Home / Opinions / OLED vs LED LCD: Which is the best display technology?

OLED vs LED LCD – Which display tech is the best?

by

OLEDvsLCD

OLED vs LED LCD – An in-depth guide to the rival technologies

2017 is shaping up to be a big year for TV tech. Ultra HD, or 4K, continues to be adopted as the standard resolution in the AV world. High dynamic range (HDR) is no longer the next big thing that's coming soon – it's here now.

The same can be said of smartphone screens, which continue to reach dazzling levels of sharpness thanks to increased resolutions and better pixel-per-inch densities.

But for all the new features coming our way, it's worth taking a minute to consider an old battle going on between two display types. These two, broad kinds of display can be found across monitors, TVs, mobile phones, cameras and pretty much everything else with a screen.

Related: Best 4K TV round up

In one corner is LCD (liquid crystal display). It is by far the most common type of display in all kinds of tech. If you see a TV described as ‘LED’, it's actually an LCD display, albeit one that uses LEDs as its lighting source.

Then there's OLED (organic LED), which is used in high-end phones like the Samsung Galaxy S7 and high-end TVs like the Sony A1. That's a completely different technology. Some people say OLED is the future, but is it really that much better than a good LED LCD display? We’re going to look into how these display techs differ, what they’re good for, and how they work.

Video: Trusted Explains... All you need to know about TVs

How are they different?

In a nutshell: LED LCD displays use a backlight to illuminate their pixels, while OLED’s pixels actually produce their own light.

You might hear OLED’s pixels called ‘emissive’, while LED LCD tech is 'transmissive'. The brightness of an OLED display can be controlled on a pixel-by-pixel basis. This sort of dexterity just isn’t possible with an LED LCD.

In cheaper TVs and LCD-screen phones, LED LCD screens tend to use 'edge lighting', where LEDs actually sit to the side of the display, not right behind it. The light from these LEDs is then fired through a matrix that feeds it through the red green and blue pixels and into our eyes.

OLED vs LED LCD: Contrast

That brings us to our first calling point: contrast.

With LED LCD screens, control over the level of brightness across the display is limited. Take an LCD display into a darkened room and you’ll notice that parts of a purely black image aren’t actually black, because you can still see the backlighting (or edge lighting) showing through.

Being able to see unwanted backlighting affects a TV's contrast, which is the difference between its brightest highlights and its darkest shadows. You’ll often see a contrast ratio quoted, particularly in TVs and monitors. This tells you how much brighter a display’s whites are compared to its blacks. A decent LCD screen might have a contrast ratio of 1,000:1, which means the whites are a thousand times brighter than the blacks.

LCDvsOLEDSony

Sony's demo of LCD vs OLED contrast

Contrast on an OLED display is way higher. When an OLED screen goes black, its pixels actually produce no light whatsoever. You can't get darker than that. That means you get an infinite contrast ratio, although how great it looks will depend on how bright the LEDs can go when they're lit up.

To compensate, many LED LCD TVs offer a "dynamic" contrast mode, which has the TV altering the backlight level according to the image on screen. It's not the best solution for movies, because there the variance in screen brightness is much less predictable.

The best LED LCD TVs are called direct LED displays. Here, the LEDs sit right behind the LCD panel rather than to the side of it, giving a screen greater control over how bright certain areas of a screen are. You’ll find this tech in some higher-end TVs. However, its effectiveness varies.

Unlike OLED, Direct LED-lit TVs still don’t have pixel-level control over light levels. Instead, a display has ‘zones’ or groups of LEDs than can be dimmed. It can be extremely useful for doing things like blacking-out the bars you see when watching a 21:9 cinema aspect movie on a 16:9 TV, but generally isn’t as good at dealing with more complicated tasks.

Panasonic TX-65DX900Panasonic's TX-65DX900 uses 'honeycomb' backlight tech which helps LCD compete with OLED's contrast capabilities

For example, looking at a brightly-lit face on top of a completely black background, you might see a halo of light around parts of the face because the backlight zones didn’t quite match up with what’s on screen.

Of course, TV makers are getting better at this every year. Panasonic's DX900 series TV uses a 'honeycomb' backlight structure, which divides the LED backlights into hundreds of individually controllable zones, with rigid dividing structures limiting light leakage and helping to reduce 'halo' effects.

Can LCD match OLED?

In terms of overall performance, both OLED and LCD are capable of reproducing fantastic picture quality. The big TV feature of 2017 is High Dynamic Range (HDR). This is shorthand for a number of improvements that allow for the retention of detail in darker parts of the image, better colour reproduction, deeper blacks and brighter whites. Basically, a wider range for colour and contrast.

In order to establish a set of standards which a TV must be able to hit in order to be considered HDR Ready, a new 'Ultra HD Premium' label has been introduced. You can read more about this in our detailed guide, but for our purposes, it's worth noting that both LCD and OLED TVs have been awarded the UHD Premium label. That means that both display technologies are capable of producing cutting edge picture quality, despite their various differences. The battle is therefore far from over.

Ultra HD Premium

So which is better? The answer actually depends on your personal tastes. Let's go into the key differences to see why you might prefer one over the other.

LED LCD TVs can never match OLED in black levels. No amount of dynamic contrast tinkering and local dimming in an LCD TV can match the actual absence of light offered by OLED. Then again, LCD TVs are generally much brighter, reaching around 2000 nits – the equivalent of 2,000 fictional candles. The best OLED TVs can get up to about 800 nits right now.

Much of this depends on where you watch TV. If you favour dark rooms, you might prefer OLED. In the TV space, that has become all the more important now that plasma TVs have bitten the dust. Plasma displays used to be the go-to technology to get better contrast than LCDs, but ultimately they were too expensive to make and to buy.

Related: Curved TVs: The Pros and Cons

Where are all the OLEDs?

So if OLED is so good, where are all the OLED TVs?

It turns out they are extremely difficult to produce, which made them seriously expensive to begin with. Samsung only made one OLED model, the KE55S9C, and it sold for £7,000 in 2013. LG's EA9800 cost around the same, and neither of those were 4K TVs.

LG OLED

Since then, the two companies have gone in opposite directions: Samsung's TV division abandoned the OLED game while LG doubled down and threw money at the technology. In 2015, LG pumped over $600m into production sites.

It was a risky move, but LG's investments have paid off. OLED is now better than ever, and prices have come right down. We're still not looking at the bargain basement prices of some LCD TVs, so you can forget about OLED in your spare bedroom. But now you can find a 55-inch OLED TV for under £1,800, which is in line with some of the premium LCD rivals.

The OLED momentum is strong. At CES 2017, LG announced that it had 10 models of OLED TV, all of them 4K and HDR compatible. And LG's OLED panels are now good enough that other manufacturers are buying them: Panasonic, Sony and Philips are taking tentative steps into the OLED pool, all using LG's panels.

Samsung is resolutely sticking to LCD, however. The company has had immense success with its LCD TVs, and much of that is down to the fact that it is able to offer high-end tech for less money than its OLED rivals.

Lower cost is one of the main benefits of LCD displays, across all fields. You’ll find high-quality LCD screens in devices that cost (relatively-speaking) peanuts, such as the IPS panel of the Motorola Moto E, a phone that costs well under £100, if you shop around.

The lower cost of LCD is also what has made 4K TVs so affordable so quickly. You can buy a decent 4K TV for around £500 these days, but at this price range you're guaranteed to find LCD. Will OLED ever get this cheap? Probably, but not any time soon.

Related: Best TVs to buy

OLED vs LED LCD: Viewing Angles

OLED enjoys excellent viewing angles, primarily because the technology is so thin and the pixels are so close to the surface. That means you can walk around an OLED TV, or spread out in different spots in your living room, and you won't lose out on contrast.

Viewing angles are generally worse in LCDs, but this does vary hugely depending on the display technology used. And there are lots of different kinds of LCD panel.

Perhaps the most basic is twisted nematic (TN). This is the kind used in budget computer monitors, cheaper laptops and some very low-cost phones. It offers very poor angled viewing. If you’ve ever noticed that your computer screen looks all shadowy from the wrong angle it’s because it has a twisted nematic panel.

Thankfully a lot of LCD devices use IPS panels these days. This stands for 'in-plane switching' and it generally provides much better colour performance and dramatically improved angled viewing.

IPS is used in the vast majority of smartphones and tablets, plenty of computer monitors and lots of TVs. It’s important to note that IPS and LED LCD aren’t mutually exclusive, it’s just another bit of jargon to tack on. Beware of the marketing blurb and head straight to the spec sheet.

OLED vs LED LCD: Colour

The latest LCD screens can produce fantastic natural-looking colours. However, just as with the viewing angle, it depends on the specific technology used.

IPS and VA (vertical alignment) screens can provide great colour accuracy when properly calibrated — the iPhone 6S is a great example of a phone with top colour accuracy — but TN screens can often look weak or washed-out.

SEE ALSO: Best smartphones to buy

iPhone

OLED's colours have no issues with pop and vibrancy, but early OLED TVs and phones had an issue reining the colours in and keeping them realistic. These days, it's a lot better – Panasonic's latest OLED TV is even suitable for use in Hollywood colour grading studios.

Where OLED struggles is in the matter of colour volume. That is, really bright scenes may challenge an OLED panel's ability to maintain its colour saturation levels. It's a weakness that LCD-favouring manufacturers enjoy pointing out.

What is the future for LCD and OLED
?

Display makers are doing their best to tweak and improve the various limitations of LCD. While OLED’s job over the next few years is to become cheaper and brighter, we’re seeing more distinct developments in LCD town.

Perhaps the most catchy is the quantum dot. It is a new way to approach the LCD’s backlight. Rather than using white LEDs, a quantum dot screen uses blue LEDs and "nanocrystals" of various sizes, which convert the light into different colours by altering its wavelength.

Samsung has been rocking Quantum Dot tech for a few years now, and their latest development actually puts LCD a lot closer to OLED performance. They've wrapped their nanocrystals in a metallic alloy and rejigged the lighting system, which fixes much of the contrast and viewing angle issues associated with LCD panels.

LG W7 Signature 4K OLED TV

So, who wins?

That's a tough one. In terms of sheer numbers, LCD is definitely winning. It's been around for much longer and it's cheaper to make, which gives it a major head start in market saturation.

If you're dealing with a limited budget, whether you're buying a phone, a monitor, a laptop or a TV, you'll almost certainly end up with an LCD-based screen. OLED, meanwhile, remains a more luxury proposition.

But LCD's dominance is slowly being chipped away. OLED tech is gaining momentum. Already it's taken over the best phones, and OLED is making big waves in the TV world.

Which is better? Even if you take money out of the equation, it really comes down to personal taste. Neither OLED nor LCD LED is perfect. Some would extol OLED's skill in handling darkness, and its lighting precision. Others would prefer LCD's ability to go brighter, and maintain colours at bright levels.

How do you decide? Stop reading this and go to a shop to check it out for yourself. A shop floor isn't the best indication of ultimate picture quality, but it will give you a good idea of what your priorities are. Whether you ultimately side with LCD or OLED, you can take comfort in the fact that both technologies have matured massively, making this a relatively safe time to invest.

Related: TVs are entering a new era in 2017 and 4K is finally worth it – here's why

Menorca Man

February 4, 2015, 11:28 am

Hmm. Why no mention of the potential problem of OLED static image retention? This has been the subject of negative comment on a number of other review sites.

torjs99

February 4, 2015, 11:38 am

as plasma user, you get used to it and it does change your viewing habits, like not leaving it on the bbc news channel all day. but image quality always (for me) wins.

Andrew_TR

February 4, 2015, 12:06 pm

Hi Menorca Man,

It was mainly simply because we just had to stop somewhere! There are plenty of other issues we could have mentioned... backlight bleed, backlight consistency, the whole LCD refresh rate issue, OLED sample and hold motion problems and so on...

We wanted to largely stick to the main elements that tend to characterise these technologies. In my experience IR varies quite a bit between OLED panels and generations. But sure it is a potential issue.

garce

February 5, 2015, 2:36 pm

every application will be different ... for military applications , the operating temperature
range of OLED is vastly superior .. for the living room , temp is not a concern and OLED
might not offer any advantage to the viewer ...
this is but one example ...
As with ALL technologies , the older platforms will continue to improve and keep
pace with the upcoming tech, the older ones will be cheaper, but eventually
everything evolves to the newest tech ..
Someday , all screens will be OLED , then general lighting will follow ..
For mobile devices and HMD's , OLED requires substantially less power than
anything else , which is gentle on batteries .. .garce

Bugblatter

February 5, 2015, 8:44 pm

Motion blur has long been a problem for LCD TVs, and has a pretty significant effect on image quality. I know it's improved in recent years, but do you guys think it's no longer a big issue? It's certainly an area in which OLED is strong.

TerryB

February 6, 2015, 10:59 am

I'm showing my age - I'm still viewing on my Toshiba 36" CRT.

Alan

February 7, 2015, 3:02 am

No matter how good the TV it does not improve rubbish programs that are broadcast.

Andrew_TR

February 9, 2015, 9:13 am

OLED still has some issues with motion - but in quite a different sense to LCD. Current OLED TVs use sample and hold, where the pixels are lit for the full duration of the frame, which can cause a perception of judder during motion. Having used the LG 55EA980W it seemed fairly good on motion, though.

normanhairston

February 10, 2015, 2:58 pm

You mention that Plasma screens were better but people stopped buying them [in favor of LCDs], but you do not say why? Understanding the why of plasma's demise is the key to understanding whether OLED will challenge LCD in the TV space. Strike 1 for plasma was launching the technology before it was ready, 1A) was the image burn in problem. As with projection TV (also in the grave) the technology never overcame its initial reputation for poor quality even when improvements were made. There were a few other mis-steps, mostly to do with how the sets were marketed vs. the base technology. All told, the word of mouth about Plasma got to bad to continue.

Andrew_TR

February 10, 2015, 6:50 pm

I'm not sure about plasma being launched too early had much to do with its demise. I own a final generation Panasonic plasma and it has worse image retention than the both the 7-8 year old Pioneer and Panasonic plasmas it replaced.

Plasma wasn't marketed anywhere near as much as LCD in the later years, and that LCDs are so much thinner and lighter is a huge draw for many. It's somewhat like how 5.1 satellite systems have eclipsed 5.1 separates systems even though you could make a good surround sound system out of full-size bookshelf or floorstander speakers for not all that much cash.

Cost and convenience were big factors.

normanhairston

February 10, 2015, 7:25 pm

With the advent of LED lighting, LCDs got much thinner, but LCD thinness was not what did in plasma. Nor was it cost; plasmas were cheaper than LCDs in equivalent sizes. As to marketing, the first flat panels were plasma; both the first notebook computers and the first flat TVs. For a considerable period,when LCDs could not be made much above 14", plasma had the market to itself.

The big problem plasma had, as successor to the CRT, was that folk expected a 15 year product life and plasma wasn't delivering, in large part because of image burn in. Again, as with projection TVs with the first models really stinking, the technology never overcame the reputation even when they got better.

The other problem plasmas had was surface reflections. Though this was largely eliminated in premium priced models, the industry continued to market lower priced ones prompting the in-store sales people to remark that "plasma was a good tv for the basement". Although TV marketing usually requires that you have "entry level" less featured models to trade consumers up from, having poor image quality on the entry level sets brought down the whole technology. In CRT, although the smaller and cheaper sets had fewer features, the image quality was the same within each brand. In LCD, although there was a period where pricing was based on contrast ratio, in truth, the contrast ratio's was just what the screen was certified to not what they actually were (as in all the same).

Andrew_TR

February 10, 2015, 10:56 pm

I think maybe we're talking in different timescales here. But most of the points stand at one time or another.

Perhaps one of the most unfortunate issues with plasma is that when it's assessed in a shop next to an LCD TV, it's almost univerally going to look a bit dimmer. So put it in a flourescent-lit showroom where all the TVs are horribly calibrated (your average Currys/Dixons/PC World etc) many people would pick LCD over a superior plasma.

Geoffrey Jackson

July 23, 2015, 6:24 pm

So the average person, so rather better than me, actually has no access to decisions based on technology and results. We just get to apply "man-mathematics" until we hustle up a budget that allows us to believe or not believe that one manufacturer's offering at our level of financial capacity is better than another's. We then kill ourselves with debt and buy whatever comes out top in that alchemy-inspired selection process. And then we spend all the time we have to devote to irrational dreams, to kid ourselves that whatever we bought on its potential for impressing our friends, was actually bought on technology. That comforts us until we can generate another "man-mathematics" budget and hope to not dupe ourselves when we buy some replacement kit. Since we are already duping ourselves about our budget, intelligent product selection is not going to happen.

I have returned to using a blindfold and a pin. Far more scientific! Oh yes! You can establish the likelihood of the pin piercing any particular part of a grid by getting paralytic drunk before piercing, say 20, identical grids 100 times each. That gives you foreseeable percentages that don't even need much calculating. I systematically score 0, which justifies me buying whatever I can afford to like.

Now it's time for my tramadol...

Gabriel Jones

January 3, 2016, 4:22 am

I think OLED is going to be very popular now that Apple is using it in the iPhone 7s http://www.forbes.com/sites...

Sweetbrandigirl2004

January 30, 2016, 4:20 am

So basically OLEDs are the new Plasma ! Very expensive five year paper weights !

Sweetbrandigirl2004

January 30, 2016, 4:23 am

I'll tell you why because Plasma's we're very expensive and only lasted five years or so then they died and you had a paper weight.

R.

May 24, 2016, 4:35 pm

wtf

Surefire2007

June 7, 2016, 12:47 pm

Lower than 40" LED TV and you do not have to worry about all these tech jurgons. By the way be selective and do not spend too much time in front of TV. Too many garbages channels and misinformation broadcasted. Do not waste your precious time.

jon7272

June 8, 2016, 2:49 am

yes you didnt mention screen burn in which is a worse then plasma if you play games and movies or a pc monitor and like to pause a lot do yourself a favor and forget OLED

jon7272

June 20, 2016, 10:26 am

i use my tv as a pc monitor so forget the oled it wont get any better for image retention stick with led lcd

Neil James

June 23, 2016, 8:07 am

I have recently purchased a 55" LG OLED and think its the worst investment I have ever made. After 3 weeks of trying to get a decent picture I can tell you its like someone has put creosote on the screen or you're watching with cataracts. I should have know really, as I thought Plasma looked terrible next to LCD. I can hear the adenoidal gasps of those that consider themselves the TV elite already, as they clutch their vinyl collections for comfort. There is a reason Plasma died-out and sadly I have fallen into their trap and purchased "the best possible picture" only to discover it is again horrible shades of brown and has less white than a blank panthers rally. Until you try and live with an OLED TV you wont realise how disappointing they are. In 5 years time I am sure everyone will be saying "do you remember OLED ?", and I'll still have one of the god awful thing clogging-up my living room

Bahumbug

June 25, 2016, 5:49 pm

The reason plasma is not on sale anymore is not your lackluster ability to buy a proper set or perhaps your subpar eyesight, it was much simpler: silly people falling for false marketing and stupid arguments such as "it will break your wallet by consuming way too much power!"

Bahumbug

June 25, 2016, 5:52 pm

Yea, thats nonsense. My last generation Panasonic from 2012 does not only show no image burn-in after 4 years, it also does not show any typical signs of going out of service. You are a victim of what normanhairston mentioned in the last sentence.

Sweetbrandigirl2004

June 26, 2016, 3:44 pm

I hear what you're saying and I guess I should have pointed out it depends on how many hours a day you watch your tv. I still think OLED IS the future of TV. LED is old technology and has hd its day. I think as OLED reaches perfection it will stretch out ots leave over LED.

Neil James

June 27, 2016, 3:37 pm

marketing may have been crap but at the end of the day the reason they don't make Plasma TV's anymore is that nobody was buying them. Its simple economics. Irrespective of people's eyesight, wallet size etc the great un-washed didn't want them. Sure a few did but then there are still plenty of people that think they should be able to smoke in pubs even when they know it will end up in a horrible and painful death both for them and the others who chose not to smoke. Plasma has gone, move on. Personally I never liked Plasma (and never smoked) so I'm not sad to see it go. I suspect CRT was probably better than plasma but there aren't that many people that lament its demise.

For reference, after some major tweaking (and finding another review that suggesting whacking the OLED back light up to 100 and the brightness down) I have actually achieved a picture that I am more than happy with. It now looks as good as my 6 year old LCD telly but with the added bonus of useful blacks and a decent off-angle view. OLED's definitely need to be brighter, even if they are already way brighter than Plasma. I believe the 2016 LG range is brighter, but as yet doesn't do 3D (which is amazing on the 55EF950V) and is nearly twice the price of the 2015 models. Not sure I'd want to pay nearly £4k for a telly, especially as it will almost certainly be half that in 6 months.

comments powered by Disqus