrast and black levels (self-lit pixels) is also OLED’s Achilles heel when it comes to image retention. Image retention is when you can still see a “shadow” of an image on-screen even after that image is no longer being displayed. Typically, this only happens when a static (non-moving, non-changing) image is displayed for several minutes. The retained image usually disappears within a few seconds, but in extreme cases, it can become permanent. When this happens, it’s known as burn-in.

Burn-in is the result of uneven aging between pixels. If you leave a static image displayed for long periods of time, the bright areas of the image will age those specific pixels at a faster rate than the pixels that make up the darker areas. When the image eventually changes, and the new image requires that the “older” pixels display the same color and brightness as the “younger” pixels, you’ll be able to see the difference.

OLED TV makers have become very adept at preventing burn-in using a variety of techniques, but if you leave the same 24-hour news channel playing on an OLED TV for seven days a week for months at a time, the static elements, like channel logos or stock tickers, will eventually cause burn-in.

For most buyers, the threat of burn-in will be low to zero. But if you’re buying a TV to be a computer monitor replacement or to show the same content for long periods of time, an OLED TV is not an ideal choice.

Size and cost considerationsFamily watching an LG ZX 8K OLED TV.

OLED panels follow a different manufacturing process than LED and QLED TVs. This results in a sharp rise in cost as OLED panels get bigger.

At the 50- to 65-inch size range, OLED TVs are very competitive with LED and QLED TV in terms of price. But as you head into 70- to 98-inch territory, OLED pricing can feel like an order of magnitude more expensive than LED/QLED. For instance, Samsung’s 85-inch 8K QN900A currently costs $8,000, while LG’s 88-inch 8K ZX OLED TV is a whopping $33,000.

We think the LG ZX produces an absolutely gorgeous image, but we’re not convinced it’s three times better than the QN900A — something you might expect given their price differences.

Conclusion

OLED TVs enjoy a number of advantages over LED/QLED TVs. If you’re shopping for a new TV between 50 and 65 inches, and you don’t have an excessively bright room or a 24/7 addiction to a single TV channel, we think OLED TV delivers the best possible image.

But as QLED TV makers embrace new technologies like mini-LED backlighting, OLED’s superiority grows a little thinner each year. And we don’t see extra-large OLED TVs ever being able to compete with QLED on a price-per-inch basis.

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