It’s no secret that televisions have practically hit a wall as far as picture quality is concerned: OLEDs offer perfect blacks but can’t get bright enough for all use cases, LED/LCDs can get bright enough but they do not offer pixel-level control or perfect blacks — so every year there are a few improvements here and there but nothing radical. The most meaningful step forward for televisions (considered by some to even be the end-game of their evolution) is MicroLED, the display technology bringing together the strengths of OLED and LED/LCD in a theoretically perfect product: an individual LED for every pixel on the screen, so the overall picture can be very bright while retaining perfect blacks. MicroLED is, in a word, “the future” of flat displays.
It also seems to not be getting any closer as year after year goes by.
Considering that the first TV employing MicroLED technology was first shown off in CES 2012 by Sony (the company called it CrystalLED back then), yes, there’s reason to be disappointed. The Japanese realized quickly, even back then, that manufacturing a CrystalLED TV in volume and selling it at a price non-millionaires could stomach was impossible, so they focused on LED/LCD and kept working on CrystalLED prototypes only. It was Samsung that believed in MicroLED more than any other manufacturer and also the first company that approached these screens in an innovative way: as modular “blocks” that can “build” a TV of various sizes or even different shapes. The Koreans showed off their first MicroLED TV, a 146-inch behemoth called “The Wall” in CES 2018 and modular versions of that a year later.
Since then, though, it became apparent that Samsung has hit the very same wall (huh) with Sony regarding MicroLED: the extremely difficult manufacturing process — each LED corresponding to a single pixel of said screens is as thin as a strand of human hair — results in depressingly low yields, so these cannot be anything but obscenely expensive. At various points during 2018 and 2019 Samsung had announced that it was ready to start selling MicroLED TVs of different sizes but had to scrape such plans because of production issues. The company finally managed to start selling a 110-inch MicroLED TV in Korea in December 2020 for around $160.000 and, while an impressive product, it was obviously targeted to people for whom money really is no object. Sony and LG introduced their own versions of MicroLED displays, at much higher prices, for commercial (not consumer) use.
This brings us to November 2021 where… well, not much has changed: the 76-inch MicroLED TV Samsung had been planning at the beginning of 2020 never materialized and media outlets in Korea report that this was no accident. The Korean giant is apparently still facing great difficulty in manufacturing MicroLED TVs in volume and in sizes most consumers would consider (even without taking into account the relevant costs), so the company’s management decided to just “go big” for yet another year: Samsung is now planning to release 89-, 101- and 114-inch models only in 2022, putting “on hold” any plans for MicroLED models under 80 inches.
All of this is, of course, not a little troubling. MicroLED TVs really are the future of home displays but they have to start becoming widely available at some point for the technology to start “trickling down” to costs associated with the consumer market. Even the smallest 2022 Samsung MicroLED, at almost 90 inches, will be a niche product solely based on its size — its cost will probably be much higher than that of any other TV model from any other manufacturer regardless of display tech — and it’s not going to do much for the market as a whole. The 101- and 114-inch models, needless to say, even more so. No less troubling, of course, is the fact that Samsung seems to stand alone in its effort to bring MicroLED to the consumer market: not Sony, not LG, not anyone else is particularly eager to be a part of this. So competition between manufacturers will not help either, because there isn’t one.
All in all: by the time CES 2023 arrives, it will be five years since Samsung first showed off its MicroLED prototype. Five long years during which we got OLEDs that are brighter, LED/LCDs that are more accurate and a lot more pixels (the resolution jump from 4K to 8K) but not all that much in overall picture quality, considering. Complementary technologies like quantum dots, plus improvements in picture processing, have helped but not fundamentally changed the game. If it takes five more years for MicroLED’s manufacturing processes to mature, say by 2025–2026, then the TV market may slow down considerably in the meantime: consumers won’t be able to discern differences between the various OLED/LCD models in picture quality terms and they will, justifiably, just stick to what they have. Who would blame them? The last time they witnessed a new display tech enter the market (LG’s first OLED TV) was way, way back in the summer of…