LG’s 2018 OLED TVs: It’s all about the software this year

LG’s 2018 TVs have similar panels but radically different processing. Here’s what you need to know…

At first glance you’d be forgiven for thinking that nothing much has changed between last year’s LG OLED TVs and the new models being unveiled at CES 2018 in Las Vegas. Look a bit deeper and it turns out there are actually some potentially significant differences. Maybe even quite revolutionary to a certain type of AV fan.

What’s changed with LG’s 2018 TVs?

First, let’s quickly cover what’s stayed the same. The ranging is very similar to 2017’s. You’ve got the ’wallpaper’-style 65-inch W8 at the top, then the glamorously designed G8 and E8, and finally the C8s and entry-level B8s bringing up the rear.

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There isn’t a great deal of difference in the way some of the screens look compared with their 2017 counterparts. The W8 models in particular, with their ‘so thin you can bend them (a bit) and hang them up like wallpaper’ design look pretty much identical to 2017’s W7s. Right down to the same external processing unit/Dolby Atmos soundbar.

Below the W8 will sit the G8. Available in 65 and 77 inches, these will feature exactly the same panel and processing technology as the W8, but with a more desktop-based design and a small built-in soundbar. I can’t tell you any more about this model, though, as I’ve yet to see a demonstration model. Probably because it doesn’t look like it’s going to be released in the US (though it should still be available in Europe).

The new E8 continues the ‘pixels on glass’ design used by the E7s, though there are a couple of marked differences. First, the built in soundbar is now much thinner and more subtle. Second, an extra section of glass now extends down below the bottom of the screen and wraps around the metal stand, finishing just a fraction above the stand’s bottom edge. Despite the thinner soundbar, LG claims that the E8 models can produce similar levels of sound volume and range to those enjoyed with the 2017 E7.

The C8 and B8 models broadly resemble their 2017 counterparts, doing away with the pixels-on-glass elegance of the E8 and G8 models but still looking trim and cute in their super-slim OLED clothes.

Has OLED reached its limit?

In some ways there doesn’t seem to have been much of a change to the OLED panel hardware inside the 2018 LG OLEDs, either. LG certainly isn’t making any song and dance about big brightness increases, extra energy efficiencies and so on.

This makes me wonder if current OLED panel designs are perhaps reaching the limits of what they can do in brightness terms without their white sub-pixel wreaking havoc on colors – or the screens melting from all the heat.

LG’s all about that processing

LG has turned its attention to the processing that drives that hardware. Set to debut in the all the 2018 OLED models (bar the entry-level B8) is a new Alpha 9 processing engine that’s claimed to have a profound impact on picture quality.

Colours, for instance, should be much less likely to suffer with banding. Motion should appear much more crisply, smoothly and naturally than we’ve ever seen before on an LG OLED TV. The 3D Look-Up Table system the TVs use to produce colour should now deliver a wider range of tones with more accuracy – not least because they’ve drastically increased the number of LUT address points the TV can refer to in creating its colours.

The new OLEDs can also handle high frame rates of up to 120Hz over USB, broadcast and streaming sources – though current bandwidth limitations mean that 120Hz can only be supported with 1080p resolutions from external sources connected via HDMI.

It also turns out, according to LG, that while it hasn’t done anything in hardware terms that should directly impact the brightness of the 2018 OLED models, a well calibrated model should hit peaks in 5-10% HDR windows of around 720 nits. That’s a rise of 10% or so over last year’s figures that seemed clearly visible to me while watching the 2018 sets in action.

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A handy ‘side effect’ of the 2018 OLED’s new processing power is enhanced smart functionality. WebOS still looks and works the same, but it’s now joined by both LG’s ThinQ platform for getting connected devices in your home (smart fridges, smart washing machines etc) communicating with each other, and advanced voice control and content searching courtesy of built-in Google Assistant. There’s also compatibility with the Amazon Alexa platform if you have a separate Alexa device.

Two last key differences between the way the 2018 range and the 2017 ranges were set up see the lower-end B8 being separated from the C8 by a proper performance difference. Namely that the B8 only gets an Alpha 7 chipset that will deliver a less expansive colour performance. This will hopefully mean that the 2018 B8 models will be more affordable by OLED TV standards, potentially opening the joys of OLED up to a much bigger market.

How does the picture look?

Having had some time to check out the 2018 model’s picture quality, the Alpha 9 chipset does enough to compensate for the lack of any really significant hardware developments this year. It delivers a clear enough difference in brightness, colour and contrast terms to underline the dominance LG has started to enjoy at the premium end of the TV market. That said, it would be very awesome indeed if this essentially software-only improvement was accompanied by another drop in OLED TV prices.

We’ll be getting a proper close-up look at the new OLEDs this afternoon – stay tuned.

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