Every year millions of people are looking into getting a new TV for their home and, sure enough, every year more than a dozen manufacturers bring out more than three hundred different TV models on average, making the choice between any one of those rather tricky. It doesn’t seem to get any easier either: new tech jargon gets routinely thrown around in marketing campaigns all the time, hoping to impress consumers but ending up only confusing them further.
There must be an easier way to choose a good TV set , right? The perfect one for each consumer, even!
Indeed there is: The Point is publishing a detailed, 12-part guide, consisting of as many articles, focused on that very subject. The goal is to help consumers understand what they have to know in order to make the best choice for their next TV. To decide, in essence, what kind of TV set will better meet their needs and avoid making an expensive mistake.
So, first things first: TV screens.
The kind of display technology a TV’s screen (what we nerds call “panel”) is based on largely defines the kind of picture quality one can reasonably expect of it, as well as and the viewing conditions that should match that tech when making a purchasing decision (and vice versa).
The good news: there are only three mainstream display technologies to choose from in the market right now, LCD, OLED and QD-OLED. The bad news: the first one, LCD, has been around for so long that there are now different types of it, so some explaining is in order. The second one, OLED, is much easier to define – and its newest variant, MLA-OLED, is basically the most advanced form of that – while the third one, QD-OLED, is an enhanced version of OLED that’s superior in specific ways. Let’s break everything down.
The dominant species: LCD and its variants
LCD TVs use liquid crystal-based screens: the panel itself contains the pixels that make up the picture and those are displayed by using some form of backlighting. Most LCD TVs use backlighting that’s placed around the panel, which is cheap and simple but imprecise, hurting picture quality. Having said that, many entry-level LCD TVs based on this kind of backlighting are perfectly serviceable for typical use, as long as one does not have expectations of a high-quality picture (especially in modern productions that leverage high dynamic range tech for impressive colors).
The need for better control of lighting up those pixels was the driving force behind the advent of LED TVs: these are LCD TVs still, but they feature backlighting placed behind the screen, not around it, allowing for more precise “dimming” control (lighting of pixel groups on or off) in specific parts of the picture. This results in images of higher contrast and color saturation, capable of deeper blacks and brighter whites on the same scene or frame. The more “dimming zones” a LED TV employs behind its LCD screen, the brighter it can get and the better picture it can deliver. Every high-quality TV that isn’t an OLED TV, is an LED TV these days.
Manufacturers that want to achieve the highest possible picture quality with their top-end LED TVs either employ as many dimming zones as possible – driven by specialized software algorithms – or add their own supplementary technologies (or both). Samsung, for instance, adds a special “quantum dot” layer to LCD panels of its better models (called QLED TVs), improving color. The best among those QLED TVs employ thousands of dimming zones created by an advanced backlighting system called MiniLED (so these specific models are called Neo-QLED).
LG does something along the same lines, with as many or even more MiniLED zones, calling its own models QNED TVs. Sony is also employing MiniLED backlight tech in certain models, calling them Mini LED TVs. No wonder consumers are confused by so many different, yet so similar, tech terms these days.
The premium choice: OLED and its caveats
OLED TVs are simpler: their screens – made of organic material instead of liquid crystals – do not employ backlighting systems because their panels are made of self-lit pixels. Not only can these pixels be turned off completely (resulting in perfect blacks and incomparably high contrast), but they can also be turned on or off extremely quickly (so manufacturers can build almost ideal gaming TVs around these screens).
OLED TVs can also be viewed from any angle without loss of color saturation and they look beautiful to boot, being impressively to amazingly thin. On the other hand, most traditional OLED TVs don’t get very bright - probably bright enough for most people, but that’s subjective – and they need to be treated with care in order to avoid burn-in (the permanent presence of e.g. TV channel logos or other elements that stay on screen without moving for prolonged periods of time).
The current picture quality king: QD-OLED and its vibrant colors
QD-OLED TVs are new: they were officially announced at the beginning of 2022 and the second generation of this type of screen has been available for a few short months. QD-OLED is not a completely different display technology to established OLED – they both use organic material, they both depend on self-lit pixels – but it takes advantage of Samsung’s “quantum dot” layer and a different way of color filtering in order to deliver superior picture quality. Samsung is the only manufacturer of QD-OLED screens in the world right now and all QD-OLED TVs available for the foreseeable future are all coming from either Samsung or Sony in 55-, 65- and 77-inch models.
Based on that QD layer and the smarter, more efficient color filtering, QD-OLED TVs can deliver (a) higher brightness than common OLED TVs overall, (b) impressively brighter colors, especially in red and green hues, as well as (c) increased color volume, which is another way of saying a wider available selection of colors. In practice these QD-OLED TVs can get way brighter than traditional OLED TVs by sacrificing color accuracy, but they end up being just considerably brighter than most current traditional OLED models when adjusted to accurate color settings.
The brighter colors and increased color volume promises are indeed kept, though, so – combining those with the perfect blacks and extreme contrast of OLED – QD-OLED TVs do offer the highest level of picture quality available in the consumer TV market right now. At least when it comes to modern films and TV shows, where HDR color is extensively used.
Once dethroned, now back with a vengeance: MLA OLED
While LG – the power behind OLED in the global TV market – had to watch Samsung’s QD-OLED take the picture quality crown for itself in 2022, it bounced back in 2023 by offering the most advanced version of OLED panels built by anyone so far: MLA OLED. Not a totally new display tech – rather a heavily optimized form of traditional WOLED – MicroLens Array OLED reclaims much of the brightness that gets scattered within conventional OLED panels and redirects it towards the viewers’ eyes properly. The end result is much higher brightness across the whole screen: almost twice as high as conventional OLED panels in theory, around 50%-60% higher – after calibration, on real-world content – in practice.
What MLA OLED offers to consumers, at the end of the day, is high enough brightness so as to make the “OLED TVs look dim in bright environments” problem finally go away. Anything more than, say, 1500 nits peak brightness or around 1000 nits sustained brightness, combined with perfect blacks and infinite contrast, is more than enough for that (and LG’s MLA OLED can go even higher). What’s more, it manages to do so without increasing power consumption. Compared to QD-OLED it seems to be a matter of personal taste: TV sets based on Samsung’s second-generation QD-OLED screens offer more vibrant colors and a more impressive picture in certain kinds of HDR content (MLA OLED is still WOLED after all), while LG’s TV sets based on MLA OLED offer higher brightness overall in a wider range of content types.
What consumers need to know, though, is that MLA OLED TVs will not be as widely available as traditional OLED TVs in 2023: apart from LG, the only other manufacturer confirmed to offer such models is Panasonic (in 55 and 65 inches only), so US customers will not have access to those. They do have LG’s G3 models at their disposal: these are absolutely great but quite costly and they only come in 55-, 65- or 77-inch sizes (the 83-inch and 97-inch sizes are based on non-MLA OLED). Still, for consumers looking for the absolute best picture OLED has to offer, this year it’s a toss between MLA OLED and second generation QD-OLED.
LCD vs OLED vs MLA OLED vs QD-OLED: is there a clear winner?
So now that the differences between the three different display technologies are clearer, what do they mean in practice? Without going into too much detail that would needlessly complicate things:
- LCD TVs can get almost four times as bright as traditional OLED TVs, which makes for a spectacular, extremely satisfying picture in many circumstances. But MLA OLED TVs and second-generation QD-OLED TVs now offer about half as much brightness as some of the best LED/LCD TVs out there, too, so for people who can afford these new models, brightness is less of an issue these days.
- OLED TVs – traditional or otherwise – will always offer the perfect blacks and absolute contrast that no LED/LCD TV can match, making them ideal for watching cinematic content as it is meant to be watched, i.e. under controlled lighting conditions. Some very expensive LED/LCD TVs can get close, but not match OLED TVs in that regard.
- LCD TVs are preferable for use in bright or extremely bright environments, while OLED TVs excel when working in the dark or in controlled lighting conditions. Again, MLA OLED TVs and second-generation QD-OLED TVs can now deliver very high picture quality even in brightly-lit environments.
- OLED TVs are better for video games than LED/LCD TVs or in situations where more than a few people are sitting in front of the same set, because of their wide viewing angles. They also sport amazingly low input lag.
- Most QD-OLED TVs don’t get that much brighter than traditional OLED TVs overall, but they do display colors in a more vibrant, impressive manner, making the experience of watching HDR content or playing modern games more enjoyable.
- LCD TVs do not suffer from any burn-in issues, so they are a safer choice for TVs that stay on for most of the day and/or display the same content for hours on end.
There are, as is often the case with tech products, a handful of exceptions to these rules of thumb (such as several LED/LCD TVs that are actually very good for gaming), as well as a couple of asterisks (burn-in is not that big of an issue anymore due to several safety measures all manufacturers now employ). But these general guidelines go a long way in making sure that consumers do not pick the wrong kind of display tech for the use cases they are most interested in.
As for the all-important factor of cost? That is, thankfully, the easiest way to compare these three television types. The price of LED/LCD TV models mainly depends on the kind of backlighting they use but, honestly, these have been around for such a long time now that there are dirt-cheap, affordable, reasonable, expensive or ultra-expensive options for everyone. LED/LCD TVs can practically cost as much as consumers are willing to spend so there’s the widest possible range of available models to choose from.
OLED TVs are not offered in as wide a range as LED/LCD TVs, but there are still enough different options out there to consider. They are not quite as costly as they used to be but, compared to LED/LCD TVs of the same diagonal, they are still more expensive (especially in large sizes). The absolute best LED/LCD TVs in large sizes cost a pretty penny too though – the advanced tech striving to offer an OLED-like picture without OLED-like compromises is not cheap – so that’s where other factors, such as specific use cases or viewing habits, are taken into account.
Second-generation QD-OLED TVs or MLA OLED TVs offer the absolute best in terms of image quality, so consumers are unsurprisingly expected to pay for the privilege of enjoying it. Both are considerably more expensive compared to typical OLED TV models of the same diagonal, but the tech market has always charged a premium for top performance (especially when new tech is involved). For people who could always afford that, the cost of 2nd-gen QD-OLED TVs or MLA OLED TVs won’t be a real concern.
Update 03/07/2023: Section regarding LG’s MLA OLED models added, information regarding others expanded.