Pretty much every TV is either OLED or LCD. Here's a look at the pros and cons of each.
Geoffrey Morrison is a writer/photographer about tech and travel for CNET, The New York Times, and other web and print publications. He's also the Editor-at-Large for The Wirecutter. He has written for Sound&Vision magazine, Home Theater magazine, and was the Editor-in-Chief of Home Entertainment magazine. He is NIST and ISF trained, and has a degree in Television/Radio from Ithaca College. His bestselling novel, Undersea, and its sequel, Undersea Atrophia, are available in paperback and digitally on Amazon. He spends most of the year as a digital nomad, living and working while traveling around the world. You can follow his travels at BaldNomad.com and on his YouTube channel.
There are plenty of new and confusing terms facing TV shoppers today, but when it comes down to the screen technology itself, there are only two: Nearly every TV sold today is either LCD or OLED.
LCD TVs, also called "LED TVs," have been prevalent on the market since the early 2000s. The best ones feature technologies like quantum dots or local dimming to create a vibrant, 4KHDR image. Since they've been around for so long, LCD-based TV are often marketed with fancier-sounding names like QLED or mini-LED, but the core technology is LCD -- which stands for Liquid Crystal Display.
The other TV tech, organic light-emitting diode, is a bit newer to the mainstream market. OLED TVs have been available for around a decade and pretty much all go by the OLED name.
The biggest between the two is in how they work. With OLED, each pixel provides its own illumination so there's no separate backlight. With an LCD TV, all of the pixels are illuminated by an LED backlight. That difference leads to all kinds of picture quality effects, some of which favor LCD, but most of which benefit OLED.
LCDs are made by a number of companies across Asia. All current OLED TVs are built by LG Display, though companies like Sony and Vizio buy OLED panels from LG and then use their own electronics and aesthetic design.
OLED is consistently, year over year and test after test, the picture quality king, but LCD TVs usually cost less and can still provide excellent picture quality. A variety of new technologies, which we'll discuss, help keep LCD from getting too far behind its newer tech competition.
So which one is better? Read on for their strengths and weaknesses. In general we'll be comparing OLED to the best (read: most expensive) LCD has to offer, mainly because there's no such thing as a cheap OLED TV (yet).
Take this category with a grain of salt. Both TV types are very bright and can look good in even a sunny room, let alone more moderate indoor lighting situations or the dark rooms that make TV images look their best. When it comes down to it, no modern TV could ever be considered "dim."
LCD gets the nod here specifically because the whole screen can be brighter, which is a function of its backlight. OLED can't do a full screen with as much brightness. Full-screen brightness isn't very important in the real world however, so this category is a relatively hollow victory for LCD.
With High Dynamic Range (HDR) content, a local dimming LCD can also produce brighter highlights than OLED -- see the HDR section below for more.
Winner: OLED Loser: LCD
At the other side of light output is black level, or how dark the TV can get. OLED wins here because of its ability to turn off individual pixels completely. It can produce truly perfect black.
The better LCDs have local dimming, where parts of the screen can dim independently of others. This isn't quite as good as per-pixel control because the black areas still aren't absolutely black, but it's better than nothing. The best LCDs have full-array local dimming, which provides even finer control over the contrast of what's onscreen -- but even they can suffer from "blooming," where a bright area spoils the black of an adjacent dark area.
Here's where it comes together. Contrast ratio is the difference between the brightest and the darkest a TV can be. OLED is the winner here because it can get extremely bright, plus it can produce absolute black with no blooming. It has the best contrast ratio of any modern display.
Contrast ratio is the most important aspect of picture quality. A high contrast-ratio display will look more realistic than one with a lower contrast ratio.
This one's easy. Both OLED and LCD are widely available in UltraHD, aka 4K, form, and there are 8K versions of both if you're particularly well-heeled.
There are also small, inexpensive 1080p and even 720p resolution LCDs. There are no 1080p or lower resolution OLEDs currently on the market.
Refresh rate and motion blur
Refresh rate is important in reducing motion blur, or the blurring of anything on screen that moves (including the whole image if the camera pans). Sadly, the current version of OLED has motion blur, just like LCD. OLEDs, and mid- and high-end LCDs, have a 120Hz refresh rate. Cheaper LCDs are 60Hz. Keep in mind, most companies use numbers that are higher than their "true" refresh rate.
One of the main downsides of LCD TVs is a change in picture quality if you sit away from dead center (as in, off to the sides). How much this matters to you certainly depends on your seating arrangement, but also on how much you love your loved ones.
A few LCDs use in-plane switching (IPS) panels, which have better off-axis picture quality than other kinds of LCDs, but don't look as good as other LCDs straight on (primarily due to a lower contrast ratio).
OLED doesn't have the off-axis issue LCDs have; its image looks basically the same, even from extreme angles. So if you have a wide seating area, OLED is the better option.
Nearly all current TVs are HDR compatible, but that's not the entire story. Just because a TV claims HDR compatibility doesn't mean it can accurately display HDR content. All OLED TVs have the dynamic range to take advantage of HDR, but lower-priced LCDs, especially those without local-dimming backlights, do not. So if you want to see HDR content it all its dynamic, vibrant beauty, go for OLED or an LCD with local dimming.
In our tests comparing the best new OLED and LCD TVs with HDR games and movies, OLED usually looks better. Its superior contrast and lack of blooming win the day despite LCD's brightness advantage. In other words LCD TVs can get brighter, especially in full-screen bright scenes and HDR highlights, but none of them can control that illumination as precisely as an OLED TV.
Wide Color Gamut, or WCG, is related to HDR, though you can technically have one without the other. It's an expansion of the colors possible on "standard" TVs. Think richer, deeper and more vibrant colors.
Certain LCDs and most new OLED models are capable of WCG. In LCDs it's largely thanks to Quantum Dots.
Uniformity refers to the consistency of brightness across the screen. Many LCDs are pretty terrible with this, "leaking" light from their edges. This can be distracting, especially during darker movies.
Winner: LCD Runner-up: OLED
OLED's energy consumption is directly related to screen brightness. The brighter the screen, the more power it draws. It even varies with content. A dark movie will require less power than a hockey game or ski competition.
The energy consumption of LCD varies depending on the backlight setting. The lower the backlight, the lower the power consumption. A basic LED LCD with its backlight set low will draw less power than OLED.
Overall, though, all new TVs are fairly energy efficient, and even the least energy efficient modern TV would only cost you a few dollars more per year to use. That said, larger, brighter TVs will use a lot more energy than smaller, dimmer ones.
Winner: Tie (sort of)
LG has said their OLED TVs have a lifespan of 100,000 hours to half brightness, a figure that's similar to LED LCDs. Generally speaking, all modern TVs are quite reliable.
Does that mean your new LCD or OLED will last for several decades like your parent's last CRT (like the one pictured). Probably not, but then, why would you want it to? A 42-inch flat panel cost $14,000 in the late 90's, and now a 65-inch TV with more than 16x the resolution and a million times better contrast ratio costs $1,400. Which is to say, by the time you'll want/need to replace it, there will be something even better than what's available now, for less money.
Since they are quite reliable on the whole, you won't have to replace them anytime soon.
Winner: LCD Loser: OLED
All TVs can "burn in" or develop what's called "image persistence," where the ghost of an image remains onscreen. It's really hard to do this with most LCDs. It's easier with OLED, so LCD wins this category.
OLED TVs are available in sizes from 48 to 88 inches, but LCD TVs come in smaller and larger sizes than that -- with many more choices in between -- so LCD wins. At the high end of the size scale, however, the biggest "TVs" don't use either technology.
The easiest, and cheapest, way to get a truly massive image in your home is with a projector. For around $1,000 you can get an excellent 100-inch-plus image.
If you want something even brighter, and don't mind spending a literal fortune to get it, Samsung, Sony, and LG all sell direct-view LED displays. In most cases these are microLED.
Winner: LCD Loser: OLED
You can get 4K resolution, 50-inch LCDs for around $400 -- or half that on sale. It's going to be a long time before OLEDs are that price, but they have come down considerably.
It's also worth noting that the top-of-the-line LCDs are often similar in price to OLED, and in some cases even more expensive.
So if your goal is to get the cheapest TV possible, that's LCD. If you want something with great picture quality, the prices are fairly comparable.
And the picture-quality winner is...OLED
LCD dominates the market because it's cheap to manufacture and delivers good enough picture quality for just about everybody. But according to reviews at CNET and elsewhere, OLED wins for overall picture quality, largely due to the incredible contrast ratio. The price difference isn't as severe as it used to be, and in the mid- to high-end of the market, there are lots of options.
LCDs continue to improve, though, and many models offer excellent picture quality for far less money than OLED, especially in larger sizes.