The state of OLED TV: 2014 and beyond

A year after the launch of the first good-sized OLED TV, we've got a few new models, new resolutions, new sizes...but still only two companies making them (arguably, just one).

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Geoffrey Morrison

The state of the OLED TV is good. Not great, but good.

In the past year we've seen a dramatic decrease in prices, an expansion of sizes, and perhaps most interesting, the availability of 4K OLEDs.

But that doesn't mean everything is rosy and supergreen in OLED TV world. There's a bit to be blue about too.

A recap

Organic Light Emitting Diode televisions are the newest technology in the TV world. They deliver the best picture quality available today, outdoing LED LCD handily and even the best plasmas of recent vintage. And that's fortunate, because plasma is on its deathbed.

Currently only two companies are selling OLED TVs: Samsung, and LG. Samsung, whose KN55S9C is already a year old (with no sign of replacement, and limited availability), uses a traditional RGB sub-pixel arrangement. Each pixel has red, green, and blue sub-pixels which combine in various intensities to create the image.

LG uses different method, and since they've got newer, cheaper , bigger, and higher resolution models this year, their method seems the way to go at the moment. They're calling it WRGB, and it's a little confusing. Each pixel is made up of red, green, blue sub-pixels, with an additional "white" sub-pixel for a boost in brightness.

But it gets odder from there. Each subpixel is actually a sandwich of OLED materials. Blue and yellow OLED materials to be specific. This blue/yellow sandwich creates "white" light, then color filters layered above filter only the light desired for that sub-pixel. This graphic should help:

lg-oled-blue-yellow.jpg
Yellow is made up of red and green light. When combined with blue (1), this creates "white" light (2). Using color filters (3) the desired sub-pixel color (including clear/white) is created (4). Geoffrey Morrison

LG claims this stew of colors makes OLEDs easier (read: cheaper) to manufacture. Given where LG is now compared to last year, that's certainly believable. They also claim WRGB provides better longevity, something that remains untested.

Although straight RGB like Samsung uses seems somehow purer, there are no obvious drawbacks to using LG's method. After all, nearly every LED LCD TV on the market uses "white" LEDs which are actually blue LEDs with a yellow phosphor.

Where we're at

LG currently owns the OLED market. LG's Global Communications Director Ken Hong recently bragged to CNET that its manufacturing technology puts it a decade ahead of the competition.

"The reason other companies have said they're going to put OLED on hold, it's because their yields are pitiful," he said, claiming LG now gets more than 80 percent yield -- a measure of how many usable panels are successfully manufactured.

And the price drops back up those claims. LG's first OLED, last year's $15,000 55-inch, has been replaced this year with a the same size for $3,500 . Not a bad yearly drop, that.

Additionally, at the CEDIA Expo LG also announced several new models for the US market, most interestingly, 65-inch and 77-inch Ultra HD 4K OLEDs.

What's most interesting to me about these models is how there had been doubts that OLED could do 4K at all. Granted, at $10k and $25k respectively, they're exceptionally pricey. But look at the price of last year's 1080p model, and this year's. Prices drop.

Almost all of LG's OLED TVs are curved, with the exception of a single model. We've speculated that both Samsung and LG want to push curved OLED because they fear flat OLEDs aren't "different" enough to justify the higher prices. Sure, we (and I include you, dear readers in that "we") know that OLED's picture quality is superlative, but in the recent history of television, picture quality rarely won out over other factors. So for now, curved, for better or for worse.

If you can find one, you can still buy Samsung's KN55S9C for $10,000. It's a fantastic television, if rather expensive (and now, hard to find).

Where we're going (we hope)

What the OLED world desperately needs is more citizens, both in terms of people buying them, and companies making them. Samsung's OLED is now a year old, with no signs of being replaced. Despite some early enthusiasm, Sony hasn't shown any consumer-level OLED TVs (and no, that 6-year-old 11-inch model doesn't count).

Panasonic had partnered with Sony for OLED, though that ended a few months later.

With any luck, we'll hear some OLED TV announcements in Vegas at CES 2015 in January from a company other than LG.

An LG by any other name?

While the 55EC9300 is a great TV, no technology can survive with just one company pushing it. Plasma didn't survive with three companies pushing it.

While building factories to manufacture OLED is a pricey proposition, simply re-branding them isn't. It wouldn't be surprising to see other companies using LG OLED panels branded under their own names. This OEM arrangement has been common for nearly the entire history of television, and it's generally win-win for the companies involved. Since LG is pretty much the only name in the OLED manufacturing game at the moment, anything that increases production (and in theory lowers costs) is a good thing, for them, and for OLED fans.

How different will these TVs be from LG's own? Depends. It could be the exact same, just with a different name on the front. Or the company could tweak the performance to be a little different. In the early days of plasma, there was a joke amongst TV reviewers that NEC made the best Panasonic plasmas, as they would put better processing inside.

Or, the opposite could also be true, cheaper OLED TVs but with worse processing. We'd have to test them to be sure.

Bottom Line

We're still too early to announce the "Era of OLED," as much as we'd be excited to do so. OLED already is the best looking TV we've seen , and we'd love for it to take over for plasma, and LCD, as soon as possible. But like any new technology, there are growing pains. Most concerning, the lack of any models from companies that aren't named LG.

So for now, the State of OLED is good, but it needs to be better. Maybe we'll get that glimmer of hope in that darkest pit of despair: Las Vegas, site of CES 2015. We'll see.


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, LED LCD vs. plasma, active versus passive 3D, and more. Still have a question?Send him an e-mail! He won't tell you what TV to buy, but he might use your letter in a future article. You can also send him a message on Twitter @TechWriterGeoff or Google+.

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