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MicroLED is the first new screen tech in a decade. Can it beat OLED?

If Samsung and Apple get their way, an array of millions of tiny LEDs could oust OLED as the next big display technology. But it won't be easy.

Geoffrey Morrison/CNET

At CES 2018, Samsung wowed the crowds with a wall sized TV, using a technology called "MicroLED." This wasn't the first time we've heard about the tech. Both Sony and Samsung demoed a similar technology the year before for movie theaters and other huge-screen commercial uses. Sony even dropped hints about it as early as 2014.

But "The Wall" is different. At 146 inches, it's absolutely gigantic. But even more significantly, it's actually going to ship this year. Although the price is still a mystery, The Wall will go on sale this August, making MicroLED the first brand-new display technology to be commercialized in more than a decade. The last was OLED, which debuted on the Sony XEL-1 in 2008 and now dominates the picture quality race.

Now Playing: Watch this: Samsung's huge 146-inch TV is called The Wall
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MicroLED can also power tiny screens. Apple currently uses OLED displays for the iPhone X and Apple Watch, but it's reportedly developing its own in-house MicroLED displays for use in mobile devices, starting with the watch. Details are scarce and it'll likely be years (if ever) before Apple brings it to market, but Cupertino's interest provides further evidence that MicroLED could be big.

It's easy to see why. MicroLED has the potential for the same perfect black levels as OLED and higher brightness than any current display technology, all with excellent color and without the viewing angle and uniformity issues of LCD

Right now the issue with MicroLED isn't image quality, it's manufacturing. The sources cited in the Apple report say the screens are more difficult to produce than OLED displays, to the extent that Apple almost pulled out of development a year ago. At CES Samsung's engineers told CNET's David Katzmaier that the current focus is on making a 4K-resolution MicroLED TV that's smaller than 146 inches, say 75 inches or so. They said that would take another two to five years. Here's why.

Tiny, tiny LEDs

As the name suggests, MicroLED is millions of micro, well, LEDs. Tinier versions of what your current LCD TV, as well as newer flashlights, light bulbs and myriad other devices use to create light. This makes it seem simple. So why did it take so long just to make smaller LEDs and stick them in a TV?

microled-vs-led

An illustration of the size difference between traditional LEDs and MicroLEDs. 

Trendforce

Turns out that process is a lot harder than it sounds. One problem is that when you shrink LEDs, the total amount of light they produce goes down. So you either need to drive them harder, increase their efficiency, or both. Just driving them harder introduces new issues. You'll find yourself needing a lot more electricity and dissipating a lot more heat.

Getting the gap between the pixels, or the "pitch size," down is another huge challenge, since the circuitry and other necessary elements can only get so small. If the pitch size can't shrink, there's a limit to how small a MicroLED TV a company can make. Sure, wall-sized TVs are cool, but no one will buy them. If a manufacturer wants to make a profit on its new tech, it needs something easy to make in the 50-inch range, or smaller. Once it can do that, the big sizes will be easy. Well, easier.

lcd-vs-oled-vs-microled

An illustration of LCD vs OLED vs MicroLED. Compare the complexity and multiple layers of an average LCD, vs OLED and especially MicroLED. Also note the thickness, which while not exact, is indicative of the thinner display possibilities of the newer technologies.

Trendforce

And then there's the cost. Instead of a handful, or maybe a few dozen, yellow-blue "white" LEDs like you get on a normal TV, you have 8.3 million LEDs, one for each pixel on a 4K 3,840x2,160 display. Actually, it's way worse than that, since you need red, green and blue LEDs. So that means there's nearly 25 million total LEDs, more than 8 million for each of the primary colors. Each RGB trio is packaged as one pixel. Thousands of these are then grouped in modules, and multiple modules make up a TV, wall or movie screen. 

Big, big picture

micro-led-rgb

An extreme closeup of the RGB array of a MicroLED pixel. You'll need over 8 million of these for a standard 4K TV. 

Samsung

OK, so those are the challenges. Engineers like challenges. And in the history of consumer electronics, the trend is for smaller and more efficient. 

The potential positives are numerous: Brighter images than OLED, but with the same ability to turn off each pixel, for a similarly-perfect black. This would mean an even punchier, more realistic image than OLED and better HDR reproduction.

And remember what I said about smaller and more efficient? Samsung's The Wall has a pixel size of under 1mm, with roughly that in between each pixel. This means the LEDs themselves are even tinier. Some companies are aiming for LEDs in their MicroLED displays in the 0.15mm range or even smaller

Samsung is also claiming theirs will have better "luminance efficiency." That's a measure of how much light it creates for a given amount of electricity, than other display techs. Now, this doesn't necessarily mean it will be overall more efficient than, say, an edge-lit LED LCD, it just means it will be more efficient than that TV if both TVs are creating, say, 2,000 lumens.

20180109-092004

On the bottom is a MicroLED panel, and the top a tablet showing a mangnified section that reveals the LEDs.

David Katzmaier/CNET

Because this will be a "real" LED TV and not the "fake" LED TVs we've had for years (which is to say: LCD panels with LED backlights), all the negatives of LCDs are gone. This means, in theory, we'll be able to enjoy wider viewing angles and less or no motion blur. They shouldn't suffer from image retention or burn-in either. And we may be able to expect longer lifespans than LCD or OLED TVs currently have.

The modularity of MicroLED makes it a bit easier to scale the size of the displays too. A certain number of a specific module, with its set number of pixels, could be used on a 50-inch TV or a 100-inch TV, the larger display having a correspondingly higher resolution. This oversimplifies the process a bit, but that's the general idea. With the right processing, it wouldn't matter if your TV is exactly 4K resolution, or if it's 5,327x2,997 or 8,000x4,500. If your dream is a wall-sized display with 10K resolution, this could be the way to get it.

Samsung The Wall MicroLED

Samsung's The Wall MicroLED TV is 146 inches.

David Katzmaier/CNET

There's also a potential tie-in with the other futuristic TV tech: Quantum dots. Instead of red, green, and blue LEDs, it's possible, perhaps even likely, that it will be almost 25 million blue LEDs, with 2/3 of them sporting either red or green quantum dots. Why? Easier to produce, better efficiency, and doesn't "Micro Quantum Dot LED" just sound cool?

Still a couple years away, at least

I think we should say that Samsung is still pledging to deliver "The Wall" TV this year, but its size and presumed price (we're guessing $100K) mean it's not a real consumer product. A 75-inch or smaller version is still two-plus years away according to Samsung. The Bloomberg article likewise says Apple's mobile MicroLED displays won't arrive for "a few years." So even if Apple has created a breakthrough in this space, it's not something you'll be seeing on the 2018 iPhone -- or even the one after it.

MicroLED is future tech, for sure, but it'd be fair to say "near-future." The biggest companies in technology hardware are moving forward with the idea. OLED is amazing, but it seems LG is still the only one who can make TV sizes profitable. Its competitors are certainly going to want to find the "next big thing," and no matter how many pretty ribbons you tie around an LCD, it's still an LCD. MicroLED is something completely new, but we'll have to wait awhile to see how big it can get.

In the meantime OLED continues its rapid growth in phone screens and OLED TVs just keep getting cheaper. Those tiny LEDs will have a tough job replacing OLED.


Got a question for Geoff? First, check out all the other articles he's written on topics like why all HDMI cables are the sameTV resolutions explainedLED 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 best-selling sci-fi novel and its sequel