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What is an OLED display? Everything you need to know

Once reserved for ultra-expensive televisions, OLED screens are increasingly commonplace

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OLED displays were once only found in the most expensive televisions – and even now they remain rare and somewhat more expensive than their LCD cousins. But now they are increasingly commonplace across the technology industry, especially in smartphones like the iPhone 12.

OLED is also being joined by an increasing range of alternative display technologies, including Samsung's QLED, and the Mini LED displays used most recently by the 2021 iPad Pro. So we thought it was time to explain what OLED is, why it is different to other types of display, and whether it is worth the premium.

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What is OLED and how does it work?

Regarded by many as the very best in television display technology, OLED stands for Organic Light Emitting Diode and produces deeper blacks and more vibrant colors than a regular LCD screen. This doesn't have anything to do with the resolution, but instead is the technology used by the display panel itself, and particularly the way it is illuminated.

OLED panels are incredibly thin, as they don't require a backlight system, making them aesthetically more attractive. They don't have a backlight because the diodes themselves produce their own light – hence the organic part of the name – meaning each pixel of the screen has its own light source.

When compared to a regular LED-illuminated LCD display, this makes a big difference. An LCD screen is usually back-lit by a handful of LED bulbs. This works well, and has done for years, but means the screen struggles to show a picture containing bright and completely dark sections at the same time.

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The benefits of OLED screens

Say a movie scene has an area that is brightly lit and one that is in total darkness in the same frame. The LEDs needed to illuminate the brighter section will bleed into the darker section, preventing that area from showing true black. The new Mini LED technology goes some way towards addressing this, by adding many more, smaller LED bulbs. That way, there is far more granular control over the thousands of LEDs behind a screen, helping to produce brighter highlights and deeper blacks.

But even this cannot match an OLED panel, where each pixel can be illuminated or switched off to create total darkness, which manufacturers like to describe as infinite contrast. Another bonus is how OLED screens emit less blue light than LCDs, so should help reduce eye fatigue. As well as televisions, this is a useful thing to know when buying an OLED smartphone too.

Another useful feature of OLED panels is that they are flexible. This has led to the creation of folding smartphones like the Samsung Galaxy Fold, and rollable televisions like the LG Signature Rollable OLED R.

Both of these product categories are still niche and expensive for now – rollable televisions especially so – but without the bulk of an LED backlighting panel, we can expect to see OLED screens in more places, and used in more devices that just TVs and phones, in the near future. There have even been concepts of wearable OLED screens, and displays fitted to curved surfaces. LG recently showed off a computer monitor that bends into a curve when gaming to create a more immersive experience, then stretches flat again for regular PC work.

A final benefit of OLED screens is their thinness. Because they don't have a backlight they are much slimmer than other forms of display technology, resulting in very slim televisions that are more visually appealing than others. For smartphone makers this can mean a thinner phone body, but more importantly means more space for cooling and/or a larger battery.

Apple iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Mini All. models of iPhone 12 use OLED displays Apple

Drawbacks of OLED screens

OLED panels have historically not been able to match the peak brightness of an LCD screen, so while they produce the best blacks they often aren't as bright as other options.

This is less of an issue now, as demonstrated by Apple first fitting an OLED screen to the iPhone 11 Pro, then using the technology on every version of iPhone 12 a year later.

By they are also expensive. This isn't just because the technology is new – LG has been making OLED televisions for years now – but because they are more difficult to make than other types of display. The yield rate of OLED panels is lower than others, meaning there are more breakages in the production line due to their complexity.

This isn't to say the finished product is any more fragile than other display panels, but the lower yield rate contributes to their increased price.



Who makes OLED televisions?

LG and Panasonic used to have much of the OLED television market to themselves, but now Sony also makes a range of OLED televisions.

Hisense briefly made them too, but pulled out of the market in 2020 to instead focus on its own proprietary display technologies. Hisense said at the time how its own technology offers a stronger argument for picture quality, performance and value proposition compared to OLED. That last point is key, given Hisense's tendency to undercut its rivals, something it evidently found difficult to achieve with OLED.

Lastly there is Samsung, which has always steered clear of OLED technology for its televisions, instead preferring its own QLED technology. Samsung says QLED panels offer the same black levels of OLED but with improved peak brightness. Samsung does however use OLED (and AMOLED, with the AM standing for active-matrix) panels on its flagship Galaxy smartphones.

LG's rollable OLED television LG's rollable OLED television LG

The future of OLED

OLED is only just getting started when it comes to smartphones, and we expect that trend to continue now that Apple uses it with all members of the iPhone 12 family. But for televisions the future is less clear.

With production costs and retail prices still high, other technologies like Mini LED and Samsung's QLED have arrived claiming to offer the benefits of OLED without the drawbacks. We are only just seeing the beginning of Mini LED and are interested to see how the technology will progress (and, hopefully, get cheaper) in the coming years.

We have a feeling that OLED televisions will remain popular among buyers who want the absolute best and have a budget to match, but doubt whether the technology will ever reach the mainstream.


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