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.
Those black levels make a pretty good case for OLED's eventual supremacy in the picture quality arena. The only display we've seen that comes close to the XEL-1 is Pioneer's "Extreme Contrast Concept" plasma, demonstrated at CES 2008, and we expect OLED to battle that technology for flat-panel bragging rights in the years to come.
Of course, actually watching this Lilliputian display next to our current Editors' Choice plasma, the 50-inch Pioneer PDP-5080HD, was an exercise in frustration. We simply couldn't sit close enough to the tiny 11-inch screen to experience the kind of HD impact we've come to expect, and we found our eyes straying to the Pioneer despite the Sony's phenomenal picture. But let's forget the XEL-1's uselessness as a practical home theater display and focus on its performance otherwise.
Back to black levels. When the XEL-1 showed completely dark screens, letterbox bars, titles with text on a black background, or portions of the menu on our PlayStation 3, for example, those black areas were pitch black. They blended into the black frame around the TV completely, so the brighter text, for instance, seemed to float in space in our completely dark room. The XEL-1's blacks, which are the main reason behind Sony's 1,000,000:1 contrast ratio spec, were significantly darker than on the Pioneer, and of course blew other displays away, such as our Sony KDS-55A3000 color reference.
Shadows, such as the dark hair of the actors in Sunshine as they watched the sun from up close, also looked superb, showing as much fine detail as the Pioneer. We do think this set's gamma could use some improvement, however, because the near-black of space, for example, still appeared overly bright, especially against the inky letterbox bars.
That high contrast revealed a few issues that are more limitations of human vision than the TV itself. In scenes with very bright areas on a dark background, such as the white names on the black screen during the credits, we saw faint brightness around the edge of the letters. This shouldn't be confused with the much more intense "blooming" we witnessed on the LED-backlit Samsung LN-T4681F, and it certainly wasn't very distracting. At times, however, it would even extend beyond the edge of the screen itself, "bleeding" seemingly into the frame--an optical illusion of sorts caused by those absolute blacks.
We found the Sony's image much more comfortable to watch at reduced light output. Even our standard 40ftl peak seemed too bright in many scenes in our dark room, an issue compounded by the small screen size. High contrast and a small screen is a sure recipe for eyestrain.
Primary and secondary colors on the XEL-1 measured nowhere near the HDTV standard, and green was so far off the charts that the plants in the ship's hydroponics farm actually looked neon. This issue also lent skin tones a more sickly tinge, and the set's grayscale did have a tendency to get extremely green in near-dark areas including, annoyingly, the void of space, which looked a lot more natural on the Pioneer. Yes, saturation and punch were superb, but the XEL-1's lack of accurate colors was quite apparent, especially in side-by-side comparisons. We assume these issues are the fault of Sony's implementation and not OLED technology in general, but there's no real way to tell since this is the only OLED TV we've tested.
The lower native resolution of the XEL-1's screen wasn't a big deal, especially because smaller screens always look sharper than bigger ones. No matter what we watched, the XEL-1 seemed sharper than the other two displays due to its size and, to some extent, its incredible contrast ratio. We did notice a few artifacts that we assume were caused by the lower pixel count, such as jaggies on a thin crossbar in the ship's mess hall, but they weren't apparent in most scenes and were subtle when they did appear. Naturally the set failed to resolve the finest details on both 1080i and 720p test patterns, which both exceeded its native resolution. For what it's worth, the XEL-1 failed to properly deinterlace video-based 1080i sources, but it handled the more important film-based sources well. It also accepted 1080p/24 sources, although we didn't see any benefit versus standard 1080p.
In many other important ways, OLED seems to behave much like plasma--which is a good thing. The Sony XEL-1 evinced no smearing or blurring in motion even with difficult test material, which helps back up Sony's claim regarding OLED's fast response times. Off-angle viewing on the XEL-1 was as good as we've seen from any display, and the image remained bright and non-washed-out from any seating position. Uniformity across the screen was also essentially perfect. Unfortunately, Sony decided to coat the XEL-1's screen with a finish that reflected a good deal of ambient light from the room--hopefully future OLED sets will have less-reflective screens.
Another advantage of OLED, according to Sony, is its energy efficiency. While we did test the XEL-1's power consumption as we do for every TV we review, the numbers from the Geek Box below do little to prove how efficient OLED can be. That is simply because we haven't tested any other TVs with screens this small, so we have nothing to compare it to. We'd also be loathe to take use this tiny, specialized, first-generation set as a referendum on OLED power consumption in general, although we have no cause to doubt Sony's claims. In short, we'll have to wait until shipping OLED sets of larger sizes reach CNET's lab before we can comment definitively on their efficiency.
We didn't test the Sony XEL-1 with standard-def or PC sources.
|Before color temp (20/80)||5940/6848||Good|
|After color temp||N/A|
|Before grayscale variation||+/- 443K||Good|
|After grayscale variation||N/A|
|Color of red (x/y)||0.68/0.32||Poor|
|Color of green||0.271/0.679||Poor|
|Color of blue||0.133/0.069||Poor|
|Black-level retention||All patterns stable||Good|
|Defeatable edge enhancement||Y||Good|
|480i 2:3 pull-down, 24 fps||Y||Good|
|1080i video resolution||Fail||Poor|
|1080i film resolution||Pass||Good|
|Sony XEL-1||Picture settings|
|Picture on (watts)||23.99||21.87||22.62|
|Picture on (watts/sq. inch)||0.46||0.42||0.44|
|Cost per year||$8.32||$7.68||$7.91|
|Score (considering size)||N/A*|
*We did not include scores for the Sony XEL-1 because its tiny screen size makes it effectively impossible to compare against other HDTVs we've tested.