4K LED TVs look like the immediate future. Has OLED been the next big thing for too long now?
OLED has been billed as ‘the next big thing’ in TV technology for what has seemed an eternity but hasn’t yet really made the transition to the mainstream market.
We had previously supposed that it would have been making greater inroads by now, but it seems a changing market place and ongoing production challenges are still holding it back and the question is now becoming, will it ever really make it, rather than when will it?
Organic Light-Emitting Diodes, to use their full title, have been around since the 1960’s and the basic technological principle is that of a device which is composed of a layer of organic compounds which when stimulated by an electric current will produce light. In many ways it’s very similar to plasma technology – which has just about had its time – rather than the current favourite LED, despite the obvious similarities in the abbreviated names.
So why is it the next big thing?
The primary reasons OLED is seen as an ideal match for the TV manufacturing sector are for its ability to go completely black as well as very bright. The advantage this provides is that it will allow a display to produce stunning contrast performance, which is the most important element our eyes (and brains) use to judge pictures as impressive.
Nothing can touch OLED's native contrast levels
Unlike LED, OLED doesn’t need the helping hand of a backlight to illuminate the pixels, which should ensure that those absolute black levels aren’t tainted by light spill either. That’s an issue we almost routinely have to address in our LED TV reviews, in addition to the general lack of uniformity having a backlight can cause.
As a slight aside, there have been a number of reported breakthroughs in the design and manufacture of backlighting technology reported since the turn of the year. So let’s hope – while we await OLED – that those reports turn out to be true and not just an excuse to hold the organic technology back. Even if they do, backlighting tech will never be as precise as being able to illuminate, and blacken, pixels individually so it will always be a compromise.
Fringe benefits of OLED are that it is incredibly energy efficient and, owing to the lack of backlight requirement, able to used in the production of TVs that are incredibly thin. It can even be bent and the hope is, one day, it can be used in displays that you’ll literally be able to roll-up and take with you. That is a long way off, however.
What’s happened so far?
Mostly false start’s is the answer to the above. Our very first look at an OLED TV was way back in 2010 with LG’s 15-inch L9500. Despite possessing a screen size smaller than some laptops, it was obvious then, that OLED was a step-up from the existing plasma and LCD/LED technologies but let’s take a look at our Editor’s introductory remarks to that review:
“OLED TV, it’s the future. Well that is what we’ve been told for the last 5 years, at least. However, it seems to have taken longer than anticipated for the technology to mature and develop and yet, even now, large screen sizes are still technically difficult to manufacture, with an acceptable lifespan and failure rate.”
Note the similarities to the words (not copy & pasted by the way Phil) to those at the top of this page, which should make for worrying reading for videophiles everywhere, when you ask - what has really changed?
In reality, little has changed for OLED in the last 4 years
It was more than three years later until we received the next OLED TV sample for review, this time from LG’s fiercest competitor. The Samsung S9 was of a much more agreeable 55-inch screen size, even if we’d rather they hadn’t seen fit to bend it. Minor objections to the curvature aside, the KE55S9C was everything we were hoping for; black levels were insanely good, colours superbly accurate and the sum of those constituent parts created pictures that had been the stuff only of our dreams, previously.
So what could go wrong?
Clearly the asking price was something of an obstacle. The S9 launched with a suggested retail price of around £7,000, in the Autumn of 2013 in the UK, with global prices generally comparable and we’d have to suppose that they’ve not been selling in great quantities since.
But it’s not only the ticket price that will be putting off potential customers. The manufacturer’s created a rod for their own backs when choosing to market LCD TVs with LED backlighting as LED TV. Ironically, that particular piece of marketing bluff seems to have been swallowed but perhaps being seen as simply sticking an ‘O’ in front is viewed as a bluff too far, rather than the technological advancement it truly is.
Whatever the reasons OLED isn’t flying off the shelves, it would seem that Samsung are putting it on the back-burner for now. Samsung and LG went down different paths in their implementations of OLED and it looks, at least for the time being, as if the former may have backed the wrong horse. The LG system uses only white OLEDs with coloured filters, whilst Samsung had been using individual Red, Green and Blue OLEDs.
The lifespan of the Blue OLEDs has been an issue right through the development of the technology, although it’s not the only one. The manufacture of OLED panels requires environments that are near sterile and totally dust free. The processes, thus far, have been unfamiliar to the manufacturers and yields have been incredibly low as a result.
In fact, S. Kim, Samsung's vice president for visual displays broke some worrying news for the imminent future of OLED TVs, as a mass market proposition, just after CES 2014 by stating they were even more difficult to manufacture than first expected. On the future of OLED, Kim said he thought it would take, “around three to four years," before it was viable.
Since the S9, Samsung has put OLED on the back-burnerPanasonic, who were widely expected to announce a domestic OLED TV at CES 2014 – but didn’t - have been pursuing another manufacturing process, which is akin to ink-jet printing and supposedly far more reliable. The no-show in Vegas was telling, however, and they are clearly not in a position to mass manufacture at a price the market will swallow – or at least they must feel they can’t yet compete with LG.
But perhaps the biggest obstacle to OLEDs more recent lack of emergence has been the rapid rise of ‘4K’ or Ultra HD, to give it the ‘official’ title. The manufacturers have seen a chance to stimulate the flagging flat-panel market with the LCD/LED tech, that they are far more familiar with, and easier-to-sell buzz words with which to do it.
If they are having issues with the fabrication of large-size 1080p OLED panels, then quadrupling the number of pixels is hardly likely to make things any easier. That said, both LG and Samsung had concept 4K OLED TVs at CES 2014, but only LG announced firm plans to actually launch.
Reasons to be cheerful?
To prepare for what it see as the imminent growth in demand for OLED TVs around the world, LG is establishing production bases in a number of countries outside of Korea. The company has already completed the construction of new TV plants in Brazil, Poland, China and Thailand with an advanced facility in Mexico commencing operation this year producing OLED TVs for the North American market. So, it would seem that LG, at least, is confident they will sell.
Our third, and so far last, OLED TV review sample was unsurprisingly supplied by LG. The EA980 was again 55-inch and curved and it’s one of several OLED TVs the Koreans will have available to buy in 2014, including both 1080p and 4K resolutions, plus curved and flat-screen options.
Naturally, the 55EA980 was another sublime television and this doesn’t just augur well for LG, they also supply their WRGB (formerly known as WOLED) panels to third party manufacturers as well – notably the emerging Chinese brands. We saw one each from Hisense, TCL and Konka and they sure all looked good on the dance floor at CES 2014. There are other, as yet unknown brands, launching in 2014 with prices that are certain to be competitive but we’re not likely to see any of these budget brands in the UK, in the immediate future.
LG are set to dominate the large-screen OLED market for the foreseeable futureSo why worry?
The worry is that LG are, at present, in total dominance of the large-screen OLED panel market and will, therefore, be able to dictate and control pricing, at their will, until such time as someone comes along to really challenge.
A lack of competition is rarely good news for the consumer – both in terms of driving prices downwards and technologies forwards and we can envisage a future where, owing to a lack of consumer interest, OLED simply never catches on and becomes, at best, a niche technology.
It would be a shame if that turned out to be the case but we’ve seen inferior technologies win out in the past. One only has to look at the example of plasma vs LCD/LED in the recent past to see that quality doesn’t always win out. Plasma held most of the cards in terms of delivering great images but the public preferred LCD at retail, for a combination of reasons outside the scope of this discussion.
But, so it was, and plasma now lies at the doors of extinction waiting for Samsung and - to a lesser extent - LG to put it out of its misery. The hope had been that OLED would be the natural replacement and successor to plasma but will the manufacturers be willing to back another marginal product that is so difficult to make and potentially awkward to market?
It’s going to take more than LG flying the flag to bring OLED to the mainstream market and the reality is that it may never quite happen. Perhaps we’re being overly-pessimistic and we’ll be proved completely wrong – we hope we are – over the coming months but don’t forget those opening words from our first OLED TV review, nearly 4 years ago!
We’d be delighted to know how you see the market going. Please let us know in the comments below.
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