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

Andrew Williams

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OLEDvsLCD

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

2016 is shaping up to be a big year for Screen tech. As 4K continues to be adopted as the standard resolution in the AV world, new features such as HDR look set to make a big impact as TVs get clearer, brighter, sharper, and generally better.

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

But as we prepare for all the new features coming our way, there's 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.

In one corner sits LCD, 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 with a backlight that's made of LEDs rather than another kind of light source.

OLED, which is used in phones like the Samsung Galaxy S7 and TVs like the LG 65G6, is completely different.

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

In a nutshell, how are they different?

To distil the differences between these technologies into the most concise little nugget, 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’.

What this means is that the brightness of an OLED display can be controlled pixel-by-pixel. This sort of control just isn’t possible with an LED LCD.

In cheaper TVs and LCD-screen phones (that’ll be most of them), LED LCD screens use LED backlights that 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.

So 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 an image aren’t perfectly black, because you can still see the backlight showing through.

This is also a good time to explain contrast. Particularly in TVs and monitors, you’ll often see a contrast ratio quoted. This tells you how much brighter a display’s whites are compared to its blacks, and a decent LCD screen might have a contrast ratio of 1,000:1.

The whites are a thousand times brighter than the blacks.

LCDvsOLEDSony

Sony's demo of LCD vs OLED contrast

OLED vs LED LCD: OLED Contrast

In an OLED display, as a pure black screen should not emit any light at all, you get an infinite contrast ratio. No matter how many times you multiply nothing, you end up with zilch.

When you see a ‘dynamic’ contrast ratio figure, which will likely be much higher, that refers to an LCD TV's ability to alter the backlight level depending on the image on screen. It’s not really a good indication of the sort of contrast you’ll see in, say, movies because there the variance in screen brightness is much less predictable. You can't dim the backlight when another part of the screen needs a good level of luminance.

Trying too hard to alter backlight levels to suit can also cause obvious and jarring ligh level changes too.

There are LED LCD displays that have a good crack at replicating the sort of contrast you get with OLED, though, 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, how effective this technology is varies.

Direct LED-lit TVs still don’t have pixel-level control over light levels like OLED. 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, if there was an image of someone’s 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. If you’ve read some of our TV reviews, you may have heard our TV expert John Archer talk about this sort of halo’ing.

Of course, TV makers are getting better at this every year. Panasonic used CES 2016 to debut a new 'honeycomb' backlight structure which divides the LED backlights into hundreds of individually controllable zones with rigid dividing structures between each zone to limit light leakage and help reduce the 'halo' effect. The new tech can be found on the TX-65DX900.

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 2016 looks likely to be 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.

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.

Ultra HD Premium

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.

So what are some of the key differences? We had a chat with professional ISF television calibrator Vincent Teoh who told us, “LED LCDs will never match OLED in black level,” but also says that LCD “already surpasses [OLED] in peak brightness.”

For watching content in dark rooms, an OLED display is therefore the best solution you can currently get. In the TV space, that has become all the more important now that plasma TVs are not made any more. Plasma displays used to be the go-to technology to get better contrast than LCDs, but every company that used to make such sets ceased after people, well, stopped buying them.

SEE ALSO: Curved TVs: The Pros and Cons

s7 1The Samsung Galaxy S7 uses OLED technology

OLED displays are great for screen enthusiasts, and not just in TVs. The Samsung Galaxy S7 and Galaxy S7 Edge both use OLED and probably have the best phone screens ever made.

Samsung is the main supporter of OLED phones. While Nokia Lumia and Motorola have occasionally used OLED screens, Sony, Apple and LG all predominantly use LCD-type displays in their phones.

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. Only three companies to date have released full-size, commercially-available TVs: Samsung, LG, and Panasonic. However, 2016 should see more companies getting on board with OLED, including Philips. The company is reportedly working on a OLED TVs which could see a 2016 release.

Samsung’s OLED was called the KE55S9C, and it originally sold for £7,000. For that price you’d expect perfection, but there was a concern about the blue LEDs used in the set — they last for less time than the green and red ones. It’s still enough for years of operation, but given the price it was a worry.

LG OLED

LG gets over this issue in its OLED TVs by using white LEDs, and colour filters over the top of them. It’s a little more LCD-like in this respect.

The company is doing great work in trying to make OLED TVs more mainstream, and while there’s a way to go before OLED models are anywhere close to the sort of prices non-enthusiasts can afford, LG is ploughing away where other TV makers steer clear.

The cheapest OLED available right now is the non-4K LG 55EC930V for around the £1,299 mark. It's a decent TV but it's also fairly outdated now, and without 4K it's going to become insignificant fairly soon, if it hasn't already. All of which means you're still looking at paying more than £2,000 for a 4K OLED TV.

When it comes to LCD, you can get a 4K set for well under £500 now, while the cheapest 4K OLED is the 55-inch, £2,499 LG 55EG960V. Still, that's a significant drop in price from a year ago when the cheapest 4K OLED was the £6,500 LG 65EC970V.

That all makes sense considering what LG Product & Range Planning Manager Robert Taylor told us last year: “2015 will be a key year for OLED TV as we will really demonstrate our commitment to OLED technology by investing over $600m into production sites across the world that will take production to 1m units.

“The benefits of this extra production will result in greater economies of scale which will enable us to produce not only a wider array and range of OLED TV products but also in greater volume, resulting in better cost prices and reduced production costs. With these savings we will be able to make OLED TV’s more effectively and even look to create more entry level models.”

So while OLED TVs are still fairly pricy, continued investment in the technology, particularly from LG, has led to dramatic drops in prices. By the end of 2016 we may start seeing affordable 4K OLED TVs start creeping onto the market.

What are the benefits of LCD?

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.

LCD screens can often look sharper than OLED displays of the same resolution too. It’s all down to the tactics display producers use to deal with OLED’s quirks.

Samsung 65KS9500Samsung unveiled a range of new LCD TVs at CES 2016

The problem is that not only do different colour LEDs have different lifespans, they also have different levels of light output. So while LCD screens can use incredibly regular patterns of red, green and blue sub-pixels, OLED displays generally have to be a bit more… dynamic.

For example, in the Galaxy Note 4, instead of having pixels with three regular sub-pixels, there are red-green-blue-green little dots that effectively form two pixels. They’re not the same shape either: the reds and blues and diamond-shaped while the greens are smaller ovals.

This is called a PenTile arrangement, and makes less pixel-packed OLED displays look a bit fizzy. The effect has largely disappeared in recent phones thanks to the sheer resolution on offer, and LG’s OLED TVs do not need to use such techniques as they use a colour filter rather than coloured LEDs.

But OLEDs just aren't as easy to work with as LCDs it seems.

SEE ALSO: Best TVs to buy

Samsung OLED

Samsung's OLED TV

OLED vs LED LCD: Viewing Angle

OLED displays tend to have near-perfect viewing angles, although they will often take on a slightly different hue when viewed from an angle. The Galaxy Note 4, for example, goes a bit blue-ish.

In LCDs, viewing angles 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. Display tech engineers sure seem to have a thing for acronyms.

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 — but TN screens can often look weak or washed-out.

SEE ALSO: Best smartphones to buy

iPhone

OLED screens have even greater colour potential than the best LCDs, but the problem here is reining them in. These screens are capable of reproducing more of the natural colour spectrum than is actually covered by the standards used in film and software production, but that means if they’re not properly calibrated colours can look overcooked.

You’ll see this quite commonly in OLED phones, but OLED TVs — being enthusiast products — tend to have fantastic colour reproduction.

What is the future for LCD and OLED
?

Display makers are doing their best to tweak and improve the various limitations of LCD, though. While OLED’s job over the next few years is to become more affordable and just get out there a bit more, 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 these ‘quantum dots’ of various sizes, which convert the light into different colours by altering its wavelength.

Our TV calibrator buddy Vincent Teoh had a few words to say on quantum dots too:

“It's not a stop gap – it's crucial to help LED LCD achieve a wide enough colour gamut to satisfy current UHD standards. For normal HD stuff, most consumers probably won't appreciate (or care) about quantum dot vs non-quantum dot displays.”

Related: What are Quantum Dots and why are they awesome?

Amazon Kindle HDXThe Kindle HDX was the first quantum dot tablet

Some of Amazon’s Kindle Fire HD tablets already use quantum dot tech and at CES 2016, Samsung revealed an exciting new flagship range of SUHD TV sets, all of which use the trendy nano particles. Quantum dots are one of the main ways in which LCD displays are able to reach the UHD Premium standards and fulfill HDR requirements.

While LCD is never going to match OLED for black level and contrast, any limits to colour reproduction are being whittled away.

Whether you side with LCD or OLED, the future is certainly going to be interesting.

So, who wins?

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. Most likely an LED LCD one too (the other common type is ccfl).

For manufacturers, it's a pretty easy tech to deal with, not least because it has been the default technology for aeons. It's also a more problematic technology in terms of image quality, next to OLED at least, but little 'sub technologies' like IPS have come in to help with that over the years.

These little optimisations are things OLED lacks at present: Super AMOLED is largely just an OLED that merges a touchscreen layer with the display element. Making OLEDs is tricky, and that is reflected in the price. But across phones and TVs, they do get you some of the most eye-popping imags available and with continued investment from companies such as LG, OLED certainly isn't going away any time soon.

Thanks to Vincent Teoh with his help on this article. You can read more about his calibration services on his site.

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/ew...

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.

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