One of the most-common questions we get as CNET HDTV reviewers, after the overwhelming favorite "What HDTV should I buy?," is "What's the next big thing in HDTV?" Granted, we don't hear that question as often as we used to, perhaps because LCD, plasma, and microdisplay sets have become more commonplace--but we still hear it. A couple years back it seemed that the next big HDTV thing might be SED, a flat-panel technology backed by Toshiba and Canon that promised to surpass the picture quality of current panels, with better blacks, faster response times, and punchier colors. SED is basically D.E.A.D., but those same promises are now being made by OLED.
Sony's XEL-1 represents the first widely available OLED-based TV. OLED stands for organic light-emitting diode, and its benefits, according to the company, include improved contrast ratio, wider viewing angles, and better color reproduction. According to our tests on the Sony XEL-1, most of those claims have merit. Of course, this is an 11-inch TV for $2,500, and its 960x540 native resolution doesn't even qualify it as an HDTV, so its appeal as a product is limited to only the most profligate wastrels. Sony hasn't announced any plans to produce larger sizes in 2008, and we expect that bigger OLED sets, whether from Sony or another manufacturer--Panasonic, Hitachi, Samsung Electronics, at least, have made large investments in OLED--will cost a mint thanks to manufacturing difficulties and the usual high price of early-generation technology. Nevertheless, if the XEL-1 is any indication, OLED looks like the real (next big) thing.
The first thing most people notice when they see the minuscule XEL-1 is the outsize base, and the second is the sliver-thin panel itself. These two design characteristics go hand-in-hand. OLED allows the XEL-1's panel to measure a vanishing 3mm deep, and thinner OLED prototypes have been demonstrated--even ones that can be rolled up like a parchment scroll. We don't see much utility right now for a thinner thin-screen TV--what, is 4 inches too thick?--and the panel's lack of depth poses a significant design problem: where do you plug everything in? The width of an HDMI port, for example, is about 6mm without including the housing required to secure it, and other, older port types are larger.
Faced with the need to actually plug things into the XEL-1, Sony slapped it atop a base that looks vaguely like a portable DVD player in its own right. It doesn't spin discs, but the base does include a string of inputs on the back panel, a row of buttons on the top front, and a single silver arm on the right side that supports the screen on a tilting hinge. Chrome along the back of the base and the backside of the panel match the arm, for an overall look that's as sleek and modern as any TV we've seen. The screen itself is coated with a mildly reflective surface that nonetheless collects less light than the glossy frame around the screen.
All told, the XEL-1 measures about 9.5 inches by 5.1 inches at the base and stands 9.75 inches tall when the screen is perpendicular to the table. And no, the panel is not detachable.
Firing up the Sony XEL-1 we noticed the same kind of XMB (Cross Media Bar) menus found on Sony's other products, and while they work fine for the PS3, they're as awkward as ever on a TV, where too many vertical selections are available that take too long to access (there's even a "Waiting" notification that appears for a couple seconds when you try to enter the picture menu). The menus are pretty-looking, however, as is the remote, but we found its identically sized keys a hassle to use in real life.
OLED is the XEL-1's claim to fame, and according to Sony, it works as follows: "A layer of organic material is sandwiched between two conductors (an anode and a cathode), which in turn are sandwiched between a glass top plate (seal) and a glass bottom plate (substrate). When electric current is applied to the two conductors, a bright, electro-luminescent light is produced directly from the organic material."
For whatever reason, perhaps related to manufacturing difficulties, Sony decided to give the XEL-1 just 960x540 pixels, exactly half of 1,920x1,080 (aka 1080p) on both the horizontal and vertical axes. Paste together four XEL-1 screens, and you've got one 1080p display. That low pixel count means it doesn't qualify as a true HDTV--although at this screen size, it's virtually impossible to discern individual pixels, and nobody will miss the lost resolution. Some people might miss the anti-judder processing found on other 2007 Sony products, like the KDL-46XBR4.
The XEL-1 has a fine selection of picture-affecting features, including three picture modes that can be independently adjusted per input; four color temperature presets; two flavors of noise reduction, and a few fancily named extras (Back Corrector, Clear White, Live Color) that should be turned off for best picture quality. There's also a four-step Gamma control (we found that "Off" provided the smoothest, most linear rise from black to white), a Color Space setting (which belongs in Normal for more-accurate colors), and Sony's CineMotion processing, which enables 2:3 pulldown detection.
As you'd expect from a TV with a paucity of back-panel space to devote to connections, the XEL-1's jack pack lacks its share of inputs. For standard AV sources, there are only two HDMI ports and an RF-style input for antenna or cable. The XEL-1 makes no provision for standard analog sources, but really, who's hooking a VCR up to this thing? The back panel also includes a slot for Memory Stick (Pro and Duo compatible) as well as another proprietary Sony item, the port for a Bravia Internet Video Link.
The short story on performance is that the Sony XEL-1, thanks to all those fancy diodes, displayed the deepest black levels we've ever seen from a shipping TV. Blacks produced by this TV are basically absolute and visually indistinguishable from the black frame around the screen in a dark environment. Its color accuracy could certainly use some improvement, but colors have more pop and vibrancy than any TV we've tested--we suspect the set's black-level performance was a big help in this regard--and it excelled in a few other categories typically dominated by plasma, such as screen uniformity and off-angle viewing.