It's taken 12 months for one of last year's CES darlings, the all-singing, all-dancing XEL-1 OLED panel to reach Australia, and it's not going to be cheap — going for the price of a 55-inch plasma. But was it worth the wait? Is this, indeed, the future of television?
While the Koreans think they've got a handle on design with televisions like LG's Scarlet and Samsung's 9 series, this has only been a recent development. In comparison, Sony knows about design. As proof, the Japanese company brings us the XEL-1. While it may look like a trumped-up itty bitty booklight in the thumbnail, in the flesh it is simply exquisite.
The highlight of the design is the chrome arm that connects the 3mm thick display to the main media box, which is complemented by a piano-black powder coating and further chrome accents. The base is reassuringly heavy and the entire unit feels solid. The display is tiltable by almost 90 degrees, which is handy because the screen itself is quite vulnerable to ambient light.
We really liked the controls on the base as they change depending on whether you're inside the menu system to up, down etc, or to Ch/Vol/Input. It's really cool, and intuitive.
We were also a little amused to see that the display (which can only be comfortably watched at arm's length, at the very most) comes with a remote. It's a credit-card style unit, and comes with all of the functions you'll need. It's actually pretty nifty, and fun to use.
For what appears to be a barebones unit, the XEL-1 is actually quite well featured. While it looks almost identical to the overseas model, there are some important differences. Namely it now comes with a USB port instead of the much-maligned MemoryStick slot, and it boasts a local HD tuner. And while it does away with most input choices, it does have two HDMI ports.
As this is only an 11-inch screen, the resolution isn't so hot — it's not even quite standard definition (PAL) at 960x540, but the screen is so tiny that it's hard to notice. It will accept inputs of 1080p and scale them down to the natural resolution without a problem, however.
Though it lacks 100Hz, it does come with a similar feature called Fine Motion, which seemed to ease motion artefacts like judder somewhat. Of course, as OLED response time is instantaneous, unlike LCD, there is little need for these motion compensation features.
The TV is one of the first to receive an Energy Star rating and we were a little surprised to see it receive only 3.5 out of six — especially considering that Sony repeatedly tells us that OLED uses a lot less power than LCD. In contrast, the recently released Sony WE5 42-inch got an impressive 4.5 stars.
We've seen the XEL-1 on display at previous events before, but usually at an arm's length. It's only when you get a hands-on that you realise the depth of this product. Having attended the Panasonic event last week we saw some "nice" plasmas, but it's only when using a product like the XEL-1 that you realise that plasma technology still can't get near the "lifelike" blacks of OLED. In comparison, plasma's blacks looked over-punchy, and not especially "true". In some way, blacks in video are akin to bass in hi-fi: you need it for a complete experience, but a balanced sound is preferable to an overly boomy one.
Since the Aussie version comes with a tuner, that's where we started. And the experience was fantastic. Sport, in the form of IPL cricket, looked superb and there was no blur or lag in motion, and neither were there any MPEG artefacts nor "jaggies" on edges. Of course, like a high-end hi-fi, the XEL-1 was able to expose a poor quality SBS feed. Yet it still wasn't unpleasant, and could be made less so by tweaking noise reduction settings.
We switched to DVD, and given the SD-like proportions of the screen, 576i content is actually a good fit. And was it ever! We were almost literally blown away by the screen's performance in King Kong. We have never seen this movie look as natural and seamless as we did on the Sony. Blacks were deep yet effortless. Colour effervescent. We only wish this technology would hurry up so we can buy a larger one of these. It puts every other technology to shame!
Surprisingly, and yet not, the OLED screen also performed well on Blu-ray material. With MI3 in the tray we were gobsmacked. This movie had come into its own! The tricky rooftop sequence is a little like watching bats in a mine at midnight on most screens, but here we could discern details we hadn't seen before. There was real depth to the black levels.
Switching to synthetic HD tests and the Sony performed really well, only failing in the Film Resolution test — due, we think, to the screen's apparent lack of support for 24p.
Sound quality was quite good for such a diminutive device. And while you won't get huge "booms" there was a reasonable representation from the latter part of the spectrum. You can also use the optical or headphone output if you want to beef up the sound a bit.
So, yes, we think this screen is amazing, but there is one small caveat: it's best watched in the dark. And not because the screen bleaches out in the light as plasma does, because it doesn't. No, the screen's surface is unfortunately quite reflective — despite the appearance of an anti-reflective coating &mdash and light glancing off the TV can be distracting during the day.
Initially, there were problems with getting the blue pixels to behave in early versions of this screen, but we have heard that this is less of an issue now. And we know that we have the freshest batch currently available because the bottom had April 2009 stamped on it under "manufacture date".
So it's not cheap. In fact, it's terrifyingly expensive. But the XEL-1 is still the best display technology we have ever seen. If you can afford it, we envy you mightily. But you'd still probably have to explain to people what it is and how expensive it is. This screen is the very essence of an early adopter's product.
Now, to answer our question in the opening paragraph. Yes, this is the future of television. Unfortunately, you're not likely to see it hit the mainstream for another five years. You see, it's still really hard to make them and while you could shave a few dollars off the price of this one by giving it a plastic, instead of chrome, suit it would still cost you a mint. Plasma may well be the king for the moment in the price/performance equation, but it won't always be the way. Sony is quietly biding its time until it can jettison LCD and wholeheartedly embrace OLED. We look forward to this day.