Why OLED is winning (for now)

Wed Jan 26, 2022

Most people love colour.

We personalize our clothes, decorate our homes, and choose our foods based on colour. Right from the start of life, every kid has a favourite colour. Colour even affects our moods.

In nature, colour serves a biological purpose - whether it serves as camouflage, a warning (don’t eat me!), or as an advertisement to the opposite sex.

In art, we try to mimic nature. Pigments mixed to the precise hue and saturation of a myriad of colours bring a painting to startling life.

In technology, we try to mimic art. Only bright displays with a wide colour gamut are likely to dazzle shoppers strolling through the TV gallery at Best Buy.

At its essence, colour is light. Or more precisely, colours are light waves reflected off an object into the optic nerves of our eyes.

The opposite of light is, of course, darkness. A lot of people are scared of the dark. There is also a biological reason for this: The most dangerous predators are nocturnal (it’s hard to erase a few millions years of evolution). Complete darkness, as you would find deep in a cave underground, is truly black.

Black is the absence of colour. It is not celebrated. Only weird Goths or funeral attendees dress all in black; only serial killers and Marilyn Manson paint their walls black. It’s safe to say that black gets a bad rap (except when I was ten years old and everybody switched their favourite colour to black because of KITT from Knight Rider).

But as a counterpoint to colour, black is essential.

Most of the time, when we say something is black, it is actually a variation of dark grey. If you’ve ever tried and failed to see your hand in that aforementioned underground cave, then you’ve experienced true black. But true black is hard to replicate in nature, art, or technology because light always reflects off “black” objects.

That doesn’t mean humans haven’t tried. The “blackest” material on earth is Vantablack. Reflecting less than 0.04 % of incident light, the sensors in cameras can’t even pick it up, rendering Vantablack invisible to the camera’s eye.

It’s no surprise that Vantablack became a big hit in the art world - what artist wouldn’t want to use the truest representation of black in their true-to-life paintings?

In the world of technology, where display manufacturers have long reached for the holy grail of ultimate black, Vantablack’s equivalent has to be OLED.

For colours to really pop, you need unparalleled contrast, and for that you need true black. Simply put, true black is an absolute prerequisite if you want to most accurate image possible.

This extremely long preamble is the reason why OLED screens are so well-regarded by videophiles (this extremely long preamble is also my verbose way of avoiding the overused word “inky” when describing this technology).

OLED screens can display true blacks because each individual pixel turns on or off to product light. LCD or QLED screens, on the other hand, use a backlight to illuminate pixels. As the backlight is always on, dark areas in the display are always grey, never black.

Despite being a videophile’s darling, OLED isn’t for everyone. It’s more like a delicate, ephemeral flower nerds have to babysit (but what a beautiful flower it is).

The main drawback of OLED is a sacrifice in brightness (a uniform LED backlight can hit over a thousand nits of luminance where those individuals OLED pixels just can’t). So, perfect for dimly-lit man caves in the basement - not so much for light-flooded, open-concept condos with floor-to-ceiling windows.

Also, OLEDs degrade more quickly than LED because they are “organic” (the “O” in OLED) so they don’t last as long as LED or LCD. You basically pay more for a shorter lifespan.

And, most terrifying of all, they are susceptible to permanent burn-in. You have to avoiding watching content with static elements, especially if the elements use highly-saturated colours. I think it’s safe to say that you’re playing with fire if you use an OLED display as a computer monitor for eight hours a day. OLED TVs are a treat - a special experience - to be used sparingly and in moderation. They are the fine-dining of TVs - you don’t leave it on all day, but it’s the best part of your night.

They are also expensive to make - so expensive that, over the past decade, one display manufacturer after another has cancelled OLED production. Until recently, the only manufacturer that stuck with OLED was LG. Now, however, Samsung is ramping up their OLED production with QD-OLED, which I’ll talk about in a bit.

The rise and fall of display technology is a classic case of capitalism at work. As a case in point, look at plasma - a display technology that also had high contrast ratios, but was ultimately killed by the dominant LCD industry.

So, given these drawbacks, why has the lure of “infinite contrast” (as LG calls it in their marketing jargon) managed to persevere?

One of the main reasons is simply that nobody else has managed to reach OLED-worthy levels of true black without significant black crush (loss of shadow detail). The other guys aren’t giving up, and have aggressively put forward mini-LED displays as a contender. Mini-LED displays use a grid of local dimming zones in the backlight to control which areas of the screen light up. However, this approach can create “blooming” (a sort of white halo around objects) which can be even more distracting than a wall of grey.

A promising emerging technology is microLED, consisting of inorganic self-emitting microscopic LEDs that by all appearances address all of OLED’s deficits. However, they are super expensive to the point where it just isn’t affordable to the average consumer yet. Whether microLED is the future of display technology is a future that remains to be seen, but it very well could be.

A possible stepping stone between OLED and microLED was announced by Samsung at CES this year. That new technology is called Quantum Dot OLED (QD-OLED). In simple terms, by placing a quantum-dot layer over an OLED panel, Samsung claims a significant boost to brightness and colour volume while decreasing burn-in risk. The key innovation here is efficiency - by fusing Quantum Dot technology with OLED, the OLED pixels don’t have to work as hard, thus lasting longer.

How expensive these displays end up being (and how good they really are) remains to be seen, as CES is notorious as a hive of scum, villainy, and vapourware. Sony is also jumping on the QD-OLED train this year, so the hype is real, but QD-OLED TVs will likely be more expensive than LG’s OLEDs at first.

I agree with Caleb Denison’s take - LG has gotten very good at making OLED panels and has nothing to worry about in the short-term. But in the long-term, it depends on whether LG has “something cooking in its super-secret tech kitchen, and if they do, it’s going to need to be super tasty”.

But right now, OLED shipments are on an upwards trajectory, and 2022 will continue that trend as OLED starts to go mainstream. LG makes premium and (comparatively) affordable OLED TVs that get more popular every year. LG will also continue to supply OLED panels to other companies, which is great for LG and their bottom line. One of the main reasons for OLEDs rise in popularity and profitability are smartphone manufacturers. In particular, Apple, the biggest player in the game, is going all-in on OLED for iPhones, Apple Watches, and are rumoured to bring it to iPads and MacBooks in the future as well.

Also, foldable Android phones with flexible OLED screens are making a big splash on the bleeding edge and could signal a sea-change in the smartphone form factor if they continue to capture consumer interest.

So, to answer the question in this post’s title - OLED is winning because the picture quality isn’t just absurdly great - it’s the best. Once you see black, you can’t go back. Despite its drawbacks, which aren’t insignificant by the way, OLED will convert just about anybody who experiences it into a display snob overnight.

It happened to me - slowly at first - starting with my Apple Watch (my first OLED display, albeit extremely tiny). Then, I recently got the iPhone XS, and had this to say about the display:

A high-quality display is the only component that directly impacts the level of joy and delight you get from using a smartphone. I get that now.

In night mode, OLED literally transforms the user experience. The pitch-black background completely subsumes the notch and bezels so that you get the illusion of an uninterrupted edge-to-edge plane of glass flowing seamlessly into the stainless-steel frame.

And now, I’ve taken a long hard look at the 2009 Sony Bravia 1080p LCD TV I’ve been rocking for the past thirteen years and decided it’s time to go big or go home.

Spooked at first by the high price of OLED TVs, I initially put money down on TCL’s mini-LED 6 series. But due to the ubiquitous supply chain issues we’re having, my R646 pre-order just sat their for months without a ship date. Then I started having major second thoughts when it became apparent that Google TV was buggy as all hell. It got so bad that Best Buy stopped selling them for a while so TCL could patch it with some rushed software updates.

TCL’s quality control is also not the greatest - I’ve heard it isn’t the worst - but regardless, I couldn’t stand the thought of dealing with the “panel lottery”. I also couldn’t shake the feeling that I was settling. Because what I really wanted was an OLED TV.

Ultimately, I decided not to compromise. In life, it’s always better to be happy with the choices you make. I cancelled my R646 order and threw down a large chunk of change on the 65-inch LG C1 OLED 4K TV instead. The C1 is widely regarded as the best TV of 2021. And for good reason. I won’t get into the details here, because you don’t have to look far on the internet to find out everything you need to know. The short version is that I’m extremely happy with the C1 - it is absolutely one of the most stunning pieces of technology I’ve ever owned.

No regrets.

So now I’m all in on OLED for the next decade. By 2032, it is possible that microLED will be the best display tech you can get. But for now, OLED is winning - and has won me over.

Most people love colour. But, I’m that ten-year old kid again who loves black. Not because of KITT this time. Rather, I appreciate black for what it is - an infinite canvas unconstrained by any borders, as clear as the blank, unrelenting start of the universe waiting for the stars to be born.

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