LED LCD vs. OLED: TV display technologies compared

LED LCD is the dominant TV display technology by far, especially now that plasma is dead. Its only potential competitor is OLED, found on few high-end TVs made exclusively by LG. Here's a look at the pros and cons of each.

For the last decade or so, TV buyers were forced to answer the question "LCD or plasma?" with their hard-earned dollars. Now plasma has been removed from consideration.

Pretty much every sold today TV is based on good old LCD (liquid crystal display) technology, whether manufacturers choose to call them LED TVs, SUHD TVs, Super UHD TVs or something even more futuristic-sounding like Quantum Dot LED TVs (QLED).

The exception is OLED. Televisions based on Organic Light Emitting Diode display technology are fundamentally different from LCD TVs. The most basic difference is that each pixel provides its own illumination, while all of the pixels in an LCD TV are illuminated by an LED backlight. That difference leads to all kinds of picture quality effects, some of which favor LCD, but most of which benefit OLED.

The first OLED TVs started shipping in 2013. For now they're only made by LG Display (although Sony is starting to sell LG-made OLED TVs too) and they more expensive than most like-sized LCDs. They also happen to have the best picture quality CNET has ever tested.

OLED may be the picture-quality king, but LCD isn't going down without a fight, introducing all sorts of new technology that could keep the contest close for years to come.

So which one is better? Read on for their strengths and weaknesses. In general we'll be comparing OLED to the best (read: most expensive) LCD has to offer, mainly because there's no such thing as a cheap OLED TV. And when a particular advantage is likely to change in the future, we've made a note.

If you're curious how LCDs work, check out LED LCD backlights explained and LED local dimming explained. If you're curious about OLED, check out What is OLED?.


Light output (brightness)

Winner: LCD

Loser: OLED

Take this category with a grain of salt. Both TV types are very bright and can look good in even a sunny room, let alone more moderate indoor lighting situations or the dark rooms that make TV images look their best. When it comes down to it, no modern TV could ever be considered "dim."

LCD gets the nod here specifically because the whole screen can be brighter, a function of its backlight. OLED can't do a full screen with as much brightness. Full-screen brightness isn't very important in the real world however, so this category is a relatively hollow victory for LCD.

Light output also plays a big part in High Dynamic Range (HDR), which we'll discuss a little later.


Black level

Winner: OLED

Loser: LCD

At the other side of light output is black level, or how dark the TV can get. OLED wins here because of its ability to turn off individual pixels completely. It can produce truly perfect black.

The better LCDs have local dimming, where parts of the screen can dim independently of others. This isn't quite as good as per-pixel control because the black areas still aren't absolutely black, but it's better than nothing. The best LCDs have full-array local dimming, which provides even finer control over the contrast of what's onscreen -- but even they can suffer from "blooming," where a bright area spoils the black of an adjacent dark area.

Check out LED LCD backlights explained and LED local dimming explained for more info.

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An OLED TV has perfect black levels and bright whites, for an infinite contrast ratio.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Contrast ratio

Winner: OLED

Loser: LCD

Here's where it comes together. Contrast ratio is the difference between the brightest and the darkest a TV can be. OLED is the winner here because it can get extremely bright, plus it can produce absolute black with no blooming. It has the best contrast ratio of any modern display.

Contrast ratio is the most important aspect of picture quality. A high contrast-ratio display will look more realistic than one with a lower contrast ratio.

For more info, check out the basics of contrast ratio and why it's important to understand contrast ratio.


Resolution

Winner: Tie

This one's easy. Both OLED and LCD are widely available in Ultra HD 4K form. There are also plenty of 1080p LCDs. Some older OLEDs are 1080p, but new models are all 4K.


Refresh rate and motion blur

Winner: Tie (with exceptions)

Refresh rate is important in reducing motion blur, or the blurring of anything on screen that moves (including the whole image if the camera pans). Sadly, the current version of OLED has motion blur, just like LCD.

OLEDs, and all current 4K TVs, have a 120Hz refresh rate. Cheaper LCDs are 60Hz, while some 1080p LCDs are available at up to 240Hz (though these are extremely rare). This is despite the marketing numbers claiming much higher refresh rates.

OLEDs and many LCD use black-frame insertion, which is a way to improve motion resolution without resorting to the (usually) dreaded Soap Opera Effect.

Learn what refresh rate means and if your TV really is 120Hz.

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High-end LCDs like the Sony XBR-65X930D can get brighter than OLED TVs, which is especially important for HDR.

Sarah Tew/CNET

High Dynamic Range (HDR)

Winner: Tie

High Dynamic Range (HDR) is one latest technologies that can significantly improve picture quality. It's an expansion of contrast ratio, an improvement in brightness, and more.

There are both OLED and LCD models that are HDR-compatible. The best HDR LCDs can produce brighter highlights than OLED, but OLED still has a better overall contrast ratio (dynamic range, if you will) thanks to its better black level. Which is to say, done well, both are good. You need HDR content though.

Learn more about the differences between HDR for photography and HDR for TVs.


Expanded Color Gamut

Winner: Tie

Wide Color Gamut, or WCG, is related to HDR, though you can technically have one without the other. It's an expansion of the colors possible on "standard" TVs. Think richer, deeper and more vibrant colors.

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The smallest triangle (circles at corners) is what your current HDTV can do. The next largest (squares) is P3 color. The largest (triangle edges) is Rec 2020.

Geoffrey Morrison/CNET (triangles); Sakurambo (base chart)

Certain LCDs and most new OLED models are capable of WCG. In LCDs it's largely thanks to Quantum Dots.

Read more about how TVs make color, how they will make color, and how Wide Color Gamut works.


Viewing angle

Winner: OLED

Loser: LCD

One of the main downsides of LCD TVs is a change in picture quality if you sit away from dead center (as in, off to the sides). How much this matters to you certainly depends on your seating arrangement, but also on how much you love your loved ones.

A few LCDs use in-plane switching (IPS) panels, which have better off-axis picture quality than other kinds of LCDs, but don't look as good as other LCDs straight on (primarily due to a lower contrast ratio). If you're sitting off to the side, curved screens may let you see the far side of the screen better but views of the closer side are going to remain as bad (or worse).

OLED doesn't have the off-axis issue LCDs have; its image looks basically the same, even from extreme angles.


Uniformity

Winner: OLED

Loser: LCD

Uniformity refers to the consistency of brightness across the screen. Most edge-lit LED LCDs are pretty terrible with this, "leaking" light from their edges.

OLED is much better. Unlike plasma, however, it isn't perfect, with some early models having parts of the screen look slightly dimmer. We're anxious to check out the forthcoming flat OLED TVs because the curve might be responsible for some of OLED's uniformity issues.


Energy consumption

Winner: LED LCD

Runner-up: OLED

OLED's energy consumption is directly related to screen brightness. The brighter the screen, the more power it draws. It even varies with content. A dark movie will require less power than a hockey game or ski competition.

The energy consumption of LCD only varies depending on the backlight setting. The lower the backlight, the lower the power consumption. A basic LED LCD with its backlight set low will draw less power than OLED.

The only way to make OLED more energy-efficient is to reduce its brightness, but since that reduces its contrast ratio as well, it's not ideal. So we'll give this category to LCD, even though it's fairly close and neither uses much power. Depending on size, settings, and how much you watch it (of course) it's around $20 to $30 a year to run a modern TV.

Here's what you need to know about TV power consumption for more info.


Lifespan

Winner: Tie -- sort of

LG says its new OLED TVs have a lifespan of 100,000 hours to half brightness, a figure that's similar to LED LCDs.

OLED is a newer technology, but we haven't seen widespread issues with the technology so far.

If you're the type of person who can't stop worrying about the longevity of their TV, then I guess LCD is your only option. Though keep in mind, there's no guarantee about those either, as any glance at Amazon or Internet forums will tell you.

Generally though, flat panels are very reliable.


Burn-in

Winner: Too early to tell

All TVs can " burn in," or develop what's called "image persistence," where a ghost of an image remains on screen. It's really hard to do this with most LCDs. It's slightly easier with OLED. However, watching something else for a few minutes should fix the issue. In neither case is it as sticky as it tended to be on some older plasma TVs.

Regardless, don't leave a static image on screen all night.


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Sony's 100-inch Z9D series LCD TV unveiled by company execs.

Lexy Savvides/CNET

Screen size

Winner: LCD

Loser: OLED

LCD TVs are available in a vast array of sizes, from less than 20 inches to more than 100 inches. OLED TVs only come in three sizes today: 55 inches, 65 inches and 77 inches. And the current price of a 77-inch OLED TV is around 20 grand.

In other words, if you want a TV smaller than 55 inches or larger than 65, LCD is your only option.


Price

Winner: LCD

Loser: OLED

You can get 50-inch LCDs for around $500. It's going to be a long time before OLEDs are that price.

That said, OLED will get cheaper. LG has dropped the price of OLED sharply several times already.

It's also worth considering that the top-of-the-line LCDs are often similar in price to OLED.


And the picture-quality winner is... OLED

LCD dominates the market because it's cheap to manufacture and delivers good enough picture quality for just about everybody. But according reviews at CNET and elsewhere, OLED wins for overall picture quality, largely due to the incredible contrast ratio.

LCDs continue to improve, though, and many models offer excellent picture quality for far less money than OLED, especially in larger sizes.

Which is to say, there are a lot of great TVs out there.


Got a question for Geoff? First, check out all the other articles he's written on topics like why all HDMI cables are the same, TV resolutions explained, LED LCD vs. OLED, and more. Still have a question? Tweet at him @TechWriterGeoff then check out his travel photography on Instagram. He also thinks you should check out his bestselling sci-fi novel and its sequel.

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