39 LG OLED bOLED, or organic light emitting diode, is beautiful technology and is proving it once again with televisions. There’s nothing much new about it, OLED was being used for colourful, compact screens back in the 1990s, especially in car audio components. OLED screens are bright, light and flexible, they give a finely detailed and accurate display. Television manufacturers like the technology because it makes for slim screens and slim is in. OLED screens are slim because OLEDs are applied to the surface they’re mounted on much like a coat of paint, and they’re not much thicker than one. Apply OLEDs to glass and you have a screen that is only a smidgen thicker than the glass itself.

OLED’s major applications until now have been screens in phones, media players, cameras and watches as well as car audio components. The common factor among all these screens is that they’re small. Televisions are big. And so we run into OLED’s pressing problem. Making large OLED screens is fraught with difficulty and wastage, and the 39 Sony XEL-1larger they get the harder it becomes. The first OLED television was released by Sony in October 2007 and at just 28 cm the XEL-1 was regarded as breakthrough technology. The engineers were excited, the buyers weren’t and the product was dropped after two-and-a-half years of listless sales. The problem was cost; who’d pay $US2500 for a 28 cm television?

OLED returned when LG unveiled a curved 140 cm model three years ago at $11,999. At that time high quality LCD televisions of the same size cost between $2000 and $3000 and once again the buyers failed to respond. Four months later the price was slashed to $7999, then it went into run-out at $5999. But even at the original price of $12k it was strongly rumoured production costs were so high that LG was losing money on every one it sold.

With time and experience things have improved a little. LG’s current offering of ultra-high definition OLEDs with both flat and curved screens, and high dynamic range are going for around $4000 in 140 cm and from $6500 to $8000 in 165 cm. And further price reductions may be coming in time because it looks like OLED production is about to ramp up.

39 LG G6T LifestyleAccording to market analysis company IHS Markit, South Korean LCD/LED manufacturers, facing increasing competition from emerging Chinese makers that is eroding their profitability, are swinging over to OLED production. I asked Y S Chung, director of IHS Markit, if an increase in OLED supply would see prices coming down maybe even to the level of LEDs.

He said that most of the South Korean activity the report referred to was in smaller screens for computers, phones and tablets, and that the factories there want to go to the next level with OLED since the format gives them a price premium. But he conceded that the increased activity stands to ignite and strengthen the OLED market generally. “It’s natural to have a better cost structure as production ramps up with an improving yield rate, but it is difficult to say firmly that OLED TV will have enough cost power against TFT-LCD,” he said.

I’ll take that as a definite maybe.

39 LG OLED aYou won’t find a better screen than an OLED right now and if you’re in the market the 140 cm LGs are priced sharply, around the same as premium 165 cm LEDs. The price gap between 140 cm and 165 cm OLEDs is significant, suggesting to me that LG is getting its volume with the smaller screens and taking its profit from the larger ones.

Apart from being slimmer you may not notice much difference between an OLED and a comparable LED in a strongly-lit showroom, so why buy one? In a word, contrast. An LED can’t hope to match an OLED’s contrast and this is because it’s backlit, so even when the pixel is turned off (for black) there is light seepage around it. An OLED is not backlit, black is black and you get more detail in dark sequences (like those throughout Inside Llewyn Davis). You’ll notice this much more in rooms with lower light. Like yours at home.

Published October 2016


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