We're in a golden age of display technology. Televisions with quantum dots and massive screen sizes cost less than budget TVs did a decade ago. Yet, if you're buying a new TV there can be a confusing bombardment of acronyms, all conspiring to hide what's truly good, and bad, about a TV.
For the discerning or frugal viewer, what's the best option? OLED gets all the hype, but what's mini about Mini-LED? What's the difference between QLED and ULED? Which TV technology produces the best picture with movies? Or games? What's the best looking overall?
While there are standouts with every technology, as well as significant pros and cons, it's possible to make some generalizations. Certain technologies are better than others, sometimes at just a few things, sometimes for a lot of things. Finding the right TV for you is a matter of balancing these strengths and weaknesses for your specific needs, so let's look at the technologies in a bit more depth.
OLED and QD-OLED
Best for picture quality, but pricey
- Excellent overall picture quality
- Excellent contrast ratio
- Not quite as bright as some technologies
- Potential for image retention
For the best overall picture quality, most experts agree that OLED is the winner. The combination of perfect black levels and a bright image make images pop in a way other technologies can't quite match.
The latest "flavor" of OLED, called QD-OLED, pairs the emissive technology with quantum dots. This can improve the color and brightness even more than traditional OLED. As a result, these QD-OLEDs are some of the most expensive TVs on the market, per inch, but they're quite impressive.
On the down side, there's the potential of image retention. If you watch the same thing all day (cable news, the same video game), the static parts of the screen can "stick." Typically this goes away when you watch something else, but if you only watch one channel for hours at a time, OLED's not for you.
Check out the best OLED and QD-OLED TVs.
Big, bright, with a great image, though not quite as good as OLED
- Bright images
- Great contrast
- Huge screens
- Not quite as good as OLED
- More expensive than some other tech
Technically, Mini-LED is an evolution from LED LCDs. Both technologies use LEDs to create light and an LCD layer to create an image. The difference is the size and number of LEDs. Mini-LED has a lot more LEDs, and they're smaller. This might not seem like a huge difference, but it's enough to warrant its own entry on this list.
The main issue with "normal" LED LCDs is their contrast ratio isn't as good as OLED. As such, the picture isn't quite as good. Mini-LEDs, like all local-dimming LED LCDs, can improve the contrast ratio by dimming certain areas of the screen so dark areas can appear darker. The problem with that is even the best local dimming zone still comprised a fairly large area of the screen. So a small bright object on a dark background -- a streetlight, say -- would raise the level of the surrounding black area, making it appear gray. While engineers have done a lot over the years to minimize this problem, it persists. It has to, it's just physics.
With Mini-LED, a greater number of smaller LEDs are spread across the back of the TV. In most cases these greatly reduce the size of the local dimming zone, so to a casual viewer the contrast ratio is fantastic. Not pixel-perfect like OLED, but close enough. Mini-LED TVs can also produce some extremely bright images, which can be handy for daytime viewing in brighter rooms. There's also basically no chance of image retention, so for gamers worried about marring their OLED screens, Mini-LED is a great alternative.
The downside? Mini-LEDs are more expensive than their lesser LED LCD counterparts, but are usually cheaper than OLED.
Check out the best Mini-LED TVs.
LED, QLED, LED LCD (and everything else)
Inexpensive, with lots of screen sizes
- Widest variety of screen sizes
- Picture quality is a step behind the other technologies
LCD is the most common display technology, and it is very distantly followed by OLED. LCD includes Mini-LED (above) as well as LED, QLED, QNED, ULED and so on. LCD TVs have been around for over 20 years, which makes them the oldest mainstream TV tech still in production. Improvements to screen size, brightness and overall picture quality have been impressive, but the technology still lags behind OLED. Whatever the LED LCD "flavor," they all use some amount of LEDs to create light, and then an LCD layer to create the image.
The main benefit to LED LCDs is cost. They're extremely inexpensive to produce in a wide range of sizes. OLED can't match that flexibility. Thanks to decades of improvements, even budget LCD TVs look quite good, often far better than the better TVs from a decade ago. Many LED LCDs also use quantum dots (that's where the "Q" comes from in their naming) to boost brightness and color.
The downside is you can get better picture quality, sometimes a lot better, with one of the other TV technologies. Better contrast, better and deeper color, higher brightness and more, all give the other techs more "wow." That "wow" is going to cost you, though.
Learn more about LED local dimming technology, and check out the best TVs that won't break your budget.
There are two techs on the horizon worth mentioning. Neither compete with the above technologies for TVs right now, but they might in the near future.
The first is direct-view quantum dots, aka NanoLED. These skip LED and OLED completely, using just quantum dots to make up an image. The tech is promising, with the potential for incredible picture quality. It's still in the development stages, though, so don't expect it for a few years. We saw some behind-the-scenes research on it recently.
The other is MicroLED. Right now this tech is exclusively in the giant display realm -- and it is available to a select few -- but is more of a projector replacement than a TV replacement. With typical LED LCDs there are somewhere between a few dozen and a few thousand LEDs which create light which illuminates the image. With MicroLED, each pixel is an LED, so this means there's millions of them. As the tech matures it's possible we'll see more TV-sized MicroLEDs (if "TV sized" means 100-inches to you). In addition to being quite expensive it's also energy intensive so, like NanoLED, don't expect a 65-inch MicroLED at your local Best Buy anytime soon.
Learn more about NanoLED, check out where quantum dots are made and learn more about microLED here.
As well as covering TV and other display tech, Geoff does photo tours of cool museums and locations around the world, including nuclear submarines, massive aircraft carriers, medieval castles, epic 10,000-mile road trips, and more. Check out Tech Treks for all his tours and adventures.
He wrote a bestselling sci-fi novel about city-size submarines and a sequel. You can follow his adventures on Instagram and his YouTube channel.