Two new HDTV technologies are inbound this year. Which is more drool-worthy?

Geoffrey Morrison

On one side, there's 4K: four times the resolution of your current TV. LG, Sony, JVC, and others have all announced or shown upcoming 4K displays.

On the other, there's OLED: Organic Light-Emitting Diode. Significantly better picture quality than your current TV, plus lower energy consumption, and even thinner cabinets.

So what's more exciting?

With 4K, there are many potential benefits. You can sit closer to your TV, for one, without ever seeing pixels. Or you can get a much larger TV for the same reason. If you sit close enough/have a big enough TV, you'll see incredible levels of detail. Both the LG and Sony are also passive 3D. With 1080p TVs, this means you get half-HD resolution per eye (1,920x540 pixels). With 4K, you get 3,840x1,080 pixels per eye.

On the other hand, all upcoming 4K flat-panels are LCD. LG and Sony, both coming out next month, are edge-lit LED LCDs. As in, they're not even local dimming. So all the negatives inherent in LCDs, like poor off-axis response, mediocre contrast ratio, and so on, are all going to be present. Essentially, these are current-generation TVs, just with 4x the resolution.

OLED, on the other hand, is a completely new TV technology. The contrast ratio potential is significantly higher than any modern technology: deep blacks that disappear in a dark room, whites that pop off the screen. It will be more realistic, with a better appearance of depth (even with 2D) than anything you've seen. Energy consumption should be lower than even LED LCDs. LG's 55-inch OLED, still claimed to be on track for this year, is 4mm thick. That's the width of a pencil. Essentially, OLED is the next-generation of TVs, but with the current TV's resolution.

The downsides of OLED? It's new, so there's likely to be teething problems. Longevity, historically an OLED issue, is still largely unknown (though every company involved has said the new models will last as long as current TVs). And, of course, price.

Not that price should really enter into our dream comparison here, but current estimated prices on 55-inch OLEDs is somewhere close to $10k. It's no better for 4K. LG's 84-inch 4K is $19,999, whereas Sony's is $24,999. Sony also has a 4K projector that costs roughly the same.

And, while I'm bringing this back down to reality, this is a false comparison on another level. Inevitably there will be 4K OLEDs, but they're an even longer way off.

My pick? Without question OLED. A 1080p resolution is plenty for current TV screen sizes, and all the current content is 1080p. The image will be so much better than what's available now, it will put even the best 4K to shame. I'll even go one step further. I'll argue that even at the same size, OLED at 1080p will look better and possibly even more detailed than a 4K LCD. How could I say such a thing? Several years ago I did a face-off among seven HDTVs with different technologies: plasma, LCD, DLP, and LCOS. The clear winner was a Pioneer Kuro plasma, which, when viewed from a normal viewing distance, received high praise about how detailed it looked. Here's the thing, at 1,365x768 pixels, it was half the resolution of the other TVs in the face off (all the rest were 1080p). It did it by having more than twice the contrast ratio.

So sure, with 4K you can sit closer or get an even larger TV, but like I argued in my "4K TVs are stupid" and "Why 4K TVs are stupid (still)" posts, I don't think most people are going to sit less than 6 feet from their TVs, or get a 100-inch projector. So for most people, including myself, I think OLED will be far more interesting.

But you don't have to take my word for it. I asked the top TV reviewers from around the Web. Here's what they had to say:

"OLED by a country mile, it's not even close. By my guess the only 2D picture quality improvement 4K will bring is a slight increase in sharpness, and then it'll only be visible with the very best program material (native 4K content being ideal) at a screen size/seating distance ratio that's basically theatrical in scale. OLED should improve picture quality across the board, offering absolute blacks for effectively infinite contrast. I expect more consistent light output in bright scenes than plasma is capable of, without the viewing angle or uniformity issues of LED/LCD." -- David Katzmaier, Senior Editor, CNET.

"I'd want 4k. It's astounding what that kind of resolution does for the details on larger screens. Like on hair and textures. We've already seen this jump at work on tablets and smartphones, too. It's a real change, albeit one that I don't think needs to come any time soon for most people. Myself? I'd be happy with one sometime in 10 years." Brian Lam, Editor in Chief, TheWirecutter.

"The sole advantage of 4K is increased resolution, which we don't have content for now, and other aspects of the display could be worse than 1080p LCD displays. OLED offers potentially perfect black levels and expanded dynamic range, superior viewing angles, near-instant response times, and even thinner displays than LCD can do, all of which current and future content can take full advantage of." -- Chris Heinonen, Senior Editor, hometheaterhifi.com.

"I'm more interested in OLED mainly because of its picture quality and form-factor implications. I expect OLED TVs to deliver a true high-contrast picture, and to more seamlessly integrate with room environments than current "flat" TVs. 4K at this point seems more like a solution in search of a problem." -- Al Griffin, Technical Editor, Sound+Vision magazine.

"While 4K will certainly have its benefits primarily in the front-projection realm, I'm more interested in seeing how OLED affects the TV business. Will OLED live up to its performance potential in real-world products? How much will it cost? Will the addition of a new high-end TV category help to stabilize an industry in which a lot of major players are hemorrhaging cash? We'll see." -- Adrienne Maxwell, Video Editor, HomeTheaterReview.com.

"OLED. Why? I look at 4K the same way I look at full electric cars: You can buy one today, but the infrastructure is lacking. With 4K, there's no full standard for transmission, and no serious sources. OLED will make all current material look better, with the potential of 4K resolutions later." -- Gary Merson, Editor, HDGuru.com.

"For me, the answer is pretty easy: OLED. It is, quite simply, the finest, most gorgeously rendered 1080p image I've seen to date, with ridiculous black levels and sumptuous contrasts, both of which are more important to my eyes than pure pixel count. The 4K sets we've seen so far are also LCD-based, and thus exhibit all of the motion issues that make my eyes feel floopy." -- Dennis Burger, Editor in Chief of HomeTechTell.

So what do you think? Which technology has you readying your virtual wallet?

Got a question for Geoff? Click "Geoffrey Morrison" below, then click the E-mail link in the upper right to e-mail, wait for it...Geoffrey Morrison! If it's witty, amusing, and/or a good question, you may just see it in a post just like this one. No, I won't tell you what TV to buy. Yes, I'll probably truncate and/or clean up your e-mail. You can also send me a message on Twitter: @TechWriterGeoff.

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